SCREEN GRABS No doubt many cineastes in the Bay Area and well beyond will be lining up this weekend for arguably the first interesting mainstream release of the summer, Tarantino’s much-anticipated Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. This starry blend of imagination and history set in 1969 Los Angeles features Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio as fictive industry success stories, while Margot Robie plays Sharon Tate and Dakota Fanning is Squeaky Fromme—so you know this tale will head in at least one very unpleasant fact-based direction. Others in the big cast include Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, the late Luke Perry, Emile Hirsch, Lena Dunham, Brenda Vaccaro (!) and Bruce Dern.
Let’s hope it’s closer to the outrageous but entertaining historical fantasy of Inglourious Basterds than to the garrulous excesses of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. But in any case, Once did not screen in time for this column’s purposes, so you’ll have to find out for yourself.
Other new films opening this week that we were not able to preview are both turning up at the Roxie after debuts at SF Indiefest and its offshoot SF Docfest. Marie Losier’s Cassandro the Exotico! profiles the real-life “Liberace of lucha libre,” a flamboyant veteran star on the Mexican show wrestling circuit who’s trailblazed “out” LGBTQ visibility in the ring, albeit at the frequent cost of a battered body and fan hostility. It opens a regular run this Friday. (More info here.) Playing Sun/28 afternoon only is local filmmaker Daniel Kremer’s Overwhelm the Sky, a three-hour B&W neo-noir epic based on an early American novel. It’s said to be a model of artistic ambition on a low budget. (More info here.)
Elsewhere this week (all opening Fri/26 unless otherwise noted):
The Great Hack
Worried about next year’s elections? Well, if you somehow aren’t yet, this new documentary from Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer will certainly provide plenty of cause for anxiety. It details the efforts of a very few journalists and ex-employees to blow the whistle on Cambridge Analytica, the English firm whose skullduggery many think actually swung the Brexit vote and 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign—to name just two major disasters so far.
While billing itself as a disinterested data-collection business, CA has been called a “full service propaganda machine” manipulating public opinions, spreading disinformation and riling up the rubes as a key element in (among other things) Steve Bannon’s “culture war” worldwide. With Brexit as the “petri dish” that tried out viral techniques then unleashed full-bore for the benefit of the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica here is accused by insiders of diabolical online “psychological experiments” aimed at subverting democratic processes and heightening paranoid divisiveness.
It mined without consent the info of tens of millions of Facebook users (and their “friends”) to create “personalized content” (mostly in the realm of convincing “fake news”) to “trigger those individuals”—stirring outrage at guilty-of-something-or-other “Crooked Hillary,” etc. There’s even been a UK campaign aimed at convincing minority citizens that it’s more cool and rebellious not to vote. All this amounts to privatization of military-style “psy ops” to influence elections, directly benefitting the rise in authoritarian regimes and reactionary movements we’re currently seeing.
It’s a completely chilling indictment that will make you want to keel-haul CA’s CEO Alexander Nix and our very own FB BFF Mark Zuckerberg, both seen lying through their teeth in government committee testimonies here. (Not just that—they actually pretend to have been the innocent victims of one another.) No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, this documentary should be required viewing, as it really punches across how personal data (now considered a more valuable commodity than oil) is being widely if covertly exploited to change the world—and that our individual legal rights over that data are at present practically nil. Opera Plaza. More info here.
The modern US has never experienced full-scale foreign military invasion, and our last/only civil war was 150+ years ago. Which may go a long way in explaining why so many American politicians and citizens seem insufficiently concerned when we wage or threaten war against other nations—sure, war is “bad,” but it’s still an abstraction to them. Such complacency is hard to hang onto after watching something like this documentary, a vivid first-person account of filmmaker Waad al-Kateab’s raising her first child… in Aleppo, under siege amidst Syria’s civil war. She and her doctor husband Hamza stayed there to care for the wounded despite all fears for their own lives, let alone that of the infant daughter that eventually came along.
Al-Katreab and Edward Watts’ feature is full of harrowing footage shot in the middle of bombings, power outages, military police beating protestors, etc. Be warned: This movie doesn’t flinch from showing bloodied children in emergency wards, corpses of the tortured and executed, and other brutal realities. (There’s even security-camera footage of the protagonists’ hospital being bombed by Russian planes attempting to prop up the flailing regime.) But it’s precisely the fact that we’re spared flinching at such sights that is part of the problem, isn’t it? This survivors’ journal should be required viewing for those who think refugees of every stripe must have somehow brought it on themselves, and anyway aren’t our problem. Roxie. More info here.
German architect Aaron (Alexander Fehling) is making a real effort to create a new family with French girlfriend Lea (Berenice Bejo) and her eight-year-old son Tristan (Arian Montgomery). After two years, it seems to be going well—yet there are signs the boy still thinks his American father is only temporarily out of the picture, and that Aaron is an interloper whose presence must be jettisoned so dad can return. On vacation in the Italian Dolomites, that tension takes a more overt turn in a very slow-burning thriller that in classic European fashion refuses to indulge the story’s melodramatic potential at all.
Instead, there’s a neutral, detached perspective on figures who remain psychologically somewhat hidden—particularly Lea, who alternates between the overprotective and noncommittal, and Tristan, who may be a more sophisticated manipulator than he appears. This second directorial feature by cinematographer Jan Zabeil (whose first, The River Used To Be A Man, was also a wilderness-set collaboration with the excellent Fehling) is a scenically impressive tale whose impact sneaks up on you. The last half hour or so is, in fact, quite gripping. Opera Plaza. More info here.
David Crosby: Remember My Name
Now in his late 70s, the former Byrds and CSNY member made a memorable impression in the recent documentary Echo in the Canyon, cheerfully admitting that the reason he got canned from the Byrds was “because I was an asshole.” There will presumably be a lot more candor where that came from in this feature entirely dedicated to Crosby, whose druggy personal lows over the decades (which at one point resulted in a nine-month prison stint) have been almost as notorious as his musical highs with songs like “Eight Miles High” and “Guinevere.” Produced by Cameron Crowe, directed by A.J. Eaton, the mix of archival and new interview materials has gotten rave reviews since its debut at Sundance early this year. Embarcadero. (Also opens next week in other Bay Area theaters.) More info here.
Queen of Diamonds
Nina Menkes has been making movies for nearly four decades, yet her work has remained most under-radar outside the realm of film festivals. Primarily occupied as an educator these days (she teaches at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita), she hasn’t made a feature since her sixth in 2010, Dissolution, which was shot in Israel. Stark and minimalist, her movies have always been longshots for significant commercial exposure, but she seems overdue for wider discovery as a now-longstanding female independent auteur with a distinctive personal vision.
This 1991 drama, which followed her 1986 debut feature Magdalena Viraga, is a coolly objective character study of a blackjack dealer (the director’s sister Tinka Mendes) alienated from her Las Vegas environs and everyone around her, save the bedridden old man of uncertain relation she cares for at the seedy hotel where she lives. The decrepit townie side of Vegas is on full display here, with its rollcall of societal discards and eccentrics. Our heroine is an emotionally removed character who holds her cards close to her vest—we glean that a husband might have recently disappeared (or simply left her), but like other suggested issues she might be grappling with, that isn’t something she cares to discuss. Despite cryptic interactions with others, she is very much alone, seemingly by choice. But then she seems no stranger than anyone else here, in a city where the surreal and the banal are often interchangeable.
Showing at the Roxie in a new 4K restoration, Queen of Diamonds is an enigmatic piece, short on dialogue (let alone backstory), that nonetheless has a striking rigor to it. Sat/27, Roxie. More info here.
The Neon Slime Mixtape
In the 1980s so many newly VCR-owning households were sold thrilled by the idea of being able to rent any movie they chose—every night, if desired—that it seemed just about any piece of amateurish crap could get some toehold on the near-bottomless videocassette marketplace. This compilation blends trailers and condensed versions of some such under-radar genre trash. A couple of them may already be known to the more dedicated fans of grade-Z horror, like the deliciously dreadful 1982 Boarding House or 1989’s Things, considered by some the worst Canadian movie ever.
But others will be new to even the most ardent obscurantists, though though may be directed by still-active “talents” like gay porn maestro Tim Kincaid (Mutant Hunt), Donald Farmer (vampire flick Demon Queen), Bavarian gorehound Olaf Ittenbach (Der Gefallene Engel) or DIY king Damon Packard (Dawn of an Evil Millennium). There are also glimpses of a few jokey shorts from the era, including The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase (a doll biopic about the late 1970s real life cannibal killer known as “The Vampire of Sacramento,” a la Todd Haynes’ Carpenters Barbie epic Superstar) and the self-explanatory Horror Brunch! Most of these movies are below even Troma standards; all were shot on camcorders, and look it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be glad you’re only seeing these films in excerpt. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.