The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, March 22-28

nyc repertory-ghost in the shellGhost in the Shell (1995)
Directed by Mamoru Oshii
Released on the same day in Japan, the United States and elsewhere, this animated film searches deep for what is common to us all: what it means to be human, to have a conscience, feelings… a soul, if you wish. These questions and philosophical musings are filtered through the non-race-specific female cyborg protagonist, who’s the muscle of a public security agency in charge of catching the hackers who are damaging the cyber-dependent landscape of Tokyo. If the concept of robots confronting human emotions seems a bit trite at this point, it’s because this anime originated that question in the world of film, and its legacy is present in all sci-fi cinema since—not just in a remake that’s been attracting unnecessary and undeserved controversy. Jaime Grijalba (March 24-30, showtimes daily, at the Metrograph’s “The Singularity”)

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Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon (2016)
Directed by Tomonari Nishikawa
Nishikawa makes extraordinarily beautiful films about the ordinary world. The Japan-born filmmaker (who teaches in the Cinema Department at Binghamton University, his alma mater) gently renders his surroundings gently through a variety of formats, with the video, 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm materials collaborating to reflect one modest point of view. His cinema works (including five pieces collectively belonging to a series called Sketch Film) present with flickering simplicity the pleasures of finding a newspaper, crossing a street, and examining color celluloid once left under fallen leaves. Nishikawa’s brief works will be presented together in a single program during the Migrating Forms series at BAM. Twelve years’ worth of filmmaking will unfold over 64 minutes, followed by a conversation with the artist.

“The project came to mind when I found out that the river’s source was in my father’s birth village,” says Nishikawa about his latest, ten-minute film, which he shot on color 16mm. “I thought that it would be interesting to show a series of shots of the river as a metaphor for life’s journey, then came up with the idea of shooting bridges as markers of certain moments in time. I decided to shoot in the morning and evening with masking and multiple-exposure techniques that I hoped would enhance the sunrise and sunset, as well as cohere shots registered across different locations. I ultimately photographed ten bridges, each of them twice—once in the morning from the east side, and once in the evening from the west. I tried to always capture the entire bridge within the frame. The film gradually progresses from medium to extreme long shots as the river widens on its way to the ocean. The sounds throughout most of the film come primarily from water, from birds, and from offscreen vehicles; at the end, though, a small aircraft is heard, encouraging audience members to look up at the sky.” Aaron Cutler (March 26, 7pm at BAM, as part of a Nishikawa program within the Migrating Forms festival)

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Johnny Guitar (1954)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Even though Ray’s Western classic is named for the gunslinger played by rugged film noir star Sterling Hayden, it is in fact a film helmed by Vienna, a fearless saloon owner in a small desert town in Arizona. Vienna is played by a belligerent Joan Crawford, whose steel-blue eyes and blood-red lips are as combative as the men’s fast draws. The film packs as much gunfire as sharp dialogue, featuring plenty of sassy remarks, snarky responses and a handful of memorable quotes, like Vienna’s defiant warning to the local armed posse as she looks down at them from her grand saloon staircase: “I intend to be buried here… in the 20th century!”

Equally memorable are Crawford’s striking costumes and their saturated colors, particularly bright yellow, deep green and red. (Such colors were the effect of the film’s low-cost Trucolor process, which was a trademark process employed by Republic Pictures.)

But when the film opened it was coldly received. Bosley Crowther of the Times called it a “fiasco” and a “walk-through of western cliches.” In contrast, François Truffaut praised the film’s theatrics” “It is dreamed, a fairy tale, a hallucinatory Western.” Alejandro Veciana (March 22, 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse)

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Wigstock: The Movie (1987)
Directed by Tom Rubnitz
“If you were a carpenter, and I was a candy-striper… or if I was a carpenter, and you installed aluminum siding… or if you were a carpenter, and I did electrolysis and waxing at Nina Paris’s Unisex Salon… or, if you and I both were carpenters…” A document, mixing performance footage and jokey interludes, of the first two Wigstock drag festivals, daylong variety concerts at the Tompkins Square Park bandshell a few summers before the riots (and subsequent indignities). The audience is in the low four digits for acts by Pyramid Club scenesters like Lypsinka, John Sex, and Frida, whose work with Barbie Dolls and kitsch falsetto predates Todd Haynes’s Superstar. Downtown from the African-American and Hispanic drag scene of Paris Is Burning, Wigstock is still heavily in thrall to the 60s (there’s a Janis Joplin tribute act, and very much Aqua Net), and, despite the AIDS crisis, it’s enormously joyful and frivolous. Videographer Tom Rubnitz made a number of playful videos within the East Village drag and performance scene (Pickle Surprise!), and this time capsule of one of many much-eulogized Alphabet City subcultures is also fascinating as a view of the drag community at a time when its members seem to have felt primarily interested in putting on shows for each other, rather than expecting the world to pay serious attention. Mark Asch (March 23, 7:30pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Cross-Dressing on Screen,” curated by Lypsinka, who’ll appear at this screening of Rubnitz’s documentary paired with Barry Shils’s 1995 feature-length documentary, also called Wigstock: The Movie)

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Boxcar Bertha (1972)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
This pre-Mean Streets toss-off is an outlier in Scorsese’s oeuvre: it doesn’t follow the broad plot-outline of Goodfellas, it’s not set in New York City, and there’s not even an Italian or a discernible Catholic (though the film ends with a crucifixion—ah, there he is!). There aren’t even any familiar rock ‘n’ roll favorites—the score is often just an engine-chugging harmonica—because those cost money, and this was produced by Roger Corman for American International Pictures as a followup to Corman’s successful and low-budget Bloody Mama. A zippy Barbara Hershey stars as the title wild child, and, yes, she’ll take off her clothes a few times, giving 1972 audiences what they apparently wanted. It’s that sort of movie.

