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Sunday, October 1, 2023

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: Our critic's picks from Noir City and...

Screen Grabs: Our critic’s picks from Noir City and SF Indiefest

Plus: 'The Wrecking Crew', a tribute to local great Frank Stauffacher, and an effectively nasty little horror film

A fair share of the Bay Area film community will be spending the next couple weeks looking (and flying) eastward towards the Sundance Film Festival. But for those not braving the Park City winter, there are ample compensations: Staying in SF means you get two of the year’s most fun and idiosyncratic local film festivals. 

First up is the 17th edition of Noir City, whose ten days at the Castro this annum are themed “Film Noir in the 1950s.” With each day marching one year forward through that decade (well, actually from 1949 to 1961), the program aims to entertainingly deface the popular notion that that “Eisenhower era” was all prosperity and wholesomeness à la Happy Days. The mix includes established classics as familiar as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Hitchcock’s Psycho (a noir that drives off a cliff into horror), and Godard’s nouvelle vague gangster homage Breathless

There will be films by such star directors of the genre as Otto Preminger (Angel Face), Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall), and Sam Fuller (Underworld U.S.A., Pickup on South Street). The previously taboo terrain of racial prejudice is explored in Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (both from 1959), and Oscar-nominated 1951 indie The Well. There are a few treasured cult films, like Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly and the outre low-budget 1961 Blast of Silence

But as usual, the real gold for many will lie in a number of obscure and seldom-revived titles, among them Stanley Kubrick’s first commercial feature Killer’s Kiss, the arresting 1958 hitman portrait Murder by Contract, glossy MGM color melodrama A Kiss Before Dying (with Robert Wagner as a handsome Tom Ripley-like sociopath), and Casablanca director Michael Curtiz’s late-career rarity The Scarlet Hour. All programs are double bill; period attire is optional. Fri/25-Sun/3, ticket prices vary. Castro Theatre, SF. More info here.

The other big local event, which starts next Wednesday and continues well into post-Sundance February, is the venerable SF Indiefest, whose 21st edition kicks off at the Victoria with a fantastical double bill. First up is indie rock band Rooney leader Robert Schwartzman’s new comedy The Unicorn, a likable millennial snarkfest in which an uptight young couple (sketch comedians Lauren Lapkus and Nicholas Rutherford) decide what their relationship needs is a walk on the wild side in the form of a threesome. Then local electronica ensemble The Firmament perform a “live re-score” to Disney’s 1940 animation omnibus Fantasia, whose segments were created to illustrate various classical music pieces—but here the often trippy images (which were embraced more fully by audiences as of the 1960s) will be accompanied by an all-new soundtrack of beats, blips, and aural psychedelia. [We’ll preview the remainder of SF Indiefest in next week’s column.] Wed/30-Feb 14, Roxie and Victoria, with parties and other events at additional locations. More info here.

Other notable arrivals this week:


An intriguing commercial thriller from esteemed scenarist turned director Steven Knight. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway play ex-spouses drawn back together by her dangerous new domestic circumstances. Fri/25, various locations. 

The Mother and the Whore

Relationships are viewed through an entirely different prism in Jean Eustache’s 1973 film, possibly the most thoroughly French movie ever made, and considered by many as one of the best. Truffaut’s early muse Jean-Pierre Leaud plays a garrulous, self-absorbed citizen of Parisian cafe society who spends most of 3 1/2 hours’ screen time talking in bed with the two women (Bernadette Lafont and Francoise Lebrun) he’s currently involved with. This B&W 16mm epic of aesthetic minimalism and intellectual gum-flapping is being shown in the Pacific Film Archive’s own 35mm print. Fri/25 7pm, $13. More info here.

The Films of Frank Stauffacher

Also at the PFA is this tribute to an important if largely forgotten figure in the Bay Area’s formative experimental film scene. Stauffacher was a native San Franciscan commercial artist who started the “Art in Cinema” series at SFMOMA in 1946, which itself was a wellspring of inspiration for local filmmakers. Perhaps most prominent among the latter was James Broughton—later a gay cultural icon, but then involved with future film critic Pauline Kael, with whom he had a daughter. Stauffacher shot Broughton’s typically antic Mother’s Day and Adventures of Jimmy, but also made several shorts of his own before succumbing to a brain tumor in 1955, at just 38 years of age. 

This program (which will be introduced by his widow Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, herself a noted artist and designer) will feature Mother’s Day as well as rare screenings of Frank’s likewise playful and poetical but more documentary-tilted own celluloid works. Most ambitious among them is 1951’s Notes on the Port of St. Francis, a lovely city-symphony-type glimpse of an SF both familiar and strange, with kids riding go-carts down Russian Hill and cable car routes seemingly everywhere. Its narration, from a text by 1882 visitor Robert Louis Stevenson, is read by none other than Vincent Price. Sun/27 2pm, $13. PFA. More info here.

The Wrecking Crew

From the mid ’60s onward, rock music became taken far more seriously than just something that “has a good beat and you can dance to it”. “Authenticity” began to matter — it could ruin a performer’s credibility if it was discovered that they didn’t do all (or any) of the playing or singing on their own recordings. Yet, many rock acts were young and inexperienced; the record companies saw little reason not to employ “real” musicians in the studio to create a more polished pop product. 

The hidden superstars among these so-called “session artists” in 1960s Los Angeles were a loose group that became known as The Wrecking Crew that played on hits by everyone from The Beach Boys and The Monkees to Nancy Sinatra and The Righteous Brothers. This documentary by Danny Tedesco (whose father Tommy was also a studio-musician regular) peels back the vinyl to reveal who really came up with signature riffs on classic tracks. More often than not, it was jaded jazz-trained instrumentalists paying the bills by playing on pop discs they found simple-minded. (One of them eventually became a headliner in his own right, late country-pop star Glen Campbell.)  

The Wrecking Crew played the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2008, but was hard to see for years afterward because it took nearly a decade for the filmmakers to raise the money to purchase the necessary music rights for a commercial release. The Balboa is bringing it back for one showing. Thu/14 7:30pm, $12.50. Balboa Theatre, SF. More info here.


A late booking at the 4-Star is this effectively nasty little horror film from director Daniel Robbins. Three particularly geeky freshmen (including scenarist Zack Weiner) can’t believe their luck when, after humiliating rejections from all the campus fraternities during Rush Week, they get invited to a decadent blowout at a plush if far-flung student “club house.” Babes, booze and brotherly good vibes beyond their wildest dreams are theirs, for one night. But that luck turns when they return the next evening, and find a very different kind of “initiation” is planned for them and two other unfortunate “pledges.” 

Pledge isn’t terribly surprising or sophisticated, but it’s a lean, mean shocker that works nicely within its unambitious narrative limits. Opens Fri/25, $12.50. 4-Star Theater, SF. More info here

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