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Monday, January 30, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Two of our favorite movies this year

Screen Grabs: Two of our favorite movies this year

Plus: John Carpenter Film Fest, Give Me Liberty, Adam, The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, California Independent Film Festival, more

SCREEN GRABS Two of my favorites of the year—Brittany Runs a Marathon and This Is Not Berlin, see details below—open this Friday, so it’s a none-too-shabby week at the movies, with a few other worthy new arrivals and special events as well.

Among those events are the return of this year’s previously discussed runaway revival hit, the 1966 Soviet epic War and Peace, whose four feature-length parts will play repeatedly at the Pacific Film Archive between Sunday Sept. 1 and Fri/27. (More info here.) Focusing on the new, this Saturday the Castro will host a shorts program and four features (some of local origin) from the annual California Independent Film Festival, following immediately on its week-long schedule across the Bay in Orinda. (More info here.)

The same day at the Roxie, Midnites for maniacs will present a 35mm print of The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), a sort of junior edition proto-Thelma and Louise that was not well-received at the time (though the ’80s were a golden age for teen flicks), but has acquired a cult following since. Starring alongside Supergirl’s Helen Slater in the title role are such future notables as Christian Slater (no relation) and Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson), as well as the Bay Area’s own Peter Coyote. (More info here.)

But you can really get your 80s trash fix on with this weekend’s two-day John Carpenter Film Fest, which occupies both screens at the Balboa Theater this Friday and Saturday. Carpenter was one of the coming directors of the Seventies, gaining critical attention if not much box-office action for the sci-fi spoof Dark Star (not in this retrospective) and terrific siege action movie Assault on Precinct 13 before sparking the whole slasher vogue with the original 1978 Halloween.

But it was in the Reagan years that he really excelled as a stylish populist of horror, action and/or sci-fi, in movies so well-remembered that several have already been remade by now. The Balboa will offer up The Fog, Escape From New York, his own remake The Thing, atypically sweet Starman and Big Trouble in Little China. (Sorry, no They Live.) That’s as good a run as any genre director has managed, even if Carpenter’s mojo did run out fairly quickly in the next decade. His working pace greatly slowed after the turn of the millennium, and he seems basically retired now. But he continues to be the man who provided a template for much of the vocabulary of horror cinema (and dystopian sci-fi action) today. (More info here.)

Elsewhere, all opening Friday unless otherwise noted:

Brittany Runs a Marathon
Every year the Sundance Film Festival raises up a few films on a wintry wave of Park City near-hysteria. Almost invariably, a few months later those films hit regular theaters with a whimper, rather than a bang. Here’s hoping writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s first feature proves just as heady to audiences at sea level as it did at 7,000 feet. Normally the mere mention of the word “crowdpleaser” is enough to put me off a film. But this is the one out of umpteen that really earns that description, and not for simply manipulating viewers in a formulaic way. This comedy with a big heart is a joy. I laughed, I cried—honest.

Colaizzo based his script loosely on the real story of a same-named friend who hit bottom and got her act together with a vengeance. This Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a 28-year-old Manhattanite who’s living the “fun city life” dream, except it’s getting kind of old—crap job, too much partying, no prospects dating-wise or any-other-wise. Told in no uncertain terms by a doctor that she needs to make the kind of lifestyle change that (among other things) involves dropping 55 pounds, she throws herself into that task…as reluctantly as possible.

It’s not worth spoiling the rest of the plot, which does very generally go in the inspirational direction you might expect, but also brings in some real dramatic depth, a lot of big laughs, and several terrific support characters. “Based on a true story,” “feel-good,” et al., this is not at all the kind of movie I normally enthuse about—in fact, I’ve walked out on many manipulative treacle-fests of its basic ilk. But Brittany is so good it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking it—or, indeed, liking anyone who didn’t. Embarcadero and other area theaters. More info here

This Is Not Berlin
Another loosely fact-based fiction, Hari Sama’s feature turns his adolescent experiences into an exceptional spin on coming-of-age conventions. Androgynous-looking Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) and bestie Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano) are middle-class Mexico City teens who gain provisional entree to that sprawling burg’s punk/performance scene circa 1986, and are instantly addicted to the freedoms it affords. Of course, that also involves a certain amount of danger, not just from police shutdowns and druggy excesses but from the little-mentioned but omnipresent specter of AIDS.

“Is this a gay bar?” Carlos asks, spying two men kissing amidst the spectacle of an intimidatingly anarchic underground club. “It’s an everything bar” deadpans Gera’s older sibling Rita (Ximena Romo), who’s so impossibly cool she fronts her own band. But far from a simple gawk at a past era’s stylish decadence (though the film takes great pains to get every mid-80s detail right), This is Not Berlin offers nuanced, complex, non-preachy insights about class, politics, sexual identity and artistic integrity. Sama clearly waited the perfect amount of time before commemorating his formative years: This New Wave flashback is at once exhilarated, cynical, nostalgic and bemused about the steep learning curve it puts its naive protagonists through. Opera Plaza. More info here.

