SCREEN GRABS We’re already lamented in this space Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ inexplicable decision to cut loose Film Curator Joel Shepard after over two decades, with YBCA’s film program itself put into deep freeze for an unknown period after the end of June.
A good illustration of why this is a very bad idea comes this weekend, with a particularly savvy and characteristic piece of original Shepard programming—“Please help me I am drownding: San Francisco’s Dark Decade.” Its title taken from a letter famed SF attorney Melvin Belli received from the then at-large (and still never-caught) Zodiac Killer in 1969, this four-day series highlights vintage expressions and latterday reflections of a Bay Area era that had already shed its “Summer of Love” innocence by then. Upsetting signs of societal turmoil piled up from Zodiac’s spree and the tragic “anti-Woodstock” concert at Altamont Speedway to the City Hall assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in 1978.
It kicks off Thursday night with the Maysles Brothers’ 1970 Gimme Shelter, which chronicles that notorious Rolling Stones/Jefferson Airplane rock show at which members of Hell’s Angels, hired as “security,” contributed to a disturbingly violent atmosphere that resulted in several variably-accidental deaths. Friday brings Paul Schrader’s (see First Reformed, below) underrated 1988 Patty Hearst, with the late Natasha Richardson as the local heiress kidnapped by revolutionist cult the Symbionese Liberation Army. It’s a portrayal both sympathetic and grotesquely funny at times.
As with the Manson “Family” slayings down south, Hearst’s ordeal spawned several cheap exploitation movie cash-ins before more serious cinematic treatments arrived. Similarly, the “Zodiac” slayings that terrorized the region at the end of the ’60s (with some possibly attributable to the same unknown perp happening both earlier and later) was subject to dramatizations alternately high-minded and very lowbrow. On the latter front, there’s 1971’s highly fictionalized cheapie The Zodiac Killer, a notably tasteless and cynical exercise with not just one but two misanthropic working-class male suspects as lead characters. Strangely, actual SF Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (who covered the real case) was an active consultant on this often unintentionally funny cheesefest.
It’s double-billed on Saturday with a much more recent genre spin on real-life tragedy: Horror specialist Ti West’s 2013 The Sacrament, which fictionalizes the mass suicide of People’s Temple members after that hitherto SF-based religious cult moved to rural Guyana. The series ends with David Fincher’s harrowing 2007 Zodiac, which makes its own dramatic and speculative leaps but is unlikely to be surpassed as a screen depiction of that never-solved series of homicides. More info here.
At the multiplex, of course the big noise this week is Solo: A Star Wars Story, the film that asks the question “Is a new Star Wars movie still a major event if the last one came out just five months ago?” The good news: Alden Ehrenreich, who was the best thing in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! a couple years ago, plays a younger iteration of Harrison Ford’s Han. The maybe-less-good-news: Ron Howard directs.
The most conspicuous arthouse opening is On Chesil Beach, stage director Dominic Cooke’s respectable but somewhat overblown adaptation of Ian MacEwan’s slender, effective novel. It’s about two clueless virgins (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, concurrently also teamed in The Seagull) making a royal mess of their wedding night in 1962—a last moment of darkness before the dawn of the Sexual Revolution. For nonfiction fans, there’s also the arrival of Love & Bananas, a well-reviewed documentary from actor (The Last Exorcism) turned director Ashley Bell, in which she follows elephant conversationist Lek Chailert’s attempt to rescue an imperiled 70-year-old blind Thai pachyderm.
Elsewhere (all opening Fri/25 unless otherwise noted):
One of the more unlikely cultural objects to resurface amidst the #MeToo cultural moment is actress Asia Argento’s 2000 first directorial feature—she’s since directed two more, all of them dealing in various ways with sexual harassment and child abuse. This semi-autobiographical fantasia is a headlong tabloid paparrazi lunge toward the glamorous and sensational, with Argento pretty much playing herself as bisexual movie star “Anna Battista.” Its globe-trotting slice of high life shows Anna’s snorting Special K, untying her best friend from the bed an abusive bf has left her bound to, sleeping with a rock star, nearly drowning during a fashion shoot, experiencing unhappy childhood flashbacks, hallucinating, burning herself with a cigarette, getting smacked around, slam-dancing while pregnant, and otherwise exuding maximum drama 24/7. When she wakes up naked and paranoid after a threesome, one of her partners tells the other “She’s freakin’ out, man”—which would have been a great ad line for this movie.
Shot on video (when that still looked like crap), Scarlet Diva is an ambulance-chasing hot mess that will still register with viewers as shocking, ridiculous, or both. What can you say about a movie whose cast includes Schooly-D, porn star Selen, and the writer-director’s own mother Daria Nicolodi as a monster matriarch? But it’s being revived at the Roxie for reasons of alarming relevancy: Though few realized it at the time, Argento explicitly based scenes in which she interacts with a gross Hollywood producer (played by performance artist Joe Coleman) on her experiences with Harvey Weinstein, whom she’s since claimed sexually assaulted her. The sequence in which he lures “Anna” to his hotel room—only to suddenly appear in a bathrobe, demanding a “massage”—is bizarrely funny, yet also discomfitingly close to the stories many women have told about the disgraced Weinstein. Roxie. More info here
It’s been 40 years since Taxi Driver scenarist Paul Schrader directed his first feature, and this new drama proves he’s no less capable of surprise or adventure in his 70s. Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Toller, a former army chaplain who since a family tragedy has become the lone pastor at an upstate NY “tourist church”—a historic building about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, but which has very few remaining congregation members.
Among them are a young couple (Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger) who ask him for help, because the husband’s despair over political/environmental issues is arresting his ability to participate in everyday life, let alone imagine a viable future. But while he’s reluctant to admit it, Toller needs help, too: His health is failing, and this couple’s plight makes him question his own faith. Though Schrader’s narrative may ultimately alienate or bewilder some viewers, this strikingly austere film is a rare movie to meaningfully wrestle with theological concerns—and their application in our ever-more-problematic worldly reality—so you are guaranteed ample discussion fodder afterward. At area theaters.
THE HOUSE OF TOMORROW
Back for a commercial run after premiering at the SF International last year, Peter Livolsi’s adaptation of Peter Bognanni’s novel is a neat twist on the kind of indie growing-pains seriocomedy familiar from movies like Lady Bird. Asa Butterfield plays a teen raised in unique circumstances by his grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), a diehard acolyte of the late architect, inventor, and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller—in fact, they live in (and off) one of his signature geodesic-dome homes. Encountering Alex Wolff and Maude Apatow as two rebellious offspring of a hapless divorced nice-guy (Nick Offerman) on a guided tour of that abode ends up opening our protagonist’s horizons to more beyond “Bucky’s” retrofuturism. A bit formulaic but well-acted and charming nonetheless, this is a good movie with a great soundtrack—Wolff’s drug of choice being vintage punk tracks he’d like to match someday with his own garage band. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS & DIRTY HARRY
No one expected the 1964 Fistful to be a big deal: Its director Sergio Leone certainly wasn’t one, nor its star Clint Eastwood, then just a U.S. TV star whose first leading film role earned him only a $15,000 salary. It wasn’t even really the first “spaghetti western”—the term later applied to such European-made enterprises once they became ubiquitous. But something clicked with this relatively low-budget ($200,000) Italian-German-Spanish coproduction: Its cynical, violent content and starkly maxi-minimalist visual style pumped new blood into a genre whose trad, John Wayne-type forms were slowly dying out.
An unacknowledged remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (over which Leone was sued), Fistful wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967, at which point Leone and Eastwood had already finished their ‘Dollars trilogy’ with For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly—and a bazillion imitations were beginning to flood theaters worldwide. The ‘spaghetti’ vogue died out by the early 70s, but it remains a clear influence amongst filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, not to mention Eastwood himself. Fistful is being shown in a new 4K digital restoration, billed with the other movie that defined its star’s big-screen persona: Don Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry, in which Clint’s terse San Francisco cop makes short work of those dirty, dirty hippies. Tues/29, Castro. More info here.