What’s Screening: May 26 – June 1

The word of the week in Bay Area cinema is Hitchcock. Eleven films from the master of suspense will play on the big screen, thanks to the Balboa.

Festivals & Series

Festival Recommendations: Alfred Hitchcock festival

A+ Rear Window (1954), Balboa, Sunday, 5:00pm

Hitchcock at his absolute best! James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by spying on his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) investigate, it slowly dawns on us – but not on them – that they’re getting into some dangerous territory. Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as treating his audience to great entertainment. Read my A+ Appreciation.

A+ North by Northwest (1959), Balboa, Sunday, 7:30

Glib advertising man (Cary Grant) becomes the victim of mistaken identity in Alfred Hitchcock’s most entertaining thriller. Foreign spies want to kill him, and the police want to arrest him for a murder he didn’t commit. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman provided almost as many laughs as thrills, balancing them deftly. Hitchcock made thrillers more frightening and thoughtful than North by Northwest, but he never made one more entertaining. Read my A+ appreciation.

A Psycho (1960), Balboa, Friday, 8:00pm

You may never want to take a shower again. In his last masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us several times, leaving the audience unsure who we’re supposed to be rooting for or what could constitute a happy ending. In roles that defined their careers, Janet Leigh stars as a secretary turned thief, and Anthony Perkins as a momma’s boy with a lot to hide. I’ll always regret that I knew too much about Psycho before I saw it; I wish I could erase all memory of this movie and watch it with fresh eyes.

A Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Balboa, Saturday, 3:30pm

In Alfred Hitchcock’s first great American film, a small-town girl begins to suspect that her beloved, newly-arrived Uncle Charlie is a notorious serial killer. Then he begins to suspect that she suspects. Joseph Cotton plays the villain in a performance that makes the movie. Most of the time he’s warm, friendly, and relaxed, but he can quickly turn dark or say something frightening. Written in part by Our Town playwright Thorton Wilder. The locations were shot in Santa Rosa.

A Strangers on a Train (1951), Balboa, Saturday, 6:00pm

One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychopath (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his philandering wife, and a psycho who thinks he’s owed a murder.

B+ Dial M for Murder (1954), Balboa, Monday, 4:00pm

Good Hitchcock but not great Hitchcock, with several overly-talkie sequences that make it feel like the stage play it was based on. But it was a good play, and Hitchcock knew how to enliven it. One man blackmails another into committing murder, with results that I can’t possibly discuss. Hitchcock shot Dial M in 3D, and pretty much ignored the obvious depth effects of the technology (this screening will be flat). But when Hitchcock finally throws something at the camera, he knows exactly what to throw and when to throw it. Read my re-evaluation.

B Rope (1948), Balboa, Friday, 6:00pm

Not Alfred Hitchcock’s worst film, but easily his most frustrating. Two young men, clearly homosexual (although that couldn’t be stated in those days), kill an acquaintance for thrills, then throw a party with the body hidden. Unfortunately, Hitchcock made two big errors. First, he cast James Stewart in a role that in 1948 was still outside his acting range (it wouldn’t be for long). Second, he made the movie in eight ten-minute shots that give the impression of a single 80-minute take – which wasn’t technically possible back then. That later decision robbed him of the ability to edit, and Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock.

B The Birds (1963), Balboa, Saturday, 8:30pm

Alfred Hitchcock’s only out-and-out fantasy has some great sequences. The scene where Tippi Hedren calmly sits and smokes while crows gather on playground equipment behind her, and the following attack on the children, are classics. The lovely Bodega Bay location adds atmosphere and local color, and many of the special effects were way ahead of their time. But the story is weak, the ending unsatisfactory, and lovely scenery plays side-by-side with obvious soundstage mockups. Worse yet, newcomer Hedren doesn’t provide a single believable moment. She’s beautiful, but utterly lacking in acting talent or charisma.

C- Vertigo (1958), Balboa, Monday, 8:30pm

For many cinephiles, this isn’t just Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece; it’s the greatest movie ever made. Not me. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likable character – Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge – although we don’t see much of her. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, yet that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

I’m not reviewing Marnie. I haven’t seen it in years, I haven’t written about it, and I never liked it.

Theatrical revivals

A+ Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), BAMPFA, Thursday, 7:00pm

Haunting, romantic, and impressionistic, F. W. Murnau’s first American feature turns the mundane into the fantastic and the world into a work of art. The plot is simple: A marriage, almost destroyed by another woman, is healed by a day of reconciliation in romance in the big city. Yet it’s the execution – with its stylized sets, beautiful photography, and expressionist performances – that makes it both touchingly personal and abstractly mythological. Read my Blu-ray review. Although this late silent film was originally released with a music-and-effects soundtrack, Judith Rosenberg will provide live music on piano. Opening of the series Ambassador of Cinema: Tom Luddy’s Lasting Influence at BAMPFA.

A- Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), 4-Star, Saturday, 2:00pm & 7:30pm

The most-loved Star Trek movie gives us everything that its predecessor failed to deliver: an exciting and entertaining adventure starring the seven actors and characters that we learned to love from the original TV show, along with a chance for several of those actors to shine. This has almost everything you would want in a Star Trek movie.

B+ East of Eden (1955), Lark
֍ Sunday, 10:am
֍ Sunday, 5:00pm
֍ Monday, 6:00pm

James Dean electrified the screen and became a star and a legend. In his first film, Dean plays an alienated teenager at odds with both his strict and religious father and his ever-so-upright younger brother. This updating of Cain and Abel is set in early 20th-century rural California. It occasionally steers towards the over-dramatic, but for the most part it’s an effective story about a generation gap, made a decade before that term was coined.

B+ Princess Mononoke (1997), 4-Star
֍ Saturday, 11:00am
֍ Sunday, 11:00am
֍ Monday, 11:00am

Popcorn Palace! For much of its runtime, this Japanese, animated, action fantasy takes you on a wild and exciting ride. The hand-drawn characters, the strange animals, and the amazing moments of fear, struggle, and love are surprisingly powerful. But the climactic battle between animals and people drags on too long, seemingly just for the point of making things big. The environmental message is both obvious and shallow. Too extreme for young children.

B The Man Who Laughs (1929), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30pm

Gwynplaine (Conrad Veidt) has nothing to laugh at. As a child, his face was intentionally disfigured, leaving it stuck in a huge grin. Veidt usually played villains, but in this late silent, the only sinister thing is his looks, which later inspired the creation of Batman’s Joker. But this time, Veidt gets to play a disfigured hero. Set in 17th Century England and dealing with circus acts, evil monarchs, and lecherous aristocrats, The Man Who Laughs entertains in that big, fun Hollywood way. Piano accompaniment by Frederick Hodges.

D 9 To 5 (1980), Castro, Saturday, 6:00pm

Hosted by Jesse Hawthorne. At least this badly-made comedy – a satire on office sexism – has its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, neither Lily Tomlin nor Jane Fonda are as funny as we know they can be. Singer Dolly Parton, in her first acting role, isn’t much better. The plot is outrageously ridiculous, which could have worked but didn’t, thanks to Colin Higgins’ off-timing direction. Fonda does a slapstick routine with a Xerox machine that only reminds us how much has been lost in the art of physical comedy. At least Parton gave us a terrific title song. On a double bill with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which I never saw.

Frequently-revived classics

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