The San Francisco International Film Festival opened last night. I’m hoping to spend some serious time there over the next two weeks.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to devote much time to it before opening, so my festival discussion at the end of this newsletter is brief.
A Valley Girl, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. Was there ever a less promising film to become a classic? Made on a miniscule budget, financed by people more concerned with tits than story, and with a title ripped off from a recent novelty song, it was just one of many teenage sexploitation movies then glutting the early-’80s drive-ins. Yet writers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane and director Martha Coolidge turned it into an updated version of Romeo and Juliette, and the ultimate teenage romantic comedy. Valley Girl sports Nicolas Cage in his first major role (before he got weird) and makes some of the best use of rock ‘n’ roll ever in a movie that isn’t actually about music.
B+ American Graffiti, Rafael, Thursday, 7:30. Another movie that makes good use of rock ‘n’ roll. A long time ago, in a Bay Area that feels very far away, George Lucas made an entertaining (and extremely profitable) movie without action, a big budget, or special effects. Talk about nostalgia. A benefit for Marin Charitable.
A His Girl Friday, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) her ex-husband. And thus was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with a bit of serious drama thrown in about an impending execution.
Bruce Springsteen The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,Balboa, Thursday, 7:30. I haven’t seen it, but I’m a Springsteen fan, so I’m mentioning it, anyway. This documentary examines the creation of that early album. It also has an absurdly ungainly title. A benefit for Bread and Roses.
B Sing-Along Hairspray (2007), Rafael, Wednesday, 7:00. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually experienced the sing-along version, so the following capsule is based on the non-interactive one. In the early 1960′s, Americans died horrible, violent deaths over issues of racial equality. And now it’s a musical! Well, why not? The Hollywood version of the Broadway version of John Water’s independent film celebrates the spirit of the civil rights movement by turning it into one big, happy dance contest on local daytime TV. The result is charming, upbeat, and very funny, with pleasant musical numbers, joyous dancing, political themes that would have been radically dangerous 45 years ago, and John Travolta in a fat suit and a dress. What’s not to like? A benefit for Mountain Play. Fuller disclosure: I haven’t see the original Hairspray, either. That’s playing at the Castro Sunday on a double-bill with Serial Mom.
A Manhattan, Red Vic, Thursday and next Friday. Made soon after Annie Hall (his first drama, Interiors, came in between the two), Manhattan doesn’t measure up to Woody Allen’s masterpiece, but it’s still one of his best. A group of New Yorkers fall in and out of love, cheat on their significant others, and try to justify their actions, all in glorious Cinemascope and black and white, and accompanied by Gershwin. In light of Allen’s more recent personal history, his character’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl feels both unsettling and more revealing than he probably intended.
B+ Baraka, Red Vic, Sunday and Monday. Strange, haunting, beautiful, and terrifying, Baraka defies description. Without plot, narration, or explanation, it simply presents images of nature, humanity, and spirituality. Even if you don’t see a message (there is one), you’re captivated by the music and the clear and perfect visuals. Baraka was one of the last films, and one of the few art films, shot in 65mm. Because the larger film format so much enhances this picture, I grade Baraka A when presented in 70mm, but only B+ in 35mm.
B+ Black Swan, Castro, Thursday. Natalie Portman loses her grip on reality (and wins an Oscar) in this over-the-top psychological melodrama set in the world of ballet. Between her dominating mother, the artistic director trying to awaken her suppressed sexuality (for art, of course, but there might be some lust involved, too), and the other ballerinas who may be friends or enemies, she has a lot on her mind. No wonder she has a hard time holding on to it. Deliciously fun entertainment. Not to be confused with the 1942 Tyrone Power pirate movie, The Black Swan, which is also deliciously fun entertainment.
A The King’s Speech (original R-rated version), Castro, Wednesday. A Castro spokesperson has assured me that they will be screening the original, R-rated version. King George VI (the Duke of Yorkthrough much of the film, and Bertie to his family) doesn’t want to live in the limelight. But fate forces that job onto the shy, reluctant man with a very bad stammer. Terrified, he turns to Australian immigrant Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush at his most impish) for help with his speech impediment. The relationship doesn’t start well. Logue begins with asking him personal questions, telling him not to smoke, and insisting they be on a first-name basis. For a man raised to believe in the importance of formal ceremonies meant to elevate his family above everyone else, this commoner’s disregard for tradition and class structure is shocking and confusing. Read my full review. And for more on my thoughts on this film’s rating, see Ratings, Censorship, and the Weinstein Company.
A The Mill and the Cross, SFMOMA, Saturday, 12:30; Kabuki, Wedesday, 9:00. Painting with the wide palette that 21st century cinema allows, LechMajewski creates a masterwork about Bruegel creating one of his masterworks, The Way to Calvary. True to Bruegel’s style, the film starts with the day-to-day lives of ordinary, 16th-century peasants. But life isn’t a rustic paradise for these commoners. Flanders is part of the Spanish Empire and its Inquisition. Using nature, paint, and digital effects, Majewski creates not a realistic biopic but a visual feast that moves from the world of Bruegel’s experience to the world of his imagination. Bruegel made his statement about religious intolerance. Majewski made his about Bruegel. Both are worth looking at.
Jean-Michel Frodon: The Critic’s Response and Responsibility, Kabuki, Thursday, 7:30. A French critic will discuss the role of criticism in today’s cinema. Many critics will attend, resulting in metacriticism.
D- The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Kabuki, Saturday, 12:45; New People (VIZ Cinema), Sunday, 5:15. From 1966 until 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania with an iron grip. Then his own people executed him and his wife. That’s a great story, but Andrei Ujica misses most of it, instead giving us three hours of repetitive, propagandistic "news" footage with some home movies thrown in. How many times can you watch him honored by the Chinese? How many birthday pageants must you attend? How often can you watch his family happily hunting big game? There’s a compelling story of great evil inside this footage. But rather than finding it, Ujica just presents the footage. I should mention that the DVD I saw had a horrible transfer; it’s possible that the film is significantly better when properly presented. But I doubt it.