What’s Screening: February 5 – 11

Only one festival this week. SF IndieFest opens it’s two-week run Thursday.

The Roxie‘s Mad Men Weekend–four films over three days–doesn’t quite qualify as a film festival, but it comes close. The films, all made in the 50s and 60s, allegedly influenced Matthew Weiner’s television drama. Serena Bramble, author of Mad Men Carousel: The Complete Critical Companion, will be on hand for each screening.

And now, some movies:

A Brokeback Mountain, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:20

Heath Ledger turns the stereotype of the strong, silent cowboy on its head, playing a man so beaten down and closed off from the world that every word is a struggle. Unable to come out of the closet, he can’t openly acknowledge who he really is without rejecting another, equally important part of his identity–the strong, manly cowpoke. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams are also brilliant as his lover and his wife. One of only a handful of films that significantly changed society for the better.

? Lyrical Nitrate, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10

Senior Film Curator Susan Oxtoby will present a lecture/demonstration on the beautiful visuals of tinted nitrate prints from the early days of silent film. “This is an emotional approach to film history, an investigation of mood that is only enhanced by traces of decay and disintegration.” Sadly, no actual nitrate film will be screened–probably because it’s a fire hazard.

B+ The Red Balloon¸ Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

Here’s a children’s masterpiece from France that doesn’t need subtitles. I first saw The Red Balloon in a museum screening at a very young age, and it stunned me with its wit, charm, simple story, and semi-sad ending–I hadn’t realized such a thing was possible. Director Albert Lamorisse uses visuals, music, and sound effects to tell his story of a young boy and his loyal pet balloon. The result is 34 minutes of pure charm–admittedly, not enough for a full feature. I don’t know what else the Balboa will screen to fill out the experience. Read my full review.

A- Landfill Harmonic, Rafael, Monday, 6:30

Cateura, Paraguay is not really a town; it’s more of an inhabited garbage dump. But out of that dump comes beautiful music according to this inspiring documentary. Environmental engineer turned music teacher Favio Chávez put together a young people’s orchestra playing home-made instruments built from recycled materials. The group gains Internet fame, accompanies Megadeth in concert, performs around the world, and enjoys some relief from grinding poverty. You can’t watch it without rooting for these children, and for the adults shaping their lives. The screening will be preceded by a live musical performance by children from San Rafael’s Enriching Lives Through Music.

A Sweet Smell of Success, Roxie, Friday, 7:00

Burt Lancaster risked his career to produce this exploration of the seamy side of fame. He plays New York gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker–a truly repellent and despicable person who happily bathes in the adulation and fear of those around him. Tonight’s main victim: a whinny Broadway press agent desperate to get his client into Hunsecker’s column (Tony Curtis in a great performance). To make things worse, Hunsecker–who’s based loosely on Walter Winchell–has a rather too-close relationship with his kid sister. From a script by Clifford Odets and Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman. Part of the Mad Men Weekend.

? A Night of Les Blank Films, Balboa, Wednesday, 7:00

Three movies–none quite feature length–from the great, late East Bay documentarian. I saw Garlic is as Good as 10 Mothers ages ago and barely remember it. I’ve yet to see Yum Yum Yum. But I’m tempted to give the whole triple feature an A based entirely on Always for Pleasure, a 58-minute celebration of New Orleans street parades–not just during Mardi Grass, but after funerals, on St. Patrick’s Day, and just about any occasion. You can read my longer discussion.

B The Fifth Element, Clay, Friday and Saturday night, 11:55PM (just before midnight)

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.

A The Apartment, Roxie, Saturday, 7:00

Billy Wilder won a Best Picture Oscar for this serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both attractive women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. In order to gain traction in the rat race, he loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves. Read my Blu-ray review. On a Mad Men Weekend double bill with The Swimmer.

B- To Catch a Thief, various CineMark theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday

More like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller one expects from the master of suspense. Not one of his best by a long shot, To Catch a Thief nevertheless provides a few good scenes and sufficient fun. Besides, 106 minutes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Monaco, photographed in the beauty of VistaVision, can’t be all bad.

A- Battleship Potemkin, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:15

Make no mistake; this ground-breaking movie is brilliant but simplistic Communist propaganda. The workers and sailors are all good comrades working together for a better world. The officers, aristocrats, and Cossacks are vile filth who deserve to die. A couple of them are so evil they actually twirl their mustaches. And yet, the story of mutiny, celebration, attack, and escape stirs your blood. And it does this primarily through editing techniques that were revolutionary in 1925 and still impressive today. The Odessa Steps massacre is still amongst the greatest action sequence ever edited. Read my essay. The PFA will screen the film with the recorded Edmund Meisel score on the new 35mm print.

