What’s Screening: December 21 – 27

No festivals this weekend, but there is a deeply religious Christian holiday turned into an orgy of consumerism.

Also some really good movies. We’ll start with a very special rarity that you may never get another chance to enjoy:

A Miracle Mile, Castro, Friday, 9:20. This apocalyptic romantic comic tragedy thriller sits high on my list of little-known gems. Miracle Mile starts out as a gentle, witty, charming, and sweet-natured romanticmiraclemile1 comedy. Then the male lead answers a wrong phone number and discovers that Soviet missiles are fast approaching (the film was made in 1988). The tone remains funny, in a very dark and suspenseful way, as he searches for his new love and tries to arrange a seemingly hopeless rescue. By the final act, there’s little humor and plenty of horror. Rarely seen and unavailable in a decent video transfer, this is a must. For more details, see Miracle Mile: A Little Miracle I Just Discovered. On a double bill with John Carpenter’s They Live, which starts at 7:30.

B- Ben-Hur (1925 version), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The original isn’t always better than the sequel. The first feature-length version of the best-selling novel–essentially The Count of Monte Cristo meets Jesus Christ–doesn’t quite measure up to the much more impressive 1959 version. Ramon Novarro seems a bit lightweight for the hero, and the story comes off as much more simplistic in its preaching. But it still offers spectacle, suspense, and a wonderful chariot race.  Jon Mirsalis will provide live musical accompaniment.

A The Central Park Five, Roxie, Saturday through Thursday, with no shows on Monday. A white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. NewYork’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime and considerable evidence for their innocence. Ken Burns sets aside his usual historical style to examine this far more recent story of five young men convicted of a horrible crime that they did not commit. Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got to where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is. Read my full review.

singininrainA+ Singin’ in the Rain, Castro, Wednesday. In 1952, the late twenties seemed 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, so 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.

A Double Bill: King Kong (1933 version) & Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Castro, Thursday. The A goes to King Kong. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up, and not  just through Willis O’Brien’s outdated yet still breathtaking special effects. kingkong33The big ape himself is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying, but also confused, loving, majestic, and ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes, Gentlemen Prefer Blodes, contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the leading ladies. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a star, but co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water, giving a far funnier and sexier performance.

A- Moonrise Kingdom, Opera Plaza, opens Friday. Wes Anderson at his most playful. Also at his sweetest and funniest. Two pre-teens in love run away–disrupting everything on the small New England island where the story is set. While the fantasy of young love makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, the adult reaction keeps you laughing–in large part because the main adults are played by major stars clearly enjoying a chance to clown around. They include Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and, best of all, Tilda Swinton as “Social Services.

B Argo, Piedmont, opens Friday. Ben Affleck’s truth-based political thriller holds together very well for most of its runtime, even though we know the ending. After Iranians took the American embassy in 1979, a CIA specialist (Affleck, who also directed) takes on the assignment of rescuing a handful of Americans hiding in the Canadian embassy. His far-fetched plan: Create the illusion of a movie company scouting for locations. The Hollywood and Washington scenes are played very effectively for laughs, while the Tehran scenes provide equally-effective thrills. But in the final half hour, Affleck and his screenwriters provide three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many in an allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.