This week begins on a Friday the 13th. How appropriate for the last week of this year’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival. Which is also, as far as I know, the last Bay Area film festival of the year.
But outside of festivals, we’ve got a lot going on this week.
Noir City Xmas, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00. Is the upbeat, cheery holiday season getting you down? The good folks at Noir City will help you get back into a gloomy mood with a double bill of obscure film noirs set at Christmas time–Blast of Silence and Christmas Eve, also known as Sinner’s Holiday. Sounds like a couple of winners about losers. Now if they could only find a noir appropriate for Chanulak–say, Festival of No Lights.
A Killer of Sheep, Castro, Friday, 7:15. Yes, Virginia, people made great low-budget films before digital video. Shot in 16mm in 1977, Charles Burnett’s neorealistic non-story examines the day-to-day life of an African-American slaughterhouse employee struggling with poverty, family problems, and his own depression. Hauntingly made with a mostly amateur cast, Killer of Sheep takes us into a world most of us know about but have never actually experienced. On a double bill with Eraserhead, which, I have to confess, I’ve never seen.
B School of Rock, New Parkway, Monday, 7:00. When Richard Linklater decided to make a commercial, conventional comedy, it came out pretty darn good. Jack Black plays a struggling rock musician who steals his roommate’s identity to take a temporary position in a very staid and proper private school. Impressed by the kids’ strictly classical musical skills, he turns the class into a rock band that he hopes will win an upcoming battle of the bands. Of course the story is silly and predictable, and it bows too much to star power (Black really should have stayed off-stage for the final concert), but it’s fun and catches the rebellious spirit of all good rock.
A Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:00. A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. Presented off a 4K DCP as part of the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures.
A+ Children of Paradise, Castro, Saturday, 7:00. Shot while the Nazi occupation fell apart, Children of Paradise may be the most ecstatically French film ever made. A three-hour epic set in the theater scene of early 19th-century Paris, it follows the life of a beautiful woman (Arletty) and four men who fall under her spell—each in his own unique way. The story is rich, romantic, and deeply in love with theatrical traditions. In this version of Paris, even the violent thugs see their lives as works of art. Written by Jacques Prévert and directed by Marcel Carné. I discuss Children of Paradise in more detail here and here.
B+ Hitchcock double bill: To Catch a Thief & Dial M for Murder presented in 3D, Castro, Sunday. The B+ goes to Dial M for Murder. Despite the gimmick of 3D, this adaptation of a Broadway play feels stagy. But it was a good play, and Hitchcock handled it well. He also pretty much ignored the obvious 3D effects of the time, but when he finally throws something at the camera, it’s the right thing at the right moment. For more on the film, see Rethinking Dial M for Murder. To Catch a Thief feels more like a vacation on the Riviera than a tight and scary thriller by the master of suspense. Not one of his best works by a long shot, it nevertheless provides a few good scenes and sufficient fun. I’d give it a C+.
A On the Waterfront, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. It’s best to look at On the Waterfront as a drama about finding the courage to do what’s right. Marlon Brando brilliantly plays a half-bright longshoreman torn between his moral obligation to testify against a corrupt union and the serious and dangerous consequences of being a stool pidgin. On that level, it’s a brilliant motion picture. But things get uglier when you put it into a political and autobiographical context. Both writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan named names to get off the anti-Communist blacklist, after which they made this film to justify their acts of cowardice. The final screening in the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures (and yes, it is in 4K).
A- A Christmas Story, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies, at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra, generally make me want to throw up. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.
B+ Johnny Guitar, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. A very unusual western from Nicholas Ray. For one thing, the main rivalry is between two women: good saloon owner Joan Crawford and bad businesswoman Mercedes McCambridge. But don’t think this is a feminist picture. The women’s hatred stems from romantic jealousy, and the title character hero (Sterling Hayden) is a former lover of Crawford hired as her bodyguard. It’s fun, and strange, with lesbian overtones, but far from a must for western lovers. Part of the series Fassbinder’s Favorites.
A- comedy double bill: The Palm Beach Story & A Night at the Opera, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The A- goes to Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy, The Palm Beach Story. It’s not just the absurdity of casting singer Rudy Vallee as the millionaire rival ready to win Claudette Colbert from husband Joel McCrea, it’s also the Weenie King, the Ale and Quail Club, Toto, and the most ridiculous happy ending ever filmed. The Marx Brothers’ first MGM movie, Night at the Opera, is a more spectacular, and more commercial, movie than their previous Paramount efforts. It contains some of their best routines (“The party of the first part,” the overcrowded stateroom), but you have to sit through a dumb romantic plot, very unmarxist sentimentality, and insipid love songs. On its own, it would only earn a B.
B- Persistence of Vision, Roxie, Friday through Monday. When a talented and successful artist consciously sets out to make his masterpiece, the result can be a disaster. Consider animator Richard Williams. For more than 30 years, in between Roger Rabbit and a lot of commercials, Williams pushed his staff to create the ultimate, no-compromise animated feature. They created amazing visuals by hand, but Williams was never satisfied and couldn’t finish it. Williams refused to be interviewed for this documentary, and the lack of his presence shows. But filmmaker Kevin Schreck interviewed a lot of his former employees, so we get a good view of what happened. And the animated sequences are astounding–especially when you consider that they’re pre-CGI. Not a must-see, but interesting.
C+ Sweet Dreams, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00, filmmaker in attendance; also in continuing runs at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck. This upbeat, everything-turns-out-okay documentary tries to tell three different stories in 84 minutes. While it has its high points, it doesn’t do justice to any of them. The setting is modern Rwanda, not quite 20 years after the genocide. But Sweet Dreams is only peripherally about the scars of mass murder. It concentrates mostly on drumming and starting an ice cream parlor. Especially the ice cream parlor. I wanted depth. I wanted sustenance. But for too much of Sweet Dreams’ running time, I just got ice cream. Great drumming, though. Read my full review.
A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday afternoon and Wednesday. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, George needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because George, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it. I expect this movie will turn up a few more times before the month is over.
A 20 Feet From Stardom, Shattuck, return engagement starts Friday. Now I know why almost all backup singers are African American. They learned to sing in church. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocal texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton (“Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without credit (“He’s a Rebel”). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) pop up among the talking heads (so do The Talking Heads), but this time, the spotlight points to the other artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice.
Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. 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.
A Incredible comedy double bill: Miracle of Morgan’s Creek & Duck Soup,Stanford, through Sunday. The A goes to both of these movies. In fact, I came very close to giving both of them an A+. In 1944, it was impossible for a Hollywood picture to criticize the American military in any way, or to suggest that a young woman could get pregnant out of wedlock. Yet with Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Preston Sturges managed to make a very funny comedy about a single, teenage, small-town girl who goes out with some soldiers and comes back in a family way. The real miracle is that this movie got passed the censors. In Duck Soup, a blatantly corrupt politician (Groucho Marx) becomes the country’s all-powerful leader on the whim of the wealthy elite (Margaret Dumont). Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. Sound familiar? Zeppo plays his personal secretary, and Chico and Harpo are spies for the enemy. The Marx Brothers at their best.