You can experience complete schizophrenia at the movies by attending all three of this weekend’s new big releases: There’s the uber-manly Rambo: Last Blood, the franchise that won’t stop flexing its biceps; and the terribly tea-cosy Downtown Abbey, yes the big-screen continuation of the new millennium’s Upstairs, Downstairs. Imagine the pandemonium if their audiences wandered into each other’s theaters by mistake.
Then somewhere in a kind of popcorn-fantasy metrosexual netherworld is Ad Astra, a big sci-fi extravaganza with Brad Pitt as an emotionally blocked astronaut in what sounds like a male version of the inner/outer space drama Contact 22 years ago. It’s directed by James Gray, whose most mainstream film to date was the highly idiosyncratic period adventure The Lost City of Z—so this is definitely going to be thinkier than your average missive from the Star Wars or Marvel “universes.”
Two documentaries opening this week also offer high contrast, although I suspect their subjects would have actually enjoyed each others’ company. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (at Opera Plaza, more info here.) pays fond tribute to the late Texas firebrand whose stinging political critiques as a journalist and commentator were tolerated in her very “red” state and beyond because she was just so damn funny. Featuring colleagues like Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow as well as input from family and friends, Janice Engel’s feature is as entertaining as the personality at its center.
Unavailable for preview was Desolation Center, about the early 1980s underground music, art and multimedia events in Southern California that are now considered to have been the direct precursors to Burning Man and other ongoing cultural behemoths. It’s directed by Stuart Swezey, credited as these happenings’ principal organizer, and features latterday interviews as well as archival performances by personnel from Einsturzende Neubauten, Survival Research Labs, Sonic Youth, The Minutemen and more. It plays this week at the Roxie. (More info here.)
No Regrets: A Celebration of Marlon Riggs
Before he died of complications from AIDS in 1994, Texas-born, Oakland-based Riggs attained an unwelcome kind of notoriety: His hour-long 1989 poetical documentary/essay Tongues Untied was widely denounced as “pornographic and blasphemous” (in the words of the inimitable Pat Buchanan) by conservative politicians and pundits. It was used to argue for the de-funding of PBS, which broadcast it, and the National Endowment for the Arts, which had helped fund it. All this because Riggs had made an artistically adventurous yet non-explicit celebration of black gay male life, something that remained a taboo topic for discussion even within many African-American communities.
The upside was that a work as avant-garde in many respects as Tongues might only have been seen by a few “previously converted” types if not for the national controversy. Working furiously up to his death at age 37, Riggs proved the depth of his talent with 1992’s Color Adjustment and the posthumously released Black Is…Black Ain’t, both bold, fascinating meditations on African-American identity.
This PFA series (timed to the 30th anniversary of Tongues Untied) is a complete retrospective that also makes room for the biographical documentary I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs, and three movies that broaden the context of his work. The group-directed 1977 Word Is Out provided a pulse-taking of the “Gay Lib” culture that coincided with his own coming out, while Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 The Watermelon Woman and Thomas Allen Harris’ Vintage: Families of Value are examples of the art and artists whose paths Riggs broke ground for. Thurs/19-Mon/Nov. 25, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.
Bogdanovich: The Last Picture Show and Saint Jack
Though he’d already apprenticed under exploitation kingpin Roger Corman and made one interesting prior feature (the prescient mass-shooter tale Targets), ex-critic Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial career began in earnest with 1971’s The Last Picture Show. It was a “New Hollywood” film that Old Hollywood could understand, with its nods to John Ford and nostalgia for a recent, “simpler” American past. He made two more big hits (What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon) before a string of flops considerably reduced Bogdanovich’s golden boy luster. Yet at decade’s end he made another of his best movies, the regrettably under-seen Saint Jack, with Ben Gazzara as Paul Theroux’s protagonist, a disreputable Yankee expat trying to run various get-rich-quick scams in Singapore.
These two bookends to a remarkable cinematic decade are together at last at the Roxie this Sunday, double-billed as an “80th Birthday Bash” for their director (probably better known in recent years as an actor, notably on The Sopranos), who’ll be in attendance. Picture Show will be offered in a “Director’s Cut” (presumably with the seven minutes of extra footage included in a prior home-release “special edition”), while seldom-revived Jack is shown in a new 4K restoration. Bogdanovich is a marvelous raconteur with terrific insight into his own work, so this program should be a bonanza in both live and celluloid entertainment value. Sun/22, Roxie. More info here.
