SCREEN GRABS There are no less than four solid, serious dramas opening at local theaters this week, signaling that the silly season (which these days occupies most of the year) is finally over and movies aimed at actual grownups can now be released, at least until the end of the awards-qualifying calendar year is over.
Also of note is the re-release (at the Roxie) of a newly restored Wings of Desire, the 1987 Wim Wenders film that was something you rarely see these days: A foreign-language arthouse smash, one that continued playing rep houses for years and years, achieving almost Harold and Maude-level cult adoration. It’s also probably the closest thing to a popular movie about metaphysics that the medium has had yet to offer.
The marvelously placid Bruno Ganz—really, who imagined this actor would become the ideal screen Hitler?—plays an angel invisibly tending to Berlin’s needy and dying, until he chooses to cast off immortality and join the urgent, fragile sphere of the living. It’s an uneven film—I’d say the second half is more-than-just-metaphorically Earthbound after that transcendent first half—but also a gorgeous, unique, hypnotic experience. The potential sentimentality of its romantic fantasy is reined in by the more distanced, intellectual instincts of Wenders and writing partner Peter Handke.
Henri Alekan’s cinematography (first B&W, then color) was always stunning. But as Wenders claims Wings has only been seen in inferior prints since its festival debut, this restoration should be something to behold. Will the movie hold up after 30-plus years? Or will it now make more understandable the director’s dismaying subsequent path, in which (some fine documentaries aside) he increasingly seemed a jet-settling dilettante serving up vaguely New Age celluloid cuisine of half-baked sociopolitical hand-wringing? To observe the proximity between sublime and ridiculous, observe how Wenders went in a few years from Wings to the likes of Million Dollar Hotel, a starry nazel-gaze based on a “story idea” by the inimitable Bono.
Another older film returning to theaters is The War at Home, an Oscar-nominated 1979 documentary about the long, eventful history of protest against the Vietnam War in college town Madison, Wisconsin—a microcosm of the activism that swept the entire nation over a decade’s course. (Seeing it now is instructive, as we live in an era when “the left” is equally discontented by the political status quo, yet seems helpless to organize a unified response.) It opens at SF’s Opera Plaza and Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas.
Other new arrivals of interest this week include (at Alamo Drafthouse) The Price of Everything, an acclaimed new documentary about the outrageous financial excesses of the high-end contemporary art world. At the Roxie, there’s also MFKZ, a dystopian-future anime mash-up of Ralph Bakshi, Grand Theft Auto and They Live based on co-director Guillaume Renard’s “Mutafukaz” comics. It’s visually impressive, but a high tolerance for random juvenile humor is required. Opening more widely is actor Jonah Hill’s debut feature as writer-director Mid90s, which sounds like familiar stuff (a misfit 13-year-old boy falls in with rebellious skateboarders), but won excellent reviews at its Toronto Film Festival premiere last month.
Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):
Another impressive film by an actor-turned-director (in a year that seems to have a lot of them) is Paul Dano’s admirably controlled period drama. In mid-’60s smalltown Montana, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job at the local golf course over a trivial breach of protocol. His pride wounded, he won’t accept other employment that’s “beneath” him, despite the increasingly desperate straits this puts his young family in. Finally he impulsively signs up to go fight wildfires, leaving wife Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) alone and bewildered, with scant resources.
Based on Richard Ford’s novel, this queasy domestic crisis tale doesn’t go where you might expect, with mother and child bravely pulling together to survive. Instead, Jeannette reacts to her perceived abandonment in self-destructive ways that horrify her offspring. The always interesting Mulligan does not soften her portrait of a woman in understandable distress whose actions nonetheless largely repel sympathy. This is not a pleasant movie, but it’s an exacting and skillful one, with fine performances and a credible, anti-nostalgic atmosphere. At area theaters.
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Another memorable depiction of accelerated adolescence and reckless parenting was Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Hartley’s SF-set 2015 feature. It earned the stellar reviews it got, but—perhaps because the material was so discomfiting—couldn’t find much of an audience. Hartley is back now with a second film that’s also a caustic 1970s snapshot based on a woman’s memoir.
Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a misanthropic Manhattan writer who discovered in middle-age that publishers and readers no longer cared for the kind of meticulously researched biographical tomes she specialized in. Desperate, she stumbled into a different, rather-less-legal “writerly” pursuit: Forging letters and other memorabilia by famous late authors (Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, etc.) whose style she could convincingly mimic, then selling the results on the lucrative collectors’ market. A disreputable gay gadfly (played by an ideally cast Richard E. Grant) became her co-conspirator in this ingenious but risky con game.
