What’s Screening: January 1 – 7

We’ve got two sort-of film festivals opening this week. The Rafael isn’t calling For Your Consideration a festival, but a concentration of 13 films in seven days qualifies by my book. It opens today (Friday) and runs through Thursday. SF Sketchfest, which opens Thursday, is clearly a festival, but movies are only one part of this all-around comedy fest.

A- Sundance Film Festival 2015 Award-Winning Shorts, Roxie, opens Friday

A dystopian future, war-torn screen tests, scuba diving under ice, and a sexually-frustrated single mom all get their moment on the screen in this selection of six award-winning shorts. I found only one stinker in the bunch (Storm Hits Jacket). The best was the animated World of Tomorrow, which describes a society of isolation, sadness, and empty lives. Starting out as a satire of technology, World of Tomorrow turns into a comment on the human condition. Also top notch: RSMILF and Object. Read my full review.

A Star Wars: The Force Awakens, just about every theater in the world, still running

J.J. Abrams understands Star Wars far better than he ever understood Star Trek. In fact, he understands it better than George Lucas ever did. He knows that A Star Wars movie must be big and exciting, with mind-blowing action sequences and special effects. It also needs not-quite-believable, bigger-than-life characters and a simplistic view of good and evil. And most important, Star Wars isn’t science fiction; it’s Tolkien-like fantasy with sci-fi hardware. Abrams knows all that, which is why The Force Awakens is easily the best Star Wars movie since the original trilogy.

A The Big Short, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Friday through Thursday

Who could expect that an absurd comedy would provide such a clear explanation of the 2007-08 economic meltdown? This is a movie willing to cut away from the story so celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain can use a cooking metaphor to explain CDOs. The movie, based on a true story, follows several traders who foresaw the housing meltdown and made fortunes betting on the collapse. Some of them felt guilty, but they couldn’t stop the meltdown, so they might as well profit from it. You cheer for all of them, and are horrified by what happens to the rest of us.

B+ Youth, Clay, Shattuck, Guild, still playing

The movie Youth is about old age. Michael Caine plays a retired conductor/composer vacationing at a Swiss spa. Harvey Keitel plays his friend, a film director working with a team of young screenwriters at that very spa. there’s no real plot, but several conflicts weave together involving the old friends, their families, their careers, and others staying or working at the spa. Writer/director Paolo Sorrentino provides a relaxed atmosphere (appropriate for the setting) mixed with a sense that anything–good or bad–could happen. I loved it until the last half hour or so, when the parallels to became too obvious.

B+ Spectre, Castro, Tuesday; New Parkway, opens Friday

The James Bond series returns to its Sean Connery roots as Daniel Craig’s secret agent goes after the evil organization from the early films of the franchise. And yes, it’s even headed by Ernst Blofeld–this time played to perfection by Christoph Waltz. But Craig still does his tortured, never-quite-happy version of the superspy, making it darker than anything Connery ever did. And yet, with the action set pieces, the fancy sets, and the beautiful women, it’s still enjoyable in that old-fashioned 007 way.

Four films written by Charlie Kaufman, Embarcadero, Monday through Wednesday

Bay Area movie theaters frequently run series built around a star or a director. But they never built one around a screenwriter–until now. Four films written by Charlie Kaufman are getting weekday matinee screenings this week at the Embarcadero. The movies are:

? Rifftrax: Night of the Shorts VI: Riffy Potter and the Half-Blood Riff, Castro, Thursday, 8:00

A collection of Mystery Science Theater veterans, and a few comics who never worked on the cult TV show (including John Hodgman), will crack wise on a selection of presumably bad short subjects. Despite the name, I don’t think they’ll be showing anything with Harry Potter. The opening night event for this year’s SF Sketchfest.

A- Office Space, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Tuesday, 7:00

Work…there’s a reason they have to pay you to show up. In this broad and funny satire by Mike Judge, three young men struggle with their jobs in a soul-killing tech company. They conspire to fool the computers and skim enough money off the top to allow for early retirement –but not enough to be noticed. Jennifer Aniston plays the waitress whose job is as soul-killing as theirs, but pays considerably less. Stephen Root steals the movie as the employee who’s soul was crushed long ago.

A+ City Lights, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. Sound came to the movies as Chaplin shot City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Read my Blu-ray review.

C- Vertigo and your choice of another Hitchcock film, Castro, Friday through Sunday

I know. For many cinephiles, this isn’t just Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. But I just don’t get it. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog. Pick your double feature:

  • A- The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake), Friday
    Alfred Hitchcock’s only remake (of his own 1934 breakthrough thriller) throws an ordinary American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) into the middle of international espionage. Thrilling and fun in that Hitchcock patented way.
  • A The Wrong Man, Saturday
    Although it uses one of Hitchcock’s favorite plots–the innocent citizen wrongly accused of a crime–The Wrong Man is unlike anything else he ever made. Based on a true story and apparently following it quite closely, it realistically shows you the horror of being an innocent accused. Read my in-depth comments.
  • D Marnie¸ Sunday
    This just may be Hitchcock’s worst film. It follows the adventures of a beautiful but frigid compulsive thief (Tippi Hedren). Sean Connery plays the aristocrat who sets out to cure her. In a story that requires acting chops and charisma, Connery gives a weak performance and Hedren gives a worse one.

A Trumbo, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Jay Roach turns the story of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo into a lively, entertaining, and important drama. Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad makes a funny and complex Trumbo, and the rest of the cast—almost all of them playing real people—all do a fine job, with Helen Mirren’s Hedda Hopper standing out. As with all biopics, there’s a lot of fiction here, but it gets to the heart of the true story about a dark but important era in the history of Hollywood and America.

A- Spotlight, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, opens Friday

A quartet of dogged and determined journalists at the Boston Globe blows open the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. Most of the characters are nominally Catholic, complicating their feelings about the work. Based on a true story, Spotlight celebrates real investigative journalism, backed up by an editor and publisher who are willing to take chances. An excellent cast–headed by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Liev Schrieber–brings drama to a story whose ending we already know.