SCREEN GRABS Though calls rightly continue for more diversity of representation, there has in fact been a noticeable boost in the prominence of African-Americans onscreen. Stars like Dwayne Johnson and Will Smith transcend any “color line” in terms of popularity, as have films like Get Out and BlacKkKlansman, which once would have been expected to appeal primarily to black audiences. But there haven’t been equal gains for Latinos and Asians, not counting foreign films released to specialty markets in the US.
So the arrival of Crazy Rich Asians, from the first novel in Kevin Kwan’s hugely popular series, is sort of a big deal, being the first fairly big-budget, major-studio U.S. production with a primarily all-Asian cast since Memoirs of a Geisha thirteen years ago—and that was an “exotic” costumed period piece set in another country. This is a straight-up jet-setting romcom, glossy, glam, very mainstream in style and tenor.
Being somewhat allergic to such things (there are giant chunks in the screen ouevres of Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson I will never see), I admit to fleeing after 25 minutes or so. But if you like such things, you will probably like this thing. And it’s an important step forward for Hollywood that will hopefully trigger more of the same, i.e. American movies starring Asians…ones not driven by martial arts, either.
This weekend another sort of history will be made at Bay Area theaters. It’s rare enough that one skateboarding movie opens, but surely unprecedented that two should do so, simultaneously. And this is no Lambada vs. Forbidden Dance-type duel between cheesy commercial enterprises, but a pair of serious, Sundance-approved indie features of variably verite origin.
After an injury that requires stitches, Long Island teen Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) joins a Manhattan all-woman skate crew, and gets a exhilarating taste of real urban life in Skate Kitchen. The principal performers (apart from Jaden Smith as a romantic interest) are all playing variations on their real-life selves; this film has its roots in Instagram posts of their unscripted skating exploits.
There’s not a lot of plot going on in this first narrative feature by Crystal Moselle of the documentary The Wolfpack, and it’s got a problem in that the lead is the least expressive actor here. Still, it’s ingratiating, and a fine Girl Power statement. (Be warned: Bring your impressionable daughter to this film, and she will want a skateboard for Christmas.)
There’s less fun but more heft in Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, which chronicles the entry into young adulthood for three Rockford, IL boys (himself included) who bonded as skateboarders as teens. All were escaping from one form of home-life stress or another, and we see how those problems—including domestic violence—get overcome or not as the protagonists deal with the reality of shit jobs, broken relationships, parenting they’re not ready for, and so forth.
“Lately I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about not feeling like a grownup” says one of them, a statement that comes to hang like a noose over his later progress. It’s a potent verite portrait of some not-too-unusual young lives in a nation whose future is downscaling for the majority. Both films have some great skating footage, although Gap is ultimately about considerably more, and carries the bigger punch. Both open Friday. Kitchen: Embarcadero Cinemas, more info here. Minding: Roxie, more info here.
Because there’s a lot going of note going on this week (see below), we’ll just make passing note of the Roxie’s three-day “Panorama Colombia,” which offers four features (including the animated Virus Tropical) and a program of shorts from that South American nation; its two-day 48 Hour Film Festival, an annual contest among filmmakers to complete a short in that two-day span; and on Tues/21 a Canyon Cinema-presented program honoring recently deceased local experimentalist and curator Paul Clipson. At the Pacific Film Archive, there’s a reprise this Fri/17 of two recent audience favorites: The End of the Ottoman Empire, a French TV documentary about the epic historical tangle that resulted in our ongoing Middle East political mess; and My Journey Through French Cinema, a three-hour mix of archival clips and commentary by one Gallic film great Bernard Tavernier.
And let us not forget Midnites for Maniacs’ 35mm Alamo Drafthouse screening on Wed/22 of Heartbeeps, the 1981 sci fi comedy Xmas present to moviegoers that nobody wanted to open. Since then, this near-last theatrical film by Rock ’n’ Roll High School director Allan Arkush (who’s still active in TV) has acquired a certain cult allure, in large part because it was the last big-screen appearance for Andy Kaufman, who stars alongside Bernadette Peters. They play domestic-servant robots in love. It’s not a good movie, but it’s the kind you need to see once…just to grok that somebody, somehow actually thought it would be.
Elsewhere (all opening at area theaters Friday unless otherwise noted):
A teenager finds the journal of a young loner who’d worked at the local factory with his aunt, until he suddenly collapsed and died. This first feature by Brazilian co-writer/directors Joao Dumans and Affonso Uchoa then shows us the fairly short, unremarkable life of Cristiano (Aristides de Souza) as he’d written about it: An orphan without family or long-running friends, blundering into a prison stint, then living a largely transient existence doing nearly every kind of manual labor, agricultural to industrial. He’s both handsome and nondescript; uneducated, but not dumb; open to love, but it fails him the one time he gets it.
Cristiano is the kind of marginal person—forever expendable, always having to start over again at the bottom of the pay-grade—that almost never dominates a movie. Certainly never one as resistant to melodrama as this one, whose only extreme twist of fate is so ambiguously staged we can’t quite be sure what’s happened. An austerely beautiful, minimalist film like this either works for you or it doesn’t. Initially just mildly intrigued, I eventually found Araby something of a revelation: A latterday mix of neo-realism and Bresson, with a fine-boned simplicity that feels both culturally specific and universally resonant. 4 Star. More info here.
The late playwright, actor and novelist Bill Gunn directed just three feature films (he also scripted others), all plagued by severe distribution problems. He’s best known today for 1973’s Ganga and Hess, a mix of vampire conventions and Afrocentric identity politics that became a major cult film—such that Spike Lee remade it four years ago as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Gunn’s first feature Stop (1970) was never released at all after initial screenings gave Warner Brothers cold feet, and remains tantalizingly unavailable.
Almost as impossible to see for decades was this 1980 “black soap opera” conceived by the great Ishmael Reed, written in collaboration with the frequently-improvising director and actors. Nurse Johnnie Mae’s (Verta Mae Grosvenor) already strained live-in relationship with her husband (Walter Cotton) is stretched to the breaking point by their separate infidelities—not to mention their having to take in (even more) freeloading relatives.
Made on a $40,000 shoestring, it was envisaged as a broadcast series. Only two video-shot “volumes” were completed, however, comprising a nearly three-hour feature film by default that was shown in 1981 on KQED and in some other forums. Wider broadcast or any other release was never realized, the original tapes sitting neglected until their recent restoration.
Uneven, sometimes disjointed, its narrative threads nowhere near resolved at the end, Personal Problems is nonetheless something rare and valuable, particularly for its era: A look at modern, urban African-American lives neither defined by criminal intrigue or milked for sitcom laughs. It’s “rough around the edges,” to say the least. (The video quality will really make you appreciate subsequent improvements in technology.) Yet there are searing confrontations here that encapsulate those moments when long-simmering domestic frustrations finally boil over, scalding everybody. Reed himself will appear to take audience questions after the Thurs/16 show. (Further Alamo showings are planned to follow, but hadn’t yet been confirmed by this writing.) Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
In what would turn out to be the final two weeks before the Nazis’ surrender to Allied forces, German soldier Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) faces possible execution as a deserter when he manages to flee his captors. Later, nearly starved and frozen to death, he stumbles upon a high-ranking officer’s abandoned vehicle, which contains the latter’s clothing and identification. Donning that uniform, he suddenly inspires fearful obedience—and in the extreme environ of a devastating war’s desperate last days, such power corrupts very, very quickly.
A nightmarish B&W cross between Schindler’s List and Lacombe, Lucien, with a splash of The Damned, this liberally dramatized version of a real-life case depicts human behavior already brought low, then gleefully sinking lower—a picture rendered even more disturbing by current political trends towards seductive crypto-fascism.
Just when the story seems to go over-the-top, reaching a point where cruelty ceases to be instructive and risks exploitative sensationalism (though in fact the events depicted did occur), writer-director Robert Schwentke’s latest—his return to home turf after fifteen years of Hollywood blockbusters—takes a more surreal, grotesque, parabolic turn. This is a striking, potent film, though as with the recent (if otherwise very different) Son of Saul, some may find its assertive style almost overpowers the deadly-sober subject of Nazi war crimes. Opera Plaza. More info here.
TRISTAN AND ISOLDE
Claude Heater is one Bay Area celebrity you may not have heard of before (I hadn’t), and will now wonder why. Not only did the born-and-raised Oakland resident have a celebrated operatic career—in which he switched midstream from baritone to tenor with great success—he also played Jesus Christ (albeit without lines, credit or close-ups) in the classic 1959 Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur.
Now 90, he is getting some overdue new local appreciation with this rare screening of a 1968 Belgian film version of Wagner’s opera, with Heater in his frequent, celebrated role of Tristan, and Jacqueline van Quaille as Isolde. It’s not a photographed stage production, but was shot with “period” costumes on locations including a 12th-century castle.
Act 1 will screen Sat/18 at SF’s Legion of Honor, Acts 2 & 3 Fri/24 at the Berkeley City Club. In conjunction with these events, the newly formed Claude Heater Foundation is also sponsoring a live recital performance of the entire opera, a short pre-film lecture, and an art exhibition. For more information, click here.
HARD TICKET TO HAWAII
Drive-ins may have been dying out en masse in the 1980s, but video and late-night cable rode to the rescue to ensure a continued market for B-grade cheese. A specialist in combining the requisite marketable amounts of T&A and violent action was Andy Sidaris (no relation to David or Amy), who cranked out a dozen bloody and breasty “B” movies, most within a tight 1979-1993 span.
A particular fan favorite turned minor camp classic is this 1987 bonanza of schlock featuring no less than four erstwhile Playmates of the Month, acting just as well as you’d expect. (You know no one is taking this joint entirely seriously when one of them intones “Terry, we need to figure out what just happened! Let’s unload and hit the jacuzzi. I do my best thinking there.”)
Hard Ticket is a movie about many things—drug lords, diamond smuggling, big hair, Uzi-wielding skateboarders (again!) using blow-up sex dolls as their “shield,” people who take Frisbee throwing very seriously, a giant killer-snake puppet, a cross-dressing restaurant hostess-slash-spy, etc. But mostly, it is about boobs. No doubt many a beered-up late-night cable viewer got something hard that wasn’t a ticket, just as intended. Want some variably-intentional laughs with that eye candy? You’ll get it.
This “Weird Wednesday” revival screening of a rare 35mm print will feature Andy’s widow Arlene Sidaris in person to answer all your questions about his onetime celluloid “stock company” and their prodigious 80s output. Wed/15, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.