What’s Screening: February 27 – March 5

The Noise Pop Film Festival continues through Sunday, while Cinequest runs through this week and beyond.

Here’s what else is screening:

A Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, Embarcadero, Rafael, Shattuck, opens Friday. Viviane Amsalem moved out of her husband’s home years ago. But her remote and stubborn spouse won’t give her a divorce. The resulting court case spans years in this chamber drama imageset in Israel, where only the husband can initiate a divorce. The filmmakers chose a simple, direct, and very effective way to tell their story. Although the film covers many years in the lives of the main characters, it’s entirely set in a small, plain judicial chamber and an adjoining waiting room. While clearly an indictment of Israeli marital laws, it’s also an intimate tale of a very bad marriage, told in an atmosphere of extreme claustrophobia. Read my full review.

Balboa Birthday Bash, Balboa, Sunday, 7:00. The Balboa Theater celebrates its 89th imagebirthday with live entertainment, champagne, cake, and, of course, a movie. Among the acts: magician and escape artist Big Al Catraz (hey, I didn’t make up that name), musical burlesque by Kitten on the Keys, and "Industrial Ragtime" by Parlor Tricks. The movie will be Chicago, not the Oscar-winning musical from 2002, but the original, silent version . With piano accompaniment by Fredrick Hodges. Hosted by Gary Meyer.

B+ Whiplash, Kabuki, opens Friday. Set in a fictitious music conservatory, Whiplash follows a young and ambitious jazz drummer (Miles Teller) as he is tortured and abused by a horrifically imagecruel music teacher. The film’s key pleasure is watching veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, in the Oscar-winning role of a lifetime, as the most evil music teacher since The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Other pleasures include the music (of course) and Teller’s way of making you root for the protagonist, even though he’s pretty much a dick. But the film is set in an almost all-male world (although I’ve been told since I first wrote about it that this is actually pretty accurate in jazz), and the teacher would realistically have been fired years ago.

B+ Clouds Of Sils Maria, California Theatre (San Jose), Sunday, 7:15. A great actress (Juliette Binoche) reluctantly accepts a part in a revival of the play that made her famous long ago. But this time, she’ll be playingimagea different, older character. To prepare for the role, the actress and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) take up residence in a remote house located in an astonishingly beautiful part of the Swiss Alps. As they run lines, they almost unconsciously work through their own complicated relationship, which only  slightly echoes play’s characters. This isn’t quite a two-person film, but Binoche and Stewart truly carry the picture. Part of Cinequest.

A Lack of Privacy double bill: The Lives of Others & Citizenfour, Castro, Wednesday. The A goes to The Lives of Others. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck creates a very intimate, human story about the horrors of Communism and all forms of totalitarianism, and turns it into a suspenseful thriller. In East Germany, an up-and-coming secret police officer must gather dirt on a playwright–for reasons that are utterly absurd. Slowly, bit by bit, the secret policeman comes to identify with his prey and lose faith in the Socialist ideal. In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room where Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. But the long discussions become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. I give this one a B. Read my longer essay.

A+ Casablanca, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. You’ve either casablancaalready 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, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

A Hitchcock double bill: Psycho & The Birds, Thursday through next Sunday. The A goes to Psycho, where Alfred Hitchcock leaves the audience unsure who we’re supposed to root for or what could constitute a imagehappy ending. Janet Leigh  and Anthony Perkins defined their careers in Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. But I can only give a B- to the film that followed it. The Birds has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment, and the following attack on the children, are classics. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and new-comer Hedren–while beautiful–is utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.

A- The Princess Bride, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright 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, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves.

A Timbuktu, New Parkway, opens Saturday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

A- Selma, Lark, opens Friday. I found it difficult at first to accept David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. They didn’t look and sound right. But as the film progressed, I accepted them and got lost in the powerful and image(unfortunately) still timely story. I had no problem accepting Carmen Ejogo’s spot-on perfect performance as Coretta Scott King. The film’s biggest strength comes from its picture of King as a flawed human being filled with doubts, exhaustion, and guilt–a man who would lie to his wife, badly, about his infidelities–but still a great hero. The film’s biggest mistake was letting us meet this real person before showing him as we all know him, as a great orator.

A- Birdman, Kabuki, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Guild, starts Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

C- Vertigo, Castro, Saturday through Monday. 70mm. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem is that 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.

A+ North by Northwest, Stanford, through Sunday. Alfrednbnw Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a Hitchcock double bill with The 39 Steps, which I haven’t seen in decades.

