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Saturday, September 25, 2021

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Screen Grabs: A devil in Tasmania, Tel Aviv on fire…

Remembering Phil Solomon, Lake of Dracula restored, Blue Note Records, a Macedonian beekeeper, and more in cinemas this week.

SCREEN GRABS The San Francisco Cinematheque has been doing all too many posthumous tribute programs of late, as major figures of experimental film and video die off. This week is a particularly unfortunate case, because Phil Solomon was only 65 when he passed away from surgery complications this spring, and though primarily shorts, his films were meticulously crafted enough to have only numbered twenty or so over the last four decades.

Curated by former Cinematheque head Steve Anker, and co-presented with Canyon Cinema, Still Dreaming: Remembering Phil Solomon will offer a program of five works by this most poetical and densely textured of contemporary celluloid (and video) avant-gardists. A colleague of the form’s legendary prior-generation master Stan Brakhage’s at the University of Colorado, Solomon incorporated elements in his remarkable, spectral, highly worked collages that ranged from home movies and vintage Hollywood clips to imagery from the videogame Grand Theft Auto. The program will include Twilight Psalm I: The Lateness of the Hour and Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance, both from 1999, as well as earlier works Remains to be Seen and The Exquisite Hour, as well as later Still Raining, Still Dreaming. Thurs/8, YBCA. (More info here.)

Among wide openings this week are, unusually, three family-oriented, non-franchise features: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, an Indiana Jones-type adventure spun off Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer series that’s gotten some good early reviews; Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, drawn from the popular 1980s trilogy of “horror lite” books for kids; and The Art of Racing in the Rain, an inspirational man-and-his-dog tearjerker based on one of the worst bestselling novels I have ever read.

Also aiming to inspire is Brian Banks, a biopic about the linebacker whose NFL aspirations were derailed by a wrongful conviction for which he spent six years in prison before being exonerated. It is, weirdly, the first directorial feature in twelve years by Tom Shadyac, whose credits hitherto have run towards the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Patch Adams. The intent is presumably less lofty in action drama The Kitchen, which (in a premise alarmingly similar to Steve McQueen’s dud Widows a couple years ago) has Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as wives forced to take over their husbands’ organized-crime business after the menfolk are yanked out of commission.

There are a whole lot of less overtly commercial, interesting smaller movies opening this week—all on Friday, unless otherwise noted below.

The Nightingale
Australian actress Jennifer Kent’s first feature as writer-director, 2014’s The Babadook, was a well-made, above-average supernatural horror thriller that got (I thought) wildly overrated in many quarters. Her second, however, is likely to get underrated—if only because it has elements jarringly unpleasant enough in an all-too-real-world way to scare off some prospective viewers. Instead of malevolent spirits, what we get here are the very tangible horrors of corrupted human nature and institutionalized injustice.

In 1825 Tasmania, young Clare (Aisling Franciosi) works at a colonial outpost, having to endure the frequently inappropriate attentions of its chief officer, Lt. Hawkins (Sam Clafin). She has little choice—she and her husband came here as convicts, and have few rights despite her having completed her original sentence, with a baby now to protect. When Hawkins and his men commit a terrible crime against the helpless family, there is scant hope the local authorities will believe an Irish ex-con over a British officer. So Clare, drafting the very reluctant assistance of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), goes after Hawkins as he journeys to a larger settlement, determined to exact her own revenge.

Long, sometimes punishingly brutal (there is graphic sexual and other violence here), not inclined to ingratiate, The Nightingale—a title derived from the pleasant singing voice Clare soon has little use for—may be too grueling for some viewers. As if rape and infanticide (for starters) weren’t enough already, the film does not sugar-coat the era’s hostile racial relations, even in portraying the otherwise righteous heroine’s ignorant, condescending attitude towards her own hired guide. But it’s a powerful film that is never dull despite its 2 1/4-hour length, and which provides a strikingly gritty contrast to the usual romantic lace-and-teatime tenor of British Empire period dramas. Embarcadero, California Theater (Berkeley). More info here

The Mountain
People love or hate Rick Alverson’s films. Well, most people hate them, which may be at least partly why a minority fervently love them—contrarianism runs rampant amongst cinephiles. I really did hate his 2013 breakthrough of sorts, The Comedy, so was flummoxed to very much like 2015’s Entertainment, particularly because they were so similar (right down to the ironic title). He takes the humor of misanthropy to its logical extreme, where we’re amused and/or repelled by loser characters precisely because they are so not-funny. His cinema is a particularly deadpan form of masochism, and you can’t explain the joke to those who don’t get it any more than you can assure that even those who get it will enjoy it.

Almost everybody hated this latest on the film festival route. It finds Alverson thinking himself Paul Thomas Anderson (esp. re: The Master), in that he’s made a weird, mannered period piece whose willful idiosyncrasies are semi-explicable at best. Tye Sheridan plays the glum, motherless son of an ice rink owner (Udo Kier) who after dad’s death takes a job assisting a traveling lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) at a point when that alleged “treatment” for mental illness was starting to be widely discredited.

With its square aspect ratio, muted pastels and other design tropes, The Mountain serves up the American 1950s like a queasy spoonful of Pepto-Bismol. As if you didn’t already guess from that cast (which also includes Hannah Gross, Denis Lavant and Larry Fessenden), this is an exercise in arch, questionably pointed eccentricity that practically dares you to like it. I kinda did, snail-paced and indulgent as it is. Goldblum is an unpredictable pleasure, as ever, as the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing practitioner of a procedure even his character clearly fears does more harm than good. There are some strikingly good supporting performances. (There are also a couple that are striking not.) And for all his self-conscious off-kilterdom, Alverson transcends snark here: In its oddball way, this indulgent movie really does take the plight of the mentally ill in a semi-enlightened era seriously. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

As if Naomi Watts and Tim Roth didn’t suffer enough in the American remake of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, they return to the arena of domestic agony in this new drama. They’re the adoring adoptive parents of Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an Eritrean war refugee whose model-student poise fails to impress high school history teacher Mrs. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). She senses his act is a little too good to be true—and perhaps it is.