B- Rebecca, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30

With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film doesn’t feel like one of his usual thrillers. Basically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she must compete with the memory of his dead first wife. This entertaining melodrama includes a fine, over-the-top performance by Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to accept the usurper who has replaced her lady. This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be. Part of the series Gothic Cinema.

A+ The Godfather, New Parkway, Tuesday, 8:45

Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable youngest son reluctantly and inevitably pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he proves exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence. Read my A+ list essay. Preceded by The Kid Stays in the Picture, a feature-length documentary that partially covers the making of The Godfather. Warning: This is going to be a very late night at the movies.

A The Seventh Seal, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 12:45 & 7:00

A knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the Crusades plays chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) while the plague ravages the land. But while the knight thinks about eternity, his life-embracing squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) reminds us what it really means to be human. Filled with wonderful characters, religious allegory, and sly humor, it bursts with a love of humanity and a fear for our place in the universe. Yes, it’s the often-parodied Ingmar Bergman movie that became the cliché of 1950s European art films, but that never would have happened if it hadn’t been so good. Introduced by Barbro Osher and Linda Haverty Rugg. New 35mm print.

A+ Notorious, Stanford, Thursday

One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant sent her on this dangerous and humiliating mission. And as she sleeps with the enemy on his orders, he reacts with blind jealousy. The Nazi, on the other hand, appears to truly love her. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review. On a double bill with The Philadelphia Story.

A Janis: Little Girl Blue, Rafael, opens Friday

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, it makes a great introduction to one of the best and most influential performers in popular music. Filmmaker Amy Berg put together a touching documentary that finds the right interviews and keeps the music front and center. Read my full review.

B+ Youth, Rafael, opens Friday

Youth is about old age. Michael Caine plays a retired conductor/composer vacationing at a Swiss spa. Harvey Keitel plays his friend, a film director working with a team of young screenwriters at that very spa. There’s no real plot, but several conflicts weave together involving the old friends, their families, their careers, and others staying or working at the spa. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino provides a relaxed atmosphere (appropriate for the setting) mixed with a sense that anything–good or bad–could happen. I loved it until the last half hour or so, when the parallels to became too obvious.

What’s Screening: January 29 – February 4

We’ve got two festivals this week, but both close Sunday: Noir City and the Bay Area International Children’s Film Festival.

But only three days later, the Pacific Film Archive will open again for business in its new digs.

B- 45 Years, Embarcadero Center, Shattuck, Aquarius, Rafael, opens Friday

Not much happens in Andrew Haigh’s chamber drama about a married couple approaching their 45th anniversary. The wife (Charlotte Rampling) discovers that her husband (Tom Courtenay) almost married someone else years before they met. They talk calmly to each other, and only once does one of them seem to be on the verge of maybe getting a bit warm under the collar. The film’s calm and even tone is both its strength and its weakness. We can’t help but sympathize with them and consider the inevitable problems of a long marriage, but the film gets dull the conflict seems silly. Read my full review.

A The Seventh Seal, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30

A knight (Max von Sydow) returning from the Crusades plays chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) while the plague ravages the land. But while the knight thinks about eternity, his life-embracing squire (Gunnar Björnstrand) reminds us what it really means to be human. Filled with wonderful characters, religious allegory, and sly humor, it bursts with a love of humanity and a fear for our place in the universe. Yes, it’s the often-parodied Ingmar Bergman movie that became the cliché of 1950s European art films, but that never would have happened if it hadn’t been so good. Introduced by Barbro Osher and Linda Haverty Rugg. New 35mm print.

A His Girl Friday, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with some of the fastest dialog ever recorded, yet always clear and almost always funny. And as a side bit, there’s a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution.

A Chimes At Midnight, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Friday through Sunday

Duty to country conflicts with loyalty to friends in one of the best and most unusual Shakespeare adaptations in the cinema. As adapter and director, Orson Welles combined the best parts of Henry IV Part I (my favorite Shakespeare play), Henry IV Part II (a weak sequel with a great final act), and Merry Wives of Windsor to create a whole greater than its parts–funny, rousing, and ultimately tragic. And if anyone was ever born to play Falstaff, it was Orson Welles.

