A+ The Crowd, California Theatre (San Jose), Friday, 7:30. A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams–perhaps because he dreams too much– in King Vidor’s silent masterpiece. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who can’t quite accept that he’s ordinary. Perhaps the best realistic drama of the silent era. This is not only a brilliant film, but a rarely-shown one, unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray. For more on The Crowd, read The American Dream turns into a nightmare, and a great American film needs to be seen. With Dennis James accompanying at the Wurlitzer organ. Part of Cinequest.
A Very long, Russian Revolution double bill: Doctor Zhivago & Reds, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Talk about a long day at the movies! These two very different epics (each of which would earn an A on its own) have a combined runtime of over 6 1/2 hours. In Doctor Zhivago, David Lean paints a tale of a decent man torn between his wife and another woman, while the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war swirls around them. For more on the big-screen Zhivago experience, see Dr. Zhivago at the Cerrito. Warren Beatty’s Reds, on the other hand, follows the private lives of early American Communists–particularly journalist/activist John Reed (Beatty) and his lover Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). They eventually get to Russia, where they find both romance and disaster.
A+ My Darling Clementine, Cerrito, Thursday. By all rules of the western genre, this John Ford masterpiece shouldn’t work. The plot, the primary motivations, and the action all but disappear for the whole middle part of the movie. And yet it’s one of the greatest westerns ever made, providing a powerful sense of myth as it tells the (overwhelmingly fictional) story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral against the backdrop of a stunningly photographed Monument Valley. This is history converted into legend. And yet, the characters seem down-to-earth, and can surprise you with their all-too-human frailties and contradictions. Read my Blu-ray review.
A- La Dolce Vita, Castro, Wednesday. Yes, this story of a gossip journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) living on the outskirts of the rich and decadent has many great moments. Consider the opening shot of Jesus flying through the air via helicopter, or the climactic out-of-control party. The famous fountain scene is absolutely stunning. And there’s the heart-wrenching moment when photographers surround a woman before she’s told that her husband and children are dead. The entire film makes brilliant use of the Cinemascope frame, with a punch line timed not by editing or performance, but by an expectation of when the audience will notice the right edge of the screen. But the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and there are long, dull areas in between the brilliance. I can’t quite call it a masterpiece. On a very strange double bill with Artists and Models, a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy from 1955.
A+ The Grapes of Wrath, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. No one associates serious social criticism with classic, studio-era Hollywood. Yet this 20th Century-Fox production of JohnSteinbeck’s flip side of the California dream pulls few punches. As the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find poverty, bigotry, and exploitation, the picture shows us an America where mere survival is a victory and revolution a logical reaction. John Ford directed from producer Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay, but a lot of credit must go to studio head Darryl Zanuck for the courage to make a film that exposes the ugly underbelly of American capitalism.
A Sunset Boulevard, various CineMark theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history.
B+ 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55. 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 of 2001’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–and you’re not going to get that experience at the Clay.
B L’avventura, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. Michelangelo Antonioni’s story of the young and amoral hardly counts as an adventure–although it almost starts as one. A group of wealthy young adults yacht to a deserted island, where one of them mysteriously disappears. The others look for her, then give up and go about their meaningless lives. I hated L’avventura when I saw it in college. When I saw it again recently, I realized the point of how it played with my expectations. This is not about rescuing a friend or lover; but about the shallowness of modern relationships. Part of the series and university class, Film 50: History of Cinema.
B+ The Wizard of Oz, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. 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.
A Timbuktu, Lark, Friday, 1:20; Thursday, 4:50. 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 Wild, Castro, Monday. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that reveal what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage. Read my full review. On a double bill with A Most Violent Year, which I haven’t seen.
B+ Whiplash, Castro,Tuesday; New Parkway, opens Saturday. Set in a fictitious music conservatory, Whiplash follows a young and ambitious jazz drummer (Miles Teller) as he is tortured and abused by a horrifically cruel music teacher. The film’s key pleasure is watching veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, in the Oscar-winning role of a lifetime, as the most evil music teacher since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Other pleasures include the music (of course) and Teller’s way of making you root for the protagonist, even though he’s pretty much a dick. But the film is set in an almost all-male world (although I’ve been told since I first wrote about it that this is actually pretty accurate in jazz), and the teacher would realistically have been fired years ago.
B+ The Theory of Everything, New Parkway, opens Saturday. 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.
A Hitchcock double bill: Psycho & The Birds, through Sunday. The A goes to Psycho, where Alfred Hitchcock leaves the audience unsure who we’re supposed to root for or what could constitute a happy ending. Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins defined their careers in Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. But I can only give a B- to the film that followed it. The Birds has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and new-comer Hedren–while beautiful–is utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.