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Thursday, June 30, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: A 14-hour movie with a 40-minute 'middle...

Screen Grabs: A 14-hour movie with a 40-minute ‘middle finger’

Plus: Nazi comedy 'Jojo Rabbit,' a celebration of Jacques Tati, the burning of the South Bronx, more in cinemas

If you’re looking for some suitable Halloween screen entertainment, you’re in the right place—well, almost. Our separate guide to this season’s scary movies, including the Roxie’s Gialloween retrospective, exploitation marathon Dismember the Alamo at the Drafthouse, as well as special SF Jazz and SF Symphony live music-with-film events, is here.

Another special event is Reel Rock 14, a North Face-presented mini-festival of new rock-climbing documentaries, Thurs/24-Fri/24 at the Castro. A few days later on Tues/29, the same venue hosts SFFilm’s preview of major awards contender Marriage Story. We’ll write about that excellent divorce-themed seriocomedy at length when it opens later in the year, but if you want to see it early, with writer-director Noam Baumbach in person, here’s your chance.

Commercial openings this Friday that we were not able to preview by deadline include The Kill Team (at the Roxie),Dan Krauss’ dramatized revamp of his chilling 2013 documentary, with Nat Wolff as a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan who blows the whistle on his sadistic, bloodthirsty commanding officer (Alexander Skarsgard); and One Piece: Stampede, the latest anime chapter in a pirate-fantasy franchise that has been highly popular in Japan for two decades.

There’s also the special case of The Current War: Director’s Cut, a movie that premiered at festivals two years ago, then got shelved in the scandal-driven collapse of Weinstein Co. In an unusual belated happy ending, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) regained control of his film—what premiered in 2017 Toronto had been put through the editorial wringer by “Harvey Scissorhands” Weinstein, to his horror, and to poor reviews. He even raised funds to shoot some additional material, though the film is now ten minutes shorter overall. Anyway, hopefully the result is a improved historical semi-fiction about the battle to control the electricity that would modernize the world, with its dramatic personae including Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) and Samuel Insull (Tom Holland).

Jojo Rabbit
The “Nazi comedy” everybody wanted to see at film festivals the last couple months, this latest by New Zealand-gone-international writer-director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows) is indeed an audacious conception. 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffith Davis) is a fervent little Hitler Youth who’s drunk deep at the draught of National Socialist propaganda, even if he’s not exactly the bravest or most physically fit li’l Aryan—and even if the Third Reich is already well on its way to defeat at this late point in the war. (Not that he’s registered that fact, as yet.)

With his father apparently MIA these last two years while fighting for the Third Reich in Italy, Jojo is the “man of the house,” albeit one who secretly relies on the counsel of an imaginary-friend father figure who’s none other than Der Fuehrer himself (Waititi). Imagine their mutual shock upon discovering that mom (Scarlett Johanssen) is betraying The Cause by hiding teenaged Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie from Leave No Trace) in an attic crawlspace—and worse, this fugitive is a “dirty Jew.”

With its kitschy exaggeration of Aryan Nation aesthetics and absurdist take on patriotic fervor (which encompasses Rebel Wilson as a loyal frau who’s birthed eighteen children for the Fatherland), Jojo Rabbit shows all signs of inspired outrageousness at the start. But then it settles for a mix of cuteness and sentimentality that seems way too soft for a comedy about Nazis made at a moment when far-right nationalist movements (including actual Nazism) are again on the rise around the world. Waititi is to be applauded for springing one harsh plot twist that lends the film real gravity. It paves the way for a finale that does have some earned poignancy. Still, given the riskiness of its premise, it’s disappointing the movie isn’t willing to go further out on the limb of its own making.

It’s worth seeing, however—particularly for San Mateo native and former SF resident Sam Rockwell, who adds to his gallery of great supporting performances with a turn as a disillusioned Axis army captain that nearly steals the film whole.

Jacques Tati: Comedy as Choreography
A singular perfectionist whose deadpan mastery of increasingly elaborate sight gags recalled Buster Keaton’s glory years, Tati was a French music hall performer who became one of the geniuses of cinema—though alas, his fully-realized works in that medium would be few in number. Such that this PFA retrospective can be billed as “near-complete,” even though it consists of just five features.