What’s Screening: February 20 – 26

The Noise Pop Film Festival opens today (Friday). And Cinequest opens Tuesday. And the Oscars are Sunday.

Oscar Parties, Balboa, Cerrito, Lark, Rafael, Roxie, Sunday, click on these theater links for starting times and more information. Yes, both the awards and the ceremonies tend towards the ridiculous. But the show is usually entertaining, and sometimes, the right film wins. And like movies themselves, the whole event can be much more entertaining on the big screen, especially when you add costume contests and/or prizes. The Roxie in particular promises a "meeting of malcontents gathered to vent right back at the Holly-white Boys Club bent on publicly patting itself for another year of mediocrity." You can read my Oscar party reports of passed years at the Rafael and  Cerrito.

Pre-Oscar Party, Magick Lantern, Saturday, 1:00. As a fundraiser to bring the theater back to life, the Magick Lantern will have an Oscar party a day early. They promise live music, Oscar ballots, a short film by Camille Cellucci, and Cellucci herself discussing how the Oscars are run.

B- What We Do in the Shadows, Embarcadero, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday. This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentaryimage camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead but still active existences. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. From the creators of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords.  Read my full review.

A+ North by Northwest, Stanford,Thursday through next Sunday. Alfrednbnw Hitchcock’s light masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards). On a Hitchcock double bill with The 39 Steps, which I haven’t seen in decades.

A The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father,imageWalter 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 is set.

A Galaxy Quest, Balboa, Wednesday, 7:00. 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 whatimage 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.

A Jason and the Argonauts (1963 version), Balboa, Saturday, 10:00AM. No other movie so successfully turns Greek mythology (or at least a family-friendly version of Greek mythology) into swashbuckling jasonargonautsadventure, 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 Spirited Away, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55PM. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation.The film will be presented in the original Japanese, with subtitles

Metropolis, Swedish American Hall, Friday, 7:00. I’m not giving this Metropolis screening the usual A, because the website gives it a 77-minute runtime.  That’s about half the length of the so-called Complete Metropolis. This is even five minutes shorter than the Giorgio Moroder special edition. But even in a truncated version, the first important science fiction feature film should still strike a considerable visual punch. The images–workers in a hellish underground factory, the wealthy at play, a robot brought to life in the form of a beautiful woman–are a permanent part of our collective memory. Live accompaniment by Chrome Canyon. Part of the Noise Pop Film Festival.

A Wild, New Parkway, opens Saturday, 7:20. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that reveal what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage. Read my full review.

A- Birdman, Aquarius, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B Citizenfour, New Parkway, Saturday, 3:45 & Wednesday, 6:30; Roxie, Sunday through Tuesday. Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room whereimage Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. Those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden comes off mostly as a self-effacing nerd who understands right from wrong. But the long discussions in the hotel room become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. Read my longer essay.

B+ The Imitation Game, Lark, opens Friday. This very British biopic takes considerable liberties in dramatizing the life of Alan Turing. For instance, he appears to have severe Asperger, when the real Turning had nothing of the sort. But it successfully resultimages in an effective, entertaining, and sympathetic tragedy about a man who played important roles in both winning World War II and laying the groundwork for computers, but was hounded to suicide by an intolerant society. Like so many English period pieces, The Imitation Game works primarily as a showcase for actors. Cumberbatch does a variation on his Sherlock Holmes, but he digs deeper here. His emotional struggles are more real. Keira Knightley plays the only woman on his team. See my longer article.

C+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Vertigo & The Trouble with Harry, Stanford,Thursday through next Sunday. The C+ goes to The Trouble with Harry. Alfred Hitchcock laced his thrillers with humor, but his second and last attempt at an out-and-out comedy succeeds in merely being pleasant–despite the Hitchcockian theme of a dead body that everyone wants to hide. Although Vertigo is officially now the greatest film ever made, I can’t give it more than a C-. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations.  Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough.

What’s Screening: February 13 – 19

aIndieFest and the Mostly British Film Festival continue through this week.

A Romeo & Juliet (1967 version), Castro, Saturday, 8:00. Star Leonard Whiting in person. Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s popular romantic tragedy changed forever how filmmakers approached the Bard–and changed it for the better. Beautiful, violent, funny, sexy, sad, and lusciously romantic, it makes the 400-year-old play new (well, 1960’s new) and immediately exciting. Zeffirelli’s decision to cast actual teenagers in the leading roles was controversial at the time, but was absolutely the right thing to do. Warning: ticket prices are very high for this special event.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Roxie, Saturday and Thursday, 7:15. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the thrills, terrors, and transitions of teenage life through the looking glass of high school imagemovies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko,and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining. Part of IndieFest.