Bertha is a Bonnie who flees Texas and rides the rails to meet her Clyde, rambling through the Depression-era South, meeting unionizers (a soulful David Carradine), gamblin’ men and chaingangers before she cofounds her own gang, a quartet of Robin Hood-like robbers of the railroad company, de facto folk heroes of the union (and, the Union?). Their America seems populated only by poor people and the cops who beat them up, but the fair amount of violence is rarely depicted seriously, even when it’s a shotgun blast to the gut. Cue some bluegrass, and yee-haw! There are glimpses of visual flair, vaguely hinting at the stylist to come, but this film is conspicuously impersonal, the work of a young artist concerned less with his legacy than his next paycheck. Fortunately, that’s when Scorsese is at his least self-indulgent—meaning, often, at his best. Henry Stewart (March 25, 26, 4:30pm, at the Museum of the Moving Image‘s Scorsese retrospective)

The Beatles in Richard Lester’s A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964). Courtesy Film Forum. Playing Sunday, March 26.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Directed by Richard Lester
Seeing John, Paul, George and Ringo joking around with reporters, running away from screaming fans, and hitting on women in A Hard Day’s Night, one may be startled by the contrast between their laddish personalities and the sweetness and sensitivity they exuded in their music. Such is the fascinating irony of Lester’s classic rock musical. It’s the same irony that would drive another cinematic classic about a musician made 20 years after A Hard Day’s Night: Amadeus, which presented a musical genius who had the soul of a poet as a composer but the outward personality of an adolescent. There are no equivalent Salieri-like jealous observers in A Hard Day’s Night, though—unless you count the Beatles’ manager (John Junkin), expressing perpetual exasperation at their anarchic antics. Lester clearly aligns with that anarchy, reflecting it in the film’s still-enlivening sense of “anything goes” stylistic play: the whizz-bang editing, the roving camerawork, the use of fast motion. It’s the Beatles themselves, however, that remain the main draw of A Hard Day’s Night. Whatever you think of their off-stage antics in the film, there’s no doubt about the sheer innocent joy they radiate, whether as musicians or as actors. Kenji Fujishima (March 26, 11am, 1:10pm, 5:10pm, 9:20pm at Film Forum’s “Brit New Wave,” with Lester’s 1959 short The Running Jumping & Standing Still, and double-featured with Lester’s 1965 feature The Knack… and How to Get It)

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The Sea Horse (1933)
Directed by Jean Painlevé
Before Jacques Cousteau made his famed foray into underwater research and long before Planet Earth and David Attenborough perhaps convinced you British-accented English is nature’s true tongue, French filmmaker, innovator, and scientist Jean Painlevé was thrusting his cameras into the sea, the ocean depths, and elsewhere, bringing back images of a fantastic, often rarely seen world. (Buñuel and Vigo were among the fans of his Surrealist-friendly accounts of the natural world.) The Sea Horse makes for an excellent primer: hypnotic, lyrical, statedly educational with a playful score. One of the over 200 films Painlevé would make, the short is a rich record of textures, behaviors, and details—a seahorse’s diaphanous, marvelous dorsal fins, their prehensile tails, the child-bearing role of the males. Striving for large audiences, which, in the case of The Sea Horse, he found, Painlevé pioneered and popularized a cinematic vision of the strange, wonderful wild. Jeremy Polacek (March 26, 4:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of a science-film program also featuring Isabella Rossellini in person with her “Green Porno” shorts)

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The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun (1999)
Directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
At only 42 minutes, Djibril Diop Mambéty’s parting gift extols the weight of youthful generosity and autonomy. Mambéty, who fell to lung cancer in 1998, bequeathed a body of humanitarian cinema: heartfelt glimpses of Senegalese citizens striving to live. Heavily employing non-actors, Mambéty’s works spike naturalism with magical realism and jagged experimentation. And what better conveyance of that method than through a young child roughly emerging into womanhood, waving small victory flags in oppressive surroundings? The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun blends the harsh conditions of a neocolonialist nation—which, despite being marked by capitalism, is overrun by enormous poverty—with the hope and ambition of Sili (Lissa Balera), a newcomer in the rabid rat race of prepubescent news hawkers. To feed her grandmother, Sili is an outsider in a field populated by aggressive boys, who greet their new and humble competition with hostility. Rather than bemoan the inherent sexism and materialism passed to younger generations, Mambéty chooses hope, concluding that perceived ills can be configured into bolsters, be it in a brief dance for a boombox or matching your flowing dress with killer yellow shades. And if Ashley Clark says it’s cool, then… Max Kyburz (March 28, 7:30pm at Light Industry, presented by critic and programmer Ashley Clark alongside Helen Levitt’s 1948 short In the Street, and Lionel Ngakane’s 1965 short Jemima + Johnny)

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