Seven Brainy Movies for the Summer

This microclimed town is more about summer sweaters than summer swelter, so San Franciscans have never turned to movie theaters — and their air-conditioning — for refuge from the heat. But when the fog blots out the sun and the chill settles in, we're forced indoors like everyone else. At your local heated arthouse this summer, you'll be able to console yourself with visions of the natural world.

The film most likely to make waves among thinking people is Terrence Malick's long-awaited The Tree of Life (opening June 3). “Thinking” is not the operative word, frankly, as Malick's small yet remarkable body of work points toward an experiential cinema of sensations, memories, and wisps of time. His previous mood-struck movies, The Thin Red Line and The New World, invoke man's disregard for the natural world as the root (pun intended) of our moral and existential malaise; expect a similar rustling of leaves in The Tree of Life.

Trees, of course, are cut down to produce newspapers. For how much longer, though, is one of the questions raised by the enticingly but misleadingly titled documentary Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times (July 1). Don't expect a vérité snapshot of the inner workings of the paper of record; except for a handful of fascinating privileged-access interludes, director Andrew Rossi is content to present a familiar discussion about the impact of the Internet and the sources and veracity of “news” in the 21st century. He wisely homes in on ace NYT media reporter David Carr, a refreshingly unsentimental fellow cut from the cloth of a long-ago generation of newspapermen.

The nature under investigation in Errol Morris' entertaining trifle, Tabloid (July 15), is human — a onetime femme fatale named Joyce McKinney. In 1977, the busty Utah coed jetted to London to rescue (okay, kidnap) her Mormon boyfriend. She shackled the lad to a bed for three days and had her way with him, leading to criminal charges, a sensational trial, and a tabloid feeding frenzy. Tabloid doesn't have much new to say about journalism, celebrity, or quick-fingered opportunism, but it does serve as a reminder that every one of us has a story, and — no matter how ridiculous — we're sticking to it.

Tabloid has an air of both the fantastic and the lunatic, impulses that also infuse The Tree (July 29), a windswept fable of grief and acceptance set in rural Australia. When Charlotte Gainsbourg's husband drops dead, she retreats under the covers, leaving her five young children to deal with the situation as they will. Eight-year-old Simone (a remarkable Morgana Davies) is dead-set certain that Dad's spirit is in the massive old tree abutting and encroaching on the house. French director Julie Bertuccelli revisits the theme of daughters and mothers coping with the void left by absent men that she explored in her wonderful 2003 debut, Since Otar Left, trading the bleak colorlessness of post-Soviet Georgia interiors for Australia's dusty sun-bleached realism.

Bay Area filmmakers deliver the gritty truth in spades this summer with a trio of conversation-starting documentaries. Lynn Hershman Leeson's feisty, inspiring Women Art Revolution (Aug. 26) is a personal yet wide-ranging look back at the unwelcome efforts of female artists to gain admittance to the power corridors of modern art, beginning in the late 1960s. Unwelcome, that is, in the eyes of the art establishment of (white) male curators, collectors, and critics. Leeson blends splendid archival footage with interviews she conducted over 35 years with compatriots such as Judy Chicago, Yvonne Rainer, and Rachel Rosenthal. The accrued wisdom that distinguishes the later interviews ensures that the tone of the doc is neither whiny nor bitter. Still, Leeson has created a film that is necessarily more of an appetizer than a definitive history.

Yoav Potash's Crime After Crime (summer) closes in on a solitary injustice: Deborah Peagler's 20-year term for the peripheral role she played in her abusive husband's murder. A pair of East Bay lawyers with no criminal justice experience stepped up in the wake of a 2002 California law allowing a case to be reopened when domestic violence was a factor in the killing. With its reformed heroine and haughty, overfed villain, Crime After Crime triumphs at inciting righteous indignation.

The outdoors was cruelly off-limits to Peagler for a huge chunk of her life; you wonder if she was even allowed the occasional escape of movie night in prison. Street justice, albeit without life-and-death stakes, propels Max Good and Nathan Wollman's kinetic Vigilante Vigilante (rumored to open in mid-August at the Roxie). Shot largely in Berkeley, the documentary exposes the unceasing turf war between graffiti artists (or taggers, if you prefer) and buffers (or erasers of graffiti, posters, stickers, and other forms of individual communication). The clean-up efforts often take the form of unsightly gray blotches that, arguably, are more of an affront than the street art they cover.

Vigilante Vigilante raises an increasingly crucial question in our everything is-for-sale world of corporate sponsorship and signage, ubiquitous bus ads, and multiplying billboards: Who owns the public space? That's worth thinking about this summer as you enjoy the best this city has to offer, inside and out.

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