What’s Screening: February 19 – 25

We have two film festivals this week. Both the SF IndieFest and the Mostly British Film Festival close Thursday. Festival screenings are at the end of this newsletter.

A Anomalisa, New Parkway, opens Friday

This animated drama about a one-night stand could not possibly have worked with live action. Animation helps us experience the world in the strange way that the main character experiences it. Almost everyone he meets has vaguely the same face, and clearly the same voice (Tom Noonan’s, to be specific). Even his wife, young son, and former flame sound like Tom Noonan. No wonder he falls so heavily for Lisa–a Jennifer Jason Leigh in a world of Tom Noonans. Funny, sad, sexy, and unlike any other movie. Read my quick thoughts.

A+ McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Castro, Sunday

Few people realize, at least on first viewing, how much the plot of Robert Altman’s genre-bending mood poem resembles a traditional western: A lone stranger rides into a remote frontier town, tries to settle down peacefully, and finds himself menaced by killers. Yet there’s nothing conventional about this sad tale of prostitution, alienated community, and a west that seems not so much wild as forsaken. Vilmos Zsigmond’s golden Panavision cinematography makes this one of the most perfectly photographed films ever made. On a Haskell Wexler/Vilmos Zsigmond double bill with Bound for Glory.

A+ Dream double bill: Singin’ in the Rain & Sunset Blvd, Stanford, Thursday through next Sunday

At first glance, this seems like a strange double bill: Gene Kelly’s musical comedy, arguably the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood, with Billy Wilder’s noirish study of the seamy side of Hollywood. But both films look back at the talkie revolution that shook the film world a generation earlier. And when you think about it, Norma Desmond really is Lena Lamont, 23 years after sound destroyed her career and what was left of her sanity. More on Singin’ in the Rain below.

A Timbuktu, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30

Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film feels a bit like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. But these lives have been severely disrupted by an armed group of Muslim fundamentalists. Music, smoking, soccer, and women with bare hands are now forbidden. At first, even the occupiers act calm and friendly, and reluctant to enforce the new rules. But as the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life. Read my full review.

B- The Loves of a Pharaoh, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 1:30

A fundraiser for the American Research Center in Egypt’s NorCal chapter
Ernst Lubitsch’s last German film before immigrating to the USA is the sort of big, epic, costume melodrama that Hollywood loved in the 1950s–except it was made in Germany in the 1920s. The plot involved an evil yet love-sick pharaoh, a slave girl, her lover, barbarian Ethiopians, and…well, you get the idea. Silly, but utterly entertaining.

A- Scarface (1932 version), Castro, Wednesday

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.

A+ The Third Man, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided, post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems bright by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. See my A+ article.

B- In the Heat of the Night, Castro, Tuesday

The 1967 Best Picture Oscar winner still works moderately well as a murder mystery, but it comes from a time when white Americans north of the Mason-Dixon line could still pat themselves on the back and be glad they weren’t like those bigoted Southerners. This story of a black police detective from Philadelphia investigating a murder in a small, Mississippi town has a few good scenes and one great one, but that’s about it. On another Haskell Wexler/Vilmos Zsigmond triple bill time with No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos and a dye-transfer print of Deliverance.

C+ Serenity, Clay, Friday and Saturday, 11:55PM (just before midnight)

Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Joss Whedon’s Firefly failed to find an audience and died after only a few episodes. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. And while it’s nice to see all of the characters again, the movie’s attempt to close the story is a bit of a let-down. So if you haven’t seen Firefly, skip the movie and see the show; it’s streaming on Netflix.

A+ The Godfather, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday

Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando may have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable youngest son reluctantly and inevitably pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but for which he proves exceptionally well-suited. A masterpiece of character, atmosphere, and heart-stopping violence. Read my A+ list essay.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Stanford, through 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- The Maltese Falcon, various CineMark Theaters, Sunday (matinee only) and Wednesday

Dashiell Hammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay (by Huston) that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett motion picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. This movie is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.

A- The Princess Bride, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am

William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright , back when they were young and gorgeous, make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers. And Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere. On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos can grate on your nerves.

B+ The Hateful Eight, New Parkway, opens Friday

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.

B+ Brooklyn, Shattuck, 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

Mostly British Film Festival

A Secrets & Lies, Balboa, Saturday, 1:30

An aging, working-class Londoner (Brenda Blethyn) meets the now-grown daughter she put up for adoption ages ago. The mother is white; the daughter (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is black–and comfortably middle class. When the mother introduces her new “friend” to her family, all sorts of issues come bubbling up. Mike Leigh’s best film contains my favorite long take–one without fancy camera movements but with brilliant acting.

B- Rebecca, Balboa, Saturday, 11:00am

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.

? The Long Good Friday, Vogue, Friday, 9:00

I barely remember this 1980 crime thriller, but I remember that I loved it. Bob Hoskins plays the head of London’s underground, comfortable in his power and wealth, maintaining the peace, and ready to make a deal with the American mafia. Then someone starts blowing up his businesses and killing his henchmen. With Helen Mirren as his trophy wife.