SCREEN GRABS It being Halloweek, it would be just plain wrong not to lead off with a horror film, and as it happens Friday brings one of the year’s most anticipated—for both good and ill—movies in that genre. Yes, it’s yet another milking of a familiar old title. But at least one thing is definitely praiseworthy about Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me By Your Name, I Am Love) film: It is very much a “re-imagining” rather than a remake of fellow countryman Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic.
It jettisons nearly everything from the original beyond the basic premise—American girl (here played by Dakota Johnson) is the newbie at a German dance academy run by a coven of witches (led by Tilda Swinton)—and some character names. Argento’s film was a triumph of baroque style over substance, its threadbare plot rendered irrelevant by stunning gory setpieces and bold design choices.
By contrast, Guadagnino goes for a deliberately dank look drained of color and light. David Kajganich’s screenplay has, if anything, too much plot even for the 2 1/2 hour running time—it packs in the kind of political, religious and historical themes this director’s prior films lacked (and could have used), yet they fail to mesh with the horror content in any coherent way. This film has its own intriguing textures (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke did the original score), and is always interesting. But it’s never enveloping, with an atmosphere that’s unsettling without actually being scary.
Ultimately it’s hard to know just what they were aiming for here. Most viewers may leave in a “Huh?” state of mind, feeling anything from confused to furious. (Those expecting anything like a straightforward horror film’s usual payoffs will likely hate it.) Advance reactions have ranged from “masterpiece” to “mess.” Color me simply perplexed—but if this Suspiria is hard to love (or sometimes even defend), it’s still more intriguing than one might have feared.
It also earns a few points simply for being one genre film involving “dance” where the dance elements aren’t (unlike in the original) a total joke. The relevant actors pass muster as dancers, and the work Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet has contributed render Swinton’s Mme. Blanc credible as a dancemaker who would have a longstanding international reputation.
Other films opening on Friday of note include two social-justice documentaries: Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders (at the Opera Plaza), a portrait of Iraqi Yazidi genocide survivor turned human rights activist Nadia Murad; and (at the Roxie) The Long Shadow, Frances Causey’s sweeping big-picture analysis of American racism, both its complex history and disturbingly aggressive current revival. There are also politically urgent currents behind the otherwise intimate new drama Viper Club, with Susan Sarandon as a veteran American ER nurse trying to deal with unhelpful U.S. government authorities when her journalist son is held captive in Syria. She gives a strong performance, but Maryam Kesharvarz’s earnest film ought to pack more punch given its subject matter.
Two more narrative features opening on just one SF screen each both cast their makers as actors in problematic family-reunion stories. Prolific local one-man-band J.P. Allen’s latest The Filmmaker (at the Presidio) has him as the titular figure, a San Francisco creative who suffers identity theft—from, it turns out, a woman (Ashley Rain Turner) who claims to be the daughter he never knew he had. He cautiously lets her into his life despite her continued hostility, inappropriate behavior and obfuscation. It’s a dramatic character puzzle box nicely shot in various Bay Area (and Las Vegas) locations.
There’s also (at the 4-Star) Stella’s Last Weekend, in which actress turned writer-director Polly Draper’s real-life sons Nat (The Fault in Our Stars) and Alex (Hereditary) play her fictive ones—two fatherless Manhattan brats running amuck while reunited to visit the family dog one last time before it’s put down. Their hijinks are meant to be delightful, though you may find yourself thinking that entirely the wrong character has been designated for euthanasia here.
We were unable to catch by press-time either Bohemian Rhapsody, the much-embattled Queen biopic with Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury—a movie whose tortured production history may end up being more memorable than the film itself—or The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The latter appears to illustrate two things: 1.) Christmas cash-ins get released earlier every year, and 2.) movie studios really will turn any recognizable “brand” into a standard CGI popcorn fantasy, even if it’s one primarily associated with Tchaikovsky.
Elsewhere (opening Friday unless otherwise noted):
JEAN VIGO REGAINED
It’s hard to think of a less prolific filmmaker who is nonetheless considered one of “the greats” than Vigo—in his lamentably short career he experienced no commercial success, then was dead of tuberculosis in 1934 at age 29. An extraordinary upbringing (his parents were militant Spanish anarchists on the run) no doubt helped shape his liberated/liberating directorial style, which has an unpredictable, lyrical urgency not quite like anything else—certainly not anything that was being made in the early 30s.
This PFA retrospective offers new 4K restorations of everything he committed to celluloid: Two adventurous documentary shorts, the not-quite-feature-length boarding school fantasia Zero for Conduct, and his only feature L’Atalante (1934), a simultaneously gritty and poetical romance set on a commercial barge of the Paris canals. Historian Bernard Eisenschitz provides voiceover narration of that last film’s rushes and outtakes, affording insight into Vigo’s forward-thinking directorial methods. Fri/2-Fri/23, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
One of the most bracing Mexican debut features in recent years was Alonso Ruizpalacios’ eccentric B&W slice of life Gueros. His sophomore effort is a much bigger endeavor, based on a true crime story. But once again, the director’s approach is idiosyncratically fresh, stylistically and otherwise. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the more unstable but also more resourceful half (Leonardo Ortizgris is his dim-wittedly loyal partner) of a duo who decide to steal priceless artifacts from the National Museum of Anthropology in 1985 Mexico City. They succeed (and the heist sequence here is quite riveting)—but a comedy of errors ensues when they try to fence the red-hot goods.
