What’s Screening: February 15 – 21

IndieFest continues through the week. The Black LGBT Film Festival plays the New Parkway tonight through Sunday, while Silent Winter takes over the Castro Saturday. Now, if anyone can come up with an independent black LGBT silent film, we’ll have all of our bases covered.

I’ve placed my Silent Winter capsules at the end of this newsletter.

A Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Peter Jackson’s mammothimage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy does remarkable justice to the original, while remaining an exceptional and moving entertainment in its own right. As with the novels, Jackson’s films are at their best when they show us hobbits, but the taller characters seem less stodgy here than on the page. The Castro will screen the shorter theatrical versions, but that’s still over nine hours of Middle Earth.

B Chang, Pacific Film Archive, Tuesday, 7:00. Six years before making King Kong, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack created this ethnographic story about a native family struggling to survive in the Siam jungle. It doesn’t really examine the Siamese culture in much depth, but it provides plenty of cute animals (everyone seems to have a pet monkey), scary animals (tigers and leopards are a constant threat), and animal slaughter (when you come right down to it, the humans are more of a threat to the tigers than the tigers are to the people). The result is fun and thrilling, although it’s marred by horrible intertitles, including some that have the animals saying cute and cloying things. Introduced by Professor Linda Williams, as part of two separate series: On Location in Silent Cinema and Documentary Voices.

A Strangers on a Train, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. One of Hitchcock’s scariest strangersontrainfilms, 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. Part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.

A Casino Royale, Castro, Thursday. The best James Bond flick since From Russia With Love, in large part because it doesn’t feel like a James Bond flick. (In fact, to a large degree, it feels like a James Bond book. And the book it feels like, amazingly enough, is Casino Royale.) Instead of gadgets, countless babes, wit, and incredible cool, you get a well-made and gritty thriller with several great action sequences (and a couple of babes). It just so happens that the protagonist, a newly-promoted, borderline psychotic government agent with a huge chip on his shoulder, is named Bond–James Bond. On a double bill with Quantum of Solace, which I haven’t seen.

A- Life of Pi, 3D, Castro, Tuesday. Told in flashback and shot almost entirely in a studio water tank, Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian boy who’s shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific ocean, sharing his lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. Clearly, this is meant as a parable, as the boy gains skills and discovers abilities he didn’t know he had, while wrestling with fate, God, and a companion who wants to eat him. The computer-animated tiger, I’m glad to say, behaves like a real beast, not an adorable Disney creation. The digital effects aren’t always convincing, and the story occasionally drags, but the film’s best parts easily outweigh the weak ones. And it makes excellent use of 3D.

B- Alfred Hitchcock Double Bill: Rebecca & Suspicion, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. Rebecca earns this double bill it’s B-. With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film feels little like a Hitchcock movie.image 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. The second feature, Suspicion might have been as good as Rebecca, or even better, if it had not been for the studio demanding a happier ending.

The Bicycle Thief, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10. I haven’t seen Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realism masterpiece in at least 20 years, so I’m officially unqualified to recommend it. But I remember something stunning and moving, and probably relevant to our economically uncertain times. Part of the class and series Film 50: History of Cinema: The Cinematic City.

A- The Master, New Parkway, Friday, 6:30. As you probably know, Paul Thomas Anderson loosely based The Master on Scientology and it’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard. But this is no more a critique of Hubbard’s cult than Citizen Kane is an attack on Hearst newspapers. The story is really about an alcoholic drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who finds himself in the circle of a charismatic cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Neither man is trustworthy; one steals from his hosts, the other runs what he may or may not consciously realize is a scam. Amy Adams gives The Master’s third great performance, as the "great" man’s wife–sweet on the outside but inwardly hard as nails. The film suffers from a weak third act. Shot in the 70mm format. For more on the film and the format, see The Master, by a Master, in Masterly 70mm and When You Least Expect It: The Return of 70mm,

B Young and Innocent, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Alfred Hitchcock made Young and Innocent just before The Lady Vanishes, but aside from one great tracking shot, it feels like the new Master of Suspense was just going through the motions. The story concerns a man accused of a murder he didn’t commit–a plot device out of which Hitchcock made far better films. On a double-bill with another British Hitchcock thriller, Secret Agent; I haven’t seen that one.

A+ Casablanca, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. What can I casablancasay? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly.  For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece.

Silent Winter

A- The Thief of Bagdad, Castro, Saturday, 2:30. What’s more fun than state-of-the-art imagespecial effects? State-of-the-art special effects circa 1924. Douglas Fairbanks’ massively spectacular Arabian Nights fantasy never actually fools you into thinking a horse can fly, but the clever effects and imaginative set design inspire awe and delight all the same. As does Fairbanks’ performance as the energetic and happily ambitious thief. Don’t expect actual Arabian flavor here; this is pure early Hollywood fancy. And don’t expect 21st century racial attitudes in Fairbanks’ treatment of the Chinese. A lot of fun, but not up to the 1940 Technicolor remake. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra–amongst my favorite silent film musical ensembles.

A- Think Slow, Act Fast: Buster Keaton Shorts, Castro, Saturday, 12:00. Only "One Week," among imagethe three Keaton shorts to be screened, count amongst my personal favorites. But the other two, "The Scarecrow" and "The Play House," still provide plenty of laughs. Between the three of them, Buster entertains us with astonishing acrobatics, stunning special effects, a quirky and fatalistic world view, and very little plot. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano.

B+ Faust, Castro, Saturday, 9:00. F.W. Murnau’s last German film before coming to America and making Sunrise, Faust doesn’t quite measure up to his best work. But the story has always been a strong one, and Murnau’s mastery of images and special effects are as amazing as ever. Besides, Emil Jannings makes one heck of a fascinating devil. Accompanied by Christian Elliott on the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.

B- Snow White (1916 version), Castro, Saturday, 10:00am. Possibly the first feature version of the famous fairy tale, this vehicle for actress Marguerite Clark suffers from much of the stage-bound theatricality that cinema was just growing out of in 1916. But it offers some significant pleasures, including Clark’s winning performance, some nice gags involving the witch, and some real character development for the sympathetic huntsman who spares Snow White’s life (surely that wasn’t a spoiler, was it?). Last I checked, there was a significant amount of missing footage, but not enough to really hurt the film. Also accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano.