The only festival this week is A Coppola Family Affair, a weekend-long celebration of films by Francis and his family. I’m placing the Coppola movies at the bottom of this newsletter.
C+ Pioneer, Opera Plaza, starts Friday. Early in this Norwegian thriller, a professional deep-sea diver—who is also a loving husband and father–tells his brother and diving partner that this will be his last dive. He wants to spend time with his family. Yes, this is another thriller from the cliché playbook. The surviving brother (Aksel Hennie, the star of wonderful Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident, and spends the rest of the movie trying to uncover the evil conspiracy. The movie improves considerably in the last act, with a climax that wasn’t at all what I expected. But that wasn’t enough to make it more than an okay thriller. Read my full review.
A+ Die Hard, Castro, Sunday. The 1980s was a great decade for big, loud action movies, and this just may be the best. Bruce Willis plays a New York cop in LA for Christmas, hoping to win back his estranged wife and kids. But then a group of Not Very Nice People take over the office building where his wife works (and where he’s visiting) and holds everyone hostage. Willis spends most of the movie playing cat-and-mouse with the bad guys, bonding with an LA cop over a walkie-talkie, and mumbling about his rotten luck. The result is top-notch entertainment–even if its politics lean a bit to the right. One a double bill with Scrooged, which I haven’t seen.
B+ Dear White People, New Parkway, opens Friday. Justin Simien’s first feature is funny, dramatic, and insightful. The main characters, African-American students in an overwhelmingly white ivy league school, philosophize a bit, but that’s what young college students do. Samantha (Tessa Thompson), whose campus radio program provides the film’s name, is the most militant and political. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) wears a giant afro and is too insecure to come out of the closet. Everything comes together at the climax (this is not a spoiler) where a group of largely white students throw an extremely racist Halloween party.
A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, Balboa, Saturday; Castro, Monday; Rafael, Sunday; Stanford, Wednesday (Sold out); various CineMark Theaters, Sunday & Wednesday. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, George needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because George, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.
A Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Charlie Chaplin’s Easy Street is one of the best comedies from his Mutual period, which by definition makes it one of his best short comedies. It may be Chaplin’s first experiment in social criticism, getting laughs in a story that deals with grinding poverty, violent street fights, battered wives, and drug addiction. Big Business shows off the special art of Laurel and Hardy better than any other silent short. Buster Keaton didn’t like The High Sign, his first short as director and star. And yet it has moments of brilliant comedy, and climaxes with an amazing indoor chase. I haven’t seen the Charlie Chase entry, There Ain’t No Santa Claus.
B+ The Shining, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Stanley Kubrick turned a brilliant novel into a very good movie, and somehow got credited for making a masterpiece. When you come right down to it, The Shining is a basic haunted house story, except instead of a house, the setting is a large resort hotel, closed for the winter, and populated only with the caretaker and his wife and son. Jack Nicholson plays the father slowly going insane as someone halfway there from the start–a major mistake that hurts the story considerably. Shelley Duvall plays his very suffering wife. Read my Book vs. Movie report.
All films are at the Roxie.
A- Apocalypse Now, Friday, 7:30; Sunday, 7:00. You can see Francis Coppola’s talent melt away in his Vietnam War epic. Most of Apocalypse Now achieves a powerful, hypnotic, surreal brilliance. A modern updating of Heart of Darkness, it follows an army operative (Martin Sheen) assigned to terminate the command of a rogue officer ("terminate, with extreme prejudice"). He travels with four sailors upriver in a small boat, and the river itself becomes a metaphor for the insanity of this particular war. Then, in the last act, they arrive at their destination, meet Marlon Brando, and the whole movie collapses under its own (and Brando’s) weight. The Roxie will screen the original cut, which is way better than the longer Apocalypse Now Redux, which I’d probably give only a B-. The Friday screening includes a conversation with sound designers Richard Beggs and Walter Murch.
B+ Hearts of Darkness, Saturday, 7:30. Making-of documentaries are seldom worth going to a movie theater for, but this record of how Apocalypse Now came to be is an exception to that rule. But then, the making of Apocalypse Now is one of the great stories in cinema history. One star had a heart attack. Another arrived grossly overweight. A typhoon destroyed the set. The director didn’t know how he would end the picture…or whether the picture would end him. Coppola’s wife Eleanor filmed the whole expedition, and that footage made this fascinating documentary possible. Eleanor Coppola in person.
B+ Palo Alto, Sunday, 4:00. 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. Gia Coppola in person. Sold out.