SCREEN GRABS The inevitable comic book adaptation aside, this is a week full of rather serious movies. So perhaps we should start off with the least-serious movie possible: Holy Flame of the Martial World, a wholly berserk slice of 1983 Shaw Bros. excess whose supernatural kung fu-lishness requires incessant special effects from the usual wire-flight to mummies to Disney-esque animation. Playing just one show at the Alamo Drafthouse next Wed/10 (more info here), it is extremely silly, eye-poppingly colorful, and hard to resist.
Films we were unable to preview this week include the wide releases Shazam! (life is short, comic book movies too many); horror remake Pet Sematary (didn’t screen in time); and fact-based race relations drama The Best of Enemies (ditto). Didn’t get to Alison Klayman’s verite documentary about Steve Bannon The Brink (at Embarcadero and Shattuck, more info here) because…well, to channel the spirit of his ex-boss and our tantrum-thrower-in-chief for a moment, I don’t wanna and you can’t make me!! Really, what could be more repellent than the prospect of following the Breitbart brainiac spreading his poison ‘round the globe for 91 minutes, encouraging nationalist extremism hither and yon? But hey: Knock yourself out, if so inclined.
Then there’s An Elephant Sitting Still at the Roxie for two days (Sun/7-Mon/8, more info here), which was missed because last week life seemed even shorter than usual, and that movie is four hours long. However, Bo Hu’s first/last feature sounds very much worth the time for those not in a hurry: Its bleak tale of four luckless protagonists in a provincial Chinese city has been highly acclaimed as a major debut, all the more poignant for the writer-director’s suicide after its completion eighteen months ago, at age 29.
Elsewhere (all opening Friday):
When conservative politicians insist the public volunteering sector can pick up the slack left by one social-service cut after another, they seem to envision a nation of people like the heroine of this indie drama. You know the type: Those citizens in every community who wear themselves to the bone in service of the needy, getting no compensation save “Thanks” (and sometimes not even that), often seeking to drown their own sorrows in attention paid to strangers’.
Mary Kay Place’s titular figure is a sixty-something divorcee whose days are endlessly filled with hospital visits, food drop-offs, soup-kitchen shifts, driving people to their doctor’s appointments, and so forth. Now part of those rounds are her cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who’s in the last stages of cervical cancer, and Diane’s own son Brian (Jake Lacy), whose angry denials that he’s yet again relapsed into drug addiction convince no one. Perpetually giving her all for others, Diane neglects her own needs until the cumulative strain creates its own crisis.
This first narrative feature by documentarian, critic, and programmer Kent Jones is valuable enough as an astute character study of a character type we seldom see onscreen, save as background. But it turns out to be much more than that, pulling some surprising narrative leaps of ambition and imagination to achieve a whole that’s ultimately quite profound. The reliable Place is ideally cast, and there are good parts for other veteran actresses including Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce Van Patten and Phyllis Somerville. Diane isn’t The Golden Girls, though. It’s about the totality of a lived life, with all faith, duty, and disillusionment distilled in ways that are rarely done so well in movies, sans easy sentimentality or cynicism. Alongside the concurrent German Transit, it’s as good as anything that’s come out so far in 2019. Opera Plaza. More info here.
Czech That Film
The 8th installment of this annual showcase for the best in Czech cinema offers four new features. Deserter is the latest from veteran director Jan Hrebejk (Divided We Fall, Beauty in Trouble), a seriocomic period piece about protagonists who manage to survive Nazi occupation only to find themselves at odds with their homeland’s new Communist regime. Olmo Omerzu’s prize-winning Winter Flies is a road trip amongst young runaways in a stolen car; Ondrej Havelka’s fantastical Hastrman finds a mysterious nobleman returning to claim family property in a Bohemian village two centuries ago.
Director Radim Spacek will appear at the screening of Golden Sting, another tale of hard times in the early days of Czech Communism—this one about basketball, which the nation excelled in at European championships as early as 1935. But in this drama, the American-originated sport is seen as being subject to political persecution and mechanizations for some years after. Each of the films plays just once in this three-day mini-festival. Fri/5-Sun/Sun, Roxie. More info here.
Though it was a failure at the time, perhaps the most respected of Lillian Gish’s silent vehicles now is Victor Seastrom’s The Wind, a stripped-down prairie Gothic melodrama in which she plays an unhappy frontier wife slowly driven mad by isolation and the relentless, punishing weather. Director Emma Tammi and scenarist Teresa Sutherland’s first narrative feature isn’t an actual remake of that ninety-year-old film, being closer to the realm of straight-up horror thriller. But it does share a number of surprising similarities with its namesake predecessor.
Lizzy (is it a coincidence that Gish’s heroine was named Letty?), played by Caitlin Gerard, is a wife living a very solitary existence on a Great Plains homestead in the late 1900s with husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) when they suddenly get neighbors. But Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee) are a quarrelsome couple ill-suited to this harsh life as well as each other, and as her pregnancy advances, Emma appears to snap tether. After her suicide, and Lizzy’s own stillbirth (these are events made clear right at the film’s outset), Lizzy herself begins to fear there are malevolent spirits in the area that have now transferred themselves from haunting Emma to herself.
This tale of settler hardship, paranoia and possible supernatural terror may recall for many Robert Eggers’ acclaimed sleeper hit The Witch. It’s not in the same league, but it’s still an atmospheric, sometimes chilling cut above the genre norm. Alamo Drafthouse.
Actor Emilio Estevez’s latest film as writer-director is a Capra-esque seriocomedy that’s a throwback in ways both good and not-so-good. He also stars as a Cincinnati librarian who decides to let himself be barricaded in along with a larger number of homeless persons when the latter decide to spend the night at the main branch—too many of their number having died on the streets already amidst one of the coldest winters on record. Alec Baldwin plays a sympathetic Police Dept. negotiator, Christian Slater a highly unsympathetic D.A., Michael K. Williams the homeless contingent’s de facto leader, Jena Malone and Jeffrey Wright fellow library staff.
The Public is hokey and entertaining, well-intentioned yet simplistic, both crowd-pleasing and shamelessly manipulative. The depiction of the indigent hews a little too close to the “lovable misfit” cliches afforded hoboes and Skid Row denizens in Hollywood movies 75 years ago. But Estevez’s heart is in the right place, and his movie ultimately works just as it intends…even as you see all the narrative rigging which gets you there. Plus, it’s about time someone made a movie about this subject: I can’t be the only person who once started volunteering at the library, then stopped because part of the “job” was waking up homeless people who were quietly sleeping, not bothering anyone. At area theaters.
Colin Thiele’s classic 1964 children’s book was already filmed once, though that 1976 version arrived a little too early to benefit from the international vogue for Australian cinema that would ensue within a few years. It starred Walkabout’s David Gulpilil as the aboriginal man Fingerbone, who befriends a boy living in rather bleak circumstances with his antisocial father in an unpopulated stretch of the southern coast.
Forty-three years later Gulpilil is back, albeit this time taking a smaller role, in Shawn Seet’s remake. Geoffrey Rush plays the adult protagonist looking back on his distant childhood, when he (Finn Little) and stranger Fingerbone (now played by Trevor Jamieson) helped care for orphaned pelican chicks, one of which refused to leave his human minders.
Whereas the earlier version was a somewhat humble, TV-movie-looking enterprise, this more elaborate production features attractive period trappings and lyrical photography, as well as added levels of political commentary re: climate change and such. The result is actually less effective as family entertainment, and a bit heavy-handed. (There’s also the problem of Rush, who became mired in highly public sexual harassment accusations related to a theater production just after this film was shot.) But it still has measures of scenic and sentimental appeal that should win over most viewers, particularly those not already invested in memories of the story’s prior incarnations. At area theaters.