A Giant, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday & Wednesday. James Dean only plays a supporting role in George Steven’s sprawling epic about 20th-century Texas. The picture really imagebelongs to Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor as a couple who marry almost on a whim and have to find common ground in the long decades of their marriage. As they age, the world evolves around them, with a world war, changing attitudes about race and gender, and a cattle economy transitioning to an oil-based one. Dennis Hopper plays Hudson and Taylor’s grown son, while Dean grows from his usual alienated youth to a middle-aged man.

B Akeelah and the Bee, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. A talent forimage spelling gives Akeelah—a poor, eleven-year-old African American—a shot at escaping the ghetto. But first, she’s going to have to learn about more than words from her mentor, played by  Laurence Fishburne. Yes, it’s inspirational, but that’s not always a bad thing.

C- The Eagle, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Rudolph Valentino in an extremely silly imagemelodrama, with the saving grace of not taking itself seriously. The top hearthrob of the 1920s holds the screen well–even for a straight male like myself for whom he doesn’t excite sexual fantasies. But even a silly melodrama deserves a better resolution than the one that The Eagle provides. If you really want to learn what Valentino was all about, see The Son of the Sheik. With Frederick Hodges on piano.

B Ninotchka, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and quite funny.image It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But it’s not quite as good as you might expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder. Part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder; it’s nice to see the PFA include a film that Wilder wrote but didn’t direct.

A+ Some Like It Hot, New Parkway, Saturday, 6:30; Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:40. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review. Also part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder.

A The Apartment, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. How do you top Some Like It Hot? Billy Wilder found the answer in this far more serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both 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. Read my Blu-ray review. Another part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder. I mistakenly left The Apartment out of the original version of this newsletter. I fixed that Sunday afternoon.

B West Side Story, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songsWest Side Story and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. See West Side Story in 70mm for more on the movie.

A Double Indemnity, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the libido from imageadultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect thriller. Not that she has any trouble leading him (this is not the wholesome MacMurray we remember from My Three Sons).  Edward G. Robinson is in fine form as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal, Double Indemnity can reasonably be called the first true film noir.

A Blade Runner – The Final Cut, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. 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 imagevariety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. 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. I’m assuming this is the same final cut I saw in 2008, and not a even more final cut made since.

C+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Vertigo & The Trouble with Harry, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The C+ goes to The Trouble with Harry. Alfred Hitchcock laced his thrillers with humor, but his second and last attempt at an out-and-out comedy succeeds in merely being pleasant–despite the promising theme of a dead body that everyone wants to hide.. Although Vertigo is officially now the greatest film ever made, I can’t give it more than a C-. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations.  Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough.

A Timbuktu, Shattuck, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

A- Two Days, One Night, Lark, opens Friday. The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. Rather than becoming a political tract, this film feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise. Read my full review.

A- Birdman, Cerrito, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B+ The Theory of Everything, Lark, opens Friday. Like so many British pictures, this Stephen Hawking biopic provides a showcase for great acting. Hawking is the sort of character that cries out for an Oscar–he’s a real person, he’s British, and he has a disability. Eddie Redmayne makes full use of that opportunity, catching not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable. Felicity Jones co-stars as his first wife and does an excellent job, Very well made but not exceptional. Read my longer comments.

D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women, Roxie, Sunday, 7:115; Thursday, 9:30. This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. (Eight years ago I wrote and performed in a imageone-act play with the same theme.) But two problems sink Jacky. First, the fantasy society in which it’s set–sort of a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to use for making a satirical point. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise. IndieFest‘s closing night disappointment.

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. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Strangers on a Train & The Lady Vanishes,Stanford, through Sunday. If you love Alfred Hitchcock and you love trains, this is the double bill for you. In Strangers on a Train, a rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) strangersontrainconvinces 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 wife, and by a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were enjoying a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she had ever been there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Read my Blu-ray review. Each film earns an A on its own merit.

What’s Screening: February 6 – 12

We’ve got four festivals running this week.

SF Sketchfest screenings are at the bottom of this newsletter.

