SCREEN GRABS Yours truly dutifully went (along with recently sacked YBCA film programmer Joel Shepard) to City Hall last week to speak at the SF Planning Commission’s hearing on the threatened closure of the Opera Plaza Cinemas—only to experience a bait-and-switch: It turning out the promised hearing had been postponed until September 13. Mark that date on your calendars, as it may provide your only chance to prevent or at least slow the loss of yet another four dedicated arthouse screens from the city’s already hard-hit film exhibition scene.
With even fewer venues than we currently have left (remember the Bridge and Lumiere are recent casualties), it’s hard to imagine several of the newly arriving films detailed below would play the Bay Area at all. Admittedly, that is not the case for one title in a week unusually heavy on commercially released documentaries: Whitney, the second big-screen examination (following Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me) of the late pop superdiva in little over a year. While the more “authorized” of the two, this posthumous portrait by Kevin Mcdonald (of narrative features like The Last King of Scotland and nonfiction ones such as Touching the Void) promises at least one major new revelation as to why Houston’s life turned out so tragically troubled. (And no, it’s not the closeted-bisexual thing.)
Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):
SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Two of the biggest sensations at Sundance this year both happened to be very timely meditations on race and class set across the Bay in Oakland. First up at theaters (Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting arrives in a couple weeks) is rapper Boots Riley’s feature writing-directing debut, a satirical fantasy that could be considered this year’s Get Out. In an all-too-recognizable near future, nearly everyone is barely scraping along for the benefit of an economic elite, with an increasing percentage of the population agreeing to for outright slave labor in return for guaranteed food and shelter.
Living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage, Cassius Green (Lakefield Stanfield) is desperate to get ahead somehow, taking a job at a shady telemarketing firm where the wages aren’t exactly living ones. Nonetheless, he manages to excel by adopting a stereotypical “white voice” that works like a charm on people who’d hang up on him normally. This eventually gets him promoted to an even shadier top sales force, which in turn gets him in trouble with his politically conscious girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and resentful ex-coworkers.
The hook on which Sorry has been sold is a limited gag, and that trite racial satire in fact isn’t nearly as potent as the film’s deeper critiques of a widening American class divide—you’d have to be blind not to have noticed how Trump’s administration is undermining whatever protections remain for worker pay, bargaining rights and safety. Those aspects make this an eerily credible imagining of a U.S. that could be just around the corner. Billed as a comedy, Sorry to Bother You isn’t particularly funny, but it’s consistently offbeat and original—roughly akin not just to Get Out, but also They Live and Soylent Green, salted with an hipster wit all its own. At area theaters.
BLACK POWERS: REFRAMING HOLLYWOOD
At a moment when filmmakers like Riley, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogle, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and others are desegregating Hollywood’s directorial “A list” at last, SFFilm and SFMOMA are providing the perfect retrospective companion piece: A three-week series that showcases those current talents as well as African-American celluloid trailblazers from the preceding century. Starting as far back as indie pioneer Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 Body and Soul (with Paul Robeson as a corrupt preacher), the program encompasses well-known later auteurs like Melvin Van Peebles, Charles Burnett, Gordon Parks, Bill Gunn, Spike Lee, Cheryl Dunye, Julie Dash, Carl Franklin and Robert Townsend, as well as popular hits such as Shaft and House Party.
But you’ll also get numerous seldom-revived features that didn’t get the audience they deserved the first time around, including Kathleen Collins’ 1982 Losing Ground, Wendell B. Harris’ 1989 Chameleon Street, and Leslie Harris’ 1992 Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. This latest edition of the two local organizations’ “Modern Cinema” program will feature numerous guest speakers and filmmaker Q&A’s; check each film’s listing for details. Thurs/12-Sun/29, SFMOMA. More info here.
It’s hard to think of another verite documentary that’s had such long-term popular impact as the Grey Gardens, in which elderly Edith and middle-aged “Little Edie” Beale—once wealthy socialites closely related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis fallen into impoverished isolation—were photographed in the squalor of their East Hamptons home, behaving like nutters. First the 1975 film became a cult favorite, then an acclaimed TV movie, a Tony-nominated Broadway musical.
