SCREEN GRABS As SF bathes in a toxic haze, with citizens walking around like the masked denizens of a dystopian-future movie, it might seem a bad idea to watch, say, a horror film. Au contraire. When things are at their seeming worst is exactly the right moment to enjoy the escapism of films whose protagonists are in even worse straits than you.
So it’s a perversely good moment for Another Hole in the Head (starts next Wed/28 but start planning now), the genre-focused offshoot of SF Indiefest that is now entering its 15th year. Running a full two weeks starting next Wednesday (the 28th), it offers the usual range of splat-tastic indie horror, sci-fi, fantasy and thrillers starting with Joe Bandon’s hallucinatory opening night selection The God Inside My Ear. But there will also be a virtual reality day, several shorts programs, documentaries, a Nicolas Cage double header (1993’s Deadfall and last year’s Arsenal, in both of which he plays the same character), two “live film re-scores” of TBA classic titles by The Firmament, and more.
There’s a lot of comedy this year, including such genre semi-parodies as the Japanese Ghost Squad, Chinese zombiefest Lost in Apocalypse, women-in-prison exploitation spoof Amazon Hot Box, deliberately cheesy space opera Galaxy Lords, and very queer slasher sendup Killer Unicorn, in which a ripped dude in a horn-y equine mask stalks the drag queen stars of Brooklyn’s club scene. There’s also a final couple days’ programming that leaves behind such genre categorization entirely, encompassing a gore-free British comedy (I Love My Mum), self-explanatory Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records, and retro teen coming-of-age tale Bernadette. The festivities again take place this year primarily at Japantown’s New People Cinema, Wed/28-Wed/12. More info here.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of regular films opening this Thanksgiving week. We did not catch in advance Creed II, foodie documentary Chef Flynn, or (alas) Ralph Breaks the Internet, which is said to be great. (Its predecessor Wreck-It Ralph was definitely one of the best mainstream animated features in recent years.) However, we did manage to vet the following, which due to the holiday week are opening either Wed. or Friday as noted:
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
When RaMell Ross moved to rural Alabama to teach photography, he began filming the locals—in particular, two young men—and their milieu for what turned out to be five years. The impressionistic result is anything but a conventional verite non-fiction narrative; indeed, this is the year’s best poetic documentary this side of the (slightly more straightforwardly informative) Cielo.
Some may feel a degree of frustration at how little gets spelled out about the nominal protagonists’ lives, or indeed about the primarily black community in general. But this first feature is an enveloping, richly textured wallow in place and culture, evocative rather than explicatory—not unlike a photography exhibit. It is probably the most lyrical achievement in what’s been a remarkable year for African-American cinema in general. Ross and producer Danny Glover will appear in person on opening night. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.
“Oscar bait” in the best way, this is a crowdpleaser that really earns that Pavlovian emotional response. Mahershala Ali of Moonlight plays Don Shirley, the Jamaica-born, classically trained U.S. jazz pianist and composer who enjoyed great prestige with “crossover” audiences, playing with symphony orchestras and small combos alike. This factually inspired drama is based on a memoir by Tony Vallelonga—a Noo Yawk goombah and nightclub bouncer Shirley hired as driver (and bodyguard) on a risky concert tour of the South at the tail end of the Jim Crow era. It’s named after a guidebook that African-Americans used for decades, which gave them traveling tips on restaurants and hotels willing to serve “Negroes”—and segregationist hot spots to avoid.
Yes, the Driving Miss Daisy comparisons are vaguely apt, and yes, the movie does hew to a familiar inspirational seriocomedy mold, though it doesn’t get too mawkish or obvious about that until the very end. But particularly compared to the pandering likes of recent Hidden Figures, it’s a model of dramatic restraint and droll humor. Which surprises, since it’s the first “serious” movie by director Peter Farrelly, whose ouevre to date (basically a crass downhill trajectory since There’s Something About Mary) did not suggest such capabilities.
It’s a very mainstream pleasure in general—so much so that you can safely take parents and grandparents over the holidays—considerably elevated by the two leads. Ali is luxuriously mannered as the highly intelligent (he spoke eight languages), somewhat effete and definitely snobbish Shirley, a man at once celebrated by presidents for his talent and treated like a second-class citizen for his skin color.
