What’s Screening: September 19 – 25

The big event this week is the one-day Silent Autumn festival. I’ve placed festival films at the bottom of this newsletter.

C+ The Zero Theorem, 4-Star, Elmwood, opens Friday. In the 1980s, Terry Gilliam’s new film  feels like a less-effective retreat of his brilliant Brazil. Like that far superior picture, imageit’s set in a dystopian society that may be in the future, but in some strange ways feels like the past. Christoph Waltz stars as a brilliant programmer and mathematician trying to solve an impossible problem while his corporate overlords track him closely and watch everything he does. Although visually exciting and occasionally provocative, The Zero Theorem doesn’t actually go anywhere. See my full review.

A Giant, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 7:00. James Dean only plays a supporting role in George Steven’s sprawling epic about 20th-century Texas. The picture really imagebelongs to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as a couple who marry almost on a whim and have to find common ground in the long decades of their marriage. As they age, the world evolves around them, with a world war, changing attitudes about race and gender, and a cattle economy transitioning to an oil-based one. Dennis Hopper plays Hudson and Taylor’s grown son, while Dean grows from his usual alienated youth to a middle-aged man. As James Dean’s last picture, it’s appropriate that Giant closes the series James Dean, Restored Classics from Warner Bros.

B+ American Pie, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. It’s easy to dismiss a Hollywood-financed horny teenager comedy as commercial schlock–especially one followed by imagetwo sequels. But this story of four male high school seniors determined to lose their virginity, and help their friends do the same, manages to be both raunchy and sweet, as well as very funny. Despite the Hollywood polish, it’s a reasonably accurate look at young, male sexuality. I know; I’ve been there.

A Red Desert, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00. No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a red_desertsense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large factory spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation. On a double bill with Mickey One, which I haven’t seen.

A+ Charlie Chaplin’s Silent Short Films, Roxie, Sunday, 2:00. Free admission for kids under 12. This selection includes three films from Chaplin’s amazing Mutual imageperiod–The Adventurer, Easy Street, and The Immigrant. All three are near-perfect examples of silent comedy. Also on the program, his second film and first as the Tramp, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Live scores provided by local musicians V.Vale, Ethan Li, Kevin Baricar, Benji Marx, and Matt Norman. Part of the Roxie Kids series.

B- Rebecca, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film feels little like a Hitchcock movie.imageBasically 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. This entertaining melodrama includes 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. This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be.

B To Be Takei, New Parkway, opens Friday. Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered, George Takei would be the most beloved imagemember of the original cast. And why not? A childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, a part in the iconic sci-fi TV series, and coming out as gay at age 67 all make for a great story. Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about this extraordinary person, filled with interviews, video of Takei and husband Brad Altman going about their daily business, and old movie and TV clips. It’s the story, not the story-telling, that makes this film worth seeing. Read my full review.

B Tarzan and His Mate, Stanford, Monday and Tuesday. The second and the best of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, while still juvenile–and, let’s face it, racist–imageentertainment, feels very different from the dumb sequels that followed. At this stage in their lives, Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan made a very sexy Tarzan and Jane, and since the movie was pre-code, the sexuality didn’t have to be hidden. (Okay, the nude swimming scene was cut soon after the film’s release, but it has since been restored.) The stars’ chemistry and the story’s general outlandishness makes for a fun evening. On a double bill with something called Love Is a Headache.

B+ Fight Club, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guyfight_club and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains more credibility than a Fox News commentary. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.

A Dr. Strangelove, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (2:00) and Wednesday (2:00 & 7:00). A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) imageorders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (several of them played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges.  We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. I have more to say about Dr. Strangelove.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. 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. imageThere’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 Boyhood, Balboa, opens Friday. Fifty years from now, people will still watch Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood imageallows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up and older. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them have much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films, and it’s all the better for that. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. Read my full review.

B The Hundred-Foot Journey, Lark, opens Friday. An Indian family in a small French town set up an eatery across the street from a famous and highly-regarded imageFrench restaurant, and the battle of cultures begins. The first half is a lot of fun, but the main conflict is settled–not very believably–way too soon. Then you spend too much time watching everyone be happy while waiting for two separate couples to realize that they’re in love. But I have to give kudos to cinematographer Linus Sandgren; this is the best photographed new film I’ve seen in a long time.

B Walking the Camino, Magick Lantern, Friday and Saturday. For centuries, religious Christians have walked the Camino de Santiago–a 800kmimage pilgrimage across northern Spain. Today, spiritual seekers of all kinds, as well as those just looking for adventure, take the arduous route. This documentary follows a handful of walkers, each going for their own reasons and finding, if not what they were looking for, than at least something worth knowing. The film is pleasant, and provides a sense of what the journey might be like (obviously, no film can recreate the actual experience). Warning: You’re likely to come out of the theater ready to make the journey yourself.

Silent Autumn

All films at Saturday at the Castro.

A+ The General, 7:00. Buster Keaton pushedgeneral film comedy like no one else when he made this one. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting. He mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death. He hired thousands of extras and filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era (then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up). The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made. With musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts, 11:00am. Of all the great silent comedians, only the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made a seamless imagetransition into talkies. They’re equally good in each medium. The Festival has announced three shorts to be screened. I’ve only seen one of them, Big Business, but if the other two (Should Married Men Go Home? and Two Tars) are as good as that one, this selection would easily earn an A+.  Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 9:00. I haven’t seen Caligari in a great many years, so I’m not going to give it a grade. The story of a murderous hypnotist and his somnambulist slave would make a fairly conventional horror movie, but three important factors keep Caligari above the conventional. 1) The impressionistic sets and photography make it look like nothing you’ve ever seen in a genre picture. 2) The surprise ending can really throw you for a loop, and is still debated nearly a century after the film’s release. And 3) The horror genre was too new to have any conventions when this film was made. Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.