Arts + Culture

Noir, n’est-ce pas?

Marie-France Pisier in 'Le Mort d'un Tueur' (aka 'Death of a Killer')

SCREEN GRABS Things are changing at the Roxie (not for the first time) at the Roxie, with some fresh programming blood and the departure of a longtime favorite — Elliot Lavine, particularly famed for the recurrent noir and pre-Code series that have highlighted Roxie calendars for many years, is leaving the Bay Area for a gig in Portland at year’s end. (One hopes that won’t necessarily prevent him from the occasional guest programming slot back here.)

One thing that honors the venue’s recent past while no doubt providing an element in its future is film historian/curator Don Malcolm’s “The French Have a Name For It” series, which this week launches what’s already its third edition (playing Thu/3-November 7), with no repeats whatsoever from the prior editions.

The “it” they had a name for is, of course, film noir, whose Hollywood-heyday titles of the 1940s and 1950s weren’t given any particular handle at home (beyond a generic a like “thriller”). It was up to the French to eventually recognize the peculiar style, themes and occasional brilliance of movies whose home-turf critics, audiences, and even makers tended to think of as routine commercial product. Some of the French critics who championed them became the filmmaking stars of the Nouvelle Vague, tipping hat to noir in new classics like Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player.

But before those conscious homages, the French industry made plenty of its own post-WW2 crime melodramas, many owing a certain debt to Hollywood yet strongly stamped by a Gallic sensibility. Malcolm’s series (the latest running one extra-long weekend, Nov. 3-7) mines this rich yet under-appreciated field, which includes a great many films that were little-seen outside Europe at the time, and which have yet to experience a major critical re-evaluation. Some may well be experiencing their Bay Area debuts in the Roxie programs, 60 or 70 years late in the Roxie. As Lavine’s highly popular retrospectives played a significant role in sparking a classic American noir revival around the nation and beyond, there’s good reason to hope Malcolm’s might eventually have wider repercussions for mid-century European genre films, perhaps leading to audience demand for new restorations of long-neglected or unavailable titles. 

Of the fifteen features this time around, one-third are devoted to the career of a figure memorably glimpsed in a few titles previously shown. Dark and handsome, Robert Hossein was a leading man with a slightly sad countenance and soft eyes, like a faintly more exotic Liam Neeson—he was often cast as foreigners even though he was born in Paris (son of orchestral conductor Andre, who eventually composed the scores for most of his films). 

After training for the stage, his screen acting breakthrough came with Jules Dassin’s 1955 international hit Rififi, the mother of all “perfect crime” caper films. Nothing if not ambitious, Hossein was still under 30 when that same year he made his directorial debut with The Wicked Go To Hell, a perverse triangle drama in which two armed escaped cons prove no match for the seemingly guileless young woman they hold captive. The latter was played by Hossein’s first wife, stunning Marina Vlady, who also figured in his 1958 Blonde in a White Car—an outrageous concoction in which his protagonist spends the whole movie trying to figure out which of two sexy-weird sisters he had anonymous nocturnal sex with on a deserted rural road. Both features were bold, lurid highlights in earlier Roxie programs. 

This time, one marathon day (Sat/5) will feature four more of Hossein’s directing efforts from the early 1960s, plus one of the many films around that time (1959’s white-slavery thriller The Road to Shame) he merely starred in. Robert Hossein — who is nearly 90 now, and was still professionally active as recently as three years ago — was in the same age range as the initial leading Nouvelle Vague lights. But he operated within the boundaries of standard commercial cinema enough to be regarded with suspicion by those trendier talents, his films not taken as seriously by critics, nor commonly distributed on the overseas arthouse circuit. Nonetheless, the Roxie movies showcased so far demonstrate an idiosyncratic sensibility often drawn to one form of narrative/stylistic experiment or another, despite basic outlines that remain in conventional thriller territory. Even when his gambits don’t entirely work, they are risky and unusual.

That well describes 1960’s The Wretches, a curious psychodrama in which a poor French family’s decrepit flat finds itself opposite the gleaming new glass-walled, ultra-moderne home of a wealthy American emigre couple (Hossein, Michele Morgan), whose decadent martial miseries are thus on display for all to see. Fascinated by their surface glamour, young Louise (Perrettte Pradier, whose wooden performance is a problem here) crosses the street to beg a job as live-in housemaid, inevitably getting sucked into the newcomers’ mutual self-destruction. A pretentious but intriguingly odd warmup for such improved variations on similar themes as The Servant, not to mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?The Wretches’ heightened mix of voyeurism and theatricality makes a distinctive impression. 

Likewise Hossein’s next exercise behind (as well as in front of) the camera, 1961’s The Game of Truth, is another artificial yet striking treatment of that favorite theme at the era: The foibles of the amoral bourgeoise. When one particularly detested guest is found murdered right in the middle of a famous author’s house party, everyone is a suspect, and needless to say all sorts of ugly secrets come tumbling out before we find out whodunnit. (One key figure is played by future star Jean-Louis Trintignant.) There’s something too schematic about the clever script and camera contrivances that keep this Agatha Christie-like mystery talkfest hyperactive while confined to one room. Still, you can feel the director relishing the formal challenges he’s set for himself — and he’s all mysterioso charisma in the role of a game-changing latecomer who arrives halfway through. 

Two slightly later films are more successful. The most sensational is 1965’s The Secret Killer or The Vampire of Dusseldorf—the latter being the public nickname of a notorious real-life serial murderer in Germany between the wars. While its script plays fast and loose with the actual facts of the case, Hossein strikingly casts himself against type as a seemingly passive, nebbishy, almost comical figure who nonetheless applies himself to slaying the opposite sex with harrowing, remorseless zeal. The actor-director-coscenarist’s then-paramour, Marie-France Pisier, plays a Dietrich-like cabaret star the titular figure is infatuated enough with to stalk without killing — for a while, at least. 

But the gem of the lot is the prior year’s Death of a Killer, in which Hossein returns from a five-year prison sentence to find the sister (Pisier again) he loved “perhaps too much” has flown their mother’s coop. Worse, she’s cohabiting somewhere with the ex-best friend he suspects of having betrayed him to the cops. Frankly driven by incestuous desire and jealousy, this “B” crime melodrama begins casually, almost amateurishly, with silent home-movie-like flashbacks and voiceover narration. But gradually its scale expands, with some bizarre, hyperbolic setpieces en route to a terrific climax (as mob justice plays out in an empty sports stadium) and arresting, desolate coda. 

Hossein remained a significant figure in French cinema (and television), moving toward primarily supporting character roles as he grew older. After the Russian history lesson of 1967’s Rasputin and a rather good spaghetti western, 1969’s Cemetery Without Crosses, his directing career slowed down, though he still had the clout to mount an epic Les Miserables in 1982 — one of the better regarded adaptations of that famous novel, though not among the more widely seen internationally. His value in French cinema is sure to be reappraised in decades to come. Certainly after Saturday he’ll have a lot of new San Francisco fans, most of whom probably had no idea who he was beforehand.

There are, of course, also 10 non-Hossein features as well in this Roxie series, this time reaching as far back as the officially “proto-noir” era of the late 1930s. The five-day program kicks off with both the earliest and by far most famous title, Marcel Carne’s 1937 Le jour se leve aka Daybreak, with the great Jean Gabin in his full early glory as a luckless crime-of-passion perp who’s barricaded himself indoors in a doomed stand against police. 

The next night brings another knockout star vehicle, Christian-Jacque’s 1946 Un revenant (A Lover’s Return), in which Louis Jouvet is a now-prosperous man who comes back to avenge himself on the rich, horrible family that grievously wronged him two decades earlier. Less a noir than a precision-cut black comedy, it is well worth discovering. The same director, a staple in the French commercial mainstream for decades, also offers up the impressive 1943 Journey Without Hope, a beautifully atmospheric noir in which Cocteau’s favorite Jean Marais is unusually animated as a besotted traveler who tries to save a damsel (Simone Renant) from the gangster ex-boyfriend source of her distress (Paul Bernard).

Other highlights include Henri Decoin’s ironically named 1947 Not Guilty, with Michel Simon as a disgraced small-town doctor whose petty grudges acquire a Trump-like antiheroic grandeur (and a taste for murder); the obscure 1962 Dark Journey, in which normally suave Louis Jourdan plays a more pathetic, neurotic sort of sore loser edging toward violent madness; and same year’s Le Denonciation, a coolly intellectual, ethically questioning thriller in which a witnessed death in the present day re-awakens Maurice Ronet’s discomfiting memories of confession under Nazi torture.

The series ends on Monday with two features from Jean Delannoy, who really did suffer somewhat from postwar accusations of excessive cooperation with the Axis occupiers. (Still, his career lasted until the mid-1990s, and died eight years ago at the ripe age of 100.) Unavailable for preview but apparently quite dashing in a Casablanca-sorta-way is 1942’s Macao, L’enfer du jeu aka Gambling Hell, an exotic adventure shot in 1939 but unreleased (with changes to please the Germans) till 1942, featuring such duly “exotic” performers as Sessue Hayakawa and the inimitable Erich von Stroheim. 

Then there’s the bizarre 1947 The Chips Are Down, written by no less than Jean-Paul Sartre. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this bizarre fantasy’s final anti-romantic message rings more true than the romance that floats most of it, as a Resistance fighter (Marcello Pagliero) and a collaborator’s wealthy wife (Micheline Presle) are returned to life after their premature deaths—the authorities having decided that due to a clerical error they should have met as soulmates while still living. But class and political differences, as well as various other intrigues, make even true love harder to sustain in the mortal world. It’s an ingenious piece, but the expressions of stock sentimentality are a lot harder to swallow than the framework of existential malaise that surround them. 

“The French Have a Name For It 3” plays Thurs/3-Mon/7, Roxie Theatre, SF. $12 (double bill) to $50 (complete series pass).

‘Moonlight’ electrifies

Mahershala Ali teaches Alex Hibbert to swim in 'Moonlight'

SCREEN GRABS In 2008, the SF International Film Festival premiered then-local resident Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy, a stylish surprise in which a one-night-stand between two attractive young African-American people — he a Tenderloin-dwelling artist (Wyatt Cenac), she an upscaling Marina resident (Tracey Heggins) playing hooky from her live-in white boyfriend — spills over into a next day of city rambling. Before their bittersweet parting, the two leads discussed various matters of racial and cultural identity (including gentrification), while Jenkins likewise played around with the expectations of “black cinema.” 

Medicine had its “gritty,” realistically “urban” aspects, but stylistically it was playful — not playful like Dope, say, but playful like Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player, right down to its near-monochrome imagery, unexpected editing, and musical choices. If it seemed ultimately a little light on substance, it was more than aesthetically assured and charming enough to constitute an auspicious debut. (It was also instantly a sort of cult classic for many viewers, despite a very modest theatrical release.) Just what Jenkins would do next was anyone’s guess. Would he remain just a deft miniaturist, even on budgets inevitably larger than his first feature’s teensy $13,000?

Well, it took a little too long to find out, but it turns out the answers to those questions exceed just about anyone’s wildest expectations. Moonlight, Jenkins’ second feature (he made some shorts in between), offers not just further, expanded proof of his precocious stylistic mastery. It’s also one of year’s most substantive and emotionally nuanced films, not to mention that rare U.S. feature you can call “exhilarating” for its sheer artistry. 

