The Mill Valley Film Festival finishes Sunday. But don’t’ despair. The Arab Film Festival opens today (Friday). The one-day Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase happens Saturday. And the Bay Area ReelAbilities Disabilities Film Festival opens Wednesday.
Plus, there are all of these:
A The Two Faces of January, Embarcadero Center, Shattuck, opens Friday; Rafael, opens Monday. The Two Faces of January is the best new thriller I’ve seen since Headhunters, but it’s a very different kind of thriller–more cerebral, less fun, and more plausible. When we first meet them, Chester and Colette MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst) are a wealthy, attractive, and happy American couple vacationing in Greece in the early 1960s. Then they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), also American, but scratching out a living as a tour guide–and sublimating his earnings with petty larceny. Of course there’s a love triangle, but the story is really about crime and deception. But who’s the criminal? And who’s deceiving who? Read my full review.
A+ Night of the Living Dead, New Parkway, Saturday, 9:30. This is fear without compromise. The slow, nearly unstoppable ghouls (sequels and imitations would rename them zombies) were shockingly gruesome in 1968. Decades later, the shock is gone. But the dread and fear remain, made less spectacular but more emotionally gripping by the black and white photography. Night of the Living Dead is scary, effective, occasionally funny, and at times quite gross. It can be viewed as a satire of capitalism, a commentary on American racial issues, or simply as one of the scariest horror films ever made.Read my essay.
A+ The Last Waltz, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. On Thanksgiving night, 1976, The Band played their final concert at San Francisco’s legendary Winterland Ballroom. Among their performing guests were Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and Joni Mitchell. The filmmakers were just as talented: director Martin Scorsese, cinematographers Michael Chapman and Vilmos Zsigmond, and art director Boris Leven. No wonder this was the greatest rock concert movie ever made. Scorsese and company ignored the audience and focused on the musicians, creating an intimate look at great artists who understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event.
A+ Sunrise, Castro, Saturday, 8:00. Haunting, romantic, and impressionistic, F. W. Murnau’s first American feature turns the mundane into the fantastic and the world into a work of art. The plot is simple: A marriage, almost destroyed by another woman, is healed by a day of reconciliation and romance in the big city. But the execution, with its stylized sets, beautiful photography, and expressionist performers, makes it both touchingly personal and abstractly mythological. Basically a silent film, the 1927 Sunrise was one of the first films released with a soundtrack (music and effects, only). But the Castro will have live organ accompaniment by Warren Lubich.
A- Two Days, One Night, Sequoia, Saturday, 5:45; Rafael, Sunday, 2:00. The boss gives his employees a choice: Either Sandra (Marion Cotillard) keeps her job, or everyone else receives a large bonus. Over the weekend, Sandra must visit 16 workers and convince a majority to sacrifice €1,000 for her sake. To make matters worse, Sandra is recovering from severe depression and has become dependent on pills. This latest film from the Dardenne brothers gives us modern capitalism in a nutshell. Workers, who would naturally be allies, are forced to fight over the limited resources available to pay non-management employees. Rather than becoming a political tract, this film feels like a very real situation, where everyone must make a difficult decision that will inevitably result in moral compromise. Part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.
A+ Cary Grant double bill: Notorious & Only Angels Have Wings, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. The A+ goes to Notorious, where a scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman proves her patriotism by seducing, bedding, and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant’s secret agent sends her on this deadly and humiliating mission, then reacts with blind jealousy. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review. In Only Angels Have Wings, Cary Grant heads a team of mail plane pilots in a remote corner of South America. There’s little plot here, just a study of men who routinely fly under very dangerous conditions, and how they cope with death as an every-day part of life. On its own, I’d give this one an A-.
