What’s Screening: December 11 – 17

No festivals this week. But the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission opens Thursday with a movie you’re probably aware of–even if you couldn’t care less: Star Wars VII: The Franchise Awakens…or something like this.

Unlike that big event, here are some movies I have opinions about:

B+ Hitchcock/Truffaut, Opera Plaza, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday

This is the movie version of a book about making movies. In the early 60s, François Truffaut interviewed Alfred Hitchcock and together they created one of the great books on filmmaking. Now documentarian Kent Jones has turned that book into a film. He rightly focuses on cinematic technique as he explains the creation of the book and what it taught filmmakers. Top directors, including Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, and Martin Scorsese, talk onscreen about Hitchcock’s work–how he used camera placement, editing, and other tools of the filmmaker’s art. I enjoyed the movie very much, but I’m biased. Read my full review.

A Raging Bull, Roxie, Saturday, 8:45; Wednesday, 8:45

Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with this study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a fierce pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it. Robert De Niro gives one of the great physical performances in cinema, changing from a taut athlete to a man who has let himself go, and at no point does he ask for our sympathy–which is primarily reserved for the people unfortunate to be close to him. Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman make brilliant use of black and white, allowing us to experience the emotional brutality of the fights.

B+ The Iron Giant, Rafael, Sunday, 4:15

Filmmaker Brad Bird in Person
The young hero of Brad (The Incredibles) Bird’s first feature befriends a massively-huge robot from outer space. Hey, Steven Spielberg’s Elliot only had to hide the diminutive ET. The robot seems friendly enough, but there’s good reason to believe he was built as a weapon of mass destruction. Using old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation with plenty of sharp angles, Bird creates a stylized view of small-town American life circa 1958 that straddles satire and nostalgia, and treats most of its inhabitants with warmth and affection. A good movie for all but the youngest kids.

A+ It’s a Wonderful Life, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday; Balboa, opens Friday for one week only

There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but only at the expense of his own dreams and desires. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, George needs only one more disaster to turn his thoughts to suicide. The extremely happy (some would say excessively sappy) ending works because George, whose main problems remain unsolved, has suffered so much to earn it. Read my A+ appreciation.

B+ (maybe A) Spirited Away, Lark

Will the Lark screen the original Japanese version (which I grade an A), or the dubbed English version (B+)? The audience will decide before the screening.
Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz.. A truly amazing work of animation.

A Stop Making Sense, Castro,Thursday

The Talking Heads and film director Jonathan Demme realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage in this lively concert film (actually compiled from three different concerts). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that makes Stop Making Sense the most danceable motion picture ever to receive a theatrical release. On a double bill with Home of the Brave.

B+ Ghostbusters, Castro, Saturday

Comedy rarely gets this scary or this visually 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 evening. On a double bill with Night of the Comet.

D+ Horror Express, Balboa, Monday, 7:30

This silly 1972 monster movie feels vaguely like a Hammer horror film, thanks largely to the period setting and the casting of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. But it lacks even Hammer’s sense of bargain-basement class. The story involves a frozen “missing link” who thaws out on a train crossing Siberia, and then starts killing people. Telly Savalas fools no one as a Russian official.

B+ The Wizard of Oz, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00

I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B+. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A.

A Janis: Little Girl Blue, New Parkway, opens Saturday

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.

? 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. (Why haven’t I experienced this big-screen version? Because I’m too old to see movies that start at 10:30.) I hope this will be a good episode; no one is telling us which one will be screened.