What’s Screening: March 24 – 30

If you’d rather go to a Bay Area cinema than stay home, you can enjoy a comedy or two about problematic families. There’s also some science fiction, two musicals from the ’70s, the horrors of war, and the horrors of capitalism.

Festivals & Series

Festival Recommendations: Sonoma International

A Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), Andrews Hall, Sunday, 10:00am

One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and an auteur (even if he didn’t get the director credit). Keaton plays the urbane and somewhat effete son of the very macho Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence). That brings us a shipload of laughs and amazing stunts, seamlessly integrated into a very good story. I should warn you that there’s one racist joke you’ll have to discuss with your children. I’m pretty sure that this silent movie will be accompanied by recorded music.

Festival Recommendations: Berlin & Beyond

A- All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), Roxie, Tuesday, 6:20pm

It’s about time the German film industry turned Erich Maria Remarque’s powerful anti-war novel into a film. Hollywood did it in 1930. If you’re looking for something that closely follows the book or the earlier movie, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to be reminded of the horrors of mass conflict, this one does the job. Thanks to better cinema technology and lack of censorship, this version brings to life all the dirty, bloody, crazy, horrible experiences of war. Like Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, this version also takes you into the comfort of the general staff, who eat very good food while the soldiers starve and get slaughtered. The film’s main problem: Compared to the other versions, the ending is overdone.

Another chance to see (theatrically)

B+ The Farewell (2019), 4-Star
֍ Wednesday, 7:30pm
֍ Thursday, 5:30pm

You can’t avoid confrontation between the Chinese and Chinese-American sides of the same family. You also can’t avoid a lot of laughs, held up by a serious structure dealing with mortality. Billi, a New Yorker of Chinese descent (Awkwafina), travels to China, along with the rest of her family, for a final goodbye to her dying, beloved grandmother. But following Chinese custom, no one tells Grandma that she’s dying. Only Billi disapproves of the deception. The family goes so far as to create a sham wedding as an excuse for everyone coming to town. Funny and touching. Read my full review.

Theatrical revivals

A+ The Last Laugh (1924), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30pm

If the clothes make the man, what happens to the man when he loses the job – and with the job, the clothes? Does it destroy his self-esteem? Or is the esteem only in the eyes of his neighbors and family? That’s exactly what happens in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece, where an aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) must trade in his fancy uniform for a men’s room attendant’s plain coat. Don’t mix this film up with the comedic Holocaust documentary with the same title. Read my Blu-ray review. Pianist Bruce Loeb accompanies the feature along with the two shorts, one of which is Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow.

A Wages of Fear (1953), Vogue, Wednesday, 7:30pm

You’ll find few thrillers this painfully suspenseful. Four poverty-stricken Europeans, desperately stranded in South America, agree to transport a load of nitroglycerin in ill-equipped trucks across poorly-maintained mountain roads. Their only other choice is starvation. But Wages of Fear is more than just a thriller. Director and co-writer Henri-Georges Clouzot had some strong opinions on poverty, exploitation, and American economic imperialism, and he used this nail-biting movie to discuss them. An exceptional work.

A Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982), Balboa, 5:00pm

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 art direction and the music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay.

A- My Neighbor Totoro (1988), various theaters, Saturday through Wednesday

This Studio Ghibli feature may be one of the best cartoons ever for very young children. Adults can enjoy the beautiful animation and their children’s delightful reactions. Two children and their father (mother is in the hospital) move into a rural house that turns out to be haunted – in a good way. The magical creatures, including the powerful Totoro, make friends with the new people in the neighborhood. Warning: You should tell your kids beforehand that it takes place before everyone has a phone in their pocket.

B+ Cabaret (1972), Lark
֍ Sunday, 10:00am
֍ Monday, 8:00pm

Back in the spring of 1973, I was angry (but not surprised) when the “obviously commercial Godfather” beat Bob Fosse’s Weimar-era musical for the Best Picture Oscar. Time proved me wrong, and while I wouldn’t today put Cabaret in the same class as The Godfather, this story of decadence in pre-Nazi Germany is still a dazzling piece of style with an important message about the loss of freedom.

B+ Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Balboa, Wednesday, 7:30pm

Funny and sexy, Susan Seidelman’s comedy thriller (written by Leora Barish) sparks with popping colors and infectious music while celebrating the down and dirty over the respectable middle class. Rosanna Arquette stars as a bored, unhappy housewife who loses her memory and takes on the identity of the very wild Susan, a happy slut played by a not-yet-famous Madonna (she hit the big time while the film was in post production).

B+ The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Balboa, 11:30pm

With the Bawdy Caste Live Shadow Cast! This is in no way, shape, or form a great movie. It’s cheaply shot. The songs, while catchy, are hardly great rock. The characters are broad clichés, and the plot is almost non-existent. But it’s a crazy, funny, absurd celebration of everything sexual, with Tim Curry carrying the movie as a cross-dressing mad scientist. Also starring a very young Susan Sarandon. Read my report.

B Lost In Translation (2003), 4-Star
֍ Wednesday, 5:30pm
֍ Thursday, 7:30pm

Sophia Coppola introduced us to Scarlett Johansson and gave Bill Murray his best performance since Groundhog Day in this strange meditation where almost nothing happens. Murray plays an American movie star in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial. Johansson plays the bored wife of a photographer. They sense a bond, but what you expect to happen never does. That’s okay, because it probably wouldn’t happen in real life, either. Coppola allows us to enjoy these people’s company, and their reaction to a foreign culture, for 104 minutes.

B The Fifth Element (1997), Balboa, 7:30pm

This big, fun, special effects-laden science-fantasy adventure refuses to take itself seriously. It never manages to be particularly exciting, but it succeeds in being rousing and intentionally funny eye candy. It’s also one of the few futuristic movies that’s neither utopian nor dystopian, making it feel (for all the silliness of the plot) relatively realistic.

Continuing engagements

Frequently-revived classics