What’s Screening: January 17 – 23

In festival news, For Your Consideration closes today, and Berlin & Beyond continues through Tuesday.

The Apu Trilogy, Pacific Film Archive, Friday through Sunday. It’s been way too long imagesince I’ve seen Satyajit Ray’s trilogy about a young boy growing into a man. The PFA will screen 35mm restored prints of all three films on consecutive days. These films will open the series The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray, which includes both his films and films that influenced him.

A Chinatown, Castro, Wednesday. Roman Polanski maybe a rapist, but you can’t chinatowndeny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never shown better than in this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in Los Angeles in the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed it over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece. On a double bill with The Fortune.

A- The Princess Bride, Balboa, Saturday, 10am. William Goldman’s enchanting and imagefunny fairy tale, The Princess Bride,dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers, and Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves.

A Duck Soup, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:00. The ultimate Marx Brother movie–zany, ducksoupbizarre, satirical, contemptuous of respectability, and  thoroughly hilarious. A blatantly corrupt politician (Groucho Marx) becomes a tiny 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. Zeppo plays his personal secretary, and Chico and Harpo are spies for the enemy. Part of the series Funny Ha-Ha: American Comedy, 1930–1959. You might note that the PFA is screening Duck Soup just before The World of Apu. Thank goodness they’re charging separate admission, because that would make a very strange double bill.

B+ Mark of Zorro (1920 version), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This 1920 adventure flick is where it all began. Douglas Fairbanks bought the rights to a then-new serialized novel, projected his already-imagefamous athletic comic hero into a romanticized past, grabbed a sword, and invented the movie swashbuckler. There are better swashbucklers, better Zorro movies, and better Fairbanks vehicles (the sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro, is all three), but no other catches the birth of a genre. With Chaplin and Broncho Billy shorts. All accompanied by by Frederick Hodges at the piano.

The Bicycle Thief, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. I haven’t seen Vittorio De imageSica’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 series The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray, because Ray has claimed that The Bicycle Thief helped inspire him to become a filmmaker.

C+ To Catch a Thief, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. More like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller one expects from the master of suspense. Not one of his best works by a long shot, To Catch a Thief nevertheless provides a few good scenes and sufficient fun. Besides, 106 minutes of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Monaco (when they kiss, fireworks go off), photographed in the beauty of VistaVision, can’t be all bad.

A 12 Years A Slave, Kabuki, 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 20 Feet From Stardom, New Parkway, opens Friday. Now I know why almost all backup singers are African American. They learned to sing in church. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocalimage texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton (“Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without credit (“He’s a Rebel”). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) pop up among the talking heads (as do The Talking Heads), but this time, the spotlight points to the lesser-known artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice.