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Monday, October 25, 2021

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: IndieFest, Godard's latest, and a Jeff Goldblum...

Screen Grabs: IndieFest, Godard’s latest, and a Jeff Goldblum smorgasbord

Plus: Brazil takes on environmental crisis in an animated feature — does it work?

Last week we mentioned the beginning of SF Indiefest, whose 21st edition starts Wed/30 with the new indie comedy The Unicorn and a “live re-score” of Disney animation classic Fantasia. But the bulk of the festival is yet to come, encompassing the next two weeks — on Valentine’s Day, when it will end fittingly with the already beloved institution of the “Power Ballad Sing-a-Long.”

The official closing night (Feb. 14) film is Waterlily Jaguar, actress Melora Water’s feature debut as writer-director. It stars one of our favorite actors, James Le Gros, who’s been a familiar face since Drugstore Cowboy 30 years ago. Despite a prolific and diverse career since, he is seldom seen in the kind of movie-dominating lead role he gets here.

Le Gros plays a wealthy misanthrope, a famous author who disdains his best-selling success and becomes fixated on a bizarre subject for what would likely be a decidedly non-commercial next book: The “La Brea Woman,” a prehistoric female whose remains were preserved by the tar pits for thousands of years until their discovery in 1914. As this obsession seems to undermine his mental health, his already-rocky professional and other relationships come unglued, including that with his latest long-suffering wife (Mira Sorvino). It’s an odd, interesting concept that doesn’t feel fully fleshed out by the screenplay. But Le Gros is excellent as this prickly but not (it turns out) irredeemable curmudgeon — a role he inhabits just as fully and comfortably as the dirt-poor alcoholic rural deer hunter he plays in Buck Shot, another new indie feature.

Other highlighted SF Indiefest titles include the Roxie opening nighter (Thu/31) The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, with Sam Elliott as that man in a fantastical yet surprisingly poker-faced (and very literal-minded) adventure; and Fri/8 “Centerpiece” film Little Woods, Nia DaCosta’s drama about women driven to desperate measures in a North Dakota oil “boomtown” in which precious little of that wealth is actually trickling down to local residents.

Among works of particular local interest and/or origin are two world premieres, Daniel Kremer’s B&W murder mystery Overwhelm the Sky and Adam Zbar’s absurdist Silicon Valley tale Mermaids and Manatees. There’s several documentaries with Bay Area roots, like Stuart Swezey’s Desolation Center, documenting a pre-Burning Man cultural experiment in the 1980s California desert; Laura VanZee Taylor’s yoga-themed I Am Maris; Bernardo Rjiuz’s Harvest Season, about the Napa Valley wine industry; Courtney Quirin’s Guardians, which focuses on some superior longtime Canadian environmental policies; and Cameron Bargerstock’s Exit Music, a portrait of creativity, cystic fibrosis, and facing death.

Though heavy on U.S. indie cinema as usual, the program also has room for foreign works like the British black comedy Degenerates and Chilean animated feature The Wolf House. Other intriguing-looking features include Amanda Kramer’s Ladyworld, a Lord of the Flies amongst teenage girls earthquake-trapped in a house. Its opposite number is Danishka Esterhazy’s Canadian Level 16, in which more teenage girls undergo a Handmaid’s Tale-like training in “perfect femininity.” Surely worth a glance for their titles alone are cult sendup Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh and non-fictive This Taco Truck Kills Fascists. Many features will be accompanied by shorts, but there are also six unique programs devoted solely to shorts. SF Indiefest runs Wed/30-Thu/14 primarily at the Roxie and Victoria. More info here.

Unavailable for preview by deadline was this week’s most notable new wide opening Miss Bala, the latest from Catherine Hardwicke, whose career went unevenly mainstream (the first Twilight movie, Red Riding Hood) and then on to television after the exceptional start of Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. A remake of the same-titled 2011 Mexican thriller, it stars Gina Rodriguez as a woman forced into the world of smuggling and money laundering across the U.S.-Mexico border, and could be a return to the grittier terrain of Hardwicke’s acclaimed early work.

Other screen attractions include the second half (through Sun/3) of Noir City at the Castro; an opportunity at the Pacific Film Archive to see both parts of Fritz Lang’s mammoth, five-hour 1924 Norse mythology blowout Die Nieberlungen; and They Shall Not Grow Old, which finally opens a regular run after several single-day showings across the country.

