What’s Screening: January 7 – 13

The calendar has sure picked up from last week.

The Castro presents six Hitchcock double bills this week. Most of them are relatively obscure, and with good reason. Except the first double bill, they’re not his best work. I’ve concentrated those listings at the bottom of this newsletter.

And the Pacific Film Archive opens from its winter break on Thursday, with another deservedly-obscure Hitchcock.

A- Sawako Decides, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. How do you manage in a highly competitive world when you’re hopelessly mediocre? That’s the question writer/director Yuya Ishii asks in this strange, ironically funny drama. (The YBCA is calling Sawako Decides a comedy; I’m not so sure I agree.) Sawako has done poorly at work and in love, drinks too much, and thinks little of herself.  But with her father dying, she returns to her home town–current boyfriend and his young daughter in tow–to take over his small business. Although the last act  comes dangerously close to a Hollywood ending, it’s overall a sad, funny, quirky, and ultimately moving tale of people who will never be winners, but may be able to scratch a modicum of happiness out of their lives. Sawako Decides is one of two films in the YBCA series Lost In Japan: The Existential Comedies of Yuya Ishii.

A Groundhog Day, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Is Groundhog Day a deep, spiritual meditation on the nature of human existence and the power of redemption? Or is it simply the best comedy (although not quite the funniest) of the 1990s? It’s hard to say, but as weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over again, with no changes except the ones he makes himself, there appears to be something profound going on along with something profoundly entertaining.

A Double Bill: The Princess Bride & Time Bandits, Castro, Friday, 7:30. (Actually, this is a MiDNiTES for MANiACS triple bill, but as I’ve never seen Deathstalker, I’m not including it.) William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale, The Princess Bride, dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere. But the A in this capsule belongs to Time Bandits. What would you do with a map of the universe’s flaws? For a band of unruly dwarves, the answer is easy: Make it the guide for a time-traveling crime spree. Unfortunately, Evil Incarnate believes that the map will give him unlimited power, and the Supreme Being wants it back. Terry Gilliam takes the children’s fairy tale for a ride in the movie that turned Monty Python’s animator into a major filmmaker.

B- In the Heat of the Night, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. The 1967 Best Picture Oscar winner lost a lot of punch over the the last 43 years. It still works moderately well as a murder mystery, and even more so as a moment in time, captured in celluloid. In 1967, Americans who didn’t hail from Dixie could still pat themselves on the back and be glad they weren’t like those bigoted Southerners. There’s plenty of such backslapping in this tale of a black police detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in a small, Mississippi town. There’s also a few good scenes and one great one. Another Cerrito Classic.

B- The Lost World, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Even though it’s over 85 years old, Hollywood’s first big man vs. dinosaur epic isn’t that different from today’s blockbusters. Like them, it uses amazing special effects to prop up what’s otherwise an extremely silly movie. Of course, the silliness is 1920s silliness–overacting and fake-looking facial hair, and the FX are technically crude by today’s standards. But model animator Willis O’Brien (who would make King King eight years later) was able to infuse his dinosaurs with weight and thought, which sells them to the viewer. With Frederick Hodges on the piano.

D+ Suspicion, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. Every filmmaker who worked in Hollywood mid-century had to contend with dreadful and ridiculous censorship. This early American effort by Alfred Hitchcock might have been a decent but unexceptional entry, but a studio-mandated “happy” ending makes it one of his worst.

Hitchcock Double Bills at the Castro

A The Lady Vanishes, Saturday. The best (and second to last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond, The Lady Vanishes stands among his best. This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself seriously. Only North by Northwest is more enjoyable. On a double-bill with The 39 Steps, which I haven’t seen in too long a time.

B Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Tuesday. This screwball romantic comedy is not the sort of movie we associate with Alfred Hitchcock, but Norman Krasna wrote a very witty screenplay about a married couple who discover they’re not actually married, Carole Lombard gave one of her best performances, and Hitchcock directs it all with the appropriate light touch. On a double-bill with his only other comedy, The Trouble with Harry, which I haven’t seen in 30 years.

B- Lifeboat, Wednesday. Alfred Hitchcock liked a challenge. He set this entire World War II drama in a lifeboat and shot it in a studio tank. There he created a microcosm of society, putting the wealthy and the working class–and even an African-hitchcockAmerican and a Nazi–together in extremely close quarters. They must cooperate to survive. Lifeboat doesn’t quite work as well as it should, often feeling contrived and talky, but it’s an interesting experiment in both constricted storytelling and social commentary. Hitchcock would make two more one-set movies before getting it right (extraordinarily right) in Rear Window. On a double-bill with The Wrong Man, which I’ve never seen.

B- Frenzy, Thursday. Hitchcock’s penultimate movie is far from his best work, but it’s not without its pleasures. An innocent-accused-of-murder thriller set and shot in England, it harkens back to the thrillers that first made him famous. It’s also his only R-rated film, and it’s interesting to see what he did without the confines of censorship. Somewhat perverse and reasonably entertaining, but it suffers from the lack of a likeable protagonist. On a double-bill with his last film, Family Plot, which hardly left any impression on me at all when I saw it about 15 years ago.

C- Rope, Sunday. Not Hitchcock’s worst film, but easily his most frustrating (and the second of his four single-set movies). Hitchcock was working from a terrific screenplay (by Arthur Laurents, adapted by Hume Cronyn from a play by Patrick Hamilton), but he made two major errors. First, he cast James Stewart in a role that in 1948 was still outside of his acting range (it wouldn’t be for long). Second, he made the movie in eight ten-minute shots that give the impression of a single 80-minute shot (which wasn’t possible before the video age), robbing himself of the ability to edit. Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock. On a double-bill with I Confess, which I have never seen.

D Torn Curtain, Monday. By the mid-1960′s, many people felt that the aging Alfred Hitchcock had lost his touch. Torn Curtain makes a good argument that they were right. This cold war thriller has one great scene (a murder in the farm house) and another good one (a discussion in the classroom as security alarms go off), but aside from that it just doesn’t work. A large part of the problem: Paul Newman and Julie Andrews fail utterly to produce the romantic and sexual sparks that the story so utterly depends on.