What’s Screening: February 12 – 18

In festival news, SF IndieFest continues through this week and beyond. And the Mostly British Film Festival opens Thursday.

C- Where To Invade Next, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Piedmont, California (Berkeley), opens Friday

No, Michael Moore is not attacking American imperialism. Instead, he visits the sort of countries we don’t go to war with–wealthy democracies populated primarily by white people. Moore wants to “invade” them to bring home their good ideas, such as free education, jailing bankers, decriminalizing drugs, and giving workers long vacations. This comic documentary is slow and only occasionally funny, and as much as I agree with Moore’s arguments, I couldn’t help but be bothered by their one-sidedness. Read my full review.

A- Jules and Jim, Castro, Thursday

Two men, best of friends, fall in love with the same wild woman, yet swear they will remain friends. Over a couple of decades, they mostly succeed–even though they fight on opposite sides during World War I. Oskar Werner and Henri Serre play the title roles, but the movie really belongs to Jeanne Moreau, who plays the beautiful, impulsive, and unpredictable siren who captures their hearts and isn’t sure of her own. François Truffaut’s third feature washes the audience with a sense of romantic fatalism.

B The Son of the Sheik, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

You can’t discuss Rudolph Valentino’s last and most famous movie without confronting how attitudes about romance and sex have changed in the last 90 years. The film’s treatment of rape is deeply offensive by today’s standards (as is the use of white actors in swarthy makeup)–and this in a movie designed to appeal to female libidos. But if you can put aside 21st-century values, it’s still a lot of fun. And yes, I know several modern women who find it sexy. I discuss the movie in more detail in this festival report. Bruce Loeb accompanies on piano.

A Key Largo, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character actors like Humphrey Bogart. But by 1948, Bogey was the top star and Robinson the supporting player (and a great one). Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Bogart faces off against gangster Robinson. Most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and Huston himself adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk?

A A Hard Day’s Night, Castro, Wednesday

When United Artists agreed to finance a movie around a new British rock group, they wanted something fast and cheap. After all, the band’s popularity was limited to Europe, and could die before the film got into theaters. Fifty years later, The Beatles are still popular all over the world. What’s more, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night still burns with outrageous camerawork and editing, subversive humor, and a sense of the joy of life and especially of rock and roll. On a double bill with Goddard’s Sympathy with the Devil.

B+ My Fair Lady, New Parkway, Sunday and Monday

George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion brilliantly examined issues of class, culture, and gender roles in an intimate story deftly balanced between drama and comedy. The musical version adds spectacle, which is absolutely unnecessary but doesn’t really hurt the story. Rex Harrison makes a wonderful Henry Higgins–tyrannical, cruel, and yet slowly falling in love and not understanding why. Audrey Hepburn is miscast. Stanley Holloway steals the movie as Eliza’s happily slothful father; his two songs are the movie’s musical highlights. Read my essay.

A+ Undefinable triple bill: Casablanca, Notorious, and Hitchcock/Truffaut, Castro, Sunday

The people who made Casablanca thought it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, this story of love, loyalty, and adultery in Vichy-occupied North Africa came out almost perfectly. Read my article. In Notorious, a scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman proves her patriotism by seducing and marrying Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. Read my Blu-ray Review. 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. Read my full review.

A- Titanic, New Parkway, Sunday, 7:20

Forget the out-of-control budget and the teenage crushes. On its own, Titanic is a big, broad, rousing entertainment told on an epic scale, and worth every minute of its long runtime. Writer/director James Cameron skillfully balances the intimate melodrama of a doomed love with the big adventure of a doomed ship, giving us romance, class warfare, history, tragedy, suspense, sex, and plenty of special effects. Best of all, this is the original, 2D version.

A The Bride of Frankenstein, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:30; Sunday, 4:45

You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays the nameless creature as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that rejects him. With Colin Clive as the mad scientist, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson plays the real Bride of Frankenstein). Part of the series Gothic Cinema.

B+ American Graffiti, Castro, Monday

A long time ago, in a Bay Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. You can also talk about old-time rock ‘n’ roll–American Graffiti makes great use of early 60s music in one of the most effective and creative sound mixes of the ’70s. On a double bill with Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

A- Modern Times, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:30

A mostly silent picture made years after everyone else had started talking (seven years earlier, it would have been called a “part talkie”), Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times laughs at assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression, with Chaplin’s tramp moving from job to job and jail to jail. With Paulette Goddard, the best leading lady of his career.

A+ Die Hard, Thursday, 9:30

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.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday

If I had to name the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood, I would probably pick this 1952 MGM musical about the talkie revolution of the late 1920s. Take out the songs and dancing, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But why take out the songs and dances? They’re the best part. On a double bill with Laura.

A Chimes at Midnight, Castro, Tuesday

Duty to country conflicts with loyalty to friends in one of the best and most unusual Shakespeare adaptations in the cinema. As adapter and director, Orson Welles combined the best parts of Henry IV Part I (my favorite Shakespeare play), Henry IV Part II (a weak sequel with a great final act), and Merry Wives of Windsor (a reasonably funny comedy) to create a whole greater than its parts–funny, rousing, and ultimately tragic. And if anyone was ever born to play Falstaff, it was Orson Welles. On a double bill with Welles’ Othello.

A The Big Short, Lark, opens Friday

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 that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain can explain CDOs with a cooking metaphor. 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 have profited from it. You cheer for all of them, and are horrified by what happens to the rest of us.

A Trumbo, Elmwood, 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—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 The Big Lebowski and party, Brava Theatre, Saturday, 8:00

SF IndieFest is not only screening The Big Lebowski, but throwing a party around it–for the 13th year in a row. Expect mini-bowling, a costume contest, and an onstage performance ala The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But instead of transvestite aliens, you get a Raymond Chandleresqe story where Philip Marlowe has been replaced with a happily unemployed, perpetually stoned, thoroughly inept slacker who calls himself “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges). Read my full report.

A- Battleship Potemkin, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 6:30
Make no mistake; this ground-breaking movie is brilliant but simplistic Communist propaganda. The workers and sailors are all good comrades working together for a better world. The officers, aristocrats, and Cossacks are vile filth who deserve to die. And yet, the story of mutiny, celebration, attack, and escape stirs the blood. And it does this primarily through revolutionary (no pun intended) editing techniques. The Odessa Steps massacre is still amongst the greatest action sequence ever edited. Read my essay. The PFA will screen the film with the recorded Edmund Meisel score on the new 35mm print.

B- Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 2:00

With its few fleeting moments of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film doesn’t feel like one of his usual thrillers. Basically a weepie, it stars Joan Fontaine as a young American who marries a British aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), only to find that she must compete with the memory of his dead first wife. This entertaining melodrama includes a fine, over-the-top performance by Judith Anderson as the brooding servant who cannot bear to accept the usurper who has replaced her lady. This was Hitchcock’s only Best Picture Oscar winner, which just goes to show you how silly the Oscars can be. Another part of the series Gothic Cinema.

? 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.