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.

Bisexual Iranian Immigrant Comedy Not Great–But Appropriate

C Comedy

  • Written and directed by Desiree Akhavan

There’s nothing really wrong with Desiree Akhavan’s autobiographical tale about a twenty-something woman trying to find her place–professionally but mostly romantically and sexually–in Brooklyn. But there’s nothing really right about it, either. The concept is very much like Girls, but the execution lacks the HBO series’ humor and incisive  characterizations.

The lead character, Shirin, is an Iranian immigrant who grew up in America and is culturally far more a New Yorker than a Persian. She’s bisexual–more gay than straight–but she can’t bring herself to come out to her completely secular, obviously liberal parents. Akhavan plays the part herself.

When we first meet Shirin, she’s just lost her job and broken up with her girlfriend. She gets a new job soon enough, although it’s one for which she’s woefully unqualified. She also finds a new girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Actually, I’m not entirely sure that Maxine is the new girlfriend, or the old girlfriend seen in flashback. Most of the movie’s thankfully short runtime is committed to the ways Shirin drives Maxine away. I occasionally suspected that the narrative jumped back and forth in time, but it wasn’t clear.

image

Whatever time she’s in, Shirin comes off as a self-centered, alcoholic brat. She complains. 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.

But she’s not quite a complete jerk. There’s a slight sense that her problem is really immaturity; that someday she’ll grow up and become a decent human being. Occasionally, I even found myself rooting for her.

The film’s other characters appear to exist only for Shirin’s benefit; so she can have someone to talk to…or to have sex with. Even Maxine, who initially comes off as an intelligent and principled human being, soon turns into nothing but an object for Shirin’s frustrations.

The marketing material I received touted the film as a realistic, character-driven comedy in the tradition of Annie Hall. I think I chuckled mildly a few times.

Just Appropriate is just okay.

Even More Upcoming Film Festivals

On Thursday, I told you about the upcoming Noir City and SF Sketchfest festivals. I also promised to tell you about some other upcoming festivals. Here they are:

Berlin & Beyond, January 29 – February 3

The Bay Area’s German language festival returns with a modest selection of movies from Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. In 2008, B&B ran for seven days at the Castro; this year, it only gets three. On the other hand, it will do a day each in Palo Alto and Berkeley.

It opens with To Life!, about a Jewish, suicidal cabaret singer who rediscovers the joys of life. It stars Hannelore Elsner, who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the screening. Other films that look promising (I haven’t seen any of them) include Inbetween Worlds and the centerpiece, Exit Marrakech, both of which deal in very different ways with the middle east.

IndieFest, February 5 – 19

I’m never sure if I should count IndieFest has a genre festival, such as DocFest and Noir City, or as a general festival, such as Mill Valley and San Francisco International. If it’s a genre festival, the genre is independent film. But that’s pretty much all you’ll see at Mill Valley and SF International.

But then, the independent films at IndieFest are arguably more independent than those at the bigger festival. Besides, when you’re talking about independent cinema, it’s best to keep the categories fluid.

The festival opens with David Cross’ Hits, about a small town’s reaction to a city council video going viral. It closes with Jacky In the Kingdom of Women, a gender-bending satire that I’ve seen and cannot recommend (I’ll tell you more about it later). The films in between, most of which I hope are better than Jacky, include:

  • Uncertain Terms: A drama set in a home for pregnant teens
  • Sex and Broadcasting: A documentary about a small, independent, listener-supported radio station
  • For the Plasma: Security cameras in the woods can predict the stock market in this sci-fi comedy. Both the New Yorker and IndieWIRE listed For the Plasma in their Best Undistributed Films of 2014.
  • Beyond Clueless: A documentary about teen movies.

Oh, and there’s the now traditional Big Lebowski Party.

Mostly British Film Festival, February 12 – 19

The full schedule isn’t out yet for this selection of films from English-speaking countries not on the North American continent. Think of them as foreign films without subtitles.