Legacy Film Festival on Aging
Though somehow it escaped our attention previously, this is billed as the 9th year for this local festival whose programming focuses on issues relevant to seniors. Its nine wholly distinct programs over three days encompass a diverse range of shorts, including ones from Belgium, Italy and Switzerland as well as the U.S.
There are also a handful of features, including a reprise of Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had, which had an all-too-brief commercial run earlier this year. It’s an exceptionally nuanced seriocomedy about a family dealing with an aging parent’s (Blythe Danner) rapidly escalating Alzheimer’s, with Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon as the adult children pushing for her to be moved to an appropriate fulltime care facility, an option that father Robert Forster vehemently refuses. Fri/20-Sun/22, New People Cinema. More info here.
Low on star names, higher on mood than narrative structure, Juston Chon’s feature did not exactly set Sundance on fire this January, but in its quiet way it was nonetheless one of the more accomplished and distinctive features programmed. A self-piteous, embittered mess since his wife abandoned their young family, emigre Young-il (James King) had to raise his two children alone—which doesn’t necessarily excuse the crappy job he made of it. Carey (Teddy Lee) fled this unhappy home in L.A.’s Koreatown as soon as he could, but Casie (Tiffany Chu) stuck around as the dutiful daughter, putting her own life on permanent hold while supporting the household with degrading work she hates as a sort of upscale karaoke-bar geisha. She has a boyfriend (Ronnie Kim) who’s rich and generous, yet she seems less his beloved than an ornament that completes his expensive lifestyle.
When sickly dad can no longer be left alone, Casie refuses to put him in a hospice, instead begging the very reluctant Carey to return as a part-time caregiver. It’s an edgy reunion, with plenty of unresolved issues between both the siblings and with their father. But still, the forced reconciliation seems to be working out, even as a few unpredictable variables (immature Carey’s prankish streak, Casie’s barely-restrained anger) tempt disaster.
A sharp detour from the gritty realism of Chon’s prior Gook, Ms. Purple is dreamy and dolorous, more attentive to its saturated-color aesthetics than to the usual particulars of plot momentum or character psychology. This imbalance can be frustrating, even pretentious. Still, it’s an atmospheric slice of intriguingly unfamiliar life whose Antonioni-esque air of poetical ennui is, at the very least, one former arthouse “flavor of the month” one rarely encounters anymore. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas.
Looking Back at the British New Wave
Like many film industries, the United Kingdom’s got a big stagnant in the 1950s, as formulas ran dry and audiences increasingly stayed home watching TV. And like many, it got a rude but much-needed kick in the pants from new talents that began to emerge towards that decade’s end, many from the dread Boob Tube itself. The signature films of this movement were (along with their stage equivalents) termed the “Angry Young Man” school, not because their makers were pissed off, but because their protagonists were frequently rough, spiky, dissatisfied working-class blokes of a type that British cinema had seldom seen before—because it was “nice,” and they weren’t.
This PFA series pulls together fourteen titles from the era, nearly all of them famous (then and now), but some not in circulation or seen in poor condition for some time. The first four are all from director Tony Richardson: 1959’s Look Back in Anger (based on the John Osborne play that set this subgenre’s kicking-against-the-pricks mold) and 1962’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are quintessential “angry young man” dramas, while A Taste of Honeyexpanded the kitchen-sink realism to encompass complex female and gay figures, and The Entertainer burned the bridge of bad old entertainment via Laurence Olivier’s scurrilous turn as a rakish, untalented music-hall hack at career’s end.
Later films in the series introduced such directorial talents as John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, Jack Clayton and Bryan Forbes, as well as overnight stars like Michael Caine, Richard Harris, Albert Finney, Julie Christie and Malcolm McDowell. Two titles included here weren’t by British directors, but are key to the period nonetheless: Expat American Joseph Losey (who’d been blacklisted during Hollywood’s Red Scare) commenced his collaboration with playwright Harold Pinter on 1963’s deliciously perverse The Servant, an acid commentary on British class divisions. Three years later, Italian visitor Michelangelo Antonioni packaged “Swinging London” for the masses in the cryptic yet hugely popular Blow-Up.
Another expat, England-bred, SF-based critic David Thomson (A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema), will lecture in tandem with screenings of those last-named films and two others. Sat/21-Sat/Nov. 30, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.