A- Elevator to the Gallows, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Louis Malle launched his directing career, and arguably the New Wave, with this noir tale of a perfect crime gone wrong. Laced with dark, ironic humor, the film cuts back and forth between a murderer (Maurice Ronet) trapped in an elevator in a building closed for the weekend, the murderer’s lover (Jeanne Moreau) wandering the streets searching for him, and two young lovers enjoying a crime spree in a stolen car (they stole it from the murderer). And all of is set to a powerful jazz score by Miles Davis. Read my longer comments.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Strangers on a Train & The Lady Vanishes, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. If you love Alfred Hitchcock and you love trains, this is the double bill for you. In Strangers on a Train, a rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) strangersontrainconvinces 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 wife, and by a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were enjoying a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she had ever been there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Read my Blu-ray review. Each film earns an A on its own merit.

A The Maltese Falcon, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. DashiellmaltesefalconHammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay (by Huston) that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett mo5ion picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. This movie is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

A- Grand Budapest Hotel, Lark, Friday, 12:45; Sunday, 8:30; Thursday, 3:40. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story imagewithin a story within a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while avoiding some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie.

B+ Interview with the Vampire, New Parkway, Sunday, 9:10. Writer Anne Rice and director Neil Jordan create a vampire epic stretching across three centuries. And a imagevery dark yet sexy three centuries it is. Tom Cruise gets top billing as the immortal sociopath Lestat, but a not-yet-famous Brian Pitt is the real star, playing the tormented vampire being interviewed. Between them and Antonio Banderas, you could call this film Great-Looling Guys With an Eating Distorder. A 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst expertly plays a grown woman in a little girl’s body.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, New Parkway, 9:30. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But imagethen, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark;  just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter.

A Timbuktu, Rafael, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

B+ Altman, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 2:00. Robert Altman had been directing television and movies for 17 years before M*A*S*H made this gray-bearded imagegrandfather one of the leaders of Hollywood’s youth movement. Documentary director Ron Mann provides an informative and entertaining overview of the cinematic rebel who enjoyed a decade of success before changing tastes left him behind. Filled with clips from his movies and interviews with his co-workers and loved ones, it’s a pretty conventional film about a very unconventional filmmaker. But still worth catching. Part of the series Altmanesque.

Force Majeure, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer of a troubled marriage in this imageSwedish drama set in the French alps. When an avalanche threatens his family, Tomas fails to measure up as a man. Soon his wife loses all respect for her husband, and Tomas loses all respect for himself. All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland.  Force Majeure studies courage and fear, and the destructive behavior that can destroy a marriage. But it’s also about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. See my full review. Part of the series In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund.

B+ The Theory of Everything, Balboa, Kabuki, opens Friday. Like so many British pictures, this Stephen Hawking biopic provides a showcase for great acting. Hawking is the sort of character that cries out for an Oscar–he’s a real person, he’s British, and he has a disability. Eddie Redmayne makes full use of the opportunity, catching not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable. Felicity Jones co-stars as his first wife and does an excellent job, Very well made but not exceptional. Read my longer comments.

C+ Interstellar, Castro, Tuesday and Wednesday. 70mm! Christopher Nolan’s space epic tries hard to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey–plot points, individual shots, and at least one character imagecomes straight from Kubrick’s work. But whereas Kubrick explained very little, Nolan fills his picture with badly-written expository dialog. And that doesn’t help–the movie still confuses audiences. And when it’s not confusing, it’s often dumb. On the other hand, it’s visually stunning, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen and format available (the Castro, with 70mm projection, qualifies). It’s often exciting and suspenseful. And for most of its runtime, it carries a strong sense of doom for both the main characters and the human race as a whole.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Rear Window & Saboteur, Stanford, through Sunday. The A+ goes to Rear Windows. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing imagehimself 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. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, while treating his audience to a great entertainment. In Saboteur, an innocent man is blamed for a dastardly deed done by evil, foreign spies. Now he must run from the law while chasing the villains. Hitchcock used this basic plot three times, and while Saboteur is the weakest of the three, it’s still entertaining enough to earn a B.

SF Sketchfest

A Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla, Roxie, Saturday, 7:15,  Tuesday, 9:30. 
Imagine Milton from Office Space slowly turning into Travis Bickle. That’s pretty much what you get in this very black comedy from Australia. imageThe main character has his own business–an ice cream truck–that brings him into contact with a lot of people. But he’s a very shy, lonely, and awkward man. He lives alone. He doesn’t have any real friends. He worships Clint Eastwood. He’s obsessed with a soap opera star. He spends most of his workday parked in a horrible location where he’s bullied by a very thuggish pimp. His cat just died, but he still puts food in the bowl every morning. He’s nearing a very dangerous boiling point. The humor drains away appropriately as darkness and violence takes over the movie. A remarkable, brutal, funny, and heartfelt little gem.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Humanist Hall, Saturday, 5:00. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the teenage thrills, terrors, and transitions through the looking glass of high school imagemovies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining.

