It’s a big week for non-fiction cinema, the main event being SFFilm’s fifth annual Doc Stories, which brings together several of the year’s most acclaimed documentary features and shorts. It opens at the Castro Fri/1 with Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo, about the Harlem theater that remains the most fabled venue for African-American music and performance. Fantastic Negrito will be on hand for a live “musical introduction.” On Mon/4 Martin Scorcese appears to discuss his lesser-sung but extensive parallel career as a documentarian in an evening that will also feature his recent Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which may not be entirely documentary or narrative—but however you classify it, is definitely one of 2019’s best films.
In between, Doc Stories hosts two days of programs at the Vogue, including features about author/neurologist Oliver Sacks, modern dance legend Merce Cunningham, Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia (Shooting the Mafia) and Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker). There’s also a tribute to veteran director Julia Reichert (whose American Factory is expected to be a major awards contender at year’s end), and three programs of nonfiction shorts. More info here.
Dance fans can put off seeing the 3-D Cunningham until its commercial opening in early January if they’re disinclined to miss anything at the overlapping San Francisco Dance Film Festival, which runs Sat/2 through Sun/10 at several SF venues. Among the international features and shorts showcased are performance films featuring the Joffrey Ballet (Ophee et Eurydice), Les Ballets de Monte Carlo (The Lavender Follies), the English National Ballet (Akram Khan’s Giselle), Paris Opera Ballet (Thierree/Shechter/Perez/Pite: Four Choreographers of Our Time), and Wifman Ballet (Tchaikovsky: Pro et Contra).
There are also feature documentaries about choreographer Sol Pico (From Knee to Heart), Maurice Bejart (the Queen-related benefit behind-the-scenes portrait Ballet for Life) and dancer/teacher Lil Buck (Real Swan). Narrative features are a fully adapted movie version of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, shot in Budapest with leads from the Royal Ballet, and Georgia Parris’ dance-themed drama Mari, starring former Batsheva Dance Co. company member turned choreographer/multimedia performer Bobbi Jene Smith. More info here.
Far from the world of dance lie two worthy new documentary features opening regular commercial runs this Friday. Not to be confused with the similarly-themed recent For Sama, The Cave (from Feras Fayyad of the Oscar-dominated Last Men in Aleppo) chronicles female medical staff in a subterranean Syrian hospital defying cultural and professional sexism as they fight to save lives from the war being waged above. It opens at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
Opening at the Roxie is Jacqueline Olive’s Always in Season, about a war so contrastingly quiet few even realize it’s going on. Her subject is the highly suspicious apparent “suicide” last year of Lennon Lee Lacey, an 18-year-old African-American high schooler in rural North Carolina found hanging from a swing set in a trailer park. As we realize there’s every reason to believe a murder and cover-up may have occurred, the question that emerges in this engrossing film in a very disturbing one: Does racially-targeted lynching still exist in the U.S.? Is it an actual trend we prefer not to recognize? More info here.
In a busy week there were several major releases we weren’t able to watch by deadline, including actress turned director (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, an inspirational biopic of slave-freeing Underground Railroad trailblazer Tubman’s life that has gotten just lukewarm early reviews. Dividing critics in its festival appearances this fall was writer/director/producer/star Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a passion project that’s been in the works since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published two decades ago. Among the radical changes this starry adaptation has wrought on its National Book Award-winning source material is changing the setting from late 1990s to the mid-1950s.
We did see Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love, a handsomely mounted, broadly aimed French backstage melodrama about the mechanizations behind the creation of playwright Edmond Rostand’s enduring 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s a Shakespeare in Love-type exercise, though Michalik ain’t Tom Stoppard. Also disappointing is Frankie by Ira Sachs, whose last three movies (Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange, Little Men) were all among the best of the last decade. But all good things must come to an end, and as a studio executive reportedly once said to Peter Bogdanovich (upon watching his flop Daisy Miller, which followed the acclaimed hits The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon), “Well you hit three home runs in a row—now you’ve bunted.”
Isabelle Huppert at her most disinterested plays the titular character, a famous actress who’s gathered loved ones (not that she seems to actually love anyone) around for a vacation/farewell week in Portugal after a cancer relapse. It’s one of those movies in which talented people (including Brendan Gleeson, Maria Tomei, Greg Kinnear, Pascal Greggory, Vinette Robinson and Jeremie Renier) wander around attractive settings arguing about their relationships and whatnot in what’s presumably meant as a bittersweet celebration of life. But the characters are so unengaging and the situations so inert, all you can think is “It must have been nice for the crew, working in picturesque rural Portugal for a few weeks.”
