What’s Screening: December 28 – January 3

Still no festivals. But as we move in 2013, we do have some good movies.

A Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday through Monday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. No, that’s not a flaw in the script, but in his character. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection to do it justice. The Castro has the screen, but only 2K digital projection. I don’t know how well it will hold up that way, which is why I’m giving it an A rather than the usual A+. I’ll try to catch it over the weekend and let you know. For more on this epic, read Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia.

B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Castro, Tuesday through the following Sunday. The first American animated feature, and one of Walt Disney’s biggest triumphs, really does suffer from the sugary sweetness so often associated with Disney. But the picture is technically astounding and a visual delight. The dwarfs are funny and have distinct–if shallow–personalities. But Snow White herself and her Prince Charming are so dull that you might find yourself rooting for the evil stepmother (who’s pretty scary, actually). Newly restored and projected off of a DCP, the engagement is in conjunction with The Walt Disney Family Museum’s current exhibition on the film.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The various theaters will be showing it digitally, but I don’t know exactly how and on screens of what size. A 4K DCP would be the digital equivalent of 70mm, but I’m not sure that Warner Brothers has even made it available in that format.

A Steamboat Bill, Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Billsteamboatbill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man that the very-macho Bill imagined, but as an urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story,and you really can’t ask for more. And it contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. With two shorts, and Frederick Hodges on the piano.

A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight 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 double bill with Arabesque, which I haven’t seen.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving Oz 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.

B The Intouchables, Rafael, opens Friday. I really can’t complain about France’s latest big commercial hit. As you’d expect, it’s a crowdthe_intouchablespleaser. Based on a true story, it follows the thorny but eventually healing friendship between a wealthy paraplegic and the African immigrant hired as his caregiver. Of course it’s a box office bonanza–the movie is funny, heartwarming, and celebrates life, it stars two men of exceptional talent and charisma, and it’s as carefully designed as a well-made clock. But it’s also just as predictable. Read my full review.

What’s Screening: August 24 – 30

No festivals this week.

B Alps, Roxie, opens Friday for one-week run.  I’m not exactly sure what to make of Alps. It has just enough continuity to make you try and follow the story, but there’s no story to follow. Many of the characters (primarily the female ones) seem sympathetic, yet their motivations and actions are often entirely opaque. There’s absolutely no mention of politics or government, yet I think it’s about totalitarianism. It’s often boring, yet more often its utterly compelling and strangely funny. Read my full review.

C+ Robot & Frank, Embarcadero, Albany, opens Friday. This moderately entertaining comedy, set in an easily-recognizable near future, stars Frank Langella as an aging cat burglar robot_and_franksinking into dementia. His worried son brings him a servant robot to care for him. That he will grow to like the robot is obvious–this is a movie, after all. The twist is what makes Frank like his robot:  the realization that this machine has no scruples about burglary. The result is entertaining and reasonably (but not exceptionally) funny. Both Frank and the audience tend to anthropomorphize the robot, which is to be expected. But it’s nice that the robot occasionally reminds Frank that, although he sometimes appears to have emotions, he really doesn’t have any. Not bad, but inconsequential and forgettable. Read my full review.

A The Band Wagon, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Singin’ in the Rain’s producer and writers teamed up with director Vincente Minnelli to make the one great Fred Astaire vehicle without Ginger Rogers. Their trick? They blended a small dose of reality into the otherwise frivolous mix. For instance, Astaire’s character, an aging movie star nervously returning to the Broadway stage he abandoned years before, is clearly based on Astaire himself. The result is a sly satire of Broadway’s intellectual aspirations, lightened up with exceptional songs and dances including “That’s Entertainment” and “I Love Louisa.” On a double bill with You Were Never Lovelier, which I have never seen.

A High Noon, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Thursday. Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fablehigh_noon of courage under fire in the old west. On the day of his wedding and his resignation, the town’s sheriff (Cooper) finds out that hardened criminals are on their way, presumably for vengeance. But when he tries to form a posse, the people he thought he could count on turn their backs on him. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.

