What’s Screening: December 21 – 27

This week on Bay Area movie screens: Two great new social dramas, plus Garbo, Forman, Lubitsch, Bergman (of course), a Billy Wilder double bill, no film festivals, and a theater’s birthday party. Oh, and some Christmas movies.

New films opening

A Capernaum, Clay, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday

Children living in poverty have to do for themselves in this heartbreaking story of love and the lack of love. Twelve-year-old Zain sues his parents for bringing him into a cruel and horrible world, but that’s simply a plot hook. Through flashbacks, we discover his life as a resourceful boy who can’t afford to be honest. After his younger sister – the only person he cares for – is sold into marriage, he runs away, befriends an undocumented Ethiopian woman, and finds himself, after her arrest, the sole caretaker for her baby. Read my full review.

A- If Beale Street Could Talk, New Mission, Piedmont, California (Berkeley), Guild, opens Monday

Barry Jenkins’ new film isn’t quite up to his Oscar – winning Moonlight, but it’s still a strong and moving work, looking closely at the African-American experience. Adapted from James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, it tells its story through Tish (KiKi Layne), a black and pregnant 19-year-old living with her parents and sister. Her upstanding and loving boyfriend Fonny (Stephan James) is in prison for a rape he could not possibly have committed. Tish and her family do everything they can to prove his innocence, but he’s black, and that’s enough for the system to find him guilty. Read my full review.

Promising events

New Parkway 6th Birthday Party Saturday
Cake, prizes, and $6 movies all day. The movies playing that day include My Neighbor Totoro, At Eternity’s Gate, and Blindspotting.

Grand Hotel, BAMPFA, Wednesday, 6:30

It’s been years since I’ve seen this all-star Best Picture Oscar winner, and I remember enjoying it more in parts than as a whole. But that’s a likely problem when a film weaves several simultaneous stories. Archival Print!

Great double bills

A+ It’s a Wonderful Life & A- A Christmas Story, Castro, Saturday

It’s a Wonderful Life: There’s a rarely-acknowledged dark side to Frank Capra’s feel-good fable. George Bailey (James Stewart) saves his town and earns the love of his neighbors, but at great personal cost. Trapped, frustrated, and deeply disappointed, his thoughts turn to suicide. Read my A+ appreciation. New 4K restoration!
A Christmas Story:
Writer Jean Shepherd’s look back at the Indiana Christmases of his youth, and brings us enough laughs and cynicism to make the nostalgia go down easy. A holiday gem for people who love, or hate, the holidays.

A+ Some Like it Hot & A The Apartment, Castro, Thursday

Some Like it Hot: I’m not sure if this gender-bending farce is the best American film comedy of all time. But I doubt you could find a more perfect example of comic construction, brilliantly funny dialog, and spot-on timing. It’s as perfect as a comedy gets. Read my latest Blu-ray review.
The Apartment:
Jack Lemmon gave one of his best performances in this serious comedy about powerful men exploiting those beneath them. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman he exploits and Lemmon loves. Read my Blu-ray review.

Recommended revivals

A The Firemen’s Ball, BAMPFA, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 4:00

Before he immigrated to America, Milos Forman skewered Communism like only one of its victims could – with an understanding of how it works and the slyness to get around its censors. (Admittedly, the Czech censors were kind of loose in 1967; that’s one of the reasons Soviet tanks rolled in in 1968.) The bureaucrats putting on the titular party want everyone to be happy; they just don’t seem to understand that their orders are having the opposite effect. Funny and wise.

A 20 Feet from Stardom, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocal texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton (“Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without credit (“He’s a Rebel”). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) pop up among the talking heads (as do The Talking Heads), but this time, the spotlight points to the lesser-known artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration.

Fanny and Alexander, BAMPFA, Theatrical Version: Friday, 7:00; Full-Length Television Version: Thursday, 12:00 noon.

In Ingmar Berman’s penultimate film, set in early 20th-century Sweden, two happy children enjoy their happy family. But it’s a fragile world, and one parental mistake could have it tumbling around the children’s ears. When their father dies, and their mother marries an extremely strict, Calvinist bishop, the children’s lives become a living hell, made bearable only by Alexander’s prolific imagination. Read my Blu-ray review. Part of the series Bergman 100: Full Circle.

A- The Shop Around the Corner, Stanford, Friday through Sunday

Ernst Lubitsch mixes a little drama into this romantic comedy set in a Budapest store. James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan play employees who hate each other in person, but as pen pals, they’re in love. The film has a serious adultery subplot, which is surprising, since Lubitsch generally treated adultery as fun and games and no big deal. But you never quite believe that Stewart and Sullavan are Hungarian. The movie was remade at least twice, as In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail. On a double bill with Meet Me in St. Louis.

B+ Scarface (1983 version), Roxie, Tuesday, 7:00

This Brian De Palma/Oliver Stone remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks/Ben Hecht crime thriller has surpassed the original in popularity, although I prefer the first version. Al Pacino plays way over the top in the lead role, but then everything in this movie is over the top. Utterly absurd, but somehow compelling.

B- Fiddler On The Roof, New Parkway, Tuesday, 3:00

What a great way for Jews to spend Christmas! As a teenager, I loved the musical stage play and hated the movie (I saw both when they were relatively new). I felt that the film’s production values were too big, and the comic timing was off. Now I can appreciate what director Norman Jewison was trying to do. Rather than making a musical comedy with a period setting and a serious undertone, he turned it into a historical spectacle with songs. The result has its problems, but it also has its joys.

B- Creed, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:00

Between the excellent Fruitvale Station and the groundbreaking Black Panther, Ryan Coogler made a pretty good boxing movie with an interesting gimmick: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, now an old man, trains the up-and-coming protagonist (Michael B. Jordan). Reasonably heartwarming and entertaining, it has one big problem: The guy we’re supposed to root for is already rich and doesn’t need to get punched in face to make a living. That makes it hard to cheer for him.

Continuing engagements

Frequently-revived classics