SCREEN GRABS The SFFILM Festival, whose second half continues through Tues/23 at various SF and East Bay venues, has like many such organizations made a significant effort in recent years to balance the gender scales programming-wise: This year there are seventy-two women directors among the makers of its 163 features and shorts.
Still, in the everyday world of film exhibition, it’s unusual when a lot of movies by and about women open at once (though no one even notices when that’s true of men). This is one of those weeks, when the new arrivals have are dominated by work from women directors—see Wild Nights with Emily and Little Woods, below—and narratives entirely centered around female protagonists. Fitting into both categories are some titles we were unable to preview, including Julia Hart’s Sundance-premiered Fast Color, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from Belle) as a fleeing woman with supernnatural powers in a non-Marvel type of sci-fi “superheroine” story, and Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, in which a battalion of female freedom fighters try to reclaim a Kurdish village from ISIS occupation.
Directed by men but strongly focused on women’s perspectives are Handmaid’s Tale actor Max Minghella’s first behind-the-camera effort Teen Spirit, with Elle Fanning as a Polish farmer’s daughter hoping a music career can free her from her bleak life on the Isle of Wight; and Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (at the Alamo) in which music already has taken Elisabeth Moss pretty far. But in that long, grueling drama, her defiantly unsympathetic Riot Grrrl-type star nearly self-destructs while alienating everyone around her. It’s like Vox Lux with less makeup and no stage choreography—a masochistic wallow in another well-acted but repellant personality whose music isn’t all that inviting, either. You can’t fault Moss’ character commitment. But as with Vox, it’s a matter of taste whether you’ll find spending this much time with a tantrum-throwing egomaniac fascinating or purgatorial.
For dude cinema, the 4-Star has you covered: It’s opening both The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s forever-aborning Cervantes update (with Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver now playing the windmill-tilter and Sancho Panza, replacing an abandoned prior version’s Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp), and Breaking Habits, a pot doc about activists nuns running a cannabis farm in Merced. The latter sounds like a Cheech & Chong sketch…but then, wouldn’t Don Quixote have sorta worked for them, too? I’m freaking myself out here.
Without or without herbal assistance, you can fully regress to giggling infantilism at masterfully named Nobody Stopped Him: The 1994 Jim Carrey Triple Feature at the Alamo Drafthouse on Sat/20. Long before he became today’s headline maker of trenchant if not very skilled political-caricature paintings, the ex-In Living Color whiteboy dialed the comedy clock back to Jerry Lewis Time with back-to-back hits Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber. Can you take them all in one dose? Let us know after you’ve come down. (More info here.)
On the other hand, if you want nonstop hysteria and nuns, look no further than the same venue’s Wed/24 screening of Noribumi Suzuki’s breathlessly (yet stylishly) sexploitative 1974 School of the Holy Beast, in which a Japanese convent is home to practically every vice known save recognizable Christianity. It may seem tasteless to mention such faux-“lesbian” masturbatory matinee fodder in the same column as so much feminist filmmaking. But really, some schlock cinema is so berserk it transcends offense, and School is definitely in that rarefied WTF league. (More info here.)
Should you want to crawl into a cave afterward, there is the handily scheduled SF Cinematheque show at ATA on Thurs/24 of Peter Burr: Labyrinths, with the filmmaker in person. His short animations play with the visual language of video games to create what has been called “a mix of intricate patterns that vibrate, flicker and hypnotize…viewing (them) feels like entering into a dark, digital cave.” (More info here.)
Someone who’d probably like to be in one of those rather than whatever cage he’s currently inhabiting is the star of Other Cinema’s own ATA show on Sat/20, the inimitable if no longer un-arrestable Julian Assange. This Scritti Politti: Sousveillance program will feature a many-sided view of the man himself by David Cox, drawing on prior screen scrutinies by Laura Poitras, Adam Curtis and others. There will also be additional works about CIA black sites, BFFs Trump ’n’ Putin, and more. (More info here.)
Elsewhere (all opening on Friday unless otherwise noted):
Hagazussa: The Heathen’s Curse
Director Lukas Feigelfeld’s graduation project feature(!) is this gorgeous, unclassifiable fable-cum-nightmare. Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) is raised in isolation by a mother (Claudia Martini) who’s shunned as a “witch” by fearful peasants in their rural corner of 15th-century middle-Europe. When plague claims her only relation, Albrun is even more alone, until befriended by gregarious Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky). But the latter proves duplicitous in the worst way, prompting Albrun to exact a supernatural revenge—which then requires its own merciless payment in return.
