SFIFF Preview, Part II

I’ve previewed another three films that will screen at the upcoming San Francisco International Film Festival (for my first set of three, see SFIFF Preview). Curiously, the best two of them, by far, are about the young sons of impoverished, widowed mothers.

This is the end of my previews. The next films I see for the Festival I’ll see at the Festival.

A Happiness
This anthropological documentary puts you into a society you probably don’t know–a remote, mountainous portion of Bhutan–and shows you how it’s changing with the times. And it does this almost entirely through the viewpoint of a young boy. Peyangki wants to go to school, but his widowed mother can’t afford it, and sends him instead to a small nearby monastery–with the intent that he will become a monk. He studies Buddhism, but he also plays, burns excess energy, makes friends, and acts like the utterly adorable child he is. Meanwhile, electricity–and with it TV and the Internet–are coming to town, where they will change everything. Director/photographer Thomas Balmès’ camera makes few obvious comments, and generally sits back and observes a way of life in transition. Touching, visually beautiful, with a slow, stately pace that matches the subject matter. A real gem.


Happiness will play at the Kabuki Sunday, April 27 at 12:15 and Wednesday, April 30 at 1:00. It will screen at the Pacific Film Archive  Friday, May 2 at 6:30.

A- Bad Hair
Ten-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange) bewilders, confuses, and worries his widowed mother (Samantha Castillo). Not only is he mischievous and occasionally thoughtless–hardly surprising for a boy that age. He also hates his curly hair, does everything he can to straighten it, and behaves in ways that don’t measure up to his mother’s ideas about masculinity. Meanwhile, Mom–horrified that she may have a gay son–struggles to get her job back and makes ends meet with little or no money. Both Lange and Castillo give great performances in this unique drama about poverty, race, and homophobia.


Bad Hair plays at the Kabuki  on Thursday, May 1 at 9:15; at the New People Cinema Sunday, May 4 at 6:15, and  the Pacific Film Archive Wednesday, May 7, at 6:30.

D- The Militant
Meet Ariel (Felipe Dieste) is unquestionably the most boring student radical that ever went on strike–although, to be fair, his comrades in this movie aren’t exactly fascinating, either.  In the course of this slow and dull film, he leaves an occupied college to attend his father’s funeral, deals with his father’s estate, joins another group of radicals, goes on a hunger strike with some meat packers, and works as a cowboy because his father owned cows. He also has a disability, which no one ever mentions, even when there are legitimate safety concerns. Unbearably dull, with little to say.


If you still want to see it, The Militant plays at the New People Cinema Saturday, April 26; at the Kabuki on Sunday, April 27 at 3:15; and at the Pacific Film Archive Thursday, May 1 at 8:50.

What’s Screening: April 18 – 24

The Tiburon Intl. Film Festival closes today (although, according to their schedule, their last screening was yesterday). The big one (or at least one of the two big ones), the San Francisco International Film Festival, opens Thursday.

B+ The Lost Boys, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. This clever and funny–and even imageoccasionally scary–teenage vampire movie was shot in Santa Cruz and is clearly set there (even though they give the town another name). So you’ve got the undead dealing with summer on the beach, the boardwalk, and teenage angst. But then, what do you do when peer pressure tells you to become an immortal bloodsucker? Hey, all the cool kids are doing it. A lot of fun in a horror movie that refuses to take itself seriously.

C+ Yankee Doodle Dandy, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. This Warner Brothers biopic about singer/dancer/songwriter George M. Cohan doesn’t have much imageof a story. It has some exciting dancing sequences that show off a side of James Cagney’s talent that we usually don’t see. But when Cagney isn’t dancing, it’s just not that interesting. As the title suggests, the picture has a lot of patriotic hoopla–which is understandable for a movie made as we were entering World War II.

B+ Johnny Guitar, Castro, Wednesday. A very unusual western from Nicholas Ray. For one thing, the main rivalry is between two women: good saloonimageowner Joan Crawford and bad businesswoman Mercedes McCambridge. But don’t think this is a feminist picture. The women’s hatred stems from romantic jealousy, and the title character hero (Sterling Hayden) is a former lover of Crawford hired as her bodyguard. It’s fun, and strange, with lesbian overtones, but far from a must for western lovers. On a double bill with Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious–which, I have to admit–I’ve never seen.

B+ The Ten Commandments, various CineMark theaters, Friday & Sunday, 2:00; Wednesday, 2:00 & 7:00. I enjoy a strange relationship with the biggest commercial hit of the 1950s. With its simplistic characters, corny dialog, and overriding atmosphere of pomposity, The Ten Commandments is the ultimate unintentional comedy. And yet, it’s also a rich, generous, and entertaining spectacle, and a visually lovely motion picture. It has one truly impressive, low-key performance (Cedric Hardwicke as Sethi). At times, it even succeeds in its simplistic spirituality. Read my Blu-ray review. I should note that the Friday screening is on Good Friday, the Sunday screening on Easter, and both are during Passover.

C- Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, Roxie, Sunday, 4:20. Although entertaining, the first Harry Potter novel showed little of the power, complexity, character, wit, and imageentertainment value of the sequels. The first Harry Potter movie, trying desperately to be as faithful to the book as possible, showed even less. However, this particular screening may be more entertaining than the original. According to the Roxie’s website, "A spell was cast onto the soundtrack, and now it’s something magically different for this screening." I have no idea what that spell is.

A- The Princess Bride, New Parkway, opens Saturday. William Goldman’s enchanting imageand funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. The then-young and gorgeous Cary Elwes and Robin Wright make a wonderful set of star-crossed lovers, and Mandy Patinkin has a lot of fun as a revenge-filled swashbuckler. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere, and who can forget cinema’s greatest acronym, ROUS (rodents of unusual size). On the other hand, some of the big-name cameos really grate on your nerves.

B The Big Lebowski, Clay, Friday through Sunday, midnight. Critics originally panned thisimage Coen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to their previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve maintained this site than than any other three movies put together.

SFIFF Preview

So far, I’ve managed to preview three films that will screen at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival. Here’s what I thought of them.

A Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy
I believe this is the first feature film adapted from a real-life Twitter feed. The title character (Patcha Poonpiriya) is a disturbed and spontaneous high-school senior. She and her best friend Suri (Chonnikan Netjui) live and study in a small boarding imageschool situated in what looks like an abandoned factory. Initially, they have the usual problems of late teenage years–romantic and sexual yearnings, revolting against authority, and doing stupid things on drugs. The first half is quite funny, in a sardonic, mild-chuckle kind of way. But the story takes some very dark turns in the second half, and becomes appropriately serious. Oddly, with its CRT computer monitors, dot matrix printers, and film-based still cameras, the picture appears to be set in the 1990s. And yet, Mary’s tweets appear onscreen throughout.

Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy will play at the New People Cinema Friday, May 2 at 2:00 and Sunday, May 4 at 3:00. It will play at the Kabuki Tuesday, May 6 at 9:00. To my knowledge, it will not otherwise get an American release.

B Young & Beautiful
As François Ozon’s drama about a 17-year-old girl going from virgin to high-priced hooker to fully-developed character takes a major turn at the halfway point, suddenly imagebecoming a film worth watching. After all, a film about a teenager losing her virginity doesn’t mean much if the character isn’t interesting. Then, suddenly she’s a prostitute. We watch her have sex is old, rich men over and over, but we can’t figure out why (she doesn’t need the money). Then her mother finds out. Suddenly, we’ve got a family in crisis, trying to come to terms with their daughter’s inexplicable behavior. We finally learn anything meaningful about the characters.It’s a close call, but I’d say that getting to the second half of this film is worth sitting through the first.

Young & Beautiful plays at the Kabuki, Monday, April 28 at 9:30 and Thursday, May 1, at 3:45. The film’s regular theatrical run starts May 9.

C+ When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism
This extremely low-key exercise about a film director and an actress has the matter-of-fact look and feel of early Jim Jarmusch–with the camera just sitting there and recording what’s going on in front of it. I don’t believe imagethere’s a single cut within a scene. And most of those one-shot scenes use a completely static camera. Sometimes a scene ends, and the camera stays on, facing a wall or parking space for several seconds for no apparent reason. Slowly, and seemingly almost by accident, you get to know a bit about these two. But you don’t get to know much about them. And besides, they just don’t seem all that interesting.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest Or Metabolism screens at the New People Cinema, Friday, April 25 at 3:45; at the Kabuki, Saturday, April 26 at 6:30, and at the Pacific Film Archive, Monday, April 28, at 8:30. It will likely have a theatrical run after the Festival, but I don’t know when.

The UC Theatre to be born again (but not as a movie house)

According to a Berkeleyside article by  Frances Dinkelspiel, the UC Theatre is coming back to life. That’s the good news. The bad new–admittedly from my personal perspective–is that it’s not going to show movies.

For 25 years, the UC Theatre was my favorite temple to the cinematic arts. I saw hundreds of films there, from the great masterpieces to the most ludicrous junk. There were years where I visited the UC three or four times a week. See The UC Theatre: A Memory for details.

The UC closed in 2001. This summer, the Berkeley Music Group will start renovating it. They have a website and everything, and plan to turn it into a music venue. David Mayeri, the man behind the project, is describing his vision as a Berkeley version of the Fillmore.