Though loosely derived from a stage play by co-scenarist Tarell Alvin McCraney), the movie could hardly be more cinematic from the very start, when a series of traveling shots introduces the starting freshness with which James Laxton’s widescreen cinematography reveals verbally little-articulated human relationship dynamics in spatial terms. The d.p. and Jenkins do a particularly masterful job using imagery, editing, and sound to heighten the constant tension of being bullied, when every public environment is potentially a dangerous one.

In a bleak lower-class Miami neighborhood, cocksure Juan (a terrifically charismatic Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards) oversees his drug-dealing operation, running an obviously tight ship. Yet he proves surprisingly tender-hearted when he discovers 9-year-old Chiron aka “Little” (Alex Hibbert) cowering in an empty crack-den apartment, where he’s hidden from his schoolyard tormentors. At first reluctant to even speak, the boy doesn’t want to go home — for reasons we will soon discover — and is taken in for the night by Juan and his warmly maternal girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). The two adults certainly provide better parenting models than Chiron’s actual mother Paula (Naomie Harris), an unstable woman with a barely-hidden, variably serious drug habit. With no biological father in sight, “Little” thirsts for the male mentorship that Juan finds himself willing to provide.

At a certain point Moonlight leaps forward to find the now 16-year-old Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) circumstances have considerably worsened. His mother is completely out of control, and at school he’s terrorized by a particularly vicious, gay-baiting classmate. His only friend is braggadocious yet loyal Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), though even that tie is imperiled by the harsh rules of teenage social hierarchy.

The film’s final segment jumps ahead another decade or so. Now calling himself “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron has thoroughly reinvented himself as protection against the brutal experiences of his formative years. But an unexpected phone call reveals a chink in his rock-hard armor, leading to a reunion that provides one of the most poignantly yearning sequences on screen in years.

In a way, Moonlight is an African-American equivalent to Boyhood, even if here different actors are used to portray the young leads at different ages, rather than the film itself being shot over many years’ course. But in Richard Linklater’s film, the rather bland protagonist suffered from the poor decisions of adults around him (most notably mother Patricia Arquette’s bad taste in men), yet the basic security of his middle-class, college-bound lifestyle was never really at risk. Moonlight’s Chiron, by contrast, is in much more desperate straits from an early age. Not only does he have to negotiate his way through a minefield of potentially abusive peers and a crime-riddled milieu, but his own mother’s severe problems put him frequently at risk of going hungry and homeless. 

It’s a tribute to Jenkins’ subtlety that this, too, feels like a boy’s-own-story at once distinctive and relatably unremarkable. There’s no overt case-pleading or sensationalism here, unlike in something like Lee Daniels’ Precious, a strong movie whose not dissimilar worst-scenario youth story nonetheless plays as grotesquely exceptional. While there’s nothing remotely sexually explicit here, it will be interesting to see the extent to which Moonlight is embraced by non-gay audiences, as its pro-tolerance (and anti-homophobia) message could hardly be clearer.

It delivers something perhaps even more challenging to straight audiences than depiction of queer physical sexuality: A painfully vivid sense of romantic love and longing between men, particularly men who cannot in any way be dismissed as gay stereotypes. 

The director and co-writer work in many salient points about masculinity, and how ultimately soul-destroying its rigid definitions that can be for everyone, no matter their gender or preference. With the much-ballyhoo’d Birth of a Nation now well out of major awards contention due to filmmaker scandal and a tepid public reception, Moonlight is (alongside imminent interracial-marriage period piece Loving) likely to be the feature this year that will carry African-American talent and themes all the way to the Oscars, generating discussion into the spring and beyond. 

Jenkins gets superb performances that are all the more impressive given the relative paucity of dialogue, let alone frank verbal expression of emotions in a deliberately close-mouthed script. But much of what makes Moonlight seem so original lies not in the realms of character or narrative content, but how they’re presented. Not least of the film’s many inventive aesthetic pleasures is its soundtrack, in which every diverse musical choice seems both boldly unexpected and emotionally dead-on. 

Moonlight is playing in Bay Area Theaters. 

Company Town: Tech vs. grassroots on the screen

Aaron Peskin on Election Day 2015, from Company Town

SCREEN GRABS It’s hard to imagine that the Aaron Peskin-Julie Christensen election was just a year ago. Back then, the mayor was heavily involved in local politics: He convened a meeting of donors and political heavies to warn them against supporting Peskin. He was out in District Three working hard for Christensen, his appointee. And the Peskin campaign found him formidable.

Aaron Peskin on Election Day 2015, from Company Town
Aaron Peskin on Election Day 2015, from Company Town

Today, the mayor is nowhere in the supes races. He’s nowhere in the fall election. His approval rating has fallen so low that his endorsement would do more harm than good to most candidates.

That’s one of the reason’s it’s so fascinating to watch Company Town, a new documentary by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow (running through Nov. 3 at the Roxie). The filmmakers chose the November, 2015 election as a backdrop to a discussion of how the tech industry boom has deeply damaged San Francisco. 

It’s a wonderful, lively – and for all the bleakness – encouraging film that shows not only the depths of despair of the tenants and community leaders facing eviction and the destruction of neighborhoods but the ability of activists to organize and fight back.

There are several threads to the story they present – the evictions and neighborhood change, narrated in part by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, a reporter for the SF Examiner. There’s a sequence featuring Chinatown activist Jeffrey Kwong, who guides us through the eviction havoc in the city.

The political angle to all of this is the battle over regulating Airbnb and short-term rentals. Peskin was at the forefront of that effort; Christensen was such a loyal ally of Airbnb that at one point she pushed to make the existing weak law even worse.


Company Town Trailer from Snitow-Kaufman Productions on Vimeo.

And then there’s the Peskin campaign, from the rallies and the organizing to the humbling moments when Aaron stands on a corner in North Beach trying to hand out literature, and nobody stops to talk to him.

There are great interviews: Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, talks with the haughty air of a tech mogul about how the “sharing economy” is going to change the world. Then Peskin steps in and says that his mother taught him that “sharing” is about giving the kid next you at lunch in school half your sandwich if he doesn’t have enough to eat. “And it’s not sharing if I charge him $5.”

The photography is excellent and the doc moves right along. It’s the perfect length – enough to tell the story but never let it drag.

The camera does the work in this movie – there’s no heavy-handed politics. It’s not needed, because you get the point pretty clearly:

The tech industry is trying to do a hostile takeover of San Francisco politics. It’s even worse this fall. But there are residents of the city who won’t give in, and in this particular tale, they win.

That’s the message of hope: Up against the power of one of the richest industries in the nation, grassroots politics can still work. We can still save San Francisco.

Company Town opens at the Roxie Oct 28 and runs to Nov. 3 – a perfect preview for this fall’s election. 

A different kind of “femme fatale”

'The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears'

SCREEN GRABS As Election Day approaches, it is clear that to much of our nation’s citizenry, there is nothing more horrifying than a woman who is smarter than they are. (Not even a sociopathic nitwit with his finger potentially on the nuclear-option button.) Thus it seems an especially apt moment for the Roxie to host “Horrific Women: Female Directors Killin’ It” (Thu/27-Sun/30)a seven-feature retrospective of horror flicks by, and about, the alleged “gentler sex.” it’s programmed by Roxie newcomer (but longtime Bay Area film-scene familiar) Jennifer Junkyard Morris, who notes “Oozing blood and excruciating pain are a monthly experience for most women, so who better to direct horror films?” 

This is an idea whose time is overdue: While horror cinema is usually considered fanboy terrain, where the meeting of knives and boobs is tailored to the meaner sensibilities of the 13-year-old heterosexual boy within every 13-to-93-year-old heterosexual boy, marketing research has proven that girls actually like this stuff too. In fact, they constitute such a significant share of the genre audience that its fallback misogyny would appear to be highly misguided, if not (apparently) unforgivable.

However, the movies in “Horrific Women” are not stock slashers in which “taking a shower” = silicone bloodbath. They are all boundary-pushing exercises in their way, albeit to varying degrees of daring and artistic success. Each will only be shown once on the weekend just pre-Halloween, so get your act together and get down to the Roxie, or there will be sadistic, gory consequences. Well, maybe not. But who knows! 

Because we have no idea how to weave them into a coherent feature, here is a blow-by-blow account of “Horrific Women’s” selections. You can check out the entire schedule here.  

Near Dark
After making the most homoerotic biker movie ever with The Loveless, which nobody saw, future Hurt Locker Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow proved herself a commercial filmmaker after all with this terrific, unique 1987 white-trash take on vampirism. Adrian Pasdar and Bill Paxton are among the rural rubes with a taste for the red stuff in a truly startling mix of supernatural horror, action and road-movie Americana. 

The Babadook
One of the most acclaimed horror movies in recent years, Jennifer Kent’s feature writing-directing debut stars Essie Davis as a widow who increasingly believes her young son’s claims that he’s being terrorized by a monster sprung from a creepy children’s book. 

The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears 
Co-written and directed by the Belgian duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, this cryptic if ravishing feature abandons all substance to giddy celebration of style. It’s a lavish homage to the most fetishistic aesthetics of 1960s/70s giallo cinema, that Italian murder mystery-slash-horror genre which most famously boosted the careers of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Abandon all hope of coherent narrative logic, ye who enter here—this movie is as extravagant, elegant, and unnecessary as a mink glove. 

Jennifer’s Body
The brief cultural moment that was Megan Fox simultaneously peaked and began its steep decline with this box-office flop written by Juno’s Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama (who rebounded with clever recent thriller The Invitation). It’s not a good movie — but it is a cheesily entertaining one, as Fox’s high school succubus re-defines “mean girl” for bestie Amanda Seyfried. 

Barely over an hour’s length, Stewart Thorndike’s debut feature (never mind the name, she is not a man) is an intriguing queer spin on Rosemary’s Baby. Former child actor Gaby Hoffman plays a pregnant lesbian who begins to think bad thoughts about her lover (Ingrid Jungermann) and neighbors (Kim Allen, Rebecca Street) when tragedy makes their Manhattan flat seem haunted. This is not a satisfying movie, but it’s good enough to make you wish the filmmakers had taken its concept a few steps further.

Messiah of Evil
The same year that they experienced a huge success with their screenplay for George Lucas’ American Graffitti, creative and marital team Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck made their directorial bow with this extraordinary flop — which was actually shot two years earlier (in 1971), but never given a proper release. It’s still quite striking, a dislocating nightmare with the most memorable collision between hippie-chic supermarket shoppers and flesh-eating zombies ever. 

The late Antonia Bird (who died of thyroid cancer in 2013) was not the original director of this grotesque cannibal-themed black comedy. She was hired to replace Macedonian Oscar nominee Milcho Manchevski (Before the Rain), who was fired three weeks into shooting. She wasn’t happy with the final result, either. This flamboyant tale of merciless frontier hunger would be vastly reduced without Damon Albarn and Michael Nyman’s score. It’s one of the greatest original soundtracks ever composed in service of a film eventually hobbled by its producers.

