On Wednesday, the 19th Annual Sacramento Film & Music Festival opens, running for five days (September 26-30) at the Crest Theatre, Esquire IMAX, and the Crocker Art Gallery. Overall, the festival includes 111 films including 74 that were made in the Sacramento area. The local projects include 12 short films related to Frankenstein, in a competition sponsored by the Capital Film Arts Alliance, 23 short films on the theme of “Change” made in ten days in the Festival’s 10×10 Filmmaker Challenge program, 22 music videos in the original Sac Music Seen program, and three locally produced feature films.
The Festival’s 14 separate film programs also include both domestic and international shorts, documentary shorts, a Japanese language feature film, a documentary feature about a rock musician with cerebral palsy, and two screenings dedicated to the work of film students. A full schedule of Festival events can be found, here.
And after our film reviewing hiatus of the last couple of weekends, here’s a quick Moviebriefs roundup of six current releases.
Jennifer Garner stars as a Mom turned vigilante in “Peppermint,” a film that older viewers will likely see as a female-driven take on the “Death Wish” model. Garner is effective in a story that relies primarily on gun violence, rather than brute strength, in a manner that contrasts favorably with the fighting style of, for example, “Atomic Blonde.” But many have also found the themes of revenge against a Mexican drug gang as racist, given stereotypical depictions of the villains at a time of increased antagonism towards immigrants, especially Mexicans.
Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick co-star in “A Simple Favor,” a battle of wits between two apparently very different kinds of mothers. Stephanie (Kendrick) agrees to watch Emily’s (Lively) son after school and is then drawn into the mystery of her disappearance when she fails to return. And where Stephanie is initially uptight, prim and proper super Mom, Emily is a wise cracking, seemingly reluctant mother, more likely to have a stiff martini in her hand than a PTA flyer. It’s a fun romp with great performances from the leads, although Kendrick’s character arc is perhaps a little too broad and the tone of the film is a little uneven at times.
“The Predator” attempts to rekindle a franchise with a return to Earth of the species-hunting aliens first seen onscreen in 1987. This time around, one alien appears to be being hunted by another, with both a team of government agents and scientists, and a group of misfit military hospital patients trying to track them down. It’s all a bit flat and some of the special effects don’t seem all that much better than the earlier films – although, being overly generous, some of that might be at least partially intentional for continuity. The bigger problem is that, within a cast of interesting characters including a female scientist (Olivia Munn), a young boy (Jacob Tremblay) on the autism spectrum (whose autism is actually depicted as an advantage rather than a disadvantage), and multiple people of color, the lead is just about the blandest white guy ever put on screen. The first couple of lines Trevante Rhodes, as one of the other ex-soldiers, utters establish a more compelling character than everything Boyd Holbrook has to work with.
The rarest thing this week might be a critic who enjoyed “Life Itself,” a film that stretches across multiple generations of two families. It’s a tough sell on multiple levels as it seemingly swerves from initial dark comedy, through tragic family drama, to a massively coincidental tale of romance – with enough unhappy events to ruin a poorly chosen escapist trip to the movies. One audience member exiting the screening I attended described it as “emotionally draining” and not in a positive manner. But for all of the film’s problems, I actually quite enjoyed watching it, if only for the surprising structure and the performances, including Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, and Àlex Monner (who looks like a Spanish Neville Longbottom/Matthew Lewis). Although my eyes started to roll as I realized where it was heading, and how it was getting there, I still enjoyed the recurring theme of the unreliable narrator and the stronger first half carried me through.
“The House with a Clock in its Walls” is an action story for kids, set in a house filled with magic, dark secrets, and Jack Black and Cate Blanchett. A small boy, Lewis (Owen Vaccaro), is sent to live with his estranged and strange uncle (Black) after the death of his parents, only to discover his new home is even stranger than it looks. The first half has an almost homeschooled Harry Potter feel to it, as young Lewis discovers magic and his own powers, but the second half veers off-track like a derailed Hogwarts Express, careening into too many effects-driven set pieces. And the plot feels like it might be too dark for its intended audience, with a re-animated corpse intent on killing all of mankind. It’s like somebody sprinkled magic powder on “The Sandlot” and then handed the screenplay to Stephen King half way through.
Michael Moore is back with “Fahrenheit 11/9,” his take on the last Presidential election and the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Watching it was strangely as if Moore had somehow compressed the last two years of my Facebook news feed into two hours – albeit not in a bad way. He draws some interesting parallels along the way, especially between the earlier election of Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder, another previously unelected businessman, and the water disaster in Flint, and the later election of President Trump. It’s noteworthy that Moore himself was one of the few well known voices who actually thought, significantly ahead of the election, that Trump had a good chance of winning, at least partially because of having seen what happened in Michigan, his home state, and the lack of serious attention other candidates gave Flint. But as with most of Moore’s projects, and many Facebook timelines, this is most likely to be seen by those who already agree with his perspective – so it will be praised by some and almost entirely ignored by the rest.
*The author is also a co-director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival.