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SEPTEMBER 8, 1997: 

Pacific Heights

D: John Schlesinger (1990)
with Matthew Modine, Melanie Griffith, Michael Keaton, Laurie Metcalf, Carl Lumbly, Tippi Hedren, Dan Heydaya

Sneakers

D: Phil Alden Robinson (1992)
with Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, Ben Kingsley

So I Married An Axe Murderer

D: Thomas Schlamme (1993)
with Mike Myers, Nancy Travis, Anthony LaPaglia, Amanda Plummer, Brenda Fricker, Debbie Mazar

San Francisco isn't just a tourist Mecca; it's the darling of the movies, too. With hundreds of films like Vertigo, 48 Hrs., Bullitt, and Dirty Harry all exposing one piece of the city or one facet of life there, you can pretty much visit the city by the bay without having to go further than your local video store. At least, you'll see the more nefarious side of things, as thrillers are the predominant genre among San Francisco movies. Nearly 40 years after Vertigo, not much has changed. According to Hollywood, cable cars still run up and down every street, and San Francisco is still filled with criminals, murderers, and psychopaths -- they just have to pay a lot higher rent. In Pacific Heights, Michael Keaton plays a creep who preys on a yuppie, non-married couple (Modine and Griffith) who unadvisedly decide to buy a $750,000 Victorian in one of the city's swankest districts -- on the income of a kite store owner and a horse riding instructor. Well, people that stupid may deserve what's coming to them, which turns out to be an elaborate tenant-screws-landlord scam that still haunts S.F. renters to this day (the squeamish are exiled to Oakland). Griffith, in an uncharacteristic display of intelligence, eventually turns the tables on the bad guy, even though he gets Griffith's real-life mother (Tippi Hedren, playing a wealthy socialite) on his side. In San Francisco, nothing, not even family, is more important than real estate.

With Sneakers, crime takes a more high-tech turn, as Robert Redford (!) leads a team of San Francisco security experts on a cat-and-mouse hunt for a mysterious black box that can crack any computer encryption. Highly improbable, maybe, but when Redford is kidnapped and driven around the Bay Area in the trunk of a car, deaf computer hacker Straithairn reconstructs the route that leads them to the bad guys in the East Bay. The mini-tour alone is worth the rental, and the rest of the movie isn't too bad either. The lesson to be learned is pretty clear: Bad things happen in the Silicon Valley.

(l-r) River Phoenix, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier turn to a computer for help in finding their way around San Francisco. Just kidding, folks - obviously they are engaged in some high-level intrigue in Sneakers.

So I Married An Axe Murderer takes a different approach. As Mike Myers' follow-up to Wayne's World, the film was dogged by rumors of trouble on the set and ended up bombing terribly at the box office. It's actually one of my favorite comedies, though ostensibly a mystery about a man who fears his butcher girlfriend (Travis) is really a serial killer. (The best moments actually involve Myers playing his own ultra-Scottish father and a number of hilarious cameos.) The film takes the viewer through most of the north side of the city, hitting all the big landmarks, especially old beat poet monuments. As to how Nancy Travis can afford a posh two-story apartment on the salary of a butcher is never explained. So why all this crime and intrigue in a quaint little city in Northern California? Is it the fog? The earthquakes? The exorbitant cost of renting a place to live? You'll have to visit to see for yourself: The secret wrath of all San Franciscans is really... the tourists.

-- Christopher Null


The American Experience: Huey Long

D: Ken Burns (1985)

Before there was Baseball, before The Civil War even, documentarian Ken Burns was sifting history for PBS' The American Experience, and doing a fine job at that. Titles include The Shakers, Brooklyn Bridge, and Huey Long, a 90-minute portrait of one of the most fascinating and divisive figures in American politics. As governor and senator during the Great Depression, Long achieved godlike status among Louisiana's rural poor, winning their support with a levelled tax code, a vast program of public works, and a fiery populist promise to treat the rich and powerful as the "thieves, bugs, and lice" they were. To his enemies, he was no less than a homegrown dictator -- ruthless, arrogant, and hopelessly corrupt -- who wielded his enormous power to increasingly dubious ends. He was assassinated in 1935, just as he was moving onto the national stage. His story is one of our nation's most pungent political fables and director Burns tells it well, combining archival materials with thoughtful commentary from a diverse (and opinionated) gallery of Long's contemporaries -- writers, politicians, and just plain folk. Love him or hate him, there were few who weren't in awe of him: Huey Long shows you why.

-- Jay Hardwig


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