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Sunday, January 23, 2022

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Screen Grabs: Never mind the Oscars, we’ve got screwballs and Pod People

Furry friends, WWE wrestlers, San Francisco classics, and Humanoids from the Deep will foil Academy glitz.

SCREEN GRABS As if nothing mattered but the Oscars on Sunday (harrumph!), there are no major Hollywood releases this weekend, and few notable arthouse ones. However, there are a number of interesting stray openings and one-shot screenings around.

Among them are a new documentary at the Roxie, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future, about the SF-born illustrator whose science-fiction art often anticipated actual developments in space exploration. Douglass M. Stewart Jr.’s feature is a pedestrian, TV-style tribute that nonetheless sustains interest thanks to its fascinating subject. (More info here.) The 4-Star is offering the area premiere of Cheng Wei-hao’s glossy, stylish if convoluted Taiwanese mystery-thriller Who Killed Cock Robin, in which a rather skeevy journalist (Kaiser Chuang) discovers the used car he just bought was involved in a cold-case hit-and-run years ago. His investigation uncovers no end of skullduggery that eventually involves kidnapping, murder, and much high-end corruption. (More info here.)

If you really don’t want to watch the Oscars, but can’t trust yourself if you stay at home, head to the Castro for a curious double bill on Sunday. All About Eve, the all-time great 1950 movie about awards hunger (albeit in the theater world), plays with Orson Welles’ posthumously completed final feature The Other Side of the Wind. The latter went straight to Netflix a few months ago, but you know Welles meant it to be seen on the big screen, and here’s your big chance. (More info here.)


After he’d made the transition from a matchless German silent career to talkies with the extraordinary M, Fritz Lang was offered the newly installed government’s top film post by Goebbels. He declined (Leni Riefenstahl would take the position), for good measure fleeing the Nazi-fied country at his first opportunity. Before he landed in Hollywood, where he had a different but also successful career (mostly directing noir-ish melodramas), he spent a year in Paris.

The fruit of that interlude was this relatively seldom-revived but superior version of Hungarian author Ferenc Monar’s 1909 play, which had already been adapted to the screen at least twice. (The most recent was just four years earlier: An interesting Hollywood misfire directed by the underrated Frank Borzage, undermined by the miscasting of Charles Farrell in the title role.) The material now is primarily known as the basis for Rogers & Hammerstein’s classic musical Carousel. But this version doesn’t need songs—it’s got Charles Boyer, young and boisterous, strutting like a rooster in contrast to his elegant later image.

He plays the titular carny barker, a petty womanizer and grifter who falls in love with the adoring Julie (Madeleine Ozeray). But even she can’t reform him, leading to an unusual third act in which he’s judged in the afterlife, and must return to Earth as a spirit to right his wrongs or spend eternity in Hell. The director of Metropolis and the Mabuse films was easily equipped to handle this mix of the streetwise and fantastical.

While later versions of the story would struggle against sentimentality (and/or the ugliness of having a wife-beater as protagonist), Lang lends it cinematic zest, and Boyer a swagger that makes Liliom both appealing and ridiculous—his outsized machismo a poor cover for gaping insecurities. Along with Saturday’s screening of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, this rare screening ends the PFA’s “Fritz Lang & German Expressionism” series. Fri/22, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Rotterdam-based Filmwerkplaats is an artists’ collective with their own film lab—all the better to create work that is itself largely a hymn to the distinctive textures of old-school celluloid. 2015’s Hometown is their feature-length, B&W 16mm experiment in which “longing, memories and identity punctuate the stories of the ghost characters” searching for that titular place of belonging. Thurs/28, YBCA. More info here.  

Screwballs and Pod People in Seventies SF
There are plenty of great San Francisco movies, but arguably the best two examples from the 1970s (sorry, Dirty Harry) are getting paired on an excellent Castro double bill this Friday. After the critical acclaim of The Last Picture Show, writer Peter Bogdanovich had a popular smash with What’s Up, Doc?, a wholly successful update of 1930s screwball comedy conventions. Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal inherited Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant’s roles, more or less, in a very funny farce indebted to Bringing Up Baby (among numerous other inspirations). Our hills have rarely been used to such good slapstick effect as in the chase climax, while the same could be said for an ace supporting cast including Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and many more.