He made a splash with the gentle social satire of 1949 Jour de fete and 1953’s M. Hulot’s Holiday, starring in both as the titular, hapless, fussbudgety character. That signature figure returned but the auteurist ambition soared with Mon Oncle (1958), which parodies the postwar rush towards American-style hyper-efficiency in a “push-button home” whose gadgetry might seem welcoming only to 2001’s HAL.

Tati took almost a decade to paint his celluloid masterpiece in Playtime (1967), an even more remarkable Rube Goldbergian contraption of visual comedy that turns all Paris into an ultramodern advertisement for itself. Its brilliance requires almost no dialogue, yet went inexplicably underappreciated at the time—leaving Tati diminished resources for a final major work, 1973’s Traffic. It’s a pity he wasn’t more prolific, but we’ll take what we can get, and seeing these Tati films on the big screen is an opportunity not to be missed. Fri/25-Sun/Nov. 30, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

The Week in Documentaries
Three documentaries are opening at local theaters this Friday, two of them about creativity, one about destruction. The latter is Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vazquez’s Decade of Fire (at the Roxie), which investigates the highly suspicious way in which a series of devastating fires drove longtime minority communities from the South Bronx in the 1970s. While media and politicians played “blame the victim,” residents saw a pattern of institutionalized racism designed to withhold the resources that might have kept their neighborhoods safe, and/or rebuilt them after disaster struck. More info here

On a more upbeat note, Robin McKenna’s Gift (at Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas) adapts Lewis Hyde’s popular 1983 nonfiction tome The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World into a globe-trotting survey of the interplay between art and giving, including at Burning Man. More info here.  Prune Nourry’s Serendipity (at Opera Plaza) explores the French multidisciplinary artist’s own use of her breast-cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery as a medium for creative expression. More info here

La Flor
Billed by the Roxie as “an adventure in scale and duration,” Mariano Llinas’ 14-hour (yes, you read that right) movie is duly epic in duration—not just the time you’ll spend watching it, but the near-decade it took to make. Yet it is not epic in the War and Peace sense of narrative arc, let alone in terms of expense or spectacle. Instead, this is more in the realm of early 1970s Jacques Rivette projects like the beloved Celine and Julie Go Boating or the notorious Out 1 (which is almost as long as La Flor), wherein epic length without conventional epic scope was key to a general prankishness towards exploding expectations and rules. There’s also a dollop of late fellow Latin American auteur Raoul Ruiz’s penchant for witty labyrinths in this sprawling structure/non-structure, which the Argentine writer-director periodically explains himself onscreen via voiceover and line drawings.

There are six successive episodes here, which the Roxie will show in four chunks on different weekend days. All but one involving the same four talented actresses—Elisa Carricajo, Valerie Correa, Pilar Gamboa, Laura Paredes—in different roles. The first segment is a horror thriller triggered by an excavated mummy’s arrival at a research facility; the second, a melodrama involving both a broken love affair between two singing stars and a conspiracy around development of a secret scorpion-derived serum.

The third, longest episode is a convoluted, globe-trotting, multilingual espionage tale that encompasses flashbacks within flashbacks. In part 4, the lead actresses—wondering where the hell all this is headed after six years’ toil—rebel against their director, who seems to have forsaken them to obsess over filming trees. The fifth panel is a B&W silent comedy, the sixth a brief, blurry coda (also silent). All this is followed by what one critic  called the “forty-minute middle finger” of an endless final credits sequence that offers absolutely nothing to keep you in your seat.

Though aspects of La Flor could be called experimental or perverse, it’s hardly a dry abstraction. At various points the often camp-tinged narrative(s) involve a tse-tse fly, a hovercraft, Siberia, witches, Casanova, Canadian mounties, mental institution orgies, and other wild cards. There’s also room for some visual lyricism, a frequently Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Gabriel Chwojnik, excerpts from a historical text, and extended homage to Gallic director Jean Renoir.

The film often free-ranges between the mildly amusing and delightful. But at times it’s also seriously patience-testing—not least because there’s transparently no real point to any of the storylines, most of which simply halt mid-progress rather than having an “ending.” In the end, is this a massive achievement, a massive self-indulgence, or both? Are you best off watching it in a big gulp, or numerous bite-sized pieces? Am I even glad I saw it? It is part of La Flor’s intrigue, as well as its exasperation, that having just finished all fourteen hours, I can’t answer any of those questions…not yet, at least. Sat/26-Sun/27, Sat/Nov. 2-Sun/3, Roxie. More info here

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