SCREEN GRABS Bigger is presumably better this week, with Godzilla: King of the Monsters (the third Hollywood film about the critter who’s starred in 32 Japanese ones) and Rocketman (a glittery Elton John biopic from some of the folks who gave you Bohemian Rhapsody, which let’s hope it’s better than) duking it out at the multiplex. They’ll both be dwarfed, at least in ways other than box-office, by the restored eight-hour 1966 Soviet War and Peace, which played the Castro last Saturday (see our writeup here) and will play in its entirety (though not in single-sit marathon form) twice at the PFA between Fri/1 and Sun/8. Not to twist your arm or anything, but you’d be a fool to miss it.

Other openings include the guilty-pleasure-sounding Ma, which sounds like a sweet-revenge answer to Get Out, with Octavia Spencer as a seemingly nice lady whose opening her house to a bunch of white teens turns out to be a trap they’re be lucky to escape alive. Mature adults may be more attracted by The Tomorrow Man, in which John Lithgow and Blythe Danner play two lonely seniors who find each other—though this offbeat seriocomedy isn’t as sweet or simple as that sounds. It’s not a total success, but worth a look, particularly for fans of the actors.

There’s also (at the Balboa) Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe, an SF-set romcom co-written by stars Randall Park and Ali Wong (read our interview here); and (at the 4 Star) Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife. The latter is Vietnamese period piece in which a 14-year-old girl (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) becomes the latest, youngest bride of a rural landowner. Its delicate prettiness and sensuality may remind you of another striking debut feature from Vietnam, Anh Hung Tran’s 1993 The Scent of Green Papaya—even if those qualities aren’t ultimately well-suited to draw much impact from the plot’s melodramatic intrigue.

One-off events include this Thursday’s (May 30) Rafael Film Center presentation of “Ramblin’ Jack: Beyond the Music,” a mix of live and film elements celebrating the famed folkie, hosted by Peter Coyote. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott himself will be on hand, at age 88—no doubt with his persona in full force, since he was already (hilariously) acting the part of “doddering old man” when I saw him sing a few songs and mutter a whole lot of surreal nonsense thirty-five years ago. There are also starry premiere events Wed/29 (at the Castro) and Thurs/30 (Grand Lake) for The Last Black Man in San Francisco—but we’ll have plenty more to say about that exceptional new home-grown film next week, when it opens its regular run at area theaters. Don’t forget that SF Docfest is still running at the Roxie through Wed/13; see our preview here.

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation
Fifty years ago the ultimate rock festival took place—and it’s rather shaming to think how crassly commercial latterday equivalents like Coachella are by comparison. Of course, the Woodstock “music and art fair” was famously afflicted by speed bumps that were mostly omitted from the next year’s classic three-hour Michael Wadleigh documentary packaging its concert highlights. They are, however, much more fully detailed in this fairly straightforward new “making of”-type doc, in which filmmaker Barak Goodman mixes plentiful archival footage and interviews with surviving participants (including Joan Baez and Stephen Stills) to tell how it all came together—and almost didn’t.

We see how an event initially planned for 20,000 attendees mushroomed (heh) into one nearly overwhelmed by almost half a million. The producers famously lost a fortune (subsequently earned back by the Wadleigh film) because the few duly ticket-buying patrons were overwhelmed by “gate crashers.” Largely forgotten, however, is the intel that this only happened because the original site fell through at the last minute, giving organizers no time to construct the fencing and gates needed to bar non-paying attendees from the new location. So they shrugged, and cheerfully pronounced it a “free festival” by act of fate. Other fun facts given play here include Bay Area fave Wavy Gravy’s key role as leader of collective The Hog Farm’s ersatz “security” staff; the 45 US Army doctors flown in to help badly strapped medical personnel; the bulk donations from surprisingly supportive local farmers when food supplies hit a major snag; and the necessity of “Freak Out Tents.”

Cynical latterday wisdom has it that Woodstock was a muddy mess of logistical woes. But this account emphasizes the extent to which those problems were surmounted by sheer force of good vibes—not to mention the fact that, unlike many other similar events of the era (most notoriously Altamont), the upstate New York hippie hoedown attracted no violence or tragedy. If you’re looking for musical performances, Wadleigh’s epic compendium remains the single greatest encapsulation of 1969’s rock spectrum. But for a flashback of what it was like offstage, this behind-the-scenes chronicle is its definitive cinematic companion piece. It captures a spirit of idealism that seemed so pervasive then, and which now may make you feel complicatedly nostalgic—in a bittersweet “How did we get from there to this shitty point?” way. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza, California Theatre (Berkeley). More info here

Greaser’s Palace
It’s well-known that Robert Downey Jr. seemed likelier for a while to end up a famous Hollywood drug casualty than the fabulously well-rewarded king of superhero cinema he’s become. However, it’s unlikely many of his current fans know he was raised amongst high (ahem) Hollywood counterculture society, or that his father was once the industry’s Next Big Thing. Though it hasn’t aged particularly well, in 1969 nothing was hipper than Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, an advertising satire that seemed hilarious at the time. (Probably Swope would look better now if TV sketch comedy hadn’t borrowed its ideas for half a century ever since.)

It was the writer-director’s first and last commercial success. Nonetheless, some of his later efforts acquired a certain cult following particularly this 1972 “acid western”—a very shortlived subgenre (other examples being Jodorowsky’s El Topo, rock musical Zachariah, and the French A Girl Is a Gun) that subjected that most American of narrative forms to the vagaries of hippie absurdism.

Allan Arkush plays an Afro’d Christ figure (and aspiring song & dance man) passing through a corrupt Old West town run by the ruthless Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson). It’s like Blazing Saddles, only two years earlier; and if that movie was a little drunk, this one is stoned almost to the point of immobility. What can you say about a film that features Toni Basil (yes, of “Mickey” fame) as an Indian maiden who speaks in pantomine, and pre-Fantasy Island Herve Villachaize as a diminutive desert dweller who is a little too “hot for Jesus”? Only that this surreal comedy is deeply baked, and the ideal viewer probably ought to be, too. Wed/5, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here. (Note: The prior night, the Alamo is also showing another highly offbeat “western”—Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 Near Dark, a modern vampire tale set in the southwest of truckstops and hick bars. More info here.)

[Note: We were under the impression that this film was opening in the Bay Area, only to find out late that it wasn’t—not yet, at least. But the curious can check it out On Demand as of Friday.]
Love him, hate him or both, the film geek within wants each new movie from Brian De Palma—though of course they aren’t coming so often these days—to be good, no matter that they haven’t been for at least two decades. This thriller endured a problematic production (budget woes, cast defections, etc.), one bad enough that even he’s complained about it publicly, lowering expectations for his first feature in seven years. Nonetheless, the end result doesn’t look cheap, and it gets off to a decent enough start with with a chase on slippery Copenhagen rooftops involving Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Eriq Ebouaney, and Soren Malling as one of those characters you know is going to get killed off in the first reel.

What ensues, however, is cheesy exploitation of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism for a pulp thriller, one that takes place across Europe yet feels like a cliche-riddled American cop movie. There’s a certain positive familiarity to longtime collaborator Pino Donaggio’s score, and to Almodovar regular Jose Luis Alcaine’s cinematography—they help make this feel like a De Palma movie without being a parody of one, two separate things that have eluded the director a while. Still, the big climax recalls that of Blow Out, Snake Eyes etc., albeit only as a pale echo. And predictably for a director who’s gotten steadily worse with actors, the cast (also including Guy Pearce, Carice van Houten and Paprika Steen) seems wasted on weak material. This certainly isn’t De Palma’s worst, but even the most devoted fans are unlikely to consider it any bona fide “return to form.”