Celebrate Independence Day! Don’t go to a film festival! Actually, you have no choice. There are no film festivals in the Bay Area this week. Luckily, you can still go to a theater and see a movie.
A- Life Itself, Embarcadero Center, Albany Twin, Rafael, opens Friday. This totally biased, yet entertaining and informative documentary examines the life and death of Roger Ebert–the brilliant writer, passionate cinephile, and overweight alcoholic who became the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and then the most influential film critic of all time. But be prepared. This film spends a lot of time looking at a man without a jaw. It’s pretty disturbing at first, but Ebert’s upbeat and joking personality helps you adjust. And, of course, there’s a lot about movies, as well. Read my full review.
Lark 10th Anniversary Celebration, Wednesday, 1:00. The Lark is, of course, considerably older than 10, but this event celebrates the anniversary of it becoming a non-profit art house. The people running the theater promise "cake, root beer floats, and cartoons in the afternoon. Then, at 6pm in the evening, you’ll be treated to free wine and popcorn, as we venture back in time for a repeat screening of our 2004 Opening Night movie, IMPACT, a 1949 film noir drama."
A A Hard Day’s Night, Elmwood, opens Friday; Castro, Wednesday; Rafael, Sunday. New 4K digital restoration. When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to England and Germany, and could likely die before the film got into theaters. We all know now that UA had nothing to worry about. The Beatles are still popular, all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of joy in life and especially in rock and roll. The Castro will screen A Hard Day’s Night on a double bill with a 1978 comedy called I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
B Belle, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Yes, it feels very much like a Jane Austen movie, except that it’s based on a true story rather than a novel, is set a couple of generations earlier, and deals with race. Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the daughter of a 18th-century British nobleman and an African slave. She’s raised by her loving uncle and aunt (the always wonderful Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson), almost as an equal. Most of the film concerns itself with the question of who can a proper young lady of wealth and high birth marry when she lacks the right skin color. As you’d expect, it’s all very well acted against beautiful backgrounds.
B+ Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. Bad sequels can ruin one’s memory of a good original, and that’s very much the case with the first Austin Powers movie. Anyone who saw all three of these spy spoofs could be forgiven for forgetting just how fun the first movie was. Parodying everything about 1960s swinging London, and especially the early James Bond movies, it takes one cliché after another and blows each one to bits. Both the brilliant but bucktoothed spy Austin Powers (Mike Myers), and his arch-enemy, Dr. Evil (Mike Myers), are frozen in 1967 and thawed out in 1997, where they’re clearly fish out of water. Myers also wrote the screenplay. Part of the series Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990–2010.
A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lark, Friday and Saturday, 3:15; Sunday, 1:00. 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.
A- The Grand Budapest Hotel, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story within a story within a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while also trying to save his skin from some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except that I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie. This is the sort of picture where the local newspaper is called The Trans-Alpine Yodeler.
C- Vertigo, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem with the movie is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.
A+ Jaws, Lark, Saturday, 8:30 and Sunday, 3:45. People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over before the shark chase really starts. For that first half, it’s a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People, but with a central character more conflicted and less noble (Roy Scheider). Then the three men board the boat and the picture turns into a hair-raising variation on Moby Dick. Jaws‘ phenomenal success helped create the summer blockbuster, yet by today’s standards, it’s practically an art film–albeit one that could scare the living eyeballs out of you. See my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Movie article.
A+ MGM Technicolor Double Bill; The Wizard of Oz & Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford,Friday through Sunday. The A+ goes easily to Singin’ in the Rain, arguably 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. I don’t really have to tell you about The Wizard of Oz, do I? Okay. It’s got clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion). It never struck me as the masterpiece others see, but it’s a good, fun movie that I grade as B+.