And here’s what else is playing.
B+ Hitchcock Double Bill: The 39 Steps & Sabotage, Friday, 7:00. The B+ goes to The 39 Steps, which is not one of my favorite Hitchcock films, but it’s very well-made and an important step in his becoming the Master of Suspense. The basic story, which he’d repeat again in Saboteur and North by Northwest, involves an every man (Robert Donat) chased both by evil, foreign spies, and by the police, who blame him for a crime committed by the evil, foreign spies. Certainly a fun romp. Although made soon after after 39 Steps, Sabotage feels more like a work from the Apprentice of Suspense. The plot concerns the owner of a London movie theater committing acts of mayhem and destruction on the side, and the negative effect this has on his family life. Technically speaking, this is not a double bill, since each film requires separate admission, but there is a discount if you buy tickets to both. Opening night of the PFA’s big series, Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.
A+ Taxi Driver, Castro, Thursday. When I think of the 1970s as a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that De Niro’s character hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t understand intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. For more about Taxi Driver, see my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with the far more recent Drive.
B+ Spirited Away, Camera 3, Friday, 8:45; Sunday and Thursday, 9:10. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. Part of the Studio Ghibli Series. Unfortunately, the Camera 3 will screen the English-dubbed version, which is odd because only a few months ago, various Landmark theaters screened a new 35mm print with the original Japanese soundtrack and English subtitles. Because of the language problem, I’m grading Spirited Away as a B+ rather than the usual A.
B- Rebecca, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film feels little like a Hitchcock movie. Basically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she has to compete with the memory of his dead first wife. Although it’s not what Hitchcock fans expect, it’s still an entertaining melodrama, with a fine, over-the-top performance by Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to think that a usurper has replaced her lady (her performance provides the most Hitchcockian moments in the picture). This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be (at least John Ford won Best Director for the vastly superior Grapes of Wrath). Another part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.
A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Castro, Saturday. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and no message to help uplift you. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that the rest of it just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it. On a double bill with Superman: The Movie, which I haven’t seen in a very long time and never really cared for.
B Double Bill: Show Boat (1936 version) & My Man Godfrey, Stanford, Friday through Monday. The B+ goes to My Man Godfrey. This depression-era story of a bum-turned-butler provides plenty of laughs. Like all screwball comedies, it finds humor in both romance and class warfare, although Godfrey addresses class issues more pointedly than most screwballs. Perhaps that’s a result of its time—it was made in 1936, early for a screwball but right in the middle of the depression. Godfrey blows it badly in the third act, but that shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the first two. Showboat was director James Whale’s chance to escape the horror genre (in which he made all of his best work), but it’s too plodding and dull to be an effective escape. The first part, involving racial issues and with Paul Robeson in an important supporting role, works quite well. Then it just drags down.
B Argo, Castro, Tuesday. 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 clobber the audience with three saved-in-the-last-second moments that might work with Indiana Jones, but are two too many for an allegedly true story. Another complaint: The real hero of this story, Tony Mendez, is Hispanic and looks it. Affleck is unquestionably white.
C The Sound of Music, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough for light entertainment, yet lacking the substance necessary for anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture-postcard sort of way.