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In This Summer’s Movies, It’s Not All Escapism and Reboots

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Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the aisles. Everyone you know is eager to escape our clear, present and existential crises, at least for a couple popcorn-butter-smeared hours. Yet the risk-averse studios offer little more than sequels and retreads for our air-conditioned pleasure. When the most anticipated flick of the sunshine season is Deadpool and Wolverine (July 26), the movie business is not in good hands.

But your resident Danny Downer nonetheless holds out hope that starry surprises will drop or pop out of the firmament to jolt us from our hot-weather lethargy and election-year ennui. Surely you, too, will find something on the Bay Area movie calendar to jog your pulse.

Woman in dark room sings into a mic
Marisa Abela stars as Amy Winehouse in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s ‘Back to Black.’ (Courtesy of Focus Features)

‘Back to Black’

Opens May 17, 2024

Youthful ambition with a dash of sex has been a commissary staple since before the first A Star is Born (1937). But no movie star-studded roman á clef can match the intensity of Amy Winehouse’s real-life drive to rise on her terms. Marisa Abela (from BBC-HBO’s Industry and a bit part in Barbie) belts the blues and rings the changes in director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s biopic, which reaches its crescendo with the titular 2006 album. The Amy Winehouse Estate is onboard, a tipoff that the spotlight stays on Amy’s art (with a dash of melodrama).

Sundown Cinema

May 17–Oct. 18, 2024
Various locations, San Francisco

Sponsored

Free outdoor screening series have become a summer tradition, even in nippy nighttime San Francisco. A clever entrepreneur could make out all right with Croix de Dolores buttons (ask an older friend) at the sing-along season opener at Dolores Park, Selena. An eagle-eyed viewer, meanwhile, could spot Marisa Abela on Aug. 2 (Barbie at the Ferry Building). The emblematic local film in the ’24 lineup, though, is Peter Yates’ breathless Bullitt (June 14 at the Presidio), starring the eternally cool Steve McQueen as a taciturn detective dueling with hit men and a slick DA (Robert Vaughn). Laughing at the impossible route of the still-great chase scene is a San Francisco ritual, while the wonderful Rick Prelinger compilation SF’s Lost Landscapes: Found Home Movies (Sept. 6 at Duboce Park) offers a modern counterpoint (yelling out the locations of various 20th-century businesses and landmarks).

Man in big white hat wears garland of garlic around shoulders
Still from Les Blank’s ‘Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers.’ (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Les Blank: A Life Well Spent

June 7–July 27, 2024
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

The one-of-a-kind East Bay documentary maker Les Blank (1935–2013), who typically also shot his films, was one of the world’s great observers. Works like 1976’s Chulas Fronteras (on Tejano music), 1978’s Always for Pleasure (on New Orleans) and 1980’s Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers certainly have anthropological and sociological value embedded within their musical and culinary explorations. But Blank’s great talent was that he saw, and connected with, individuals. That’s how he (and his omnipresent camera) got so close to his subjects, and why the viewer always feels like an invited guest. The irresistible films in BAMPFA’s retrospective are crammed with life, not symbols or theses.

‘Inside Out 2’

Opens June 14, 2024

Pixar’s latest phantasmagoria is a sequel, obviously. Sequels have been a significant chunk of the East Bay animation company’s output since Disney bought it in 2006. But it’s been nine years since little Riley was transplanted to San Francisco in Inside Out — where does the time go? — and aren’t you curious to see how teenage Riley handles her emotions? Uh, I mean aren’t your kids, who were Riley’s age the first time around, eager to dive vicariously into a kaleidoscopic, big-screen, computer-generated teenage wasteland? (I mean, again, after last year’s manic Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.) They can expect a certain comfort level with returning voice actors Amy Poehler (Joy), Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Lewis Black (Anger), Diane Lane (Mrs. Andersen) and Paula Poundstone (Forgetter Paula).

photo of a woman at a mic with 'No on 6' banner behind her
A still from Deborah Craig’s ‘SALLY!’ (Steve Savage)

Frameline48, San Francisco International LGBTQ+ Film Festival

June 19–29, 2024
Various locations

Frameline’s response to the closure of the Castro Theater for renovation? A Juneteenth block party on opening night. Dancing in the streets, indeed, to the sounds and sights of the behind-the-strobe-lights tour diary Lil Nas X: Long Live Montero. Celebration is also on the bill at the world premiere of Sally!, Deborah Craig’s long-gestating documentary about the life and times of the remarkable San Francisco lesbian activist, professor and fantasy author Sally Gearhart. Opening weekend dramas include Dutch filmmaker Anthony Schatteman’s Berlin prize-winning slice of adolescent first love, Young Hearts, and Fawzia Mirza’s Pakistani mother-Canadian-born daughter saga The Queen of My Dreams.