A+ Silent comedy double bill: City Lights & Sherlock Jr., Castro, Thursday. The A+ goes to City Lights, where Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp falls in love with a blind flower citylightsgirl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Released a year after everyone else had stopped making silents, City Lights has always had a recorded score (composed by Chaplin) and needs no live accompaniment. There’s nothing new about special effects, and in Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton used them to comment on the nature of film itself, entering the movie screen and finding the scenes change around him. Since it’s Keaton, Sherlock Jr.is also filled with impressive stunts and very funny gags.  I have no idea what music will accompany the second feature. Update: On 9/23/12, I corrected an error in this microreview.

Pandemic Double Bill: Contagion & Panic in the Streets, SF Film Society Cinema, Tuesday. Two thrillers, both by major directors, about germs threatening everyone–and the films were made more than 60 years apart. I haven’t seen them, so I won’t say anymore.

A Chinatown, Castro, Tuesday. Roman Polanski may be a rapist,chinatown but you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker. (Not that that in any excuses his actions as a human being.) And that talent was never shown better than in this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixing a few personal scandals in, as well, and handed it over to Polanski, who turned it into the perfect LA period piece. On a John Huston double-bill with Prizzi’s Honor, even though Huston merely acts in Chinatown.

B 2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Sunday and Monday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The Castro can and has presented it in 70mm (although on a flat screen), as well as in 35mm. But this time, they’re presenting it in DCP, which I suspect will be better than 35mm but not as good as 70mm (if they had a 4K digital projector, I’d probably feel differently). Sunday it will play with two shorts, including George Méliès’  “A Trip to the Moon.” On Monday, it will be shown by itself.

What’s Screening: July 6 – 12

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens Thursday.

Wings, Castro, Thursday, 7:00. Primarily rememberedwings as winner of the first Best Picture Oscar (except that the award wasn’t called Best Picture back then), Wings was until a few months ago the only silent film so honored. I saw Wings many, many years ago, and remember being reasonably entertained. However, there are reasons to suspect it will be better this time around. It has recently gone through a major restoration. And it will be accompanied not only by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, but also by sound effects wizard Ben Burtt, the man who crafted the sound for Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Wall-e. (Read my report on another Burtt personal appearance.) Opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, various theaters, Thursday, 7:00. In 1952, the late twenties singininrainseemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. For the film’s 60th anniversary, Fathom Events and TCM will be beaming it to hundreds of theaters across the country, as they did with Casablanca back in March.

B+ Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, SF Film Society Cinema, opens Friday for one-week run. I’ve never seen the point of performance art (as opposed to the performing arts, which Marina AbramovicI love), but Matthew Akers’ documentary on this particular performing artist won me over. It follows Abramovic’s preparations and presentation of a major show at MOMA, with sidelines into her past life and work. She’s a fascinating person, filled with life, devoted to her work, humane, empathetic, and sexy as all hell (at 63). For her art, she puts herself through more physical torture than a ballerina or a stunt double. For this show, she sat for many hours a day, not saying a word and barely moving, as museum patrons sat down across from her and looked into her eyes for a few minutes. Often, they ended up crying.

C La strada, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Back when I was in high school, this became the first old, black-and-white, European, subtitled film I ever loved. But it turned out to be one of those loves you eventually outgrow. Giulietta Masina brilliantly plays a simple, innocent girl sold by her parents to a coarse, crude, and violent traveling strongman (Anthony Quinn in another strong performance). But for all the great acting, Fellini’s 1954 heartbreaker comes off now as shallow. Even worse, it manages to romanticize child abuse. (Or is it spouse abuse? The movie is never too sure about that.) Part of the series Bellissima: Leading Ladies of the Italian Screen.

Triple Bill: Clueless, Mean Girls, & Heavenly Creatures, Castro, Friday, 7:30. Three features about teenage girls. I haven’t seen any of them in years, but I remember liking all of them–despite having never been a teenage girl. The first is a loose adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, the second was written by Tina Fey, and the third is early Peter Jackson.   I don’t know if it was intentional, but over the course of the movies in the order they’ll be presented, the protagonists go from reasonably civilized to vicious to homicidal. A MiDNiTES for MANiACS presentation.

B+ Wizard of Oz Sing-A-Long, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. 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. I haven’t experienced the sing-a-long version.

B- Clockwork Orange, Kabuki, Wednesday. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it doesn’t add up.

