SCREEN GRABS As we mourn the abrupt loss of the AMC Van Ness 14—it closed on short notice last week—and hope the same fate doesn’t await the Opera Plaza Cinemas, the good news is a returning festival at one of the city’s few remaining single-screen theaters. Starting this Valentine’s Day, the Vogue will be hosting the annual Mostly British Film Festival, whose programming encompasses not just the U.K. itself but Ireland, Australia, South Africa and India—(nearly) all the former colonies. It opens with The White Crow, a glimpse of legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s early years, written by the great David Hare and directed by Ralph Fiennes, who’s unquestionably one of the finest actor-turned-directors of our era.
Other highlights include two new films (Celeste, Flammable Children) with Australian actress Radha Mitchell, who will appear in person; My Generation, in which Michael Caine leads us on a nostalgic tour of his formative “Swinging London;” the Full Monty-like comedy Swimming With Men; Maxime Peake (also a festival guest) as a lone female comedian braving the rough world of early 1970s stand-up in Funny Cow; period Irish famine epic Black ’47; and a series of films depicting the English royals, from Olivier as Richard III to Blanchett as Elizabeth I. The closing night selection on Feb. 21 is no less than Mike Leigh’s latest, Peterloo, about an early 19th-century massacre of protesting workers that helped shame the British government into a (very) gradual shift towards less-imperial, more-democratic policies. Thurs/14-Thurs/21, Vogue. More info here: www.mostlybritish.org
Also opening this week is the last and absolutely least of the five foreign language feature Oscar nominees. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, by the director of 2006’s much better (but still overrated) The Lives of Others, an attempt to encapsulate 20th century German (particularly Nazi and Communist East German) injustice in a somberly melodramatic story.
It’s loosely based on the life of famed modern artist Gerhard Richter, sticking fairly close to biographical facts in some ways but sentimental and manipulative in every fictive liberty. Von Donnersmarck is too square to make a movie about a modernist visionary, or perhaps any artist at all. He can only second-guess artistic inspiration as, well, art therapy—purging one’s inner psychological wounds, like a child told to “draw where it hurts.”
It’s a big, long (3+ hours), conventionally well-crafted, “sweeping” and puddle-deep piece o’ crap in the same general realm as Forrest Gump, another movie that trash-compacted times-a-changin’ in a form digestible for dummies. (Yeah, I guess I didn’t like it.) This is such a bogusly impressive “statement,” it might just pull off an Oscar upset over Roma and Cold War. Stranger things have happened—let is not forget Life Is Beautiful, much as we may want to. Opens Friday, Clay Theater. More info here.
Jewish Film Institute Winterfest
Those impatient for the big event of the SF Jewish Film Festival in the summer will get some emergency relief in the form of this, its smaller winter-time showcase. Among the films to be shown are two documentaries about movie-making themselves: James L. Freedman’s Carl Laemmle profiles the German-Jewish emigre who played a huge formative role in the early days of the motion picture industry, eventually co-founding what would become Universal Studios. He also used his considerable clout to help rescue numerous Jewish families from likely doom in Nazi Germany. The other such title is The Ghost of Peter Sellers, in which Hungarian-born British director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, The Krays) relates his disastrous experience making an unreleased 1973 pirate farce starring the mentally unstable comic genius Sellers—who became so impossible that at one point he faked a heart attack simply to take a break from production. It’s the mother of all “Film shoot goes catastrophically wrong” stories.
There will also be documentaries about freedom-of-the-press champion Joseph Pulitzer (Voice of the People), transgender issues (Family in Transition), and a screening of the 20-year-old Home Page, a flashback to the internet when it was just starting to take over the world. Narrative features being shown include A Fortunate Man, a period drama by veteran Danish director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror); Redemption, an Israeli seriocomedy about an Ultra-Orthodox man’s reluctant reuniting of his erstwhile rock band to pay for a daughter’s cancer treatments; Emma Forrest’s L.A. ensemble piece Untogether; and Michal Aviad’s Working Woman, a quietly harrowing tale of a bigtime Jerusalem developer’s personal assistant caught between her family’s economic needs and his increasingly inappropriate workplace attentions. Sat/16-Sun/17, Alamo Drafthouse and Roxie Theater. More info here.
A stealth success last year, at least in SF, was Ali Abbasi’s unique character study Border, about peculiar Swedish female customs officer who finds out she’s not just a little “different”—she is, in fact, a member of another species entirely. This first directorial feature by one of its screenwriters, Isabella Ekolof, is similar only in its envelope-pushing nature, with no fantastical element involved. Sascha (Lindsay Lohan-looking Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the much younger lover of Danish drug dealer Michael (Lai Yde), who takes her with his entourage on a luxury vacation on the “Turkish Riviera.”
Though she dresses the part of a mistress, Sascha hasn’t quite registered that she is property, to be used and abused of however her owner sees fit. (Less than ten minutes in, she’s nonchalantly slapped by one of his flunkies for a minor infraction.) Whether out of obliviousness or rebellion, she befriends a couple Dutch men also taking a holiday here, seemingly unaware that any such straying outside his approved circle will be taken by Michael as faithlessness. Its cold, cruel narrative reminiscent of works by Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, this very discomfiting tale of misogyny and violence will make you squirm, even if it ultimately doesn’t go in the direction you might expect. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.
This latest from Asghar Farhadi of A Separation, The Past and The Salesman is, like Never Look Away, another disappointment from an Oscar-winning director. Penelope Cruz plays a woman who flies in from Buenos Aires with her children to attend a younger sister’s wedding in their native Spanish town. During the boisterous celebration, a family member goes missing, and shortly thereafter a message is received from kidnappers.
With its big cast of major Spanish-language actors (also including Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin), not to mention the writer-director’s track record, this can hardly help but be a cut above average commercial product. Farhadi is no hyperbolic stylist, and his script is more dialogue- than action-driven. Still, Everybody Knows is a thinly disguised pulp thriller that just flirts with larger issues (such as anti-immigrant prejudice), while laying on too many melodramatic conflicts and soap-operatic revelations. The emotional displays are so out of proportion to viewer emotions earned that the film might as well be titled Everybody Cries, with Cruz swimming in tears for most of two hours. This isn’t a bad movie, yet given the talent involved, it should have been much better. Opens Friday at area theaters.
Tongue/War/Cat—A Roxie Conundrum
We can’t highlight everything that happens at the Roxie every week, but three one-shot events this week are worth special note. There’s a 30th-anniversary revival on Wednesday of Tongues Untied, the poetical ode to black gay male identity that pushed late, great Oakland auteur Marlon T. Riggs into an unasked-for national spotlight—its broadcast on PBS ignited a firestorm of conservative outrage. A panel discussion with special guests TBA is promised after the 55-minute film’s screening. Wed/20, more info here.
Riggs died of AIDS at age 37 in 1994—a year before another Bay Area resident, composer Erling Wold, premiered his first chamber opera A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil at Intersection for the Arts. Since then, he’s had a significant international career including last year’s bow of a new chamber opera inspired by the sinking of the Austro-Hungarian Navy vessel SMS St. Stephen in the last days of World War I. Rattensturm: A War Opera is a concert film of the work in its debut performance, as commissioned by the Klagenfurter Ensemble; Wold himself will introduce the screening. Mon/18, more info here.
Finally, it’s all about the pussy as the Roxie hosts two separate programs of the NY Cat Film Festival, featuring your favorite furry friend in everything from short documentaries to comedies to one “puppet mockumentary.” There’s also a nonfiction feature, Markie Hancock’s Feral Love, about a seeming “crazy cat lady” who’s also been a violinist with the New York Philharmonic for forty years. If the prospect of so much feline entertainment is triggering your allergies, fear not: Next weekend brings the NY Dog Film Festival. Sat/16, more info here.
Don’t Look Now
Though he hadn’t made a feature in over 10 years (or a good one for at least 20), the death of Nicolas Roeg a couple months ago meant the loss of one of his generation’s most original film talents. Roeg went from being among the finest cinematographers of the 1960s to a directorial career as striking as any in the adventuresome 1970s. From 1970’s scandalous Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell) to 1980’s equally disturbing Bad Timing, with classic Walkabout and mother-of-all-cult-films The Man Who Fell To Earth between, his work was arresting, challenging, maddening and refreshing.
All of his movies are messily “imperfect,” but arguably none (certainly during that peak Me Decade run) came so close to perfection as Don’t Look Now, a fascinatingly elliptical quasi-horror mystery based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca). Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple who travel to Venice in the wake of their only child’s tragic accidental death. But the labyrinthine old city holds its own terrors, and refuses to let their mourning end.
The film’s initial infamy centered around an unusually graphic (yet tender, even sad) sex scene between the leads that triggered censorship in many countries. But it’s endured as an unusually “haunting” movie in both the psychological and supernatural sense, its hypnotic atmosphere of mingled grief, decay and marital love transcending the horror genre’s usual sensationalism. Tues/19, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.