What’s Screening: February 6 – 12

We’ve got four festivals running this week.

SF Sketchfest screenings are at the bottom of this newsletter.

A- Elevator to the Gallows, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Louis Malle launched his directing career, and arguably the New Wave, with this noir tale of a perfect crime gone wrong. Laced with dark, ironic humor, the film cuts back and forth between a murderer (Maurice Ronet) trapped in an elevator in a building closed for the weekend, the murderer’s lover (Jeanne Moreau) wandering the streets searching for him, and two young lovers enjoying a crime spree in a stolen car (they stole it from the murderer). And all of is set to a powerful jazz score by Miles Davis. Read my longer comments.

A Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Strangers on a Train & The Lady Vanishes, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday. If you love Alfred Hitchcock and you love trains, this is the double bill for you. In Strangers on a Train, a rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) strangersontrainconvinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife, and by a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. If you walked into The Lady Vanishes without knowing it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, you’d spend nearly half an hour thinking you were enjoying a very British screwball comedy. Then a nice old lady disappears on a moving train, and everyone denies that she had ever been there. Now it feels like Hitchcock! Read my Blu-ray review. Each film earns an A on its own merit.

A The Maltese Falcon, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. DashiellmaltesefalconHammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay (by Huston) that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett mo5ion picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. This movie is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

A- Grand Budapest Hotel, Lark, Friday, 12:45; Sunday, 8:30; Thursday, 3:40. Once again, Wes Anderson is playing with us, and what fun it is to be played. In this story imagewithin a story within a story, the concierge of a magnificent European hotel (Ralph Fiennes) takes a young bellhop under his wing and teaches him about hostelry and life, while avoiding some very well-connected thugs. All quite silly, except I think there’s a message about the rise of Fascism in there somewhere (the innermost story is set in the early ’30s). The hotel, which sits on a high mountain’s peak, is one of those places that you want to visit but could only exist in a movie.

B+ Interview with the Vampire, New Parkway, Sunday, 9:10. Writer Anne Rice and director Neil Jordan create a vampire epic stretching across three centuries. And a imagevery dark yet sexy three centuries it is. Tom Cruise gets top billing as the immortal sociopath Lestat, but a not-yet-famous Brian Pitt is the real star, playing the tormented vampire being interviewed. Between them and Antonio Banderas, you could call this film Great-Looling Guys With an Eating Distorder. A 12-year-old Kirsten Dunst expertly plays a grown woman in a little girl’s body.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, New Parkway, 9:30. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But imagethen, it’s great in an entirely different way. There’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark;  just entertainment at its purist. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that everything else just doesn’t matter.

A Timbuktu, Rafael, 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, Sunday, 2:00. 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 Hollywood’s youth movement. 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.

Force Majeure, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. The carefully controlled, not-quite-natural outdoor experience of a fancy ski resort becomes a metaphor for the veneer of a troubled marriage in this imageSwedish drama set in the French alps. When an avalanche threatens his family, Tomas fails to measure up as a man. Soon his wife loses all respect for her husband, and Tomas loses all respect for himself. All this is set within a resort that appears to be just a bit more realistic than Disneyland.  Force Majeure studies courage and fear, and the destructive behavior that can destroy a marriage. But it’s also about the artificial worlds we create for our own enjoyment. See my full review. Part of the series In Case of No Emergency: The Films of Ruben Östlund.

B+ The Theory of Everything, Balboa, Kabuki, opens Friday. Like so many British pictures, this Stephen Hawking biopic provides a showcase for great acting. Hawking is the sort of character that cries out for an Oscar–he’s a real person, he’s British, and he has a disability. Eddie Redmayne makes full use of the opportunity, catching not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable. Felicity Jones co-stars as his first wife and does an excellent job, Very well made but not exceptional. Read my longer comments.

C+ Interstellar, Castro, Tuesday and Wednesday. 70mm! Christopher Nolan’s space epic tries hard to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey–plot points, individual shots, and at least one character imagecomes straight from Kubrick’s work. But whereas Kubrick explained very little, Nolan fills his picture with badly-written expository dialog. And that doesn’t help–the movie still confuses audiences. And when it’s not confusing, it’s often dumb. On the other hand, it’s visually stunning, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen and format available (the Castro, with 70mm projection, qualifies). It’s often exciting and suspenseful. And for most of its runtime, it carries a strong sense of doom for both the main characters and the human race as a whole.

A+ Alfred Hitchcock double bill: Rear Window & Saboteur, Stanford, through 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.

SF Sketchfest

A Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla, Roxie, Saturday, 7:15,  Tuesday, 9:30. 
Imagine Milton from Office Space slowly turning into Travis Bickle. That’s pretty much what you get in this very black comedy from Australia. imageThe main character has his own business–an ice cream truck–that brings him into contact with a lot of people. But he’s a very shy, lonely, and awkward man. He lives alone. He doesn’t have any real friends. He worships Clint Eastwood. He’s obsessed with a soap opera star. He spends most of his workday parked in a horrible location where he’s bullied by a very thuggish pimp. His cat just died, but he still puts food in the bowl every morning. He’s nearing a very dangerous boiling point. The humor drains away appropriately as darkness and violence takes over the movie. A remarkable, brutal, funny, and heartfelt little gem.

B+ Beyond Clueless, Humanist Hall, Saturday, 5:00. Charlie Lyne’s documentary examines the teenage thrills, terrors, and transitions through the looking glass of high school imagemovies. Just about every feature film focusing on adolescents from the last 20 years makes at least a cameo appearance, from American Pie,  Election, Spider Man, Mean Girls, Pleasantville, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Clueless. The uncredited narrator goes into detail with a few movies–including Bubble Boy, Disturbing Behavior, and The Faculty–to examine issues like peer pressure, sexuality, and moving on with your life. Not particularly deep, but useful if you are, recently were, or have a teenager. And certainly entertaining.

D- Jacky and the Kingdom of Women, Humanist Hall, Sunday, 9:15. This French satire imagines a society of reverse sexism. The women are leaders and warriors. The men are sex objects and obedient husbands. (Eight years ago I wrote and performed in a imageone-act play with the same theme.) But two problems sink Jacky. First, the society in which it’s set–a combination of North Korea, the Islamic State, and horse worship–is too bizarre to make a satirical point about western society. There’s nothing to recognize. Second, it’s just not funny. My favorite moment was a chase; not because it made me laugh–it didn’t–but because it held the promise that the movie would soon be over. It didn’t even keep that promise.

D- For the Plasma, Roxie, Sunday, 7:15; Thursday, 7:15. Talk about a movie that doesn’t go anywhere. Two young women live in a house in rural, coastal Maine, imagewhere they’re supposed to check various cameras and sensors in the woods for early forest fires warnings. One of them has figured out a foolproof way to turn all this data into profitable stock market predictions. Both actresses are flat and dull. Almost nothing happens to them, and the few things that do don’t amount to anything. Even basic continuity is lacking. I kept hoping it would turn into a slasher movie–and I don’t care much for slasher movies.