A Romeo & Juliet (1967 version), Castro, Saturday, 8:00. Star Leonard Whiting in person. Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s popular romantic tragedy changed forever how filmmakers approached the Bard–and changed it for the better. Beautiful, violent, funny, sexy, sad, and lusciously romantic, it makes the 400-year-old play new (well, 1960’s new) and immediately exciting. Zeffirelli’s decision to cast actual teenagers in the leading roles was controversial at the time, but was absolutely the right thing to do. Warning: ticket prices are very high for this special event.
B+ Beyond Clueless, Roxie, Saturday and Thursday, 7:15. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the thrills, terrors, and transitions of teenage life through the looking glass of high school movies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie, Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko,and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining. Part of IndieFest.
A Giant, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday & Wednesday. James Dean only plays a supporting role in George Steven’s sprawling epic about 20th-century Texas. The picture really belongs 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.
B Akeelah and the Bee, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. A talent for spelling gives Akeelah—a poor, eleven-year-old African American—a shot at escaping the ghetto. But first, she’s going to have to learn about more than words from her mentor, played by Laurence Fishburne. Yes, it’s inspirational, but that’s not always a bad thing.
C- The Eagle, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Rudolph Valentino in an extremely silly melodrama, with the saving grace of not taking itself seriously. The top hearthrob of the 1920s holds the screen well–even for a straight male like myself for whom he doesn’t excite sexual fantasies. But even a silly melodrama deserves a better resolution than the one that The Eagle provides. If you really want to learn what Valentino was all about, see The Son of the Sheik. With Frederick Hodges on piano.
B Ninotchka, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But it’s not quite as good as you might expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder. Part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder; it’s nice to see the PFA include a film that Wilder wrote but didn’t direct.
A+ Some Like It Hot, New Parkway, Saturday, 6:30; Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review. Also part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder.
A The Apartment, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. How do you top Some Like It Hot? Billy Wilder found the answer in this far more serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman he exploits. Read my Blu-ray review. Another part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder. I mistakenly left The Apartment out of the original version of this newsletter. I fixed that Sunday afternoon.
B West Side Story, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. See West Side Story in 70mm for more on the movie.
A Double Indemnity, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the libido from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect thriller. Not that she has any trouble leading him (this is not the wholesome MacMurray we remember from My Three Sons). Edward G. Robinson is in fine form as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal, Double Indemnity can reasonably be called the first true film noir.
A Blade Runner – The Final Cut, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. I’m assuming this is the same final cut I saw in 2008, and not a even more final cut made since.
C+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Vertigo & The Trouble with Harry, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The C+ goes to The Trouble with Harry. Alfred Hitchcock laced his thrillers with humor, but his second and last attempt at an out-and-out comedy succeeds in merely being pleasant–despite the promising theme of a dead body that everyone wants to hide.. Although Vertigo is officially now the greatest film ever made, I can’t give it more than a C-. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough.
A Timbuktu, Shattuck, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by an armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.
A- Two Days, One Night, Lark, opens Friday. The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. Rather than becoming a political tract, this film feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise. Read my full review.
A- Birdman, Cerrito, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, hoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.
B+ The Theory of Everything, Lark, opens Friday. Like so many British pictures, this Stephen Hawking biopic provides a showcase for great acting. Hawking is the sort of character that cries out for an Oscar–he’s a real person, he’s British, and he has a disability. Eddie Redmayne makes full use of that opportunity, catching not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable. Felicity Jones co-stars as his first wife and does an excellent job, Very well made but not exceptional. Read my longer comments.
D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women, Roxie, Sunday, 7:115; Thursday, 9:30. This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. (Eight years ago I wrote and performed in a one-act play with the same theme.) But two problems sink Jacky. First, the fantasy society in which it’s set–sort of a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to use for making a satirical point. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise. IndieFest‘s closing night disappointment.
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 Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Strangers on a Train & The Lady Vanishes,Stanford, through Sunday. If you love Alfred Hitchcock and you love trains, this is the double bill for you. In Strangers on a Train, a rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife, and by a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were enjoying a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she had ever been there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Read my Blu-ray review. Each film earns an A on its own merit.