But before all that, the Beales had a near-brush with cinematic fame even before the Maysles brothers’ famous film. Three years earlier photographer Peter Beard and “Jackie O.’s” sister Lee Radziwill thought to make a movie about their friends and history in East Hampton, including the Beales. The project was never completed, and That Summer represents a salvage job—mining the four unedited original reels for their undeniable curiosity value, with a lot of additional filler and commentary to bring it all up to feature length. In addition to the infamously odd mother and daughter, we get glimpses of Andy Warhol and other luminaries in the fabulous jet-set circle Radziwill and Beard were a part of. Whether you’ll find this utterly fascinating or a glorified DVD extra depends entirely on just how obsessed with Grey Gardens you are. At area theaters.
FLATFORM: LANDSCAPE AND INSTABILITY
The Berlin/Milan video collective Flatform is interested in landscape—and how its depiction in the digital age “offers a meeting with nature, its plurality and differentiation, its intersection between natural and historic time, its expression of atmosphere and the atmospheric, as a place where living is not confined or constrained. We are fascinated by the transformation of nature through art.” Among the sites explored in pieces showing during tonight’s program will be various European locales and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu; filmmakers will be present at the screening. Fri/6, YBCA. More info here.
AKI KAURISMAKI: FILMS FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE
Though Finland has a long cinematic history, few films enjoyed significant export exposure until the arrival of Kaurismaki, who with his brother and sometime collaborator Mika led a Finnish raid of festivals and arthouses worldwide starting in the 1980s. The more unconventional of the two, Aki was perhaps surprisingly also the one who achieved an ongoing international audience with his astringent, minimalist, bleakly funny, sometimes macabre works. From the stark hard-luck comedy of 1988’s Ariel and the grotesque revenge saga of 1990’s The Match Factory Girl through last year’s lovely The Other Side of Hope—which continues his recent trend towards treatments of immigrant themes and slightly warmer tenors—he’s managed to find considerable popularity without changing his singular minimalist style very much at all.
If you like Jim Jarmusch, you’ll probably grok Aki Kaurimaki. (However, I like most of Kaurismaki’s films very much while being perpetually underwhelmed by Jarmusch.) This PFA retrospective presents six features from four decades’ work to date. Though only 61, Kaurismaki has claimed Hope was his final directorial feature. Let’s hope that proves as hollow a threat as it did for Gaspar Noe, Lars von Trier and Steven Soderbergh, who’ve all been quite prolific since repeatedly announcing their imminent retirements. Fri/6-Sun/Aug. 6, Pacific Film Archive. https://bampfa.org/program/
This latest documentary by Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Why We Fight, The House I Live In) is a departure, a filmic essay of sorts that posits Elvis Presley as the encapsulation of the “American Dream”: Its mythology, its realization, its failure, and its increasing discordance with the reality we currently live in. Like the writing of Greil Marcus (a central voice here), the film aims to draw unlikely but stimulating connections between pop culture and general historical truths, digging for the heart of America itself.
The result is an ambitious, sometimes maddening mosaic that’s part familiar archival biography, part present-day road trip, and part cavalcade of colorfully diverse talking heads. The latter range from surviving Elvis intimates, latterday musicians and plain old folks-on-the-street to a variably relevant lineup of celebrities that somehow embraces both Chuck D and Ashton Kutcher. At times the Trump Era social commentary Jarecki peddles here seems so broad and obvious you wonder if the film was made primarily for foreign audiences, and/or schoolkids. At others, it’s as poetical and meaningful as it intends to be. This is very much a matter-of-taste climb out on a long limb. Still, you have to give Jarecki credit for responding to our very strange national moment in such an unconventional way. At area theaters.
THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS
One of those documentaries that probes deeper into a stranger-than-fiction news story, Tim Wardle’s feature has a whopper to chew on: In 1980, an accident of fate led three 19-year-old New York State boys to discover they were triplets, raised by separate adoptive families within 100 miles, with no prior knowledge of each other’s existence.
What played then as a human-interest curio with a happy ending grows darker and darker here however, as the protagonists learned the disturbing circumstances in which they (and an unknown additional number of sibling multiples) were separated as part of a never-completed scientific study bent on answering the “nature vs. nurture” question one and for all. (For that purpose, the titular boys were deliberately placed in blue-collar, middle-class and affluent homes, their adopting parents completely unaware of the other siblings.)
To what extent was this forced separation itself responsible for the psychological problems many of them later suffered? At first rather annoying in its heavy emphasis on reenactments, this movie ultimately proves fascinating, simply because the complicated, highly dramatic tale it tells still almost defies belief. At area theaters.