SCREEN GRABS This weekend brings local impresario Marc Heustis’ first Castro Theater event in some time, and it’s one he’s been chasing for considerably longer: A tribute to Kim Novak, one of very few stars from “golden age” Hollywood who is still with us. Her rare in-person appearance will be even more special because she is, of course, the star of perhaps the single most celebrated San Francisco-set movie ever: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which she played the woman—or women—with whom James Stewart’s former police detective is obsessed.
An Oregon native who broke into the movies after being a model (she was crowned “Miss Deep Freeze” by a refrigerator company for whom she worked at trade shows), Novak was one of the last great star creations of the old Hollywood studio system, promoted as a successor to Rita Hayworth and rival to Marilyn Monroe. Fighting that kind of sex-kitten promotion—and the control of Columbia Pictures’ bullying chief executive Harry Cohn—she nonetheless had some popular and critical triumphs, notably including the film versions of stage hits Picnic and Bell, Book and Candle. (Vertigo itself was neither popular or praised in its initial release, its stature instead slowly rising over the ensuing decades until a 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll named it the best film of all time, knocking Citizen Kane out of that slot.)
The collapse of that “classic” studio system left her career somewhat rudderless amidst the drastic changes in audience taste and film content of the 1960s. In the 1970s she began taking on the occasional TV project, and in 1986 had a successful stint playing a character not unlike her Vertigo heroine in the prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest.
Though she hasn’t acted in over a quarter-century, Novak will have plenty to talk about: She’s worked not only with Hitchcock but such other directorial luminaries as Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Robert Aldrich. Her costars have included Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Kirk Douglas, Zero Mostel, Dean Martin, Angela Lansbury, Charles Bronson, even David Bowie.
The 7pm Sunday Castro event—featuring clips, an onstage interview, live performances, and Vertigo—may well be sold out by showtime. However, never underestimate how far money and determination can get you. If you’re short on either, there’s still a free noon showing of Picnic.
Also a suspense tale involving forbidden love and mysterious death, but offering no competition to Vertigo, is the oddest opening of the week. That would be Dark Crimes, a 2016 English-language movie by a Greek director (Alexandros Avranas) that was shot in Poland, with a mirthless Jim Carrey oddly cast as a Krakow police detective investigating a murder tied to an underground S&M sex club. You might wonder why Carrey signed on for this particular project…but then it’s a bit of a puzzle why anyone did. The gloomy thriller manages to be mildly distasteful without even having the energy to cash in on its lurid subject. However, if you catch its run at the Roxie, be sure afterwards to read this article about the real murder case it’s (quite loosely) “inspired by.”
Other specialty openings this week include Boom for Real, Sara Driver’s documentary about the pre-fame years of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Argentinian drama The Desert Bride, with Chilean star Paulina Garcia (Gloria) as a longtime domestic servant shaken when her post evaporates; Timothy McNeil’s indie Anything, in which John Carroll Lynch is a widowed newcomer to L.A. whose horizons are widened by Matt Bomer’s transgender neighbor; and Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a tribute to/message from the progressive pontif. If nothing else, the latter is certain to be the most popular movie Wim Wenders has directed since Wings of Desire three decades ago, if not ever.
An important note: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s newly rediscovered five-part 1972 German TV series Eight Days Don’t Make a Day (written about in last week’s column) is playing the Drafthouse in its entirety each day this weekend, Friday through Sunday. If you missed it at the Pacific Film Archive the week prior, here’s your chance to see one of RWF’s least-known but arguably best (and certainly most accessible) works. Fri/18-Sun/20, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
Elsewhere (all opening Friday):
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
Personally I’d rank Kubrick 1968 masterpiece higher than Vertigo, but then designations like “best movie of all time” are kind of inherently ridiculous, eh? Still, there’s nothing ridiculous about this sci-fi mindtrip, which has dated remarkably little in fifty years. If you’re thinking, “Didn’t this play the Castro in 70mm not all that long ago?,” you would be right. The occasion (beyond that half-century anniversary) for this 11-day revival run—which is interrupted by Novak’s event and a few other programs—is that a new print was struck from original-camera-negative elements, resulting in an “unrestored” experience closer to the one audiences had in ’68 than has been possible since. This “un-restoration” was overseen by none other than Christopher Nolan, a latterday sci-fi screen specialist who no doubt sees it as a standard to aspire to—and well he should. Fri/18-Mon/28, Castro. More info here.
The list of good films based on Chekhov is very short—the last major addition was Dover Koshashvili’s 2010 The Duel, drawn from a novella rather than a play. But it gets a little longer with the arrival of this adaptation by playwright Stephen Karam and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot). (Read our interview with Mayer here.)
Annette Bening plays the insufferably vain veteran actress Irina, whose summer trip to her family’s country estate underlines her neglect of them (including Brian Dennehy as ailing brother Sorin)—and her terror of aging, which is reinforced by writer lover Boris’ (Corey Stoll) attraction towards the jeune fille (Saoirse Ronan’s Nina) her angst-ridden son Konstantin (Billy Howle) loves. Others in the fine cast include Corey Stoll, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, and Elisabeth Moss in a scene-stealing turn as Masha, the original Debbie Downer. Prettily mounted but bruisingly concise in capturing Chekhov’s tragicomedic breadth, this is a very good film—which is to say, something more than just good theater transposed to film. At area theaters.
An English oceanside village is more like a prison for Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman who’s regarded as unstable because of one ugly incident years ago—though these days it’s the suffocating control of her mother (Geraldine James) that’s impacting her mental health, if anything. Unsurprisingly, Moll falls hard after a chance encounter with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a handsome, somehwat mysterious man whose rebellious, confrontative nature suggests the person she’d like to be.
But even as their romance rapidly heats up, there are reasons to worry: The main one being that Pascal is a prime suspect in a rash of young women’s murders in the area. This compelling first feature by writer-director Michael Pearce is a true psychological thriller, in that the psychology takes precedence over the thriller mechanics—although there’s quite enough of the latter to satisfy. It’s a complexly disturbing tale that never feels routinely exploitative or contrived. At area theaters.