What’s Screening: May 22 – 28

No festivals this week…until the very last day. Both the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Green Film Festival open Thursday night.

All Quiet On The Western Front, Castro, Thursday, 7:00.

The first great talkie war movie delivers a powerful anti-war message. When war breaks out, a young, naïve German student patriotically and enthusiastically volunteers for the grand adventure. What he finds instead is a non-stop hellhole with no good guys or bad guys…just losers no matter what side they’re on. I give the talking version an A, but the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens, of course, with the silent version (made in 1930 for theaters that hadn’t yet converted). I haven’t seen this one, but that will be remedied Thursday night. Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

A- Double bill: The Mark of Zorro (1940 version) & Ninotchka, Wednesday through next Sunday.

Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role of Zorro his own, and earned this double bill it’s A+, in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone.  Ninotchka–Greta Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film–is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Written by Billy Wilder and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, I give it a B+. Read my longer report.

A- Harold and Maude, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00.

The 1971 comedy Harold and Maude fit the late hippy era as perfectly as Pink Floyd and the munchies. At a time when young Americans embraced non-conformity, free love, ecstatic joy, and 40-year-old Marx Brothers movies, this counterculture romance between an alienated and death-obsessed young man and an almost 80-year-old woman made total sense. The broad and outrageous humor helped considerably. But I do wish screenwriter Colin Higgins had found a better ending. See my full discussion.

B+ Super 8, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

An excellent example of a small film hidden inside a big Hollywood blockbuster, Super 8 follows a bunch of middle schoolkids in 1979, while they try to make a short, amateur zombie movie and struggle with all the garbage of early adolescence. Meanwhile, a strange crisis and a military invasion ravages their small town. Writer/director J.J. Abrams provides a handful of spectacular action sequences, filled with explosions and special effects, but they always take a back seat to the kids’ more normal problems. The movie looks like something Steven Spielberg would have made that year.

Bikes vs. Cars, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Thursday, 6:00.

Director Fredrik Gertten follows various bicycle advocates in various cities around the world, concentrating on two large, horribly auto-centric metropolitan areas–Sao Paulo and Los Angeles. The activists talk both on camera and off, discussing congestion, pollution, bad urban design, and the economic/political forces that emphasize automobiles over common sense. We also visit exceptionally bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and get a chance to boo Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who removed bike lanes to make his city more car-friendly. Read my longer discussion. The Green Film Festival ‘s opening night film.

Alien, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30; Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55 (just before midnight).

In the wake of Jaws’ and Star Wars’ phenomenal success, someone had to make a big-budget movie about a large predator on a spaceship. But the obvious marketing value doesn’t explain why Alien came out so well, and on so many levels. First you’ve got the extraordinary art direction, giving us a spaceship that feels like a strange and unsettling high-tech haunted house, yet is absolutely believable. Then there’s the working-class astronauts complaining about the food and pay–amongst the most realistic people Hollywood has ever shot into space. Don’t forget the star-making performance by Sigourney Weaver, or the overriding sense of loneliness, corporate exploitation, and–dare I say it–alienation. It’s also one hell of a fun, scary ride.

B- A Clockwork Orange, Castro, Sunday.

Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning felt self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it just doesn’t add up. On a double bill with Immortal Beloved, which I remember not liking; I called it Citizen Beethoven.

A- Ex Machina, Balboa, Shattuck, 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+ Clouds of Sils Maria, Lark, 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.