The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival closes Sunday, and that’s the festival until September. I put the SFJFF listings at the end of this newsletter.
A Before Sunrise, Castro, Thursday. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy starts with one of the most romantic films ever made. After meeting on a train, a young man and woman (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) go off together on a whim. Over the course of a single night, they wander the streets of Vienna, talk about every subject imaginable, flirt, and wonder if they’re going to end up having sex. No other film (at least that I’ve seen) so thoroughly catches the exhilaration of new love–especially among the young–as does Before Sunrise. I used to describe this film as "My Dinner with Andre with scenery and sex appeal," but by now it’s far better remembered than the earlier talkfest. On a triple bill with two films by Leos Carax, whose work I’m not familiar with.
A+ Grand Illusion, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:30. Set in a POW camp during World War I (and made two years before WW2), Grand Illusion sets the conflicts of nationality and class against the healing power of our common humanity. The French prisoners and their German guards try their best to be civilized in a world where civilization is all but outlawed. Jean Gabin stars as a French officer of common stock, but you’ll likely remember Erich von Stroheim as an aristocratic German facing the end of his way of life. The original negative was discovered and the film restored in the 1990s, but the new restoration (which I haven’t yet seen), is supposed to beat even that. Part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film.
C+ The Rules of the Game, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. I know; everyone else considers this one of cinema’s great masterpieces–an immensely important influence on many filmmakers (one can hardly imagine Robert Altman’s career without it). And yes, I’ve read all about its deep and important commentary on the class system and the institution of marriage. But all I see is a modest comedy of manners without much comedy and nothing exceptional to say about our manners. For me, Grand Illusion remains Renior’s masterpiece.
A Stop Making Sense, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage in this lively film; just the performance (actually compiled from three different concerts). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that turns Stop Making Sense into the most danceable motion picture ever to receive a theatrical release.
A- Mystery Double Bill: Charlie Chan at the Opera & The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Stanford, Friday. The A- goes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second and best of 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Unlike the movies that followed, this one is set in the Victorian England of the original stories. Adventures pits Holmes and Watson against cinema’s best Professor Moriarty (George Zucc). A reasonably entertaining B picture, Charlie Chan at the Opera is both way ahead of its time in its treatment of Chinese Americans, but way behind the 21st century. The presence of Boris Karloff as an escaped lunatic adds to the fun. I’d give it a B-. I discuss both films in more detail in a recent post..
C Gabriel Over the White House, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. I’m not sure what to make of this very strange 1933 movie by Gregory (My Man Godfrey) La Cava, about a president who goes from crook to saint after a near-fatal car crash. On one level, it might be saying “Here’s what we need to do to fix the country and the world.” On the other, it seems to be warning against fascism. I wouldn’t call it a good film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s an interesting view of a society desperate for solutions. Also part of the series Over the Top and into the Wire: WWI on Film, although I can’t figure out what it has to do with the war.
B+ The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939 version), Stanford, Thursday and next Friday. The best Sherlock Holmes novel gets a reasonably close and very effective adaptation in the first Holmes adventure starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Yes, the forbidding English moors are on a soundstage, but they still provide the sense of dread that the story requires. Rathbone is the perfect Holmes, and this is one of his best vehicles. On a double bill with Charlie Chan at the Olympics, which I have not seen.
B+ Sing-Along Wizard of Oz, Castro, Friday through Sunday. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.
B Hugo, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Martin Scorsese’s family film (that almost sounds like an oxymoron) proves to be reasonably entertaining. But then, its very plot seems intended to enchant cinephiles like myself. I doubt I would have liked it near as much if it had been about the meat-packing industry. Scorsese uses the latest CGI and 3D technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. And while that story is slight and cliché-ridden, it has the virtue of touching on early film history and ending with a message—integrated into the story—of the importance of film preservation. The Balboa will not be presenting it in 3D. Read my Thoughts on Hugo.
A Life Itself, Magick Lantern, Friday, 5:00; Saturday, 2:00. 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 here. Read my full review.
B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00; Saturday, 12:25; Thursday, 7:00. 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.
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 Swim Little Fish Swim, Rafael, Friday, 4:20; Grand Lake Theater, Sunday, 8:55. Don’t let the funny, kind-of-kinky artist and model gag that opens this French/American film fool you. This is a serious drama, and an excellent one, about the conflicts of artistic dreams, political idealism, and the very real responsibilities of parenthood. Dustin Guy Defa plays a New York singer/songwriter who won’t take commercial work. In fact, he doesn’t do any work for money, much to the frustration of his long-suffering wife. He takes care of their four-year-old daughter, but he’s more of a fun dad than a responsible one. Meanwhile, a beautiful, struggling French artist (Lola Bessis) needs a professional breakthrough to avoid deportation.This is the rare film about struggling artists and idealists that asks if the struggle is worth it–especially if you have young mouths to feed.
A- Comedy Warriors, Rafael, Saturday, 8:55. Five severely disabled veterans go through a crash course in standup comedy in this upbeat documentary. Filmmaker John Wager takes the craft of comedy seriously. We get to watch successful mentors, including Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis, help these wounded newbies turn their frustrations and tragedies into effective punch lines. But the real stars of this movie are the five ex-soldiers, working hard to get laughs and putting their best feet forward–even when they have no feet. Best of all is the severely-burned Bobby Henline, who looks like a congenial, one-armed Frankenstein’s monster, yet always puts people at ease with his warmth and humor. In the last half hour, we see them perform for an audience; they learned their lessons well.
B God’s Slave, Grand Lake, Friday, 6:45; Rafael, Saturday, 4:45. A Islamist terrorist (César Troncoso) goes very deep undercover in 1994 Buenos Aires, becoming a respected doctor and a happily married husband, father, and Catholic. But when the call comes, he knows it’s time to strap a bomb to his body and die killing Jews. Meanwhile, an aging, obsessed, and ruthless Mossad agent (Vando Villamil) knows that a horrible act of terror is on the way, and will do anything to stop it. Troncoso carries the film as a man torn between his ideology and his basic humanity, but Villamil lacks the inner fire that his Mossad agent needs. The film contains one great, powerful, and suspenseful scene. But only one.
C The Village of Peace, Grand Lake Theater, Friday, 2:35. On one hand, this hour-long documentary opens a window into a fascinating Israeli sub-culture. On the other, it provides unchallenged cheerleading for a cult. Formed in Chicago in the 1960s, the African-Hebrew Israelites believe that African-Americans are the true decedents of ancient Israel. Soon after their formation, they settled in Israel and created a community, The Village of Peace. They’re vegan, health- and environmentally-conscious, polygamous, and patriarchal. Village rules ban not only meat and violence, but also democracy. The film consists almost entirely of sect members raving about their wonderful lives. It tells us very little about their relationship with Israeli society as a whole (we are told that their young adults serve in the army) and nothing about their relationship with Palestinians. One interviewee admits that some people leave the group, but we never meet these people or hear what they have to say.