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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: Free Solo, Arab Film Fest, Studio 54...

Screen Grabs: Free Solo, Arab Film Fest, Studio 54…

Greek Film Festival, Tea With Dames, The Happy Prince, First Man, and more films in cinemas this week. Read our reviews.

SCREEN GRABS Two of the major releases are major disappointments from hitherto reliable directors. Scenarist Drew Goddard’s first directorial feature since ingenious horror deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods is Bad Times at the El Royale, another tricksy genre exercise—this time of the neo-noir ensemble piece, as a number of strangers with secrets check into the titular off-season Tahoe resort hotel circa 1969. 

The buildup is promising enough, giving us time to appreciate the garish period decor, an excellent Jeff Bridges as an ersatz priest with Alzheimer’s, and a few effective early surprises. But this overlong, overblown movie wastes far too much space on luxury distractions (Cynthia Erivo’s singing, Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled torso, both showcased at ridiculous length), then finally takes itself far too seriously for something so short on depth—let alone the wit and suspense it more urgently needs. 

That’s a failure of escapism; 22 July is a failure to achieve profundity. Paul Greenglass’ prior United 93 and Bloody Sunday were outstanding dramatizations of real-life emergencies, with a nerve-jangling, documentary-type immediacy. But this reenactment of the 2011 Norwegian terrorist attacks—in which a lone assailant with a far-right, anti-immigrant agenda claimed 77 lives (both via car bomb in Oslo and mass shooting at a youth summer camp)—and their aftermath proves unilluminating, even dull.

The problem isn’t so much that the attacks are over with after the first half hour; the drama of the survivors’ recovery and assailant’s trial should still have compelled interest. But a cast of Scandinavian actors speaking pat dialogue in stilted English only distance us from the real tragedy, and the film becomes more pedestrian and tedious as it goes on. Norwegians were unhappy this international production was being made while their national wounds still feel so fresh, and the final result simply isn’t good enough (despite Anders Danielsen Lie’s vivid performance as the remorseless killer) to obviate their fears of needless, “too soon” commercial exploitation. 

Unseen at deadline were two well-reviewed films portraying fatal injustices all too typical in our era. Call Her Ganda (at the Roxie) is PJ Raval’s documentary about a Filipina transwoman murdered by a U.S. Marine in 2014, a case that had significant repercussions for transgender rights there and U.S.-Philippines relations in general.  Wider release The Hate U Give is Barbershop director George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’ YA novel. It centers around a black teen at a mostly white prep school who’s spurred to activism after she witnesses an unarmed friend’s needless death at the hands of a white police officer. 

Elsewhere in this busy week (all opening on Friday unless otherwise noted):

In its early years, cinema was considered a somewhat disreputable business—stage actors often adopted pseudonyms when making films in order to protect their “reputation” from being sullied by the celluloid connection. Yet lack of prestige perversely rendered moviemaking one professional field that was open to women in nearly all departments, at least for a while. This three-part Roxie series showcases notable silent films by female directors. Some, like Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blache, are relatively well-known amongst fans of the era. Others, like Cleo Madison, Helen Holmes, Ida May Park and Lule Warrenton, have largely been forgotten. 

The first program on Friday “Her Defiance” showcases pre-1920 shorts ranging from social-issue drama (Park’s Bread) to thriller (Weber’s Suspense, which makes innovative early use of the split screen), western (Guy-Blache’s Two Little Rangers), cliffhanger action (Holmes’ The Hazards of Helen) and more. Saturday’s bill “Young Heroine” features glimpses of childhood both documentary (famed author Zora Neale Hurston’s late 1920s ethnographic films), and fictive (the racially themed When Little Lindy Sang, Guy-Blanche’s sentimental melodrama Falling Leaves, etc.). A third program on November 6 will focus on The Curse of Quon Gwon, a pioneering 1916 feature by Chinese-American Oakland resident Marion E. Wong that survives only in intriguing, partial form. Fri/12-Sat/13, also Tues/Nov. 6, Roxie. More info here

It’s been (yet another) excellent year for documentaries, particularly in terms of popular success. Possibly stealing the thunder from RBG in that regard is this latest from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, co-directors of 2015’s exceptional Meru. Free Solo is another portrait of “impossible” mountain climbing, rendered even more so by the fact that protagonist Alex Honnold climbs without ropes—just, you know, hands and feet. 