A+ Double bill: Casablanca & Notorious, Stanford, through Sunday

Each of these movies earns an A+ on its own. The people who made Casablanca thought it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, this story of love, loyalty, and adultery in Vichy-occupied North Africa came out almost perfectly. Read my article, Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. In Notorious, a scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman proves her patriotism by seducing and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant–who sent her on this mission–grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. Read my Blu-ray Review.

B- Blazing Saddles, several CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday)

The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other movie genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles.

B+ Brooklyn, Lark, opens Friday

In this essentially American tale, a young woman immigrates from a small village in Ireland to the Big Apple, where she finds work, friendship, glamorous clothing, and romance. About halfway through the nearly two-hour runtime, things were going so well for her that I found myself wondering how the filmmakers could sustain the story. Then tragedy forces her to return to Ireland, and her home town becomes the collective villain, trying to keep her “where she belongs.” The film is set in the early 1950s.

Noir City

All screenings at the Castro.

B+ Scarlet Street, Saturday, 4:15 (complete show starts at 1:00)

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. The last feature on a triple bill with the 1944 versions of The Lodger and Bluebeard.

B+ The Red Shoes, Friday, 7:15

This 1948 Technicolor fable about sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their work, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet sequence is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I’ve discussed The Red Shoes in more detail.

B+ The Bad and the Beautiful, Friday, 7:15

The same year he made The Band Wagon, Vincente Minnelli used a Citizen Kane-like multiple flashback structure to tell the story of a talented, outwardly nice Hollywood producer (Kirk Douglas) who only seems evil to those who get close enough to know him . As realistic a look at how Hollywood changes and corrupts those who serve it as tinsel town has ever dared to make. On a double bill with The Big Knife.

What’s Screening: January 22 – 28

This week’s film festivals: SF Sketchfest continues through Sunday. And Noir City opens Friday and runs through the week and beyond.

And now, some movies:

B+ Aferim!, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Racially-based slavery wasn’t limited to the Americas in the 1800s. As this disturbing and odd black and white film shows, it was common in parts of Eastern Europe as well. The story follows a constable and his teenage son as they hunt down, capture, and bring back an escaped slave in 1835 Wallachia. Cruelty and bigotry abound all around them and within them (especially the father). The slaves here are “Gypsies” (the word Roma didn’t yet exist), and looked down upon as inferior beings. The protagonists are far from likeable, but you can understand how society turned them into what they are. A fascinating look at a strange yet familiar world. Read my full review.

A Bonnie and Clyde & Screenwriting Class, Balboa, Sunday, 10:00am

This low-budget gangster movie, produced by and starring Warren Beatty , hit a nerve with young audiences in 1967 and became a big surprise hit. Shocking in its time for both the violence and sexual frankness (matching a horny Bonnie with an impotent Clyde), it still hits below the belt today. The title characters become alienated youth, glamorous celebrities, good kids who made a bad decision, selfish jerks, and tragic heroes with a sealed fate. After the screening, Karen Franklin will discuss the film’s story structure.

A+ Rear Window, Castro, 7:30

Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us (but not them) that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment. On a double bill with The Public Eye. Noir City opening night.

? Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

Charlie Chaplin’s The Cure is arguably the funniest of the 12 shorts he made for Mutual in 1916-17–and all of his Mutuals are gems. In this one he skips the Tramp and plays a rich drunk. The first true Buster Keaton movie, The High Sign, isn’t amongst his best, but it has some wonderful moments and a great chase in confined space. I saw Double Whoopee (starring Laurel and Hardy) a long time ago, but I remember it being funny. I haven’t seen the Charley Chase vehicle, Innocent Husbands. Bruce Loeb accompanies everything on piano.

A The Lady Vanishes, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

If you walked into Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate British film without knowing who directed it, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were watching a very funny and terribly British comedy of manners. An unusually large number of British tourists have overrun a small hotel in a fictitious Central European country, annoying the natives and struggling with the language and culture. Then everyone gets on a train, the heroine notices that a nice old lady has disappeared, and everyone else thinks she’s crazy. Meanwhile a strong whiff of fascism permeates the air. Now it feels like Hitchcock. One of his most entertaining works. Read my Blu-ray review.

A The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, various CineMark theaters, Sunday (matinee only) & Wednesday

Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father, Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed, much of it shot in the remote part of Mexico where the story takes place.

A+ Casablanca, Stanford, Friday through Sunday

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, the sausage came out perfect. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. On a double bill with Gilda, which I saw a long time ago and it didn’t make that much of an impression on me.

B- Blazing Saddles, Clay, Friday & Saturday, 11:55PM

The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other movie genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sheriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles.