D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women, Humanist Hall, Sunday, 9:15. This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. (Eight years ago I wrote and performed in a imageone-act play with the same theme.) But two problems sink Jacky. First, the society in which it’s set–a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to make a satirical point about western society. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise.

D- For the Plasma, Roxie, Sunday, 7:15; Thursday, 7:15. Talk about a movie that doesn’t go anywhere. Two young women live in a house in rural, coastal Maine, imagewhere they’re supposed to check various cameras and sensors in the woods for early forest fires warnings. One of them has figured out a foolproof way to turn all this data into profitable stock market predictions. Both actresses are flat and dull. Almost nothing happens to them, and the few things that do don’t amount to anything. Even basic continuity is lacking. I kept hoping it would turn into a slasher movie–and I don’t care much for slasher movies.

What’s Screening: January 30 – February 5

We’ve got film festivals:

  • Berlin & Beyond continues at the Castro through Sunday, then has one-day events in Palo Alto and Berkeley, closing on Monday.
  • SF Sketchfest, which is not really a film festival but has some film events, continues through this week and beyond.
  • IndieFest opens Friday.

I’ve placed SF Sketchfest screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Timbuktu, Kabuki, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

B+ Altman, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. Robert Altman had been directing television and movies for 17 years before M*A*S*H made this gray-bearded imagegrandfather one of the leaders of the new, young Hollywood. Documentary director Ron Mann provides an informative and entertaining overview of the cinematic rebel who enjoyed a decade of success before changing tastes left him behind. Filled with clips from his movies and interviews with his co-workers and loved ones, it’s a pretty conventional film about a very unconventional filmmaker. But still worth catching. Part of the series Altmanesque.

A Wild, Lark, opens Friday. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that reveal what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

A+ Citizen Kane, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. How does any movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. imageTrue, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name any this insightful that are also this dazzling and entertaining. As Orson Welles and his collaborators tell the life story of a newspaper tycoon through the flashback memories of those who knew him, they also turn the techniques of cinema inside out. Now I’ll tell you what Rosebud really is: a McGuffin.

A+ Groundhog Day, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30; Monday, 9:30. Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a slick, Hollywood comedy. imageWithout explanation, the movie plunges its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory, living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years). Bill Murray’s weatherman goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out that life is about serving others. And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure entertainment. For more on this great comedy, see Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic.

C+ The Lost Weekend, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:45. Quite noirish in style, but anything but not really noirish in content, The Lost Weekend is the sort of social imageproblem picture we don’t expect from Wilder. The problem is alcoholism, and while Ray Milland earned the Oscar he won for his performance, the picture seems to be more about the problem than the person. I’m not really sure that anyone else associated with this film deserved their Oscars (this one really cleaned up on awards night), but they all did excellent work elsewhere. Part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Rear Window & Saboteur, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The A+ goes to Rear Windows. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing imagehimself 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. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, while treating his audience to a great entertainment. In Saboteur, an innocent man is blamed for a dastardly deed done by evil, foreign spies. Now he must run from the law while chasing the villains. Hitchcock used this basic plot three times, and while Saboteur is the weakest of the three, it’s still entertaining enough to earn a B.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Friday. It’s been a very long imagetime since I’ve seen this 1988 comic fantasy about animated characters and flesh-and-blood people living side by side in late 1940’s Hollywood. I remember it being funny, outrageous, and delightful for anyone who loves old cartoons. The special effects were cutting edge for their day, but still based on pencil, ink, and an optical printer. Today, of course, they’d be digital, and would lose a lot of their old-time charm.

B+ Ghostbusters, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Comedy rarely gets this scary or this imagevisually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say that special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon or evening.

B Citizenfour, Elmwood, starts Friday. Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room whreimage Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. Those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden comes off mostly as a self-effacing nerd who understands right from wrong. But the long discussions in the hotel room become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. Read my longer essay.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Shadow of a Doubt & Under Capricorn, Stanford, through Sunday. The A goes to Hitchcock’s first great American film, Shadow of a Doubt. A serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with her beloved Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. Under Capricorn is a reasonably entertaining but unexceptional romantic melodrama set in 19th century Australia. Hitchcock didn’t make many period pieces, and this one shows you why. On its own, I’d give it a B-.

