No festivals this week, but we do get a new year. And some movies.
New Year’s Eve Family Carnival Night, Alameda, Tuesday, 7:00. The Alameda is promising a magician, clowns, games, a raffle, and, yes, movies. The whole thing is sponsored by the Alameda Pinball Museum, as a memorial for Craig Wolff and a benefit for his family .
A Marx Brothers Double Bill: A Night at the Opera & Duck Soup, Castro, Monday. Those who saw the Marx Brothers movies when they were new generally considered A Night at the Opera their best, but boomers like myself tend to give that honor to Duck Soup, which earns my A. A blatantly corrupt politician (Groucho Marx) becomes a tiny 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. Zeppo plays his personal secretary, and Chico and Harpo are spies for the enemy. Their first film for MGM, A Night at the Opera, is more spectacular and commercial. 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 from me.
A- March of the Penguins, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00. 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- Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The Museum’s monthly laugh fest has some exceptional short subjects to close the year. Charlie Chaplin’s "Easy Street" ranks high amongst the 12 shorts in his exceptional Mutual period. "The Scarecrow" isn’t as well known as other Buster Keaton shorts, but it should be. "Big Business" is widely considered Laurel and Hardy’s best silent–and with good reason. I haven’t seen the Charley Chase comedy "There Ain’t No Santa Claus," but Chase was a dependable laugh generator.
A+ Some Like It Hot, Castro, Sunday. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with another Wilder/Lemmon collaboration, The Fortune Cookie (I haven’t seen it).
B- Alfred Hitchcock Double Bill: Rebecca & Suspicion, Stanford, Through Sunday. Rebecca earns this double bill it’s B-. With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film feels little like a Hitchcock movie. Basically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she has to compete with the memory of his dead first wife. Although it’s not what Hitchcock fans expect, it’s still an entertaining melodrama, with a fine, over-the-top performance by Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to think that a usurper has replaced her lady (her performance provides the most Hitchcockian moments in the picture). This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner. The second feature, Suspicion might have been as good as Rebecca, or even better, if it had not been for the studio demanding a happy ending.
A Pulp Fiction, Castro, Friday. Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong. On a double bill with True Romance; I haven’t seen it, but I know that Tarantino wrote it before he became a director.
A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Castro, Tuesday. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, so we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part.
C+ Blue Jasmine, New Parkway, opens Friday; Castro, Thursday. Cate Blanchett can do anything. In Woody Allen’s latest, she gives a great performance in an otherwise shallow and unbelievable drama. Once an obscenely rich socialite, the unhinged Jasmine (Blanchett) is now broke and moves in with her working-class but level-headed sister (Sally Hawkins). Spoiled and narcissistic, she makes everyone else miserable. Much of the film looks and sounds unrealistic (the working-case men all seem to come from New Jersey), and Allen’s script gives us no reason to care about Jasmine. Read my longer essay.
A comedy double bill: Hail the Conquering Hero & A Day at the Races, Stanford, through Sunday. The A goes to the Conquering Hero. Only the great writer/director Preston Sturges could find a way to satirize patriotic hoopla at the height of World War II. A draft-board reject (Eddie Bracken) feels too disgraced to return to his small town. So four marines help him out by loaning him a uniform and taking him home, praising his heroism all the way. Of course there are complications. But I’d only give a B- to A Day at the Races. By their sixth film, the Marx Brothers had become tame. The movie has some funny scenes, but Groucho, Harpo and Zeppo have lost a lot of their edge here.