A The Big Short, Cerrito, opens Friday

Who could expect that an absurd comedy would provide such a clear explanation of the 2007-08 economic meltdown? This is a movie willing to cut away from the story so celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain can use a cooking metaphor to explain CDOs. The movie, based on a true story, follows several traders who foresaw the housing meltdown and made fortunes betting on the collapse. Some of them felt guilty, but they couldn’t stop the meltdown, so they might as well have profited from it. You cheer for all of them, and are horrified by what happens to the rest of us.

B+ Youth, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Youth is about old age. Michael Caine plays a retired conductor/composer vacationing at a Swiss spa. Harvey Keitel plays his friend, a film director working with a team of young screenwriters at that very spa. There’s no real plot, but several conflicts weave together involving the old friends, their families, their careers, and others staying or working at the spa. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino provides a relaxed atmosphere (appropriate for the setting) mixed with a sense that anything–good or bad–could happen. I loved it until the last half hour or so, when the parallels to became too obvious.

What’s Screening: January 15 – 21

In festival action, both SF Sketchfest and Berlin & Beyond continue through this week.

A+ The Adventures of Robin Hood, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor–a name that really meant something special in 1938. Read my A+ essay.

B+ The Man Who Fell to Earth, Elmwood, Friday through Thursday

Movies were pretty weird in the ’70s, but they didn’t get much weirder than this—at least with a major director and stars. David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, but instead discovers capitalism, TV, alcohol, and human sex. Yet it’s not entirely clear what the film is about. Nicolas Roeg directed it, so you know that the movie won’t be about story. But the images are intriguing, the central characters are puzzles that cry out to be solved, and it has some very sexy scenes for your enjoyment. If for no other reason, see it to remind yourself what science fiction films could be like in the years between 2001 andStar Wars. A David Bowie celebration.

A Chimes at Midnight, Castro, Tuesday

Duty to country conflicts with loyalty to friends in one of the best and most unusual Shakespeare adaptations in the cinema. As adapter and director, Orson Welles combined the best parts of Henry IV Part I (my favorite Shakespeare play), Henry IV Part II (a weak sequel with a great final act), and Merry Wives of Windsor to create a whole greater than its parts–funny, rousing, and ultimately tragic. And if anyone was ever born to play Falstaff, it was Orson Welles. On a double bill with Welles’ last completed movie, F for Fake.

? The Mads are Back, Brava Theater Center, Friday, 7:30

Yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000
spinoff. Trace Beaulieu (best remembered as mad scientist Clayton Forrester) and Frank Conniff (best remembered as Forrester’s sidekick, TV’s Frank), will riff live on whatever movies they plan to show. Part of SF Sketchfest.

A Fruitvale Station, Roxie, opens Friday

The experience of seeing this independent feature is very much like waiting for a time bomb. You watch Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) go through the last day of 2008, knowing that he will be fatally shot by a BART cop in the early hours of the new year. Writer/director Ryan Coogler wisely avoids turning Grant into a saint, but makes us care very much for him. The last moments of the film–not including some documentary footage and the closing credits–will break your heart. Read my longer report.

? Found Footage Festival meets Everything Is Terrible!, Castro, Wednesday, 8:00

Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher collect videos of all types from garage sales, thrift shops, and even dumpsters. Then they put together the worst of these and present them with MST3K-like commentary. Judging from my reviews of past editions (2007 and 2012), this one will probably be very funny. Another part of SF Sketchfest.

B Lost In Translation, Roxie, Saturday, 7:00

Sophia Coppola introduced us to Scarlett Johansson and gave Bill Murray his best performance since Groundhog Day in this film in which nothing of note actually 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. But 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. On a double bill with The Virgin Suicides.

B+ Mad Max: Fury Road, Elmwood, opening Friday

You have to understand three things about this movie: 1) It’s basically one long motor vehicle chase broken up with short dialog scenes. 2) It’s surprisingly feminist for this sort of movie; the plot involves a woman warrior rescuing a tyrant’s enslaved harem. 3) The title character is basically a sidekick. The movie is filled with crashes, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, acts of courage, close calls, and fatal errors. It’s fast, brutal, and for the most part very well-choreographed. The film makes effective use of 3D, and should be seen that way. Unfortunately, the Elmwood will screen it flat. Read my longer essay.

