Just to keep things simple, I’m listing San Francisco International Film Festival presentations first.
San Francisco International Film Festival
The Iron Mask, Castro, Friday, 2:00. Douglas Fairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel, The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Although this presentation will have recorded, rather than live, accompaniment, it will be special in another way. Kevin Brownlow, winner of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award, will be on hand to answer questions and present this print of his own restoration.
Murch, SFMOMA, Friday, 9:00; Castro, Sunday, 4:15; Kabuki, Tuesday, 1:00. Not as well-known as the directors he’s worked for, film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The English Patient, American Graffiti, everything worthwhile Francis Coppola ever made) played an essential role in the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls film brat revolution of the 1970’s. What’s more, he’s articulate enough to discuss his work intelligently. And that’s pretty much all this documentary provides–Murch facing the camera and talking about his work, with appropriate clips to illustrate his points. Editor/co-director Edie Ichioka tries to liven things up occasionally with strange visual and audio effects which are occasionally clever but more often annoying. Murch’s talk is sufficiently interesting without the pyrotechnics.
Strange Culture, Castro, Friday, 6:00. Like American Splendor, Strange Culture mixes scripted drama performed by professional actors with documentary footage and interviews of the real-life, still-living people those actors are playing. And while Steve Kurtz lacks Harvey Pekar’s fascinating personality, his story is both compelling and frightening. Kurtz woke up one morning to find his wife dead. Then he was arrested as a bioterrorist. The terrorism charges have been dropped, but he’s still awaiting trial for mail fraud (although no one was defrauded). It’s hard to go wrong with so powerful a story, and writer/director Lynn Hershman Leeson makes an effective piece of agitprop. This film will get a theatrical release after the festival.
Cecil B. De Mille — American Epic, Kabuki, Saturday, 9:15. Kevin Brownlow’s documentary on the greatest showman in Hollywood history (although not, by a long shot, the greatest filmmaker) provides an interesting and sympathetic portrait of an influential artist treated today more as a joke than as a great innovator. This is a TV documentary, one I saw on Turner Classic Movies, and it may feel a bit slight on the big screen. On the other hand, it may not. There are plenty of clips, and no one knew how to fill the big screen like Cecil B. DeMille.
Revolution Summer, Kabuki, Thursday, 9:15. Young people looking for sex, drugs, and violent revolution wander through a predominately-white Oakland in a film allegedly set today but feeling like the early 1970’s. The acting by young unknowns is uniformly excellent, especially Mackenzie Firgens in the starring role. But the slow pace, overuse of close-ups, and clumsy storytelling alienate the viewer. The occasional corny speech and title card commentary don’t help.
The Monastery, Kabuki, Thursday, 4:30. A crusty old bachelor offers his castle to the Russian Orthodox Church for a monastery, then has to contend with a feisty nun. The plot of this documentary sounds like a sitcom. It might have made a good one, but it’s just not an interesting documentary. For one thing, it never really explains the old man’s relationship to the Church–spiritual, emotional, legal, and financial. The Monastery has a few funny scenes, and some moments of insight about this man’s loneliness, but not enough to fill a third of its 84 minutes.
The Conversation, Castro, Tuesday. 9:15. Francis Coppola’s low-budget “personal” film, made between Godfathers I and II, is almost as good as the two epics that sandwich it. The story of a professional voyeur, and therefore, indirectly, a story about filmmaking, The Conversation concerns one Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional snoop who bugs people’s private conversation for a living. Remote and lonely, his emotional armor begins to crack when he suspects that his work is about to result in murder. Walter Murch’s sound mix is one of the best ever, exposing us to layers of meaning within the titular recorded discussion. On a “Fog City Mavericks Double Feature” with the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers–no doubt inspired by the Festival screenings of Murch and Fog City Mavericks at the Castro two days beforehand.
Dead Man, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. A very different type of western. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland (Johnny Depp) who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum. This isn’t one of Jarmusch’s better known films, but it’s one of his best.
Pulp Fiction, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Quentin Tarantino achieved cult status by writing and directing this witty mesh of interrelated stories involving talkative killers, a crooked boxer, romantic armed robbers, and a former POW who hid a watch in a very uncomfortable place. Tarantino entertainingly plays with dialog, story-telling techniques, non-linear time, and any sense the audience may have of right and wrong. A Flashback Feature.
42nd Street, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. This isn’t just a backstage musical; it’s the backstage musical, complete with the chorus girl ingénue whose big chance comes when the star breaks her ankle. A close second to Gold Diggers of 1933, with good humor and spectacular Busby Berkeley dance numbers that could never happen on a real Broadway stage. Co-staring Ginger Rogers as Anytime Annie, who “only said no once, and then she didn’t hear the question.” On a double bill with Cabin in the Cotton.
An Inconvenient Truth, Cerrito, Sunday, 1:00. If Al Gore had been this charming and funny in the 2000 election, the world would be a better place. Basically a concert film of a multimedia slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth explains the science and dangers of global warming in a manner so clear, concise, and entertaining that it can enthrall a ten-year-old (and I know because I saw it with one). I’m generally skeptical about political documentaries as a force for good, but if it’s possible for a movie to have a major, positive effect on the human race, this is the one. An Earth Day presentation (admittedly a week late).
Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Shattuck, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Oh, how Terry Gilliam has fallen! Monty Python’s token Yank made three of the best movies of the 1980’s, then his career collapsed and took his talent with it. Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas reeks; a confused, ugly, and meaningless exercise–which would be forgivable, if it also wasn’t boring and witless.
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