What’s Screening: August 7 – 13

The SF Jewish Film Festival finishes up Sunday. And the Japan Film Festival opens today and runs into next week. Jewish Film Festival movies are listed at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Manos Sucias, Roxie, Friday & Saturday

A rare chance to see an exceptional film not generally available in this country. Two brothers, barely on speaking terms, team up to deliver a very large shipment of cocaine down river in this Colombian thriller. It’s the end of them if they’re caught by the police. But things will be far worse if they don’t deliver all of their shipment. Manos Sucias does more than hold us in suspense. It shows us how society works and how people live in a very different part of the world than what most of us are used to. You may never get another chance to see this film.

A Listen To Me Marlon, Opera Plaza, Rafael, opens Friday

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about movie stars. But I’ve never before seen one quite like this. Brando recorded his thoughts and feelings into tape recorders over the course of his life, and director Stevan (not a misspelling) Riley used these recordings in place of the usual voice-of-God narration. You won’t get as many facts in Listen to Me Marlon as you would in a conventional documentary, but you’ll get a far stronger sense of exactly who made Brando tick.

A The End of the Tour, Embarcadero, Shattuck, opened last night (sorry about that)

Based on a true story about the meeting of two brilliant minds, this film provides something rare in movies–intellectual discussion. In 1996, journalist and budding novelist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) spent several days interviewing suddenly respected novelist David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel). They bond, sort of, but Lipsky wants access to Wallace’s private thoughts, and Wallace is reluctant to open up. Segel turns Wallace into a fascinating character–deeply troubled and, despite his fame, deeply insecure. Excellent film.

A- Best of Enemies, Embarcadero, California (Berkeley), Aquarius, opens Friday

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.

Kurosawa double bill: Yojimbo & Stray Dog, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday

The A goes to Yojimbo, where a masterless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) wanders into a small town torn apart by a gang war. Disgusted by everyone, he uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a very dark black comedy rolled into one. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. I’d only give Stray Dog a B+ on its own. This 1949 police procedural about a rookie detective (Toshiro Mifune) who loses his gun to a pickpocket, works best as a straight-up thriller, and doesn’t work at all when it tries to say something meaningful. I have a Kurosawa Diaries entry on this one, too.

A The Bad Sleep Well, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday

Few people know Kurosawa’s dark, contemporary, and suspenseful tale of corruption and revenge—and that’s a shame. It concerns a large, successful, and thoroughly corrupt corporation, and a young man (Toshiro Mifune) out to destroy it from the inside. It begins with his wedding to the president’s crippled daughter—an act that everyone reads as blind ambition (the engagement won him a job as the president’s personal secretary). But the real motive is revenge. Kurosawa reveals the reasons for and depth of that revenge slowly in a startling, suspenseful, and bleak story that provides neither catharsis nor easy answers. See my Kurosawa Diaries entry.

A Strangers on a Train, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychopath (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his philandering wife, and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder.

A Jason and the Argonauts, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

No other movie so successfully turns Greek mythology (or at least a family-friendly version of Greek mythology) into swashbuckling adventure, while remaining true to the original spirit of the tales. As the gods bicker and gamble on the fates of mortals, Jason and his crew fight magical monsters and scheming human villains. Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack are unbearably stiff in the lead roles, but Jason contains several wonderful supporting roles, including Nigel Green as cinema’s most articulate Hercules. But the real star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen’s hand-made special effects.

A Galaxy Quest, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

There’s no better way to parody a well-known genre than to write characters who are familiar with the genre and find themselves living what they thought was fiction. And few movies do this better than Galaxy Quest. The cast of a long-cancelled sci-fi TV show with a fanatical following (think Star Trek) find themselves on a real space adventure with good and bad aliens. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman star. The funniest film of 1999–one of the best years for comedy in recent decades.

C+ The Iron Mask, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

Douglas Fairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel, The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Also on the program: the very funny Snub Pollard short It’s a Gift! Jon Mirsalis will provide the musical accompaniment on the Kurtzweil.

A Blade Runner, Castro, Sunday

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.

B+ Aliens, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00

Less of a horror film and more of an action flick (or, arguably, a war movie), Aliens strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. Sigourney Weaver, made famous by the original film, stars again. The Castro’s website gives the film a 137-minute runtime, suggesting that this is the original cut. Too bad. I’d prefer the 154-minute director’s cut, which goes into more character detail and is a much better film. In fact, I’d give that version an A. On a double bill with Blue Steel.

A+ The Third Man, Roxie, opens Friday

New 4K restoration. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided, post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems bright by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. See my longer discussion on Noir City Opening Night.

A+ Ikiru, Stanford, Friday

One of Akira Kurosawa’s best, and one of the greatest serious dramas ever put up on the screen. Takashi Shimura gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging government bureaucrat dying of cancer. Emotionally cut off from his family–including the son and daughter-in-law with whom he lives–he struggles to find some meaning in his life before he dies. A deep and moving meditation on mortality and what it means to be human, Ikiru manages to be deeply spiritual without ever mentioning God or religion. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.

SF Jewish Film Festival

A- My Shortest Love Affair, Rafael, Saturday, 8:30

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+ Dough, Rafael, Sunday, 6:20

This feel-good comedy succeeds in making you laugh and in making you feel good. Why not? The marijuana-laced challah makes the onscreen characters laugh and feel good. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the absurdities of the story and the conventional comic tropes, but if you do you can sit back and enjoy the movie. The story involves an orthodox kosher baker (Jonathan Pryce) who hires a Muslim, African refugee teenager (newcomer Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. And of course they bond while the bakery thrives. It’s a movie.

B The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, Rafael, Sunday, 4:20

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), Lakeside Theater (Oakland), Saturday, 6:30

Three Auschwitz survivors, best friends in the camp, reunite at a French beach resort in 1962. The story concentrates on Hélène (Julie Depardieu), who is very much in love with her husband, who was castrated by the Nazis. Understandably, 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, Lakeside Theater (Oakland), Sunday, 6:30

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). 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, Rafael, Friday, 6:20

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 brings them satisfactorily together. I figured out the “surprise” ending less than half an hour into the movie.