SCEEN GRABS This week brings two major new films about “divisive” American political figures—not exactly what the general public usually wants for Xmas, but oh well. Neither of them are very good. Mimi Leder’s  On the Basis of Sex is a drearily on-the-nose inspirational dramatization of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s early struggles at Harvard Law School and in the legal profession, with Felicity Huffman as the future Supreme Court Justice. 

Earlier this year, the runaway documentary hit RBG respected its subject—if it hadn’t, she’d have stared it down. This is the “For Dummies” version, packaging an anti-gender discrimination message about as broadly and simplistically as Hidden Figures did an anti-racist one a couple years ago. That approach might actually work for less mature audiences who’d be bored by the doc. But while Sex would be a fine junior high social studies class discussion-spur, it isn’t working as the awards-bait it was rather too obviously designed to be, and no wonder.

Doing somewhat better in those awards sweepstakes so far is Adam McKay’s Vice, a less fatuous movie but also a more flummoxing one. The regular Will Ferrell collaborator and Big Short writer-director here takes on no less than Dick Cheney, chronicling the latter’s crawl up the GOP ladder to his position as de facto President “under” nitwit POTUS George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Cheney (played by Christian Bale under layers of latex) is a figure whose name can evoke loathing even in the depths of the Trump era, so making a film—let alone a starry, expensive one—about him requires a little craziness. 

But Vice is a bewilderingly safe movie, one that seeks to “humanize” him in pat, maudlin ways (awww look, he really loves his wife and daughters!), and on the other hand excoriate him for his crimes of Machiavellian malevolence and guile, without quite having the stomach to make those vivid enough. Much like Oliver Stone’s W. a decade ago, it ends up a superficially daring portrait of a living politician that has little specific to say about him—and Cheney is not a person you can take a neutral stance towards. It’s an entertaining, sometimes funny film, with a mostly-good cast that doesn’t always disappear very effectively into their roles (see: Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell). Still, why on Earth make a movie about DICK CHENEY that can ultimately be described as just “entertaining”? 

More in tune with the holiday spirit is the arrival of Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns, which has gotten positive-to-mixed early reviews—positive for Emily Blunt as the magical English nanny, more mixed for the film itself, purportedly a “sequel” some think a little too slavishly imitative of the 1964 Disney version. If you really can’t bear the thought of Poppins without Julie Andrews, there’s odd comfort to be found in Aquaman—this season’s big gift from the DC Comics universe—where she makes a (voice-only) cameo. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Capernaum 
Though it’s gotten somewhat overshadowed—like every other 2018 foreign-language release—by the dynamic B&W duo of Roma and Cold War, this Lebanon-U.S. coproduction from actress turned writer-director Nadine Labaki is still one of the year’s best films. 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is serving a long criminal sentence when he voluntarily goes back to court, this time in order to sue his parents for neglect, and for otherwise creating the circumstances that led him to this bleak current reality. 

We then see that backstory, in which a poor family in the slums of Beirut uses resourceful eldest child Zain as its primary source of income (while the aforementioned parents sit around and complain), going to far as to virtually “sell” his beloved sister when finances get even tighter. Zain runs away, landing in the humbler shack of a kindly Ethiopian refugee (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby, only to find his responsibilities grow still heavier when she’s detained by immigration authorities. 

Though colorfully shot, Capernaum (which means “chaos”) has that particular hard-to-watch quality of other great movies about poverty, desperation and suffering among the very young, like Los Olvidados or Pixote. Our pint-sized hero’s dialogue is a mite too precocious at times—we don’t really need him to spell out the damning social message that’s already quite clear here—but that aside, Labaki does a terrific job maintaining credibility and suspense, as well as gleaning fine performances from her mix of professional and debuting actors. Too skillfully crafted to be a simple downer, it’s a tough film, but also an exceptional one. Clay. More info here

If Beale Street Could Talk
Perhaps no director’s “followup” film was as eagerly awaited this year as Barry Jenkins’, following as it does the extraordinary Moonlight. (Which in turn followed the promising, micro-budgeted, SF-set indie Medicine for Melancholy.) Friends since childhood, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) finally give in to their mutual secret desires and become lovers as young adults in late 1960s Harlem. Their kinship is so perfect that not even an unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy can dim their joy. (Which is not to say his snobbish family doesn’t react differently.) What does manage to dim that shared light is Fonny being framed for a crime he had nothing to do with.

At least the sixth or so significant movie this year to deal with police injustice towards African-Americans, Beale Street is certainly the dreamiest of the lot. As luminously shot by James Laxton and alluringly scored by Nicholas Britell, it’s a romantic idyll of period NYC life whose swooniness is only heightened by the protagonists’ pain of forced separation. But where Moonlight’s dark journey towards daylight made Jenkins’ impressionistic style vividly striking, this time (as in Melancholy) he over-bets on a not-always-evident chemistry between leads whose rightness for each other the film insists on with every quivering bone. It’s a movie that runs a narrow gamut between rapture and thwarted rapture. Jenkins is a poet in the prose medium of narrative cinema, and here his dolorous style somewhat overwhelms—and over-stretches—James Baldwin’s source story. 

There’s a lot to like, including some powerful individual sequences, and fine supporting performances by the likes of Regina King and onetime SF stage actor Colman Domingo (both playing Tish’s parents). Some may indeed get swept up in Beale Street’s pining poetry as intended. For others, it will be that preferred type of disappointment: The one that is too much of a good thing. Opens Christmas at area theaters.

Bird Box
Sandra Bullock plays a newly pregnant (but single) NoCal artist whose path towards reluctant motherhood grows suddenly, drastically complicated due to an inexplicable disaster: Around the globe, people suddenly start killing themselves, under the apparent influence of some mysterious force. The only means of survival is to not go (or even look) outside, or wear a blindfold if absolutely necessary, since the phenomenon induces psychosis through some visual means. 

This latest English-language film by Danish director Susanna Bier (Brothers, After the Wedding, In A Better World) cuts between two periods: In one, Bullock tries to get herself and two young children down a river to what she hopes is a safe haven. In another, five years earlier, she’s one of several strangers (also including John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Danielle Macdonald and Jacki Weaver) holed up in a house, trying to survive the catastrophe’s initial onslaught. 

Based on a novel by Josh Malerman, this dystopian sci-fi thriller recalls many prior tales, but is bound to be compared primarily to this year’s A Quiet Place—which is conceptually similar but more of a straightforward horror thriller. The menace here is invisible, and the suspense more psychological than physical. Bird Box doesn’t aim for profundity, and it’s not quite imaginative, ingenious, or terrifying enough to be truly memorable. Still, it’s a strong piece that effectively moves from crisis to crisis without ever growing too hyperbolic or improbable. If you’re looking for a grownup movie over the holidays that’s neither heavy-lifting awards fodder or a trashily escapist mallflick, this offbeat, well-crafted tale offers one viable choice. At area theaters. More info here.

The Night of the Hunter 
This Southern Gothic fairy tale for adults was a complete flop upon its original 1955 release, as well as, sadly, the first and last directorial feature for actor Charles Laughton. But since then it’s been embraced as one of the great American movies of its era, or any other for that matter. Robert Mitchum plays a sociopathic ersatz preacher, ex-con, and violently misogynist seducer who insinuates himself with a widow (Shelley Winters) to access the stolen money he thinks her husband left behind. He won’t stop at murder, even when it comes to her two young children, who flee downriver into the care of a sort of backwoods fairy godmother (Lillian Gish). 

Gorgeous and harrowing, with one of the most memorable screen villains ever, Night is being shown at the Castro as Noir City’s annual “Cruel Yule” presentation, which will include a preview of its full-scale annual festival next month. Wed/19, Castro. More info here

The Apartment 
This acerbic seriocomedy seemed the apex of intelligent, “adult” American cinema in 1960, a few years before the censorship walls would really start tumbling down. Jack Lemmon plays a low-level white-collar striver who hopes he’s expediting a rise up the corporate ladder by “lending” his Manhattan apartment to executives for trysts with their mistresses. Things get problematic when the biggest of these bigwigs (Fred MacMurray) turns out to be thus exploiting the elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine) Lemmon is besotted with himself. 

With its cynical yet ultimately redeeming perspective on moneyed privilege, love and adultery, The Apartment was very up-to-the-moment back then, and would prove an influence on everything from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to American Beauty to Mad Men. Coming after a string of other highly esteemed hits (the latest one being Some Like It Hot), it secured Wilder’s status as the wittiest of mainstream Hollywood filmmakers. No one would have guessed then that it would, in fact, be his last unqualified success before a long, slow creative and commercial decline. Sat/22 & Thurs/27, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.  Also Thurs/27, Castro (with Some Like it Hot). More info here.

Avant to Live
San Francisco keeps changing in ways we don’t necessarily like, but at least one thing stays blessedly the same: Every Other Cinema calendar ends with a program of “New Experimental Works” that highlights some of the best and most diverse current avant-garde film (and video). This time tere will be world premieres with the makers present for Tim Johnson’s March of Time, David King’s Male Men, Bryan Boyce’s Fake But True, and Jeremy Rourke’s multimedia performance may two thousand and eighteen. There will also be new pieces by Julie Murray, Lana Caplan, Anthony Buchanan, Greta Snider, Haley McCormick, Sabine Gruffat, and others. Sat/22, Artists Television Access. More info here