The website currently tells us about six of the movies to be screened, without giving us dates. Out of those six, we have two romantic comedies(Standby and My Accomplice), a "quirky" comedy (Gold), a biopic called Winnie Mandela, a story about modern Australian aborigines (Charlie’s Country), and Jimmy’s Hall, a drama about Ireland in the 1920s.

What’s Screening: January 9 – 15

Still no film festivals, but that will change next week.

B+ Agnes Varda: From Here To There, Roxie, Friday through Sunday. The concept is simple: Legendary filmmaker Agnès Varda travels the world, visiting old friends imageand making new ones. But this is more than just a five-part, 225-minute home movie. The friends she visits are brilliant artists, and she introduces us to them and their work. And all the while, her impish curiosity and joyful personality shine through. The Roxie will screen different episodes at different times; check the schedule to see how you can see all of them.

A Timbuktu, Rafael, Sunday, 1:00. An armed group of Muslim fanatics have taken over the fabled city and the nearby countryside, banning music, smoking, soccer, and almost everything imageelse. The new rulers at first seem calm and friendly, and reluctant to actually enforce all of these rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Meanwhile, cow herder and loving family man Kidane must face the consequences of his own acts, made worse by the pitiless people running the new government. A beautiful, atmospheric look at a town newly captured by totalitarianism. Part of the series For Your Consideration.

A Sunset Blvd., Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:30. Billy Wilder’s meditation on Hollywood’s  seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would imagemake a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history. This is both the PFA’s first screening of 2015, and the opening for the archive’s new series, Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder.

A+ Rear Window, Castro, Saturday. 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 Road Games.

A- Force Majeure, Lark, Sunday, 5:50; Tuesday, 1:00; Wednesday, 12:30. The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer imageof a troubled marriage in this Swedish 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 losses 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- Two Days, One Night, Rafael, Friday, 7:30. 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. Another part of the series For Your Consideration.

B Citizenfour, Lark, opens Friday. Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room while imageEdward 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+ The Godfather, Davies Symphony Hall, Friday and Saturday, 8:00. With live accompaniment of Nino Rota’s score by the  Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned imageMario 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. I should mention that I have never seen The Godfather (or any other talkie) with live music accompaniment, and I’m not really sure of the point.

B+ The Shining, Castro, Friday. Stanley Kubrick turned a brilliant novel into a very good movie, and imagesomehow got credited for making a masterpiece. When you come right down to it, The Shining is a basic haunted house story, except instead of a house, the setting is a large resort hotel, closed for the winter, and populated only with the caretaker and his wife and son. Jack Nicholson plays the father, not so much as a man slowly going insane, but as someone halfway there already–a major mistake that hurts the story considerably. Shelley Duvall plays his very suffering wife. Read my Book vs. Movie report. On a double bill with Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, which I haven’t seen.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, various CineMark theaters, Sunday and Wednesday. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

A Boyhood, New Parkway, Sunday, 12:20. 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.

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.

Upcoming Film Festivals

The end-of-the-year film festival drought is coming to an end. New festivals are on the way. Here’s two that we can look forward to in the coming weeks:

Noir City, January 16 – 25

Film noir festivals have become a dime a dozen, but Eddie Mueller’s two-week wallow in the dark side of escapist cinema always stands out. Mueller has a way of finding the best noirs, both famous and unknown, and presenting them with flair.

This year’s festival will concentrate on "how the bonds of matrimony affect an array of characters—those who crave a perfect and permanent union, those who’ll stop at nothing to preserve it, and those who will do anything to escape it." I guess armed robbery, deceit, and murder can get in the way of a happy marriage. On the other hand, they can give a loving couple something to do together.

Noir City will screen an appropriate 13 programs; all of them double or triple bills. I’ve seen only three of the 27 movies, but I’m looking forward to making an acquaintance with more of them.

SF Sketchfest, January 22 – February 8

For years now, I’ve debated with myself about whether I should list San Francisco’s big comedy festival. After all, it’s primarily about standup, not movies. But it includes film events, and some of their non-film events happen in theaters I cover, so I figured I’d list them this year.

Films to be screened include But I’m A Cheerleader, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Groundhog Day, and a Princess Bride quote-along.Mystery Science Theater fans will likely enjoy Shouting at the Screen with Wyatt Cenac and Donwill and RiffTrax Night of the Shorts 5: A Good Day to Riff Hard.

Also coming up

Other upcoming festivals include Berlin & Beyond, IndieFest, and the Mostly British Film Festival. I’ll have more information on those soon.

My Thoughts on The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game takes considerable liberties in dramatizing the life of Alan Turing. But the result is an effective, entertaining, and sympathetic tragedy about a man who played important roles in both winning World War II and in laying the groundwork for computer technology, and who was hounded to suicide by an intolerant society.

The basic story is reasonably accurage. A brilliant mathematician, Turing played an important role–possibly the most important role–in cracking the Nazi’s enigma code, allowing the British military to read secret messages. He was one of the first people to conceive of the idea of a digital machine that could do whatever job it was given instructions to do–what we now call a computer. He hypothesized the concept of artificial intelligence, and developed the Turing Test as a way to find out if a computer could think. He was arrested and convicted for homosexual acts, and forced to take hormone injections to control his libido. He killed himself.

Screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum rightfully concentrate on his war experience. It allows us to follow him as part of a team–almost always more interesting than one person–and it gives us higher stakes. Civilization is in the balance. Besides, It’s fun to watch intelligent people break a code while they slowly turn into a team.

image

Turing leads this top-secret team of code breakers–despite his utter lack of leadership ability. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he seems far along on the Asperger scale–the film’s most serious departure from truth. He throws himself relentlessly into his work, barely socializes with his compatriots, and misses almost every social cue. His pathetic attempt to tell a joke is funnier than the joke itself. The real Turing, while not a social butterfly, could get along with people without problems.

Every so often, the story flashes forward to Turing’s persecution in the early 1950s. At first, I was put off by these scenes–I wanted to stay with the main story. But as the film progressed, this story became urgent in its own right. Rory Kinnear’s performance as a dogged but ultimately sympathetic Scotland Yard detective helped.

The film occasionally flashes back to Turing’s childhood, when he makes one good friend at school. Fortunately, these scenes are brief, although by the end this story to became part of the emotional arc.

Like so many English period pieces, The Imitation Game acts 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 the team. She falls in love with Turing, of course. Fortunately, the film doesn’t make a big deal about that.

Unfortunately, the film occasionally stretches credibility. The code breakers take forever to figure out some obvious tricks

There’s another problem, and it’s one I’ve seen in a number of recent British period pieces: CGI spectacle. The Imitation Game has shots of bombers, burned out cities, and other high-scale images of war, all clearly created on computers. They look distractingly like beautiful paintings. To be fair, the glass shots, rear projection, and matte paintings of past eras look pretty fake, too, but that doesn’t really help. The film also uses actual war footage, which only serves to make the CGI look all the more fake.

I left the theater wanting to learn more about Turing. I give this film a B+.

Note: I have altered this article, and lowered the film’s grade, after learning more about Turing and reflecting on the film.

What’s Screening: January 2 – 8

No festivals this week. In fact, there’s almost nothing coming out this week that I can tell you about. Just these two:

B Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This reasonably funny comedy from 1914 packs considerable historic interest. To my knowledge, it’s the first American feature-length comedy. It was Marie Dressler’s first imagemovie. It’s Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, the only one where he played a villain, and the only feature he starred in that he didn’t direct. Chaplin and Mabel Normand try to bilk the naïve Tillie (Dressier) out of a fortune that she may or may not have, with results that are often funny but also often fall flat. Directed by Mack Sennett, who discovered Chaplin and arguably created the basics of silent comedy. With two short subjects. Frederick Hodges accompanies it all on piano.

A- Birdman, Castro, Thursday. 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. On a double bill with Persona, which I haven’t seen in a long time and should probably revisit.

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