What’s Screening: October 2 – 8

The Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday. And even though no one else is calling the Jack Pierce Classic Monster Movie Week a festival, it qualifies in my view. I’ve placed some comments about the Jack Pierce series at the end of this newsletter.

50’s noir double bill: Sweet Smell of Success & The Night of the Hunter, Castro, Thursday

Each of these films earns an A on its own merits. In Sweet Smell of Success, Burt Lancaster plays a truly repellent and despicable New York gossip columnist who happily bathes in the adulation and fear of the people around him. Tonight’s main victim: a whinny Broadway press agent desperate to get his client into Hunsecker’s column (Tony Curtis). In Night of the Hunter, widow and mother Shelley Winters makes a very bad choice for a second husband–a cruel, sanctimonious, violent, and criminally insane so-called preacher played by Robert Mitchum. Told mostly through the eyes of two terrified children, the story is grim, atmospheric, frightening, and haunting.

Night of the Living Dead, Thursday, 9:30

This is fear without compromise. The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (sequels and imitations would later rename them zombies) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. Decades later, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear remain, made less spectacular but more emotionally gripping by the black and white photography. Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on American racial issues, or simply as one of the scariest horror films ever made. Read my essay.

Dr. Strangelove, Castro, Tuesday

General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (three of them played by Peter Sellers) are almost as competent as the Three Stooges. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things were back then. Read my longer comments. On a double bill with How I Won the War, which I vaguely remember as being very weird but not very good.

A- The Princess Bride, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) & Wednesday

William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright , back when they were young and gorgeous, make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers. And Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUSes (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos can grate on your nerves.

Tangerine, Castro, Sunday

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be. Sean Baker’s tale of a transgender prostitute out for justice creates just that sort of magic. Fast, frenetic, funny, and sad, Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, in part because it was shot entirely on iPhones. And yes, that works, allowing the filmmakers to capture the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood (the neighborhood, not the industry). The most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. Did I tell you it’s a Christmas movie? Read my full review. On a double bill with Magic Mike XXL.

A- Best of Enemies, Roxie, opens Saturday

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 Rush Limbaugh and Bernie Sanders. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that these debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film. Read my full review.

Jack Pierce Classic Monster Movie Week

All films at the Balboa.

Jack Pierce: The Man Who Made Monsters, every day this week, 7:00; Saturday and Sunday, 3:00

Makeup expert Jack Pierce played an central role in the monster movies that graced Universal’s bottom line in the 1930s. The most famous images we have of Frankenstein and the Wolf Man come from Pierce’s skill and imagination. I haven’t seen this documentary, which will be screened daily at the Balboa, alongside the movies where Pierce did his best work.

The Bride of Frankenstein, Friday, 9:30; Monday, 5:00; Thursday, 9:00

You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. If the blind hermit sequence doesn’t bring tears, you’re either dead, too cynical, or have seen Young Frankenstein’s brilliant parody once too often. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson plays the real Bride of Frankenstein).

Frankenstein, Friday, 5:00; Monday, 9:00; Thursday, 5:00

Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. Still, it was one of the most influential horror movies ever made, and Jack Pierce’s makeup for the monster is still iconic more than 80 years after the film’s release.

C+ Dracula, Sunday, 5:00; Wednesday, 9:00

The film that started Universal’s famed horror series, and the first to star Bela Lugosi in the role that made him famous, really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless.

Young Frankenstein, Saturday, 10:00am

This is not officially part of the Pierce series, but this movie works as an homage to Pierce’s work, and the Balboa is screening it in the same week.
Once upon a time, Mel Brooks had talent. And he showed it off beautifully in this sweet-natured, 1974 parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Fronkenshteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the lovable but clumsy creature.