What’s Screening: April 26 – May 2

The San Francisco International Film Festival runs through this week and beyond. And the Playground Film Festival, which will screen six stage play adaptations throughout the Bay Area, starts Friday. 

My comments on SFIFF screenings are at the end of this very long newsletter.

B+ The Source Family, Roxie, Thursday through next Sunday. Not what you’d expect from a documentary about an early 70s LA-based cult and hippy commune. the_sourceTold almost entirely from the point of view of former commune members, the film paints a largely nostalgic picture of early new age spirituality and anti-materialistic idealism. But while it paints leader Jim Baker as a truly holy man whose insights improved the lives of his followers, it also shows how his megalomania and his libido compromised and hurt the family. Note: When I first wrote about this film last year, it was called The Source.

A+ Dystopian Comedy Double Bill: Modern Times & Brazil, Castro, Wednesday. The A+ goes to Brazil, although Modern Times easily wins an A. A mostly silent picture made brazilyears after everyone else had started talking, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times laughs at assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression, with Chaplin’s tramp moving from job to job and jail to jail. With Paulette Goddard, the best leading lady of his career. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comically explores a bizarre, repressive, anally bureaucratic, and thoroughly dysfunctional society. One government worker (Jonathan Pryce) tries to escape into his own romantically heroic imagination, but when he finds the real woman of his dreams (Kim Greist), everything falls apart. With Robert De Niro as a heroic plumber. Read my Blu-ray Review.

70s suspense Double bill: Deliverance & Duel, Castro, Friday. I haven’t seen either of these recently enough to grade them, but going on long memory, they’re both excellent. Duel was Steven Spielberg’s first feature, but it wasn’t a theatrical feature; it was made for television. Nevertheless, the Castro will be screening a 35mm print on their huge screen.

A The Maltese Falcon (1941 version), Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Dashiell maltesefalconHammett’s novel had been filmed twice before, but screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.

B The Man Who Fell to Earth, Castro, Thursday. Movies were pretty weird in the ‘70s, but they didn’t get much weirder than this—at least with a major director and stars. David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth in search of water, but who imageinstead discovers capitalism, TV, alcohol, and human sex. Yet it’s not entirely clear what the film is about. Nicolas Roeg directed it, so you know that the movie won’t be about story. But the images are intriguing, the central characters are puzzles that cry out to be solved, and it has some very sexy scenes to enjoy watching. If for no other reason, see it to remind yourself what science fiction films could be like in the years between 2001 and Star Wars. On a double bill with another weird Roeg movie (and one that I haven’t seen in decades), Performance.

D+ Mama Mia!, New Parkway, Saturday, 10:30. What could go wrong with a musical comedy about long-passed promiscuity, starring Meryl Streep and set on a picturesque Mediterranean island? Plenty, including formless choreography, ABBA’s catchy but ultimately unmemorable music, and way too imagemany exterior scenes obviously shot on a soundstage. But in terms of sheer embarrassing badness, nothing in Mama Mia! comes close to Pierce Brosnan’s nails-on-chalkboard singing voice. I like Brosnan a lot as an actor, but when he tries to sing, I suspect that someone in the sound room was strangling a cat. On the other hand, this is a sing-a-long version, so his voice will probably be drowned out by the audience, who can’t possibly sing as badly. Hosted by Barely Legal.

A- Blancanieves, Shattuck, Rafael, opens Friday. Could The Artist have started a trend in new silent films–all in narrow screen and black and white? But while The Artist looked to Hollywood for its inspiration, Blancanieves–a loose and very imageSpanish adaptation of Snow White–follows the more expressionistic silent film of Europe. The result is a story that could not possibly have worked as well with sound and color. Dark and atmospheric, Blancanieves holds you as it finds new twists in the old story. Major kudos for Maribel Verdú, who plays the evil stepmother with a relish that’s a joy to watch. The story is familiar, but writer/director Pablo Berger provides plenty of surprises. In the end, he stands the whole Prince Charming thing on its head. See my full review.

A- Ben-Hur (1959 version), Stanford, Saturday and Sunday.  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 Stanford will screen it in 35mm, which assuming it’s a good print, should be fine.

A Pulp Fiction, New Parkway, Thursday, 9:00. Quentin Tarantino achievedpulpfiction 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.

B The Graduate, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. Maybe it’s no longer the breakthrough movie it was in 1967, but The Graduate is still a well-made romantic comedy with serious overtones. And, of course, it gets Bay Area geography all wrong.

B- Clockwork Orange, Castro, Saturday. Stanley Kubrick’s strange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in image1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it doesn’t add up. On a Kubrick double bill with Barry Lyndon, which I haven’t seen since its original run–and hated it then.

Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong: A Journey into Creature Features, Rafael, Sunday, 4:15. I haven’t seen this documentary on the old, long-gone Bay Area TV show Creature Features, and even if I had, this version is supposed to be different. But I do have fond memories of the show, which I used to stay up late to watch before we had VCRs. Creature Features host John Stanley will be there in person. Also in the program: Ernie Fosselius’ classic short, "Hardware Wars."

A+ Casablanca, Castro, Sunday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add casablancathat no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. On a double bill with The Year of Living Dangerously, which I haven’t seen for a very long time. It seems like an interesting double bill.

C+ 20 Million Miles to Earth, Stanford, Thursday and next Friday. Much as I love Ray Harryhausen, I have to admit that most of his films are barely mediocre. Yes, his character-driven special effects still astound, decades after they became technically obsolete. imageBut with few exceptions, the movies wrapped around those effects were flat and cheap. Alas, 20 Million Miles to Earth is not an exception. A spaceship returning from Venus brings home an egg that soon grows into a very large monster. The creature is expertly realized and your heart goes out to it, but that may be in part because the human characters are so badly drawn that you’re left with no one else the care about. I’m assuming that the Stanford will not screen the colorized version.

San Francisco International Film Festival

State of Cinema: Steven Soderbergh, Kabuki, Saturday, 1:00. One of the most versatile, daring, and occasionally brilliant filmmakers of our time–and one who has recently announced his planned early retirement–will talk about the state of the art form he’s giving up. Should be interesting.

B+ Youth, Kabuki, Wednesday, 6:45. Justine Malle–the daughter of Louis Malle–makes her narrative feature debut in this openly autobiographical drama. Juliette (Esther Garrel) is the 20-year-oldimage daughter of a great and respected filmmaker, coming to grips with sex, romantic love, and her father’s slow death from a degenerative disease. That’s pretty much what Justine Malle went through in the mid 1990s. Like her father–who also made at least two autobiographical narratives–she handles the story with direct and intimate camerawork, and with love and compassion for the characters. Her protagonist doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, but watching her father slowly die is not on the top of her list. Bob Dylan’s "I Want You" will never sound the same. My major complaint: At 75 minutes, it’s too short. I wanted to spend more time with these people.

B Something in the Air, Kabuki, Saturday, 6:30; Monday, 9:15; Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 6:30. Youthful innocence takes strange forms. For Gilles, a French high school student in 1971, it takes the imageforms of radical activism and artistic ambitions. Sometimes those drives support each other in Olivier Assayas’ loose tale, and at other times they conflict. Something in the Air doesn’t grab you like a great film; you often have to force yourself to stay involved. But the effort is worthwhile. As Gilles grows beyond his radical idealism–even if he never quite renounces it–you’ll find yourself appreciating how we all mature and find ourselves. And yes, the esoteric Marxist arguments sound, and are intended to sound, ridiculous.

C+ Good Ol’ Freda, Kabuki, Wednesday, 9:30; Thursday, 6:45. How much more is there to tell about The Beatles? Not much, apparently. This documentary focuses on the young fan who became their secretary soon imageafter Brian Epstein signed them, and stayed with them in that capacity until they broke up. She sheds some light on the early days, as the band quickly moved from a small Liverpool club’s house band to the biggest stars of all time. But once they achieve major fame, she has little to say that you haven’t heard before. Most of all, she talks about how she’s always refused to talk about The Beatles. She comes off as extremely principled but not particularly interesting. Good music, though.

C Cold War, Kabuki, Monday, 6:45; Tuesday, 9:30; Thursday, 2:00. A police van with five cops in it mysteriously disappears. With all of the imageradios and GPS devices inside, that’s virtually impossible..unless it’s an inside job. In this fast-paced Hong Kong thriller, two high-ranking police officers battle each other as well as the bad guys through explosions, gun fire, and a lot of very fast, very serious dialog. Cold War never pauses enough for us to get to know a character, or care about one. The result is visually kinetic, but dead in the center–as devoid of character as the sleek Hong Kong skyscrapers in which most of it is set.

C- Nights with Theodore, Kabuki, Sunday, 6:45; Monday, 3:30. Here’s a great idea for a supernatural thriller: Two young people meet at a imageparty, leave together, sneak into a large city park officially closed for the night, and make love. But instead of starting a conventional romance, they keep returning every night to the park, which becomes an obsession for them. The man seems particularly effected, developing mental and physical problems whenever he’s outside the park. It’s a great idea, but writer/director Sébastien Betbeder fails to build empathy, suspense, dread, or any other appropriate emotion. The film just lays there. At least, at 67 minutes, it’s short. I’m hoping that someone more talented will buy the remake rights.