SCREEN GRABS This week brings the arrival of John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, the latest entry in what’s been one of the few action-oriented franchises worth a look for those not interested in superheroes, or most of the other junk that gets pumped into the multiplexes each month. The first two entries were kickboxing-plus-bullet-ballet escapism à la prime John Woo or the Indonesian Raid series, done with sufficient style, wit, and superior fight choreography that the pleasure was fairly guilt-free—though I confess to remembering practically nothing about them afterward. Well, even great popcorn entertainment needn’t be memorable. This third installment, also directed by star stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, sports a first hour of neon-noir eye candy as garishly pretty as a roomful of old Christmas tree lights. You can draw your own conclusions about its inspiration level in all other departments from the fact that we didn’t bother sticking around for the second hour.
That’s pretty much it for big commercial openings in a week that has a whole lot of small ones. There are three new documentaries (plus The Silence of Others, noted at greater length below). We did not catch Carmine Street Guitars, veteran documentarian Ron Mann’s latest, a look at the fabled NYC instrument-making shop whose onscreen clients alone include Charlie Sexton, Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, and Jim Jarmusch. We did see The Russian Five, an entertaining flashback to the rebound enjoyed by Detroit’s perpetual NHL also-rans the Red Wings when they took the then-daring initiative of drafting players from the soon-to-be-defunct Soviet Union. It’s a crowdpleaser, as is The Biggest Little Farm, about an L.A. couple’s struggle to make an eco-agri-biz paradise out of 200 arid SoCal acres. This apolitical, feel-good saga is as light on explanatory logistics as it is heavy on adorable critters, pretty nature photography, and short-attention-span-friendly editing. Too cute for my tastes, it’s nonetheless one of those films that people who “don’t usually like documentaries” just LOVE, and will probably be getting remade as a romcom very soon.
In the realm of admitted fiction, there’s Photograph (Embarcadero), a bittersweet Indian love story from Ritesh Batra that sounds closer to his first feature The Lunchbox than his well-received British sophomore effort The Sense of an Ending or ditto American followup Our Souls at Night. Bearing some faint resemblance to historical records, All Is True (at the Clay) is a new costume drama in which director Kenneth Branagh plays a William Shakespeare whose forced retirement after a theater fire is not particularly welcomed by the wife (Judi Dench) who was getting along fine during his prolonged professional absence. Early reviews have not been encouraging.
There’s also middling buzz on Trial by Fire (at area theaters) a fact-based tale of death penalty protest in the mode of Dead Man Walking. Laura Dern plays a woman who takes it upon herself to plead for a Texas death row prisoner (Jack O’Connell) convicted in the deaths of his three children—despite suspicion that evidence which might’ve exonerated him was suppressed by the authorities. The lead performances have been praised in this latest from director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai).
Revivals this week are highlighted by two 1980s faves that were initially received as disappointments. Even Stephen King didn’t much like Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel The Shining, a movie (whose 4K restoration plays the Castro next Mon/20-Tues/21) that has only risen in popular and critical estimation since. However, that turnabout is nothing compared to the one enjoyed by Elaine May’s Ishtar, a sort of latterday Bob Hope/ Bing Crosby Road to… comedy with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a would-be singing duo somehow embroiled in Middle Eastern political intrigue, and Isabelle Adjani as their Dorothy Lamour. Its troubled production and huge cost helped get it branded the flop of 1987 even before audiences duly rejected it en masse. Yes, it’s messy and overblown. But it’s also quite funny—and tons better than many a more popular comedy before or since. It plays the Alamo Drafthouse on Sun/19.
If you’ve had enough of other people’s movies, get busy: This Friday night brings a new edition of The 60 Second Film Festival to the Marina Theater. The SF date is a kickoff for what’s intended to be an international tour showcasing one-minute movies by … well, anyone. Though there are cash prizes, there is no submission fee. More info here.
Elsewhere (all opening Fri/17):
Easily the most ambitious and imaginative movie opening this week is something almost unimaginable: An elaborate science-fiction tale based on an epic modern poem. Swedish Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s 1956 cycle of 103 cantos described a no-longer-distant-sounding future in which Earth is an environmental disaster zone beyond repair. Ergo humans, or at least those who can afford it, are being evacuated to new colonies on Mars. Our nameless heroine here (Emelie Jonsson) operates a virtual-reality attraction that is among many amusements afforded passengers on the space shuttle that will take them from the “old” planet to their new home. But a collision with space debris jars the ship off its course, with the result that a three-week voyage turns into a possibly never-ending aimless drift through the cosmos.
With some sacrifices to the “pleasure cruise” aspects, the ship is indeed capable of generating food, water, and oxygen to sustain life on an ongoing basis. But what kind of life is this, with ever-decreasing hope of reunion with loved ones, or setting foot on terra firma again? Aniara becomes a microcosm of civilization itself, as complacency turns to panic, delusion and conflict, while “society” evolves through phases including hedonistic abandon, religious mania, and police-state repression.
There is nudity and violence here, as well as plenty of character-based human drama. But Aniara is hardly sci-fi of the usual action-based variety. On the other hand, its philosophical aspects are wedded to the narrative in a way less patience-demanding (or ambiguous) than something like Solaris, or even 2001. It’s certainly a more compelling portrait of verrry long term space travel than the recent High Life, and puts women front-and-center in a sci-fi tale more effectively than last year’s disappointing Annihilation. (Not the least among the achievements here is that the script revolves around a thirtysomething, bisexual-but-lesbian-leaning female protagonist, with no case-pleading fuss whatsoever.) Co-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s first feature is as accomplished as it is conceptually expansive, and will provide rewards even for even those who think they have no interest in futuristic fantasy. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinema. More info here.
