The big one (well, one of the big two), the San Francisco International Film Festival, runs through this week and beyond. My festival listings are at the bottom of this newsletter.
But even if you don’t go to the festival, you can still catch some good movies.
B+ In the Footsteps of Godzilla, Roxie, Sunday, 3:30. The B+ goes to the original, 1954, Japanese language Godzilla. Made in a country with recent memories of horrific bombings and destroyed cities, it presents the emotions of mass terror more vividly than Hollywood’s giant monster movies of the same decade. The cast includes Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. After the screening, the movie will play again, this time with live commentary by Japanese-monster expert Armand Vaquer.
A Design for Living, Stanford, Wednesday and Thursday. Impeccable credentials occasionally pay off. Design for Living is every bit as good as you’d expect from Ernst Lubitsch directing a Ben Hecht screen adaptation of a Noel Coward play. Of course, it also helps to have a cast headed by Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins as a sort-of romantic threesome, and Edward Everett Horton as a disapproving bluenose. A very funny and sexy pre-code charmer. On a double bill with Becky Sharp, remembered primarily as the first feature shot entirely in Three-Strip Technicolor;. I saw it once maybe 30 years ago and found it reasonably entertaining.
A Tootsie, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. Gender roles turn upside-down in what is easily the second best Hollywood comedy about straight men in drag (the best, of course, is Some Like It Hot). Dustin Hoffman plays a struggling actor who no one wants to hire. So he disguises himself as a woman, gets a job on a soap opera, and becomes a sensation. Things get complicated when he falls for one of his co-stars (Jessica Lange), who likes him as a friend but doesn’t know he’s a man. The very funny screenplay by Larry Gelbart (who also created the character of Klinger on TV’s M*A*S*H) is played mostly straight, although Teri Garr and Bill Murray show off their exceptional comic timing. .
A- Gay-themed thrillers with titles that go together beautifully double bill: Bound & Rope, Castro, Wednesday. The A- goes to Bound, the Wachowski brothers’ first and best movie. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon become lovers, then set out to steal a fortune from the mob. A very sexy, violent, and suspenseful thriller which adds new meaning to the phrase "laundering money." In Alfred Hitchcock’s most frustrating film, a presumably gay couple murder a man for kicks, then throw a party with the body hidden in a chest. Hitchcock made Rope in eight moving camera shots; an interesting experiment that robbed him of the ability to edit. Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock. I give it a B.
B- Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00AM. 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.
A+ Rear Window, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.
A The Big Lebowski, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30. I revisited this cult favorite last year, seeing it for the first time in a theater, and it’s a much better movie than I remembered. This is one exceptional comedy–a Raymond Chandler story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself "the Dude" (Jeff Bridges). Behind the laughs, you can find a thin, barely grasped sense of Zen–as if you could throw yourself to the universe and everything will come out okay…unless it doesn’t. The wonderful supporting cast includes Sam Elliott, John Turturro, Julianne Moore. Philip Seymour Hoffman, and John Goodman as the funniest Vietnam vet ever to suffer from PTSD. (Actually, his friends do most of the suffering.)
A- Ex Machina, California (Berkeley), opens Friday. This surprisingly intelligent film about artificial intelligence follows two men–one of whom is clearly insane–as they go beyond the Turing test to determine if a "female" robot is truly sentient. The story is basically Frankenstein,and like that classic, it’s not all-together believable, but still manages to bring up important questions. Can you be human without sexuality? Can the titans of tech do whatever they want with our private deeds and thoughts? Do you have a right to replace a sentient machine with version 2.0? And how does the sexual objectification of women fit in here? Read my full review.
B- What We Do in the Shadows, New Parkway, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentary camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead lives. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. Read my full review.
A Dearest, Clay, Saturday, 6:00; Kabuki, Thursday, 6:30.Heart-breaking, thoughtful, suspenseful, and complex, Dearest is easily the best new drama I’ve seen this year. A young child is kidnapped (apparently a common crime in China), and his divorced parents react in different ways. While his mother (Hao Lei) sinks into depression, his father (Huang Bo) takes a reckless proactive approach, following pointless leads and con artists. They find some solace with a support group. Then, halfway through the picture, the plot takes a very unexpected turn and the moral issues become much more complicated.
Cinema Visionaries: Alex Gibney, Kabuki, Friday, 4:00. The documentarian who made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side, and the festival’s opening file, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, will be on hand to discuss his work with California College of the Arts students and anyone who buys a ticket.
A- Best of Enemies, Kabuki, Friday, 9:00; Clay, Sunday, 3:30. In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network put the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film.
B+ The Postman’s White Nights, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00; Clay, Tuesday, 6:15, Kabuki, Wednesday, 3:45. This Russian ethnographic tale has three strong elements going for it. It’s a beautifully photographed film. Second, it brings us to a place that most of us have never experienced–summer in a small village in northern Russia. And finally, it introduces us to Lyokha (Aleksey Tryapitsyn), the affable but lonely mailman who climbs into his boat every morning and travels across the water to collect the village mail. Lyokha is kind, knowledgeable, makes a good surrogate father for the son of a single mother, and is utterly helpless in his attempts to find romance. Filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky brings us to a community that holds on to its roots while still being part of the modern world.
B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, Kabuki, Friday, 9:30 & Sunday, 9:30. The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. As someone who grew up on Mad Magazine, and reached adulthood (if not maturity) in the early 1970s, I was very much part of the Lampoon’s target audience. Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary brought back a lot of fun memories while introducing me to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.