What’s Screening: December 4 – 10

Only one festival this week, and it’s only a one-day festival: A Day of Silents. I plan to be there.

A Janis: Little Girl Blue, Rafael, Roxie, opens Friday

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain and joy and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, it makes a great introduction to one of the greatest and most influential performers in popular music. Filmmaker Amy Berg put together a touching documentary that finds the right interviews and keeps the music front and center. Read my full review.

B+ Brooklyn, Alameda, opens Friday

In this essentially American tale, a young woman immigrates from a small village in Ireland to the Big Apple, where she finds work, friendship, glamorous clothing, and romance. About halfway through the nearly two-hour runtime, things were going so well for her that I found myself wondering how the filmmakers could sustain the story. Then tragedy forces her to return to Ireland, and her home town becomes the collective villain, trying to keep her “where she belongs.” The film is set in the early 1950s.

B The Girl King, Lark, opens Friday

This Swedish (but English-language) historical epic focuses on Queen Kristina, a young yet intellectual monarch holding onto her power in a men’s world while religious wars ravage Europe. She tries to bring peace, improve her subjects’ lot, and avoid marriage (she’s gay). Malin Buska anchors the film in her sublime performance in the title role. Director Mika Kaurismäki marshals an all-around good cast and provides the appropriate atmosphere. But the film lacks a strong story arc, and the complex court politics often felt confusing. I suspect that screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard stuck too close to actual history. Read my full review.

A+ The Passion of Joan of Arc, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

One would assume that the courtroom drama isn’t the best genre for silent films. And yet, by concentrating on faces and the emotions they display, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc surpasses all but a few cinematic dramas, silent or otherwise. Based on transcripts from Joan’s 15th century trial for heresy, Dreyer’s film is about people–not myths. Renée Jeanne Falconetti plays Joan as an illiterate, terrified, 19-year-old peasant girl in way over her head. Read my larger appreciation. With Judy Rosenberg accompanying the film on piano.

B The Black Pirate, Castro, Saturday, 11:00am

Not Douglas Fairbanks’ best swashbuckler by a long shot, but still fun. In his only pirate movie, Fairbanks plays a nobleman who joins a band of scurvy buccaneers in order to take them down in revenge for his father’s death. People mainly remember The Black Pirate for two things. First, a spectacular stunt where Fairbanks himself slides down a sail with a knife (it was ineptly recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie). Second, it’s the first really big feature shot entirely in color–specifically Technicolor’s two-color process. Musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. Part of A Day of Silents.

A- A Christmas Story, Lark, Sunday, 11:00am

Sweet, sentimental Christmas movies–at least those not authored by Charles Dickens or Frank Capra–generally make me want to leave the room. But writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth comes with enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.

A+ Die Hard, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

The 1980s was a great decade for big, loud action movies, and this just may be the best. It starts out as a relationship drama about a New York cop (Bruce Willis) in LA for Christmas, hoping to win back his estranged wife and kids. Then, about half an hour into the movie, a group of Not Very Nice People take over the office building and hold everyone hostage. Well, everyone except Willis, who spends the rest of the movie playing cat-and-mouse with the bad guys, bonding with an LA cop over a walkie-talkie, and mumbling about his rotten luck. The result is top-notch entertainment–even if its politics lean a bit to the right. See my appreciation.

C Vicky Cristina Barcelona, New Parkway, Sunday, 9:30

An experienced and arguably great filmmaker like Woody Allen should know not to overuse narration, but he uses it to the point of extreme annoyance here. When you see a good actor’s face–and this film is filled with good actors–you don’t need an all-knowing third-person voice telling you what they’re thinking. On the other hand, you’ve got Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, and beautiful Spanish scenery, so at least there’s plenty of eye candy. This time around, Rebecca Hall does the Woody Allen imitation. Read my original review.

B Bikes vs. Cars, New Parkway, Tuesday, 7:00; Rafael, opens Friday

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.

B Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, New Parkway, opens Saturday

The National Lampoon magazine was irreverent, offensive, bold, crazy, satirical, and often hilarious. It spawned, among other things, Saturday Night Live. If you’re old enough to remember it, Douglas Tirola’s fast-paced documentary will bring back fun memories while introducing you to the people who made the laughs. Zany graphics, interviews with very funny people, a 70s rock soundtrack, video clips from their live shows, and animated versions of the magazine’s cartoons keep it lively. But the film crams too much history into 93 minutes, making it occasionally hard to follow. And it never really confronts the extreme sexism of the Lampoon.

B Truth,
Lark, starts Friday

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence proved to be fake, turning the exposé into a media scandal that helped Bush and destroyed several journalism careers, including Dan Rather’s. Writer/director James Vanderbilt gives us a slick, entertaining, but unexceptional movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. It has one very big casting flaw: Robert Redford as Rather. But it tells a story that we should all know and remember. Read my full review.

C Sing-along Sound of Music, Castro, Friday and Sunday (but not Saturday)

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. I have not seen this sing-along version.