What’s Screening: January 30 – February 5

We’ve got film festivals:

  • Berlin & Beyond continues at the Castro through Sunday, then has one-day events in Palo Alto and Berkeley, closing on Monday.
  • SF Sketchfest, which is not really a film festival but has some film events, continues through this week and beyond.
  • IndieFest opens Friday.

I’ve placed SF Sketchfest screenings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A Timbuktu, Kabuki, opens Friday. Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by Timbuktuan armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

B+ Altman, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. Robert Altman had been directing television and movies for 17 years before M*A*S*H made this gray-bearded imagegrandfather one of the leaders of the new, young Hollywood. Documentary director Ron Mann provides an informative and entertaining overview of the cinematic rebel who enjoyed a decade of success before changing tastes left him behind. Filled with clips from his movies and interviews with his co-workers and loved ones, it’s a pretty conventional film about a very unconventional filmmaker. But still worth catching. Part of the series Altmanesque.

A Wild, Lark, opens Friday. Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life before she walked into the real wild and got herself together. This film adaptation of Strayed’s memoir follows her as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail and learns how to be a fully in-the-moment adult human being. Interspersed with the hike, the film shows us flashbacks that reveal what sort of person she was before the difficult and dangerous three-month voyage. We learn about her struggling but loving mother who died too soon, and the self-destructive streak that destroyed Cheryl’s marriage.

A+ Citizen Kane, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. How does any movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. imageTrue, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name any this insightful that are also this dazzling and entertaining. As Orson Welles and his collaborators tell the life story of a newspaper tycoon through the flashback memories of those who knew him, they also turn the techniques of cinema inside out. Now I’ll tell you what Rosebud really is: a McGuffin.

A+ Groundhog Day, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30; Monday, 9:30. Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a slick, Hollywood comedy. imageWithout explanation, the movie plunges its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory, living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years). Bill Murray’s weatherman goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out that life is about serving others. And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure entertainment. For more on this great comedy, see Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic.

C+ The Lost Weekend, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:45. Quite noirish in style, but anything but not really noirish in content, The Lost Weekend is the sort of social imageproblem picture we don’t expect from Wilder. The problem is alcoholism, and while Ray Milland earned the Oscar he won for his performance, the picture seems to be more about the problem than the person. I’m not really sure that anyone else associated with this film deserved their Oscars (this one really cleaned up on awards night), but they all did excellent work elsewhere. Part of the series Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Rear Window & Saboteur, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. The A+ goes to Rear Windows. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing imagehimself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, while treating his audience to a great entertainment. In Saboteur, an innocent man is blamed for a dastardly deed done by evil, foreign spies. Now he must run from the law while chasing the villains. Hitchcock used this basic plot three times, and while Saboteur is the weakest of the three, it’s still entertaining enough to earn a B.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. Friday. It’s been a very long imagetime since I’ve seen this 1988 comic fantasy about animated characters and flesh-and-blood people living side by side in late 1940’s Hollywood. I remember it being funny, outrageous, and delightful for anyone who loves old cartoons. The special effects were cutting edge for their day, but still based on pencil, ink, and an optical printer. Today, of course, they’d be digital, and would lose a lot of their old-time charm.

B+ Ghostbusters, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Comedy rarely gets this scary or this imagevisually spectacular. Or perhaps I should say that special-effects action fantasies rarely get this funny (at least intentionally so). Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Sigourney Weaver appear to be having a great time as they try to control the phantasm and monsters suddenly attacking New York City. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon or evening.

B Citizenfour, Elmwood, starts Friday. Laura Poitras’ camera puts us in  the Hong Kong hotel room whreimage Edward Snowden tells Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy. Those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden comes off mostly as a self-effacing nerd who understands right from wrong. But the long discussions in the hotel room become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. Read my longer essay.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Shadow of a Doubt & Under Capricorn, Stanford, through Sunday. The A goes to Hitchcock’s first great American film, Shadow of a Doubt. A serial killer (Joseph Cotton at his most charming) returns to his small-town roots. When his favorite niece (Teresa Wright) begins to suspect that all is not right with her beloved Uncle Charlie, her own life is in danger. Under Capricorn is a reasonably entertaining but unexceptional romantic melodrama set in 19th century Australia. Hitchcock didn’t make many period pieces, and this one shows you why. On its own, I’d give it a B-.

SF Sketchfest

A The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Roxie, Friday, 7:00. SOLD OUT. The real miracle is that this movie got passed the censors. In 1944, the production code didn’t allow the word pregnant in Hollywood movies; nor could you show a woman visibly pregnant. You imagecertainly couldn’t suggest that being…in that way…could be caused by anything other than a marriage license. What’s more, the American military was beyond criticism. Yet that was when  Preston Sturges made this very funny comedy about a small-town girl who goes dancing with a bunch of soldiers and comes home pregnant. With Betty Hutton as expecting mother Trudy Kockenlocker, and Eddie Bracken as the 4F friend who loves her. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer will attend this screening in person.

A+ Groundhog Day, Roxie, Monday, 8:00. See above for my comments about the movie. This particular screening will include a personal appearance by Stephen (Ned) Tobolowsky.

A- The Princess Bride Quote-Along, Castro, Monday, 7:30. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand 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. In this special screening, "audience members will be encouraged to call out all of their favorite lines from the film." Cary Elwes will attend in person.

RiffTrax Night of the Shorts 5: A Good Day to Riff Hard, Castro, Thursday, 8:00. The RiffTrax gang of Mystery Science Theater veterans will add their own comic commentary to PSA, educational, scientific and promotional shorts. Guest riffers include John Hodgman.