Weekend, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:05. I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s satire many years ago. I don’t remember it well enough to give it a grade, but if I did, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a high one. I remember finding the early scenes mildly amusing as it attacked obvious targets, but it quickly bogged down into agitprop. I’m sorry, but two workmen staring into the camera, eating their lunch, while an unseen narrator gives the audience a lecture on Marxist dialectics, doesn’t make good art, good entertainment, or even good agitprop. But then, with the single exception of Breathless, I’ve yet to see a Goddard film I could stand. New 35mm print.

What’s Screening: February 17 – 23

IndieFest continues through this week, and it’s the only festival that does.

However, I’ve added a new movie theater to the honor roll: the Alameda Theater. A grand old palace with a multiplex attached, it specializes in current fare, but it plays a classic film every Wednesday and Thursday.

A High Noon, Alameda, Wednesday & Thursday. Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fablehigh_noon of courage under fire. On the day of his wedding and his resignation, the town’s sheriff (Cooper) finds out that hardened criminals are on their way, presumably for vengeance. But when he tries to form a posse, the people he thought he could count on turn their backs on him. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.

A Paths of Glory, Castro, Wednesday. It’s not enough to show that war is hell. A great war movie should also show that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer men. Perhaps that’s why World War I, so obviously pointless, has inspired more great films than any other war. Stanley Kubrick’s addition to the cannon–where three enlisted men are tried for cowardice to hide incompetence at high levels–is one of the best. On a double bill with Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, which I saw once, long ago, on network TV with commercials.

onlyangelsA- Only Angels Have Wings, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. The only non-comedy out of the five films that Grant made for director Howard Hawks. Part of the series Howard Hawks: The Measure of Man

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version), Castro, Saturday. The best alien invasion movie of the 1950’s (and no, that’s not quite damning with faint praise),Invasion of the Body Snatchers is noir, sci-fi, and political allegory—although whether this tale of aliens taking over people’s identities is anti-Communist or anti-McCarthy depends more on your politics than on the filmmakers’. Either way, it’s an effective thriller that has been copied many times but not equaled—despite the cuts and annoying narration added by the studio. On a Don Siegel double feature with The Lineup, which I’ve never seen.

Sex in the Shadows, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. I haven’t seen this, but it looks interesting—and possibly even fun. I’ll just quote from the YBCA web site: “Before VHS players and then the internet rendered hardcore pornography ubiquitous and banal, American stag films, often produced and exhibited illegally and viewed almost exclusively by men, held considerable power to shock, entertain, arouse and educate. Tonight’s program, a series of short subjects from the 1920s through the 1960s, will show that they still retain this power. At times drolly amusing, at others appallingly misogynistic, the films are always 100% American and can be usefully viewed as transgressive cinematic monologues suppressed by the moral standards of their day.” Presented by Albert Steg.

B+ The Red Shoes, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. This 1948 Technicolor fable about  sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet at the center is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I discuss The Red Shoes in more detail at War and Ballet @ the PFA. Part of the class and series Film 50: History of Cinema, Film and the Other Arts.

Henry V (1944 version), Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Laurence Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s pro-war epic, but I think I’d probably give it an A-. Shakespeare began the play with a monolog (too famous to cut) about the limitations of the stage—essentially the play apologizing for not being a movie. Olivier got around this challenge by starting his version as a stage play, and letting it slowly break out into full cinema. Yes, it’s gimmicky at times, but it’s also breathtaking, with lovely Technicolor photography and the Bard’s great verse spoken by actors who knew what to do with it.

B Hugo, Castro, Monday. I sometimes wonder whether Singin’ in the Rain really is the greatest movie musical hugoever made, or do I just feel that way because it’s about movies. I don’t believe that Hugo is the greatest family film by a long shot, but it did entertain and enchant me—probably more so than it would have had it been about the meat-packing industry. In his first family film, and his first in 3D, Martin Scorsese uses the new technology brilliantly to draw the audience into the universe of the story. And while that story is slight and cliché-ridden, it has the virtue of touching on early film history and ending with a message—integrated into the story—of the importance of film preservation. Presented in 3D.

National Theatre Live: Travelling Light, Kabuki, Saturday, 7:00; Elmwood, Tuesday & Thursday, 7:00; Monday, 7:00. I know little about this stage play, which will screen in HD. But it is about early cinema, as well as (I’m showing my ethnicity, here) Eastern European Jews immigrating to America.

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