What’s Screening: January 10 – 16

What’s in the Bay Area’s best movie theaters this week? Three new movies – two about capital punishment. A farewell to Agnès. Noir by Graham Greene, Charles Laughton, and Leigh Brackett. And comedies from the west, down under, and outer space. But no film festivals (I don’t count Sketchfest).

New films opening

A Clemency, Embarcadero Center, opens Friday

Clemency starts with a botched execution, and it’s one of the most intense experiences I’ve seen on the screen. Alfie Woodward plays the warden as a bureaucrat who’s good at her job. But the executions are ruining her emotionally. She drinks too much. She’s remote to her husband (Wendell Pierce). She’s emotionally close to a younger man who works for her. Meanwhile, a man who may or may not have committed murder is heading for his execution after 15 years on death row. Read my full review.

A- Just Mercy, California (Berkeley), Grand Lake Theatre, opens Friday

Can true justice prevail for a black man in rural Alabama? Maybe, but you’ll need a gifted, well-trained, intelligent, and altruistic lawyer. Michael B. Jordan plays that lawyer in this riveting, based-on-a-true-story courtroom drama. Jamie Foxx plays the convict on death row who finds new hope thanks to the lawyer’s work. But clear evidence of innocence doesn’t mean much in Alabama courts. Read my full review.

B+ Varda By Agnès, Rafael, Roxie, opens Friday

Warning: If you’re not an Agnès Varda fan, you probably won’t enjoy this film. Luckily, I am a fan of the French New Wave’s leading director. Varda’s final film and her last testimony starts with something I haven’t seen in a new film in decades: full opening credits. I suppose she wanted viewers to see the names of her collaborators. Knowing she wouldn’t have time for another film, she discusses cinema in movie theaters, lectures halls, and on the street. She even sits on a moving platform when discussing the traveling shots in Vagabond. Occasionally boring, but mostly fascinating.

Another chance to see

A- ÁGA, Rafael, Thursday, 7:00

Life moves slowly in remote, far-north latitudes. People do difficult and dangerous chores by hand. Things don’t change much. And yet, Milko Lazarov’s new film, Ága, is never boring. Their world may be beautiful, but the couple are in trouble. They’re growing older and can’t move as fast as they used to. On top of that, the wildlife is disappearing. Fish, reindeer, and other game they depend on are harder to find. This film is as much about climate change as it is about two aging people living in a yurt. Read my full review.

B+ Faces Places, SFMOMA, Thursday, 8:00

Elderly filmmaker Agnès Varda and young photographer/muralist JR travel across France, photographing people (mostly blue collar), talking to them, and putting up photo murals on the sides of buildings and other structures. JR has a real knack for turning existing structures into art; he places his giant photos so that they work with the shape of the existing buildings, windows, and staircases. The two make an interesting pair; the athletic JR leaps from one structure to another while Varda, in her late 80s, walks with a cane. Matthieu Chedid’s slow but joyful music brings it all together.

Great double bills

A+ The Third Man & The Long Goodbye, Castro, Wednesday

The Third Man: Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside post-war Vienna – 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.
The Long Goodbye:
Screenwriter Leigh Brackett and director Robert Altman updated Raymond Chandler’s novel and moved Philip Marlowe into the 1970s. Marlowe (Elliott Gould) still lives in a crummy apartment, but now he has a bunch of hippie chicks next door. The movie starts as a comedy and turns into a labyrinth of fear and violence.

Recommended revivals

A The Night of the Hunter, BAMPFA, Wednesday, 7:00

Widow and mother Shelley Winters makes a very bad choice for a second husband–a cruel, sanctimonious, violent, and criminally insane preacher (or fake preacher) played by Robert Mitchum. Told mostly through the eyes of two children who must survive their new stepfather, the story is grim, atmospheric, frightening, and haunting. Then, in the last act, Lillian Gish shows up as a practical, down-to-earth savior of lost children. It’s some sort of Christian parallel, although I’m not exactly sure of what. Charles Laughton’s only film as a director, it makes you wish he made more.

A Galaxy Quest, Castro, Saturday, 1:00pm

Q&A with Tony Shalhoub!
There’s no better way to parody a well-known genre than to write characters who know the genre and find themselves living in what they thought was their favorite fiction. Few movies do this better than Galaxy Quest. In this parody of all things Star Trek, the cast of a long-cancelled sci-fi TV show find themselves on a real space adventure with good and bad aliens. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman star. Part of Sketchfest.

A Cléo from 5 to 7, BAMPFA, Saturday, 6:00

One of the best films of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda’s Cléo From 5 to 7 follows a young woman as she wanders through Paris on a summer evening. But it isn’t simply a joyful lark; she’s waiting for the results of her cancer screening. Shot mostly in black and white with some surprising uses of color, Cléo meditates on life from the point of view of a young woman who may not have a lot of it left. There’s even a silent movie tribute starring Jean-Luc Godard. You can read my longer report, but you’ll have to scroll down a bit. Part of the series Agnès Varda: An Irresistible Force.

B- What We Do In the Shadows, New Parkway, Sunday, 9:20

This vampire mockumentary’s basic idea is funny and promising: An unseen documentary camera crew follow the afterlives of four vampires who share a house in a modern city. They argue about household chores, go out looking for victims, and talk directly into the camera about their undead existence. But the basic idea begins to wear out around the half-way point. The jokes are still funny, but they come farther apart. Read my full review.

B- Blazing Saddles, Lark, Sunday, 4:30; Tuesday, 6:00

The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to institutional racism to the clichés of every other genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style.

Frequently-revived classics