That all sounds well and good. I love live music–I’m even married to a musician. But I would have rather seen it turned into the Berkeley version of the Castro.

Well, maybe they’ll show an occasional movie. After all, that’s what the building was designed for.

What’s Screening: April 11 – 17

The Tiburon International Film Festival  continues through the week.

A+ City Lights, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Charlie Chaplin’s Birthday. In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in citylightslove with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of cinema’s greatest endings. Sound came to movies as Chaplin was shooting City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself. Cinema has rarely achieved such perfection. Read my Blu-ray review. Bruce Loeb will accompany the short subjects ("The Bond" and "The Tramp," both Chaplin’s), but the feature will have Chaplin’s recorded soundtrack.

A+ Groundhog Day, Castro, Friday. Spiritual, humane, and hilarious, Groundhog Day wraps its thoughtful world view inside a imageslick, Hollywood comedy. Without explanation, the movie plunges its self-centered protagonist into a time warp that becomes his purgatory, living the same day over and over for who knows how long (it could be thousands of years). Bill Murray’s weatherman goes through stages of panic, giddiness, and despair before figuring out that life is about serving others. And yet not a frame of this movie feels preachy. Fast-paced and brilliantly edited, it’s pure entertainment. For more on this great comedy, see Wait 20 Years, and Then You Can Call a Groundhog Day a Classic. On a Harold Ramis double bill with Caddyshack, which I saw long ago and barely remember.

A Sunset Boulevard, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Billy Wilder’s meditation imageon Hollywood’s  seedy underbelly is the flip side of Singin’ in the Rain (now that would make a great double bill). Norma Desmond is very much Lena Lamont after twenty-two years of denial and depression. And in the role of Norma, Gloria Swanson gives one of the great over-the-top performances in Hollywood history.

A- Ben-Hur, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. Novelist Lew Wallace ripped off the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo, set the story in Roman-occupied Judea, and had the title character cross paths with Jesus. Hollywood’s second film imageversion of the best-selling book easily surpasses all of the other big, long religious epics that Hollywood churned out in the 50s and early 60s. It even surpasses the 1925, silent original. Ben-Hur makes a rousing tale, a good story, and a visual feast. Say what you will, Charlton Heston is perfect for the role. The chariot scene still beats almost every other action scene shot. Only in the final hour, when Christianity gets ladled on thick, does it drag a bit. Ideally, this should be shown in 70mm or 4K DCP; the Castro will be screening it in 2K.

B Liv & Ingmar, Tiburon Playhouse Theater, Saturday, 12:00 noon. Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann comprise one of the great teams in film history.  Their  romantic imagerelationship lasted only five years. But their artistic collaboration, and their friendship, lasted nearly 40. Dheeraj Akolkar tells the story–or more precisely, lets Ullman tell the story–in this concise, interesting, but flawed 83-minute documentary. The basic problem: It concentrates too much on the romance and friendship but not enough on the collaboration. I wanted more about filmmaking. Read my full review. Part of the Tiburon International Film Festival.

B- Blazing Saddles, Oakland Paramount, 8:00. The most beloved western comedy of all time doesn’t do all that much for me. Sure, it has moments of great laughter as it lampoons everything from the clichés of the genre to imageinstitutional racism to the clichés of every other genre. But for every joke that hits home, two are killed by Mel Brooks’ over-the-top, beat-the-audience-over-the-head directing style. If you’re looking for western laughs, Paleface, Son of Paleface, Support Your Local Sherriff, and Shanghai Noon all beat Blazing Saddles. I believe this is the first R-rated film that the Paramount has shown in its Movie Classics series. On the other hand, Blazing Saddles would probably be PG-13 today.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.

B The Big Lebowski, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Critics originally panned this imageCoen Brothers gem as a disappointing follow-up to their previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie. It’s also built quite a cult following; The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the years I’ve maintained this site than than any other three movies put together.

What’s Screening: April 4 – 10

Both the Sonoma Film Festival and the Food & Farm Film Fest play through Sunday. And the Tiburon Intl. Film Festival officially opens Thursday.

B+ The Red Shoes, Castro, Thursday. This 1948 Technicolor fable about  sacrificing oneself for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet at the center is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I discuss The Red Shoes in more detail at War and Ballet @ the PFA.

A Amadeus, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 5:00. In this tale of two composers, the driven, determined, and successful Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) desires greatness and thinks he’s achieved it. Then he meets Mozart (Tom Hulce), who just seems amadeusto happily glide through life, with brilliant music pouring out of his head. Only Salieri can see that Mozart is the better composer, and that drives him into some very dark places. A story of talent, jealousy, and the creative spark, accompanied by some of the best music ever written. This director’s cut is significantly longer than the version that won the 1984 Best Picture Oscar; I like both of them. Introduction by Paul Zaentz. Part of the series More Than Fantasy: In Memoriam, Saul Zaentz (1921–2014).