He’s a leading practitioner of the titular sport, one so dangerous that like-minded climbers almost always seem to fall to their deaths sooner or later. Several do during just the timespan of this feature, which chronicles the California native’s quest to climb Yosemite’s 3000-foot El Capitan wall, which no one has ever successfully conquered sans safety gear or bolt-drilling. Why attempt something so close to flat-out suicidal? Well, an MRI scan reveals that Honnold’s brain is simply much less susceptible to fear than the average yoink. 

Not quite as gripping as Meru, Free Solo spends perhaps too much time dwelling on his relationship with his girlfriend (and having to keep emotional attachments at a relative distance in order to do what he does), until you begin to wonder when we’ll get to the actual climb. But when we finally do, those 15 minutes or so of footage are as phenomenal as anything you’ll see this year. At area theaters. 

The 22nd edition of this annual Bay Area festival opens this Friday at the Castro with a screening of Lucien Bourjelly’s Heaven Without People, a Lebanese take on that classic modern scenario—the holiday reunion dinner that turns into massive dysfunctional-family meltdown, with political and religious arguments definitely on the menu. There’s an afterparty at Slate featuring DJ Nile. As of Thursday the 18th the festival moves across the bay to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater. 

Highlights during the program include the documentary Wajd: Songs of Separation, about refugee Syrian musicians; Martyr, a homoerotic tale of leisure and loss amongst Beirut’s underemployed middle-class youth; and a revival of the 1947 Egyptian classic Fatma, starring legendary singer Umm Kulthum, which evening will also feature a live performance by local Arab-American band ASWAT. 

There will be numerous filmmakers and other special guests during the festival, as well as the launch of a new programming sidebar. “Palestine Days” will showcase four new movies about Palestinian sociopolitical issues and culture, including this year’s Oscar submission Ghost Hunting, which won a Silver Bear for Best Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival. Fri/12-Sun/21, various SF and Oakland venues. More info here

The center of the disco universe was Studio 54, the relatively short-lived but definitively glittering Manhattan nightclub where the famous rubbed booties with the merely beautiful and outrageous—while everyone else queued up outside, vainly hoping that they’d be allowed past the velvet ropes. 

The story of its heady rise and spectacular crash (amidst financial and drug scandals) has been told many times before, including in the fictionalized narrative feature 54. This latest by documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (whose Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood just exited local theaters) promises a lot of archival footage, as well as a rare interview with Ian Schrager, the surviving co-owner who ran the joint with the late, more infamous Steve Rubell. They were working-class entrepreneurs who rode a 1970s cultural moment to its zenith—and then right on down to jail, for tax evasion. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. 

There’s already been a whipped-up conservative “controversy” over Damien Chazelle’s feature, because in telling the story of the events leading up to Neil Armstrong’s becoming the first man to walk on the moon, it doesn’t depict him planting the US flag. But when you see the film, it’s obvious why that’s not here—the focus is not on such world-famous moments in the Apollo 11 mission, or even the awe and excitement of pioneering space travel in general. 

Instead, it’s on the specifics of Armstrong’s experience as a highly trained, disciplined government functionary (played by Ryan Gosling) who’s required to keep a cool head in order to perform a job so dangerous there’s a very good chance he (and his fellow astronauts) won’t survive it. The emotional detachment required takes a toll on his relationship with his wife (Claire Foy) and children, something that gets at least as much emphasis here as the NASA achievements he was involved in. 

It’s a deliberately narrow, nose-to-the-grindstone view that pays off in many respects, if not in the conventional “inspirational” way you might expect—or the film’s flag-waving critics (very few of whom have actually seen it) seem to demand. This is Chazelle’s best film to date, although take that as qualified praise, coming from someone who was not really a fan of his La La Land or Whiplash. At area theaters. 

Though its international exposure peaked in the 1960s, largely due to the films of Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek), Greece has always produced distinctive cinema, and notable auteurs like Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist) and Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster). Now in its 15th year, SFGFF presents new features and shorts from Greek and Greek-heritage filmmakers around the world. Opening night brings Pantelis Vougaris’ The Last Note, about the real-life execution of 200 Greek political prisoners in 1944 as “payback” for partisans’ assassination of a Nazi general. Dora Masklavanou’s closing selection Polyxeni charts an orphan girl’s upbringing, both benefitting from and imperiled by the great wealth of her adoptive parents. 