‘Horrific Women’ plays Thu/27-Sun/30 at the Roxie Theater. Tickets and more info here

Hole-y terrors

'Virtual Revolution'

SCREEN GRABS As Election Day approaches, real life is terrifying enough — making it a good moment to blow off steam by experiencing some reassuringly fictive frights at Another Hole in the Head (Thu/27-Nov 9), SF’s premiere genre festival. Focusing primarily on horror and fantasy film, Hole Head in its lucky 13th year has shifted entirely from the Roxie to the New People Cinema (opposite the Sundance Kabuki) in Japantown. 

That means plenty of opportunity for noodles and/or sushi between shows. Though you may not exactly feel like eating after Thursday’s opening night selection. Bobby Miller’s The Master Cleanse, an offbeat character study with supernatural elements about a rudderless dude (Johnny Galecki) who seeks new direction at a remote spiritual retreat where “cleansing the toxins” from his system proves rather more intense than expected. Anjelica Huston, Anna Friel, and Oliver Platt also feature in this eccentric tale. 

The festival winds up two weeks later on November 9 with Beyond the Gates. Affection for the formative VHS frights of their childhoods is a frequent influence for younger genre filmmakers, but seldom is that quite so explicitly spelled out as in Jackson Stewart’s closing night selection. This entertaining ode to drive-in and direct-to-video horror of the ’80s through early ’90s has Graham Skipper and Chase Williamson as semi-estranged brothers forced to reunite when their father dies — or rather disappears for so long that he’s assumed dead.

Having to clear out dad’s old VHS-only rental store, they discover a stupid old board-and-videotape game that, when played… well, y’know, opens the portals to Hades. Don’t expect any hallucinatory Hellscapes from this willfully cheesy, low-budget throwback, but it does get the retro B-movie feel just right. In between, Hole Head features plenty of shorts programs, live events, revivals, and of course myriad new indie genre features, including several premieres from local filmmakers like Doc Zee’s House of Temptation, Matthew Abaya’s Vampariah, and Jamie Ball’s The Cufew Gang. Here are a few highlights:

The Unseen
Less horror than fantastical drama, Geoff Redknap’s feature is a spin on The Invisible Man about a lumber mill-working loner (Aden Young) who abandoned his wife and child years earlier for reasons we don’t immediately grasp. When his now-teenage daughter (Julia Sarah Stone) turns up with a truckload of “issues,” he’s forced to confront that past, as well as the mysterious condition that is consuming his body. While the concept doesn’t entirely work, The Unseen makes up for its deficiencies as a thriller with its surprising strengths as a gritty character study set in a creditable rural British Columbia milieu of economic and spiritual depression. (Tues/1, 7pm)

Always Shine 
Sophie Takal’s tricky, impressive psychological thriller has Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald as two aspiring L.A. actresses, alleged “best friends” whose barely-sublimated competitiveness and jealousy boils over during a getaway weekend in Big Sur. Suffice it to say, at a certain point this vacation turns into a Repulsion-like portrait of disintegrating sanity. Other female-centric horrors at Hole Head include Chris Alexander’s surreal Female Werewolf, Cody Calahan’s “evil twin” nightmare Let Her Out, and Ryan M. Andrews’ Save Yourselfin which five road-tripping women horror filmmakers find themselves at the mercy of an all-too-real latterday Nazi medical experimenter. (Shine: Wed/2, 7 pm)

Virtual Revolution 
This year’s leading sci-fi entry is Guy Roger-Duvert’s debut feature, an English-language US/France coproduction whose Blade Runner-esque futurist intrigue (with a dash of Matrix, plus some sword-and-sorcery elements) manages to be quite visually impressive on a relatively low budget.

Elsewhere on the foreign front, there’s a surprising paucity of the usual splattery “Japanese extreme” fare in Hole Head 2016, unless you count Tokyo Grand Guignol, an omnibus of macabre tales set in that city but created by French writers and directors. Other notable international titles include Sang-ho Yeon’s Seoul Station, an animated companion to the Korean live-action zombie hit Train to Busan, and a genially silly multi-genre spoof from New Zealand, This Giant Papier-Mache Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy. (Virtual: Thurs/3 7 pm)

Drugs in the Tenderloin
This remarkable, intimate snapshot of 1966 life in San Francisco’s “underbelly” neighborhood captures something not so unlike the melting pot of today (albeit without the looming gentrification), as dealers, dopers, dropouts and sex workers of all colors and persuasions tell their stories with surprising frankness. For 50 years Robert Zagone’s hour-long TV documentary languished in obscurity; recently, however, it’s begun to experience local revivals, and remarkably the director is still around to host Q&As.

(He’ll be in attendance at this screening.) Other golden oldies dug up for Hole Head this annum include a great Halloween double of 1988’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space (probably still the best of the whole evil-clown subgenre) and 1982’s cult fave Halloween III: Season of the Witch, an imaginative entry that doesn’t involve Michael Myers at all. (Drugs: Sun/6, 9 pm)

The Alchemist Cookbook
Also playing on a day designated as “Not Another Hole In the Head” — when programs veer away from conventional genre bounds — is rising midwestern DIY director Joel Potrykus’ delightful, unclassifiable feature. Ty Dickson plays a young African-American man living alone in a trailer in the woods for possibly paranoid-delusional reasons, though eventually we glean there may be some truth behind his supernatural quest.

