The season’s big event, the Mill Valley Film Festival, continues through the week and a bit beyond. A much less ambitious festival, Hong Kong Cinema, opens today and runs through the weekend. I’ve listed Mill Valley events at the bottom of this newsletter.
B When Comedy Went to School, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday. This sweet, nostalgic documentary looks at the culture, traditions, and humor that defined the Catskills from the 1930s through the 1960s, and in doing so created the art of standup comedy. Like all documentaries covering recent history, When Comedy Went to School contains a lot of interview footage, Only this time around, the interview subjects are amongst the funniest people alive. This very short feature moves at a good clip and covers a lot of ground, but ignores one important side of the story: What did these comics learn in this “school?” Read my full review.
A Fruitvale Station, Castro, Thursday; New Parkway, opens Friday. The experience of watching this independent feature is very much like waiting for a time bomb. You watch Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) go through the last day of 2008, knowing that he will be fatally shot by a BART cop in the early hours of the new year. Writer/director Ryan Coogler wisely avoids turning Grant into a saint, but makes us care very much for him. The last moments of the film–not including some documentary footage and the closing credits–will break your heart. Read my longer report.
The Wicker Man (original 1973 version), Castro, Friday and Saturday. I haven’t seen this indescribable British landmark since it first played American theaters in 1979, so I won’t give it a grade. I remember loving what struck me as an anti-Puritan, pro-Pagan movie until…I should stop before giving too much away. I probably won’t make this screening, but I’m looking forward to revisiting the movie again. By the way, the girlfriend I saw it with eventually became a pagan–but I don’t think it was a major influence.
A- March of the Penguins, Albany Twin, Saturday and Sunday, 10:30am. Yes, emperor penguins are very cute and extremely funny. Luc Jacquet offers plenty of footage to make you laugh and sigh, but he goes beyond that, showing the tremendous hardships these birds endure to raise their young. No living creatures are as adorable as penguin chicks, which is a good thing considering what their parents go through for them. And Morgan Freeman is the best celebrity narrator since Orson Welles.
A Young Frankenstein, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00; Saturday, 12:30 . Once upon a time, Mel Brooks had talent. And never more so than in 1974, when he made this sweet-natured parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Frankenshteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the lovable but clumsy creature.
B The Searchers, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. A bitter Civil War veteran and racist (John Wayne) spends years searching for his niece, kidnapped by Comanches. At first he wants to save her, but as the years go by, he starts talking about killing her, because she’s now “more Comanch than white.” Talk about an anti-hero. Shot in VistaVision, the movie looks splendid, has many great moments, and contains one of Wayne’s greatest performances. The closing shot itself is unforgettable. Most John Ford fans consider The Searchers his masterpiece. I disagree. I find it marred by a rambling, occasionally absurd plot, and a very unlikable protagonist (probably Wayne’s least sympathetic character).
A+ The Third Man, Stanford, through Sunday. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. On a double bill with The Big Sleep.
Harold and Maude, outdoors on UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn, Friday, 7:30. Free. After Woodstock, this comedy about a young man and a much older woman is the ultimate cinematic statement of the hippie generation. At least that’s how I remember it. I loved it passionately in the 1970s. But I haven’t seen it in a long time and I’m not sure how well it’s aged. The second and last film in the Pacific Film Archive‘s Endless Summer Cinema series, screening across the street from the PFA’s future home.
B The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Sunday, 8:30. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to their previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as the Coen’s masterpiece, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve maintained this site than than any other three movies put together.
C- Vertigo, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from D to C-. My main problem with the movie is that neither the story nor the characters make any sense, whatsoever; I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.
A Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine, Sequoia, Friday, 6:30; Rafael, Sunday, 8:30. If a film makes me cry, it gets an A. This documentary about the horrific, homophobic murder of a young gay man had me all but audibly sobbing. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was savagely beaten, tortured, tied to a fence, and left to die. In telling his story, Director Michele Josue wisely focuses on his friends and–more importantly–his parents. The result is deeply sad, but also inspiring, because you meet so many decent, loving human beings.
Toxic Hot Seat, Sequoia, Saturday, 5:00. I only saw the first half–and a bit more–of this activist documentary, so I’m not giving it a grade. From what I saw, Toxic Hot Seat is unsettling, disturbing, and scary. In other words, it makes its point very well. Directors James Redford & Kirby Walker take a hard look at the cancer-causing fire retardants used in our furniture, arguing that whatever advantages they give us in fire reduction are minimal compared to their long-term damage. The filmmakers allow opposing experts to have their say, but the movie is clearly on the side of getting rid of these chemicals. I wish I could have seen the rest of it.
Star Wars: Episode VI–Return of the Jedi, Century Cinema, 8:30. The final movie of the original Star Wars trilogy got a bad rap. Sure, it lacks the dark edge of The Empire Strikes Back, and the ewoks are a bit too adorable, but the ongoing story needed something fun after Empire, and Return generously delivers that. And the theme of redemption at the end is beautiful in its humanity. Like the original Star Wars, it’s big-hearted entertainment at its best. Or at least it was. I never saw Lucas’ altered versions of the trilogy; I find the whole idea pointless and an insult to the original effects artists. I’m therefore not giving it a grade. The original would probably get an A.