SCREEN GRABS This is no time for Christmas shopping, at least if you’re a film buff—not only is the genre festival Another Hole in the Head (previewed last week) already in progress, but two other significant festival events of shorter duration arrive this weekend. (See NICE and Silents below.) Plus, Friday brings two of the year’s most acclaimed narrative features, as well as two new documentaries about films and filmmaking itself. Then there’s the latest edition of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco… all detailed below.
Also opening this week is Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Becoming Astrid (at Opera Plaza) a handsome if rather heavy-handed biopic about the early years of Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren.
Opening Friday (unless otherwise noted):
A Day of Silents
Many people simply camp out for the entirety of SF Silent Film Festival’s Castro Theatre events during the year, and 2018’s single-day winter program merits that kind of dedication even more than usual. Of course you’re not obligated to the approximately 14-hour long haul, but if you can manage it, you’ll get a remarkably diverse and exciting array of films from the pre-sound era.
First up (in honor of the imminent biopic Stan & Ollie) is a program of three silent Laurel & Hardy comedy shorts—all delightful, but none more hysterical than 1929’s Big Business, in which the duo are door-to-door Christmas tree salesman whose disagreement with homeowner James Finlayson turns into an orgy of destruction. It’s followed by Walter Lang and Dorothy Davenport’s 1925 The Red Kimona, a slow-moving but admirably serious-minded, case-pleading “fallen woman” drama. Then there’s the next year’s Exit Smiling, the first of very few big-screen appearances for beloved stage comedienne Beatrice Lillie, who plays a backstage “drudge” pining for her own big break while touring with a cornball theatre troupe.
The evening shows are stylistically sophisticated dramas. Frank Borzage’s 1927 7th Heaven introduced the highly popular duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in a delicate sentimental romance between a Parisian waif and a street cleaner living in the City of Light’s most spacious “garret.” It’s a famous classic, while Karlheinz Martin’s 1920 From Morn to Midnight is a rarity that was little-seen upon release, then thought lost for decades—a parable of avarice and decadence considered one of the few true cinematic works (alongside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Waxworks) of “pure” German Expressionism. It’s certainly a visually striking experiment, with sets closer to the gritty social caricature of Georges Grosz drawings than Caligari’s skewed futurism.
But the day’s highlight and great discovery may well be the 4:30 showing of 1923’s Coeur Fidele by Jean Epstein, a director better known for his 1928 version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. This working-class triangle drama anticipates both Jean Vigo and the neo-realists in its mix of poetical and documentary-like elements, and is an undersung masterpiece of the silent era. As usual, all the programs will have live musical accompaniment. Sat/1, Castro Theatre. More info here.
NICE (New Italian Cinema Events)
it’s fitting that the Silent Fest and NICE should overlap this week, since for a short period ending just about a century ago, Italy was at the forefront of global film production in terms of innovation and ambition. (By 1920, however, Hollywood had seized the leading role it’s never relinquished since.) That industry has undergone several further booms and busts since, and if Italian cinema is hardly at a high point these days, there’s nonetheless always interesting work by established and emerging filmmakers.
The latter are always the focus at NICE, whose 22nd annual edition brings six first or second features by new directors that will compete for the audience-voted City of Florence Award. They’ll include a documentary about local cattle wranglers (The Last Italian Cowboys), a troubled-youth fiction (Here and Now), an inebriative thriller (The Last Prosecco), latterday neo-realism (Manuel), and more.
The opening night film is As Needed, a culinary comedy that touches on the issue of mental disability in the workplace. Director Francesco Falaschi is expected to be present, as is Silvia Bellotti, whose prize-winning nonfiction Open to the Public (about the bureaucratic chaos that attends Naples’ public housing projects) is the closing night selection. It plays with another hour-long documentary, Enrico Maisto’s The Call, about citizens who suffer the ill luck to be drafted as jurors on mafiosi criminal trials. Fri/30-Sun/2, Vogue Theatre. More info here.
Aside from the imminent Cold War, from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida), no foreign-language movie this year has drummed up the kind of widespread acclaim and awards anticipation as this latest from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Both films happen to be gorgeously shot in B&W, and have a certain autobiographical element, but there the comparisons end.
In his first Spanish-language movie since 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien—in between he’s done a Harry Potter, dystopian critical favorite Children of Men and intelligent sci-fi hit Gravity—Cuaron looks back at his childhood (and its politically turbulent period of Mexican history) through the lens of a servant in a middle-class Mexico City household in 1970.
Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is one of two live-in housemaids working for a doctor, his wife, their four children and one grandma. They toil pretty much all day, every day, but have no other expectations, and for the most part it’s a fairly pleasant gig. Or at least it is until the “master” of the house leaves on what the kids are told is a trip to a conference in Canada. But in fact it’s something else, very likely something more permanent. (Hint: The Sexual Revolution may have liberated women in many ways, but it also led a lot of husbands to abandon their families for swinging “freedom”—expecting their wives to stay behind tethered to the home, of course.) Another evolving crisis is Cleo’s discovery that she’s pregnant by a suitor who disappears into thin air the minute she breaks the news. Meanwhile, Mexico itself is undergoing enormous changes, as was the U.S. during the same era.
