Rocketman’s world premiere was met with a standing ovation. Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic of Elton John starring Taron Egerton as the glittery pop idol is currently sitting at 86% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. If that isn’t enough to whet your appetite for the movie, there’s this: the legendary piano man and the actor who portrays him in a sublime duet of the song that gave the film its title. —Pam Grady
film noir, Georges Simenon, Harry Baur, Jean Delannoy, Jean Gabin, Jean Renoir, Jules Maigret, Julien Duvivier, Maigret Sets a Trap, Night at the Crossroads, Pierre Renoir, The French Had a Name for It, The Head of a Man
San Francisco may be gentrifying at a terrifying rate, but at least we’ll always have homicide. Of the movie variety. The City is lucky to be awash in noir festivals: Elliot Lavine’s I Wake Up Dreaming (Elliot’s moved up near Portland, but we hope he hasn’t totally abandoned us), Eddie Muller’s Noir City, and Don Malcom’s The French Had a Name for It, which is teeing up its latest menu of mystery, mayhem, and murder May 10-13 at the Roxie Theater.
Fourteen films will unreel, opening with Z director Costa-Gavras’ 1965 debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders (Compartiment tueurs), a jazz-inflected thriller starring Yves Montand as the detective investigating a case where a woman’s strangulation on a train is only the beginning of a gruesome spree. It is a fast-paced, involving drama and the perfect film to set the mood for the four-day series.
Malcolm has put together a strong slate. Pick any of the 14 and you won’t go wrong, but I want to make a special plea for three films in the festival: Night at the Crossroads (La nuit du carrefour) (1932) and the closing night double-bill of Maigret Sets a Trap (Maigret tend un piége) (1958) and The Head of a Man (La tête d’un homme) (1933). Georges Simenon’s great French detective, Commissaire Jules Maigret, the protagonist of 76 novels and 28 short stories published over four decades from 1931 to 1972, remains a popular figure in movies and TV to this day. The French Had a Name for It is screening three of the most memorable.
A long time friend of Simenon’s, since long before the writer even conceived the great detective, Jean Renoir (Boudu Saved from Drowning, The Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game) introduced the cinematic Maigret to the world in 1932 with Night at the Crossroads. His older brother Pierre played the detective, called to a desolate town that consists of a gas station and a few houses, to solve the murder of a jewel thief. Made years before the term “noir” was even coined to describe the genre, of the three Maigret films, it is the most noir of them all. It is there in the atmosphere, so foggy and damp it’s almost tactile, creating an aura of doom. It is there in the rogues’ gallery of suspects that include gas station jockey Oscar (Dignimont, one name only, probably artist André Dignimont) and Germans Karl (Georges Koudria) and Else (Winna Winifried), whose claims of being brother and sister Maigret doesn’t believe. As portrayed by Pierre Renoir, Maigret is a frank investigator, willing to forego social niceties in his quest for the truth—as the unfortunate Else comes to discover. An almost documentary-like car chase adds to the suspense in a thriller that is short, nasty, and efficient.
Julien Duvivier’s (Pepe le Moko) The Head of a Man takes a more psychological approach as Maigret (here played by the great Harry Baur in a wonderful performance) refuses to give up on a case that is apparently solved. Joseph Heurtin (Alexandre Rignault) had to have killed the old lady found stabbed in her bedroom. His bloody finger and shoeprints are all over the murder scene and he’s captured on the run. The slow-witted man admits that he was there to rob the woman but denies his guilt in her murder and won’t talk about any accomplices. Case closed, but Maigret thinks otherwise. Gaston Jacquet as Willy Ferrière, the woman’s nephew and heir, and Valéry Inkijinoff as Radek, an ailing immigrant with a serious chip on his shoulder, are part of the detective’s puzzle. The Head of a Man delights, not just in its central mystery, but also in the cop’s dogged determination to seek justice instead of an easy win and in his uncanny ability to get into the heads of his array of suspects.
The immortal Jean Gabin steps into the legendary detective’s shoes in Maigret Sets a Trap, directed by Jean Delannoy (Obsession, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and co-written by Michel Audiard, A Prophet writer-director Jacques Audiard’s father. Someone is killing women in Montmarte and Maigret and his officers are determined to find the culprit before he can murder again. All clues lead one way, but Maigret follows a different path. In this outing, Maigret could give Columbo a run for his money when it comes to needling suspects into either confessing or putting themselves in a position to be caught in the act. The most stylish of the three films—Midcentury furnishings fans will find a lot of eye candy in one suspect’s apartment—it is also the most buoyant. Maigret is at a low point at the film’s start, wondering if it is time to retire and let someone else solve the case. Watching him recover his mojo and joie de vivre is a joy. Gabin is terrific and so is a mystery rooted ultimately in twisted relationships. Together with The Head of a Man, it is the perfect double bill on which to end The French Had a Name for It, one that will leave you wanting more. –Pam Grady
The French Had a Name for It 5 1/2 , May 10-13, Roxie Theater, 3117 – 16th Street, San Francisco. http://www.midcenturyproductions.com/
The latest promo to drop on Rocketman is all about the fashion. To see Elton John back in the ’70s would have been an experience: Not just the music, but the clothes, the glasses, the larger-than-life flamboyancy. From the looks of it, Rocketman captures that. Certainly, star Taron Egerton wears it well. Whether the movie lives up to the hype remains to be seen, but for now, bravo!
One of the more unusual thrillers to come down the pike in recent years, The Hummingbird Project revolves around the construction of a high-speed fiber optics cable to facilitate high-frequency stock trades where every millisecond counts. The project pits cousins Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (an almost unrecognizable Alexander Skarsgård) against their high-flying trader ex-boss Eva (Salma Hayak) who is determined to put a stop to the upstarts’ attempt to usurp her business. The Orchard release debuts in March.
