Now Playing! Acting Madly, Behaving Badly

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Still from Ingmar Bergman's 'The Magician,' 1958. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Theaters have reopened in and around San Francisco, which is cause for celebration as a benchmark in our battle with the virus. I’ll raise a small glass, as I’m not quite ready to partake in group activities indoors. Another toast is in order this week to the thrill of brilliant acting, Euro-style, with career highlights of Max Von Sydow, Mads Mikkelsen and Sir Anthony Hopkins.

Max Von Sydow: The Best Stradivarius
Through Apr. 30
BAMPFA, Rafael@Home

Movie history sparkles with long-running director-actor relationships: Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, Jean Renoir and Jean Gabin, Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, John Ford and John Wayne, Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and, of course, Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow. A year after the great Swedish actor’s death at 90, a mini-retrospective dazzles us with a couple Scandinavian landmarks and four of his extraordinary collaborations with Bergman, spanning The Seventh Seal (1957) to The Passion of Anna (1969).

Von Sydow’s air of taciturn, winking mystery was well-suited to Bergman’s fascination with the mask of public behavior and the intimacy of private life. The actor’s sinewy strength and sex appeal, meanwhile, amplified his director’s theme of passion, its pleasures and its price. One of cinema’s great walkers, Von Sydow could move—depending on the characer—like an athlete, a prince, a predator, or a protector.

In The Magician (1958), a gorgeous, razor-sharp tale of a 19th century illusionist compelled to give a house performance for arrogant authorities, Von Sydow haunts the screen with barely a spoken line. As the titular artist-slash-charlatan whose audience taunts and envies him, resenting the trickster even as they crave being fooled, Von Sydow simultaneously conveys respect for his craft and disgust for the spectators. It is a delicious performance by an immortal actor in a timeless film.

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Another Round
Now streaming
Cinema SF (Balboa, Vogue; online)

The most acclaimed European film of 2020, Thomas Vinterberg’s boozy tragicomedy has been streaming hereabouts for a couple months. I’m late to the party and a couple drinks behind, but I’ve arrived before Another Round scores an Oscar nomination for International Feature Film on Monday and St. Patrick’s Day sends people streaming and screaming into parklets on Wednesday. A couple of hours spent with Mads Mikkelsen and company before the erstwhile holiday may dissuade a few wise souls from the humiliation and fallout of public drunkenness.

Four fortysomething friends, intrigued by some wag’s theory that the optimal blood alcohol level is somewhat higher than zero, embark on a scientific experiment which entails drinking from dawn to dusk. All are high school teachers, a couple (including Mikkelsen’s character) have families, but most crucially they’re at that numb stage where routine and responsibility have drowned potential and promise.

We’re in Cassavetes territory, although John and his pals Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk never made middle age look especially fun. Mikkelsen and his castmates—abetted by the freedom of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s handheld camerawork—embody the seductive allure of letting go. For a while, that is, until tippling breakthroughs topple into breakdowns.

Mikkelsen is adept at playing an Everyman, which in itself is a stellar feat for a movie star. Even rarer, he can fit into an ensemble piece without throwing off the balance or demanding the spotlight. If we can’t take our eyes off him, even when he’s sharing the screen, it’s because it’s so much fun watching the pleasure he takes in acting.

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in 'The Father,' 2020. (Photo by Sam Gleason; courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

The Father
Now playing
Embarcadero Center Cinema (in person!)

Sir Anthony Hopkins, like so many lions of British stage and screen before him, has a gift for commanding our attention regardless of the material, the setting or who’s opposite him. The beauty of his Oscar-nominated portrayal in The Father, as an aging figure of forceful personality, power and intellect named Anthony, is its complete avoidance of tics and tricks. As his memory fades and plays tricks on him, Anthony’s impulse is to maintain control through a kind of mannered performance. Sir Anthony’s brilliance is showing the frightened, angry man behind the façade.

Florian Zeller’s screen adaptation doesn’t open up his acclaimed play beyond the confines of well-appointed flats, but it hardly needs to when it has Hopkins and Olivia Colman (as Anthony’s devoted yet conflicted daughter) carrying the ball (with the pinpoint support of Mark Gattis, Imogen Poots and Rufus Sewell). That said, Zeller smartly employs cinematic techniques like jump cuts and off-camera sound to punch home the time-shifting nature of Anthony’s declining mental faculties (as opposed to a linear worsening of his memory)—which, unusually, provide the plot twists, turns and revelations.

The Father is a focused and fraught work that doesn’t turn the emotional taps in the same way as other films in the burgeoning “elders at a crossroads” genre. It’s not about loss and grief, but the battle and the wounds. Hopkins and Colman do not compromise a whit in what is an unflinching, unexpectedly sharp-elbowed film.