A The Big Short, Vogue, opens Friday

Who could expect that an absurd comedy would provide such a clear explanation of the 2007-08 economic meltdown? This is a movie willing to cut away from the story so celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain can use a cooking metaphor to explain CDOs. The movie, based on a true story, follows several traders who foresaw the housing meltdown and made fortunes betting on the collapse. Some of them felt guilty, but they couldn’t stop the meltdown, so they might as well have profited from it. You cheer for all of them, and are horrified by what happens to the rest of us.

D- Hard To Be a God, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:00; Sunday, 2:00

Imagine the filthy, gory, and ugly medieval world that Monty Python parodied in Holy Grail, but played for gruesome shock and taken seriously. And not much of a story either. Or any real characters. That’s pretty much what you get with Aleksei German’s last film (finished after his death by his wife and son). While costumes, sets, and people’s attitudes reflect Europe’s middle ages, the movie is supposedly set on another planet. Little is made of that. The film, thankfully shot in black and white, succeeds in creating an atmosphere, but that’s not enough for a three-hour movie.

What’s Screening: January 8 – 14

SF Sketchfest (only partly a film festival) continues through this week and keeps going. Meanwhile, Berlin & Beyond (very much a film festival) opens Thursday.

B+ The Hateful Eight, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Cerrito, still running

I’m giving this a B+ because it’s not being presented in 70mm. If it was, I’d give it an A.
Quentin Tarantino’s roadshow western is surprisingly small and intimate, while reveling in the majesty of a long-unused large-film format. Two bounty hunters (Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell), along with an arrested killer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) find themselves stuck in a store in the middle of nowhere, waiting out a blizzard, along with five other disreputable people. The film occasionally reminded me of Stagecoach, but this is Tarantino, not Ford, so you can expect a lot of talking and horrendous violence. I’ve written more on this one.

D- Hard To Be a God, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:00

Imagine the filthy, gory, and ugly medieval world that Monty Python parodied in Holy Grail, but played for gruesome shock and taken seriously. And not much of a story either. Or any real characters. That’s pretty much what you get with Aleksei German’s last film (finished after his death by his wife and son). While costumes, sets, and people’s attitudes reflect Europe’s middle ages, the movie is supposedly set on another planet. Little is made of that. The film, thankfully shot in black and white, succeeds in creating an atmosphere, but that’s not enough for a three-hour movie.

A- Children of Men, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

Set in a dystopian, near-future Britain living under a Fascism that looks all too familiar, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love feels a bit like V for Vendetta. But it’s better. It’s 2027, with the human race slowly dying out due to mysterious, world-wide infertility, and the British government rounding up illegal aliens the way the Nazi’s rounded up Jews. When one of these aliens turns up pregnant (the last successful birth was more than 18 years ago), an apolitical former radical (Clive Owen) is forced to think beyond himself. One of the rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing what will happen next.

? The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., Balboa, Saturday, 10:00

The only Dr. Seuss feature film made during his lifetime, and as creative, visually daring, and funny as any kid’s fantasy ever to come out of Hollywood. At least that’s how I remember it, many years after my last screening. Even the sets, photographed in three-strip Technicolor, look as if Seuss had painted them himself.

B+ Hot Shots, Castro, Saturday, 7:00

Gung-ho military movies in general and Top Gun in particular get the Airplane! treatment in this extremely silly farce. Charlie Sheen stars as the troubled fighter pilot called back into action, and plays it straight with lines like “You have the whitest white-part-of-the-eyes I’ve ever seen. Do you floss?” Of course, everyone else is just as ridiculous–and funny. With Cary Elwes, Valeria Golino (simultaneously sexy and hilarious), and the venerable Lloyd Bridges stealing every scene he’s in. Filmmakers Jim Abrahams and Pat Proft will be on hand for Q&A. Part of SF Sketchfest.

A- Scarface, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” And that’s when one is shooting at him. Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that.

? The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, Castro, Sunday, 2:00

I haven’t seen this cold war comedy since it was in first release almost 50 years ago. I liked it a lot then, although I doubt that it aged well. But I do remember being bowled over by the then-unknown Alan Arkin, playing a loveable Russian officer. The story, a satire of anti-Communist hysteria, involves a Russian submarine stuck in a sandbar off the coast of a small eastern seaboard town. Arkin will be on hand for Q&A. Another part of SF Sketchfest.

? Laurel and Hardy Talkie Matinee, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00

The Silent Film Museum is doing something unusual for its monthly Laurel and Hardy Talkie Matinee–they’re showing silent movies. Technically, they’re non-talkies–essentially silent films released with a recorded musical track (these were pretty common in 1928-29. I’ve only seen one of the four shorts, Liberty, where Stan and Ollie cross over into Harold Lloyd territory. It’s very funny.

A Blade Runner, Castro, Wednesday; various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) & Wednesday

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. On a double bill with Trouble in Mind.

B To Be Takei, Roxie, Thursday, 7:00

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. And why not? A childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, a part in the iconic sci-fi TV series, and coming out as gay at age 67 all make for a great story. Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about this extraordinary person, filled with interviews, video of Takei and husband Brad Altman going about their daily business, and old movie and TV clips. It’s the story, not the story-telling, that makes this film worth seeing. Read my full review.

A Spotlight, Lark, opens Friday

A quartet of dogged and determined journalists at the Boston Globe blows open the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Most of the characters are nominally Catholic, complicating their feelings about the work. Based on a true story, Spotlight celebrates real investigative journalism, backed up by an editor and publisher who are willing to take chances. An excellent cast–headed by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schrieber–brings drama to a story whose ending we already know.

A Trumbo, New Parkway, opens Saturday

Jay Roach turns the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo into a lively, entertaining, and important drama. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad makes a funny and complex Trumbo, and the rest of the cast—almost all of them playing real people—all do a fine job, with Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper standing out. As with all biopics, there’s a lot of fiction here, but it gets to the heart of the true story about a dark but important era in the history of Hollywood and America.

A- Sundance Film Festival Award Winning Shorts, Rafael, Friday through Thursday

A dystopian future, war-torn screen tests, scuba diving under ice, and a sexually-frustrated single mom all get their moment on the screen in this selection of six award-winning shorts. I found only one stinker in the bunch (Storm Hits Jacket). The best was the animated World of Tomorrow, which describes a society of isolation, sadness, and empty lives. Starting out as a satire of technology, World of Tomorrow turns into a comment on the human condition. Also top notch: RSMILF and Object. Read my full review.

A- Grandma, Elmwood, opens Friday

Here’s a star vehicle in every sense of the word–a movie that’s based entirely on showing off its star. Fortunately, Lilly Tomlin’s talent could easily fill eight movies. As an aging poet trying to raise money to help her granddaughter pay for an abortion, Tomlin is acerbic, touching, unpredictable, outrageous, angry, concerned, and–of course–very funny, The story and the supporting players, especially Julia Garner as the granddaughter, are really there for Tomlin to have people to talk to. But her poet character is such a wonderfully unique, real, and funny person (if not always a nice one) that it makes the movie more than just worthwhile.

B+ Hitchcock/Truffaut, Roxie, opens Saturday

In the early 60s, François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock and together they created one of the great books on filmmaking. Now documentarian Kent Jones has turned that book into a film. He rightly focuses on cinematic technique as he explains the creation of the book and what it taught filmmakers. Top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese, talk onscreen about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art. I enjoyed the movie very much, but I’m biased. Read my full review.

B+ Spectre, Lark, opens Saturday

The James Bond series returns to its Sean Connery roots as Daniel Craig’s secret agent goes after the evil organization from the early films of the franchise. And yes, it’s even headed by Ernst Blofeld–this time played to perfection by Christoph Waltz. But Craig still does his tortured, never-quite-happy version of the superspy, making it darker than anything Connery ever did. And yet, with the action set pieces, the fancy sets, and the beautiful women, it’s still enjoyable in that old-fashioned 007 way.

? Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30.

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. (Why haven’t I experienced this big-screen version? Because I’m too old to see movies that start at 10:30.) I hope this will be a good episode; no one is telling us which one will be screened.

What’s Screening: January 1 – 7

We’ve got two sort-of film festivals opening this week. The Rafael isn’t calling For Your Consideration a festival, but a concentration of 13 films in seven days qualifies by my book. It opens today (Friday) and runs through Thursday. SF Sketchfest, which opens Thursday, is clearly a festival, but movies are only one part of this all-around comedy fest.

A- Sundance Film Festival 2015 Award-Winning Shorts, Roxie, opens Friday

A dystopian future, war-torn screen tests, scuba diving under ice, and a sexually-frustrated single mom all get their moment on the screen in this selection of six award-winning shorts. I found only one stinker in the bunch (Storm Hits Jacket). The best was the animated World of Tomorrow, which describes a society of isolation, sadness, and empty lives. Starting out as a satire of technology, World of Tomorrow turns into a comment on the human condition. Also top notch: RSMILF and Object. Read my full review.