SF Sketchfest

A The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Roxie, Friday, 7:00. SOLD OUT. The real miracle is that this movie got passed the censors. In 1944, the production code didn’t allow the word pregnant in Hollywood movies; nor could you show a woman visibly pregnant. You imagecertainly couldn’t suggest that being…in that way…could be caused by anything other than a marriage license. What’s more, the American military was beyond criticism. Yet that was when  Preston Sturges made this very funny comedy about a small-town girl who goes dancing with a bunch of soldiers and comes home pregnant. With Betty Hutton as expecting mother Trudy Kockenlocker, and Eddie Bracken as the 4F friend who loves her. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer will attend this screening in person.

A+ Groundhog Day, Roxie, Monday, 8:00. See above for my comments about the movie. This particular screening will include a personal appearance by Stephen (Ned) Tobolowsky.

A- The Princess Bride Quote-Along, Castro, Monday, 7:30. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright 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, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves. In this special screening, "audience members will be encouraged to call out all of their favorite lines from the film." Cary Elwes will attend in person.

RiffTrax Night of the Shorts 5: A Good Day to Riff Hard, Castro, Thursday, 8:00. The RiffTrax gang of Mystery Science Theater veterans will add their own comic commentary to PSA, educational, scientific and promotional shorts. Guest riffers include John Hodgman.

What’s Screening: January 23 – 29

We’ve got film festivals:

And we’ve got movies:

A- Two Days, One Night, opens Friday at the Shattuck and other theaters. The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. Rather than becoming a political tract, this film feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise. Read my full review. Error correction: This capsule was left out of the original version of this newsletter.

Excelsior Moveable Movie Palace, Comedy Cookie Jar #1, Art House Gallery in Berkeley, Sunday, 7:30. Excelsior does more than just present silent films. It also attempts to take you back to the days when these moves were new. In their first public presentation, they’ll screen six short comedies that might have been shown in 1929 (although the earliest was actually released in 1923). The stars of the movies include Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chase, Harry Langdon, and Rudolph Valentino. Yes, I said Rudolph Valentino. Ellen Hoffman will accompany everything on piano. See my article.

Shouting at the Screen with Wyatt Cenac and Donwill with "That Man Bolt", Roxie, imageFriday, 11:00pm. This sounds like something fun for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans. Rapper Donwill and Daily Show veteran Wyatt Cenac with crack wise at a screening of a largely-forgotten 1973 blaxploitation flick called That Man Bolt. If it wasn’t so late in the evening, I’d probably be there. Part of SF Sketchfest.

B How the West Was Won, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday. Cinerama, a three-lens, three-strip process that projected a huge image onto a deeply-curved screen, was the Imax of the 1950s. Although deeply flawed, its imageimmersive effect was greater than Imax’s. The last and best three-strip Cinerama film tells a multigenerational story that’s simple, hokey fun (and even simpler history). But the real pleasure is in the spectacle, whether it’s a buffalo stampede, a train wreck, or a tracking shot through an old river town. I don’t know if the movie will be screened locally on one of CineMark’s XD screens, but if it is, it will be well worth catching. Otherwise, not so much. I discussed the film in this PC World slideshow.

A Fort Apache, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Even though it’s told entirely from the white man’s point of view, the first and best film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy leaves no doubt who the victims were in the western conquest. Very loosely inspired by the Battle of Little Bighorn, it tells the story of a regiment doomed by an incompetent and bigoted commanding officer (Henry Fonda In one of his few unsympathetic parts). This arrogant, by-the-book colonel’s contempt for the Apaches leads to war, and then to disaster. (He doesn’t like the Irish–Ford’s own ethnic group–much, either)., John Wayne plays the open-minded man of reason. Co-starring Monument Valley.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Shadow of a Doubt & Under Capricorn, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The A goes to Hitchcock’s first great American film, Shadow of a Doubt. A serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with her beloved Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. Under Capricorn is a reasonably entertaining but unexceptional romantic melodrama set in 19th century Australia. Hitchcock didn’t make many period pieces, and this one shows you why. On its own, I’d give it a B-.

B+ The Imitation Game, Balboa, opens Friday. This very British biopic takes considerable liberties in dramatizing the life of Alan Turing. For instance, he appears to have severe Asperger, when the real Turning had nothing of the sort. But the result imageis an effective, entertaining, and sympathetic tragedy about a man who played important roles in both winning World War II and laying the groundwork for computers, but was hounded to suicide by an intolerant society. Like so many English period pieces, The Imitation Game works primarily as a showcase for actors. Cumberbatch does a variation on his Sherlock Holmes, but he digs deeper here. His emotional struggles are more real. Keira Knightley plays the only woman on his team. See my longer article.

