Who knows if we’ll ever see the day when the Arab Film Film Festival does not seem of urgent political relevance. But this year’s event opens amidst pure insanity at the top, with our POTUS in his self-described “great and unmatched wisdom” giving one Middle Eastern-adjacent ally free rein to attack allies who’ve fought ISIS at our behest, adding that if he ends up displeased by their actions, “I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy [sic] of Turkey.” Don’t we invade other countries over these kinds of crazy threats?
In any case, patrons at this 23rd edition of the nation’s oldest and largest Arab film showcase will certainly have a lot to talk about, even beyond the food-for-thought onscreen. AFF starts this Friday night at the Castro Theatre with an opening gala featuring Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven, a jury prize-winner at Cannes that is also Palestine’s official Oscar submission. The native Palestinian director travels the globe finding parallels with his homeland’s predicament in currents of nationalism, militarism, xenophobia, and absurdism, all captured in his trademark semi-fictive, semi-autobiographical, lightly surreal form of serious-minded comedy. There’s a pre-film VIP reception and post-film afterparty.
The rest of the fest’s SF segment then moves to the Roxie for another five days, though Wed/16. There will be several shorts bills, a special sidebar of “Palestine Days” (comprising no less than 12 relevant titles), a first-ever “Queer Lens: LGBTQ+ Showcase” on Sat/12, and much more. In addition to documentaries and narrative works from Arab-American filmmakers, Western films/videos about Arab subjects, and so forth, there will be new movies from Morocco, Mauritania, Qatar, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Jordan, and elsewhere.
Much of the program repeats Oct. 17-20 at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, whose selections will include a revival of Atef Salem’s 1959 Egyptian noir Encounter With the Unknown—a murder mystery starring none other than 27-year-old Omar Sharif, still some years short of the fame that Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago would bring him. For AFF2019’s full schedule and ticket info, click here.
There are also a couple de facto mini-festivals happening in SF this week, also both at the Roxie. The latest edition of the touring Hola Mexico Film Festival brings four cream-of-the-crop new Mexican features Fri/11-Sun/13. They encompass Alejandra Marquez Abella’s barbed portrait of wealthy 1980s privilege gone sour, The Good Girls (with the director in person); Xavi Sala’s Guie’Dani’s Navel, a flipside look at life for indigenous servants in an upper-class Mexico City household; Alejandro Lubezki’s fantasy comedy If I Were You, in which a squabbling married couple find out the hard way what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes; and Sergio Umansky’s Eight Out of Ten, about grief-consumed parents seeking revenge for their children’s fates amidst rampant criminal corruption. More info here.
The Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase provides a Roxie double bill on Tues/15 with Gundermann, a biopic about an East German singer-songwriter whose director Andreas Dresden will be present to receive a Career Achievement award; and Markus Geller’s moped road comedy 25 km/h. The showcase continues with additional features Wed/16-Thurs/17 at the Goethe-Institut. More info here. Finally, SF Shorts’ 14 annual festival provides films in all genres from 23 countries in six programs at the Roxie Thurs/17 through Sat/19. More info here.
Unavailable for preview by deadline were some major new releases including Gemini Man, a sci-fi action drama with Will Smith that is not said to be one of director Ang Lee’s better efforts; and Cotton Club Encore (at Opera Plaza), a new edit of Francis Ford Coppola’s flop 1984 Jazz Age gangster extravaganza, whose original cut he was unhappy with. Then there’s the wild card of Fantastic Funghi, a Brie Larson-narrated documentary by Louie Schwartzberg that uses purportedly spectacular time-lapse photography to convey the role of fungus in that delicately complex global ecosystem we are now busy destroying. Schwartzberg and famed mycologist Paul Stamets will speak after the film’s Castro Theatre screening on Thurs/10. More info here.
