You know the flood of awards-bait prestige releases has truly subsided when Liam Neeson is once again chasing bad guys in yet another interchangeable thriller. Paddington 2 aside, this week’s big commercial release is The Commuter, the erstwhile Schindler’s List star’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra.
The latter didn’t make Taken, the 2008 sleeper that turned the now nearly 70-year-old Irish actor into an unlikely action hero… but he might as well have. The Commuter has Neeson as a “businessman caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home,” one that also involves Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill. These movies all hit the same basic notes, but they’re invariably decent (if forgettable) entertainment — which is more than you can say of, for instance, everything with “X-Men” in the title.
But there’s quite a bit of more promising fare out there this coming week. The major event for many will be the arrival of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film, Phantom Thread, which stars Daniel Day Lewis (in purportedly his last role — he’s announced his retirement from acting) as a fictive top women’s couture designer in late 1950s London. He’s accustomed to picking pretty new model-muses for “inspiration,” then discarding them when “done,” but his latest (Vicky Kris) may not be so easily gotten rid of.
PTA’s films are always as divisive as they are distinctive. We usually love them; this one we didn’t. But you’ll go anyway, right? As you should. (Note: The Alamo Drafthouse is showing Phantom Thread in its 70mm shooting format.)
Also simultaneously worthwhile and somewhat disappointing is Germany’s Oscar-submission feature In the Fade, with Diane Kruger as a Hamburg woman undone when her Turkish emigre husband and their child are killed in an explosion. Adding insult to injury, it soon emerges this was a deliberate racist attack by far-right neo-fascists. This revenge thriller is engrossing and well-acted, but iy’s a somewhat less nuanced treatment of a hot-button subject than one might expect from director-cowriter Fatih Akin (Head-On, The Edge of Heaven).
Three revivals should also be noted in brief, though they couldn’t be more different: One is late Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 final feature The Sacrifice, a stunningly photographed (by Sven Nykvist) metaphysical abstract that the Roxie will show in a new 4K restoration this Thursday through Sunday. Another, also at the Roxie (Friday-Sunday), is Soviet emigre Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult classic Liquid Sky, a sci-fi punk fantasia with Anna Carlisle in an androgynous dual role. Then there’s Tommy Wiseau’s inimitable 2003 The Room, which is finally seeing a wide release in the wake of its comedic making-of reenactment The Disaster Artist becoming a sleeper hit. Yes, you can enjoy the latter without seeing the former. But trust me, if you haven’t seen the original, you haven’t fully lived yet.
Some other arrivals that might fly further under the radar:
BIRDBOY: THE FORGOTTEN CHILDREN
Forget Coco, Loving Vincent and the rest — the best animated feature of 2017 (though it’s getting to us a bit late) is startlingly original work by Spanish co-directors Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero, based on the former’s graphic novel. Mixing the childlike, dystopian and simply twisted, it’s a bizarre tale of a post-environmental-catastrophe world in which anthropomorphic survivors look like big-eyed bunnies, kittens, etc., but deal with some starkly violent, non-cute realities. Those include insanity, crime, drug addiction, black marketeering, prejudice, and police brutality.
You’ve probably seen similar mixes of surreal humor, adult issues and pop fantasy in comics form, but it feels utterly fresh onscreen. Birdboy (which was previously called Psychonauts on the festival circuit) is not only visually striking and conceptually jarring, it packs surprising poignance into its unpredictable progress. Not to be missed, particularly for animation fans. Opens Fri/12, Roxie. More info here.
FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL
Gloria Grahame was an idiosyncratic blonde who made a lasting impression in several superior noirs and a few other films, like It’s A Wonderful Life and the musical Oklahoma! But her stardom was all too brief, curtailed in part by the scandal of her marrying (not at the same time) both Rebel Without a Cause director Nicolas Ray and his son. By the late 70s, between sparse movie and TV jobs, she was reduced to less-than-prestigious regional stage work. It was during one such gig that she became involved with Peter Turner, a much younger aspiring English actor.
Turner’s memoir about their affair is now this film by Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1, Lucky Number Seven), with Annette Bening as the erstwhile Hollywood luminary who trudges back to her old (but still-young) flame, played by Jamie Bell, when she suffers a probably-terminal cancer relapse at age 57 in 1981. Bening doesn’t evoke Grahame much physically, and she’s too authoritative a presence to fully inhabit the flightier, more childish aspects of her role’s personality. But it’s still a compelling performance, matched by supporting turns from Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Frances Barber, Vanessa Redgrave, and others. A well-written tale told in somewhat a-chronological order, Film Stars Don’t Die isn’t flawless, but it’s intelligent and touching. Opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.
IDA LUPINO: HARD, FAST, AND BEAUTIFUL
Another hardboiled dame whose career intersected with the noir era was Ida Lupino, a London-born actress who nonetheless usually “played American” in her Hollywood career, which peaked at Warner Brothers in the early 1940s. When that petered out, she turned to directing — a door that had been all but closed to women in Hollywood for decades. While most of her work in that realm was on TV series (everything from “The Twilight Zone” to “Gilligan’s Island”), today there’s a special regard given to the half-dozen noirish “B” features she directed between 1949-53. Barely noticed at the time, they’re now prized for their economical craft and subtly female perspective within the typically male-driven thriller genre.
This PFA series cast a spotlight on films from both that period (such as The Bigamist, The Hitch-Hiker, and daring 1950 rape drama Outrage) and from her earlier zenith of fame, when she co-starred with the likes of Bogart and Jean Gabin, directed by such greats as Fritz Lang and Raoul Walsh. Sat/13-Sat/Feb. 24, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
INTENT TO DESTROY
In 2016 two ambitious multinational period dramas were released, focusing on a seldom-portrayed yet still-controversial section of early 20th century history: The genocide of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by forces of the Ottoman Empire, which a full century later Turkish authorities continue to deny happened at all. Hotel Rwanda director Terry George’s The Promise was a fictionalized expose, with Oscar Issac, Christian Bale and other Western marquee stars. Joseph Ruben’s The Ottoman Lieutenant, partly funded by the Turkish government, was a romanticized whitewash with the less-starry likes of Josh Hartnett.
Neither film was a critical or box-office success. But The Promise did generate another, highly acclaimed feature: This documentary by Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost). It was originally commissioned as a behind-the-scenes “making of” for the more commercial enterprise, then developed into a freestanding, in-depth examination of both the Armenian Genocide and its continued suppression from the historical record by many global powers (including the US). It’s a penetrating look at an act that, sadly, set the precedent for globe-spanning government “purges” of unwanted citizens that have only increased in number and frequency as we’ve entered a new century. Opens Friday/12, Roxie. More info here.
Before he took a long, not-entirely-voluntary sabbatical finally broken by 2008’s gloriously rude Bad Biology, Frank Henelotter had a great decade as one of the high VHS era’s cultiest horror directors. He started with 1982’s grotesque Basketcase, finished with its (second) sequel, and perhaps peaked in notoriety with the hilariously self-explanatory Frankenhooker.
But probably the best single feature of that initial run was this 1988 indie classic about a boy (Rick Hearst) and his best friend — a mysterious “small, disgusting creature” that attaches itself to his brain-stem base, providing rushes of hallucinogenic euphoria while indulging its own needs via homicidal attacks. Grungy, macabre, funny, and oddly touching, this weird-ass portrait of a truly addictive relationship will make for a particularly special Terror Tuesday at the Alamo. Tues/16, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.