What’s Screening: November 27 – December 3

After the November rush, things are slowing down. No film festivals this week.

But we still have movies.

A- The Wonders, Opera Plaza, Rafael, Shattuck, opens Friday

Mexican magical realism clearly influenced this Italian comic drama about a struggling counter-cultural family of farmers and beekeepers. Nothing happens that is physically impossible, but writer/director Alice Rohrwacher creates an atmosphere where you feel that anything can happen. Money is tight for this family, but the real problem comes from the short-tempered father, constantly screaming and rejecting anyone else’s ideas. Maria Alexandra Lungu, as the eldest daughter, really brings the magic. She’s so attuned to the bees that she lets them crawl on her face and into her mouth.

B Bikes vs. Cars,Roxie, opens Thursday

Director Fredrik Gertten follows various bicycle advocates in multiple cities around the world, concentrating on two large, horribly auto-centric metropolitan areas–Sao Paulo and Los Angeles. The activists talk both on camera and off, discussing congestion, pollution, bad urban design, and the economic/political forces that emphasize automobiles over common sense. We also visit exceptionally bike-friendly cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, and get a chance to boo Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who removed bike lanes to make his city more car-friendly. Read my longer discussion.

A Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00

Rare 35mm print
The best big-screen chapter in the Star Trek franchise (yes, I even prefer it, just barely, to Wrath of Khan) has the original cast time travel to 1986 San Francisco so they can save the whales, who are suddenly needed in the 23rd century. Played largely for laughs (with a plot like that, how else could you play it), it finds plenty of fish-out-of-water humor–from Scotty’s struggles with a Macintosh to McCoy’s horror at the “medieval” medical procedures. Leonard Nimoy directed and played Spock, who is still recovering from his recent death. As part of the Rafael’s Science On Screen series, Mary Jane Schramm will share an illustrated presentation on humpback whales.

? Comedy Shorts Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

I can vouch for two of the four comic shorts screening Saturday night. Buster Keaton’s My Wife’s Relations is a minor gem about troublesome in-laws (made by a filmmaker financially dependent on his wife’s brother-in-law). But the real treat is Pass the Gravy, starring the pretty-much-forgotten Max Davidson. I don’t want to give away too much about this minor masterpiece—let’s just say it involves feuding fathers, young people in love, a prize chicken, and one of the funniest dinners on film. If Chaplin’s His New Job and the Laurel and Hardy short, From Soup to Nuts, are as good as one should expect from those talents, this collection should earn an A. Frederick Hodges provides the piano accompaniment.

A+ Sunrise, Stanford, Sunday

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). Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with another non-talkie, Four Sons.

B+ (maybe A) Aliens, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Alien had only one monster, but James Cameron’s sequel strands a platoon of marines on a barely hospitable planet infested with the big, egg-laying predators. It works as a horror film, an action flick, a war movie, science fiction, a feminist work (the climatic fight is between two mothers fighting for their babies), and a condemnation of capitalism. Sigourney Weaver, made famous by the original film, stars again. The Balboa’s website doesn’t give a running time, which makes it impossible for me to know if this is the 137-minute original cut, to which I give a B+, or the 154-minute director’s cut, which easily deserves an A.

? The Power and the Glory, Stanford, Friday and Saturday

I haven’t seen this 1933 drama, but I probably should. It was Preston Sturges’ first produced screenplay, and allegedly, it was filmed without rewrites–almost unheard of in Hollywood. Despite great reviews, the film flopped, slowing down Sturges’ career for several years. In 1940, Sturges became Hollywood’s first major writer-director, and Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles borrowed The Power and the Glory‘s flashback-heavy story structure
Citizen Kane.

A- Bridge of Spies, Lark, opens Friday

Steven Spielberg’s cerebral cold war espionage drama pits a New York lawyer (Tom Hanks) against a USA unwilling to give a Russian spy a fair trial. But when the USSR shoots down an American spy plane and captures the pilot, the lawyer finds himself learning new skills quickly as a top-secret negotiator arranging a spy swap. Bridge of Spies captures the fear and paranoia on both sides at the very moment when the Berlin Wall was going up. The Coen brothers worked on the screenplay, which shows flashes of what was probably their wit. Read my full review.

A- Grandma, Lark, opens Friday

Here’s a star vehicle in every sense of the word–a movie that’s based entirely on showing off Lilly Tomlin’s talent. Fortunately, Tomlin’s talent could easily fill eight movies. As an aging poet trying to raise money to help her granddaughter pay for an abortion, Tomlin is acerbic, touching, unpredictable, outrageous, angry, concerned, and–of course–very funny, The story and the supporting players, especially Julia Garner as the granddaughter, are really there for Tomlin to have people to talk to. But her poet character is such a wonderfully unique, real, and funny person (if not always a nice one) that it makes the movie more than just worthwhile.

C Sound of Music, Lark, Sunday, 11:00; Castro, Friday through Sunday; also Thursday

The Castro will screen the Sing-Along version, which I have not seen
Many people love it, but I find the biggest money maker of the 1960s lumbering, slow, and dull. Not funny or romantic enough to be light entertainment, yet lacking the substance to be anything else. And most of the songs give the impression that, by their last collaboration, Roger and Hammerstein had run out of steam. On the other hand, the Todd-AO photography of Alpine landscapes makes this one of the most visually beautiful of Hollywood movies–in a picture postcard kind of way.