A Rome Open City, Castro, Wednesday. Roberto Rossellini helped create Italian neorealism in this dark tale of the German occupation. Gritty and at times horrifying, it vividly recreates the physical dangers and mental strains of living under Nazi rule. Technically, I suppose, it shouldn’t count as neorealism, since two major parts are played by established stars: Anna Magnani takes the central role of a pregnant woman who discovers that her fiancé is working for the underground, and the usually comic Aldo Fabrizi takes on a rare dramatic role as a priest who finds he has to administer to more than just souls. On a double bill with The Fugitive Kind.
A Key Largo, Castro, Sunday. In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character actors like Humphrey Bogart. But by 1948, Bogey was the top star and Robinson the supporting player (and a great one). Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Bogart faces off against gangster Robinson. Most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and John Huston adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? On a double bill with Harper, which I haven’t seen.
C Tu Dors Nicole, Rafael, Friday, 3:45; Sequoia, Saturday, 8:45. Like its main character, this low-key French-Canadian comedy/drama seems to make a point of going nowhere. That would be fine if it was already in an interesting place. The protagonist is a young woman sharing in her parent’s comfortable home (while they’re out of town) with her brother and his band. Early on, writer/director Stéphane Lafleur shows a nice touch for quiet, off-beat humor, with an awkward end to a one-night-stand and a 10-year-old boy with the baritone voice of a large man. But the humor dries up soon, and then there’s nothing left but characters who–aside from some occasional moments–are neither deep nor interesting. Another part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.
B+ American Graffiti, Rafael, Thursday, 7:30. Benefit for the Friends of the San Rafael Public Library. A long time ago, in a Bay Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s.
A Spartacus, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. This very fictionalized version of the famous Roman slave revolt is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of toga epics. And yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire doesn’t give us the glory of Rome, concentrating instead on the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of an empire. Star and Executive Producer Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo a well-deserved screen credit, which helped end the blacklist. For more, see Cemeteries and Gladiators, On the Moral Dilemma of Gladiator Movies, and How I lost my love for Stanley Kubrick.
B+ This Is Spinal Tap, UC Berkeley’s Crescent lawn, Friday, 8:00. Free outdoor screening. The mockumentary to end all rockumentaries. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven. Part of the PFA series, Endless Summer Cinema.
B- A Clockwork Orange, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it just doesn’t add up. Part of the series Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick.
A Chinatown, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Roman Polanski may be a rapist, but you can’t deny his talent as a filmmaker (which doesn’t excuse his actions as a human being). And that talent was never better than when he made this neo-noir tale of intrigue and double-crosses set in the Los Angeles of the 1930s. Writer Robert Towne fictionalized an actual scandal involving southern California water rights, mixed in a few personal scandals, and handed the whole story over to Polanski, who turned the script into the perfect LA period piece.
C- Popeye, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Robert Altman’s one attempt at a big-budget family musical manages to be both extremely odd and utterly mediocre. The story is a mess, the gags are too outrageous to be funny (there are some things that only work in animation), and Harry Nilsson’s songs are utterly forgettable. The only real joy is watching actors who are remain recognizable as themselves while managing near-perfect physical embodiments of famous cartoon character; for the best example, consider Shelley Duvall’s amazing likeness to Olive Oyl.
C- Vertigo, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. I recently revisited everybody else’s favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, officially now the greatest film ever made, and I liked it better this time, so much that I’m bringing its grade up from a D to a C-. My main problem with the movie is that neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog. New 4K restoration.
Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.
B- Terror by Night, Stanford, Friday. In the early 1940s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in 12 low-budget, updated Sherlock Holmes adventures for Universal. This is one of the best, with our heroes riding on a night train while tracking a jewel thief who’s not above murder. The enclosed setting of the train, combined with the rumbling of the tracks, adds atmospheric suspense that you usually don’t get in these films. True, the identity of the villain is both ridiculously obvious and totally unbelievable, but Rathbone was such a great Holmes that you can forgive such silliness. On a double bill with a Charlie Chan picture called Castle in the Desert, which I have not seen. For my thoughts on both of these series, see Charlie Chan, Sherlock Holmes, and the Strange Case of the Stereotyped Detective.