SCREEN GRABS Whales, nuns, puppies, anime, 70s Italian crime-drama homage and one genuine, vintage 1971, no-longer-easy-riding “dirty hippie”—it’s a potluck kinda week at the movies, sans any major new commercial arrivals or exceptional arthouse ones.
Don’t look for salvation from The Nun, as that demonic-possession tale is a spinoff from the Conjuring horror franchise. Apart from the continuance of the SF Green Film Festival’s programs (see last week’s column here for more details), the most interesting cinema on tap this week leans toward revivals of and tributes to vintage films. The former include a 20th-anniversary Roxie run of Perfect Blue, the surreal fantasia by late Japanese animation master Satoshi Kon (Paprika), in which a singer-actress falls down a rabbit hole of sinister memories and crazed fandom.
One last (OK, next-to-last) reminder: If you want to save Opera Plaza Cinemas from extinction, show up at the Thurs/13 1 pm SF Planning Commission hearing at City Hall to make yourself heard. I’d recommend writing them if you can’t make it—although I sent an email on the matter to the commission a couple weeks ago, and got zero response.
Elsewhere (all opening Fri/7):
THE LAST MOVIE
Dennis Hopper’s directorial magnum opus really was made (well, completed) in 1971, and nothing could be more specific to that Hollywood moment. It provided the apex of a brief era in which the major studios, bowled over by the success of unconventional low-budget films like Hopper’s own Easy Rider, terrified by the sudden collapse of their own time-tested entertainment formulas, gave free reign to innumerable adventuresome young filmmakers. That impulse opened the door to future industry giants like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It also green-lit a lot of interesting but commercially hopeless enterprises that soon made Hollywood shut that door, or at least start vetting entrants more rigorously again.
Chief among those flops was Hopper’s eagerly awaited second film as director, such that even Easy Rider’s massive, repeat-viewing audience completely shunned it, while critics pronounced it a self-indulgent mess. Which it certainly is. But it’s also arguably the most overtly avant-garde feature ever made under mainstream Hollywood auspices, and remains a fascinating experiment.
Hopper himself (of course) plays a stunt coordinator on an American western being shot in a Peruvian mountain village. But the lines between movie, movie-within-the-movie, imitation and delusion begin to blur as the actual crew moves on, while our hero “Kansas” stays to witness the locals’ mysterious, eventually dangerous attempts to re-enact the moviemaking “ritual.” The film we’re watching itself begins to deconstruct, complete with “Scene Missing” cards, an erosion of narrative chronology, and other deliberately disorienting tactics.
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The Last Movie’s location shoot purportedly went smoothly enough. Once back in the U.S., however, Hopper spent over a year cloistered in Taos, New Mexico—ostensibly “editing,” but also doing a ton of alcohol and drugs. (That interlude was chronicled by a documentary, American Dreamer, which like Movie itself would be largely inaccessible for decades after its brief initial release.) The long-delayed result won a prize at Venice, but otherwise was dismissed as incoherent. As both actor and director, Hopper wouldn’t regain his footing until the 1980s, when he not-coincidentally also cleaned up his substance habits.
Despite (or because of) its “rarity,” as well as the legends around its making, The Last Movie gradually assumed a sort of cult stature accompanied by critical re-appraisal. That led to the current 4K restoration print getting a one-week run at the Drafthouse this week. Is it a great movie? Probably not. But it’s a challenging and singular one that goes so far out on various creative limbs it makes most other movies seem cowardly. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
PICK OF THE LITTER
This feel-good documentary follows a litter of Golden Labs as they undergo the rigorous training required to be guide dogs for the blind. Few will actually “graduate,” although each finds their own happy home and/or alternative “job.” Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s feature writes no new chapter in the annals of cinema, but whattaya want? It’s 80 minutes of puppies learning things, something about which there is nothing not to like. Landmark Theaters. More info here.
A WHALE OF A TALE
This contrastingly feel-bad critter-centric doc returns to Taiji, Japan, which became a focus of loathing by animal rights activists when 2009’s widely seen, Oscar-winning The Cove pointed an accusing finger at the fishing village’s annual whale hunt. That film showed the hunt (which also snares a lot of our “almost human” pals, dolphins) in grisly detail, painting a portrait of a community callously carrying on a needless, bloody “tradition.” The outraged international reaction hasn’t ceased nearly a decade later.
Megumi Sasaki’s new film aims to offer a more even-handed, non-hyperbolic look at the same issue that humanizes the villagers while not necessarily flattering the environmentalists groups (notably extremists Sea Shepherd) that have reviled them publicly. Both sides get ample time to state their case here, resulting in a reconsideration of a controversial issue that, like most such, turns out to be less morally black-and-white the closer you look. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
LET THE CORPSES TAN
It’s been trendy for quite a while for filmmakers to pay homage to vintage exploitation genres and their stylistic tropes, Quentin Tarantino being the most prominent practitioner. But in terms of meticulous dedication to retro style, no one comes close to the Belgian duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who’ve carved an entire career out of pushing that pursuit to obsessive, fetishistic extremes.
Their earlier features Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears were elaborate homages to the Italian giallos—a subgenre (flourishing from the late 60s to the early 80s) mixing horror and murder-mystery that was as frequently plot-senseless as it was stylistically heady. Now they’ve turned their attention to the violent crime thrillers that usurped the place of 1960s “spaghetti westerns” in the 1970s Italian film industry. These films were brutal, nihilistic, misogynist, and likewise less interested in narrative logic than sensational incident.
In the deliciously titled Let the Corpses Lie (which is actually based on a pulp novel from the era), criminals, rival criminals, police, and debatably-innocent bystanders converge on a dusty rural hideout in the aftermath of an armored-truck robbery. They basically spend 92 minutes double-crossing and shooting one another to death.
Shot on grainy Super-16mm widescreen film for maximum period ambiance, the movie is a marvel of archaeological attention to detail: If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were watching some eccentric grade-C Eurotrash obscurity circa 1971. (It’s capped by a soundtrack drawn from various Ennio Morricone scores.) Still, a little of this goes a long way, and with a narrative spine so incidental to its purpose, the film ultimately exhausts as much as it delights. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE
When government coroner Kaveh (Amir Aghaee) is sideswiped by a reckless driver at night in Tehran, his car accidentally careens into a man with a woman and two children on a motorcycle. They don’t appear hurt, but are oddly evasive about seeking medical help as a precaution. A few days later, Kaveh is horrified to see the boy who might have suffered a concussion in the mishap land in his morgue. Even though an autopsy determines the lad actually died of food poisoning, Kaveh can’t dismiss his own possible guilt, though his surreptitious investigation only seems to make matters worse for himself and the child’s grieving parents (Navid Mohammedzadeh, Zakiveh Behbahani).
Shot in a cold, grey, almost B&W color palette, this second feature by Vahid Jalilvand is a sober, well-acted drama that examines class privilege as well as the torments of conscience. Worthy if a little dry, this is Iranian cinema not in its more poetical or allegorical mode but in the time-tested form of improving, chiding social morality play. Roxie. More info here.