A- Battleship Potemkin, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. 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. More than 85 years after it was shot, the Odessa Steps massacre is still one of the greatest, if not the greatest, action sequence ever edited. Read my essay. Accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano. Part of the series and college class, Film 50: History of Cinema.

B+ This is Spinal Tap, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. The mockumentary to end all rockumentaries. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, imageand Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven.

C+ Interstellar, New Parkway, opens Friday. Christopher Nolan’s space epic tries hard to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey–plot points, individual shots, and at least one character imagecomes straight from Kubrick’s work. But whereas Kubrick explained very little, Nolan fills his picture with badly-written expository dialog. And yet, the movie still confuses audiences. And when it’s not confusing, it’s often dumb. On the other hand, it’s visually stunning, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. It’s often exciting and suspenseful. And for most of its runtime, it carries a strong sense of doom for both the main characters and the human race as a whole.

C But I’m A Cheerleader, Castro, Tuesday, 7:30. This very broad satire of homophobia and gayimage conversion therapy has its heart in the right place, but heavy-handed direction ensures that more jokes miss than hit the funny bone. Even the usually hilarious Cathy Moriarty can seldom provoke laughter here. And when the heroine finally gets a chance to use her cheerleading skills, it’s obvious that star Natasha Lyonne didn’t train enough for the part. Lyonne will be in attendance for the screening, which SF Sketchfest is presenting as a Peaches Christ Experience.

C- Gone with the Wind, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. I love big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s that blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, and generally just wince. But Gone with the Wind goes beyond that, basing its entire story on the assumption that white masters and black slaves are just the natural order (you can read my in-depth comments). Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is pretty good, but boredom sets in after the intermission. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie. Even if you like GWTW, it’s a very long movie to start at 7:30 on a weeknight.

B+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Dial M for Murder & Young and Innocent,Stanford, through Sunday. The B+ goes to Dial M for Murder. Despite the gimmick of 3D, this imageadaptation of a Broadway play feels stagy. But it was a good play, and Hitchcock handled it well.  For more on the film, see Rethinking Dial M for Murder. The Stanford will not be screening the movie in 3D. Alfred Hitchcock made Young and Innocent just before The Lady Vanishes, but aside from one great tracking shot, it feels like the new Master of Suspense was just going through the motions.

What’s Screening: January 16 – 22

The holiday season film festival drought is officially over.

C Appropriate Behavior, , Roxie, opens Friday. There’s nothing really wrong with Desiree Akhavan’s tale about a twenty-something, bisexual, Iranian immigrant trying to find her place–professionally but mostly romantically and sexually–in Brooklyn. Butimage there’s nothing really right about it, either. As played by Akhavan herself, Shirin comes off as a self-centered, alcoholic brat. She mopes. She doesn’t give anyone a straight answer. She goes to bars, drinks heavily, and sleeps around. Then she blows her top when she catches Maxine kissing a man. The other characters seem to exist only for Shirin’s benefit. Allegedly a comedy, it made me chuckle a few times. Read my full review.

 A- Selma, Vogue, opens Friday. I found it difficult at first to accept David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Tom Wilkinson as LBJ. They didn’t look and sound right. But as the film progressed, I accepted them and got lost in the powerful and image(unfortunately) still timely story. I had no problem accepting Carmen Ejogo’s spot-on perfect performance as Coretta Scott King. The film’s biggest strength comes from its picture of King as a flawed human being filled with doubts, exhaustion, and guilt–a man who would lie to his wife, badly, about his infidelities–but still a great hero. The film’s biggest mistake was letting us meet this real person before showing him as we all know him, as a great orator.

A All About Eve, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday. Here’s your chance to explore imagethe sordid ambition behind Broadway’s (and by implication, Hollywood’s) glamour. Anne Baxter plays the title character, an apparently sweet and innocent actress whom aging diva Bette Davis takes under her wing. But Eve isn’t anywhere near as innocent as she appears. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

A Babe, New Parkway, Friday through Monday, matinees only. At least among narrative features, Babe is easily the greatest work of imagevegetarian propaganda in the history of cinema. It’s also a sweet, funny, and charming fairy tale about a pig who wants to become a sheep dog. This Australian import helped audiences and critics recognize and appreciate character actor James Cromwell, and technically broke considerable ground in the category of live-action talking-animal movies. Warning: If you take your young children to this G-rated movie, you may have trouble getting them to eat bacon.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: To Catch a Thief & Notorious, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The A+ goes to Notorious, where a scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman Notoriousproves her patriotism by seducing, bedding, and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant’s secret agent sends her on this deadly and humiliating mission, then reacts with blind jealousy. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray ReviewTo Catch a Thief, on the other hand, is more like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller from the master of suspense. But it provides a few good scenes. After all, 106 minutes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Monaco,  photographed in the beauty of VistaVision, can’t be all bad.

