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  • Sony Pictures Classics

    Cate Blanchett, left, Max Casella, Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins in San Francisco’s Chinatown in a scene from “Blue Jasmine.”

  • Paramount Pictures

    Gene Hackman in “The Conversation,” from 1974.

  • Merrick Morton

    Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal play newspapermen trying to solve clues and symbols left by a serial killer in “Zodiac.”

  • Phil Bray

    Sean Penn, left, and Victor Garber star as real-life gay rights icon Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, respectively, in “Milk.”

  • David Bornfriend / IFC Films

    Tracey Heggins as Jo’, left, and Wyatt Cenac as Micah in “Medicine for Melancholy.”

  • Warner Bros.

    River Phoenix and Lili Taylor in the 1991 film “Dogfight.”

‘Blue Jasmine’ and some other films show the real San Francisco

Published: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013 - 9:38 pm

In Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” Cate Blanchett’s New York society matron moves to San Francisco because she’s nearly broke.

It’s a preposterous premise, since San Francisco’s sky-high cost of living does not easily accommodate the budget-minded.

But as “Jasmine” unfolds, things almost pencil out.

Blanchett’s character, Jasmine, moves in with her divorced sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), in Ginger’s apartment on South Van Ness in the Mission District. It’s not exactly an exclusive neighborhood, and Ginger probably has rented the place for years, enjoying San Francisco’s rent-control laws.

Ginger’s income from a grocery store job, combined with child support from her ex for her two children, just might cover basic expenses. Jasmine possibly even kicks in for utilities with pay she earns as a dental-office receptionist. Ginger still probably needs a second job. Perhaps she works it off screen.

Movies usually do not inspire such number-crunching. But Allen invites it, by contrasting Jasmine’s former 1-percenter Park Avenue life (shown in flashbacks) with her scruffier existence in San Francisco. He then bolsters the idea of a modest San Francisco existence being possible by shooting in the unswanky, foggy Outer Sunset and at the unpretentious Mission Bay waterfront restaurant The Ramp.

Allen’s approach stands in sharp contrast to that of San Francisco-set Hollywood romantic comedies of the past few decades. In these films, the sun always shines, the Golden Gate Bridge constantly pops into view and characters are architects or doctors (even Matthew McConaughey! See 2001’s “The Wedding Planner”) who live in $4,000-a-month Marina or Pacific Heights apartments.

“Jasmine’s” efforts to keep it real bring to mind other San Francisco-set movies that showcase earthier aspects of the city. The seven films highlighted below range from low-budget, neighborhood-specific indies to Oscar-winning or -nominated prestige projects. All favor authenticity over dazzle, and often help demonstrate the city’s diverse makeup.

“The Conversation” (1974): Gene Hackman’s surveillance specialist Harry Caul is the cinematic descendant of James Stewart’s San Francisco private detective in “Vertigo.” He too is obsessed, but here it’s with doing right by the young people (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) whose conversation he recorded as they walked through Union Square. They appear to be in danger.

Francis Ford Coppola’s second-best movie of the 1970s (after “The Godfather, Part II”) and an Oscar best picture nominee, “The Conversation” also highlights a park far less known than Union Square — Pacific Heights’ Alta Plaza. The park’s concrete stairways add dimension to a fog-shrouded dream sequence involving Williams’ character.

The roomy workshop where Caul constructs his surveillance devices sits in industrial Potrero Hill, another neighborhood neglected by filmmakers. (Available on DVD, and to be streamed on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video).

“Chan Is Missing” (1982): Wayne Wang, director of “The Joy Luck Club” and “Maid in Manhattan,” first made his mark with this irreverent, black-and-white Chinatown-set mystery.

The story involves two cabbies, wry Jo (Wood Moy) and his chatty, opinionated nephew, Steve (Marc Hayashi). They’re looking for their friend Chan, who took off with $4,000 of their money.

As Jo and Steve traverse Chinatown alleys and restaurant kitchens, Wang illuminates the Asian immigrant experience with humor and compassion. Chinese American characters poke fun at recent immigrants as the film laments those immigrants’ lack of opportunities. Its Chinatown includes trained engineers from Taiwan who serve up won-ton soup to tourists because it’s the only work they can get. (DVD)

“Dogfight” (1991): Cruelty and callousness fuel a contest staged by a group of Marines in a 1963 San Francisco bar. On the eve of their deployment to Japan — then, likely Vietnam — the jarheads round up the least-attractive women they can find, pretending they’re taking them on dates. Unknown to the women, the Marines have entered them in a “dogfight” anti-beauty contest.

