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Seven Films to Watch This Week

Museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) passes for fine art in Jem Cohen's sublime Museum Hours.

One review and six previews of this weekend's upcoming flicks.

More than once I've considered re-titling my weekly film list "Let us now praise hi-brow sh*t," because the space here is so often devoted to the more obscure, intelligent, and, in my mind, interesting flicks to come down the pipe--the rationale being that superhero movies get enough press already. Obviously I can't, not only due to the inappropriate word choice, but because it would leave me drowning in cliche, restricted to discussing only the most impossible artifacts. My point here is this: there must be something special behind the need to create "art film," because Americans continue to turn out  intelligent, challenging work that's rewarding on a level beyond simple "entertainment" despite the terrifically anti-intellectual state of American popular culture and the miserably small monetary rewards.

Jem Cohen's latest excursion, the sublime Museum Hours, is an example par excellence of film as an intellectual exercise. Still here? Let me tell you about it then: It's set mostly an art museum in Vienna where two complete strangers, Anna, an American visiting from overseas, and Johann, a museum guard meet. Over the course of the film's two hours, the pair walk, talk, and develop a bond that's no less real for the way it defies description. As they do, we're treated to an airy, languid narrative that spends as much time observing the light and the artwork as it does the two protagonists. 

It's a film about museums that's almost made to be shown in them. Perspectives are never forced, and Cohen very successfully works an amazing conceit throughout: that we can watch a movie much like we'd look at a piece of art: without explicit instruction or needing to feel like we're being led in one way or another. Museum Hours simply is, and it's up to the viewer which movie they chose to see. Rating it in such a way minimizes the amount of technique and sheer ability Cohen has brought to the table, but it's a convenient shorthand for a film that's often hard to pin.

Cohen, a compulsive producer with nearly 50 films (long and short) to his credit, most of them unseen by the general public, made a small mark on the broader consciousness in 2011 when he shot and edited a mostly ambient series of dispatches from Zuccotti Park called Gravity Hill Newsreels. Before his work with Occupy, Cohen was primarily known for his collaborations with musicians, from directing a series of memorable R.E.M. videos to Instrument, a doc about DC-based band Fugazi that took nearly 10 years to complete. This may account for a certain sensation one gets in Museum Hours that there is faint music playing somewhere at all points. One of the collaborators (to use the word "stars" would be odd here) in Museum Hours, Mary Margaret O'Hara, actually has a background as a singer, and gets a few well-situated opportunities to display her talents across the running time of the film. Museum Hours isn't for everyone, but that's as it should be. If it's for you, set aside the time--you might actually feel like you got your money's worth for a change. Rotten Tomatoes: 93% Opera Plaza.

ALSO PLAYING:

Mademoiselle C - This behind-the-scenes doc chronicles the launch of a new book by Vogue editor Carine Roitfield comes with all the usual trappings (models, catty commentary, Karl Lagerfield) and will be a must-see for anyone obsessed with fashion or the nascent fashion-doc form. Rotten Tomatoes: 73%. Sundance Kabuki.

Mother Mortar, Father Pestle - YBCA continues its series of new works by local filmmakers, Local Boy Makes Good: New Bay Area Film, with the engrossing black-and-white cryptogram by filmmaker Gibbs Chapman. Pestle in turns resembles Aronofsky's Pi and the films of John Cassavettes, depicting at length the shared mind-space where obsession, routine and inevitability meet. YBCA Screening Room, Thursday only. Series continues through end of month.

Space Jam - The Clay hosts two midnight screenings of this certified 90s artifact. It's not quite Who Framed Roger Rabit, but the combination of looney tunes zingers, crass commercialism and party-pumping "Jock Jams" make for a heady rush of 90s nostalgia. Rotten Tomatoes: 35%. Clay, Friday and Saturday only.

Wadjda - The first feature film from a female Saudi filmmaker (not by any means a small task), Wadjda is charming in its universality, shining in large part because of its lead, sarcastic and savvy young newcomer Waad Mohammed. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Opera Plaza.

Ip Man: The Final Fight - Hong Kong workhorse Anthony Wong takes up the mantle as Bruce Lee's master, Ip Man, in this final episode concerning the twilight years of his life (and, naturally, kung fu fighting). Rotten Tomatoes: 63%. 4-Star.

Une Femme MariĆ©e - The celluloid-fueled Berkeley Underground Film Society screens Godard's lesser-seen commentary on the commercialization of the body of  modern woman. One of his more pointed works. Rotten Tomatoes: 92%. The Tannery, Berkeley, Sunday only.