What’s Screening: May 3 – 9

The San Francisco International Film Festival and the Playground Film Festival continue through the week. You’ll find my SFIFF recommendations and warnings at the bottom of this newsletter.

A The Last Picture Show, Castro, Friday. This film put director Peter Bogdanovich on the map (as well as Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd),lastpictureshow and he never again made a picture half this good. Filmed in deep-focus black and white, it studies a group of teenagers in a small Texas town in the early 1950s. The town appears to be blowing away (the title refers to the community’s single movie theater, struggling to stay open). There’s no conventional plot; the youths work, play, experiment with sex, and dream of their lives to come. Think American Graffiti, except made two years earlier, set eleven years earlier, and played for reality rather than laughs. A somber and sexy examination of a dying town, a country in transition, and the behavior of people everywhere. On a double bill with Dazed and Confused, which I haven’t seen since it was new but remember liking.

A On the Waterfront, Stanford, Saturday and Sunday. It’s best to look at On the Waterfront as aonthewaterfront drama about finding the courage to do what’s right. Marlon Brando brilliantly plays a half-bright longshoreman torn between his moral obligation to testify against a corrupt union and the serious and dangerous consequences of being a stool pidgin. On that level, it’s a brilliant motion picture. But things get uglier when you put it into a political and autobiographical context. Both writer Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan named names to get off the anti-Communist blacklist, after which they made this film to justify their acts of cowardice. On a double-bill with Guys and Dolls, the movie that answers the question: Why did Marlon Brando only make one musical?

The Kiss, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. I saw this silent Garbo vehicle about 40 years, and I remember little except her incredible face, with its ability to go from one emotion to another without seemingly moving a muscle. One interesting note: To my knowledge, this was the last silent film produced by a major Hollywood studio before Mel Brook’s 1976 Silent Movie.

A Badlands, Castro, Wednesday. Terrence Malick’s first feature introduced us to one of the most daring and unique filmmakers to ever work for Hollywood. Martin Sheen imageand Sissy Spacek (very young at the time) play lovers who go on a shockingly casual killing spree; it never seems to occur to them that they’ve done anything wrong. Told through Spacek’s first-person narration, we get the impression at times that it’s little more than a camping trip. Beautifully photographed (of course),Badlands leaves you feeling shocked, confused, sympathetic, and terrified. On a double bill with Electra Glide in Blue, which I’ve never seen.

A Alien, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. In the wake of Jaws’ and Star Wars’ phenomenal success, someone had to make a big-budget movie about a large predator on a spaceship. But the obvious marketing value imagedoesn’t explain how good this film actually is, and on so many levels. First you’ve got the extraordinary art direction, giving us a spaceship that feels like a strange and unsettling high-tech haunted house, yet is absolutely believable. Then there’s the working-class astronauts complaining about the food and pay–easily the most realistic people Hollywood has ever shot into space. Don’t forget the star-making performance by Sigourney Weaver, or the overriding sense of loneliness, corporate exploitation, and–dare I say it–alienation. It’s also one hell of a fun, scary ride.

B Donnie Darko, Castro, Saturday. How many alienated-teenager-in-suburbia-time-clip_image003travel-science-fantasy comedies can you name? Okay, there’s Back to the Future and its sequels, but add the adjectives horrific and surreal to that description, and Donnie Darko stands alone. And how many alienated movie teenagers have to deal with a slick self-help guru and a six-foot rabbit named Frank (think Harvey, only vicious). It’s not entirely clear what’s going on in this strange movie, but that just adds to the fun. On a double bill with–what else?–Back to the Future.

A+ North By Northwest, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. Alfred Hitchcock’s nbnwlight masterpiece, not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side , he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint (danger has its rewards).

A The French ConnectionCerrito, Thursday, 7:00. Perhaps the grittiest, filthiest, most realistic contemporary drama to ever win the Best Picture Oscar (and only two years after Midnight Cowboy, the other contender for that honor). A mystery and a character study about a foul-mouthed, violent, and borderline racist police detective (Gene Hackman in the best performance of his career), The French Connection sinks you into a dirty business and the people who have to do it. It also includes one of the best car chases in movie history.

B+ The Source Family, Roxie, through 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. Read my full review. Note: When I first wrote about this film last year, it was called The Source.

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. On a double bill with the original War of the Worlds, which I haven’t seen in decades.

San Francisco International Film Festival

A- The Daughter, Pacific Film Archive, Monday, 9:00. A serial killer is loose in a small Russian town, targeting teenage girls. That’s not a good time for Inna to go through the usual problems of adolescence. What’s more, her mother is long dead, imageher stern father is cold and strict (although there is a sense that he loves her), she’s responsible for her little brother, and her new best friend is a "bad" girl out to seduce the local priest’s handsome son. The film uses the mystery genre to  take us on a tour of post-Soviet Russian life as the protagonist and the community deal with raging alcoholism,  religious conflict, and corpses turning up in the mud. While in many ways deeply depressing, The Daughter also celebrates the resilience of youth, the genuine magic of first love, and the healing power of humanitarian religion.

B+ Youth, Kabuki, Friday, 6:45; Saturday, 1:30. Justine Malle–the daughter of Louis Malle–makes her narrative feature debut in this openly autobiographical feature. Juliette (Esther Garrel) is the 20-year-old imagedaughter 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.

B Shorts 3: Animation, New People Cinema, Wednesday, 9:00. Quality-wise, this collection of eleven cartoons ranges from the amazing to the dull, with far more good imagethan bad. Among my favorites: In Tram, the driver of the title vehicle gets carried away with her sexual fantasies. Bite of the Tail, a moody mini-drama, explores a married couple in crisis. Eyes on the Stars tells the true story  of Ronald McNair, an African-American astronaut who died in the Challenger explosion. I’m not sure what Lumerence is about, but it sure was beautiful to look at.

B Something in the Air, 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 look ridiculous.

B- Night Across the Street, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Writer/director Raúl Ruiz was dying of cancer when he made this strange, surreal comedy, where an elderly man faces retirement and a seemingly pre-ordained violent death with a clip_image001matter-of-fact calmness. That all fits well with the film’s deadpan humor. Beethoven and Long John Silver pop up, mostly in scenes where the protagonist is a young boy. Ruiz lit almost the entire film with an amber glow–as if everything was shot at what photographers call golden hour. Wonderful at first, Night Across the Street eventually drags. It should have been a half hour shorter.

C+ Good Ol’ Freda, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:30. How much more is there to say about The Beatles? Not much, apparently. This documentary focuses on the young woman 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 local group with a small following to the biggest stars of all time. But once they achieve major fame, she has little to say that you probably 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 The Last Step, New People Cinema, Saturday, 7:00; Wednesday, 6:15; Thursday, 1:00. In this interesting but ultimately disappointing work, an actress (Leila Hatami of A Separation) can’t keep a straight face when filming a monolog aboutimage her dead husband. It doesn’t help that the ghost of her recently-deceased husband is on the set. In the flashbacks that take up most of the film, her still-alive husband seemingly courts death with one dangerous act after another. The real movie and the movie inside the movie appear to be quite possibly the same. This may sound like 8 1/2,but writer/director Ali Mosaffa lacks the light touch that makes Fellini’s masterpiece work. On the other hand, Leila Hatami’s expressive and open face makes anything she’s in at least partially worth seeing.

C- Nights with Theodore, Kabuki, Sunday, 9:30. 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. 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.

D Leviathan, Kabuki, Thursday, 5:30. One could make an fascinating and informative documentary about a fishing boat plowing the choppy waters off theimage Massachusetts coast, but this isn’t it. Leviathan consists almost entirely of badly-framed close shots of objects, waves, pieces of the boat, and so on. You  never get to know any of the men you fleetingly see (there are far more close-ups of dead fish than living humans). The film contains some visually striking shots, but it lingers on them long past the point of boredom. I’m happy that people push the cinematic art with daring experimentation, but sometimes, the experiment fails.