No festivals running this week. But the CineMark chain is playing Best Picture nominees throughout the week, and I’ll list those at the bottom of this newsletter.
B+ The Strong Man, Balboa, Sunday, 7:00. Frank Capra’s first feature proves to be a marvelous vehicle for silent comedian Harry Langdon, who for a very brief time came close to toppling Chaplin off his throne. Langdon plays the assistant to a vaudevillian strong man, hoping to find his beautiful war-time pen pal. The ultimate innocent child-like man, Langdon has a shocking sexual encounter (shocking to him, not to the audience), fights off a cold to the annoyance of everyone around him, and cleans up a small town at the mercy of bootleggers. Charming, extremely funny, and occasionally preachy, The Strong Man shows Capra’s already-considerable talents at the start of his career. This Balboa’s 88th Birthday Bash will also include performances by the Coffee Zombie Collective and Parlor Tricks, an introduction by Frank Capra biographer Joe McBride, and musical accompaniment (for the feature) by Fredrick Hodges. Fore more on this movie, see The Strong Man at the PFA.
A- Coen Brothers Double Bill: No Country for Old Men & A Serious Man, Castro, Wednesday. The A- goes to A Serious Man. Just when you think the Coen Brothers couldn’t get any stranger, they make this extremely depressing comedy about a middle-aged college professor watching his life fall apart in the days before his stoner son’s Bar Mitzvah. Set in 1967 and grounded in Jewish mysticism, this is a comic tale of utter desperation. I’d only give a B+ to the Coen’s Oscar winner, the extremely dark and depressing No Country for Old Men. While appreciating the film’s craftsmanship, I found the never-ending stream of casual murders off-putting. Javier Bardem makes one very smart, very evil, and very scary villain. Read my full review.
A Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, New People Cinema, Sunday, 3:00. There’s so much historical importance bound up in this marital drama that you can easily overlook how good it is. Told in almost real time, the picture examines a dysfunctional marriage in crisis, held together by mutual denial. This was the first big-screen adaptation of an Edward Albee play, director Mike Nichols’ first film (his second would be The Graduate), the only decent film to come out of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s marriage, and the first Hollywood film to come out with an age restriction—more than two years before the rating system was established. The film would probably be rated PG-13 today. Heavy and powerful.
C+ Dracula (1931), UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. The film that started Universal’s famed horror series, and the first to star Bela Lugosi in the role that made him famous, really doesn’t deserve its classic status. The picture suffers from stilted blocking and too much mediocre dialog–common faults in early talkies, especially those based on stage plays. But it has a few wonderful moments, most of which are wordless. On the other hand, Dracula may be the earliest film that a modern multiplex has screened on its weekly classic series.
C The ZigZag Kid, New Parkway, Sunday, 12:30. Days before his bar mitzvah, the son of a great detective and a long-dead mother finds himself on a journey of adventure and personal discovery. His main companion just might be a master criminal. The story is not quite rousing enough to be fine escapist entertainment, and only rarely thoughtful enough to be anything else. A few clever plot twists keep it from being entirely predictable. Innocuous, mildly charming, and modestly entertaining, The Zigzag Kid is safe for any child old enough to read subtitles. Co-presented by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival
A 20 Feet from Stardom, Vogue, Friday and Saturday. 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 vocal 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. Part of a series on Oscar-nominated documentaries.
A Sing-Along Mary Poppins, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. I have not seen the Sing-Along Mary Poppins; the following comments are about the shut-up-and-watch version. The best live-action movie Walt Disney ever made, and one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really lights up the screen in her first movie appearance, managing to upstage Dick Van Dyke and some wonderful special effects. So what if it takes liberties with the books?
A- On the Waterfront, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00. A thug-run union and conflicted loyalties drive this revered drama, shot on location in New York. Even amongst a brilliant cast with everyone at their best, Marlon Brando stands out as a half-bright dock worker struggling between conflicting loyalties to his family and society as a whole. Yet the story takes a turn that removes that inner conflict a little too easily. And then there’s the issue of the film’s political and autobiographical context. Both writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan named names to get off the anti-Communist blacklist, after which they made this film to justify their acts of cowardice. For more on this film, see Finishing up the PFA’s 4K Series.
A+ Some Like It Hot, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00. The urge to sleep with Marilyn Monroe comes head to head with the urge to keep breathing in Billy Wilder’s comic masterpiece. After witnessing a prohibition-era gangland massacre, two struggling musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) hide from the mob by dressing in drag and joining an all-girl orchestra. But can they stay away from Ms. Monroe and her ukulele? There are comedies with higher laugh-to-minute ratios, and others that have more to say about the human condition. But you won’t find a better example of perfect comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. Read my Blu-ray review.
B Border Incident, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:40. Nothing provides perspective like a 65-year-old film about one of today’s most controversial subjects. This 1949 thriller about illegal immigration gives a Mexican detective hero played by a real Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) –a rarity in those days. The immigrants are treated sympathetically as exploited victims of the evil smugglers and plantation owners. Border Incident is a well-made thriller providing suspense, entertaining if not realistic characters, a modicum of humor, and the most ridiculously unbelievable quicksand I have ever seen in a movie. Part of the series Against the Law: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann. For more on this film, see Crime on both sides of the border: Saturday at Noir City
A- The Princess Bride, New Parkway, continuing. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale 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.
To see what theaters a particular movie is playing in, click the movie title link and enter your zip code.
A 12 Years a Slave, Saturday, 7:00, Wednesday, 9:30. True story: In 1841, con artists kidnapped Solomon Northup–a free-born African American living in 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 saw last year. Read my full review.
A The Wolf of Wall Street, Friday, 9:20, Monday, 9:45. Back in September, I suggested that Martin Scorsese could have done The Great Gatsby justice. Now I know for sure. In this based-on-a-true-story epic, his best film since Goodfellas,he takes us into a glamorous world and makes it look ugly and degenerate. Leonardo DiCaprio brings energy, charisma, recklessness, and charming evil to the lead role of a crooked stockbroker swimming in very profitable larceny. He’s also swimming in drugs and whores. Funny and grotesque, Wolf occasionally tricks you into rooting for DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort, but not for long. Everything in this fast-paced, three-hour film just fits perfectly. People will talk about the Popeye sequence for years to come.
A- Gravity, Friday, 7:00. Thursday, 4:30. Presented in 3D. 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 technically realistic view of space travel ever created on Earth, Gravity not only makes you feel like you’re there; it makes you desperately 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.
B Nebraska, Saturday, 1:15, Monday, 7:00, A good film, but not as good as I’ve learned to expect from Alexander Payne. Yes, Bruce Dern hits the nail on the head for his first lead role since Silent Running. And yes, the movie is filled with Payne’s trademark human touch and low-key humor. But this father/son road movie, with the father sinking into dementia as the son deals with his own emotional problems, could have lost 20 minutes and have been a better film for it. And the ending sinks too deeply into sentimentality. But the good moments, and there are plenty, make up for a lot of the weaknesses.