A more explicit remake was Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which had the genius idea of re-setting the 1956 Cold War sci-fi classic from a heartland smalltown to defiantly countercultural Me Decade SF—a place where rigid conformity brought on by a stealth alien invasion would have the most dramatic impact. Funny, exciting and bizarre, it’s a terrific movie that provided Jeff Goldblum with one of his first great shambling-weirdo characters, as well as good roles for Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and others. Fri/22, Castro Theater. More info here

Fighting With My Family
There’s enough celebrity fuss already at Sundance, but it was pretty weird to be there this year and attend a premiere that had Hollywood-level fandom and security (a woman sitting in my row twice got pulled out on suspicion of videotaping, to her bewilderment). Well, you don’t normally see stars there as mainstream as The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson, who produced and appears (as himself) in this movie based on the rise to fame of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. wrestling “diva” Paige.

Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth plays her, a Goth-styled teen from working-class Norwich who improbably gets drafted for the glitzy arena “sport.” This delights nearly everyone in her wrestling-crazed family (including the delightful Nick Frost as dad), save the athletic older brother (an excellent Jack Lowden) who assumed he’d also make the cut. Vince Vaughn dishes out the snark as a drill sergeant for WWE wannabes. A very middle-of-the-road item by Sundance standards, this sometimes broad but amiable and occasionally witty comedy from writer-director Stephen Merchant (a frequent Ricky Gervais collaborator) is a formulaic underdog-triumphs story that’s quite enjoyable nonetheless. It’s probably the best movie ever made by the WWE (they’ve made over fifty!)—which isn’t saying much, but oh well. Opens Friday at area theaters.

NY Dog Film Festival
Cats are so-last-week. This weekend the Roxie brings you two separate programs of shorts dedicated to Man’s Best Friend. In fact, you can bring your own furry bestie (canine-only, please) to these shows, with proceeds from “each dog ticket sold” (service animals enter free) going to local senior rescue facility Muttville. After the screening, why not take a short walk down 16th Street to Alabama, where you can enjoy the antics of adoptable real-life hounds at not only Muttville, but also SF Animal Care and Control and the SPCA, all conveniently located within one half-block on “Rescue Row”? Sat/23, Roxie. More info here

FP2: Beats of Rage
First there was 2007’s short The FP. Then there was 2011’s feature expansion The FP. Now, with the arrival of this sequel, we have an entire film franchise devoted to the vision of a dystopian future dominated by deadly competitive music-video arcade dance games. If you think that sounds like a Funny or Die-style mashup of Mad Max meets Step Up—well, you’d be exactly right.

Jason Trost returns (minus cinematographer brother Brandon, his co-writer/director on the first film) as JTRO, one-eyed Beat-Beat Revelation (a la Dance Dance Revelotion) champion, the fate of a miserable future world once again resting on his agile feet. If you howled at the first one, you probably find this entry hilarious as well. On the other hand, if you found the original funny for about ten minutes, then a joke stretched waaaaaaay too thin, you’ll probably have pretty much the same reaction this time. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks hosts, compete with a post-screening interview with the director on Friday and Saturday.   Opens Friday, Alamo Drafthouse. 

Humanoids from the Deep
Fabled B-movie producer Roger Corman was notable in his field for encouraging women directors, including this film’s Barbara Peeters—even if she wasn’t happy with the result after he’d re-edited and partly re-shot it to include more sexploitative material. Nonetheless, this rapey Jaws copy/monster mash-up remains a major guilty pleasure from the last days of drive-in cinema.

Shot in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, it has the reliably wooden Doug McClure (inspiration for Troy) among residents of a coastal fishing town unhappy to discover mutant salmon-men (!) are on the loose. Looking like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Ninja Turtles, they’re on the hunt for humans to kill or mate with. Its hysterical county-fair climax topped by the then-almost-inevitable Alien ripoff of a chest-bursting fadeout, this is energetically tasteless trash like they don’t make ‘em anymore. Tue/26, Alamo Drafthouse, more info here

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