Elsewhere (all opening Fri/11 unless otherwise noted):
Pain & Glory
It might be exasperating in a different filmmaker, but there’s something lovable about the fact that Pedro Almodovar has been making features for four full decades now, and his movies are still erratic as hell. He may be an established “master”—no question that sometimes he directs like one—but he can be uninspirationally silly (I’m So Excited!), pretentiously weird without depth (The Skin I Live In), or lay on the sentimentality with a trowel (though those movies tend to get acclaimed as masterpieces). Then he’ll make something that’s just breathtakingly good, and you can’t be sure he recognizes it’s any different from the rest.
Others may disagree, but I’d say Pain and Glory is his best since Bad Education 15 years ago. Antonio Banderas is lovely as Salvador, a famous film director sidelined by physical ailments, tossed by fate back across the path of two old acquaintances (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Asier Etxeandia) who trigger memories of his career heyday, as well as his impoverished upbringing with a strong-willed mother (Penelope Cruz). This intricately structured piece has elements of autobiography, romance, Spanish political commentary, autumnal melancholy, and pure homosexiness. It is a “mature work” in all the best ways, being wise, reflective and full of self-deprecating humor. Embarcadero. More info here.
Jodie Mack at SF Cinematheque
London-born, U.S.-based experimental filmmaker Mack specializes in unique stop-motion animations that repurpose everydaymaterials into complexly textured works on the continuum between abstraction and narrative. She’ll be in person for two Cinematheque-hosted shows this week, with last year’s playful hour-long documentary The Grand Bizarre(about her fascination with textiles) at SFMOMA on Sat/19, and Something Between Us (a program of several shorts spanning the last decade) at YBCA on Thurs/24. More info here.
The Ground Beneath My Feet
From all outward appearances, Lola (Valerie Pachner) seems to have her act together, to an almost intimidating degree: She’s a workaholic team manager at a company that comes up with profit-maximizing (i.e. employee-cutting) strategies for other companies; she’s having a serious secret affair with her female boss (Mavie Hobinger); she exercises as if training for the Olympics; and handles all these various forms of stress as if they were no big deal.
But Lola has a secret, in the form of older sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger), who was once her legal guardian after their parents died. But now that role is reversed, Conny having been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic at age 22. So instead she is in and out of institutions, constantly calling her sibling with threats of suicide and claims of abuse, creating a semi-hapless, semi-manipulative havoc that constantly threatens to derail Lola’s defensively micro-managed life.
This coolly handled yet emotionally charged drama by Austrian writer-director Maria Kreutzer adds another layer of tension when Lola begins to fear that perhaps she, too, has significant mental health issues just beginning to manifest themselves. The Ground Beneath My Feet is a strong piece of work that will be particularly compelling (if perhaps painfully so) to anyone who’s similarly had a friend or relative whose stability is unreliable, and whose neediness is infinite. Opera Plaza, Albany. More info here.
Yet More At the Roxie
Just stop already, Roxie Cinema! Nonetheless, we feel called upon to note that this week the city’s busiest rep house (as well as, admittedly, perhaps its last remaining one) is also playing the following:
Billy Senese’s The Dead Center begins when a seemingly dead man (Jeremy Childs) gets up and walks out of a morgue. That flummoxing development sets in motion a sinister chain of events on a hospital’s psychiatric ward and beyond in this unusually restrained, creepy and intelligent horror thriller. More info here.
Midcentury Productions’ occasional “Other Side of the Lost Continent” series, celebrating pre-Nouvelle Vague french cinema, returns with a Sun/13 double bill of post-WW2 melodramas that both happen to involve classical pianists. Henri Decoin’s 1948 Monelle stars Louis Jouvet as an established composer whose mentorship of a pretty young piano prodigy (Dany Robin) stirs malicious rumors that soon endanger his reputation and his happy marriage. In Henri Calef’s 1951 Shadows and Light, Simone Signoret is a famous soloist whose recovery after a breakdown is aided when she finds love, unaware that her equally smitten beau (Jacques Berthier) just dumped the half-sister (Maria Casares from Children of Paradise and Orpheus) she already has an uneasy relationship with. More info here.
Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero
Dayton, Ohio has spawned a surprising number of significant rock acts, including Guided by Voices and The Breeders. But few stirred quite so much excitement, then lamentation, as short-lived Brainiac. Formed in 1992, they recorded three indie albums of adventuresome, distinctive post-punk melodic noise and were being aggressively courted by major labels as a possible “next Nirvana” when tragedy struck in 1997. Band leader Tim Taylor died in a solo car crash—he’d been unaware his vehicle had a slow carbon monoxide leak, which caused him to pass out at the wheel. Eric Mahoney’s documentary chronicles the lifespan of an act snuffed out before it had gotten widespread recognition, but whose influence on subsequent bands has had long-term impact. This single San Francisco screening at Alamo Drafthouse on Tues/19 is presented by Noise Pop Industries. More info here.
Dolemite Is My Name
Shrek movies aside, the last time Eddie Murphy probably made a major public impression was twelve years ago, with Dreamgirls—and then by stomping out on the Oscars when he didn’t win Best Supporting Actor. That was embarrassingly petulant star behavior, but at the same time, it was somewhat understandable: He was robbed. (I love Alan Arkin as much as the next person, but he could have played that Little Miss Sunshine role in his sleep, and practically did.) Murphy’s next movie was the abhorrent Norbit, a summation of his worst instincts as a great talent usually wasted on crap material of his own choosing, and he’s kept a relatively low profile since. This latest, however, is the rare Murphy vehicle that actually applies his skill set to something at least semi-worthwhile.
He plays Rudy Ray Moore, who’d had little success in showbiz (and was pushing 50) when he adopted a new stage persona as “Dolemite,” reworking raunchy folkloric raps about a sort of pimp superman as a comedy routine. This act was recorded for X-rated “party records” sold under the counter (and out of his car trunk), so successfully that he decided to make a Dolemite movie in 1975—even though by then the “blaxploitation” vogue was already flagging. This biopic directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, the Footloose remake) charts the evolution of Moore’s signature character and the making of Dolemite, a largely self-financed venture that wound up being a big hit despite its makers’ inexperience.
That film and its immediate followups are still outrageous delights. While this Disaster Artist-like depiction suggests many of the laughs were unintentional, Moore was very much aware he was providing a deliberately ridiculous exaggeration of Shaft and Superfly-type heroics. There are other liberties taken in service of what’s a fairly conventional inspirational underdog saga, one that might have been paced a little more briskly than the leisurely two hours it gets here.
Still, it’s good to see Murphy playing an actual person rather than a stretched-out sketch character for a change, and the rest of the cast (also including Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock and Snoop Dogg) is as comfortably colorful as the funky Me Decade trappings. It’s a good movie, and if it re-ignites interest in original Moore films like Petey Wheatstraw or Disco Godfather (don’t bother with the later ones), all the better. At area theaters.
If you want to start your Halloween off with something really, really not-scary, you can enjoy this 1967 supernatural hodgepodge from late Southern drive-in exploitation maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis. A man hideously facially scarred after an accidental electrocution (Tony McCabe) emerges with strange psychic abilities, but isn’t happy till his looks are restored by a witch (Elizabeth Lee). In return, she demands he be her lover—though only he can see that she’s not a youthful beauty but a blue-skinned crone (Mudite Arums).
Lewis’ primitive filmmaking and the highly variable acting do nothing to elevate James F. Hurley’s clumsy script, which throws together ill-matched elements of karate, LSD, Federal investigators, a serial killer, psych-rock, and more—though not, notably, the over-the-top gore this director is usually associated with. The low-level “special effects” include a man in bed being attacked by his own blanket, and other things requiring no resources beyond mime. Even the “trip sequence” is about as prosaic as they come. The arbitrariness of its ideas (many of which Hurley recycled the next year in his sole directorial effort, The Psychic) actually makes this one of Lewis’ less repetitious movies, but its entertainment value is primarily of the inadvertant kind. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.