Ruizpalacios layers in critiques of Mexican society, colonial history and more in a complex yet very entertaining film. Its willingness to include absurdism and fantasy in what’s still essentially a “real-life” story may recall another excellent, ambitiously daring movie Garcia Bernal recently starred in, Pablo Larrain’s 2016 Neruda. Roxie. More info here.
SF INTERNATIONAL SOUTH ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL
3rd i Films is back with its 16th annual blowout of new movies from the South Asian Diaspora—not just India and Sri Lanka but also North American immigrant communities. The narrative features include Rima Das’ acclaimed indie Village Rockstars, about a northeast Indian village girl who years to start her own band, and Rohena Gera’s class-conflict romance Sir.
There will be documentaries about middle-class marital match-making (A Suitable Girl), the lingering wounds of Sri Lankan civil war (Demons in Paradise), alternative comics (Drawn Together), religious fundamentalism (Azmaish) and the hidden prominence of Jewish women in classic Indian cinema (Shalom Bollywood). For pure escapism, there’s sexy musical romcom Befikre, and the humorous Gothic fantasy of India-Sweden co-production Tumbbad. Plus shorts, special guests, and more. Thurs/1-Sun/4, Castro & New People Cinema. (Also Sat/17, Palo Alto Art Center.) https://www.thirdi.org
“But what I really want is to direct!” may be a creaky joke about Hollywood pretensions, yet in 2018 a whole lot of actors are proving they’re naturals behind the camera. Just last week brought Paul Dano’s Wildlife and Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, two of the year’s best American films. Joining them is yet Joel Edgerton’s debut directorial feature, based on Garrard Conley’s recent memoir. Current It Lad Lucas Hedges (who’s also in Mid90s) plays the son of Baptist evangelicals (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe) who freak out when they suspect he might be “that way.” They send him to get “fixed” at a Bible-based “gay conversion therapy” program whose head “therapist” is played by Edgerton, and whose methods are…questionable.
A similar story was told just earlier this year by arthouse success The Miseducation of Cameron Post. But that film ultimately felt too slight, while this slightly more conventional (not to mention starry) treatment entirely satisfies without sacrificing nuance or sympathy. Hedges’ low-key performance is faultless, while Kidman is terrific in a more flamboyant role. (Those of you who guilty-pleasure-loved her in The Paperboy will find this a warmer, fuzzier variation on that turn.) Boy Erased goes out of its way to be a movie that can speak without condescension or blame to both secular and Christian audiences—if the latter give it a chance. As such, it may be your ideal post-turkey multiplex outing with the folks if you must do the family thing this Thanksgiving. At area theaters.
ANIMATION SHOW OF SHOWS
Since 1999 this annual traveling package has been bringing together a selection of the year’s prime shorts from around the world, in all animated media from collage to claymation to CGI. This latest selection encompasses fifteen miniatures including works from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina as well as the U.S. It’s a mixed bag, as such things usually are, with the surreal line-drawing humor of Guy Charnaux’s Brazilian Business Meeting and Trevor Jiminez’s ambitious closing Canadian narrative Weekends probably the two standouts. At area theaters.
GARRY WINOGRAND: ALL THINGS ARE PHOTOGRAPHABLE
Winogrand was part of that leading edge of photographers (along with Diane Arbus and others) who in the 1960s began getting the medium taken seriously as an art form, attracting interest from galleries, museums and critics. Until then, it had been basically considered a commercial craft, reportage, or hobby for amateur “shutterbugs.” The Bronx native started as a photojournalist himself, gradually realizing that his eye was too idiosyncratic for magazines and newspapers’ standardized needs, despite the acute social observation of his urban “street photography.”
Sasha Waters Freyer’s documentary provides a vivid appreciation of this long-gone but still vivid talent, one so driven to shoot that he left behind (after dying of cancer in 1984 at just 56) about half a million images in film rolls he never bothered to sort or develop. That in turn created a still-roiling controversy over whether those “posthumous works” should be evaluated as part of his canon, or politely ignored as detritus from a man whose best work was done years earlier. At area theaters.
THE WILD PUSSYCAT
Good god! Enough with all this serious art already! You can get your trash fix and then some as Joel Shepard (recently axed longtime film programmer for a local cultural institution we no longer respect much) presents this wonderful obscurity. Greece was not exactly a hotbed of exportable exploitation fodder half a century ago. Still, in 1969 one Dimis Dadiris outside himself with this crazy tale of a beautiful woman who lures and imprisons a swinging bachelor—then torments him at length in revenge for what he did to her late sister.
This movie does involve an actual housecat, and I speak not lightly when saying it has probably the greatest feline reaction shots in the history of cinema. A perverse “nudie cutie” seen by few, Wild Pussycat was nonetheless definitely seen by somebody. We know that because six years later, Italy’s prolific sleazemaster Joe D’Amato made an even wilder (if unacknowledged) remake called Emanuelle and Francoise. Both movies are so great, maybe the story should be recycled onscreen every few years, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wed/7, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.