A paper he writes for her class rings an alarm bell, which triggers a whole series of events, lies, retaliations, exposed secrets, and whatnot that make this one plotty two hours. En route we get a slew of hot-button issues addressed, including fear of school violence, excessive police force, viral video as weapon, parental trust, “rape culture,” the burden placed on minorities to “excel,” and more.

Luce is as thick with moral conundrums and people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons (or vice versa) as a David Hare play. Indeed, it has the kind of borderline overly-finished-dialogue—in which characters talk in position points—that is redolent of the stage, no doubt because it’s based on a play by J.C. Lee. Ergo there’s a certain schematic nature to this material, which is not to say it doesn’t hit its marks with significant dramatic impact. Nigerian-American director Julius Onah and the faultless cast make that material play as naturalistically as possible, and if Luce still feels a bit rigged, at least it’s rigged in personalizing-the-political ways that do make you think, just as you’re intended to. Embarcadero, Shattuck. More info here.

This week’s documentaries: Blue notes & honeyed images
Two documentaries opening this week offer two kinds of extravagant aesthetic pleasure. Everyone knows (or should know) that the imperiled status of bees worldwide is one domino that could topple the lot in Mother Nature’s increasingly precarious balance. Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s first feature Honeyland weights that risk through the plight of Hatidze, an aging lone last female beekeeper in rural Macedonia, whose centuries-old trade is abruptly endangered by something more immediate than a degrading ecosystem—she acquires boisterous, covetous new neighbors who cannot or will not appreciate the cautious intricacies that honey manufacture requires to be sustainable. This compelling verite human drama is complemented by the frequently ravishing camera eye the filmmakers turn on Hatidze’s rustic landscape and insect charges. Opera Plaza. More info here

The joys are sonic in Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. Sophie Huber’s film looks at the history and influence of the great American record label that has flown the flag of modern jazz for eighty years. Among the innumerable artists who’ve been on its imprint are John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Latterday musicians interviewed here include Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Ambrose Akinmusire, Wayne Shorter and Don Was. Blue Note Records is such a beloved institution that it survived death—“retired” for financial under-performance by new corporate minders in 1979, it was revived due to fan and artist insistence just six years later, and survives today. The documentary charts an odyssey from swing to bebop to the avant-garde and beyond, with plentiful archival performance footage on tap. Roxie, Rafael Film Center. More info here. 

Tel Aviv on Fire
Bumbling new production assistant Salam (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian man living in Jerusalem, is hired by an uncle to work on a TV soap opera shooting in Ramallah. He finds himself becoming a real-world political pawn when he’s mistaken by military authorities for the show’s lead writer—and various forces insist he use his non-existent clout to make sure the serial’s heroine ends up with her fictive Jewish rather than Arabic lover, among other partisan revisions. Sameh Zoabi’s Israeli comedy manages the hat trick of mining dire political divisions for harmlessly apolitical humor, rendering a deeply unfunny context amusing in an inoffensive way—at least for 100 minutes. Clay, Shattuck. More info here

Them That Follow
Mara (Alice Englert) and Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) are Appalachian teens reluctantly tethered to a rattlesnake-handling Pentecostal church with strict 24/7 rules enforced by the former’s pastor father (Walton Goggins). Mara is already engaged to fervent disciple Garret (Lewis Pullman), but attracted by the secularism of peer Augie (Thomas Mann), whose parents (Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Colman, doing a 180 from her English queen in The Favourite) lament his nonconformity. The isolated community as a whole is also in conflict with local authorities, who take a dim view of their possession of poisonous wildlife.

Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s unevenly compelling first feature is at heart a familiar indictment of oppressive patriarchy, fear-based religious doctrine, and the abuses they inevitably invite. But it sports the inevitable fascination of cult life, made at least somewhat emotionally relatable by strong performances. It’s a handsome if occasionally squirm-inducing (hey, snakes gonna bite) drama that will make you glad you live in our supposed liberal Babylon. Embarcadero. More info here

Lake of Dracula
By the early 1970s, Hammer’s highly successful Dracula series with Christopher Lee (in many ways still the best screen Count) was winding down, albeit with campily enjoyable “Swinging London” exercises like Dracula A.D. 1972. But at the same time, Japan’s Toho Studios embarked on what would be an unofficial “Bloodthirsty” trilogy of vampire films, all directed by Michio Yamamoto—who apart from a couple other horror films, directed very little else. This 1971 middle entry (following 1970’s The Vampire Doll) has its heroine visiting her sister in the countryside where as a child she had had a disturbing “dream.” Alas, a truck soon brings a delivery—a coffin bearing the undead Dracula, whom she’d glimpsed as a tot.

Complete with figures standing in for Renfield, Mina, and Jonathan Harker, it’s a very loose translation of Bram Stoker’s original story, though set in the present day, and with some variably silly new wrinkles all its own. Very polished in the manner of the era’s Japanese major-studio B movies, it’s both atmospheric and mediocre, with a flute-dominated cocktail jazz score not exactly heightening the terror. It Tohoscope imagery should certainly look good on the Alamo’s big screen. Yamamoto and his chalk-white vampire (Shin Kishida) returned for a belated final outing in 1974, Evil of Dracula, in which the victims are all (surprise!) uniformed Japanese schoolgirls. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

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