SCREEN GRABS In a week that brings the literally elephantine spectacle of a (mostly) live-action Dumbo remake by Tim Burton, you might well run in the other direction, towards idiosyncratic documentaries. Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles (at the Roxie, more info you) is a very personal, first-person meditation on that late creator, particularly viewing his life and work through the lens of the voluminous sketchbooks he left behind.
Billy Corben’s Screwball (at the 4 Star, more info here) is a stranger-than-fiction chronicle of major league baseball’s 2013 doping scandal. It’s a tossup whether the biggest, shadiest meatheads involved the players or the gallery of rogues who helped supply them. With this saga’s bizarre ties to the tanning and “anti-aging” industries (not to mention organized crime), it’s a Pain & Gain-like parable of uber-Sunshine State folly—as a journalist says here, “Fraud is basically the unofficial State Business of Florida.”
Almost as mind-boggling in an entirely different way is Jafar Panahi’s new 3 Faces, if only because it’s the fourth feature he’s managed to make (and smuggle out of the country) since being banned from such activities by the Iranian government in 2010. Who knows how many more films he’ll complete before that ban officially ends in 2030?
Like its predecessors a stripped-down “microbudget” film shot in secret, it begins with a young would-be actress (Marziyeh Rezael) filming a presumably suicidal “selfie,” which is then sent to well-known actress Behnaz Jafari. She and Panahi (also playing himself) set off to the remote rural area the video came from, in order to find out if its grim content was real, a prank, or some kind of perverse audition. What they discover is a third, retired actress (albeit one who stays off-screen) living in a village where the rigid, “traditional” gender roles provide an ongoing mirror of the sexist treatment she endured in her career. Another idiosyncratic narrative experiment with a pointed undertow of sociopolitical commentary, 3 Faces (which opens at the Roxie, more info here) is further proof that Panahi continues to have much to say—and still finds ways to bring those personal statements to an international audience.
Another lady in ambiguous distress is Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), the heroine of Laszlo Nemes’ new Sunset. Arriving in 1913 Budapest, she hopes to be hired at the millinery—that’s a women’s hat store, you philistines—once owned by the parents who orphaned her long ago. But she’s repelled by its current owners in the first of many uncertainly motivated events here that sweep her into a murky family-related mystery involving much scandalous, chaotic, violent, and inscrutable behavior, past and present. It’s all an enigmatic window on the corrupted mittle-European society that would soon implode into WW1—or, at least, that’s what one assumes the intention is.
Writer-director Nemes created the biggest stir by a Hungarian film in years with his 2015 feature debut Son of Saul, an arresting tale set in Auschwitz. Shot with hand-held camera in a narrow aspect ratio, its jagged stylistic urgency made it unlike any prior Holocaust drama. Set over little more than a day’s course, it seemed to unfold almost in real time, in dank natural light, from the doomed male protagonist’s frantic, dire perspective. In contrast, this second feature (which opens at the Embarcadero, more info here) is a handsome, elaborate costume piece that sprawls over 2 1/2 hours’ screentime, providing gobs of ominous atmosphere and period detail, but little clear thematic or dramatic reward. It’s an interesting, idiosyncratic film, yet also an aloof and unsatisfying one. Oh well: Nemes is hardly the first talent to hit a sophomore slump.
Unpreviewed openings of interest this weekend include [cut material here] Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai, with Dev Patel and Armie Hammer among the imperiled caught in a dramatized re-creation of a 2008 terrorist siege. There’s also two films that just premiered to mixed response at the SXSW Film Festival. Period crime drama The Highwaymen is about the police detectives (Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner) charged with hunting down infamous Depression-era outlaws Bonnie & Clyde. Harmony Korine’s new The Beach Bum stars Matthew McConaghey as a Key West stoner-poet drifting through life. Despite a colorful cast also including Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence, Zac Efron, Jonah Hill and Jimmy Buffett, word at the festival was that this plotless construct doesn’t compare well to Korine’s last such joint, Spring Breakers. To which we can only say: Uh-oh.