A Star Wars: The Force Awakens, just about every theater in the world, still running

J.J. Abrams understands Star Wars far better than he ever understood Star Trek. In fact, he understands it better than George Lucas ever did. He knows that A Star Wars movie must be big and exciting, with mind-blowing action sequences and special effects. It also needs not-quite-believable, bigger-than-life characters and a simplistic view of good and evil. And most important, Star Wars isn’t science fiction; it’s Tolkien-like fantasy with sci-fi hardware. Abrams knows all that, which is why The Force Awakens is easily the best Star Wars movie since the original trilogy.

A The Big Short, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Friday through Thursday

Who could expect that an absurd comedy would provide such a clear explanation of the 2007-08 economic meltdown? This is a movie willing to cut away from the story so celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain can use a cooking metaphor to explain CDOs. The movie, based on a true story, follows several traders who foresaw the housing meltdown and made fortunes betting on the collapse. Some of them felt guilty, but they couldn’t stop the meltdown, so they might as well profit from it. You cheer for all of them, and are horrified by what happens to the rest of us.

B+ Youth, Clay, Shattuck, Guild, still playing

The movie Youth is about old age. Michael Caine plays a retired conductor/composer vacationing at a Swiss spa. Harvey Keitel plays his friend, a film director working with a team of young screenwriters at that very spa. there’s no real plot, but several conflicts weave together involving the old friends, their families, their careers, and others staying or working at the spa. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino provides a relaxed atmosphere (appropriate for the setting) mixed with a sense that anything–good or bad–could happen. I loved it until the last half hour or so, when the parallels to became too obvious.

B+ Spectre, Castro, Tuesday; New Parkway, opens Friday

The James Bond series returns to its Sean Connery roots as Daniel Craig’s secret agent goes after the evil organization from the early films of the franchise. And yes, it’s even headed by Ernst Blofeld–this time played to perfection by Christoph Waltz. But Craig still does his tortured, never-quite-happy version of the superspy, making it darker than anything Connery ever did. And yet, with the action set pieces, the fancy sets, and the beautiful women, it’s still enjoyable in that old-fashioned 007 way.

Four films written by Charlie Kaufman, Embarcadero, Monday through Wednesday

Bay Area movie theaters frequently run series built around a star or a director. But they never built one around a screenwriter–until now. Four films written by Charlie Kaufman are getting weekday matinee screenings this week at the Embarcadero. The movies are:

? Rifftrax: Night of the Shorts VI: Riffy Potter and the Half-Blood Riff, Castro, Thursday, 8:00

A collection of Mystery Science Theater veterans, and a few comics who never worked on the cult TV show (including John Hodgman), will crack wise on a selection of presumably bad short subjects. Despite the name, I don’t think they’ll be showing anything with Harry Potter. The opening night event for this year’s SF Sketchfest.

A- Office Space, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Tuesday, 7:00

Work…there’s a reason they have to pay you to show up. In this broad and funny satire by Mike Judge, three young men struggle with their jobs in a soul-killing tech company. They conspire to fool the computers and skim enough money off the top to allow for early retirement –but not enough to be noticed. Jennifer Aniston plays the waitress whose job is as soul-killing as theirs, but pays considerably less. Stephen Root steals the movie as the employee who’s soul was crushed long ago.

A+ City Lights, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. Sound came to the movies as Chaplin shot City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Read my Blu-ray review.

C- Vertigo and your choice of another Hitchcock film, Castro, Friday through Sunday

I know. For many cinephiles, this isn’t just Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. But I just don’t get it. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog. Pick your double feature:

  • A- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake), Friday
    Alfred Hitchcock’s only remake (of his own 1934 breakthrough thriller) throws an ordinary American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) into the middle of international espionage. Thrilling and fun in that Hitchcock patented way.
  • A The Wrong Man, Saturday
    Although it uses one of Hitchcock’s favorite plots–the innocent citizen wrongly accused of a crime–The Wrong Man is unlike anything else he ever made. Based on a true story and apparently following it quite closely, it realistically shows you the horror of being an innocent accused. Read my in-depth comments.
  • D Marnie¸ Sunday
    This just may be Hitchcock’s worst film. It follows the adventures of a beautiful but frigid compulsive thief (Tippi Hedren). Sean Connery plays the aristocrat who sets out to cure her. In a story that requires acting chops and charisma, Connery gives a weak performance and Hedren gives a worse one.

A Trumbo, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Jay Roach turns the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo into a lively, entertaining, and important drama. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad makes a funny and complex Trumbo, and the rest of the cast—almost all of them playing real people—all do a fine job, with Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper standing out. As with all biopics, there’s a lot of fiction here, but it gets to the heart of the true story about a dark but important era in the history of Hollywood and America.