Both intimate in focus and occasionally grand in scale, this period piece has a great deal to say about class, politics and the sexes, although it’s all presented in a subtextual, non-schematic way. Cuaron stages some magnificent tracking-shot setpieces, but as impressive as it often is stylistically, Roma is at heart an exercise in neo-realist observation and modesty. (Even if the sentimental, melodramatic ending is a tad much.) It’s both a straightforward pleasure to watch and a prime example of a kind of nuanced, insightful movie for grownups one rarely sees these days—at least not without the sugar-coating of marquee stars or an obvious inspirational “message.” At area theaters.
At the opposite end of the scale from Roma’s proletariat chronicle is this willfully perverse costume bauble that is as aesthetically rarefied as it is great, often rude fun. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, the English ruler of the early 18th century, here portrayed as a gouty, insecure, self-pitying widow without children (she’d suffered numerous miscarriages) who’s putty in the hands of court favorite Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz).
Clever and ruthless, the latter uses alternating currents of flattery and bullying to manipulate the Queen—with consequences that reach as far as policies abroad in a time of war against France. This power dynamic is upset, however, by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen gentlewoman with no wealth or power save in her own scheming resourcefulness. As she worms her way into the monarch’s confidence, a bitter rivalry develops between the two younger women.
This is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ (Dogtooth, The Lobster) first time realizing someone else’s script (one penned by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara). But while the results are more mainstream in appeal than he’s managed before, they retain his characteristic flavor of absurd, sometimes grotesque black comedy. An editor friend aptly described The Favourite as “Barry Lyndon meets All About Eve as directed by Peter Greenaway.” It’s a splendidly ornate-looking, precisely acted, ironical and impudent comedy of very ill manners. At area theaters.
Lost Landscapes of San Francisco
Rick Prelinger’s popular, ever-changing show of vintage clips returns to the Castro, this time for a two-night run. Among the images of local yesteryears offered by the assembled mix of home movies, industrial films and more are glimpses of sand dunes (!) in 1920s Outer Richmond residential blocks; baseball games of yore; a 1966 “Human Be-In;” Native American protestors of the Alcatraz occupation a few years later; Sputnik-era high school science projects; and a 4K restoration of the famously rediscovered 1906 short “A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire,” which captures downtown just prior to the catastrophic earthquake. Tues/4-Wed/5, Castro Theatre. More info here.
Movie production barely existed in Singapore when student Sandi Tan—fueled by adoration of the French New Wave, emerging U.S. independent cinema, and one charismatic American film teacher—decided to make an absurdist “road movie” with like-minded friends. It would be unlike anything the island city-state had generated before, or for the most part even seen. (In the late 80s and early 90s Tan exerted considerable ingenuity simply to access Blue Velvet and other foreign features too daring or esoteric for local release, even on video.)
But their intended Shirkers, though fully shot, remained unfinished—for reasons only gradually revealed in this acclaimed documentary made by Tan nearly forty years later. Its unedited footage vanished along with the key figure whose motives, actions and relation to the truth remain a mystery after all these years.
The film that was never seen eventually acquired a sort of “urban legend” status in Singapore. The recovered material seen here (alongside interviews with surviving participants) raises a question: If the feature had actually been completed in 1991, would it have gone down as an enterprising but amateurish lark? Is it, in fact, more valuable for having lay hidden so long, finally resulting in a nostalgic excavation-slash-lament that may be more meaningful than the original thing itself? Opera Plaza. More info here.
Searching for Ingmar Bergman
Though he doesn’t seem to be so much in cultural fashion anymore, arguably no single director did as much to bring cinema credibility as a high art form and intellectual pursuit as the great, late Swedish master. This year has seen an increased number of tributes to Bergman (who died in 2007), as it’s the centenary of his birth. Among them is Margarethe von Trotta’s documentary, which charts his towering career through clips, as well as interviews with surviving collaborators (Liv Ullmann, Gunnel Lindblom) and latterday filmmakers he influenced (Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Love, Carlos Saura, Ruben Ostlund, etc.)
Von Trotta counts herself among the latter, and indeed she has compiled a significant body of her own work in the last four decades. However, In Search, while a decent enough introduction for those not already steeped in Bergman, offers only elemental insight into his work. Worse, Von Trotta insists on inserting herself into the entire film, both as a first-person narrator and frequent on-screen presence, frequently dragging her own career into the picture—to the point where it feels like the film should more properly be called Ingmar & Me, Me, Me. The result, alas, comes dangerously close to being more of an exercise in navel-gazing than homage. Roxie. More info here.