What’s Screening: October 11 – 17

The Mill Valley Film Festival continues through Sunday. Both the Petaluma International Film Festival and The Arab Film Festival open today and also run through Sunday. I’ve placed my Mill Valley capsules at the end of this newsletter.

A A Star is Born (1954 version), Castro, Monday. The second and best of three versions of this tragic Hollywood tale. This time, Judy Garland stars as the struggling imagesinger who falls in love with a movie star (James Mason), becomes one herself, then watches her husband sink into alcoholism. Like Cabaret (which starred Garland’s daughter, Liza Minneli), this is a realistic musical drama where people break into song only because they’re professional singers. In fact, the joyful songs play a strange counterpoint to the serious story, reminding us of the artifice of Hollywood make-believe. One of the best early Cinemascope features. On a double bill with Funny Girl, which I haven’t seen in over a decade.

A The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father,image Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed, much of it shot in the remote part of Mexico where the story is set.  On a double bill with Force of Evil, an excellent noir starring John Garfield, which I haven’t seen recently enough to grade.

A Universal Horror Double Bill: Dracula & Bride of Frankenstein, Castro, Tuesday. Believe it or not, it’s the sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, that earns this double bill its A. Here’s one horror film where you sympathize with the monster. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson’s character is really the Bride of Frankenstein).
Dracula, which started Universal’s famed horror series, doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless.

Horror of Dracula, New Parkway, Sunday, 6:00. Like Universal, Britain’s Hammer imagestudio discovered the horror market with a loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. I haven’t seen this version in decades, but I remember it being stylish, lurid, and for 1958 rather sexy. This was also Christopher Lee’s first outing as the thirsty Count.

A Bonnie and Clyde, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday matinee and Wednesday; Kabuki, Wednesday. This low-budget gangster movie, produced by and starring Warren Beatty , hit imagea nerve with young audiences in 1967 and became one of the big surprise hits of the year. Shocking in its time for its violence and sexual frankness (matching a horny Bonnie with an impotent Clyde), it still hits below the belt today. Here the historical bank robbers of yesterday become alienated youth, glamorous celebrities, good kids who made a bad decision, selfish jerks, and tragic heroes with a sealed fate. And we root for them, fear for them, and suffer with them every step of the way—even while we’re horrified by their actions.

A+ Rear Window, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly begins to dawn on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.

A Hitchcock Double Bill:
Psycho & Marnie
, Castro
, Sunday. The A definitely goes to Alfred Hitchcock’s last masterpiece, Psycho, where he pulls the rug out from under us several times and leaves us unsure who we’re supposed to root for. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. Marnie, on the other hand, just
may be Hitchcock’s worst film. It follows the adventures of a beautiful but frigid compulsive thief (Tippi Hedren). Sean Connery plays the aristocrat who sets out to cure her. In a story that requires acting chops and charisma, Connery gives a weak performance and Hedren gives a worse one.

B+ The Red Balloon, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00AM. Here’s a children’s masterpiece from France that doesn’t need subtitles. I first saw The Red Balloon in a museum screening at a very young age, and it stunned me with its wit, charm, simple story, and semi-sad ending–I hadn’t realized such a thing was possible. Director Albert Lamorisse uses visuals, music, and sound effects to tell his story of a young boy and his loyal pet balloon. The result is 34 minutes of pure charm. Rather than showing "The Red Balloon"–as other theaters have done recently–with the vastly inferior "White Mane, " the Balboa will screen it with a selection of old cartoons in 35mm. Read my full review of the Red Balloon/White Mane package.

B+ Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. It’s October, so the monthly laugh collection has a Halloween tang to it. imageCharlie Chaplin’s almost solo two-reeler, "One AM," offers many finely-performed gags, even if I don’t count it amongst his best. "The Haunted House" is, in my opinion, one of Buster Keaton’s funniest shorts (although it could just as accurately be called "The Bank"). Harold Lloyd’s "Haunted Spooks" has a fine story and some great gags, but be warned of some anachronistically racist humor. I haven’t seen Laurel and Hardy’s "Habeas Corpus." With Greg Pane on piano.

B When Comedy Went to School, Lark, opens Monday. 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.

D Leviathan, Castro, Wednesday. One could make an fascinating and informative documentary about a fishing boat plowing the choppy waters off the Massachusetts coast, but this isn’t it. Leviathan consists almost entirely of badly-framed close shots of objects, waves, pieces of the boat, and so on. You  never get to know any of the men you fleetingly see (there are far more close-ups of dead fish than living humans). The film contains some visually striking shots, but it lingers on them long past the point of boredom. I’m happy that people push the cinematic art with daring experimentation, but sometimes, the experiment fails. On a double bill with Breaking the Waves, which I haven’t seen in a long time, but remember liking.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:45. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

Mill Valley Film Festival

B+ Beside Still Waters, Sequoia,  Saturday, 6:30, with director/co-writer Chris Lowell in attendance;  Rafael Sunday, October 13, at 2:15. Six high school friends now in their 20s gather for a party in the aftermath of an accident that robbed one of them of his parents. They drink, talk, drink, pair off for sex, drink, drive recklessly, and drink some more. Yes, it’s a millennial variation on The Big Chill and The Return of the Secaucus 7–it even has the new boyfriend who has to be introduced to everyone. But a good story can be done more than once, and the vivid characters are both believable and fun. In the film’s best scene, editor Nick Houy cuts quickly between three conversations about the previous night’s escapades, allowing us to hear the same story from female and male points of view. What it lacks is the sense of lost political innocence that drove the other films. The result feels both funny and sad…and rewarding. You can say the same about life.

C+  Zaytoun, Sequoia, Saturday, 3:15; Sunday, Rafael, 2:00. rush tickets only for both performances. A Palestinian boy in 1982 Lebanon helps an Israeli prisoner escape. His price? To travel with the POW and plant a tree by his parents’ old home. Of course the two hate and mistrust each other, and not-altogether-convincingly learn to love each other. The film provides an evocative picture of war-torn life in Beirut 30 years ago, and the two leads are likeable. But it suffers from unexplained plot points and a weak ending.

Toxic Hot SeatSequoia, Saturday, 2:00. 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. It makes its point very well. Directors James Redford and 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.