A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, Stanford, Thursday, 9:00. A here’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, Bailey needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because Bailey, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.
B+ Baraka, Red Vic, Wednesday (and continuing next week). Strange, haunting, beautiful, and terrifying, Baraka defies description. Without plot, narration, or explanation, it simply presents images of nature, humanity, and sprituality. Even if you don’t see a message (there is one), you’re captivated by the music and the clear and perfect visuals. Baraka was one of the last films, and one of the few art films, shot in 65mm. Because the larger film format so much enhances this picture, I grade Baraka A when presented in 70mm, but only B+ in 35mm.
A A Christmas Story, Elmwood, Saturday and Sunday, noon. Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies, at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra, generally make me want to throw up. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.
A The Hurt Locker, Opera Plaza, opens Friday. “War is drug.” Writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow illustrate that point effectively in this suspense drama about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is brilliant as the expert who must get up close and defuse the bombs. This is a man who loves his job–especially the danger that goes with it. The other members of the team (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) aren’t as happy with the risks, or with the dangers that their partner’s risk-taking forces on them. Although The Hurt Locker is edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, it’s not really a thriller. The scary scenes are set pieces, not connected with the others as a hero works towards his goal, but pieces of the puzzle of this man’s psych. I suspect that award season has brought the summer’s critical hit back.
A+ The Adventures of Robin Hood, California Theater, San Jose, Saturday and Sunday. Not every masterpiece needs to provide a deep understanding of the human condition; some are just plain fun. And none more so than this 1938 Errol Flynn swashbuckler. For 102 minutes, you get to live in a world where virtue–graceful, witty, rebellious, good-looking, and wholeheartedly romantic virtue–triumphs completely over grim-faced tyranny. Flynn was no actor, but no one could match him for handling a sword, a beautiful woman, or a witty line, all while wearing tights. And who else could speak treason so fluently? The great supporting cast includes Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Technicolor, a name that really meant something special in 1938.
A+ Casablanca, Stanford, Friday and Saturday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. And that, astonishingly enough, is about it. On a double bill with The Philadelphia Story.
B+ The Wizard of Oz, California Theater, San Jose, Friday. 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.
B The Big Lebowski, Clay, Saturday and Sunday. Critics originally panned this Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to the Coen’s previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve been maintaining this site than than any three other movies put together.
Hitch for the Holidays at the Castro
A+ Notorious, Castro, Saturday. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. On a double bill with The Birds.
A+ North by Northwest, Castro, Sunday. Alfred 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 mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by police for 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 The 39 Steps (the movie, not the current stage play).
A Strangers on a Train, Castro, Tuesday. One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces 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 a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. On a double bill with Hitchcock’s second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (the one with James Stewart and Doris Day).
D Vertigo, Castro, Friday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but it tops my short list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time. Vertigo isn’t like any other Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty.