Friday, February 26, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Fighting for survival in 'Arctic' and courting...

Screen Grabs: Fighting for survival in ‘Arctic’ and courting death in Norwegian black metal

Plus: 'Last Black Man in San Francisco' triumphs at Sundance and little-known German and Swedish gems


Yors truly is just back from the Sundance Film Festival, and the only thing you really need to know about that is that quite possibly the best film of the entire festival (though the prizes it won did not include Best Dramatic Feature) was none other than Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’ The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

All hometown chauvinism aside, this is a great movie — although admittedly, it will have special resonance for anyone who’s lived here long enough to share the film’s particular sense of loss about this city. Anyway, we’ll no doubt have more occasion to write about it in the future.

Fortunately for those of you not privileged to wade through snowdrifts on your way to movies once a year, there’s a heady year-round diet of classic and recent international cinema being served up at the Pacific Film Archive. Patronage there has only increased since it (and the University Art Museum) moved into new digs a block from downtown Berkeley BART a few years back. This week alone features a new feature by Godard (see below), contemporary Chinese documentaries, vintage films by Fritz Lang, Jia Zhangke in person with his acclaimed new gangster epic Ash is Purest White, and Minding the Gap — probably the best of the five current Best Documentary Oscar nominees.

There are also three programs particularly notable for their rarity. You can’t see the films of veteran experimentalist Nathaniel Dorsky in any format save 16mm projection, his preferred format for at least 55 years now. So hie thee down to the PFA Saturday night to see him present four of his typically poetical, primarily silent recent works. Sat/9 8pm, $13, $8 BAMPFA member. More info here.

Another silent slice of poetry is Joe May’s 1929 German feature Asphalt, screening Sunday afternoon. It’s a simple, even crudely melodramatic tale of a “bad” woman (Betty Amann, a flapper beauty in the Louise Brooks mode) gradually redeemed by the love of and for the cop (Albert Steinruck) who arrests her for shoplifting jewels. It’s a tale considerably elevated by the expressive technique of May, who was one of the major European directors of the era. Both he and Amann eventually fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood, never attaining the same career heights again. She soon left acting entirely, while he was seldom given any assignments worthy of his talent, ending making grade-B comedies with aging juveniles the Dead End Kids (with whom he didn’t even get along). Sun/10 4pm, $13, $8 BAMPFA member. More info here

Earlier that afternoon, the PFA will present probably the first Bay Area screening in decades of Bo Widerberg’s 1969 Adalen 31, a Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar nominee that has fallen into obscurity — though not in Sweden, where it (and the incidents portrayed) continues to influence modern politics and policy. It’s an often lyrical, low-key dramatization of the notorious 1931 Adalen shootings, in which military troops opened fire on protesting laborers on strike for better pay from the rural area’s lumber industry.

Widerberg, who took his role seriously as part of a Swedish cinematic new wave, had had a great worldwide hit with 1967’s Elvira Madigan. It was also based on a historical incident, but became the kind of movie that is successful primarily because it depicts very pretty people in pretty settings, in gauzy color photography. Perhaps chagrined by its reception as a glorified shampoo commercial, his next projects were ambitious and overtly political, the other being biopic Joe Hill, about the Swedish-American folksinger/activist. Adalen is being shown (in an archival 35mm print) within the series “Life Goes On: The Films of Mia Hansen-Love,” as one of the movies that artist-in-resident considers a major personal influence. Sun/10 1:30pm, $13, $8 BAMPFA members. More info here.

Also this week, there’s the opening of ecological documentary Sharkwater Extinction; Liam Neeson revenge thriller Cold Pursuit, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own black-comedy-tinged 2014 In Order of Disappearance; and at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas, two separate programs of the current Oscar nominees for Best Live Action and Animation Shorts. There’s also the final week of SF Indiefest, which continues through Thu/14 at the Roxie.



Though he’s still primarily known in the U.S. for villainous roles (most famously as TV’s Hannibal, and literally breaking 007’s balls in Casino Royale), Mads Mikkelsen’s movies in his native Denmark make it clear he’s an actor of great range — in fact, one of the great movie actors of our time. Ergo he’s the perfect performer for this kind of one man show, in which his character is plane-wrecked in a remote polar region.

While we know almost nothing about him (including how long he’s been stuck here), Mikkelsen’s “Overgard” has superb survival skills, knowing how to ice-fish and otherwise maximize his minimal resources. He’s even able to medically tend another person once a second crash lands a badly wounded young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) with whom he shares no common language in his care. But this environment is hostile to nearly all life, and the scant land life it does sustain (i.e. polar bears) is deadly, too.

This Iceland-shot first feature by Brazilian director Joe Penna is a stripped-down survival drama that is as often grueling as it is exciting. But it’s always involving, in large part due to Mikkelsen, who doesn’t even need dialogue to create an intensely

Lords of Chaos

In another frozen northland, the protagonists of Spun director Jonas Akerlund’s new film aren’t trying to avoid death, but basing their (frequently short) lives around it. This is a dramatization of the infamous chain of events within the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s, when competition and infighting between principal figures led to a series of historic church burnings, not to mention the odd suicide and murder.

See, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the Scandinavian paradise of high living standards and generous social welfare. Admittedly, the Nordic nations had high rates for alcoholism and depression. But the real-life protagonists here worked really, really hard at achieving a state of self-destructive quasi-Satanic nihilism, to the degree that their nastier hijinks became a so-“dark”-it’s-ridick joke heard ‘round the world.

Swede Akerlund, who’s directed music videos for everyone from Madonna to Metallica to Beyonce over the last three decades (and was the drummer for “Viking metal” progenitor Bathory), takes an initially somewhat sneering approach to what he clearly considers a bunch of minimally talented assclown poseurs. But the snark dims as things grow more and more grotesque, starting with Mayhem singer Dead’s (Jack Kilmer) very bloody suicide, then proceeding through the subsequent battle of ill wills between allies turned enemies Euroymous (Rory Culkin) and Varg (Emory Cohen).

Sometimes the tone is a little too close to caricature, the two leads’ psychological journeys aren’t all that convincing, and the film suffers from being denied permission to use any of the original music involved. Still, this well-crafted recap of stranger-than-fiction events has an undeniable entertainment value, one located at the intersection of horror, black comedy and docudrama. Opens Fri/8, 8 & 10:30pm, $16.75. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

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