The Mill Valley Film Festival, which opened last night, runs through this week and beyond. My festival recommendations and warnings are at the end of this newsletter.
A Gandhi, Castro, Sunday, 7:00. The closest thing to a 60’s style historical epic since Patton, Richard Attenborough’s masterpiece follows the life of Mahatma Gandhi from his days as a young lawyer in South Africa through his bittersweet triumph and his assassination. Yes, the film simplistically worships its protagonist, but it also describes the general arc of his life in an entertaining way (with factual liberties, of course), and effectively dramatizes his revolutionary techniques of non-violent resistance. What’s more, the film is visually spectacular and centers around an Oscar-winning and star-making performance by Ben Kingsley.
B Way Down East, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Lillian Gish at her best as a naïve young woman who gets impregnated by a cad, loses her baby, and then has to run away and hide her shameful past. The film suffers from moralizing intertitles (a frequent Griffith problem) and gratingly bad comedy relief, but the central story is still moving and effective, thanks largely by Gish’s performance. The climatic chase across ice flows is one of the best action sequences of the era, thanks largely by Gish’s willingly to put herself in real danger (if only her leading man, Richard Barthelmess, had been quite so courageous.)
B The Invisible Man, Cerrito, Thursday, 9:00. A lesser effort by director James Whale, Universal’s early 1930s "King of Horror." But this H. G. Wells adaptation provides plenty of pleasures. Claude Rains, in his first film role, gives a distinctive voice to the unseen title character–a scientist whose invisibility has turned him into a megalomaniac. The story is full of holes and absurdities–even if he can’t be seen, a naked man running around the English countryside at night has some serious disadvantages–but it’s fun.
A Samsara, Castro, Wednesday. Ron Fricke (Baraka) provides us with a succession of stunningly beautiful and occasionally shocking images, accompanied by a hypnotic musical score and almost no other sound. I sat, enraptured, my eyes and mouth open in astonishment. Although there’s no real story, Samsara is structured like one. Or if not a story, then at least a journey. Fricke shot Samsara in the 70mm format, providing a level of detail impossible to capture with today’s digital cameras or with standard 35mm film. See my full review as well as More on Samsara, 70mm, and 4K Digital Projection. On a double bill with Lucy, which I haven’t seen.
M*A*S*H, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (2:00 only) and Wednesday. I never cared much for what everyone else considers an important comedy. Even in 1970, when it was new and I was right smack in the middle of its demographic, I found it only a moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance. I saw it again about ten years later, and felt that age had only turned it into a misogynistic, moderately funny military comedy with pretensions of significance. This may sound sacrilegious, but I prefer the TV show that spun off from it. I’m not giving it a grade because it has been a very long time since I’ve seen it.
B- Terror by Night, Stanford, Thursday and next Friday. In the early 1940s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 12 low-budget, updated Sherlock Holmes adventures for Universal. This is one of the best, with our heroes riding on a night train while they try to catch a jewel thief who’s not above murder. The enclosed setting of the train, combined with the rumbling of the tracks, adds atmospheric suspense that you usually don’t get in these films. True, the identity of the villain is both ridiculously obvious and totally unbelievable, but Rathbone was such a great Holmes that you can forgive such silliness. On a double bill with a Charlie Chan picture called Castle in the Desert, which I have not seen. For my thoughts on both of these series, see Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective.
A Young Frankenstein, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks had talent. And he showed it off beautifully in this sweet-natured, 1974 parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Fronkenshteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the lovable but clumsy creature.
A Psycho, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:00; Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight . You may never want to take a shower again. In his last great movie, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times, leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it for the first time; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.
B+ 2001: A Space Odyssey, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:30. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Although I’ve lost my love of Stanley Kubrick, there’s no denying the pull of2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The PFA’s modest screen can’t provide the full experience. Part of the series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.
B- Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn, Friday, 8:00. Free outdoor screening. 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. Part of the PFA series, Endless Summer Cinema.
A Dr. Strangelove, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders 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 almost as competent as 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. Another part of the series, Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.
C- Vertigo, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30. 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 Hide and Seek, Sequoia, Saturday, 3:00; Rafael, Monday, 3:30. Four young adults, two women and two men, move into a large and remote country house, intent on a life of self-discovery and sex. Mostly sex. That sounds like a wild fling, but everything is oddly planned and organized. For instance, they have a schedule defining who will sleep with whom each night. Of course, things won’t stay that organized. For a drama and character study, Hide and Seek is unusually upbeat, and has surprisingly little dialog. Much goes unexplained–finances, for instance. And yet, through looks, gestures, and some well-chosen words, we come to know these four extremely well–and not only because we see a lot of them with their clothes off. A remarkable work, and a pretty explicit one.
A The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Lark, Wednesday, 7:00. Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, the Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. But morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands, and besides, it doesn’t really enter into Leone’s tongue-in-cheek point of view. While the war rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. Check your scruples at the door and enjoy the double- and triple-crosses, the black comedy, the beautiful Techniscope photography of Spain doubling as the American west, and Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are fine, but Eli Wallach’s performance as the half-bright, devious Tuco steals the picture.
A- The Empire Strikes Back, Century Cinema, Corte Madera, Monday, 5:00 & 8:30. The second (and in most people’s view, best) Star Wars movie plays the Mill Valley festival for the second time in five years. While I don’t love Empire as much as most fans, it’s still an excellent piece of big entertainment, with many great action set pieces and a considerably darker, more morally-complex story. On the other hand, it has some serious continuity errors that have bothered me since 1980. Nevertheless, I’d give this an A+ if they were showing the original, pre-digitally-altered version. On the other hand, the Century, with its giant, curved screen, is the place to see it.
B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Sequoia, Friday, 8:45 (sold out; rush tickets may be available at showtime), Rafael, Monday, 1:00.A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous. But this time, she’ll be playing a different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture.
B- For Those About to Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela, Rafael, Sunday, 8:00 ; Rafael, Tuesday, 2:15. For the first two thirds of its 84-minute runtime, this appears to be yet another music documentary woefully lacking in music. We watch and hear Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintera talk about their work and their struggles to get recognized. We learn how they developed their unique style–which I’d describe as instrumental, acoustic heavy metal with a Latin flare–in their native Mexico City, and how they found fame in Ireland. But you only hear snatches of the music itself. and that could easily leave you wondering why these two are worthy of a documentary. But then, almost an hour into the movie, it becomes the concert film it always should have been, and thus becomes exciting and magical.
D Soul of a Banquet, Rafael, Sunday, 5:00 (Director Wayne Wang and subject Cecilia Chiang in attendance), Sequoia, Tuesday, 2:15. In his first documentary, the usually reliable Wayne Wang appears to have missed the point. He suggests that his subject, restaurateur Cecilia Chiang, led a fascinating and exciting life. But he gives us little information, and spends most of the picture just showing us food. The biographical first third offers tantalizing hints at Chiang’s history and her importance in the development of Chinese-American cuisine, but Wang doesn’t give us enough information to prove his argument. The following two thirds is just food porn, with close-ups of succulent dishes being prepared, served, and eaten. Read my full review.