What’s Screening: January 19 – 25

Movies set in the White House, a sand pit, the High Sierra, a dystopian future, the early Soviet Union, and another planet – and all of them projected on Bay Area movie screens.

And yet, still no film festivals (although that will change   very soon).

New films opening

A- The Final Year, Embarcadero Center, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday

This cinema verite documentary follows two members of the White House foreign policy team, UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Strategic Communications Advisor Ben Rhodes, over the course of 2016. They fly a lot, talk a lot, and try (with some success) to deal with Boko Haram, Iran, Russia, and the horrible mess of Syria. The film also follows Secretary of State John Kerry, and even spends some time with Barak Obama. But as you watch the documentary, you know, even if the subjects don’t, that Donald Trump would soon ruin everything. Read my full review.

Promising events

High Sierra, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 4:00

Humphrey Bogart took a major step in his climb from character actor to star by playing an ex-con who wants to go straight, but can’t. Ida Lupino plays his hard-as-rock love interest, while Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney play themselves as the beautiful but unforgiving backdrop. I’m not giving it a grade because I haven’t seen it in ages. Co-written by John Huston and directed by Raoul Walsh. Part of the series Ida Lupino: Hard, Fast, and Beautiful.

RoboCop, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:30

When I first saw ads for this sci-fi dystopian action flick, I thought “I can skip this one.” Then I read the reviews, and I had to see it. I remember it being sharp, funny, satirical, and a very strong commentary on America in the Reagan years. I also remember it being very, very violent, and not advisable for the weak of stomach. But then, it’s been 30 years since I’ve last seen it, so my memory may be faulted.

Recommended revivals

A Woman in the Dunes, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00

On one level, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s masterpiece is a major serious work of cinematic art. On another, it’s an erotic horror thriller. And yes, it works great either way (although some horror fans may find it too slow). The people of a small village trap an out-of-town man in a deep sand pit, where he must live in a rickety house with a woman who was trapped there long ago and has by now accepted her fate. The sandpit makes a powerful, probable monster that slowly destroys its victims. Eerie and suspenseful, Woman in the Dunes plays with issues of identity, exploitation, and the thin line between humans and other animals. It also contains a couple of very erotic love scenes.

B+ The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 3:10

The Soviet Union was a pretty horrible place to live in 1924, and yet from that place and time comes the most intentionally silly feature comedy I’ve ever seen, making Duck Soup feel like neorealism. The title character is an American executive who comes to the newly-Communist Russia on business, brandishing a fur coat, Harold Lloyd glasses, and an American flag. He almost immediately falls in with a bunch of con artists intent on taking his money. Very funny. This silent film will be screened with a recorded score. Part of the series In Focus: Eisenstein and His Contemporaries.

B+ Fantastic Planet, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Wednesday, 10:05

As a story, this French animated sci-fi mortality tale comes off as a very obvious allegory. Human beings, imported from Earth, struggle to survive on a planet populated by blue giants who view us as either pets or vermin. But it’s the imaginative visuals, not the story or the message, that makes Fantastic Planet worth watching. The filmmakers couldn’t afford Disney-quality animation, but they made up for it with striking and original designs. Creatures, plants, devices all look like something never seen before.

B+ Mantrap, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30

Here’s your chance to discover why Clara Bow was such a huge star in the 1920’s. Sexy, funny, and bubbling with energy, she plays here a big-city manicurist who on a whim marries a man from the Canadian wilderness. Her new husband is played by Ernest Torrence—several notches below her on the physical attraction scale. Not surprisingly, she flirts with everything in pants. One of the best romantic comedies to come out of the silent era, and a terrific date movie. With the shorts Alkali Ike’s Auto and Broncho Billy and the Bandit’s Secret. Judy Rosenberg will provide the piano score.

B- Coffy, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, Tuesday, 7:30

Pam Grier made a name for herself by kicking a lot of ass, killing a lot of scumbags, and shedding a lot of clothes in this 1973 blaxploitation hit. You can argue that – as this is one of the first action flicks with a very strong, female lead – Coffy a feminist work . On the other hand, this movie exploits and sexualizes women with a lot of gratuitous nudity. However you view Coffy from a sociological point of view, it’s still a low-budget, competently-made action movie with a talented, beautiful, sexy, and charismatic star, who also happens to be an African-American woman.

C+ Dawson City: Frozen Time, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:30

In 1978, Michael Gates of Dawson City, Alaska stumbled on a huge collection of 35mm nitrate film, buried in a former swimming pool below a torn-down ice rink, less than 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Bill Morrison’s documentary tells two stories: One is about the discovery; the other about the town. They’re both good stories, but Morrison made two major mistakes that keep me from enthusiastically recommending the film. Alex Somers’ highly repetitive music score sounds like an exceptionally boring funeral dirge, while the use of superimposed intertitles in leu of vocal narration creates an emotional distance. Read my full review. Part of the series Reverse Angle: Cinema Looks at Itself.

Continuing Engagements

Lebowskies (frequently-revived classics)