The latter is Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s restoration and editing of documentary footage from World War I into an overview of the common soldier’s life in that unprecedented conflict a century ago. Some have applauded great “you-are-there” immediacy in his using modern technology to present these B&W clips in color and 3-D, while others found that approach alienating and artificial. (The limits of technique are exposed in the way some long-gone, hundred-year-old faces turn into creepy blurs.) Still, given that many students today apparently aren’t even aware the Holocaust happened, anything that teaches history to a wide audience is welcome.

The Image Book

Jean-Luc Godard seemed so integrally a part of the 1960s, and he’s seldom shown much interest since in regaining the commercial audience he willfully alienated after that decade’s close. Yet here he is with a new movie at age 88, having survived nearly all his contemporaries. The Image Book is, like most of his recent work, a sort of found-footage collage — its clips drawn from throughout the history of moviemaking (and movie-taking), including excerpts as diverse as the humungous 1966 Russian War & Peace, Pasolini’s notorious Salo, plus Hollywood sweet (Young Mr. Lincoln), sour (Johnny Guitar) and WTF (Freaks). There’s quite a bit of actual combat and atrocity footage, both historic and up-to-the-moment-terroristic.

Many of these elements are altered (in terms of color intensity, speed, et al.) at his keyboard. As ever, his choices often seem willfully perverse, even arbitrary, from the frequent dropout of sound to the erratic English subtitling of his own cornhusk-dry voiceover narration. It wouldn’t be Godard if the precise meaning weren’t somewhat obscure and the intent at least partly prankish, even though this time he does appear to be thematically focused on our era as one of collapse: This “book”’s images are largely of violence, war, rape, murder.

If only for the rich color, variety, and frequent familiarity of those images, this is a more palatable Godard film than many he’s made in recent decades. Still, some experience is recommended in approaching its puzzle box. If you’re introducing someone (or yourself) to Godard, backtrack to Breathless and Weekend, then very gradually work your way forward towards latterday abstracts such as this. Fri/1, Sat/9, Pacific Film Archive, SF. More info here.

Tito and the Birds

This Brazilian animated feature applies an adult artistic sensibility to a parable nonetheless somewhat hemmed in by the pretense of being a “children’s” entertainment. Its rich, lovely, impressionistic visuals — redolent of oil paintings — outclass a somewhat awkward story about a little boy who leads the fight against an epidemic that seizes upon people’s fear of the “other” until they’re paralyzed, fully withdrawn from society.

There’s no question this is about the way that reactionary politics are alienating individuals and whole communities in Brazil, the U.S., and beyond. But the script is literal-minded enough to let the oft-silly foreground action get in the way of the deeper, evocative metaphorical backdrop (both visual and thematic). The result is slightly too abstract for kids yet a bit too dumbed-down for grownups. It’s still worth it if you can turn your brain off to an extent and just soak in the high-art beauty of the frequently dominating backgrounds, which are unusually sophisticated for a “cartoon” — certainly far more so than the story and characters they ostensibly support here. Opens Fri/1, Opera Plaza, SF. More info here.

The Goldblum Standard: A Jeff Goldblum Mystery Marathon

Independence Day remains one of the most popular and influential movies of the last quarter-century, but the only truly great thing about it is that it had the inspiration to place the fate of Earth and all humankind in the hands of supreme goofball Jeff Goldblum. (And he comes through!) That stroke of genius was equalled two years ago when Thor: Ragnarok had the notion of making Goldblum the goofball who just might destroy all existence, just cuz. Both scenarios were equally (im-)plausible and delightful.

Somewhere along the line, those roles and the goodwill accumulated by 45 years onscreen (well, maybe not his very first role as murdering rapist “Freak #1” in Death Wish) got Goldblum officially ordained as a sort of cultural treasure. Not just by the kinds of mega-fans who similarly adore Bruce Campbell or Brad Dourif, but by everybody.

Thus it makes perfect sense that the Alamo Drafthouse should be holding this entire day of worship to the ‘Blum that is 100% gold, a man so beloved that we don’t know or care what films are actually going to be shown. That’s the “mystery,” although based on the photos on the Drafthouse website, one might guess there’s a fair chance the program will include such memorable Jeff G. joints as The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai and Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, the movie in which he arguably most made masculine dithering sexy. The four TBA features will be screened in 35mm, with “surprises” and “special theme menus” promised. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS hosts! Sun/3, New Mission Alamo Drafthouse, SF. More info here.

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