What’s Screening: May 29 – June 4

We’ve got three film festivals going on in the Bay Area this week:

You’ll find festival screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A+ Citizen Kane, Rafael, Sunday

How does any movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name any this insightful that is also this dazzling and entertaining. As Orson Welles and his collaborators tell the life story of a newspaper tycoon through the flashback memories of those who knew him, they also turn the techniques of cinema inside out. Now I’ll tell you what Rosebud really is: a McGuffin. Read my A+ appreciation. The opening movie for the Rafael’s series, Welles 100: Part One: 1941-1948. Note: After this screening, Warner Brothers will remove Citizen Kane from theatrical release until next year.

Days of Heaven, Castro,Wednesday, 7:00

The story seems a better fit for a 64-minute, 1940s B noir, but Days of Heaven isn’t about story, and only moderately about character. It’s about time, place, atmosphere, and arguably the Bible. The time is around 1916, and for most of the film, the place is a large wheat farm on the Texas panhandle–empty fields stretching out to the horizon, broken up by gentle hills and a stream that gives it a unique beauty. Through the yellow of the wheat fields, the haze of the sun, and the smoke of early 20th-century technology, cinematographer Nestor Almendros creates a sense of something that is not quite nostalgia, and not quite a dream, but a reality seen through the haze of distant memory. See my longer commentary. On a double bill with Out of the Blue, which I haven’t seen.

Rosemary’s Baby, Castro, Thursday, 7:00

Roman Polanski’s first American film barely works. Mia Farrow looks fidgety and nervous as a pregnant wife who slowly begins to suspect that she’s carrying the devil’s spawn, and that everyone she thought she could trust is in a conspiracy against her. Slow enough to let you see what’s coming a mile off, it never quite builds the sense of dread that the material, and the director, were capable of bringing to it. On a double bill with the original, 1975 version of The Stepford Wives.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Berkeley UA, Thursday, 9:00

Absolutely the worst Indiana Jones movie ever. First, Spielberg and company tried to make it dark and atmospheric, but only succeeded in making it unpleasant. Second, leading lady Kate Capshaw, now Spielberg’s wife, gives a performance about as enticing as nails on a chalkboard. And finally, the movie is horribly, irredeemably, D.W. Griffith-level racist. Two years after Attenborough’s Gandhi, Spielberg and Lucas assure us that India needed white people to protect the good, child-like Indians from their evil, fanatical compatriots.

A- Ex Machina, Lark, New Parkway, Vogue, 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, Opera Plaza, 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.

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

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

B+ Flesh and the Devil, Castro, Saturday, 7:00

A silly story, but a sexy one, well-told. I’ll skip the plot, and just tell you that it’s about friendship, young love, uncontrollable lust, and the inherent evil of a woman acting upon her libido. It’s the sort of vamp picture that went out of style in the early 20′s, but came back to life magnificently here thanks largely to Greta Garbo’s talent and charisma, and the burning passion–both onscreen and off–between her and leading man John Gilbert (director Clarence Brown described it as “kind of embarrassing”). This was only Garbo’s third American film, bit it’s the one that made her a star. Live musical accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Sherlock Holmes, Castro, Sunday, 7:00

I haven’t seen this one, but then, very few living people have. At the end of the 19th century, William Gillette–a very popular and respected actor of his day–wrote and starred in the first authorized Sherlock Holmes stage play. To this day, the image we have of Holmes comes as much from Gillette as it does from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and illustrator Sidney Paget. This 1916 film adaptation of Gillette’s play is not only the first Holmes feature film; it’s also Gillette’s only filmed performance. And this 99-year-old movie, long considered lost, has only just been discovered and restored. Musical accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble.

B+ Speedy, Castro, Saturday, 10:00am

Shot in New York, Harold Lloyd’s last silent provides plenty of laughs, even if it isn’t amongst his best. The story involves his struggle to help his girlfriend’s father keep his small streetcar line, but that’s really just an excuse to do Lloyd routines in Big Apple locations. We get a sequence in Cony Island, a cameo with Babe Ruth, and (of course), a great streetcar race.  Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The Last Laugh, Castro, Friday, 7:00

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job, apparently because of the status conferred on him by his uniform. But when age catches up with him, he’s given a new assignment as a washroom attendant, and his self-esteem plummets. He can’t even tell his wife about the change. Director F.W. Murnau uses his patented expressionistic style (see Sunrise and Nosferatu) to show us what’s happening in the former doorman’s head. Told entirely in pantomime, this is the rare silent feature with almost no intertitles. Musical accompaniment by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.

The Amazing Charley Bowers, Castro, Sunday, 10:00am

I’ve only seen one of Charley Bowers’ short comedies, but I liked it a lot. A former animator, he relied on whimsical special effects (a lot of stop motion) and a sense of the absurd that makes Keaton almost pedestrian. The short that I’ve seen, Now You Tell One, is on the program, so I know that at least a quarter of the show will be wonderful. Music (and I assume an introduction) by Serge Bromberg.

B- Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Castro, Monday, 7:00.

The original isn’t always better than the sequel. The first feature-length version of the best-selling novel–essentially The Count of Monte Cristo meets Jesus Christ–doesn’t quite measure up to the much more impressive 1959 version. Ramon Novarro seems a bit lightweight for the hero, and the story comes off as much more simplistic in its preaching. But it still offers spectacle, suspense, and a wonderful chariot race. The music, I’m sorry to say, will not be live. On the other hand, it’s by Carl Davis, so it will probably be excellent. Still, I would have preferred live music. The movie will be preceded by an on-stage discussion between Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg.

Green Film Festival

A- WALL-E, Roxie, Saturday, 1:00

Andrew Stanton and Pixar made a courageous movie. When Disney finances your big-budget family entertainment, it takes guts to look closely and critically at such consequences of our consumer culture as garbage, obesity, and planetary destruction. Making an almost dialog-free film also took a fair amount of backbone. WALL-E wimps out in the third act–which is both disappointing and probably inevitable–and while that diminishes Stanton’s achievement, it doesn’t destroy it. Read my full review and my report on the Sound of Wall-E .

A- Landfill Harmonic, Roxie, Wednesday, 6:00

Cateura, Paraguay is not really a town; it’s an inhabited garbage dump. But out of that dump comes beautiful music according to this inspiring documentary. Environmental engineer turned music teacher Favio Chávez put together a young people’s orchestra playing home-made instruments built from recycled materials. The group gains Internet fame, accompanies Megadeth in concert, performs around the world, and enjoys some relief from grinding poverty. You can’t watch it without rooting for these children, and for the adults shaping their lives. The movie will be followed by a discussion with the filmmakers.

B , Roxie, Saturday, 9:30

First, a disclaimer: My late stepfather, John H. Newman, cut the sound effects on this sci-fi ecological parable. He considered it the best work he ever did. As a teenager, I got to hang around the post-production offices one day and watch everyone shoot special effects. The movie today feels somewhat preachy and heavy-handed, with a story about as believable as Dick Chaney. But the 2001-influenced special effects make nice eye candy (director Douglas Trumbull was one of Kubrick’s effects specialists), the robots clearly influenced R2D2, Bruce Dern gives a good performance in a nearly one-man show, and the movie has its heart in the right place. Great sound effects, too.