The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through Thursday. My Festival capsules are at the end of this newsletter.
A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because they think he’s stupid. They’re wrong. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to the throat of any leftwing American patriot. Besides, it’s just plain entertaining.
The Incredible Shrinking Man, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. After being exposed to really bad stuff in the environment, Scott Carey begins to slowly shrink. At first he’s just a little, um, small for his wife. Then his cat begins to relate to him as lunch. He meets additional existential threats as he continues to shrink, including a huge spider and questions about the nature of existence, itself. At least, that’s how I remember this 1957 sci-fi epic, which I haven’t seen since college. I don’t know if I’d find it so profound today.
B+ Sorry, Wrong Number, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. An invalid (BarbaraStanwyck), heavily dependent on her phone, accidentally hears some men on a party line plotting a murder, and there’s very little she can do to stop it. Things are going to turn very ugly in this tight and effective expansion of a 22-minute radio play into a feature-length thriller. Co-starring a shockingly young Burt Lancaster as her untrustworthy husband. But I’m still hoping that someday, someone will put this on a double bill with Dial M for Murder, if only because the titles go so well together. Instead, the Stanford is double-billing it with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which I have not seen.
B School of Rock, Balboa, Saturday7, 10:00am. 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 contest. Of course the story is silly and predictable, and it bows too much to star power (Black really should have stayed off-stage at the climax), but it’s fun and catches the rebellious spirit of all good rock.
B Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Castro, Saturday. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission. On a double bill with It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which I loved as a kid, but hated as an adult–and is really too long to double bill with anything.
A- Ben-Hur, various CineMark theaters. Novelist Lew Wallace ripped off the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo, set the story in Roman-occupied Judea, and had the title character cross paths with Jesus. Hollywood’s second film version of the best-selling book easily surpasses all of the other big, long religious epics that Hollywood churned out in the 50s and early 60s. It even surpasses the 1925, silent original. Ben-Hur makes a rousing tale, a good story, and a visual feast. Say what you will, Charlton Heston is perfect for the role. The chariot scene still beats almost every other action scene shot. Only in the final hour, when Christianity gets ladled on thick, does it drag a bit. It works best on a very large screen.
B- Blazing Saddles, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sherriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles.
A The Lady Eve, Kabuki, Sunday, 3:00. Mel Novikoff Award honoring David Thomson. Like all great screwballs (and in my opinion, this one is the best), The Lady Eve looks at class differences as well as the differences between a free-spirited woman and an uptight man (Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda). Stanwyck plays the younger half of a father/daughter team of card sharks, who makes the mistake of falling in love with her current mark–a wonderfully naïve Fonda. The result: crazy hijinks in glamorous settings.
A Happiness, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 6:30. This anthropological documentary puts you into a society you probably don’t know well–a remote, mountainous portion of Bhutan–and shows you how it’s changing with the times. And it does this almost entirely through the viewpoint of a young boy. Peyangki wants to go to school, but his widowed mother can’t afford it, and sends him instead to a small nearby monastery–with the intent that he will become a monk. He studies Buddhism, but he also plays, burns excess energy, makes friends, and acts like the utterly adorable child he is. Meanwhile, electricity–and with it TV and the Internet–are coming to town, where they will change everything. Thomas Balmès’ camera makes few obvious comments, and generally sits back and observes a way of life in transition. Touching, visually beautiful, with a slow, stately pace that matches the subject matter. A real gem.
A Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy, New People Cinema, Sunday, 2:00; Kabuki, Tuesday, 9:00. I believe this is the first feature film adapted from a real-life Twitter feed, and onscreen tweets act as a Greek Chorus. The title character and her best friend live and study in a small boarding school situated in what looks like an abandoned factory. Initially, they have the usual problems of late teenage years–romantic and sexual yearnings, revolting against authority, and doing stupid things on drugs. The first half is quite funny, in a sardonic, mild-chuckle kind of way. But the story takes some very dark turns in the second half, and becomes appropriately serious. Oddly, with its CRT computer monitors and film-based still cameras, the picture appears to be set well before Twitter.
A- Bad Hair, New People Cinema, Sunday, 6:15; Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 6:30. Ten-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) bewilders, confuses, and worries his widowed mother (Samantha Castillo). Not only is he mischievous and occasionally thoughtless–hardly surprising for a boy that age. He obsessively hates his curly hair, does everything he can to straighten it, and behaves in ways that don’t measure up to his mother’s ideas about masculinity. Meanwhile, Mom–horrified that she may have a gay son–struggles to get her job back and make ends meet with little or no money. Both Lange and Castillo give great performances in this unique drama about poverty, race, and homophobia.
B+ Agnès Varda: From Here to There, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 1:30. The concept is simple: Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda travels the world, visiting old friends and making new ones. But this is more than just a 225-minute home movie. The friends she visits are brilliant artists, and she introduces us to them and their work. And all the while, her impish curiosity and joyful personality shine through. But I suspect it would be better still if shown the way it was meant to be seen: on television, in five 45-minute episodes. In one sitting with a single, five-minute intermission, it was grueling.
B+ Shorts 1, Kabuki, Sunday, 3:45. This collection of six short films offers up comedy, drama, documentary, and dance. My favorite was Kate Tsang’s comedy "So You’ve Grown Attached," about an imaginary friend terrified that the child who loves him will outgrow him. Luckily, he gets emotional support from his understanding (and very fuzzy) boss. But that wasn’t the only good one. I enjoyed everything except one of the documentaries, "Re:Awakenings," about a medical breakthrough in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It offered shocking images with no insight.