This real-life rise and fall is amusing, as well as deftly acted by its two leads. But it’s also a little smaller-than-life: A tale of marginal, moderately eccentric people who get away with something unusual but unimportant for a while, then don’t. It’s a low-stakes anecdote executed with Diary’s seriocomic concision, but without its greater emotional resonance. At area theaters.
LIFE AND NOTHING MORE
On the other hand, there’s something very universal about the even smaller-scaled story Antonio Mendez Esparza tells in his own second feature. Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) is a teen living barely above the poverty line with mother Regina (Regina Williams) and a 3-year-old sister; the father they’re estranged from is in prison. Laboring hard every day with little to show for it, Mom has made mistakes in life, and unfortunately her accumulated wisdom manifests itself in a humorless, “tough-loving” inability to allow Andrew any mistakes of his own. When she reluctantly lets herself get involved with a new man, the insinuating Robert (Robert Williams), the new family dynamic makes Andrew’s lot seem even more unfair.
Roughly comparable to Moonlight in its examination of another African-American household poisoned by the odds society stacks against happiness (though without that film’s poetical bravado), this is a vivid slice-of-life drama in which “nothing happens” yet everything comes to matter. Esparza’s updated take on neo-realism encompasses striking use of nonprofessional actors whose work could hardly be improved upon. At area theaters.
WHAT THEY HAD
Last but not at all least amongst all these new dramas is actress Elizabeth Chomko’s debut as writer-director, a dextrous seriocomedy that’s a better movie about Alzheimer’s than Still Alice or Away From Her. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon play siblings trying to make their stubborn father (Robert Forster) see the sense of putting their mother (Blythe Danner) in a rest home—she’s increasingly a danger to herself due to escalating dementia. (The movie opens with her going for a solo “walk” in the middle of a freezing Chicago winter night in her nightgown, a misadventure that could have been fatal.)
There’s a lot of barbed humor in this affectionately dysfunctional family’s dynamics, punched across by the terrific cast. If it sticks around long enough, What They Had will be the perfect movie to take your reunited family to over Thanksgiving—it’s thorny but likable, relatable enough to provoke positive discussion regardless of individual political or other baggage. At area theaters.
AFTERIMAGE: AGNIESZKA HOLLAND
While the emergence of talents like Chomko and Hartley illustrates some progress at last in gender equity behind the camera, that only renders more impressive the career of Oscar nominee Holland, who’s entering her fifth decade as a category-defying director of quality projects around the globe.
In recent years that’s encompassed episodes of popular US TV series like House of Cards, Treme and The Wire. But she’s continued to make diverse, often distinguished big-screen features, from 2011’s acclaimed tale of WW2 Jewish survival In Darkness on back through starry biopics (Ed Harris as Beethoven, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud) and literary adaptations (Henry James, The Secret Garden). Europa, Europa and Angry Harvest are two of the greatest fictive screen wrestlings with the moral legacy of Nazism.
This Pacific Film Archive mini-retrospective will encompass two of her early Polish features (1979’s comedy Provincial Actors and stark 1981 drama A Woman Alone, which fell afoul of the government censors) as well as 2013 Burning Bush, the three-part, four-hour miniseries about Czech resistance to Soviet occupation that some consider her masterwork. She’ll be present for most of the screenings, discussing her work with Polish film critic Karolina Pasternak. Thurs/25-Sun/28, PFA. More info here.
THE WASHING SOCIETY
An Other Cinema program dedicated to women’s labor has as its centerpiece formerly SF-based longtime experimental filmmaker Lynne Sach’s new impressionistic documentary. She and Lizzie Olesker train their camera on the diverse, sometimes skittish women who can be found toiling in NYC laundromats, often not employed by the facility itself but doing laundry for individual clients or outside businesses.
It’s a marginal type of “hidden labor” that attracts illegal immigrants and others prepared to work awfully hard and ask no questions. But they have their own histories, and they may well know yours: As one notes of her often rude, dismissive customers, “You can tell someone’s story just from what they’ve worn and how it’s dirty.”
The program will also include Sach’s portrait of three other inspirational filmmakers, Carolee, Barbara and Guvnor, plus name-checked Barbara Hammer’s Meredith Monk-scored 2011 Maya Deren’s Sink, a tribute to the pioneering female genius of American avant-garde cinema. Sat/27, Artists’ Television Access. www.othercinema.com