A+ The Lady Eve, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Like all great screwballs (and it my opinion, this is the best), The The Lady EveLady Eve looks at class differences as well as the differences between a free-spirited woman and an uptight man (Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda). Stanwyck plays the younger half of a father/daughter team of card sharks, who makes the mistake of falling in love with her current mark–a wonderfully naïve Fonda. The result: crazy hijinks in glamorous settings. On a double bill with Lady of Burlesque, which I have not seen.

B+ Don’t Stop Believin’, Lark, Friday, 8:00. I’m not a Journey fan, but this music documentary made me a fan of the band’s new lead singer, Arnel Pineda. He’s charismatic, energetic, down-to-earth, and funny. He also has a great set of pipes.dont_stop_believinRamona S. Diaz’s documentary tells the story of how he became a part of Journey. Band members, desperate for a new singer, found the poverty-stricken, Manilla-based Pineda on Youtube, flew him out to California, worked with him for a few weeks, then took him on the most successful tour in Journey’s long history. This is a true-life fairy tale lacks conflict–the worst thing that happens to Arnel is a head cold–but Pineda has such a magnetic personality you don’t really care. The  Miles Schon Band will play after the movie.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. But then, it’s great in an entirely different way. imageThere’s absolutely nothing to take seriously in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and no message to help uplift you. The story is fundamentally preposterous, and the hero (Harrison Ford) is no more an archeologist than I am a butterfly. But the energy is so high, the action scenes so brilliantly choreographed and edited, and the whole story told with such enthusiasm and wit, that the rest of it just doesn’t matter. If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, don’t see it; otherwise, you probably already love it.

C+ Blue Jasmine, Castro, Wednesday. Cate Blanchett can do anything. In Woody Allen’s latest, she gives a great performance in an otherwise shallow and unbelievable drama. Once an imageobscenely rich socialite, the unhinged Jasmine  (Blanchett) is now broke and moves in with her working-class but  level-headed sister (Sally Hawkins). Spoiled and narcissistic, she makes everyone else miserable. Much of the film looks and sounds unrealistic (the working-case men all seem to come from New Jersey, despite the San Francisco setting), and Allen’s script gives us no reason to care about Jasmine. Read my longer essay. On a double bill with A Woman Under the Influence, a film that blew me away when I saw it nearly 40 years ago.

Film, Digital, and the Current Castro Calendar

Early every month, I visit the Castro‘s Playlist page to see which classics they’re showing digitally rather than on film. 

And no, I don’t do this to get angry. I love film, but I also love DCP (the digital standard that’s replaced film in theaters). It’s more a matter of curiosity.

As I understand it, the Castro’s management usually screens classics on film if it’s available. But I’m sure there are exceptions. For one thing, DCP cuts shipping costs significantly. If a classic has undergone a major digital restoration, DCP will always look superior. It often looks superior even without the restoration, but not always.

Purists who disagree with me will be glad to know that 35mm has the upper-hand on the current calendar–at least if we ignore new films. But not by much. Over the course of April and early May, the Castro will screen 19 35mm prints, and only 14 DCPs of older movies.

A few noteworthy selections:

The Red Shoes (April 10, DCP): This ballet melodrama uses the 3-strip Technicolor format better than any other film I’ve seen, so you want to see it with the best image quality. It was recently restored digitally, so I feel safe to say that DCP is the right choice.

Groundhog Day (April 11, 35mm): I know for a fact that there’s a DCP for this title. I’m guessing that the Castro had both options and picked 35mm.

Ben-Hur (April 13, DCP): This 1959 epic was originally shown in a special, anamorphic 70mm format. Since it’s unlikely to be shown that way again, DCP is the best choice. However, this is the sort of movie that makes me wish that the Castro had a 4K digital projector–which does better for large-format films.

Sorcerer (April 17, DCP): This remake of The Wages of Fear has just been restored. Of course it’s now digital.

Johnny Guitar (April 23, DCP): I’m really glad they’ve bothered to digitize this gem, which deserves to be better known. I hope they did a good job.

Emperor of the North (April 27, 35mm): I haven’t seen this film, but the Castro is promising an archival print. I’ll generally  take that over a DCP.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (May 3, DCP): This was shot in the same very wide, large-film format as Ben-Hur, and should ideally be projected the same way. Some years back, United Artists struck an anamorphic 70mm print, and the Castro screened it, using special projection lenses supplied for the engagement. However, that wasn’t the complete movie. The original cut has now been digitally restored, and is thus on DCP. For what it’s worth, I loved this movie when I was ten; I can’t stand it now.


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