The United Nations Association Film Festival continues through Sunday. No other festivals this week. I’ve moved Halloween-oriented events to the bottom of this newsletter.
B+ The Trials of Muhammad Ali,Opera Plaza, California (Berkeley), opens Friday. A well-made documentary about a great subject, The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks at a man who is arguably the most important athlete of the last 50 years. At the age of 22, with very little experience, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. A devout member of the Nation of Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, took on controversy, and risked both jail and a destroyed career for resisting the draft ("No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger"). Eventually, he would return to the ring and more triumphs. Director Bill Siegel has made a competent and conventional documentary, but Ali’s story and charisma makes it a very moving and exciting tale.
A- Gravity, Vogue, opens Friday for one-week run. Screening in both 3D and 2D. In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey made me want to be an astronaut. In 2013, Gravity cleared any such desire that still lingered. Easily the most technically realistic view of space travel ever created on Earth, Gravity not only makes you feel you’re there; it makes you want to return home. An environment with no air, no up or down, and nothing to stop you from drifting is not a nice place to raise your kids. Yes, the story is simplistic and not always realistic (just how close are all those space stations?), but it’s suspenseful, and far more believable than any other recent special effects blockbuster. See it in 3D.
B+ Inequality for All, New Parkway, Roxie, opens Friday. I suppose I should be raving about this wonderful documentary, if only because it speaks truth about important issues of our times. Well, it does speak truth, and I agree with just about everything that the film’s subject, economist Robert Reich, says here. But the simple fact that it confirms my existing beliefs doesn’t make it great art. And since very few people who don’t already agree with it will ever see it, its impact on society will be minor. But Reich is an engaging person–funny and self-effacing, and very intelligent–resulting in an entertaining movie.
A Touch of Evil, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. . Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and one of his few Hollywood studio features. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe,but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although her characters do seem to find trouble in seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. On a double bill with The Caine Mutiny, which I last saw on commercial TV in the 1970s.
A Psycho, Davies Symphony Hall, Wednesday, 8:00. Accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times, leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. 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. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it for the first time; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes. The Symphony Orchestra will accompany the film with Bernard Hermann’s original score; I’m not sure if this will enhance or detract from the movie.
B- The Lodger, Davies Symphony Hall, Thursday, 7:30. Alfred Hitchcock’s second film and first thriller, The Lodger feels like the master in embryo. The plot and the atmosphere set up themes he would use again and again, but this first time, he doesn’t quite get it right. For instance, it’s often referred to as his first use the "innocent accused" plot repeated in39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, and others. But it’s more of a mystery than any of those later works, leaving the audience to wonder if the strange new boarder really is the murderer terrorizing London. This robs the film of much of its potential suspense; we have a hard time rooting for someone that we think might be a serial killer. It’s all made worse by Ivor Novello’s anemic and bizarre performance . But if you love Hitchcock, you have to see The Lodger just for its historical setting. Another part of the Symphony’s Hitchcock Week. This silent film will be accompanied by Todd Wilson on the organ.
D Cruising, Castro, Monday. Now that the controversy has passed, we can see William Friedkin’s 1980 gay S&M murder mystery for what it is: a mess. While it may offer nostalgia for older gay men who miss their wilder days, it has little to offer the rest of us. As a study of a unique subculture at a particular time that’s lost forever, it’s shallow and exploitative. As a murder mystery, it’s poorly structured and unsatisfying. As a character study, it offers an uninteresting character who’s hardly worth studying. Al Pacino, as an inexperienced, heterosexual cop going undercover in New York’s leather scene, mostly just looks confused. Read my full-length review. On a double bill with something called Interior Leather Bar.
A Key Largo, Stanford, through Sunday. In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character actors like Humphrey Bogart. But by 1948, Bogey was the top star and Robinson the supporting player (and a great one). Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Bogart faces off against gangster Robinson. Most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and Huston himself adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? On a double bill with Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, which I haven’t seen in decades.
A Nosferatu, Rafael, Wednesday & Thursday. 6:30. You best forget about sexy vampires before you go see the first film version of Dracula (an unauthorized version that got the filmmakers sued by Bram Stoker’s widow). Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (the name change didn’t fool the court) as a reptilian predator in vaguely human form. This isn’t the scariest monster movie ever made, but it’s probably the creepiest. Not to be confused with Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake. The good news is that the Rafael will screen a new, "beautiful" restoration with color tints, and that it will be accompanied by the original orchestral score. The bad new is that the score is pre-recorded.
B Waxworks, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. With its exaggerated visuals and strong horror elements, Waxworks is German expressionism through and through. This anthology feature uses a wax museum to tell three different dark and demented stories. The first story stars Emil Jannings as a sultan out to take a baker’s wife. The second stars Conrad Veidt (easily one of cinema’s greatest heavies) as the most evil Ivan the Terrible you can imagine. The third story, about Jack the Ripper (Werner Krauss) is nothing more than a chase. Good, silly fun. With assorted short subjects and Bruce Loeb on the piano.
A Silent Horror Double Bill: Nosferatu & The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. The A goes to Nosferatu, which I’ve already discussed above. I haven’t seen Caligari in a great many years, so I’m not going to give it a grade. The story of a murderous hypnotist and his somnambulist slave would make a fairly conventional horror movie, but three important factors keep Caligari above the conventional. 1) The impressionistic sets and photography make it look like nothing you’ve ever seen in a genre picture. 2) The surprise ending can really throw you for a loop, and is still debated nearly a century after the film’s release. And 3) The horror genre was too new to have any conventions when this film was made. Music by HobGoblin.
C+ Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, New Parkway, Sunday, 6:00. I’m not entirely sure why Universal’s 1948 genre mash-up remains so popular. Yes, it combines the studio’s massively successful comedians with the three most popular monsters on the back lot. But I’ve never been a huge Abbott and Costello fan, and the monsters were definitely running out of steam by the late 40′s. But it has enough laughs to make it worth the time. A Thrillville Theater event.
The Wicker Man, Rafael, Friday through Thursday. 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 engagement, but I’m looking forward to revisiting the movie soon. By the way, the girlfriend I saw it with eventually became a pagan–but I don’t think The Wicker Man was a major influence.