What’s Screening: January 20 – 26

The Wages of Separation When You Put Safety Last

Noir City opens today (Friday) and runs through the week and a bit beyond.

A A Separation, Embarcadero Center, opens Friday. Writer/director Asghar Farhadi demonstrates how good people can turn against a_separationeach other in this harrowing tale from Iran about divorce, family responsibilities, and courtroom drama. A middle-class couple break up over an irreconcilable difference. He hires a housekeeper to care for his senile father. That housekeeper—poor, pregnant, with a young daughter in tow and a husband who doesn’t know she’s working—is clearly not up for the task. When disaster strikes, everyone ends up in court, where people are soon doubting their own words. This one will stick with you. See my full review.

A The Wages of Fear, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:10. Four poverty-stricken Europeans, desperately stranded in South America, take on a frightfully dangerous job because their only other choice is starvation. They agree to transport a very large quantity of nitroglycerin, in two ill-equipped trucks, across poorly-maintained mountain roads. You’ll find few other thrillers this painfully suspenseful. But Wages of Fear is more than just a thriller. Director and co-writer Henri-Georges Clouzot had some strong opinions on poverty, exploitation, and American economic imperialism, and he used this nail-biting movie to discuss them. An exceptional work. Part of the series Henri-Georges Clouzot: The Cinema of Disenchantment.

B+ Safety Last, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. Harold Lloyd’s iconic image, hanging from a large clock high over a city street, comes from this boy-makes-good-by-risking-his- neck fairytale. Lloyd made better pictures, but even run-of-the-mill Lloyd is damn funny. And once he starts climbing that building, there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this Lloyd. The laughs–and thrills–don’t stop. On a double-bill with Hot Water, another Lloyd feature, but one  that I haven’t seen in decades. Dennis James will accompany both movies on the Stanford’s Wurlitzer organ.

A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because they think he’s stupid. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness today, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to your throat. And it’s just plain entertaining.

B Medicine for Melancholy, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. One could describe this low-budget indie as the African-American version (and the Bay Area version) of Before Sunrise. We discover the two characters as they discover each other, maneuver around their mutual attraction, and talk about their very different attitudes about life and race. Tracey Heggins and a pre-Daily Show Wyatt Cenac make attractive and likable leads, and for the first hour they’re completely worth spending time with. But two-thirds of the way through the movie takes a wrong turn to nowhere. Beautifully shot with a color palette so desaturated it often looks like black and white. Read my more in-depth report. Part of the PFA’s annual African Film Festival, which is odd because Medicine for Melancholy is not an African film.

C- Gone With the Wind, Stanford, Saturday through Thursday. I have a weakness for big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s the blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, and generally just winch at it. But Gone with the Wind goes over the top. The entire story is based on the assumed inferiority of African Americans (called darkies in the dialog because the Hayes Office wouldn’t let them use the word nigger), and the presumption that slavery is their natural and rightful place. All that is made worse by the large number of people who even today find this movie’s attitudes acceptable. Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is pretty good, but boredom sets in after the intermission. In fact, the post-war section is kind of like a slasher flick; x number of characters have to die before the movie ends and you can go home. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie.

A The Artist, Marina, opens Friday. Michel Hazanavicius just made a silent movie about the death of silent movies. Even more amazing than that, he pulls it off, creating a warm, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally sad story of a Hollywood star’s fall from grace as talkies ruin his career. Meanwhile, a struggling actress who loves him becomes a star in the new medium of talkies. Hazanavicius fills the picture with funny bits that illuminate the characters, the setting, and the medium. A black-and-white, narrow-screen, silent film is a hard sell in today’s market, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see that The Artist found an audience. Read my full review.

A Red Desert, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30; Sunday, 2:00.  No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a red_desertsense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large plant that’s spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Through her mental deterioration, she plans to open a shop (without any clear idea of what she’ll sell), flirts with one of her husband’s co-workers (Richard Harris, dubbed into Italian), worries about disease, and attends a party that stops just short of an orgy. Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation; I’ve never seen out-of-focus images used so effectively. A brand-new 35mm print.