Other openings and events of note this week are all over the map. In contrast to the enervated Rohmer-esque seriocomedy of Frankie (let alone Cyrano’s grandstanding fluff), actual French director Francois Ozon’s latest is all business: By the Grace of God is a dramatization of still-in-progress, real-life events wherein the grown survivors of a serially molesting priest in Lyon decided to make their grievances public in the face of the Catholic Church’s indifference. (Not only did church officials refuse to defrock the cleric in question, they allowed him to continue working with preadolescent children like those he’d abused.)
Taking a very Gallic, brisk, neutral tone to potentially melodramatic material, with the narrative covering a lot of ground as it gradually shifts focus from one former-victim protagonist (Melvil Poupaud) to another (Denis Menochet) and then another (Swann Arlaud), this is a strong portrait of cage-rattling by very different ordinary people forcing institutional change—sort of an Erin Brockovich for sexual abuse survivors. It opens at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
On the opposite end of the scale, surreal silliness is the main course in Greener Grass, the first feature from directors, writers and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. The two Upright Citizens League comedy troupe members play housewives in a sunny suburban hamlet where everything is some loud pastel hue, all adults wear braces, golf carts are the preferred (in fact only) mode of transportation, and nobody blinks an eye when one character gives away her newborn to a friend—or when that friend stuffs an errant soccer ball under her dress and pronounces herself pregnant.
This spacey Georgia-shot satire may recall both Polyester and The Stepford Wives, but it has a definite vibe all its own. Whether you will find it funny, funny-weird, or just weird, depends on you—and possibly your mood of the day. I found it consistently almost-enchantingly almost-hilarious—which is to say, something singular that nonetheless doesn’t quite work as fully as I kept hoping it would. It opens at the Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
Also at the Alamo is Aaron Schimburg’s even-less-classifiable Chained for Life, a wittily deconstructive fictive making-of-a-movie movie in which a mainstream film star (Jess Wexler) and a real-life “Elephant Man” (Adam Pearson) are acting in an arty yet exploitative quasi-horror opus featuring numerous “freaks” a la Tod Browning’s infamous Freaks. This commentary upon the cinema of disability (among other things) is adventuresome, puzzling, and over-schematic by turns, but it is always intriguingly original. More info here.
Another idiosyncratic vision is Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81, which was shot nearly 40 years ago then shelved for a very long time due to financial/legal difficulties. (During that period the dialogue track was lost, ultimately necessitating all the performers be dubbed decades later.) A then-unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat plays a newly homeless painter (his actual status during production) who drifts though a long Manhattan day of art-scene-making that encompasses early rapping by Kool Kyle, an Edie Sedgwick-themed fashion show, and Debbie Harry as a bag lady whom a kiss transforms into a wish-granting fairy godmother.
There’s also lots of music, particularly from the city’s then-dominant No Wave school. We get performances by DNA, Tuxedomoon, Japan’s The Plastics, James Chance and the Contortions, and the very non-No Wave Kid Creole & the Coconuts. With its barely-there narrative and cameos by tons of scenesters (from John Lurie to Fab 5 Freddy), Downtown 81 is the Pull My Daisy of its own now-fabled milieu—not much of a movie, but an invaluable snapshot of a moment that now looks like hipster heaven. Those lured in by the legend of Basquiat will be pleased that he’s onscreen throughout, and a natural, charismatic presence amidst a lot of snarky dress-up role-playing.
A different kind of city cultural celebration is on tap at SF Cinematheque’s Sun/3 program. It’s a double bill of sorts, the first half featuring two B&W 16mm works by Dominic Angerame from his massive, ongoing City Symphony project: 1980’s Freedom’s Skyway, a piece of skyline impressionism “featuring Chinatown pyrotechnics,” and the new Revelations, which takes note of drastic recent changes along SF’s Embarcadero and in Dogpatch.
The second half will be a live multimedia performance by local trio duo B. vs. vIDEO sAVant, presenting the result of their recent Ensemble-in-Residence stint at the Center for New Music, where the evening’s program will take place. More info here.
Last, but certainly not least by any measuring method, the Roxie—which just last week gave you all fourteen hours of Mariano Llinas’ prankish La Flor—challenges your posterior again with two marathon screenings (Sat/2 and Sun/10) of Bela Tarr’s 1994 Satantango. This 7+ hour colossus of B&W cinematic minimalism charts a poor rural Hungarian village in its death throes, as some hope to get money to leave for a better life, while others hope a miracle might yet save the town itself. If you can slow your attention down to its rhythm of paint-drying near-stasis, you may find yourself agreeing with many that this beautifully bleak monolith is one of the great cinematic experiences, period. More info here.