What’s Screening: December 6 – 12

The only festival this week is Another Hole in the Head, which continues through the week and beyond.

C+ Sweet Dreams, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, opens Friday; Clay, Saturday, 1:30; Rafael, Sunday, 7:00.  This upbeat, everything-turns-out-okay documentary tries to tell three different stories in 84 minutes. While it imagehas its high points, it doesn’t do justice to any of them. The setting is modern Rwanda, not quite 20 years after the genocide. But Sweet Dreams is only peripherally about the scars of mass murder. It concentrates mostly on drumming and starting an ice cream parlor. That’s supposed to be symbolic of the country’s healing.  I wanted depth. I wanted sustenance. But for too much of Sweet Dreams’ running time, I just got ice cream. Great drumming, though. Read my full review. Check this page for personal appearances in Landmark Theaters. Filmmakers, drummers, and Mickey Hart at Rafael.

A Century Ago: The Films of 1913, Rafael, 7:00. Every December, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences steps back a century and presents a program of Traffic in Souls (I think)short subjects from the current year minus 100. But as we go deeper into the 20th century, the movies are getting longer, which is probably why the focus this year is "The Final Reign of One-Reel Films."  In addition to shorts by Lois Weber, D.W. Griffith, and others, the program will include clips for several multi-reel features, including the probably exploitative Traffic in Souls. Accompanied by Michael Mortilla on the Organ.

A Incredible comedy double bill: Miracle of Morgan’s Creek & Duck Soup, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The A goes to both of these movies. In fact, I came very close to giving both of them an A+. In 1944, it was impossible for a Hollywood picture to criticize the American military in any way, or to suggest ducksoupthat a young woman could get pregnant out of wedlock. Yet with Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Preston Sturges managed to make a very funny comedy about a single, teenage, small-town girl who goes out with some soldiers and comes back in a family way. The real miracle is that this movie got passed the censors. In Duck Soup, a blatantly corrupt politician (Groucho Marx) becomes the  country’s all-powerful leader on the whim of the wealthy elite (Margaret Dumont). Once in office, he cuts benefits for the working class, fills important positions with unqualified clowns, and starts a war on a whim. Sound familiar? Zeppo plays his personal secretary, and Chico and Harpo are spies for the enemy. The Marx Brothers at their best.

B+ Midnight Cowboy, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. The only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture (it was eventually re-rated R without changes), Midnight Cowboy was also the picture that made Jon Voight a star and proved that Dustin Hoffman was more than his Graduate character. Voight plays a naïve Texan who comes to New York thinking he’ll become rich as a prostitute for rich women. As I said, he’s naïve. Hoffman plays a grifter who becomes his only friend. A gritty study of two lost souls in the heartless city. Part of the series X: The History of a Film Rating, which I discuss at more length in X-Rated Movies at Yerba Buena.

A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark wonderfullifeside to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, George needs only one new disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because George, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it.

Good Vibrations QUICKIES – Erotic Short Film Competition, Castro, Friday, 7:00. Yes, the title says it all. Since they didn’t preview these, um, dirty shorts for the press, I have no opinion on them. But I suspect it will be a fun evening.

A+ Taxi Driver, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 9:00. When I think of the 1970s astaxidriver1 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. Part of the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Davies Symphony Hall, Friday and Saturday, 7:30. Screened singininrainwith live music by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. 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 12 Years A Slave, Lark, opens Friday. True story: In 1841, Con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living imagein upstate New York–and sold him into slavery down south. This film, based on Northup’s memoirs, shows us the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an educated man turned into a beast of burden. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Northup, horrified, trapped, and mostly helpless. Beautiful yet daring photography, combined with minimalist editing, intensify the horrors. Easily the best new film I’ve seen this year. Read my full review.

A- Gravity, Castro, Tuesday and Wednesday, 3D; New Parkway, opens Saturday. In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey made me want to be an astronaut. In 2013, Gravity cleared any such desire that still lingered. Easily the most imagetechnically realistic view of space travel ever created on Earth, Gravity not only makes you feel like you’re there; it makes you want to return home. An environment with no air, no up or down, and nothing to stop you from drifting is not a nice place to raise your kids. Yes, the story is simplistic and not always realistic (just how close are all those space stations?), but it’s suspenseful, and far more believable than any other recent special effects blockbuster. You really want to see this one at the Castro, both for the larger screen and the 3D.

A Comedy double bill: Sullivan’s Travels & Horsefeathers, Stanford, through Sunday. The A goes to Horsefeathers, but Preston Sturges’ Sullivan Travels on its own would still get an A-. A Hollywood satire, Travels follows a successful film director (Joel McCrea) as he tries to learn about common people. It ends with a stirring speech proclaiming the film’s moral, which is basically "Movies shouldn’t teach morals."  In Horse Feathers, the Marx Brothers go to college, where they major in puns, pranks, and chasing Thelma Todd. The only film where all four perform different variations on the same song–each sillier than the last. Whatever it is, I’m against it!

C Sing-Along Sound of Music, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be 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. I’ve never experienced a Sing-Along Sound of Music presentation, however, so this might be more fun then a conventional screening.