SCREEN GRABS As we enter that time of the year when every weekend will bring some new would-be summer blockbuster, this week is notable for introducing the only full-on female of the 2018 species. Let’s hope Ocean’s 8—which switches things up by replacing Clooney, Pitt, Damon & co. with the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway etc.—causes the usual kerfuffle amongst “men’s rights” types. Few things in our generally grim era are more reliably hilarious than seeing these he-men, supposed champions of trad male strength and responsibility, turn into hysterically “emotional” fanboys because some “sacred” popcorn franchise has been tainted by cooties. The poor dears, they suffer so.
Other major openings this week are a mixed bag. Arriving with considerable festival-tour acclaim already under their belt are Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about children’s TV legend Fred “Mr.” Rogers; and A Kid Like Jake, with Claire Danes and Jim Parsons as a Brooklyn couple who face some unexpected challenges upon realizing their 4-year-old son shows signs of “gender nonconformity.” (This fictional plea for tolerance has evidently invited a different form of conservative protest: Apparently now aware that it’s a “pro-trans” statement, trolls who haven’t actually seen it have nonetheless piled on to give the critically applauded feature the lowest rating on sites like IMBD.)
Not accruing much advance praise is Mary Shelley, yet another account of the fateful circumstances that produced the original novel Frankenstein, with Elle Fanning this time as the titular teenage authoress. Unavailable for preview was Hotel Artemis, some sort of futuristic action joint whose weird cast includes Oscar winner Jodie Foster, ex-wrestler Dave Bautista, comedienne Jenny Slate, Algerian dancer-turned-actress Sofia Boutella, and the always redemptive Jeff Goldblum. Ditto Hae-yeong Lee’s South Korean gang thriller Believer, a remake of Johnnie To’s Hong Kong Drug War from six years ago.
We did get to preview another crime caper, Bart Layton’s American Animals, which like his prior The Impostor mixes dramatic re-enactments with interview footage of the real-life protagonists. But this tale of an actual attempted theft of extremely valuable first editions (including Audubon and Darwin) from a university library by four clueless, thrill-seeking young Kentucky men makes a critical error: Both in the older/wiser flesh and as portrayed by actors, the “heroes” here are such dumbasses that their heist-gone-wrong should have been played as a comedy of errors. Instead, Layton lays on the derivative hipster high style, trying to turn these brats into brash rebels, and their bungling into tragedy. They merit no such sympathy—and really, they didn’t merit a movie, period.
The Bay Area’s single biggest annual dose of experimental cinema, this four-day blowout presented by SF Cinematheque, SF Museum of Modern Art and Canyon Cinema Foundation is now in its 9th year. Curated by the Cinematheque’s Steve Polta, it encompasses some 84 works by 72 artists from twenty nations—many of whom will be present in-person. This year is specially dedicated to the recently deceased Paul Clipson, a stalwart of local film and music scenes who’ll be paid further tribute by three of his screen works being reprised. There will be numerous world premieres, as well as multi-projector and live “performance cinema” pieces. Read Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ detailed guide here.
The 10 individual programs (all at SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theatre, excluding two additional ones at the same institution’s White Box Gallery) offer different mixes of loose thematic, technical and stylistic focus. Political resistance, environmental issues, personal narrative, philosophical inquiry and pure abstraction all have a place here, with diverse and innovative audiovisual stimulus a reliable constant in each bill. Participating artists this year include Susan DeLeo, Jodie Mack, Kelly Sears, Jon Behrens, Collectiveo Los Ingravidos, Simon Liu, Takahiro Suzuki, James Benning, and many more. Thurs/7-Sun/10, SFMOMA. More info here.
The pedestrian and formulaic nature of most horror movies really becomes obvious when you see something as distinctive as writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature, which is sort of what The Amityville Horror would be like if Paul Thomas Anderson remade it—something strikingly authoritative, odd, and unsettled/unsettling. Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne play the parents in a comfortably situated small-town family that’s already got some tense dynamics before their children (Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro) suffer a terrible accident. In the traumatized aftermath of that event, the line between madness and supernatural manifestation grows blurry, with Ann Dowd providing a fifth significant figure as a kindly older lady interested in communicating with the dead.
The plot basics here aren’t all that original, landing in the same general ballpark as the likes of Pet Sematary and other haunted-nuclear-family tales. But Aster is in possession of a rigorous talent that makes very astute use of visual and sonic elements here. He also gets terrific work from a fine cast, with Collette giving a performance of possessed intensity (interpret that adjective however you like), while Byrne and particularly Wolff (also fine in the concurrent House of Tomorrow) are excellent.
Saddled with “scariest movie ever” hype since Sundance, Hereditary is likely to suffer the usual backlash against festival-acclaimed horror: That it’s too slow, boring, uneventful (translation: there isn’t a gory death every ten minutes), arty, etc. Indeed, as with The Witch and similar items, its strengths are exactly the things that try the patience of short-attention-spanned mainstream horror fans. But if you keep your expectations within reasonable control, you’ll be rewarded with a tense and atmospheric—if not all that terrifying—experience. Opens Friday at area theaters.
Handsome young British actor Leon Vitali’s career was already going along nicely when he got a plum part: The memorable role of the bitter stepson who shoots Ryan O’Neal in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 period epic Barry Lyndon. Already a huge fan, Vitali was so fascinated by the director’s process that he subsequently abandoned acting and became Kubrick’s all-around “assistant”: At various points performing every task from casting and location scouting to editor, still photographer, foley artist, driver, go-fer, even janitor, not to mention being largely charged with all the tortuous detail-checking Kubrick required in any issue (to home video, revival houses, etc.) of each film in his back catalog. “He was a slave to Stanley Kubrick,” as Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine puts it.
Full of fascinating behind-the-scenes insights toward that film as well as The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and of course Kubrick himself, Tony Zierra’s fascinating documentary is ultimately more than a posthumous appreciation of a genius and his surviving right-hand-man. Through the example of poignantly self-sacrificing, still endlessly dedicated (though no longer salaried) Vitali, we are asked to give thanks to all those who labor “below the line” on movies, making possible the creative flair of marquee talents who ultimately get all the credit. A maddening perfectionist like Kubrick couldn’t have existed, let alone flourished, without a selfless “jack of all trades” acolyte like Vitali on hand to realize his every whim. Opens Friday, Landmark Theatres. More info here.
THE LUMINOUS LEGACY OF GRETA GARBO
There have been other movie stars more popular and beloved, but none has ever approached the level of divinity accorded one Greta Lovisa Gustaffson, otherwise known as “Garbo.” The Stockholm actress of impoverished background rose to tentative European prominence under the mentorship of director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her in her first two significant films. But no one (including the initially-unimpressed studio MGM) could have guessed the phenomenon she’d become after moving to Hollywood in the mid-1920s.
The 15 years spent there before she left the screen for good are showcased in this Pacific Film Archive retrospective. It encompasses nine features from her 1927 greatest silent hit Flesh and the Devil (whose love scenes with John Gilbert raised temperatures worldwide) to 1941’s Two-Faced Woman. In between are such acknowledged classics as Camille, Ninotchka, Grand Hotel, Anna Karenina and Queen Christina. But in truth even those were considered at best worthy frames for her singular mystique, which transcended conventional beauty, glamour, and sex appeal to offer a hypnotic, self-mythologizing otherness—a goddess briefly condescending to walk on Earth, imbuing romantic cliches with celestial melancholy. Thurs/7-Fri/July 13, PFA. More info here.
FREE OUTDOOR SUMMER SERIES
Offering a lighter (and cheaper) programming alternative to the heavy allure of Garbo, the PFA is offering this gratis, al fresco series of five musical matinees. It starts this Sunday afternoon with the ultimate Hollywood pep pill 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, followed each month by another favorite exercise in cinematic song and/or dance: 1948 British ballet classic The Red Shoes (July 8), recent urban movement celebration Step (Aug. 12), no-introduction-necessary West Side Story (Sept. 9), and Jacques Demy’s gorgeous 1967 The Young Girls of Rochefort, whose original score by Michel Legrand is as delightful as any written for the screen. Sun/10-Sun/Oct. 14, PFA (outdoor screen on Addison between Oxford and Shattuck). More info here.
2018 ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN FILMS SHOWCASE
In conjunction with AIGA and SF Design Week for the fourth year, Center for the Arts presents a wide-ranging program of films focusing on creativity in the applied arts. Included are documentaries about architects Kevin Roche, Didi Contractor, Glenn Murcutt, Mies van der Rohe, Bjarke Ingels, Oscar Niemeyer, Louis Sullivan and Lutah Marie Riggs; fashion innovator Dries Von Noton; modern Chinese topography; consumer product designer Konstantin Gricic; fabled makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin; landscape gardener Piet Oudolf; and Dream Empire, a look at the impact of a real-estate boom on Chinese “rural ghost towns.”
There are also two narrative features on tap: Recent indie sleeper Columbus, a quiet two-character drama set against the backdrop of that Indiana city’s many notable modernist buildings; and contrastingly flamboyant The Fountainhead, a 1949 adaptation of deathless right-wing ideologue Ayn Rand’s novel about an uncompromising architect (played by Gary Cooper) trying to thrust his bold vision on a society of puling, petty conformists. Sat/9-Sun/July 1, YBCA. More info here.