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Screen Grabs: I Am Not a Witch, Iranian Film Fest, Blaze …

A Marcello Mastroianni retrospective, The Sisters Brothers, The Children Act, and more in cinemas his week: Read our reviews.

SCREEN GRABS While you could say the annual fall sprawl of anticipatory “awards season” has already begun—with the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals that premiere many of the year’s contenders—it gets a little more serious this week, given the actual theatrical opening of two starry prestige movies based on very good novels. 

Richard Eyre’s The Children Act should find Emma Thompson perfectly cast as the protagonist of Atonement scribe Ian McEwan’s 2014 tome, a workaholic High Court judge who realizes her neglected husband (Stanley Tucci) may be leaving her, just as she’s deciding a particularly difficult, precedent-setting case involving religious belief versus life-saving medical treatment. 

The Sisters Brothers adapts Patrick deWitt’s 2011 literary western, its titular figures two fraternal ruffians whose oft-criminal fortunes travel a very rocky road along the West Coast of the early Gold Rush era. Joaquin Phoenix (who’s having an amazing year onscreen) and John C. Reilly play the brothers, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane and others supporting in this first English-language effort by French Rust and Bone director Jacques Audiard. 

Other notable openings include (at the Roxie) SF-born Ari Gold’s new indie seriocomedy The Song of Sway Lake, with Rory Culkin as a disgruntled prodigal son returned to the lakeside site of his estranged rich family’s former glory, and his father’s suicide. It’s an uneven gambit whose most engaging performances are by Robert Sheehan as a Russian emigre and Mary Beth Peil as a crusty grandma.

There’s also some good acting in Lizzie, the latest iteration of the Lizzie Borden legend—she who allegedly “took an axe and gave her parents 40 whacks,” but was acquitted by a court that simply couldn’t believe a proper young lady would do such a thing. Chloe Sevigny plays the unhappy daughter in a stifling 1892 Fall River, Mass. household, while Kristin Stewart plays an Irish houseservant who becomes her ally. It’s certainly an improvement on writer-director Craig Willam Macneill’s slug-slow debut feature, 2015 non-thriller The Boy, but you may still come away wondering that he could eke so little suspense from this lurid subject matter.

Elsewhere (all opening at area theaters Friday unless otherwise noted):

What with the PFA’s ongoing Makhmalbaf Film House retrospective and the Roxie’s recent run of Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature, it’s already quite a month in the Bay Area for fans of Iranian cinema. Now comes the 11th edition of this annual showcase, being held this year at the San Francisco Art Institute. The two-day event features a substantial array of features, documentaries, shorts, animation and music videos. There will be a special focus on two women filmmakers, veteran Pouran Derakhshandeh (bringing her new Under the Smokey Roof) and multimedia artist Shirin Neshat (with Looking for Oum Kulthum). Sat/22-Sun/23, SFAI. More info here.  

This striking debut feature by Rungano Nyoni, a Zambian native though primarily raised in Wales, is a parable of superstition run amuck in her birth country. An orphan with no one to care for or defend her, 8-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is blamed for anything and everything by the unsophisticated people of her village—they excuse their own blunders by pinning them on the chid “witch.” 

They actually succeed in getting her exiled to a camp where other, grown-up accused witches are kept isolated (but also on display for tourists) in their own poor but benevolent society—all of them wearing long “ribbons” that supposedly keep them from flying away into the sky. But passive Shula attracts the interest of a fat-cat official (Henry B.J. Phiri) who uses this piece of juvenile “government property” to further his own ambitions, even getting them both a guest spot on a TV talk show. 

Beyond its critique of foolish occult believers, I Am Not a Witch touches on political corruption, child exploitation, and other issues within an offbeat general framework of pathos-tinged social satire. Roxie. More info here

Marcello Mastroianni was one of the great screen actors, though he perhaps doesn’t get all the credit he deserves—no doubt in part he was most often a subtle and unshowy actor, despite also being an expert farceur. His underplaying (and frequent deference to splashier co-stars, notably Sophia Loren) means that you might have to see several Mastroianni films back-to-back to appreciate just how impressively versatile and depthed an actor he was. 

This day-long tribute from Cinema Italia SF affords just such an opportunity. It begins and ends with two of his most popular comedies: Vittorio DeSica’s episodic Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), which afford he and Loren a trio of sexy-satirical miniatures, and Pietro Germi’s 1961 Divorce Italian Style, a sharp dissection of Catholic moral hypocrisy. There are also two fabled fantasias from Fellini, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), in both of which Mastroianni proves that director’s ideally bemused, meditative, appalled alter ego amidst a disillusioning carnival of modern-life excesses. 

Providing a grounding dramatic center in the program’s midsection is Ettore Scola’s 1977 A Special Day, in which a drabbed-down Loren and introspective Mastroianni play an odd couple—wrung-out housewife and despairing closeted gay journalist—drawn together on the 1938 when Hitler arrives to meet fellow fascist Mussolini in Rome. A man of impeccable taste and admirable adventurousness, Mastroianni worked with many more of the world’s great directors before passing away too soon in 1996, at age 72. Sat/22, Castro. More info here

An inherently endearing presence no matter what comic persona she adopted, Gilda Radner was arguably the most beloved of Saturday Night Live’s fabled first cast—even if others, notably Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and John Belushi, went on to bigger post-SNL careers. (Indeed Radner’s movie career never really got off the ground, beyond a couple poor co-starring vehicles with husband Gene Wilder.) This uninspired but serviceable documentary pays tribute to a life that ended all too soon, a victim of cancer in 1989 when she was just 42. 

It’s a predictable story as comedians go: The fat kid who became class clown to fit in, never losing that edge of insecurity despite a comet-like rise to fame. (At the height of her popularity she had severe eating disorder issues, for starters.) But there are some neat bits of trivia here—like her professional entree being casting in a company of Godspell despite a pretty dreadful singing voice—and there’s plenty of footage of Radner in her signature roles of Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Baba Wawa, Lisa Looper, Judy Miller and so forth. Opera Plaza. More info here

A different kind of showbiz legend—one practically unknown save within certain musicians’ circles—is dramatized in actor Ethan Hawke’s third directorial feature. This is sort of Bound for Inglory, with a similar sepia-tinted approach to that Woody Guthrie biopic in portraying the short life of country songwriter Blaze Foley. 

Played here by musician Ben Dickey, Foley was a talented and genial fellow appreciated in particular by the similarly party-hearty (but considerably more successful) fellow traveler Townes Van Zant (a good acting turn by musician Charlie Sexton). But he was also one of those people determined to screw up his opportunities with drinking and unprofessionalism. Ali Shawcat plays his wife Sybil Rosen, whose memoir this is based on. Littered with star cameos (from Sam Rockwell to Kris Kristofferson), this is a flavorful movie, but has the problem that attends most such stories: It’s not all that interesting to watch someone passively self-destruct in slow-motion. At area theaters

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