More quirky absurdist comedy than straight-up horror or suspense, this is great fun if you’re willing to roll with it, highlighted by joyously unbridled performances from Dickson and Amari Cheatom. If you’re looking for other journeys on the far side, check out Pat Tremblay’s bizarro Canadian Atmo HorroX, Aaron Keene’s poetical B&W allegory Panopticon, and the numerous shorts programs that run a gamut of thematic and stylistic terrain. (Alchemist: Sun/6 7 pm)

Another Hole in the Head runs Thurs/27-Wed/9, New People Cinema, SF. Most shows $15 (discount packages available). More info here

Champagne supernovas, spilling over

The Brothers Gallagher. Photo by Jill Furmanovsky

SCREEN GRABS/ALL EARS The biggest noise of 90s Britpop, Manchester’s Oasis was briefly as massive as their hype — not to mention their self-estimation — before too much ego, overexposure, and repetitive musical bombast brought their comet crashing to ground. While they were up there, the spectacle was vastly enhanced by the dynamic between brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher, erstwhile ‘council flat lads”’who’d been at each other’s throats since childhood. 

Fame only heightened their sibling rivalry, with trashed hotel rooms, open drug use, fistfights and at least one deportation (from Holland) providing ample, tabloid-ready evidence that they were obnoxious pricks even by rock-star standards. The finer feelings expressed in songs like wistful classic “Wonderwall” were hard to reconcile with the middle finger extended toward everyone and everything save slavish fans. Still, the bad-boy thing worked as theater, only heightening their mystique for a while. 

Oasis: Supersonic blends archival materials and latterday audio interviews to chronicle the five years from their founding to a 1996 commercial peak—when, among other things, they played to an extraordinary quarter-million people in just two outdoor U.K. concerts. As the Gallaghers’ long-suffering mother Pattie notes, “It all happened too quick.” Too quick for these personalities to handle, that is. 

Their personal and professional power struggle could only get worse: As another observer notes, “Noel has a lot of buttons, and Liam has a lot of fingers.” After a certain point, the latter started walking offstage mid-concert whenever he felt like it, leaving the former to take over lead vocals — which, absurdly, Liam resented. Then there was the recording-session moment where Noel took a cricket bat to his younger bro’s noggin. Yes, violence is bad. But by that point in this telling, you have no doubt the boy was asking for it.

Mat Whitecross’ elaborately assembled documentary gets a lot of mileage out of both the band’s offstage excesses and its then-seemingly-unstoppable musical success. But after spending two full hours exhaustively charting their rise, it’s rather exasperating that the film simply stops… ignoring the fact that Oasis staggered on yet another twelve years to diminishing returns, till the Brothers Gallagher simply loathed each other too much to continue. 

Without that follow-through, even this warts-and-all partial history ends up feeling like an overly “authorized” whitewash. Ultimately, it’s rather like Oasis themselves: Too bloody much of a just-pretty-good thing. Of course, diehard Britpop devotees may feel otherwise. 

Supersonic plays one night only, Wed/26, at theaters nationwide. More info here

Must-sees from Mill Valley

'The Handmaiden'

SCREEN GRABS The 39th Annual Mill Valley Film Festival came to a close this weekend and showcased one of the best lineups of upcoming films in recent Bay Area festival history. What follows is a spoiler-free checklist to use these coming months of seven must-see spectacles. 

1) Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (USA)

The director’s striking debut feature Medicine For Melancholy (2008) was a mumblecore masterpiece that perfectly captured the intricacies of Hipster gentrification within the Bay Area. Eight years later, director Barry Jenkins is back with Moonlight, easily one of the most powerful character studies of 2016. Reminiscent in many ways to Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990), this unique story of Chiron, a young man growing up in a depressed area of Miami, takes its time to capture the minor moments of childhood that end up defining adulthood. James Laxton’s striking camerawork is consistently floating around the character of Chiron, as if it were attempting to get closer to its protagonist. The entire cast of the film give remarkably moving performances and prove that Jenkins’ hard work on every frame of this microcosm was well worth the wait. Moonlight is a lyrical film. Moonlight is a haunting experience. Moonlight is a movie that you will never forget. MVFF39 AUDIENCE FAVORITE US CINEMA GOLD. Now playing in Bay Area Theaters.

2) Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (USA)

'La La Land'
‘La La Land’

The follow up to the director’s Oscar winning debut Whiplash (2014) delivers another explosive pitch to the musical genre. Inspired by Jacques Demy’s 1960s realistic musicals (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort) and sporting two remarkable performances by two of Hollywood’s most off-beat superstars: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, La La Land is quite a beguiling accomplishment. Anyone who loves classic cinema (CasablancaCity LightsThe Bandwagon) will be swept up in this Woody Allen-esque ode to the city of Los Angeles and its genuine love of movies. The bold camerawork by Linus Sandgren (American HustleJoy) is often mind blowing while the elaborate musical numbers have the power to change some young lives. Both Stone (playing an aspiring actress) and Gosling (an aspiring Jazz musician) seem to be mirroring their own — as well as Chazelle’s — dedication and obsessive passion towards creating art. Just warning you, this one may hit a little too close to home. Opens December 09, 2016 in Bay Area Theaters.   

3) Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta (Spain) 


Zigzagging through memories and melodrama of a broken family is familiar terrain for the director Pedro Almodóvar (All About My MotherVolver) but much like the sophisticated transition that Canadian “enfant terrible” David Cronenberg has made this past decade (A History of ViolenceCosmopolis), Almodóvar’s nineteenth feature Julieta is Almodóvar at his most perfected. Based on Canadian writer Alice Munro’s short stories, the movie features Spanish TV star Adriana Ugarte grabbing the Hitchcockian title role with guts and beauty. (She may very well be Almodovar’s new muse.) Do what you can to stay away from plot spoilers but keep an eye out for Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma who gives a stunning Mrs. Danvers-esque performance as the family’s maid. Opens December 21, 2016 in Bay Area Theaters.

4) Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (USA)

'Certain Women'
‘Certain Women’

Kelly Reichardt has created yet another nuanced and poignant masterpiece, this time based on Montana writer Maile Meloy’s short stories. Certain Women weaves together four reserved women’s lives in Livingston, Montana. While this may not sound like the kind of film that could climb its way into your innermost belly and set up a campfire, that is exactly what this revelatory film did for me. The film stars Laura Dern as a lovelorn lawyer, Michelle Williams as a persistently petulant, progressive parent, and Kristen Stewart as an obliviously motivated, workaholic 20-something. But it’s astounding newcomer Lily Gladstone who humbly steals the heart of this show, as a hard-working, wistful rancher. I must say that the simple act of watching someone riding their horse has never been such a romantic experience. Some may misinterpret this film as boring. But like all of her previous treasures — Old Joy (2006), Wendy & Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Night Moves (2013) — Kelly Reichardt’s empathy (not sympathy) towards her aimless characters combined with an understanding of classic American cinema is boundless. Stay open to (or revisit) her very particular brand of stoic yearnings. Filmmakers like her do not come around very often. Now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas.

5) Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (France)


At the age of 78, Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven has made the most audacious film of 2016. Showcasing yet another jaw-dropping performance by Isabelle Huppert, this button-pushing psychosexual drama has more layers to it than a red velvet cake. Based on Philippe Djian’s novel Oh… (2012) and combining Ida Lupino’s Outrage (1950) and Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) this exploration into the life and times of a female video game designer had audience members aghast from the opening shot. Each and every character is a mysterious entity, riddled with a grotesque yet alluring affliction. I can boldly say that Baudelairian cinema (finding the “beauty in the monstrosity of life”) is alive and well. Not only is this Paul Verhoeven’s greatest film, it is a stunning climax and perhaps culmination from the auteur who has given us such maligned and misunderstood films such as RoboCop (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997). Opens November 18 in Bay Area Theaters.

6) Jeff Nichols’ Loving (USA)


Indie darling Jeff Nichols has been on quite a roll. Starting with the superb sibling rivalry-centered Shotgun Stories in 2007, he has swiftly become one of the era’s strongest Americana storytellers. His apocalyptic allegory of Take Shelter (2011), and the growing pains of becoming a man in Mud (2012) have led us to 2016, a year that Nichols has released two films: the first being the truly wondrous, Spielberg-esque Midnight Special and the second being Loving, based on the true story of the 1967 US Supreme Court interracial marriage case. This period piece takes the vocabulary of Terrence Malick (BadlandsDays of Heaven) and allows his powerhouse actors Joel Edgerton (channelling Heath Ledger ala Brokeback Mountain) and the vigorous Ruth Negga to reach genuine and subtle inevitability. Do not dismiss this as just another Oscar bait release. The subject matter is not only relevant 50 years later, so is its heart felt filmmaking. MVFF39 AUDIENCE FAVORITE US CINEMA SiLVER. Opens November 4 in Bay Area Theaters.

7) Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden (South Korea)

'The Handmaiden'
‘The Handmaiden’

Erotic cinema is a rare treat these days it seems. And who would have guessed that South Korean badboy Park Chan-wook (JSAOldboyStoker) would adapt Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ book Fingersmith (2002) into the year’s most arousing film. Changing the setting from the novel’s Victorian era (mid-1800s) to a Japanese occupied Korea in the 1930s, this sumptuous tale twists and turns through an array of petty thieves and upperclass women. The film combines the atrocities that the Japanese imposed on Korean culture, a hypnotic level of seductive, explicit lovemaking and an almost Lubitsch-ian sense of social class humor; audiences will probably be at odds with one another throughout the entire film. Not since the fist fight that broke out at Cannes during David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) have I experienced such a bipolar reaction from its viewers. While many seemed to laugh uncomfortably and/or uncontrollably at many scenes in The Handmaiden, Park’s exquisitely structured story would then catch those same viewers off guard and start a whole new train of thought for the next chapter. Longtime cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon has concocted a stunning vocabulary of isolation and longing within each sequence and I look forward to revisiting this dissonantly beautiful, sweeping epic as soon as possible. Now playing in Bay Area theaters.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series at the Castro & Roxie Theater. He is a member of the San Francisco Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills & Fandor.

Rocky Horror Picture Fail

Laverne Cox is amazing, but the show isn't

SCREEN GRABS The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an important part of my young life. I first saw it in a theater in Greenwich Village in 1979, at midnight, sitting in the back row, fooling around with someone I had just met. The floor was sticky; the air was sweet smoky. The audience was throwing rice and toast and toilet paper, and everyone knew every line. Drag queens jumped up and danced on the stage, before, after, and during the movie.

It was all so deliciously dirty. I was hooked.

This is how the movie is supposed to start

I watched it again and again while I went to college. I bought the soundtrack and late, late at night, after all the parties ended, we would sit in my friend Paulo’s room and listen to the whole thing, start to finish; with the lights off, you could imagine the rest.

When Paulo and I left the East Coast for San Francisco, we caught a midnight show along the way in Salt Lake City, where all the jokes were about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And I thought: If they can fill the house in Salt Lake City with kids watching this, there must be hope for the world.

See, in 1975, when the movie was made, there were no drag queens in Hollywood. There were no “sweet transvestites from transsexual Transylvania” in popular culture. This was more than edgy; it was radical stuff, gender-blurring, punk-ass, sex-positive slutty cinema in all its musical glory. Plus: Meat Loaf!

So now I’m old and I have teenage kids, and I try to share the great moments of my life with them, and when Fox decided to air a remake – with Laverne Cox, and Adam Lambert, and Victoria Justice (who my daughter Vivian loved from this stupid show) … sorry, the Cubs were playing the Dodgers in Game Five, but the Redmond-Field Household was going to watch Rocky Horror.