But the movie is stolen whole by Viggo Mortensen, who gives a performance as delightful as any you’ll see this year. He plays the good-natured but brass-knuckled Vallelonga as a classic Italian-American “wiseguy” whose stereotypical lack of sophistication is hilarious, but who also easily convinces us of his fundamental decency. While great comedic turns seldom seem to win the big awards, in my book Mortensen here deserves a little gold man for his mantel. Opens Wed. at area theaters.
In this latest from Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda, a little girl is found by a family of petty grifters, who decide to keep her—after all, the home she’s fled is volatile, possibly abusive. With the innocence of the very young, she adapts to their idiosyncratic, legality-circumventing ways, from the titular five-fingered discount shopping to a scam that even Grandma’s got going on. Our wee protagonist isn’t the first outsider to be absorbed into this unconventional clan, which is close-knit and affectionate—but also petty-criminal to the core.
While at first it seems close to the sentimental child-centric model of such recent Kore-eda joints as I Wish and Our Little Sister, the narrative arc eventually shades into darker terrain—recalling earlier works Nobody Knows and Distance. This isn’t on a par with his best movies, like Still Walking or Like Father, Like Son. But it’s still a strong effort by a great filmmaker, and a welcome return to form after the arid legal procedural of his last film The Third Murder. Opens Wed., Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
At Eternity’s Gate
There have been so many good films about Vincent Van Gogh—from Vincente Minnelli and Robert Altman’s classic dramatic treatments to the beloved Paul Cox documentary and last year’s ravishing animation Loving Vincent—that I suppose it’s only fair we finally have a bad one. Actually, casting Willem Dafoe as the tragic-in-life, immortal-in-death Dutch painter was an inspired choice. Despite his accent, the script’s incongruously modern language, and the age difference (the actor is 25 years older than Van Gogh lived to be), he’s physically apt and summons up the appropriate near-possessed intensity.
Alas, almost nothing else feels right about Julian Schnabel’s feature, which will inevitably remind you that apart from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, his movies are regarded about as well as his paintings—which is to say, as pretentious luxury items. Working from a screenplay credited to him, his domestic partner Louise Kugelberg, and famed veteran scenarist Jean-Claude Carriere, he chronicles Vincent’s last couple years, when the artist painted nearly all his great works but lived in poverty and deteriorating mental/physical health.
Schnabel portrays the latter aspects by the most heavy-handed means possible, repeating entire dialogue exchanges verbatim and partially obscuring the image to convey a “compromised” perspective. Worse, he wildly over-does the already tired stylistic device of jittery hand-held camera work to suggest “immediacy.” Rupert Friend is fine as brother Theo, Oscar Isaac is OK as an unflatteringly depicted Gaugin, and there is no lack of good additional actors wasted in nothing roles (Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, etc.). But this ugly, affected, tedious, and exasperating film lets them all down. Opens Wed. at area theaters. More info here.
Schlock and Cock at the Alamo
Two notably eccentric 1970s exploitation films play the Drafthouse this week. Long before he directed Trading Places, An American Werewolf in London, Animal House or even Kentucky Fried Movie, a 21-year-old John Landis made his feature debut with Schlock aka Banana Monster, a fun sendup of drive-in movies like Trog and Gorilla at Large in which a “missing link” (i.e. Landis in an ape suit) falls in love with a blind Southern California redhead.
It’s funny, but not as funny—let alone mind-bending—as Jamaa Fanaka’s 1975 Welcome Home Brother Charles aka Soul Vengeance, in which an African-American man avenges his systemic racist abuse by realizing whitey’s worst fear (and greatest fantasy) of black male, er, prowess. OK, we’ll stop being coy: Yes, this is the Giant Strangling Penis blaxploitation movie people don’t really believe exists until they see it. Fanaka’s later Penitentiary movies were more professionally crafted (and Penitentiary II is arguably just as nuts), but this is one of the most conceptually outrageous movies ever made. Welcome Home: Mon/26; Schlock: Wed/28. Alamo Drafthouse.