Quite a bit of festival activity, especially over the weekend. The San Francisco Dance Film Festival continues through Sunday, and the one-day Atheist Film Festival takes over the Roxie on Saturday. The Latino Film Festival continues through most of the month. And the Irish Film Festival starts its three-day run on Thursday.
You’ll find some Atheist Film Festival mini-reviews at the end of this newsletter.
Williams and Spielberg: Maestros of the Movies, Davies Symphony Hall, Monday, 8:00. Soundtrack composer John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter) steps up onto the podium and conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in a selection of his movie music. Steven Spielberg will be on hand as a "special guest," although I’m not sure what he’ll do.
C+ Good Ol’ Freda, Rafael, Roxie, opens Friday. 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 after 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.
A+ Five Easy Pieces, Castro, Wednesday, 7:00. Call it the Great American Loosely-Plotted Character Study. In his first starring role, Jack Nicholson brilliantly plays a relationship-averse blue-collar worker with a surprising family history. Of course he goes on a personal, emotional (and physical) journey in the film, but there’s nothing redemptive in it, and he’s not a better man for going through it. Little happens in Five Easy Pieces, but what happens is more than worth following. On a double bill with Burnt Offerings (this is a week of very strange double bills at the Castro).
A- Monterey Pop, Castro, Sunday, 4:00. In 1967, promoter Lou Adler and John Phillips of The Mamas & the Papas put together a popular music response to the annual Monterey Jazz Festival, and music history was made. Over the course of a June weekend, The Who and Jimi Hendrix cracked the American market, and Janis Joplin became a star. Documentarian D. A. Pennebaker got it all on 16mm film, and created one of the first memorable concert documentaries. A moment frozen in time, and a lot of great rock and roll. On a double bill with F.T.A., which starts at 2:00. Part of the ongoing series SFMOMA on the go.
B Akeelah and the Bee, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00, Saturday, 12:30. A talent for spelling gives Akeelah—a poor, eleven-year-old African American—a shot at escaping the ghetto. But first, she’s going to have to learn about more than words from her mentor, played by Laurence Fishburne. Yes, it’s inspirational, but that’s not always a bad thing. A New Parkway Family Classic.
A The Manchurian Candidate (1962 version), Castro, Friday, 7:00. Bad dreams keep bothering Korean War veterans Lawrence Harvey and Frank Sinatra. Were they brainwashed by Communists? And where do the rabid anti-Communists fit in? Easily the best political thriller to come out of the cold war, The Manchurian Candidate finds villains on both political extremes. As the nominal hero, Sinatra proves he really was an actor, but Angela Lansbury steals the film as the screen’s most evil mother–a woman of outsized beliefs and a burning hatred of anyone who disagrees with her. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Scanners. Another part of the ongoing series SFMOMA on the go.
A To Kill a Mockingbird, multiple CineMark Theaters, Sunday matinee, Wednesday; Kabuki, Wednesday. The film version of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel manages to be both a nostalgic reverie of depression-era small town Southern life and a condemnation of that life’s dark and ugly underbelly. Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is the ultimate decent and moral father, a character so virtuous he’d be unbelievable if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter. (Had there been a sequel set in her teen years, Atticus would have been an idiotic tyrant.)
A Babe, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. At least among narrative features, Babe is easily the greatest work of vegetarian propaganda in the history of cinema. It’s also a sweet, funny, and charming fairy tale about a pig who wants to become a sheep dog. This Australian import helped audiences and critics recognize character actor James Cromwell’s exceptional talent, and technically broke considerable ground in the category of live-action talking-animal movies. Warning: If you take your young children to this G-rated movie, you may have trouble afterwards getting them to eat bacon.
A Before Midnight, New Parkway, opens Saturday. In this threequel to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have been living together for nine years, and they might as well be married. They have twins, a life together, and bodies transitioning into middle age. Like the previous films, this one takes place in a single day, but this time, they’re vacationing in Greece, and they drive, share a talkative dinner with six other people, and spend considerable time in a hotel room. And they fight. Hard. They still love ach other, but you’re not sure if the relationship will last. The result is both sad and sexy. Read my full review.
C- Last Year at Marienbad, Castro, Sunday, 7:00. Slow and pretentious, Alain Resnais’ Very Important European art film of the early 1960s gives you almost no information about the people onscreen (I hesitate to call them characters) and no reason whatsoever to care if they live or die. But the film is visually striking and technically dazzling, and if you’re willing to meet it halfway, it has a certain hypnotic charm. Too bad it refuses to meet you halfway. See my essay. On a double bill with Carnival of the Souls; I haven’t the seen that one, but it does sound like a very strange double bill.
Mystery Science Theater 3000, New Parkway, Friday, 10:30. Regular readers know that I’m a fan of the classic bad-movie-with-commentary TV show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. I have never seen an episode on the big screen with a full audience, but I suspect I’d enjoy it–especially if it’s a really good episode. I hope this will be a good episode, no one is telling us which one will be screened.
A The French Connection, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 8:30. 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). Basically a mystery, the film works best as a character study, examining 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 make a living off that dirt. It also includes one of the best car chases in movie history.
A+ Bogart Double Bill: Casablanca & The Maltese Falcon, Stanford, opens Saturday for nine-day run. The A+ goes Casablanca. No one who worked on this movie thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, this time, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. On its own, The Maltese Falcon would get a straight A. John Huston’s directorial debut is the ultimate Dashiell 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+ Afternoon Delight, Aquarius, opens Friday. The plot sounds like broad, comic farce: A young Jewish mother and housewife invites a stripper and sometimes prostitute to move into her home and become her young son’s nanny. When Afternoon Delight tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. But writer/director Jill Soloway mostly plays it straight, taking this absurd premise and seeing what might realistically come out of it. The result is mostly thoughtful, entertaining, grounded in reality, and sexy. Read my full review.
B+ Kūmāré, Roxie, Saturday, 5:20. Can a religious hoax improve people’s lives? New Jersey-born Vikram Gandhi grew out his hair and beard, moved to Phoenix, and assumed a new identity as an Indian holy man. And he soon found himself dispensing actual advice and, arguably, good advice. Starting as a fake guru and becoming the real thing made it difficult to do what he had always planned: confess to his followers that he was a fake. For a charlatan, Gandhi comes off very well in this documentary. But then, he directed it, so it’s reasonable to assume that he’s slanted the story in his own favor. Read my full review.
The Magdalene Sisters, Roxie, Saturday, 9:45. I haven’t seen this Irish drama in years, so I won’t give it a grade. I remember liking it, and being shocked and horrified by the story. Based on actual events, it follows four young women in Ireland in the 1960s, who are imprisoned and effectively enslaved by the Catholic Church for the crime of having sex outside of marriage. The men they had sex with, of course, suffered no consequences. It’s frightening that such things were going on in Western Europe in my life time.
C+ Hug An Atheist, Roxie, Saturday, 7:45. This documentary semi-succeeds in a laudable goal: to show American atheists–often vilified–in a positive light. We meet several non-believers, usually in couples, talking about their ethics, child-rearing, marriages, and hopes. The film is at its best when the subjects discuss morality, parenting, prejudice, and how they became atheists. Oddly, they all seemed to be ex-Christians, often ex-fundamentalists, and they all seemed to encourage their kids to believe in Santa Claus. But the picture sags in the middle, especially when covering marriage and mourning, where they’re not as unique as they think they are. The movie needed to be either 30 minutes shorter, or considerably deeper.