A- Spotlight, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, opens Friday

A quartet of dogged and determined journalists at the Boston Globe blows open the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Most of the characters are nominally Catholic, complicating their feelings about the work. Based on a true story, Spotlight celebrates real investigative journalism, backed up by an editor and publisher who are willing to take chances. An excellent cast–headed by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schrieber–brings drama to a story whose ending we already know.

What’s Screening: December 25 – 31

No film festivals this week, but there are still a whole lot of theaters screening Star Wars: The Force Awakens (I have tickets for this Thursday). Here are some other films screening around the Bay this week.

A- Spotlight, Piedmont, Shattuck, already playing

A quartet of dogged and determined journalists at the Boston Globe blows open the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Most of the characters are nominally Catholic, complicating their feelings about the work. Based on a true story, Spotlight celebrates real investigative journalism, backed up by an editor and publisher who are willing to take chances. An excellent cast headed by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schrieber brings drama to a story whose ending we already know.

A+ My 3 favorite MGM musicals in 2 double bills: Singin’ in the Rain & another great musical, Castro, Wednesday and Thursday

If I had to name the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood, I would probably pick this 1952 MGM musical about the talkie revolution of the late 1920s. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But why take out the songs? They’re the best part. The double bill varies depending on the day you go:

  • A The Band Wagon, Wednesday
    I give a very high A to The Band Wagon, easily the best Fred Astaire vehicle without Ginger Rogers. What sets it apart is a small dose of reality in the otherwise frivolous mix. Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to Broadway, is clearly based on Astaire himself.
  • A On the Town, Thursday
    Three sailors arrive in New York for a 24-hour leave–barely enough time to see the sights, drink in the atmosphere, and fall in love. What makes On the Town so special–beyond the great songs, terrific choreography, and witty script–is the prevailing sense of friendship and camaraderie between the sailors and the women who fall for them.

A+ Charlie Chaplin double bill: City Lights & Modern Times, Castro, Tuesday

The A+ goes Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, City Lights. The little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. Read my Blu-ray review. In Modern Times, Chaplin rings laughter out of assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression, with the tramp moving from job to job and jail to jail. I give it an A-. Made after the talkie revolution, both of these movies are essentially silent films released with recorded musical accompaniment.

A+ The Godfather, Part II, Castro, Monday

By juxtaposing the material rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, a young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola show us the long-term effects of what seemed like a good idea at the time. De Niro plays young Vito as a loving family man who cares only for his wife and children, and turns to crime to better support them. But in Michael–consolidating his empire some thirty years later–we see the ultimate disastrous effects of that decision. Pacino plays him as a tragic monster who senses his own emptiness. Read my A+ discussion. On a very strange double bill with Woody Allen’s Radio Days.

A+ Casablanca, Roxie, Friday & Saturday

You’ve either already seen the best film to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system, or you know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, the sausage came out perfect. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. On a double bill with Bob the Gambler (AKA Bob Le Flambeur), which I have to admit I’ve never seen.

A Trumbo, Aquarius, Lark, opens Friday; New Parkway, opens Saturday

Jay Roach turns the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo into a lively, entertaining, and important drama. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad makes a funny and complex Trumbo, and the rest of the cast—almost all of them playing real people—all do a fine job, with Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper standing out. As with all biopics, there’s a lot of fiction here, but it gets to the heart of the true story about a dark but important era in the history of Hollywood and America. Read my full review[[12/28 correction: I did not write a full review of this film. I did write, in 2008, a full review of a documentary also called Trumbo, and mistakenly added a link here. My apologies, and my thanks to Lea D. for catching my error.]]

A- Bridge of Spies, New Parkway, opens Friday

Steven Spielberg’s cerebral cold war espionage drama pits a New York lawyer (Tom Hanks) against a USA unwilling to give a Russian spy a fair trial. But when the USSR shoots down an American spy plane and captures the pilot, the lawyer finds himself learning new skills quickly as a top-secret negotiator arranging a spy swap. Bridge of Spies captures the fear and paranoia on both sides at the very moment when the Berlin Wall was going up. The Coen brothers worked on the screenplay, which shows flashes of what was probably their wit. Read my full review.

A Janis: Little Girl Blue, Roxie, opens Saturday

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, it makes a great introduction to one of the greatest and most influential performers in popular music. Filmmaker Amy Berg put together a touching documentary that finds the right interviews and keeps the music front and center. Read my full review.

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