I told Viv she had to sit down early on the couch with me. The first part of the movie is the best; we’re supposed to wait for it to roll and shout “LIPS!”

And then it was 8pm. And no lips.

The brilliant, iconic opening – featuring the mouth of Patricia Quinn and the voice of Richard O’Brien, the two minutes that defined Rocky Horror? Gone. Instead, we had some dumb Marilyn Monroe look-alike who jumped out of World War II singing the theme song, badly, lip-synching, badly. Rocky Horror’s original opening scene defined lip-synching; there’s been nothing like it since, ever. And now: Boring.

It didn’t get much better.

Laverne Cox is amazing. She did the best she could. Adam Lambert was the real star, channeling Meat Loaf and showing how you can make the old into the new. Victoria Justice was fine as the innocent, Virginal Janet, but unlike Susan Sarandon, who played the role in the original, she never quite made the necessary transition to Slutty Janet.

Laverne Cox is amazing, but the show isn't
Laverne Cox is amazing, but the show isn’t

Riff Raff (Reeve Carney) and Magenta (Christina Milan) start off just fine, but the scene at the end when they appear in the audience with ridiculous sci-fi outfits on is just pathetic.

Oh, and Rocky? Not anywhere near as studly as the original – and he’s not even wearing the tight gold underpants. No package.

The wonder of the original Rocky Horror was the feeling that anything might happen at any moment; this version was made for Fox, and totally controlled.

It’s one of those strange things in culture: Rocky Horror gets its energy from its time, from the idea that you could actually pull that off in 1975, that audiences all over –even in Salt Lake City – would love it and let it change their lives. Today, you need more than a decent musical performance to do that – and the new version takes absolutely no risks. I would have loved a little wardrobe malfunction.

Oh, and there’s the really, really stupid fail of trying to do a “movie within a movie” and show scenes of what the audience might have been like in the early days, which was wrong (I was there, we were nowhere near that well-behaved) – and the whole idea undermines the wonder of the film. How are you supposed to participate when the participation is already scripted?

I know I am old, and I try not to be a curmudgeon who hates everything new, but Rocky Horror was A Moment, and meant something, and this new version is just a TV movie that nobody will notice when it’s gone.

Too bad. My kids are missing something.

If you want the real experience, Ray of Light Theatre’s powerhouse stage version is coming to Victoria Theater Oct. 26 to Nov. 5. And it features one of our most theatrical drag queens, D’Arcy Drollinger, in the role of Dr. Frank N Furter.



Art by Diego Gomez and Antonia J. Lopez; design by Aaron Joseph

48hills is proud to host the SF Bay Guardian 2016 Best of the Bay. Please see for Bay Guardian election endorsements and more. 

Dear Readers,

Welcome back to the SF Bay Guardian’s Best of the Bay! This is our 41st edition of Best of the Bay, and it comes out on the Bay Guardian’s 50th anniversary. Here and in print at more than 350 shops, cafes, and stores throughout the Bay Area, you’ll find the results of our Readers Poll and our exclusive Editor’s Picks. Thanks to the more than 9,000 people voted in our Best of the Bay Readers Poll this year – an incredible number!







For half a century, the Guardian has been “on guard” — speaking truth to power and keeping a watchful, progressive eye on politics while also supporting local small businesses and vital artists and arts organizations. That’s a lot of decades!

Along with you, we’ve discovered incredible new things, dusted off some classics, and continued exploring all the wonders of the Bay Area with an open mind and the feeling of living in the best place on Earth.

The Bay Guardian stopped publishing as a weekly paper in 2014, but the seeds of its revival were sown almost immediately afterwards, first with the publication of a Guardian commemorative edition in January 2015 and then when Guardian editors and publishers expanded our sister daily news publication, Last November, we regained the rights to the Bay Guardian and relaunched, which was covered nationally as an example of how the alternative press could be revived.


Now we’re back in print! This month we published our Clean Slate election endorsements issue (you can read them online here). And now here comes the 41st Best of the Bay, brimming with all the good stuff you’ve come to expect. This is the issue where your voice is heard on everything from Best Burrito and Best Live Music Venue to Best Shoe Store and Best Politician (and Best Politician You Love to Hate).

Over 9,000 people voted in our online Best of the Bay Readers Poll. As a result, there are a few significant shakeups in some of the major categories, and the return of several familiar names in others. That’s very cool — not only are there still some great legacy businesses holding on in the city, there’s lots of healthy competition to be the best.

As usual, we’ve also included some Editor’s Picks, of businesses and organizations that we think deserve special mention this year for their accomplishments. We’d also like to thank all of our advertisers and supporters this year. Without you, we wouldn’t be here.

We’re hoping our return signals a new era of progressive open-mindedness, civic engagement, small business support, and artistic exploration, especially in San Francisco, where it can sometimes seem like our greatest moments may be behind us. But you only need to flip through the pages of this edition to see that the Bay Area is still best — and so are our loyal readers.

— Marke B, Best of the Bay 2016 Editor


Marke B.


Aaron Joseph

Original artwork

Diego Gomez, illustrator

Antonia J Lopez, photographer

Bay Guardian Editor

Tim Redmond

Sales/Project Coordinator

Emily Forster

Sales Representatives

Veronica Guevara

Steve Indig

Bay Guardian Publishers Emeritus

Bruce B. Brugmann and Jean Dibble

Special Thanks

Hunky Beau


Ms. Juanita More, voted Best Drag Queen. Photo by Joseph Montana

48 Hills is proud to host the SF Bay Guardian Best of the Bay 2016. For more Best of the Bay 2016 categories, including Food + Drink, City Living, and Shopping, please click here.




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