The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through Thursday, and dominates this newsletter. I’ll start with the non-festival recommendations and warnings.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Elmwood, Thursday, May 6, 7:15. I haven’t seen this (relatively) widely-released documentary, and therefore have no opinion on its quality. But I’d like to point out that this particular screening is a benefit for Willard Middle School. So if you want to see the movie, this would be a good time to go. (Disclaimer: My wife works for the Berkeley Unified School District.)
A Mary Poppins, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. The best live-action movie Walt Disney ever made, and one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really lights up her first movie appearance, managing to upstage Dick Van Dyke and some wonderful special effects. So what if it takes liberties with the books?
Double Bill: Gilda & Gun Crazy, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Two film noirs I haven’t seen recently enough to grade. Although Gilda is the iconic Rita Hayworth movie, Gun Crazy sticks in my mind and is therefore, probably the better picture. The plot concerns male and female sharpshooters who fall in love and go on a crime spree, despite the man’s abhorrence to turning his gun on any living thing. One of the many films from the 1950s written by the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (original prints didn’t credit him; modern ones do).
F Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday, midnight; Sunday, 10:00am. In the 1980’s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg collaborated on two great Indiana Jones movies that are about as fun as escapist action flicks get. But the other Indiana Jones movie—the one made between the good ones—is a real stinker. It’s dark and dreary, with almost no comedy, as if Spielberg thought people should take silly Jones premise seriously. Ingénue Kate Capshaw (the future Mrs. Spielberg) is as charismatic as fingernails on a chalkboard. And the whole thing is viciously racist and imperialistic, treating India as the White Man’s burden.
San Francisco International Film Festival
Mel Novikoff Award Tribute to Roger Ebert, Castro, Saturday, 5:30. Over the past 40 years, has anyone else done as much to promote the art of cinema to the American people than Roger Ebert? In addition to a celebration of his long and important career, the presentation will include a screening of the recent but little-seen thriller Julia.
Kanbar Award Tribute to James Schamus, Kabuki, Saturday, 1:00. Includes a screening of Ride with the Devil: Director’s Cut. If you’re a fan of Ang Lee, you’re a fan of his primary collaborator, screenwriter James Schamus, even if you’ve never heard of him. Schamus is more than a writer; he’s also a producer, a college professor, and head of Focus Films. He’s also a very entertaining speaker.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Castro, Tuesday, 8:30. No, this isn’t the Disney version. It’s the 1916 silent, which I saw on VHS long ago and hardly remember. Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields will handle the live musical accompaniment, with help from organist David Hegarty and author (and accordion player) Daniel Handler, better known as Lemany Snicket.
A The Day God Walked Away, Clay, Monday, 6:45; Kabuki, Tuesday, 4:00, Wednesday, 4:15. Set during the Rwanda genocide, this intense work follows a young Tutsi woman as she struggles to survive killers as well as her own inner demons. She also refuses to bond with, or even talk to, the man who becomes her companion in hiding. More than just another film condemning genocide, it’s a portrait of a woman driven insane by an impossible situation, and thus making the situation worse. The best picture I’ve seen so far for this year’s SFIFF. I wrote more about this excellent film here.
A A Brand New Life, Clay, Sunday, 12:15; Kabuki, Tuesday, 6:45. It takes guts to make a feature totally dependent on a child’s performance, and writer/director Ounie Lecomte has those guts. More importantly, she has talent. So does the young Korean star, Kim Sae-ron. For reasons that are never fully explained, the little girl’s father brings her to a Catholic orphanage and leaves her there without a goodbye. Most of the film concerns itself with her adjustment to this sudden loss. There’s very little plot here, and none is necessary. It’s a story of good people trying to make the best of a difficult situation, and a child adjusting to a horrible, unexplained loss. A beautiful little film. Read my full review.
B+ Seducing Charlie Barker, Kabuki, Sunday, 6:30; Clay, Tueday, 6:45. Starting out as a relatively serious comedy,Seducing Charlie Barker manages the rare trick of turning almost completely serious as the protagonist’s problems deepen. Charlie Barker, an unemployed actor with talent but little business sense, is not a happy man. Not only has his career stalled, but he’s financially dependent on his wife, who hates her high-pay, high-pressure behind-the-scenes job on a TV talk show. Wild sex with a young, gorgeous, horny, yet stupid sociopath will not, in the end, improve things. Read my full review.
B+ My Queen Karo, Kabuki, Sunday, 4:15; Wednesday, 9:15. 70’s radical chic was a strange way to grow up. This Belgium drama views the self-contained world of a 1974 Amsterdam squatters’ commune through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. Karo’s idealistic and charismatic father wants everything and everyone to be free. Free as in both “free love” and “free rent.” Her mother’s view of the world is less romantic, but considerably more practical. Young Karo, meanwhile, tries to live a normal life in this extremely abnormal environment. A moving tale of those who try to live their dreams, and those who have other people’s dreams imposed upon them. Not a must, but worth catching.
B Constantin and Elena, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:00. This quiet documentary from Romania plants a stationary camera in front of two people who have been very much in love for a very long time. In fact, the filmmaker, Andrei Dascalescu, is their grandson. Their lives are simple, and seem very fulfilling. They farm, care for their animals, cook, and fix things around the house. Elena also weaves beautiful rugs. And they talk, remember the past, and joke with each other. They go to church. They’re visited by their grandchildren. If this sounds boring…well, it occasionally is. But most of the time, this peak at two lives well-lived is touching, poignant, and occasionally funny. Read my full review.
B The High Line, Kabuki, Thursday, 5:00. The advantage of short subjects is that the bad movies are over quickly. Unfortunately, so are the good ones. Luckily, the good ones were usually longer than the bad ones in this collection of animated shorts. The best is “Logorama,” a big, hilarious parody of action movies and, even more so, of product placement. You can read more at my full review.
D+ You Think You’re the Prettiest, but You Are the Sluttiest, Clay, Monday, 9:30; Kabuki, Thursday, 6:15. Wealthy teenagers hook up badly for sex in this dreary drama from Chile. (Maybe it’s a comedy. I’m not sure, as it was neither funny nor dramatic.) Javier performs badly in bed with Valentina, who understandably prefers his best friend, Nicolás. So Javier spends the night wandering the town, talking to men and hitting on women. All that might have worked if writer/director Ché Sandoval had created likeable, believable, or even moderately unique characters. But he didn’t—at least not with the leads. I’m giving the movie a D+ because a handful of characters you only see briefly are interesting or entertaining. Too bad the young lovers at the center of the movie are not.