A Double Indemnity, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray by the nose from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s near-perfect imagethriller. Not that she has any trouble leading him (this is not the wholesome MacMurray we remember from My Three Sons).  Edward G. Robinson is in fine form as the co-worker and close friend that MacMurray must deceive. A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal, Double Indemnity can reasonably be called the first true film noir. Too bad the movie, part of the PFA series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder, is conflicting with Noir City.

B+ The Thin Man, Castro, Monday, 7:00; Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. . Here we have a murder mystery, a screwball comedy, imagea wallow in classic MGM glamour, and a 93-minute commercial for alcohol as the secret to a happy marriage. Also the start of a very long franchise. William Powell and Myrna Loy make great chemistry as Nick and Nora Charles, the rich, drunk-and-in-love couple with a little murder to clear up. The mystery and the comedy never quite jell, but it’s so fun to watch Powell and Loy together that you really don’t care. The Castro screening–a double bill with the first of many sequels, After the Thin Man–is part of Noir City.

B+ Sherlock Jr., Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. There’s nothing new about special effects. Buster Keaton used them extensively, in part to comment on the nature of film itself, in this story of a projectionist who dreams he’s a great detective.The sequence where he enters the movie screen and finds the scenes changing around him would be impressive if it were made today; for 1924, when the effects had to be done in the camera, it’s mind-boggling. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr. is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags. This is an extremely short “feature,” running only about 45 minutes (depending on the projection speed). As part of the PFA’s ongoing series and class, Film 50: History of Cinema, the presentation will include a lecture by Emily Carpenter and musical accompaniment by Judith Rosenberg.

B+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Dial M for Murder & Young and Innocent, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday.  The B+ goes to imageDial M for Murder. Despite the gimmick of 3D, this adaptation of a Broadway play feels stagy. But it was a good play, and Hitchcock handled it well.  For more on the film, see Rethinking Dial M for Murder. The Stanford will not be screening the movie in 3D. Alfred Hitchcock made Young and Innocent just before The Lady Vanishes, but aside from one great tracking shot, it feels like the new Master of Suspense was just going through the motions.

C+ Suspicion, Castro, Saturday, 1:30. If there ever was an Alfred Hitchcock film ruined by the studio, it was his imagethird American movie, Suspicion. And the sad part is that it could have been one of his best. Joan Fontaine stars as a young bride who begins to suspect that her new husband, Cary Grant, just may be a serial killer, and that she’s in line to be his next victim. Alas, the powers that be felt that Hitchcock’s original ending was a little too much of a downer, and not sufficiently positive about the sanctuary of marriage. The result is a thriller that falls apart so badly at the end that it negates everything that came before. On a double bill with something called The Bigamist. Part of Noir City.

A- Birdman, Lark, opens Friday. Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star, who may or may not have superpowers, imagehoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, Birdman pretends it was shot in a single take. But unlike Rope,the gimmick works this time around–better technology, I suppose. Much of the film is hysterically funny, but the picture is just a bit too long, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

A- Force Majeure, Lark, Thursday, 2:00. The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneerof a troubled marriage in this imageSwedish drama set in the French alps. When an avalanche threatens his family, Tomas fails to protect them as he should. Soon his wife loses all respect for her husband, and Tomas loses all respect for himself. All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland.  Force Majeure studies courage and fear, and the destructive behavior that can destroy a marriage. But it’s also about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. See my full review.

A Boyhood, Rafael, Opera Plaza, limited run starts Friday. The best new film I saw in 2014. Fifty years from now, people will still watch Richard Linklater’s intimate epic. Shot off and on over a period of 12 years, Boyhood imageallows us to watch young Mason and his family grow up and older. It isn’t an easy childhood. His parents are divorced, neither of them has much money, Dad is immature and Mom has bad taste in men. But Boyhood avoids the sort of horrible situations that drive most narrative films, and it’s all the better for it. By using the same actors over such a long period of time, Linklater creates a far more realistic picture than could be done with aging makeup or switching from a child actor to an adult one. Read my full review.

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