What’s Screening: January 8 – 14

SF Sketchfest (only partly a film festival) continues through this week and keeps going. Meanwhile, Berlin & Beyond (very much a film festival) opens Thursday.

B+ The Hateful Eight, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Cerrito, still running

I’m giving this a B+ because it’s not being presented in 70mm. If it was, I’d give it an A.
Quentin Tarantino’s roadshow western is surprisingly small and intimate, while reveling in the majesty of a long-unused large-film format. Two bounty hunters (Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell), along with an arrested killer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) find themselves stuck in a store in the middle of nowhere, waiting out a blizzard, along with five other disreputable people. The film occasionally reminded me of Stagecoach, but this is Tarantino, not Ford, so you can expect a lot of talking and horrendous violence. I’ve written more on this one.

D- Hard To Be a God, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:00

Imagine the filthy, gory, and ugly medieval world that Monty Python parodied in Holy Grail, but played for gruesome shock and taken seriously. And not much of a story either. Or any real characters. That’s pretty much what you get with Aleksei German’s last film (finished after his death by his wife and son). While costumes, sets, and people’s attitudes reflect Europe’s middle ages, the movie is supposedly set on another planet. Little is made of that. The film, thankfully shot in black and white, succeeds in creating an atmosphere, but that’s not enough for a three-hour movie.

A- Children of Men, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

Set in a dystopian, near-future Britain living under a Fascism that looks all too familiar, Alfonso Cuarón’s labor of love feels a bit like V for Vendetta. But it’s better. It’s 2027, with the human race slowly dying out due to mysterious, world-wide infertility, and the British government rounding up illegal aliens the way the Nazi’s rounded up Jews. When one of these aliens turns up pregnant (the last successful birth was more than 18 years ago), an apolitical former radical (Clive Owen) is forced to think beyond himself. One of the rare thrillers that actually keeps you guessing what will happen next.

? The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., Balboa, Saturday, 10:00

The only Dr. Seuss feature film made during his lifetime, and as creative, visually daring, and funny as any kid’s fantasy ever to come out of Hollywood. At least that’s how I remember it, many years after my last screening. Even the sets, photographed in three-strip Technicolor, look as if Seuss had painted them himself.

B+ Hot Shots, Castro, Saturday, 7:00

Gung-ho military movies in general and Top Gun in particular get the Airplane! treatment in this extremely silly farce. Charlie Sheen stars as the troubled fighter pilot called back into action, and plays it straight with lines like “You have the whitest white-part-of-the-eyes I’ve ever seen. Do you floss?” Of course, everyone else is just as ridiculous–and funny. With Cary Elwes, Valeria Golino (simultaneously sexy and hilarious), and the venerable Lloyd Bridges stealing every scene he’s in. Filmmakers Jim Abrahams and Pat Proft will be on hand for Q&A. Part of SF Sketchfest.

A- Scarface, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

The best of the three films that started the 1930’s gangster genre, Scarface tracks the rise and demise of Tony Camonte, a violent thug who becomes a big shot by virtue of his total lack of virtue (Paul Muni acting a little over the top for my taste). When he first sees a tommy gun, he joyfully cries out “Hey, a machine gun you can carry!” And that’s when one is shooting at him. Soon he’s using one to mow down his enemies and innocent bystanders alike. But he does love his kid sister. In fact, maybe he loves her too much. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, and you can’t find a better team than that.

? The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, Castro, Sunday, 2:00

I haven’t seen this cold war comedy since it was in first release almost 50 years ago. I liked it a lot then, although I doubt that it aged well. But I do remember being bowled over by the then-unknown Alan Arkin, playing a loveable Russian officer. The story, a satire of anti-Communist hysteria, involves a Russian submarine stuck in a sandbar off the coast of a small eastern seaboard town. Arkin will be on hand for Q&A. Another part of SF Sketchfest.

? Laurel and Hardy Talkie Matinee, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00

The Silent Film Museum is doing something unusual for its monthly Laurel and Hardy Talkie Matinee–they’re showing silent movies. Technically, they’re non-talkies–essentially silent films released with a recorded musical track (these were pretty common in 1928-29. I’ve only seen one of the four shorts, Liberty, where Stan and Ollie cross over into Harold Lloyd territory. It’s very funny.

A Blade Runner, Castro, Wednesday; various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) & Wednesday

Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. Read my longer essay. On a double bill with Trouble in Mind.

B To Be Takei, Roxie, Thursday, 7:00

Who would have guessed that, almost 50 years after Star Trek first premiered, George Takei would be the most beloved member of the original cast. And why not? A childhood in a World War II relocation camp for Japanese Americans, a part in the iconic sci-fi TV series, and coming out as gay at age 67 all make for a great story. Jennifer M. Kroot has created an ordinary documentary about this extraordinary person, filled with interviews, video of Takei and husband Brad Altman going about their daily business, and old movie and TV clips. It’s the story, not the story-telling, that makes this film worth seeing. Read my full review.

A Spotlight, Lark, 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.

A Trumbo, New Parkway, opens Saturday

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- Sundance Film Festival Award Winning Shorts, Rafael, Friday through Thursday

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- Grandma, Elmwood, opens Friday

Here’s a star vehicle in every sense of the word–a movie that’s based entirely on showing off its star. Fortunately, Lilly 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.

B+ Hitchcock/Truffaut, Roxie, opens Saturday

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.

B+ Spectre, Lark, opens Saturday

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.

? 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.