It would be easy to dismiss the porgs as so much Disney marketing. After all, the cuddly toys based on the avian characters have been in stores since well before Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened. But it would be a mistake to assume the only creatures in the galaxy far, far away that are more emo than Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) represent mere opportunities for merchandising. The birds with the big Keane painting eyes that come to roost in the Millennium Falcon are a nod to the wildlife that find a home on Skellig Michael, the remote island (the site, appropriately enough, of an ancient monastery), that serves as Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) reclusive home.
As a bird habitat, Skellig Michael is home to a large population of gannets—27,000 thousand pairs—as well as the storm petrel, the smallest seabird in Europe. But it was the clownish puffins that inspired the porg. Penguin coloring; large, colorful beaks; and sad eyes render the little birds irresistible. At least, Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson thought so when he came up for the idea of the porgs.
And he’s not wrong. Of all the things to love about the movie—including Chewbacca’s pained reaction to the birds as they invade his ship—the porgs rank up there, adding charm and comic relief to an intense adventure. –Pam Grady
On Sunday, Nov. 12, SFFILM offers the rare opportunity to dig deeper into motion-capture technology and how actor Andy Serkis brings characters like Planet of the Apes’ Caesar and The Lord of the Rings trilogy’s Gollum to life with The Art & Craft of War for the Planet of the Apes with Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri. The onstage conversation between Serkis and Welta Digital Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Letteri will take place within the context of a triple bill of the most recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, and will take place prior to the day’s final screening of War for Planet of the Apes. A single ticket gives entrance (with in-and-out privileges) to the conversation and all three films.
The schedule is as follows:
12:00 pm – Rise of the Planet of the Apes (105 min)
2:00 pm – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (130 min)
6:00 pm – Onstage conversation with Andy Serkis and Joe Letteri
7:00 pm – War for the Planet of the Apes (140 min)
Sunday, Nov. 12; $13 SFFILM members/$15 general; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, SF. To purchase tickets, visit https://www.sffilm.org/screenings-and-events/planet-of-the-apes.
Something to look forward to in the new year: The Stone Age meets the Bronze Age in Nick Park’s Early Man. The Wallace & Gromit creator’s first film since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit stars Eddie Redmayne as the scion of a rabbit (what else?) hunting tribe and Tom Hiddleston as Bronze Age baddie Lord Nooth. Opens February 2018.
Eddie Constantine looked like the love child of Jack Palance and Ernest Borgnine, a real tough guy. In truth, he was the American-born son of a Russian father and Polish mother who trained as an opera singer. He pursued his career in Europe where he sang cabaret. Then, nearing 40, he switched gears and turned to acting. Cinema buffs know him from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 dystopian sci-fi/film noir hybrid Alphaville where he played secret agent Lemmy Caution.
But Alphaville was not the first nor the last time Constantine would play Lemmy Caution. In all, he played the character 14 times, the last time only two years before his 1993 death in another Godard film Germany Year 90 Nine Zero. Now, during the Fri Nov 3-Mon Nov 6 The French Had a Name for It 4 French noir film festival at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater, is a chance to see Constantine’s Lemmy Caution from the legendary character’s beginning.
Constantine first stepped into Lemmy Caution’s shoes in 1953 in two adaptation of British author Peter Cheyney’s novels, Poison Ivy and This Man Is Dangerous. The French Had a Name for It 4 is screening the latter that opens with news of American convict Lemmy Caution’s prison escape and flight to Europe. And sure enough, wicked charm with the ladies aside, Caution seems for all the world like a bad guy. The multilingual tough guy is certainly fluent in violence and he eagerly enters into a plot to kidnap an American heiress. But people on both sides of the law would be well advised to note that name, “Caution,” and take heed. It’s not so easy to get a handle on just who or what Lemmy is.
This Man Is Dangerous is a terrific introduction to Lemmy Caution, full of actions and plot twists. It is also a great introduction to Constantine and his gruff charm. On the other end of the double bill is another Constantine vehicle, Lucky Jo (1965). This late noir displays a different, more vulnerable side of the actor. As the ironically named titular character, Constantine a petty crook who can’t give up on the life even as every scheme ends in disaster and his confederates abandon him, certain that he is a jinx.
Other highlights of The French Had a Name for It 4 include Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958), starring Jean-Claude Brialy who returns to his home village to find his best friend Serge (Gerard Blain) has become an embittered drunk; The Night Affair (1958), starring the great Jean Gabin as a cop investigating a jazz world murder who falls for a young junkie (Nadja Tiller); Gigolo (1951), starring legendary Arletty as a pimp who brings a young man (Georges Marchal) to debauched ruin; and The Strange Mr. Steve (1957) and Mademoiselle (1966), showing two different sides of Jeanne Moreau, as a sophisticated femme fatale in the former, and, in the latter, an adaptation of Jean Genet story scripted by Marguerite Duras and directed by Tony Richardson, as a school teacher who unleashes evil on her small village and is obsessed with a local woodsman. –Pam Grady
For tickets and further information about The French Had a Name for It 4, visit http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/french-name-4/?instance_id=23567
So looking forward to Jeff Nichols’ latest, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga and acclaimed at Cannes. It’s the flesh-and-blood story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, whose mixed-race marriage made them criminals in the eyes of their home state. This was the case that went to the Supreme Court in 1967 and ended with the ruling that invalidated laws against interracial marriage nationwide. — Pam Grady
Stellan Skarsgård is a boisterous Russian who pulls poetry professor Ewan McGregor into his plans to defect in this adaptation of a John le Carré thriller. Looking forward to getting an early peek at it when it makes its international premiere on Sunday, May 1, at the San Francisco International Film Festival.