San Francisco International Film Festival continues through this week. As usual, I put festival listings at the end of this newsletter.
A Strangers on a Train, Castro, Wednesday. 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 Farley Granger double bill with The Live By Night, which I haven’t seen.
A Swing Time, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time is a close second, and the only other masterpiece in the series. Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Fred is an incredibly lucky gambler who for private reasons has to limit his winnings. It’s just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On a double bill with Cabin in the Sky, which I saw long ago.
A Jaws, Castro, Saturday. Steven Spielberg thought this out-of-control production would end his still-new career. Instead, it put him on the top of the Hollywood pyramid; and with good reason. By combining an intelligent story (lifted by novelist Peter Benchley from Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People), brilliant editing, and a handful of effective shocks, Jaws scares the living eyeballs out of you. On a double bill with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which I saw much too long ago to comment on it now.
The Strange Case of Angelica, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, opens Thursday for a four-day run. No, I haven’t seen this Portuguese film, which received a limited run last year. That was digital. This will be the film’s first local screening in 35mm.
B+ True Grit (2010 version), Red Vic, Thursday and next Friday. The Coen brothers take on the most classic American genre and treat it with surprising reverence and respect. They allow only slices of their wry wit to invade the story, along with some barely PG-13 slices (literally) of their equally distinctive grotesque violence. Forget about Jeff Bridges as the alleged star. This movie belongs to 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, who’s in every scene as a determined youngster willing to undergo any hardship to avenge her father’s death.
A Manhattan, Red Vic, Friday. Made soon after Annie Hall (his first drama, Interiors, came in between), Manhattan doesn’t measure up to Woody Allen’s masterpiece, but it’s still one of his best. A group of New Yorkers fall in and out of love, cheat on their significant others, and try to justify their actions, all in glorious Cinemascope and black and white, and accompanied by Gershwin. In light of Allen’s more recent personal history, his character’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl feels both unsettling and more revealing than he probably intended.
D Moulin Rouge, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Did this frenetic yet lifeless absurdity really resurrect the movie musical, or did it just happen to come out the year before Chicago? Okay, the whimsical, neo-Méliès art direction evokes a pleasant fantasy of Paris at the start of the 20th century, but the songs–all pop hits from the 1980′s and ’90′s–destroy that mood. The dance numbers are so heavily edited that we can’t tell if anyone in the cast can actually take a step. I don’t object to the lightweight plot (Top Hat is no War and Peace), but the ingénue’s fatal disease feels like a tacked-on attempt at depth.
A- An Afternoon with Frank Pierson with a screening of Dog Day Afternoon, Kabuki, Saturday, 12:30 (afternoon). The winner of this year’s Kanbar Award for screenwriting, Pierson will be on-hand to discuss his career and answer questions. Then we’ll be treated by this ’70s classic, written by Pierson and directed by the recently-deceased Sidney Lumet. Two likeable but incompetent robbers (Al Pacino and John Cazale, both fresh from Godfather II) try to hold up a bank in one those rare comedies based on a real-life incident. The result is touching, tragic, and very funny.
An Afternoon with Serge Bromberg, including Retour de Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D, Castro, Sunday, 5:00. This year’s Mel Novikoff Award recipient, preservation and programmer Serge Bromberg will be interviewed onstage. Then he’ll present us with a collection of a century’s worth of 3D shorts, including works by Dave Fleischer, Louis Lumière, George Méliès, and Chuck Jones. As I understand it, everyone in the audience will need two pairs of special glasses.
A Living on Love Alone, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:00. “Youth,” as W. S. Gilbert wrote, “must have its fling.” But flings have consequences, and growing up can be painful. Writer/director sabelle Czajka’s second feature starts out examining the difficulties a young person faces as she enters the job market. It finishes as something far scarier. Julie (Anaïs Demoustier) is 23, beautiful, impulsive, and looking for a job. But she can’t hold onto one. No surprise she falls for a charming, good-looking young man who refuses to be tied down with work—and doesn’t seem to care about it, either. A character study that slides slowly into a thriller, Living on Love Alone mixes a strong moral sense with a sympathetic eye for those too young to see right from wrong.
A Walking Too Fast, Pacific Film Archive, Monday, 8:30. Set in Communist Czechoslovakia before the Velvet Revolution, Radim Spacek’s taut thriller provides one of the best villains I’ve seen in a long time: a mentally-deranged secret policeman who’s turning from an efficient monster into an out-of-control one (Ondřej Mal). Early on, you sympathize with him even as he horrifies you. But as he becomes obsessed with a beautiful redhead sleeping with a adulterous and irresponsible dissident (no one comes off as a saint here), the sympathy quickly evaporates. He’s scary enough to make you root (temporarily at least) for the other secret policemen. It’s tempting to compare this with The Lives of Others, but although they’re both set in Communist Eastern Europe and deal with similar issues, they’re quite different. Wrter Ondrej Stindl and director Radim Spacek keep you on the edge of your seat, even while refusing to give you someone worth cheering for–no easy feat.
B+ The Good Life, Kabuki, Sunday, 9:00. This Danish documentary looks at an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter trying to stay afloat financially. Once wealthy, now poor, they can barely make it. The nearly-56-year-old daughter was raised for a life of luxury, never had to work, and considers work beneath her. She blames her mother for her attitude. At least they have scenery. Although ethnically Danish, they live in a beautiful coastal town in Portugal. A funny yet heartbreaking look at a dysfunctional relationship. I go into slightly more detail here.
B The Light Thief, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 8:45. Writer/director/star Aktam Arym Kuba plays a classic holy fool character in this atmospheric comedy (with traces of tragedy) from Kyrgyzstan. Knownsimply as Mr. Light, he keeps the power running throughout the poor village. And if people can’t afford to pay for electricity, Mr. Light helps them steal it. He seems to have a blessed life, with an innocence that allows him to survive accidents that would be fatal to a more cynical individual. But when an ambitious and quite possibly corrupt politician wants to use our hero’s skills for his own schemes, Mr. Light must face a challenge to his unshakeable sense of right and wrong.
B- Attenberg, VIZ Cinema @ New People, Friday, 3:15. You have to adjust yourself to the slow pace of Athina Rachel Tsangari’s story of a young woman simultaneously facing her late-blooming sexuality and her father’s mortality. The static and low-key opening scene of two women kissing in the most awkward way possible sets the tone: Be patient, and you’ll be rewarded with some unique yet believable individuals, as well as some genuine and human laughs. And with the funniest sex scene i have ever seen.
C- At Ellen’s Age, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Flight attendant Ellen arrives home to her boyfriend, who’s strangely distant. He got another girl pregnant. Then Ellen does something stupid and loses her job, and everything goes weird from there. The story meanders, and occasionally just changes without explanation. That can work if done with wit, good characters, and a point of view. In fact, it could happen with any of these. But there’s little evidence of such virtues here.
D- The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Pacific Film Archive, 1:30. From 1966 until 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania with an iron grip. Then his own people executed him and his wife. That’s a great story, but Andrei Ujica misses most of it, instead giving us three hours of repetitive, propagandistic "news" footage with some home movies thrown in. How many times can you watch him honored by the Chinese? How many birthday pageants must you attend? How often can you watch his family happily hunting big game? There’s a compelling story of great evil inside this footage. But rather than finding it, Ujica just presents the footage.