What’s Screening: September 4 – 10

The California Independent Film Festival, which I just found out about this week, opens on Thursday. Here’s what else is going on.

A Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, Embarcadero, California (Berkeley), opens Friday

Director Alex Gibney starts this multifaceted documentary with a difficult question: Why did so many people who never met Steve Jobs mourn his death so deeply? Jobs was brilliant, mercurial, and charismatic. He made technology friendly for the average person, and significantly changed the world. But he was also a jerk that cheated friends, let his daughter grow up on welfare while he became incredibly wealthy, and parked his sports car in handicap spaces. Gibney offers us an excellent, no-holds-barred, yet empathetic biography of a man utterly lacking in empathy. Read my full review.

A Inside Out, Balboa, Cerrito, opens Friday

Pixar appears to have regained its magic touch in creating family-friendly animated features that are funny, technically dazzling, and thoroughly adult-friendly. When a young girl gets uprooted from the Midwest to San Francisco, her brain must deal with loss, fear, confusion, and hope. And Inside Out is set almost entirely within that brain, as anthropomorphized emotions–Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness–try to help or hinder her difficult adjustment. A lot of research into the human mind went into this film, making it all the more thoughtful and all the more entertaining.

B+ Detour, California (Berkeley), Wednesday, 6:15 & 9:30

If Double Indemnity, shot on a comfortable if not extravagant budget,
started the trend now called film noir, the very low-budget Detour proved that the genre can be done very well on the cheap. Tom Neal plays a broke musician who hitchhikes across the country and runs into some very bad luck. So bad, in fact, that a wicked woman (Ann Savage–what a name for an actress playing a femme fatale) can blackmail him for murder. Short, quick, and deeply disturbing, Detour provides 67 minutes of dark entertainment. On a double bill with a noir musical (yes, they exist) called Blues in the Night, as part of the I Wake Up Dreaming series playing Wednesdays at the California through the week.

B+ A History of Violence, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Sunday, 2:00

David Cronenberg has turned what could have been a conventional Hitchcockian thriller into a meditation on the nature, the lure, and the destructiveness of violence. Viggo Mortensen plays a small-town family man who kills two thugs in self-defense, then finds gangsters at his door who think he’s one of them. The violence is both visually gruesome (this is Cronenberg, after all) and emotionally harrowing. Life doesn’t return to normal just because you’ve killed all the bad guys. But on one level, it’s still Hollywood: The good guys are impossibly talented fighters. But that’s okay; the movie would be unbearable without that one bit of fantasy. Part of the series Hardcore Cronenberg.

A+ The Third Man, Castro, Wednesday

Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided, post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both newly dead and a wanted criminal. Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems bright by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything but the sprocket holes. See my A+ article.

A+ The Godfather, Part II, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00

By juxtaposing the material rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, a young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Mario Puzo and Francis Coppola show us the long-term effects of what seemed like a good idea at the time. De Niro plays young Vito as a loving family man who cares only for his wife and children, and turns to crime to better support them. But in Michael–consolidating his empire some thirty years later–we see the ultimate disastrous effects of that decision. Pacino plays him as a tragic monster who senses his own emptiness. Read my A+ discussion.

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Friday & Saturday, 11:55PM

Bump your coconuts and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for the Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. After Airplane!, the funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s.

B+ Bullett, Castro, Thursday

Age hasn’t been altogether kind to this once cutting-edge police thriller. But it has its pleasures, especially Steve McQueen’s exceptionally cool charisma and the best car chase ever shot on the streets of San Francisco. Another marker: To my knowledge, McQueen’s single use of the word “bullshit marks the first time anyone said such a word in a Hollywood movie; Bullitt was released precisely two weeks before the rating system replaced the old production code, but the new freedom was already bubbling up. On a double bill with a 1973 thriller called The Seven-Ups, which will be screened in an archival print.

A To Kill A Mockingbird, Balboa, Thursday, 7:30

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’s only believable because the story is told through the eyes of his six-year-old daughter. (It’s worth noting that in the new sequel to the novel, the now-grown daughter discovers her father’s flaws.)

C- Vertigo, Castro, Friday through Monday

In 70mm!
I know. For many cinephiles, this isn’t just Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest films ever made. But I just don’t get it. Neither the story nor most of the characters make any sense, and I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. The film contains one wonderful, believable, and likeable character, Barbara Bel Geddes’ Midge, but we don’t see enough of her to offset everything else. Yes, the film is very atmospheric, but that’s just not enough. I don’t need to stare at a screen to experience San Francisco’s fog.

A Tangerine, Opera Plaza, opens Friday

Sometimes a new movie blows apart every concept you had about what a motion picture can be. Sean Baker’s tale of a transgender prostitute out for justice creates just that sort of magic. Fast, frenetic, funny, and sad, Tangerine looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen, probably because it was shot entirely on iPhones. And yes, that works, allowing the filmmakers to capture the tarnished glamour of today’s Hollywood (the neighborhood, not the industry). The most exciting and original new film I’ve seen this year. Did I tell you it’s a Christmas movie? Read my full review.

A- Best of Enemies, Elmwood, opens Friday

In the tumultuous year of 1968, the ABC television network put the reactionary William F. Buckley Jr. and the progressive Gore Vidal on TV to debate the issues of the day. They were both erudite, east-coast intellectuals, and their world views were as different as they could get. This breezy and entertaining documentary offers a plausible argument that those debates changed American TV news, and thus changed America. If you’re at all interested in recent American history, see this film. Read my full review.