Marine Cpl. Birdlace (River Phoenix) picks waitress Rose (Lili Taylor) as his entry. Taylor is cute as a button, but devoid of makeup and burdened with a rat’s nest bouffant hairdo, she passes for plain. Rose bolts when she finds out about the contest. Birdlace seeks her out to apologize, with Phoenix’s kind aura keeping the Marine sympathetic even when he’s being thoughtless.

“Dogfight” was shot only partly in San Francisco, with the rest filmed in Washington state and on soundstages. But the film seems authentically 1960s working-class San Francisco, from the diner where Rose works to her blocky, three-story apartment building. “Dogfight” also wins points as a 1960s film focused on military men instead of hippies. Last year, a musical version of “Dogfight,” helmed by famed stage director Joe Mantello, debuted off-Broadway. (DVD, Amazon streaming)

“Zodiac” (2007): Director David Fincher’s well-acted — if overlong — account of the journalists and police detectives who chased the Zodiac killer taps San Francisco’s inherently eerie quality.

From its Barbary Coast days, the city has attracted creeps and crazies. Its year-round chill and beautiful yet spooky Victorian architecture suit the off-balanced. That’s probably why the Zodiac killer, who also struck in Vallejo and Napa County during his late 1960s/early ’70s spree, still is associated with San Francisco.

Fincher shot at real locations, including the Presidio Heights block where the Zodiac killed a cabbie and the San Francisco Chronicle’s mail room (the killer sent letters to the newspaper).

Edgy performances by Robert Downey Jr., as Chronicle (and later Sacramento Bee) reporter Paul Avery and Jake Gyllenhaal as Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith increase a sense of unease. The taunting, elusive Zodiac — who never was caught — haunted both men. (DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix and Amazon streaming)

“Milk” (2008): Sean Penn won a best-actor Oscar for his performance as San Francisco supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Fellow supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin) killed Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978 at City Hall.

Director Gus Van Sant filmed at City Hall and on Castro Street, in the building that once housed Milk’s camera shop and campaign headquarters. (The production moved out the gift shop that occupied the building.)

“Milk” also shot in the Excelsior, where White lived. A working-class neighborhood in the southern part of the city, the Excelsior makes it into movies about as often as it makes it into San Francisco tourist brochures. (DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon streaming)

“Medicine for Melancholy” (2008): Filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ low-budget letter to San Francisco contains criticisms but also plenty of love.

A one-night stand becomes a day on the town for Micah (Wyatt Cenac), an aquarium specialist, and Jo’ (Tracey Heggins), a young woman still figuring out her path. A lifelong San Franciscan who lives in a Tenderloin studio apartment, Micah sees Jo’, who lives with her boyfriend in a costly Marina apartment, as a symbol of the gentrification that displaced many of their fellow African Americans from their longtime city neighborhoods. Jo’ thinks Micah needs to stop categorizing people, including himself.

But they keep on talking as they ride their bicycles through the city, stopping at the Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission Street and the nearby Yerba Buena Gardens. (DVD, Netflix and Amazon streaming)

“La Mission” (2009): Even more authentically street level than “Milk,” “La Mission,” directed by San Francisco native Peter Bratt (and starring his brother Benjamin) nails Mission life, from the colorful murals adorning buildings to the discarded-gum-gone-black dots on sidewalks to inevitable disputes between neighbors regarding parking and driveway access.

Bratt plays a bus driver on the Muni 14 Mission line, which runs from downtown to Daly City and offers views of a range of humanity inside and outside the bus. A 14 Mission driver needs a take-charge attitude, and Bratt exudes a brook-no-guff toughness as Che, an ex-con raising a teenage son (Jeremy Ray Valdez) as a single dad.

But Che loses his composure after he finds out his son is gay. “La Mission” sometimes sinks into melodrama as it follows this story line, but Bratt’s always solid. Peter Bratt also showed good sense in casting the always-good Jesse Borrego as Che’s pal. “La Mission” reunites Borrego and Benjamin Bratt, co-stars in 1993’s unforgettable gangs-and-prison drama “Blood In, Blood Out.” (DVD, Netflix and Amazon streaming).

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB

Read more articles by Carla Meyer

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