SCREEN GRABS There was so much happening last week, we didn’t have room to mention two major series now already in-progress at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. One is the fourth and final segment of “Bergman 100,” a year-long retrospective of the late Swedish master’s films and TV work, programmed on the centenary of his birth. There will be two showings (on 12/21 & 27) of 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, not only Bergman’s warmest work, but the only Christmas-themed one—in both its feature-length US version, and the full, five-hour original Swedish miniseries form. The other series is The Puppet Master: The Films of Jiri Trinka, which celebrates the work of a Czech stop-motion innovator whose versions of popular fairy tales, whimsies and parables (from The Emperor’s Nightingale to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) played a major role in introducing audiences worldwide to adventuresome animation not entirely aimed at kids. Two additional new PFA series arrive this week—see details below.
Among movies opening this week that we did not see in advance are the wide release Anna and the Apocalypse, an English teenage zombie musical comedy that is reportedly good fun, a la Clueless meets Shawn of the Dead; and (at the Roxie), Mamoru Hosoda’s anime fantasy Mirai, involving an attention-needy little boy whose wigout over the arrival of a little sister is tempered by instructive visitors from the future.
Duly seen but not necessarily recommended is actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (at the Alamo Drafthouse), in which a school shooting survivor (Raffey Cassidy) grows into an obnoxiously bratty adult pop star (Natalie Portman) with substance-abuse problems and a teenage daughter (Cassidy again) of her own. The climax is a concert, and while admitting that “Celeste’s” whole act (her songs are written by actual pop star Sia) isn’t my kinda thing, it’s disconcerting that I’ve no idea whether we’re supposed to find the heavily choreographed show-within-the-movie dazzling, fatuous, or both. It’s a well-made, well-acted character study, but spending two hours with this particular character may well seem pointlessly punishing.
Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):
Local director, writer, actor and indie pop composer H.P. Mendoza is probably still best-known for his 2006 debut feature Colma: The Musical, an enduring delight still known to regrettably few (at least outside the Bay Area). His fourth film is his most accomplished, however, even if it lacks characters bursting into song. Instead, the protagonists in this densely packed seriocomedy are extended family members of a working-class Filipino-American clan reuniting in SF’s Excelsior district over Xmas weekend for the first time in quite a while.
It’s an occasion complicated by plenty of emotional baggage, not least a history of abusive husband/father-figures that continues, despite the by-now-longtime estrangement of matriarch Prisa’s (Josephine de Jesus) drunken batterer of an ex-husband. His absence hangs over the often boisterous festivities like a dark cloud. But it’s the unruly temper of middle son Troy (Patrick Epino) that eventually triggers a crisis, and drastic action. Despite this domestic-violence theme, much of Bitter Melonis refreshingly, caustically funny, with plenty of unpredictable tonal shifts handled with great aplomb by Mendoza and his collaborators. This isn’t a perfect movie, yet its occasional flaws are part and parcel of its bracing ambition and vibrancy. AMC Van Ness.
Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
As too many liberals continue to waste energy arguing whose fault it is that Trump got elected, they seldom mention one leading guilty party, perhaps because he’s safely dead: Ailes, the Chairman/CEO of Fox News who died (after being forced to resign those positions) last year. Driven by anger, resentment and insecurity, like so many successful assholes, he went from producing TV talk-variety program The Mike Douglas Show to basically “producing” Richard Nixon’s media image in the 1968 Presidential campaign. He introduced hitherto unknown levels of popular media manipulation to U.S. politics, swiftly becoming the Republican Party’s top strategist.
According to this well-crafted documentary by Alexis Bloom, Ailes’ founding of Fox News twenty-two years ago was—typically for him—in large part an act of retaliation for a perceived slight. Former staff members here recall being instructed to pursue stories they termed “riling up the crazies,” because they were sheer sensationalism designed to drum up ratings. Conspiracy theories, barely-concealed racism, far-right “personalities” like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck all became part of the “fair and balanced” company’s successful mainstreaming of propaganda as quasi-reportage. Meanwhile, perpetual malcontent Ailes, called a “profoundly paranoid person” here, spied on his own employees and perceived enemies alike. He also undermined the careers of women who refused his advances—something that would ultimately trigger his downfall. But not before he’d seen the election of Trump, whom he’d done as much as anyone to “sell” to the voting public.
