There’s at least one film festival running every day this week. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival dominates the weekend, closing Sunday. But the Green Film Festival runs through Wednesday. And DocFest opens Thursday.
A- The Navigator, Castro, Sunday, 9:00. Buster Keaton in his spoiled rich boy mode, finds himself stranded on a drifting ocean liner with only one other person–an equally rich and spoiled girl who doesn’t return his love. The big ship makes for a wonderfully comic prop, as the hapless kids try to find comfortable berths or cook dinner in a galley designed to feed hundreds. But to my mind, the funniest sequence is the smallest one: a close-up of Keaton’s hands as he attempts to shuffle a soaking-wet deck of cards. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble. Closing night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
A Astaire/Rogers double bill: Swing Time & Roberta, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. The A goes to Swing Time, the second-best Astaire/Rogers vehicle (after Top Hat). Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Gambler Fred and dance teacher Ginger fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On its own, Roberta earns only a C-. It’s really an Irene Dunne vehicle, with Astaire and Rogers in supporting roles. They’re not onscreen enough to turn this dull musical love story into a winner.
A Chinatown, Roxie, Saturday, 9:30. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, but you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never better than when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece. Part of the Green Film Festival.
A Safety Last!, Rafael, Monday, 7:30. Even Alfred Hitchcock never mastered the delicate balance between comedy and suspense as well as Harold Lloyd, who made that balance perfect in Safety Last‘s final act.. The first two thirds of the feature, with Harold struggling with a lousy job and a girlfriend who thinks he’s a successful executive, makes an excellent piece of comic work, with more than enough laughs for a comedy twice as long. But the final third, where Harold climbs a skyscraper, tops any other comic sequence that I have ever seen. Indeed, the sight of Lloyd, hanging from the minute hand of a clock, far above a busy city street, is one of the strongest, most memorable images in the history of cinema. Read my Blu-ray review. Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
A To Kill a Mockingbird, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter. (Had there been a sequel set in her teen years, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.)
A+ Rear Window, Lark, Thursday, 6:30. 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 dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. 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+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark; just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, don’t see it; otherwise, you probably already love it.
C Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am.
Here’s an object lesson in how to turn a good novel into a mediocre movie by sticking as close to the book as possible. Screenwriter Steven Kloves and director Chris Columbus follow J.K. Rowling’s story almost scene by scene, but what worked on the page seems flabby and excessive onscreen. At least it’s better than its predecessor, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, if only because Kenneth Branagh has so much fun as Professor Lockhart.
B+ Palo Alto, New Parkway, opens Friday. Based on a collection of short stories by James Franco (who also acts in the film), Palo Alto exams a handful of teenagers reaching an emotional boiling point. Fueled by booze, pot, and raging hormones, they deal poorly with the choices they’re making on their way to adulthood. Drunk driving, random vandalism, inappropriate student-teacher relationships, and other serious mistakes mar these kid’s lives. Yet you really hope they get their acts together. A slick yet compassionate and well-acted drama. Read my full review.
A- From Up on Poppy Hill, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 1:00. Warm, sweet, and nostalgic, this whimsical dramatic comedy from Studio Ghibli focuses on a teenage girl falling in love for the first time. Set in the early 1960s, it tells its love story against a backdrop of students trying to save an old, rundown clubhouse. But first love never runs smooth, and family histories threaten to derail it before it begins. A rare animated feature without talking animals, fantasy creatures, magic, or broadly caricatured human beings. For more on this picture, see Friday Night Report: Rare Hitchcock and New Studio Ghibli. Part of the series Astonishing Animation: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.
C+ Le Week-End, Castro, Wednesday. On their 30th anniversary, a very unhappy English couple go to Paris for a weekend. Whether they even hope it will rekindle something seems unlikely.This dark and depressing drama about a marriage in horrible decline has several very good scenes (even some funny ones) and one fully-realized, interesting, and sympathetic lead character. But it suffers from an overly manipulated story and another lead character so despicable as to be unbelievable. The result provides sadness without insight. A lot of talent went into Le Week-End. Very little of it shows. Read my full review. On a double bill with Goddard’s Band of Outsiders, which–I have to admit–I haven’t seen.
A Shall We Dance (1937), Stanford, Friday. Along with Top Hat and Swing Time, Shall We Dance represents the best of what Astaire and Rogers had to offer. The story–¦well, who cares about the story. The only collaboration between Astaire, Rogers, and the two Gershwins gives us “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” dancing on shipboard, dancing on stage, dancing in roller skates, and the most romantic song ever written: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” When Fred and Ginger aren’t singing or dancing, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore provide plenty of comedy, with light satire aimed at celebrity scandals and the culture gap between ballet and popular music. On a double bill with another Astaire/Rogers vehicle, Carefree; I saw it long ago and wasn’t impressed then.
A Spirited Away, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Friday & Thursday, 7:30. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation. Part of the series Astonishing Animation: the Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.