Escapism — the sensation of being transported — has always been a big part of the appeal of movies, as with every other mode of storytelling. The impulse to leave reality in the rear-view mirror is particularly strong during the warm-weather months, when we seem to prefer stimulation to reason and fleeting experiences to profound ones. While we can always count on Hollywood to deliver bombast and pyrotechnics — and to spend millions on TV ads alerting us to every weekend’s fresh spectacles — we need a bit of variety. Here’s a smattering of this summer’s colorful offerings.
The 40th edition of the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival salutes its hometown with the new documentary Political Animals (spotlighting the battles and victories of openly gay elected representatives Carole Migden, Sheila Kuehl, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe), the premiere of Andrew Haigh’s Looking: The Movie, Tom E. Brown’s S.F.-set black comedy Pushing Dead and a revival of the late Marlon Riggs’ 1989 poetic tour de force Tongues Untied. If your radar (gaydar?) is set on distant destinations, punch your ticket for festival regulars such as Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s buoyant, explicit relationship drama Paris 05:59, and Philip R. Ford’s beyond-delirious 1991 drag cavalcade Vegas in Space!
Pixar's 3D sequel to Finding Nemo was animated and produced entirely at the Denver Mint. Just kidding. The actual location was Fort Knox. Millions and millions will be served (note the subtle foreshadowing) a splashy, feel-good underwater saga propelled by a touching quest, witty repartee and a triumphant ending. When all the coins are counted, Disney investors will applaud the much-debated decision not to adapt the storyline of The Seventh Seal. I, for one, loved the tagline "Bergman and Pixar: Together At Last!"
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words
The brilliant musician and original thinker Frank Zappa never took drugs other than caffeine and nicotine, but he was one of the trippiest American artists of the last century. Perpetually ahead of the curve, the composer and founder of the jazz-rock-funk-pop band the Mothers of Invention is a fount of clear-eyed insights and bracing wisdom in German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte’s documentary constructed entirely from archival footage. If you’re desperate to escape the miasma of received wisdom, take a tour of Frank Zappa’s mind.
The (Not Just) Hong Kong Action Film Festival
The cultural phenomenon whereby au courant art becomes camp with the passage of time is perhaps most apparent in the action genre. Overly earnest endeavors, slavish physical exertion and blunt expository dialogue take on a patina of ridiculousness a few years (or decades) on. That’s not to suggest that SF Indiefest’s turning-back-of-the-clock at Chinatown’s venerable, restored Great Star Theater with a smorgasbord of action films from the 1970s through the oughts is completely tongue in cheek. Even while you’re laughing at Jackie Chan’s antics, you can’t help but be stunned speechless by his gravity-defying stunts. Drop by the Great Star any weekend in July for an audacious journey through the past with regular stops at adrenaline, nostalgia and guilty pleasure.
There are lots of high-concept Hollywood movies headed our way this summer, but I’m touting this one for the pure pleasure of pushing back against the moronic Internet tirades about a gender-switch remake of a classic comedy featuring the team of Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. Surely some pundit has already drafted an outline of a column with the working title, “The All-Female Ghostbusters Is a Boon to Hillary’s Campaign,” but I’m not remotely interested. I am onboard for goofball humor, though. (For those who’ve never seen the 1984 original, it screens July 7 in the “Waterfront Flicks” series on the ferry lawn at Jack London Square.)
July 21 - Aug. 7
The 36th annual roundup of movies from Israel, the U.S., Europe and South America makes room for everyone from TV pioneer Norman Lear to assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, author Philip Roth to Nazi prosecutor Fritz Bauer. The festival has expanded its outreach in recent years with docs that are less identifiably Jewish and speak to the broader community, such as this year’s A New Color: The Art of Being Edythe Boone (a portrait of the East Bay artist-teacher-activist) and Audrie & Daisy (an indictment of sexual attacks against teenage girls and the scourge of cyberbullying). SFJFF is also the perfect place to prepare, fortify and inoculate yourself against the remake of Ben-Hur (opening August 12). Is it too much to ask McCarthy, Wiig, et al to banish the ghost of Charlton Heston?
Summer used to mean drive-ins, burgers and milkshakes—a warm-weather lifestyle made possible and popular by the automobile’s centrality in mid-century American society. Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay reveals the backstory behind hamburger franchise pioneer Ray Kroc’s 1950s breakthrough, namely his path from salesman to scoundrel. Michael Keaton and a host of familiar character actors evoke a kindler, gentler time (ha!) when McDonald’s became a household name. The movie could have been called The Art of the Deal if a certain somebody hadn’t already claimed it.
In an era when American movies have abandoned the small-scale dramas of ordinary urbanites, writer-director Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange) has emerged as one of our most valuable filmmakers. His latest humanist fable traces the growing friendship between two New York City boys while their parents (Paulina Garcia, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle) navigate a fraught landlord-tenant relationship. There are no villains in Sachs’s films, just people trying to preserve their hard-earned status in an increasingly tenuous and indifferent society.
Florence Foster Jenkins
Certified Greatest Living American Actress Meryl Streep typically turns up in the kind of Oscarbait movies that open in the fall or at Christmas. She joined the summer parade last year as a struggling rocker reuniting with her family in Ricki and the Flash. In this late-summer crowd-pleaser, La Streep plays another erstwhile musician, a real-life 1940s Manhattan socialite who used her wealth and influence to pursue a singing career despite the minor disadvantage of possessing an awful voice. Broader than many of Streep’s vehicles, Florence Foster Jenkins features tasty performances from Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg and on-the-mark direction by the perennially underrated Stephen Frears. Manufacturing escapism is harder than it looks.