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Thursday, December 8, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Battle of the giant Russian oligarchs

Screen Grabs: Battle of the giant Russian oligarchs

Plus: Nic Cage goes gonzo for HP Lovecraft, Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, The House by the Cemetery, more movies.

The big event this week is Friday’s return of Noir City, whose latest annual edition at the Castro we’ve previewed separately here.

Among commercial openings this Friday, Guy Ritchie appears to be back in the Brit gangster terrain of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with The Gentleman, in which Matthew McConaughey plays a Yank up to no good in a London underworld populated by such shady characters as Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Eddie Marsen and so forth. For better or worse, it is Richie’s first such enterprise in 12 years, during which time he toiled in the realm of generic blockbuster cinema.

A different perspective on action machismo is tapped in Todd Robinson’s The Last Full Measure, a fact-based tale about a heroic act during the Vietnam War and its repercussions decades later. Beyond lead turns by young actors Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Irvine, it’s got a crowd of Oscar-winning and -nominated support players, including Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, the late Peter Fonda, Diane Ladd, Amy Madison, John Savage and more. This long-aborning project, which finished filming nearly three years ago, deals with PTSD and other issues relevant to service veterans.

One-offs of note this week include yet another screening for the latest edition of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, this time at (and benefitting) the Internet Archive on Fri/24 (more info here); and an SF Cinematheque and Canyon Cinema co-presentation of Interludes: New and Recent Films by Nathaniel Dorsky (Thurs/23 at YBCA, more info here). There’s also Alamo Drafthouse’s Tues/28 presentation of 1981’s The House by the Cemetery, IMHO the best film by late Italian horrormeister Lucio Fulci. The 4K restoration print of this silly yet undeniably creepy and very gory Gothic tale will be hosted by William Lustig, the founder of exploitation-restorationist label Blue Underground who is himself the writer-director of such 80s “B” classics as the original Maniac and the (unrelated) Maniac Cop series. More info here.

Recommended openings this Friday:

Citizen K
If you’ve read Rachel Maddow’s recent book Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, you’re probably feeling particularly familiar with issues involving Russia’s huge yet shaky and antiquated oil industry—how it dominates that nation’s economy, and how as a result its needs now have a great  impact on our own nation, thanks to the undeniable if murky BFF relationship between Putin and Trump.

This latest documentary by Alex Gibney—of prior high-profile ones about Steve Jobs, Scientology, WikiLeaks, Elizabeth Holmes, Lance Armstrong, Enron, Eliot Spitzer, Hunter S. Thompson, et al.—sheds some light on that weird new semi-voluntary liaison between countries that for most of the last hundred years considered each other prime enemies. (And most people still hold that opinion.) It does so through the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the self-made billionaire whose canny adoption of high capitalism amidst the desperate economic shambles of just-post-Communist Russia made him one of that nation’s leading oligarchs—the men who controlled the nation’s pursestrings as it became theoretically “free market” yet failed to attain anything like real democracy.

As KGB-trained Putin rose to assume disgraced Boris Yeltsin’s Presidency, the oligarchs retained their mafia-like control over various business sectors so long as they “stayed out of politics.” But when Khodorkovsky defied that rule, openly criticizing Putin’s corrupt rule, he found that even being the richest man in Russia wouldn’t prevent him from being tried, convicted and stripped of all assets (now state-owned) on bogus charges. When finally released from prison after a decade due to international pressure, he fled to London, where he is now a full-time anti-Putin, pro-democracy activist.

As is said of him here, Khodorkovsky “wants to be Jesus Christ, but he has a past.” His oligarch days earned him plenty of enemies, and some people still believe he was responsible for a mayor’s assassination. But his current status as an administration critic is too risky—think of all the Putin foes who’ve been poisoned abroad, or otherwise eliminated—to be simply a pose by someone wanting to regain their former power. (It’s suggested more than once in Citizen K that prison actually improved his character.)

While the impact of Putin’s increasingly paranoid, dictatorial rule on other countries like ours is touched on, this is a film that is primarily not about that, or even about Khodorkovsky. Instead, it’s about the tragedy of Russia, going from one form of authoritarianism to another, its citizens forever kept poor and abused by their latest feudal-style overlord. Whom most of them nonetheless love—because, as Trump is doing here, he so effectively channels their angry frustration towards minorities, foreigners, and everyone else who isn’t actually picking their pockets. The excellent Citizen K provides, at the very least, a scarifying look at just what we’re up against in having Putin’s Russia as our 21st-century frenemy. Opera Plaza, Shattuck. More info here

Color Out of Space
South African director Richard Stanley had a good thing going in the early 1990s with music videos and a couple cult genre films (sci-fi Hardware, horror Dust Devil) before he had the opportunity to realize his dream project, a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. But that big-budget 1996 endeavor turned into a nightmare (as memorably chronicled in the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau), with various calamities including bad behavior from stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer leading to Stanley getting fired from his own film. Nor was anyone very happy with the final result that replacement director John Frankenheimer wrought.

Badly shaken by this ordeal, Stanley took a long hiatus. The H.P. Lovecraft-based Color is thus the first feature he’s directed in nearly three decades. If you’re looking for something eccentric from a famously reclusive genre fanboy type, you won’t be disappointed—this movie is something of a mess, but it’s a fun mess. More, it’s a mix of sci-fi, horror and psychedelia starring Nicolas Cage, in full-on gonzo mode (plus Tommy Chong in a hippie-hermit support turn). Either that will mean nothing to you, or you’re probably already frantically ordering a ticket.

Cage plays the patriarch of an idiosyncratic family that gets more so after a meteor fragment lands in the front yard of their country home. As in Lovecraft’s story, the precise nature or purpose of the invading alien force remains a mystery—but invade it does, to some very random, hallucinogenic and finally grotesque ends.

The movie doesn’t quite seem in control of its own escalating madness, in part because Cage is being distractingly “weird” before there’s any narrative cause for it. But uneven as it is, Color is a welcome departure from genre formula that is entertaining even at its least. Embarcadero, California Theatre (Berkeley). More info here

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