Creativity under stress: The Amazing Jonathan and Vision Portraits
Two nonfiction features opening this weekend examine the artistic process under duress—self-inflicted and otherwise. Benjamin Berman’s The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, which was unavailable for preview, trains camera on the titular comedian/magician who has seemingly beaten a terminal medical diagnosis a few years back. But his subject proves contrary and difficult, at one point insisting the filmmaker smoke meth with him if he wants to portray “Jonathan’s” substance problems. The film makes a running theme out of its star being not only arguably his own worst enemy, but the director’s as well. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

On the other hand, Vision Portraits is a thoroughly sympathetic look at artists who persevere despite extreme, unasked-for adversity: All of those profiled here have lost varying degrees of their sight due to degenerative conditions. They practice disciplines that should not, one might assume, be practicable for the blind. One is a high-art photographer, another a dancer, a third a screenwriter. Director Rodney Evans, who received this year’s Frameline Award, has seen his vision gradually deteriorate while nonetheless forging forward with a successful career including the indie features Brother to Brother and The Happy Sad. He uses various optical devices here to convey his subjects’ different limits of ocular perception—though their work shows how well they’re able to transcend and even incorporate it. Opera Plaza. More info here

Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles
Though it has long since been surpassed as Broadway’s longest-running musical, arguably none has ever been quite so culturally pervasive as Fiddler on the Roof, the now 55-year-old adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Milkman and his five daughters in a turn-of-the-19th-century Russian shtetl. In fact, it seemed a somewhat improbable commercial venture in 1964, when Zero Mostel played Tevye under Jerome Robbins’ direction. But it proved extraordinarily successful, not just on Broadway but internationally, then onscreen in the 1971 film version, and on into innumerable professional revivals and amateur productions.

Why would a show about poor, persecuted Russian peasant Jews be so enduringly popular with such diverse audiences? Pondering that matter (with the help of plentiful archival performance clips) in this entertaining overview of a popular phenomenon are a host of Fiddler veterans and fans including Joel Grey, Harvey Fierstein, Fran Lebowitz, Topol, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hal Prince and Norman Jewison. Clay, Shattuck, other greater Bay Area theaters. More info here

Though written and directed by a trans man, Rhys Ernst (who’s been a producer on the acclaimed TV series Transparent), this indie comedy has been mired in controversy since before its Sundance premiere this January. Some in the trans community took great offense at Ariel Shrag’s original novel, and while few have seen it yet, assumed this somewhat altered film adaptation will be objectionable in the same ways.

They find the basic premise insulting, even potentially dangerous: It involves a straight teen boy dating a slightly older lesbian who takes him for a trans male, a misapprehension he’s slow to pick up on, then too embarrassed (and besotted) to correct. The notion is that this conceit toys frivolously with the fear of trans people “passing” as biologically-born to their chosen gender, something that has gotten many of them beaten or killed over the years.

I’m certainly not going to tell anyone in a minority I’m not part of what they should think about their own screen representation. But having actually seen Adam, it’s hard to throw the book at what’s played as a gentle hipster comedy of good intentions and complicated realities. Adam (Nicholas Alexander) is a virginal high schooler who jumps at the chance to escape his helicoptering suburban Nor Cal parents and spend the summer with collegiate older sister Casey (Margaret Qualley) in Manhattan. She’s neck-deep in a gender-fluid LGBTQ scene, and is far too cool to explain its intricacies of identity to the little bro. Thus he realizes too late that his crush object Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez) thinks he’s FTM, and is too mortified to correct her as their relationship progresses.

Improbable as this may sound, it plays credibly enough, and rather charmingly. It’s best to think of Adam not as a movie by/for trans people (though there are many on both sides of the camera), but as a kind of cinematic YA novel on the subject for other viewers—those who want to grok this complicated new world of evolving gender-identity politics, but frankly haven’t a clue. Though there’s some surprisingly (and humorously) graphic content here, the movie is really more like a funny/earnest John Hughes teen flick filtered through the indie aesthetics of Go Fish and Slacker. Sue me: I liked it. Kabuki.

Give Me Liberty
Kirill Mikhanovsky’s indie comedy is a freewheeling Altmanesque ensemble piece that is, among other things, a portrait of our nation’s future: One in which service workers are stretched increasingly thin while those needing assistance in one form or another just keep growing in number. Young Vic (Chris Galust) has an underpaid, stressful, difficult job—as driver of a transport vehicle for Milwaukee special-needs citizens—only made more so by the constant demands of nearly everyone around him that he perform a special favor (or three) just for them.

During the very hectic day portrayed, he’s already running well behind schedule when a group of seniors in his Russian emigre community insist on being taken to a funeral. He has to deal with one woman’s diabetic attack, a sideswiped Mercedes, circumnavigating local protests against police violence, and a thousand other things in addition to the routine needs of his physically and/or mentally challenged official clients.

This is one of those movies distinctive for showing off different communities seldom represented onscreen, complete with a fair amount of non-professional performers in the cast. Mikhanovsky handles a complex agenda without resorting to melodrama or sentimentality. But Vic’s exasperation-filled day borders on chaos so consistently the effect is rather exhausting—it’s a refreshing film, but also a wearying one. Roxie. More info here

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