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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: What happened to Dag Hammarskjold?

Screen Grabs: What happened to Dag Hammarskjold?

Plus: After the Wedding, Jirga, One Child Nation, a benefit for Canyon Cinema, and more in theaters this week.

SCREEN GRABS It’s mid-August, the weather is theoretically fine, the summer blockbusters are already well into their runs—it is not a time of the year when heavy-hitters arrive in the multiplexes, or awards contenders are launched. Still, this kind of commercial lull provides space for a lot of smaller films to get some space, and there are plenty of those this week.

Among films we weren’t able to see in advance are Where’d You Go Bernadette, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the whimsical Maria Semple novel, with Cate Blanchett as an eccentric mother who pulls a disappearing act on her teenage daughter and husband. Blinded by the Light is a feel-good seriocomedy about a British Pakistani teen transformed by the music of Bruce Springsteen, not to be confused with the recent feel-good seriocomedy Yesterday, whose presumably British Pakistani hero was transformed by the music of The Beatles. Likewise unpreviewed were documentaries Love, Antosha, a tribute to the young Russian-American actor Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy, the Star Trekfranchise), who died in a freak accident at age 27 three years ago; and One Child Nation, an acclaimed look at the downsides of a longtime (though now repealed) policy in China of strictly enforced family planning.

There’s also The Peanut Butter Falcon, a road/buddy movie with Shia LaBeouf as a bayou trapper on the lam who winds up taking along a young man with Down’s Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) who’s escaped from a state institutional home to pursue his pipe dream of pro wrestling. Also featuring Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes and Thomas Haden Church, it’s a pleasant feel-good movie that is certainly less edgy than LaBeouf’s other, upcoming 2019 release: Honey Boy, a self-penned autobiographical drama in which he plays the exploitative, unsympathetic father of his own child-actor years.

Speaking of exploitation, there’s the bad-taste wallow of Good Boys, a sort of teen sex-and-drugs comedy starring…11-year-old boys. The whole joke being that these kids are too young to grasp all the raunch going on around them (though not too young to drop constant f-bombs). If that sounds hilarious, be my guest. If it sounds crass and obnoxious, trust me: It is.

Special events this weekend include Microcosmic Cinema, a program benefitting Canyon Cinema presented this Thursday at the Balboa by Owsley Brown and the SF Cultural History Museum. It’s a showcase for experimental film by San Francisco women, including works by Sophie Michael, Stacey Steers, Jodie Mack and the recently departed Barbara Hammer. The second half will involve dual 16mm projectors and live music (by Voicelander) in the SF premiere of Kerry Laitala’s multimedia City Luminous series. Thurs/15, Balboa. (More info here.)  Meanwhile, if you missed its successful run at the Roxie, the Alamo Drafthouse is offering a two-day reprise (Fri/16-Sat/17) of Tilman Singer’s mind-bending German horror tale Luz—a work highly experimental in its own right, and which was also shot in 16mm. (More info here.)

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Cold Case Hammarskjold
If you only see one paranoid conspiracy-theory documentary this year, it might as well be Mads Brugger’s alarmingly credible one. The Danish journalist and TV host has a penchant for inserting himself into his investigative narratives, as previously demonstrated by 2011’s The Ambassador, in which he impersonated a Liberian diplomat—and proved (to the fury of that government) how easily real or bogus foreign authorities can take advantage of political corruption to access “blood diamonds” and other tainted financial bonanzas in modern-day Africa.

Here, he is onto something possibly even bigger, sniffing around the many suspicious circumstances in the 1961 Rhodesian plane-crash death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Was it an accident, or an assassination? Not just many people, but entire governments had reason to want Hammarskjold out of the picture: He was a powerful proponent of African autonomy at the tail-end of the overt colonial era, when foreign powers remained accustomed to controlling the political destinies and (more importantly) profitable resources of that continent’s nations.

Much of Brugger’s digging points at something called SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research), a harmless-sounding organization that was an apparent cover for paramilitary white supremacism in Africa. But this purported “clandestine mercenary agency for hire…used by foreign governments to destabilize foreign countries” remains so well-hidden that for much of Cold Case, the filmmakers are unable to confirm that it ever truly existed. Meanwhile, we get a lot of Brugger describing ideas that may or may not simply be “idiotic conspiracy theories” out loud in a hotel to a couple transcriptionists, in his annoying voice. At a certain point, he even admits his investigation/movie could turn out a complete failure.

But then it isn’t. Suffice it to say your mind will be blown by some of what emerges here. Not only do we get damning intel from former SAIMR personnel about Hammarskjold’s death, additional murders, coups, CIA involvement, even deliberate spreading of the AIDS virus as germ warfare against black people (to keep South Africa in the hands of Afrikaaners, among other things). Is it all true? It certainly sounds frighteningly plausible. Brugger’s film has already made a lot of real-world waves, and let’s hope it triggers long-term U.N. investigations that could end up rewriting considerable chunks of the 20th-century history books. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Mike (Sam Smith) is a man on a mission, but in Benjamin Gilmour’s stripped-down feature, it takes quite a while before the nature of that mission is revealed. An Australian man and former soldier, he has returned to Kabul and is determined to travel into Afghanistan’s dangerous rural interior three years after participating in a raid on a village. Getting to that location is a perilous business that takes up much of this short (78 minutes) drama’s running time, but Mike doesn’t care about the punishing conditions: He is determined to realize his goal, which turns out to be an act of atonement for a deed of violence that he cannot live with otherwise.

This very simple story offers no standard melodrama or “action,” and may be too minimalist for some. (In fact, in general feel it’s not at all distant from the Abbas Kiarostami movies the Roxie is simultaneously showing, complete with considerable use of presumably non-professional actors.) But the result is that it arrives at a resolution whose poignancy is all the more effective for the lack of any overt string-pulling. Gilmour & co. originally intended to shoot in Pakistan, but when permission was denied at the last moment, they basically snuck over the border and shot with a minimal crew in Afghanistan itself—so the air of authenticity (and danger) here is well-earned. Roxie. More info here

After the Wedding
Julianne Moore has now starred in two remakes of near-perfect foreign language films in a row, and if you saw the original, there is no more reason to see this remake of Susanne Bier’s same-named 2006 Danish film than there was to see Gloria Bell, Sebastian Lelio’s watered-down American remake of his own Brazilian Gloria.

However, if you haven’t seen the prior version, this is a strong drama with a good cast in roles whose gender-switching works well enough. Michelle Williams gets Mads Mikkelsen’s part as an activist volunteer at an orphanage in India whose past comes back to haunt her when she must reluctantly return to the U.S. to court a potential rich donor. That’s tycoon Moore—and the latter’s husband turns out to be an old flame (Billy Crudup) whom Williams left under still-painful circumstances long ago.

Directed and adapted by Moore’s frequent collaborator (as well as husband) Bart Freundlich, this Wedding makes some changes to better fit the current cast, yet overall preserves the moral complexity and cunning plot of Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s original script. If it all feels a bit second-hand and more obvious this time around, that may well be because the Danish movie still stays fresh in the mind 13 years later. I’m not sure this one will have that staying power, but it’s still an intelligent drama that will reward fans of the principal actors. Embarcadero. (Also opens Fri/23 at the Albany Twin in Albany.)

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