Elsewhere, all opening Friday unless otherwise noted:
Slut in a Good Way
Veteran actress turned director Sophie Lorain is in her 60s, scenarist Catherine Leger pushing 40—but you’d never guess it from this critically acclaimed French-Canadian teen comedy, which feels like a first work from particularly precocious recent film-school graduates. Charlotte (Marguerite Bouchard) is inconsolable when her boyfriend breaks up with her (he’s got a good excuse—he’s gay).
Getting drunk with best friends Megame (Romane Denis) and Aube (Rose Adam), however, it soon turns out the 16-year-old high school student can be consoled after all. The three stumble into a Costco-like toy store, discover a lot of cute boys work there, and apply for employment on the spot. The place is indeed a regular hotbed of youthful flirtation, something that Charlotte and co. eagerly embrace—until she finds out that her enthusiasm has gotten her branded as someone who sleeps with “everyone.” Just because it’s kinda true doesn’t make it any less hurtful. A “Lysistrata”-like girls’ protest to “level the playfield” amidst sexual double standards ensues.
The B&W Slut in a Good Way is refreshingly matter-of-fact about teen sexuality (there’s no moral hand-wringing here), and it manages a surprising depth after its primarily comic (but not American Pie-style “raunchy”) early going. We don’t see nearly enough from the often-impressive Quebec film scene in the U.S., so it’s particularly cheering that this little gem is getting a proper release. Starts Thurs/28, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
Presumed Guilty: Tales of the Public Defenders
The life and career of recently-deceased SF Public Defender (and sometime filmmaker) Jeff Adachi will be celebrated in this Roxie evening. While he made several documentaries himself, he’s a principal subject in Pamela Yates’ 2002 Presumed Guilty, an acclaimed look at the inner workings of the city’s judicial system and its oft-embattled public defenders. In addition to following a couple high-profile murder cases, the film sees Adachi jousting with the peevish political mechanizations of Mayor Willie Brown’s administration, which briefly ousted him in favor of an ally’s daughter before a public election restored him to his position.
An exemplary public servant, author, and noted spokesperson for undocumented immigrants and pension reform, Adachi was also a frequent watchdog-critic of police misconduct, which in turn won him enmity from SFPD to (and after) his dying day. The screening will feature personnel from the Public Defenders Office and other in-person guests. Proceeds benefit the Jeff Adachi Legacy Fund, which will fund a “fellowship in Jeff’s name to aid deserving young law students and lawyers.” Wed/3, Roxie. More info here
The Other Side of the Lost Continent
Having proved local audiences are ready for vintage noir and noir-ish entertainment from beyond Hollywood, Don Malcolm and Midcentury Productions are now launching this quarterly Roxie showcase for le “Cinema de Papa”—the derogatory term Truffaut and other nouvelle vague-ers used for the “cinema of old men” they hoped to euthanize by injecting fresh blood into a staid film industry. But that blanket dismissal by Godard, Rivette, et al. of (nearly) all who came before them willfully overlooked a great deal of good work in the commercial sector, some of which has aged considerably better than the New Wavers’ self-conscious experiments.
Moving beyond crime mellers to embrace straight comedy and drama, the first film in the occasional series (whose next installment arrives July 11) is Marc Allegret’s 1938 Entree des Artistes aka The Curtain Rises, a fine, sophisticated seriocomedy set in a prestigious Paris acting conservatory. What starts out as an intriguing, somewhat flummoxing look at teaching techniques (with Louis Jouvet as the most exacting of professors) gradually turns into a romantic triangle between students, then takes a surprising late turn towards apparent murder mystery.
A protege of both Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau, Allegret did grow more staid as his five-decade career went on (despite an early version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover), but remained respected for his role in grooming numerous emerging stars, including Bardot, Belmondo, Gerard Philipe, Michele Morgan and others. Entree des Artistes finds him naturally at home amidst the aspirations and insecurities of young actors; its “backstage” ambiance feels unusually genuine. Thurs/4 & Sat/6, Roxie. More info here.
This compelling mix of documentary and dramatization details a little-known chapter in the annals of Nazi Germany: During WW2 some 7,000 Jews managed to avoid “deportation” to concentration camps, remaining in Berlin. Some hid in sympathizers’ homes, others “in plain sight” by posing as Aryans.
Claus Rafle’s film is based on the stories of now-elderly interviewees who were mostly teens at the time. Each of their individual, often harrowing experiences might easily have floated an entire film like Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 Europa Europa, which was also about a real-life Jewish protagonist who survived by “passing” as a “pure” German. They lived out the war years at times homeless (when a temporary shelter became too dangerous), trying to blend in, often walking the streets in terror that they might be recognized by someone from their prior life.
Less than a quarter of them actually managed to escape detection long enough to see the Allied victory. The Invisibles is less another indictment of fascist cruelty than a testament to resilience, as well as the kindness of strangers—more than a few Germans risked their own lives to save those victimized by racist policies they disagreed with. Opera Plaza.
Adventures in Animation: This Magnificent Cake! & Ariana Gerstein
Belgian animation duo Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels crafted this unique 44-minute stop-motion feature that meditates on their country’s often abhorrent history in the “Belgian Congo,” a late and particularly brutal instance of European colonialism. Its five sections each focus on a different character, from King Leopold II (who started the country’s exploitation of Congolese resources and people in 1885 with the ironically named Congo Free State) on through a chronological series of archetypal victims and victimizers.
Perhaps the signature personality is a corpulent, drunken, oblivious Belgian emigre in a pith helmet whose hapless antics seem to inevitably result in death for “natives”—not that he even notices.
Its meticulously realist technique using puppets made of felt and other fabrics, Magnificent Cake! (named after a famous Leopold quote comparing Africa to a dessert to be sliced up and consumed) is an indictment more in the realm of ironical humor and absurdist anecdote than sweeping historical depiction. At once modest and impressive, it’s another significant recent demonstration of animation put usefully at the service of themes well outside the usual realm of children’s entertainment. Thurs/27, Roxie. More info here.
Note: Animation fans with a more experimental tilt will also want to check out the SF Cinematheque program Glass House: Films of Ariana Gerstein. A specialist in hand-wrought editing and optical printing, she will appear in person at this evening retrospective of her dense, beautiful short works. Thurs/4, YBCA. More info here.
This crazy 1984 “sword and sandal” contraption stars Sandahl Bergman of Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja as an Amazonian-type self-proclaimed goddess…but that’s about all it has to do with H. Rider Haggard’s titular fantasy novel, which had already been filmed (much more faithfully) several times over. Israeli director Avi Nesher was hired to make yet another of the umpteen Italian Conan and/or Mad Max ripoffs being churned out at the time. But he clearly didn’t take that assignment at all seriously, and amazingly no one stopped him from creating a movie that ridiculed that (and any other) earnest genre aspiration.
23 years after “The Cancellation,” a catastrophe of unknown specifics and no obvious environmental impact, humanity is…uh, kinda random. Our protagonists meander from one nonsensical “adventure” to another, encompassing cannibals in togas, telekinesis, a guy who seems to think he’s impressionist Rich Little, a Frankenstein monster, chainsaw battles, whipping by Druids, Women in Prison-type exploitation, a full-length performance of the Green Acres theme, and a whole lotta whatnot. Some of this seems to have been determined simply on the basis of costumes available, presumably left over from other movies.
“Surreal” in the cheesiest possible way (i.e. more Attack of the Killer Tomatoes than Bunuel), it’s a cheapo tongue-in-cheek mess as dumb as heck—but hard not to admire for its unwillingness to give the slightest fuck. Almost more entertaining than watching it is imagining the dismay on the faces of the financiers when they discovered they didn’t have the new Ator the Invincible but something too weird even for undiscriminating drive-ins and grindhouses. Wed/3, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.