Only one film festival this week, but it’s a big one and it continues through Thursday. I’m talking, of course, about the San Francisco International Film Festival. The SFIFF films are listed at the bottom of this newsletter.
Save Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley City Council Chambers, Tuesday, 7:00. As I’ve mentioned before, Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinema is in danger, and not because of low ticket sales. The real estate company that owns the building wants to tear it down and put up an 18-story residential tower for rich people. Tuesday night, the City Council will have a special, open session to discus the issue. The more people opposed to the theater, the better.
B+ Lambert & Stamp, Roxie, opens Friday. If Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp hadn’t come across an obscure London rock band, none of us would have ever heard of The Who. Lacking any experience as managers, they shepherded the group to fame and fortune. Director James D. Cooper’s visual flair in filming the interviews (he’s known mostly as a cinematographer), his creative use of stock footage, and Christopher Tellefsen’s frenetic editing style gives Lambert & Stamp a rough, energetic quality appropriate for the subject. Not surprisingly, songs by The Who dominate the soundtrack–although I don’t think we hear one from beginning to end. Read my full review.
A A Fish Called Wanda, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. One of the funniest comedies to come out of Monty Python veterans, and certainly the cruelest. John Cleese, who also wrote the film, stars as a very properly British lawyer who finds himself caught up with a group of ruthless but utterly inept crooks. Fellow Python Michael Palin plays an animal-loving criminal assigned to murder a little old lady, who, in a wonderful running gag, keeps killing off her dogs instead. Kevin Kline won an Oscar (very rare for broad comedy) as the most evil and stupid of the crooks. And Cleese has one of the funniest nude scenes in movie history.
A Mary Poppins, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. The best live-action movie Walt Disney ever made is, not surprisingly, one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really lights up the screen in her first movie appearance, managing to upstage Dick Van Dyke and some wonderful special effects. So what if it takes liberties with the books?
B School of Rock, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. When Richard Linklater decided to make a commercial, conventional comedy, it came out pretty darn good. Jack Black plays a struggling rock musician who steals his roommate’s identity to take a temporary position in a very staid and proper private school. Impressed by the kids’ strictly classical music skills, he turns the class into a rock band that he hopes will win an upcoming contest. Of course the story is silly and predictable, and it bows too much to star power (Black really should have stayed off-stage at the climax), but it’s fun and catches the rebellious spirit of all good rock.
B+ The Wizard of Oz, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight). 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.
B+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Piedmont, opens Friday. A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. 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. Read my full review.
B- What We Do in the Shadows, Opera Plaza, 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 existance. 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- The Iron Ministry, Kabuki, Monday, 4:00. Life on a Chinese railroad. This narration-free documentary catches life on a long train trip in China. (From where to where? It doesn’t say.) People find comfort in close quarters. They tell funny stories. They drink and flirt. They buy food from a cart. And they talk about religion, ethnicity, and politics. The staff serve dinner in the dining car, object to being filmed, sweep the floor, and in one case agree to talk to the filmmaker (American J.P. Sniadecki). A handful of shots go on too long, but altogether it’s an amazing slice of life in a foreign country, set on one of the most social–and cinematic–forms of transportation.
State of Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull, Kabuki, Sunday, 6:30. The special effects wizard (2001, Blade Runner, Close Encounters) and sometimes writer/director (Silent Running) will take the stage to discuss, well, the state of the cinema. A major proponent of high frame rates, he’ll probably discuss how more immersive technology will inspire people to turn off their TVs and smartphones and go to the movies.
A- Democrats, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:15; Kabuki, Monday, 6:30; Clay, Wednesday, 9:30. How does a country transition from dictatorship to democracy–especially when the dictator is still running the show? Camilla Nielsson’s cinema vérité documentary tries to answer that question as it follows the process of creating a new, more democratic constitution for Zimbabwe. The film’s clear hero is Douglas Mwonzora, an activist fighting for what he sees as his country’s second liberation struggle (the first involved kicking out the British). It seems like an impossible dream, with President (and in reality dictator) Robert Mugabe holding all of the cards. Yet Mwonzora and his collaborators can laugh and joke about every roadblock thrown up in front of them. More suspense than your average thriller, and far more informative.
Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger: Monte-Cristo, Kabuki, Sunday, 1:00. This year’s Novikoff Award goes to scholar, film restorer, and subtitle translator Lenny Borger. In addition to a talk, he’ll be screening the recently rediscovered Monte-Cristo from 1929. It will be a long afternoon; the movie itself will run over 3 1/2 hours. I don’t know how long the talk will go. The music by Marc-Olivier Dupin, alas, will not be live.
B+ Mr. Holmes, Kabuki, Tuesday, 2:00. Ian McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes as an old man and as a very old man—mostly the later—in this entertaining but not too deep drama. Retired from solving crimes, Holmes is now a 90ish beekeeper (the film is set in 1947–about 20 years after Doyle wrote his last Holmes story), living with a widowed housekeeper and her young son. Holmes is in a race against time, trying to write down the true story of his last case before senility sinks too deep. A wonderful gift for Holmes fans, and an enjoyable day at the movies for everyone else.
B Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere, Kabuki, Saturday, 9:15. This Vietnamese drama succeeds in producing an atmosphere, and makes us care about the main character. But her repeated poor choices can wear down audience sympathy. The film follows the misfortunes of a young, immature, broke, single, pregnant college student who can’t seem to make a decision–and when she does, it’s inevitably a bad one. Her even less mature boyfriend has a good job, but he’s a gambling addict (cock fighting) and is totally unreliable. Her transgender roommate appears to be her only true friend.