The Silence of Others
35 years of Spanish dictatorship ended with Generalissimo Franco’s death in 1975. Two years later, the blanket amnesty that freed his surviving political prisoners also forgave his torturers, executioners, and other enablers from any punitive consequence for their actions. The idea was that it was better to help society “heal” by “starting over” with everybody on the same theoretical page. But the past can’t simply be erased—though many a dictator has tried just that—and who does that erasure serve? The wrongdoers, of course, who are highly likely to simply channel their old-school corruption into whatever opportunities a new regime affords.
Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo’s potent documentary, shot over six years’ course, follows the efforts of some to override a lot of official opposition (including even the King’s chiding against “stirring up old grudges or opening old wounds”) and gain some sort of belated justice. Under Franco, thousands (by some estimates perhaps as many as 400,000) were “disappeared,” their fates often unknown, their bodies thrown into secret mass graves. With the Spanish government still suppressing investigation, some 311 plaintiffs decide to file a suit in Argentina. They hope the old regime’s “crimes against humanity”—from murder to stealing women’s newborn children for illegal “adoptions”—might get some redress in international court systems, where local politics won’t be allowed to interfere.
This isn’t a story of complete triumph—those protecting Franco’s legacy remain powerful, even long-distance and nearly half a century later. But it does powerfully illustrate the value of dogged persistence by victims seeking justice. It’s also a disturbing reminder of how difficult it is to extract the claws of fascism once they’ve grasped a country’s leadership. Under our current President, how many years is the U.S. away from violent suppression of dissent? If the “checks and balances” system he’s furiously eroding were to fall apart, what would stop this administration from following Franco’s lead? Certainly not conscience—we ought to have realized by now that the only thing holding them back is fear of consequence. Roxie. More info here. (Also opens Fri/24 at the Elmwood in Berkeley.)
A change from the historical dramas French writer-director Christian Carion has primarily made so far, this thriller has Guillaume Canet as a divorced father called by his ex-wife (Melanie Laurent) when their pre-adolescent son goes missing from a camping weekend. She thinks he may have run away; the authorities fear it’s a kidnapping. Canet’s Julien does his own investigating, which just past the halfway mark here does indeed uncover some criminal doings.
There’s more focus on the parents’ emotional turmoil than on suspense or action, though those latter qualities do take over eventually. That said, there’s not really enough character depth to this well-crafted film to make it much more than a somewhat elevated genre item. (My Son was also apparently somewhat improvised, with Canet not knowing what his character would be doing from one scene to another. But that working method isn’t detectable in the final result at all.) Nonetheless, if you’re hankering for the kind of movie Liam Neeson has been making lately, albeit in French and not quite so formulaic, this will do fine. Opera Plaza. More info here.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
San Francisco-born Shirley Jackson’s writing career lasted little more than two decades, ending with her premature death at 48 in 1965 from a variety of substance abuse ails. But at least one of her stories (“The Lottery”) has established itself in popular consciousness on a level rare for modern American literature, and several novels (notably The Haunting of Hill House) have been adapted for the movies, TV, and the stage. This 1962 tome has already been turned into a theatrical drama and musical. It’s probably Jackson’s most highly praised book, and arguably an early example of what might be termed Young Adult Gothic—its macabre melodrama struck the same chord with teenagers later plucked by Flowers in the Attic, Twilight and other popular series.
The author’s son Laurence Jackson Hyman is a producer on this first big-screen version, directed by Stacie Passon, whose sole prior feature (2013’s Concussion) was a somewhat divisive Sundance attention-getter that led to work on high-end TV shows like Transparent, House of Cards and the new Tales of the City.
The result is an acceptable if somewhat underwhelming dark fairy tale-slash-thriller in which the surviving members of the wealthy, isolated Blackwood family (Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover), already despised by locals for a past poisoning incident, have their fragile peace disturbed by the arrival of an uninvited cousin (Sebastian Stan). The latter’s attempted coup is one thing; the townspeople’s barely-repressed hostility another. Both finally lead to disaster. This midcentury New England period piece is a faithful, well-cast adaptation. Yet the mordant, mentally-unwell atmosphere Jackson wove doesn’t translate vividly enough to the screen. Passon can’t quite summon the requisite feel of claustrophobia bordering on hysteria, rendering the story’s glimpse of defensive madness more quaintly oddball than traumatic-cathartic. Roxie. More info here.
Micro Cosmic Cinema
Presented by Owlsey Brown in association with Re/Search and SF Cultural History Museum, this one-off evening offers a prime glimpse of some of the coolest aspects of 1960s Bay Area counterculturedom, both cinematic and athletic. The program’s first half serves up eight shorts spanning nearly three decades by late great multimedia artist Bruce Conner, including such dynamic progenitors of the music-video format as A Movie (1958) and the intoxicating Cosmic Ray (1962). Also included is the longer, Terry Riley-scored version of trippy Looking for Mushrooms, his 1978 clip for DEVO’s “Monogoid,” and another for the 1981 Eno/Byrne track “America Is Waiting.”
The second half is given over to a rare screening of Hal Jepsen’s 1970 Cosmic Children, arguably the apex of the psychedelic surf documentary epoch, complete with solarized images and beachside frugging. Its original various-artists soundtrack will be replaced by a live one from Marc Capelle’s Red Room Orchestra, accompanying the 50-year-old curl-shooting of such greats as Corky Carroll, Owl Chapman, David Nuuhiwa and Rolf Aurness. Wed/22 8 pm, Balboa Theater. More info here.