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Thursday, February 29, 2024

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Aretha's Amazing Grace, Blood for Dracula, Peterloo.....

Screen Grabs: Aretha’s Amazing Grace, Blood for Dracula, Peterloo…..

Two eccentric flicks at Alamo, sci-fi from Claire Denis, Louise Brooks via Downton Abbey and more in cinemas this week.

SCREEN GRABS Yes, this is the opening week of the SFFILM Festival, the event so big we gave it its own separate feature (see here). But if you don’t want to brave those particular crowds, there are still plenty of interesting cinematic happenings around town. Not so much at the multiplex, where you’ve got generic-looking family films (Missing Link, Little) and romances (After, starring the preposterously named Hero Beauregard Fiennes-Tiffin as the “mysterious and brooding rebel” that nice girl Josephine Langford falls for) trying to steal a little box-office thunder from comic-book holdover Shazam!

Elsewhere, however, lay some intriguing titles on the arthouse and rep-house circuit. The upmarket choices are two period pieces. (A third, Lion director Garth Davis’ self-explanatory Mary Magdalene, is only opening in San Jose after weak initial critical and audience reception.) At Opera Plaza and Shattuck, The Chaperone is based on a good novel by Laura Moriarty that fictionalizes silent-film luminary Louise Brooks’ early years as a Wichita wildcat and aspiring professional dancer. Elizabeth McGovern plays the titular respectable matron hired to accompany the teen when she’s invited to study under fabled modern dance mavens Ruth St. Denis (Miranda Otto) and Ted Shawn (Robert Fairchild) in NYC.

Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes’ adaptation softens the book’s amusing (and probably accurate) portrayal of bratty, uncontrollable Brooks, and Broadway/TV director Michael Engler gives the production a routinely respectable Masterpiece Theater-type feel. Haley Lu Richardson (so great as the irrepressible Maci in last year’s Support the Girls) is stuck in the same boat as Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn—a talented actress who can’t possibly reproduce the unique charisma of a legendary performer with limited range but an indelible personality. Still, it’s a pleasant, moderately touching film whose strong cast also includes Son of Saul’s Geza Rohrig, Campbell Scott, and Blythe Danner. (More info here.)

The other period drama arriving this week is Mike Leigh’s latest, Peterloo (at the Clay), which commemorates a dark chapter in British history exactly 200 years ago. In 1819 a large Manchester protest for expanded voting rights and Parliamentary representation was met by government militia gunfire, which resulted in several deaths and hundreds wounded. Though Leigh has made period pieces before (notably biopic Mr. Turner, small-scale drama Vera Drake, and the sprightly Topsy Turvy), this kind of somber historical epic is new to him, and response to date suggests that it is not a form to which the 76-year-old filmmaker is ideally suited. (More info here.)

Other specialized openings on Friday include Ferrente Fever (at the 4-Star, more info here), a new documentary about the pseudononymous Italian literary sensation Elena F.; and Master Z: The IP Man Legacy, a revival of the Hong Kong martial arts series that starred Donnie Yen. This time there’s a new cast going through the athletic motions under famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s direction, with Max Zhang supported (and sometimes kicked) by Dave Bautista, Liu Yan, Tony Jaa, Xing Yu, Michelle Yeoh and others.

Of note at Artists Television Access next Thursday (the 18th) is an SF Cinematheque program by and with Roger Beebe (more info here). The “performance cinema practitioner” will show a retrospective of works, which are said to be heavy on collage, multiple projectors, and surreal humor.

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Amazing Grace
There’s a long history of music documentaries going unreleased or becoming inaccessible due to legal issues, often because music rights weren’t cleared for all media (some of which didn’t exist at the time) and/or sufficiently far into the future. But this famously elusive Aretha Franklin doc was shelved nearly half a century for technical reasons, at least initially. While the film meant to accompany it went unseen, the original double-album live recording remains the highest-selling gospel (and Aretha) record of all time.

Though he was well into a high-profile career that had already included They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, director Sydney Pollack was inexperienced with non-fiction (and particularly concert) cinema, failing to take the measures necessary to ensure that the 16mm footage shot over two 1972 nights at L.A.’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church could be synched with audio tracks. Matching the two turned out to be impossible for decades, and when it was finally managed after Pollock’s 2008 death, the imperious “Queen of Soul”  sued to prevent its belated premiere. The film was finally free to be shown for the first time ever just last November, three months after her own demise.

So, was it worth the wait? But of course, and then some. Amazing Grace is very simple—no interviews, no behind-scenes footage, no distractions beyond a glimpse or two of some Rolling Stones amidst the smallish, otherwise all-black onscreen audience. (You’ll soon forget even that Rev. James Cleveland’s incredible gospel choir is wearing silver vests that look like they’re made of glitter-coated aluminum foil.) It’s pure musical performance, and utterly rapturous as such. There’s an assortment of contemporary gospel tunes, traditional hymns and spirituals covered in superb arrangements, plus a sacred co-opting of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Aretha’s father Rev. C.L. Franklin gets to say a few words—a few too many words—before the end, but even that feels apt. Amazing Grace is so close to perfection it almost needs one short, dull digression to remind us how remarkable everything else here is. Embarcadero, more info here.

Apocalypse, Ow: Relaxer and Starfish at the Alamo
Two movies getting exclusive runs at the Drafthouse this week are both almost one-person narratives—each centering on a protagonist whose isolation might be mental, due to the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it, or maybe all the above. Otherwise, their idiosyncratic visions are very different, although likely to sharply divide viewers between the entranced and the impatient.

Michigan minimalist Joel Potrykus’ latest Relaxer is eccentric even by his standards—it’s hard to think of another feature-length film that would dare to keep its protagonist glued to a sofa throughout. Of course, one might also ask why it would bother, or if in fact it was a very good idea that this one did.

Joshua Burge plays Abner, whose endlessly competitive relationship with bullying brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) has somehow resulted in a never-ending dare that keeps Abbie rooted to the apartment’s tattered pleather couch. It’s a “challenge” in “survival skills” that is also “makin’ fucking art.” Uh…right. Meanwhile, Y2K catastrophe looms, and Cam’s eventual, prolonged absence might be the literal death of his little bro. This Millennial slacker Waiting for Godot has a few more tricks up its sleeve, but still feels like an overstretched stunt—though admittedly, some have found Relaxer as rewarding as it is undeniably offbeat.

“I wonder if the world still exists if I choose to ignore it?” asks the heroine of A.T. White’s debut feature Starfish, whose isolation is less voluntary than Abner’s. Here, Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) wakes up one day to find the rest of society has apparently vanished—whether “raptured up,” extinguished by disaster, or eaten by CGI monsters she occasionally glimpses, we never know. There’s also the possibility that she may simply be going through an awfully extensive projection of the “stages of grief,” as she has just attended the wake of her late best friend Grace, whose home she also moves into for some reason.

This unclassifiable mix of PTSD drama, end-of-world fantasy, and hallucinatory horror is like a mixtape, the thing that figures so prominently (Grace left many such cassettes behind) in its cryptically minimal plot. In that it has good stuff, much borrowed, some of it a bit show-offy, and all wanting you to be really, really impressed. You’re grateful for the effort but not always for being the designated recipient. It’s science fiction as mental landscape, and I’m not sure I find writer-director-composer White’s mind all that interesting, either as a creative sensibility or as alter-ego’d in the form a self-absorbed heroine who’s alone and terrified and without resources, yet whose makeup always appears freshly done.

Sometimes a little too music-video-like, and playfully random enough to sport a fairly long animated sequence, this a movie for people who might wonder what emoji would best suit post-apocalyptic depression, yet never doubt it’s their job to stay supercute under duress. I couldn’t relate. Still, many millennial viewers seem to think Starfish is amaaaaaazing. Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. Relaxer: more info hereStarfish: more info here.

High Life
Iconoclastic French director Claire Denis’ first English-language film is a departure in more ways than one, as it’s also a science-fiction story set at some indeterminate point in the future. Robert Pattinson and a baby are the last survivors of a voyage beyond our solar system in which convicts were part of a “radical experiment” in attempted procreation outside Earth, under the direction of doctor Juliette Binoche. (Who, it should be noted, proves she’s still game for anything at age 55 in a scene involving aerial hoops and a dildo.) Initially intriguing, this slow-moving tale involves much creepy sexual content and a lot of bodily fluids—but it’s no Alien. It’s an audience-polarizer that you may find interesting, unpleasant, riveting, exasperating, and/or dull. High Life will be shown at the Victoria Thurs/11 as part of SFFILM’s evening’s in-person tribute to Denis (more info here); it opens the next day at Embarcadero, more info here.

Blood for Dracula
Asked why the absurdly funny Drac and (3-D) Frank movies made by Factory protege Paul Morrissey were released in the U.K. and U.S. as Andy Warhol’s Dracula & Frankenstein, Warhol himself shrugged that he did indeed contribute…by attending the premiere parties. Still, there’s a definite edge of Warholian camp to these films, which were made back-to-back in Italy, and break from such prior Andy/Paul joints as Trash and Chelsea Girls in their technical polish and relatively sumptuous settings. Blood for Dracula (its title elsewhere) was shot immediately Flesh for Frankenstein, sharing some of its cast and much of its crew.

It’s not as outrageous as that gory travesty of Mary Shelley, in which Udo Kier’s Baron von F brags “To know life, you must fuck it in the gall bladder!” while doing exactly that. But it’s still a hoot. This time Udo is an even more decrepit aristocrat, the Count D, who must leave his Romanian homeland for lack of “wirgin blood.” He lands at the villa of some impoverished Italian nobles, entertainingly played by the great Italian director Vittorio de Sica and Continental socialite/ex-model Maxime McKendry. The Count claims he seeks a bride, and this family has plenty of marriageable daughters (including Stefania Casini, before her famous encounter with the razor-wire room in the original Suspiria).

Unfortunately, these girls are all—as hunky, horny estate handyman Joe Dallesandro puts it in his inimitable Noo Yawk accent—“a buncha hoors.” Blood for Dracula has perhaps the most literal “running gag” in cinematic history, as the poor, desperate Count is repeatedly sent dashing to the toilet in order to hurl up the freshly sucked fluids of yet another comely maiden who turns out to be no “wirgin” at all. Its initially X-rated tastelessness furthered by tons of gratuitous nudity and soft-core sex, this is deliberate trash of a delightfully high grade. Tues/16, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

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