The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs through this weekend and beyond. And the Brainwash Movie Festival opens tonight, runs through the weekend, takes the week off, then revives for next weekend. I’ve placed the festival films that I’ve seen at the bottom of this newsletter.
A+ Red River, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30
John Wayne gives one of his best performances, showing us the villain in the hero and the hero in the villain as the Captain Bligh figure in this western variation on Mutiny on the Bounty. The character starts out as your classic Wayne hero—strong, stubborn, a man of his word who is quick with a gun. But these traits prove his moral undoing as he leads others on a dangerous cattle drive. To make matters worse, his adopted son (Montgomery Clift in his breakout role) leads the rebellion. Read my Blu-ray review and Book vs. Film discussion.
A- Aparajito, Rafael, Sunday
As is so common with trilogies, the middle film is the weakest. But with the Apu Trilogy, the weakest can be far from weak. In Aparajito, Apu grows from late childhood into late adolescence, and his view of India and the world widens considerably. He excels in school and becomes excited by science. In many ways, it’s a more optimistic film than its predecessor; this kid just might be going places. But there’s a heavy price to pay for advancement out of his class. His now widowed mother can’t bear to lose her last surviving child to the world. See my discussion of the entire trilogy.
B+ This Is Spinal Tap, Lark, Saturday, 8:00
The mockumentary to end all rockumentaries. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven.
B+ American Graffiti, Balboa, Tuesday, 7:30
A long time ago, in a Bay Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s.
A Blade Runner, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30
Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay.
A The Big Lebowski, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00
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.) Read my full report.
Scarlet Street, Stanford, through Friday
If you’re lonely, bored, professionally unfulfilled, and stuck in a bad marriage, beware of beautiful women who seem interested in you–especially if you look like Edward G. Robinson. A cashier who dabbles in painting on the side (Robinson) falls for a dame who easily wraps him around her finger (Joan Bennett). Soon he’s stealing from his boss and letting the dame take credit for his suddenly successful paintings. You know this isn’t going to go well. A fine noir written by Dudley Nichols and directed by Fritz Lang. On a double bill with Father of the Bride.
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
A- My Shortest Love Affair, Castro, Wednesday, 6:30; CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, 6:15
Funny, serious, sexy, and true to life, this French gem catches the struggles and futility of a bad romance. Months after a one-night stand resulted in pregnancy, Louisa (Karin Albou, who also wrote and directed) and Charles (Patrick Mimoun) move in together to raise their soon-to-be-born child. But they’re hopelessly incompatible. They like different music. He’s allergic to her cat. She takes her Jewish identity seriously; he doesn’t. But worst of all, they’re horrible together in bed. Attempts at sex continually turn into arguments. (Both stars are naked for much of the film, and you can clearly see that Albou was very pregnant while directing and acting with her clothes off.) The only misstep is the ending, which is too quick and convenient.
B The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, Castro, Saturday, 6:50; CineArts (Palo Alto),Monday, 6:30
Two cousins, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, built a successful Israeli movie studio, then moved to Los Angeles, mass-produced action flicks, made huge amounts of money, became a power in Hollywood, and then saw their business empire collapse. Hilla Madalia’s documentary, filled with interviews and film clips, entertains and informs, but isn’t really exceptional. Both men, and especially the more artistic Golan, make good on-screen interview subjects, and their interviews carry the movie.
B A La Vie (To Life), CineArts (Palo Alto), Saturday, 8:30
Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu); married and very much in love with a man who was castrated by the Nazis (Hippolyte Girardot), her desires and her loyalties are in serious conflict. Rose (Suzanne Clément) seems at first to be the healthiest mentally, but her short temper belies issues she doesn’t want to surface. Lily (Johanna ter Steege) seems way ahead of her time as an activist for a feminist, egalitarian Judaism. The story is reasonably well-told, but predictable.
C The Law, Castro, Tuesday, 9:00, CineArts (Palo Alto), Wednesday, 8:50
A great cause doesn’t always make a great film. France’s struggle to legalize abortion in the mid-1970s comes off as a lot of compromises and backdoor deals done in smoke-filled rooms (literally smoke-filled; it’s France in the 1970s). As the film’s heroine, Minister of Health Simone Veil (Rue Mandar) comes off as steadfast and strong, but not particularly interesting. A subplot concerning a young photographer who wants to become a real journalist shows some human interest, but not enough. The real story, of pregnant women facing disaster, comes in only rarely.
C- Mr. Kaplan, CineArts (Palo Alto), Thursday, 8:35
In Uruguay at the end of the 20th century, an old, senile Jewish man almost randomly decides that an equally old German man is a Nazi in hiding. So he teams up with an unemployed, alcoholic loser of an ex-cop to bring the mass murderer to justice. Writer/director Alvaro Brechner tries to mix broad comedy with sentimental drama, but he only moderately succeeds with either style, and never succeeds in bringing them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.