In between, there are historical dramas, comedies, a documentary about legendary free-diver Jacques Mayol (Dolphin Man), a reprise showing of Manousos Manousakis’ 2015 romance Cloudy Sunday, and more. There will also be the first-ever bestowal of the Spyros P. Skouras Lifetime Achievement Award, to Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos. Fri/12-Sun/21, various SF venues. More info here

There are precious few roles for older women in Hollywood—and even then they have to be “miraculously” unaged, like Diane Keaton or Jane Fonda—yet a whole sort of cottage industry has grown up around British thespians of advanced years. This documentary by Roger Michell (Le Week-End, Venus) looks at a golden four who’ve known each other for over half a century, and are still eminently employable at eightysomething: Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright. (Actually the latter, who is now blind, retired in 2014.) 

The quartet discuss playing Cleopatra, stage fright, “natural” acting, becoming a Dame, reading reviews (or not), working with husbands (esp. Joan’s, the late Laurence Olivier, with whom they all acted), and more. There are some amusing gossipy moments, as when Smith admits she still hasn’t watched “the wretched thing” known as Downton Abbey, and a few tantalizing insights, such as Plowright noting that being married to Olivier  was “a great privilege as well as a nightmare.” There are also a lot of performance clips, including from seldom-seen vintage British TV films of plays. 

What there isn’t much (or any, really) of is discussion of the craft of acting—how these ladies differ in their approaches, how they were trained, how acting has changed in their lifetime, the technical demands of various great playwrights, and so forth. Without that intel, Tea is strictly lightweight, an opportunity to hang out with a few grande dames rather than any serious appreciation of their remarkable talents. It’s a PBS Pledge Week kinda tribute, pleasing but weightless. Clay Theatre, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

A British thespian who perhaps hasn’t fully gotten his due is Rupert Everett, who’s been in the public eye nearly 40 years, weathered various ebbs and tides in popularity, but arguably suffered throughout from being an out gay actor—which limited the roles this natural-born star personality was cast in. His first feature as writer-director treads familiar ground, in a way: Everett has acted (quite brilliantly) in Oscar Wilde plays both on stage and screen, as well as playing Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss on the West End. 

Here, he portrays the great Irish writer at the tragic end, between his release from prison (for “gross indecency”) in 1897 and his death from meningitis in 1900. His health broken by two years’ hard labor, all his professional wealth seized, he spent this final stretch in a European exile of variable desperation, fleeing creditors and still-scornful Brits. Not much of Wilde’s fabled wit is present, or indeed relevant in this context. It’s a sad slide colored by occasional spasms of the old flamboyance. 

Padded, aged and almost unrecognizable, Everett is nonetheless thoroughly at home in the role, and this handsome production is admirably ambitious for a first directorial effort. But it’s also frustrating, in that the mosaic-of-memory structure he’s come up with keeps us at an emotional distance, with scenes perpetually cut off before they’ve developed any rhythm. There’s a strong support cast including Colin Firth and Emily Watson. Still, almost no one here beyond Everett is given enough screentime to define their character. (In some cases, we’re never quite sure what role the character they’re playing had in Wilde’s life.) It’s an impressive film in many ways, yet it often feels like a drastic, fragmentary condensation of a longer, more satisfying one. Embarcadero. More info here

Last year San Francisco city government approved designating a portion of the Tenderloin as “Compton’s Transgender, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual District,” commemorating the legendary 1966 protest by LGBTQ persons at Compton’s Cafeteria. Stonewall may be more famous, but this West Coast “riot” by primarily transgender folk against persistent police harassment happened first, making it a pioneering milestone in US gay rights history.

This four-part SF Cinematheque series, presented in association with CounterPulse (both organizations currently based in the same TL district), highlights a gamut of trans experience as expressed in narrative, documentary, and experimental works. Filmmakers featured will include Mykki Blanco, Sofia Moreno, Zackary Drucker, Stom Sogo, Sky Hopinka, The Wreck Family, Tourmaline Gossette, Bill Starnets, Jeff Preiss, and more. Tuesdays 8pm, Oct. 9, 16, 30 & Nov. 6, CounterPulse. More info here

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