Woman and man in 50s attire stand next to each other against blue sky
Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum in ‘Fly Me to the Moon.’ (Apple)

‘Fly Me to the Moon’

July 12, 2024

Originally titled Project Artemis, Apple Studio’s mega-million-dollar romantic comedy unfolds in the run-up to the Apollo 11 mission. You may recall that 1969 expedition landed the first humans on the moon, and that NASA’s endeavors were an offshoot of the Cold War — racing the Soviet Union into space — as well as a scientific foray into the future. High stakes, and high pressure on NASA honcho Cole Davis (Channing Tatum). The last thing he needs is a marketing pro (Scarlett Johansson) brought in to mount a fake landing in case the real one doesn’t come off. (The credits do not include an actor playing Stanley Kubrick, in a blatant putdown of well-meaning conspiracy theorists everywhere.) Someone deserves applause for taking a chance on this script; we’ll see if they still have a job in September.

‘Twisters’

July 19, 2024

Michael Crichton, the prince of pulp science-gone-wrong nightmares (The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park), wrote a movie about Midwestern storm chasers (Twister) that grossed half a billion dollars worldwide in 1996. All these years later, screenwriter Mark L. Brown (The Revenant) and director Lee Isaac Chung (Minari) sensitively and thoughtfully update Crichton’s handiwork with TV actors Daisy Edgar-Jones and Glen Powell riding the whirlwind. Call it a reboot, a remake, a sequel, a riff on climate changed (we are already in the throes), a CGI money machine. All I ask for is The Association’s breezy 1967 hit under the closing credits.

A still from ‘Jews By Choice,’ screening at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. (Courtesy SFJFF)

SF Jewish Film Festival

July 18–Aug. 4, 2024
Various locations

For 44 years, the SFJFF has proffered a left-of-center perspective on the Jewish experience that has mostly thrilled its Left Coast audience while occasionally irking the Establishment. Alongside poignant Holocaust documentaries and comedies about American Jewish life and history, the festival has presented countless dramas and documentaries critical of Israeli policies toward, and treatment of, the Palestinians — the vast majority made by Israeli filmmakers (and funded, at least in part, by the government). The challenge of compiling a program that creates spaces for dialogue and debate is especially daunting this year, especially as the festival could be a flashpoint for demonstrations. When cinema collides with the real world, opportunity knocks.

‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’

Aug. 2, 2024

In 1955, the cartoonist and painter Crockett Johnson published the first of seven children’s books starring little Harold. It was made into an animated short a couple years later, and joined by two subsequent shorts in the ’70s. HBO aired a 13-episode series in 2001 narrated by Sharon Stone (with music by Van Dyke Parks). Harold’s all grown up now (and played by Zachary Levi) in this feature written by Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and Slumberland scribes David Guion and Michael Handelman, providing the hook for dads to take their kids to the multiplex. Hollywood’s M.O., may I remind you, is wowing wee ones with whiz-bang special effects and boom-bang soundtracks. Johnson’s books adeptly express the enchantment of imagination and creativity with just a few purple lines.

Group of people seen from within a tube, looking up at sky
Cate Blanchett, Ariana Greenblatt, Kevin Hart, Florian Munteanu and Jamie Lee Curtis in ‘Borderlands.’ (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

‘Borderlands’

Aug. 9, 2024

Sponsored

I never imagined I would put Greatest Living Screen Actress Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Tár) and garage-band horrormeister Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Thanksgiving) in the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence. Such is the demonic power of (massively successful) video games. Perhaps we could simply file Cate’s curious career move under Girls Just Want to Have Fun. (The cast also includes Gina Gershon and Jamie Lee Curtis.) Improbably, this action-comedy space oddity clocks in under two hours, which may indicate a) last-minute editing to streamline a ridiculously confusing plot or b) a directive from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. When it comes to August releases, it’s best to set one’s expectations to Matinee Prices.

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