SCREEN GRABS The SF International Fit Festival is still in progress, its second week providing plenty of must-sees for cinephiles through Tuesday the 17th. But this week also brings several notable commercial openings, the most high-profile being Brad Anderson’s Beirut, which opens at area theaters this Wednesday April 11.
This Sundance-premiered period political thriller stars Jon Hamm as a former diplomat dragged back by the U.S. government to the now civil-war-torn titular site where he’d experienced a personal tragedy in 1972, 10 years earlier. This is an excellent old-fashioned espionage tale that is highly eventful but not as purely action-driven as the Bourne movies, and touches on current issues like global terrorism in a historical (if fictive) context. Hamm, whose post-Mad Men career has been a bit spotty, is terrific in a best-yet big screen turn.
Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise specified):
A BAG OF MARBLES
This adaptation of Joseph Joffo’s novelistic memoir details the adventures of his 10-year-old self and a 12-year old brother when their parents instructed them to flee Nazi-occupied Paris to the countryside. Already filmed once in 1975, it’s a perilous yet surprisingly upbeat tale that this time has been directed by Quebec-based Christian Duguay, whose long career has encompassed everything from horror-sci-fi Scanners sequels to a Belle & Sebastian documentary. This location-shot drama appears to be his best-reviewed big-screen effort to date. Landmark Theatres. More info here.
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
It’s shaping up to be a very good year for the always-interesting Joaquin Phoenix, who after taking a brief sabbatical now appears in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (SFIFF’s closing-night selection this Sunday), will play Jesus in Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene, and stars in this latest from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin). Her he’s a Gulf War vet with PTSD who works as a sort of private detective-slash-strongarm tracking down missing teens. One particularly troubling case tips his fragile sanity over the brink in what sounds like a variation on themes from 1990 cult classic Jacob’s Ladder. Based on a short story by Jonathan Ames, it won two major prizes at Cannes last year despite being screened in a work-in-progress version. Opens at Alamo Drafthouse and Embarcadero Cinema.
WHERE IS KYRA?
Nigerian photographer and music-video director Andrew Dosunmu’s made an arresting narrative directorial debut in 2011 with Restless City—which, like its equally visually sumptuous 2013 followup Mother of George, was a seriocomedy set in NYC’s African immigrant communities. This third feature is something different, a somber drama with Hollywood stars and a sort of suspense plot. Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a divorcee struggling to find work, depending on her ailing mother’s Brooklyn apartment and disability income—both imperiled when mom dies. A tentative affair with a man (Keifer Sutherland, very good) in the same building factors into her decision to head down a path of deception that is dangerous, even if it’s the only choice she’s got. A problem here is that despite her conscientious performance, it’s hard to believe any character played by Pfeiffer—who radiates intelligence and iron will as well as physical beauty—would get so down-on-her-luck. Nonetheless, this flawed work underlines the distinctiveness of Dosunmu’s talent. Opens at Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinema.
PERSONA AND 3 WOMEN
Few double bills could seem more natural than this pairing of Ingmar Bergman’s famous 1966 classic and Robert Altman’s equally dreamlike 1977 drama, which has slowly acquired equal stature after being greeted with initial puzzlement. In the B&W Persona, a successful actress (Liv Ullmann) suffers a mysterious breakdown that leaves her temporarily mute. She is put in the care of an equally tight-lipped nurse (Bibi Andersson), and their personalities begin to blur—or are they really just facets of one person’s splintered mind? An equally elliptical psychological study is 3 Women, which was not what Altman watchers were expecting after the adventurous but boisterously different likes of MASH and Nashville. A garrulous, affectedly fashionable physical therapist (Shelley Duvall in a career-best performance) takes a perilously shy new co-worker (Sissy Spacek) under her wing, only to find her protegee becoming her undoing. A mute older muralist played by Janice Rule is the third titular figure. Consciously inspired by Persona, this curious tale is full of eccentric character and arresting color imagery. Wed/18, Castro Theater. More info here.