Needless to say, Divide and Conquer is an unpleasant watch, but also a worthy one, as it does a great deal to explain how we got to our surreal and destructive present state of a reality-TV POTUS whose glaring flaws are dismissed by so many as “fake news.” Opera Plaza. More info here.
People’s Republic of Desire
Another disturbing new documentary is Hao Wu’s portrait of a bizarre phenomenon that has taken particular root in mainland China: “Internet idols” who cater to their fanbases via live streaming, begging virtual “gifts” from their “patrons,” competing against one another for all-important popularity ratings. Many of these people have no particular “talent” to offer beyond a powerful drive for attention—but that makes them relatable to viewers for whom they offer a popular fantasy of escape.
There’s an addictive, gambling-like quality to these largely short-term “fames” on both the giving and receiving side, not least because fans have to spend money to get their idol’s notice for a fleeting moment. It all seems so wildly empty-calorie and dysfunctional, even the Kardashians start to look fairly “real” by comparison. (One hostess got so caught up she live-streamed her own suicide attempt, then hospital recovery.) Simultaneously colorful and creepy, this is a bizarre cautionary tale of profound disconnection and loneliness in the digital age, with the suggestion that society as a whole might be headed in such counter-productive directions. Wu will appear in person at the 4:15 show on Sat/8. Roxie. More info here.
Fritz Lang & German Expressionism
With its abstract sets making madness physically tangible, Robert Weine’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a film that first introduced many to the idea that movies could be a serious art form. Its German Expressionist style would prove highly influential, stretching as far as the visual style of the 1940s film noir wave and beyond. This PFA series encompasses Caligari as well as other famous silent works by FW Murnau (The Last Laugh, Faust, Nosferatu), Paul Wegener (The Golem) and Joe May (the lesser-known Asphalt). But its principal focus is on the school’s greatest acolyte, Fritz Lang. The schedule stretches from his monumental silent-era achievements (including of course the incredible dystopian-future classic Metropolis) to early-talkie masterpieces M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Refusing to work for the Nazis, Lang eventually wound up in Hollywood—where his films (not featured in this series) were on the whole far less epically scaled, but retained strong elements of German Expressionist style. Fri/7-Fri/Jan. 18, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
Japanese Film Classics From the BAMPFA Collection
Attending its year-round public exhibition programs, you may well forget that the Pacific Film Archive really is an archive, with an enormous permanent collection of classic, experimental and miscellaneous films in its West Berkeley storage facilities. This series cherry-picks some of the great Japanese features that have been preserved in 35mm form there for decades, in many cases since the early 1970s. It will include major works by Mizoguchi (Sancho the Bailiff, Ugetsu), Kurosawa (Ikiru, Sanshiro Sugata), Ozu (Early Summer), Shinoda (Double Suicide), Ichikawa (Harp of Burma), Naruse (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), and more. Wed/12-Sun/Jan. 27, PFA. More info here.
Archive Fever 3: YouTubers
This Other Cinema evening probes the pervasive presence and influence of “found footage,” as deployed in works ranging from musicians Kristin Cato and Cindy Sawprano’s “live film” performance of L00p8L008 to cultural critiques by Penny Lane (Normal Appearances), Dominic Gagnon (Going South), Katherine McInnis (Eye of the Needle), and many more. Sat/8, Artists Television Access. More info here.
In 1979 David Cronenberg ended his seven-year first marriage to Margaret Hindson, an apparently acrimonious split that weighed heavily on their portentously named daughter Cassandra. The same year he released this mind-warping Canadian horror movie, in which the malevolent, institutionalized ex-wife (Samantha Eggar) of one Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) unleashes her anger—in the form of homicidal dwarf-children—on him, their young daughter (Cindy Hinds), and anyone who tries to help them.
Arguably cinema’s most macabre (and misogynist) custody battle, The Brood is nuts, its toe-hold on reality scarcely helped by the presence of Oliver Reed as a sinister experimental psychotherapist. Though a box-office success, it was considered by many the most distasteful film yet by Cronenberg, whom at the time mainstream critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin thought unduly attracted to “disgusting” content.
His work would gradually, if erratically, grow more “respectable” with the commencement of his bigger-budgeted, Hollywood-connected features a few years later. Eventually, few would deny that Cronenberg was a major artist. But it’s still true that not everyone can stomach The Brood—which despite (and/or because of) its lurid extremes, remains one of his best movies. It’s a possessed Freudian nightmare whose terror of female sexuality and motherhood goes so far over the top, it also functions as a deconstruction of paranoid male fragility. Tues/11, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.