If last year’s Mandy was lycergic cinema par excellence, this German-Austrian production is equally singular psilocybic cinema, its halluincatory nature more indebted to Herzog than Roger Corman. Similarly suspended between genre horror and psychedelic abstraction, it’s beautiful, mysterious and disturbing, poetical yet also sometimes repugnant. Be warned: Tolerance for slow pacing and narrative ambiguity is required. But if you can get onto its peculiar wavelength, this is an extraordinary debut feature. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
Wild Nights with Emily
A great but wildly uneven filmmaker, Terence Davies, made probably his worst movie a few years ago with A Quiet Passion, a horribly arch and stilted portrait of Emily Dickinson. A sort of tonic to that misfire is this latest from Madeleine Olnek, whose prior features Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same and The Foxy Merkins were variably inspired but highly original absurdist comedies.
She hardly has the budget here to come up with a convincing 19th-century New England atmosphere, yet the impudence of this sly sendup of a literary biopic makes up for its lack of standard costume-movie “sumptuousness.” It portrays the posthumously famous poet (played by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Molly Shannon) not as a spinster recluse—a persona it suggests her later popularizers created for their own purposes—but a barely-closeted Sapphic whose lovers offer some compensation for the lack of literary recognition or understanding during her lifetime. Not as anarchic as Olnek’s earlier films, but more consistent, this is a witty revisionist portrait that in its own way appreciates Dickinson’s legacy at least as much as the stuffy Passion. Embarcadero, Shattuck, Rafael Film Center. More info here.
It’s a common belief (one frequently exploited politically) that anyone who commits a crime must be simply a “bad person.” But as the rich/poor gap continues to widen, there should be some room to accept that folks in desperate financial straits can get pushed into illegal activities because they’ve run out of other options to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, and so forth. This first feature by writer-director Nia DaCosta, reminiscent of Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River a decade ago, provides one fictive illustration.
Ollie (Tessa Thompson) has sacrificed much of her short life to date, traveling across the nearby Canadian border to illegally access pain medication for the sake of the now-deceased, terminally ill mother she’d stayed in a bleak North Dakota oil town to care for. That led to larger-scale drug smuggling, which led to arrest and a conviction—now she’s finally near the end of her probationary period, and ready to leave this place to start over elsewhere.
The problem is that her hapless sibling Deb (Lily James), who already has a son, is now pregnant again. The father (James Badge Dale) is a hopeless screwup, job prospects are nil, and the family home that might lend Deb & brood a stable future is about to get repossessed by the bank. Once again putting others’ needs above her own, Ollie sees no option but to risk prison and cross the border again to raise the needed funds.
Well-acted and involving if not especially memorable, Little Woods illustrates a bind many Americans are increasingly finding themselves in, especially in rural areas: They’re in debt and at risk of losing their homes, even as others benefit from corporate exploitation of local natural resources whose profits somehow never quite “trickle down” to longtime residents. Opera Plaza. More info here.
Boundless: Pema Tseden’s Cinema of Tibet
Independent film production outside the heavily government-controlled industry in China is already difficult enough; all the more so in Tibet, where Chinese occupiers are happy to suppress any artistic expressions of political discontent, or simply native cultural pride. So it’s impressive that novelist turned filmmaker Tseden has managed to make several defiantly “indie” features since 2002. This PFA retrospective (which overlaps with a Berkeley Art Museum exhibit of “Contemporary Tibetan Artists at Home and Abroad”) introduces Bay Area audiences to three of those works.
2009’s The Search is a Kiarostami-like mix of documentary and narrative elements as a film crew travel the countryside to recruit locals as actors on a different, theoretical movie. Old Dog (2011) sees a prized Tibetan mastiff, long used to herd sheep, passing from hand to hand as a commodity in a new rural reality where tradition is constantly being upended for the sake of short-term profit. The striking B&W Tharlo (2015) charts the downfall of another sheepherder when he’s sent to the city to get a government ID. There, he attracts the attention of a shorthaired (by local standards) woman who works in a hair salon—or rather, his money does, once she finds out how much his flock is worth. It’s a sort of ultra-minimalist spin on The Blue Angel, one that (like all Tseden’s films) demands but also rewards considerable viewer patience. Thurs/25-Sun/May 12, PFA. More info here.