Monday, September 21, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: A seriously funny Italian legend, JT LeRoy,...

Screen Grabs: A seriously funny Italian legend, JT LeRoy, Hail Satan?

An endangered community arts center, a Kenyan superhero, The Visitor from another decade, Juggalo comedy, more in cinemas this week.


SCREEN GRABS Though he never reached the heights of international fame achieved by such fellow countrymen as Marcello Mastroianni or Franco Nero, Ugo Tognazzi was one of the great Italian film stars of a great Italian film era—primarily the 1960s and ’70s, when that nation’s industry was at a peak of both homegrown artistic expression and international-coproduction commerce. Probably his most famous English-language role was as the fur-clad beardo who rescues Jane Fonda’s futuristic Barbarella from killer dolls, then introduces her to the joys of “old-fashioned” sex. And his best-known part throughout the world would be as Renato, the more staid of the two middle-aged gay protagonists in the original 1978 French La Cage Aux Folles.

But it was in movies made primarily for the Italian market that he excelled, and which will dominate Cinema Italia San Francisco’s all-day salute to the late actor at the Castro this Saturday. Tognazzi (who died in 1990 at age 68) first worked in theater, then television, showing a particular flair for sketch comedy. That talent, combined with his leading-man looks, made him perfect for the kind of social satire that marked the big-screen “commedia all’italiana” style prominent during his peak career years. La Cage aside, all of the films being shown in 35mm prints at the Castro hit his sweet spot, casting Ugo as successful men stuck in one way or another exposing their own hypocrises amidst the “dolce vita” of high consumption and corruption.

In Dino Risi’s farcical 1971 In the Name of the Italian People, he’s a magistrate coolly closing in on the arrogant industrialist (frequent costar Vittorio Gassman) who believes he’s above the law—even when it comes to murder. In Elio Petri’s 1973 Property Is No Longer a Theft, he’s a wealthy man known as “The Butcher” whose possessions (from minor items to a mistress) are serially purloined by a bank teller turned thief out to demonstrate “Mandrakian Marxism.” The same year, Marco Ferreri’s notorious La Grande Bouffe had him as one among four fabulously privileged men who decide to die of gluttony, over-indulging in sexual as well as culinary delights. More serious was Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1981 Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, in which Tognazzi’s factory owner has to question the value of his material success when his son is apparently kidnapped for ransom.

A recurrent favorite for satirists Risi and Ferreri, Tognazzi worked at one point or another for nearly all the leading Italian directors of this era—Pasolini, Fellini, Monicelli, Wertmuller, Germi and more. None of this tribute’s titles (not even La Cage) are frequently revived these days, so the Castro marathon—which includes an optional “Big Feast Party” at 8:30 pm—represents a rare chance to see not only them, but any significant chunk of this great actor’s sizable cinematic ouevre. Sat/27, Castro. (More info here.)

Of course, for much of humanity the only movie event this week that matters is Avengers: Endgame, which is virtually guaranteed to be the most duplicitous title since Friday 13: The Final Chapter (the fourth movie in a series of ten so far) 35 years ago. But there are plenty of other openings. Among other new arrivals we didn’t catch are two family-friendly and critically acclaimed features at the Roxie, the Kenyan wish-fulfillment tale Supa Modo (about a terminally ill little girl whose village orchestrates her superhero fantasies “coming true”) and anime tale Penguin Highway.

Also at the Roxie for just a couple shows is the local premiere of A Bread Factory, Patrick Wang’s four-hour drama with Tyne Daly and Elisabeth Henry as founder-proprietors of a community arts center about to get crushed by an outside corporate entity. There’s also Ramen Shop (at Opera Plaza), a foodie fable about a young Japanese chef who discovers his familial roots in the noodleries of Singapore. We did see Red Joan (at the Clay), in which Judi Dench is top-billed but doesn’t appear much—most of the running time is taken up by flashbacks in which her character is played by Sophie Cookson. It’s a vaguely fact-based tale of WW2 British spying that ought to be engrossing but instead feels tame, cliched, and improbable.

Elsewhere (all opening Friday at area theaters unless otherwise noted):

Hail Satan?
Penny Lane’s latest documentary, a more straightforward piece of reportage than usual for her, is about some particularly antic action on the frontlines of the war for freedom of (and from) religion. When some secular folks took exception to Florida governor Rick Scott’s call for prayer in public schools, they formed a rather faux organization called The Satanic Temple—no actual worshipping of the Dark Lord implied—to cheerfully insist that if one opened the doors of government-supported institutions to one religion, ALL must be admitted.

The idea took off, this political activist group growing chapters all over the country, becoming particularly prominent in instances of demanding statues of the demon Baphomet be erected as well wherever politicians have rubber-stamped the placing of Ten Commandments sculptures on state capitol grounds.

Hail Satan? has some fun archival footage of devilish representation in vintage media, as well as good insights into religion’s place in U.S. history—where “God” wasn’t mentioned on currency or in the Pledge of Alliance until the godless-Communism scares of the Cold War. It also reminds us that the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 90s (when lives were ruined over “ritual child sex abuse” charges that turned out to be entirely fabricated) was hysterical nonsense. But the primary emphasis here is on this semi-satirical “church’s” fight for the continued separation of church and state in a climate that edges closer every day towards evangelical Christian theocracy. It’s a very entertaining documentary, but also a frightening one. Embarcadero, California Theatre (Berkeley). (Also starts 5/3 at the Roxie.) More info here. 

Orange Is the New Black star Taylor Schilling has not had the best luck in movies (think Atlas Shrugged and Zac Efron), but she’s great in this sharp indie comedy, with is sort of Young Adult meets Role Models. Her Kate is a corporate executive with a personality as repellent as a can of Raid. Filter-free, she’s loathed by her coworkers, with no apparent friends, and no family she speaks to—until her brother (Eric Edelstein) calls as an absolute last resort, having found no one else to babysit tweenager daughter Maddie (Bryn Vale) due to an in-law crisis.

Maddie is a social misfit, and Kate can sorta relate; being bullied helped make her the horrible person she is today. But their tentative bonding is complicated by Kate’s inevitable bad decision-making, and Maddie’s finding a tribe of her own in the off-putting form of Insane Clown Posse’s face-painted fanbase the Juggalos. Yes, it’s a somewhat formulaic sarcasm-with-a-heart-of-gold type comedy. But Schilling makes it work, and supporting turns by the likes of SNL’s Kate McKinnon (as a helicopter neighbor) and Upright Citizens League’s Matt Walsh add further value. AMC Metreon, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. 

Italian cinema has definitely shrunk a few sizes in global stature since Ugo Tognazzi’s day. But there are still notable talents, such as Matteo Gerrone, who made a splash with Gomorrah a decade ago. Like his subsequent Reality, this latest feels like a sort of footnote to that epic tale of life at the bottom of the mafioso ladder.

In a bleak Southern Italian town, dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is both friend and supplier to Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a vicious coke-addicted brute whom a wiser person would avoid like the plague. When Marcello takes the fall for Simone after being muscled by the latter into being an accessory to a crime, Dogman turns into a poker-faced march towards revenge. Faintly recalling Fellini’s classic La Strada in the hopeless co-dependent cruelty of its central character dynamic, this is a tense character drama that always hovers on the edge of violence, often spilling over that line. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

The Visitor
Italy was fading out as a center for cheesy international co-productions by 1979, the year this mind-boggling sci-fi horror monstrosity directed by “Michael J. Paradise” (aka Guilio Paradisi) came out. But thank god it snuck under the wire. Joanna Nail (whom you might recognize from her starring role in an established cult fave, Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters) is Barbara, mother of Katy (Paige Conner), a seemingly normal little girl with a disconcerting tendency to swear like a longshoreman when out of ma’s earshot.

Also unbeknownst to mom is that her boyfriend (Lance Hendriksen, no less), as well as characters played by Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, John Huston, Sam Peckinpah and the inimitable Shelley Winters are all very interested–on both the good and the evil side–in Katy, a “miracle of nature” with “immense powers.” Those powers apparently include making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball explode at the hoop, and sending teenage boys through plate glass at an ice rink. Some of the adults nosing around Katy really, really want Barbara to give her a similarly gifted baby brother, others do not. It all involves some kind of interplanetary conspiracy to…well, beats me, frankly.

Its utter senselessness part of the charm, The Visitor includes any number of bizarre moments, including Winters’ evident relish of slapping some sense into Katy (the child thesp later confirmed the Oscar winner went a little too “Method” in that scene), and crusty old Huston intoning the line “I’m, uh…the babysitter.” This glossy mess turned cult favorite, which the Alamo is showing in its “Weird Wednesday” series, borrows elements freely from 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (a fiasco that inspired very little imitation), The Omen (or rather 1978’s Damien: Omen II) and, strangely, Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (directly ripping off its famous Hall of Mirrors scene, as does Us). Yet there’s a certain undeniable originality to its pastiched incoherence, which results in an experience you may never forget—even if you want to. Wed/1, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here. 

JT Leroy
This real-life story has been dredged up quite enough already, and Justin Kelly’s (I Am Michael) film is a somewhat pedestrian if starry recap. Still, there is a lingering trainwreck fascination to the story of how aspiring San Francisco writer/musician Laura Albert (Laura Dern) created an authorial persona—an abused, androgynous, ex-prostitute teenage male called JT (for Jeremiah Terminator)—then “sold” him by conning various editors, fellow authors, celebrity readers etc. in that guise on the phone.

This telling begins with the point at which “JT Leroy’s” success was such that someone was needed to play the part in person. Auspiciously arriving at that juncture was Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), the suitably androgynous little sister of Albert’s husband Geoffrey Knoop (Jim Sturgess). The ruse ratcheted up several notches with her participation, painted here as somewhat reluctant. Based on Knoop’s own tell-all memoir, JT Leroy predictably casts her as a guileless heroine, just as the Albert-approved “documentary” Author made her seem a hapless victim of circumstances. (The most credible film representation of this story to date remains Marjorie Sturm’s 2014 The Cult of JT Leroy, which flatters none of the principal participants.)

To avoid further litigation in a saga that’s already attracted plenty, Kelly’s film features Courtney Love as a composite agent figure, and Diane Kruger as someone not exactly Asia Argento, who took the “JT” bait as far as directing and starring in an entire feature (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) based on “his” writing. Stewart is well cast, while Dern is discomfitingly vivid as a figure of many manipulative moods and overbearing needs. It’s an involving enough movie, even if the end you’re not sure why this literary scandal had to be rehashed yet again—the lessons that can be learned from it seem to get smaller with each passing year. Roxie. More info here. 

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