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Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: New year, death row

Screen Grabs: New year, death row

January's usual grab-bag of silly movies is leavened by two serious legal dramas (and a legend's epitaph).

January is generally considered a dumping ground for unloved movies, squeezed in to fill any space remaining by Christmas and awards-bait major releases still playing out. Certainly this week’s new arrivals bear that wisdom out, with the biggest ones being a crime drama (The Informer), deep-sea thriller (Underwater) and workplace comedy (Like a Boss) that all sound like something you’d stream at home on a slow night.

But there’s actually a lot going on on-screen this week, not least the odd simultaneous arrival of two worthy new American dramas about capital punishment (see below)—god knows why, since they premiered at film festivals months apart last year.

Among special events, there’s a benefit party for trans filmmakers (Thurs/9) followed by a free day-long “community forum” on “Trans Stories in U.S. Entertainment Media” (Fri/10) —more info here. Plus a full weekend (Thurs/10-Sun/12) at the Roxie of the Coven Film Festival, a spotlight for “films by emerging women and non-binary filmmakers from the Bay Area and around the world,” featuring not just features and shorts but panels and networking opportunities—more info here.

In this year’s edition of Sketchfest, film-centric events at the Castro include live-and-onscreen tributes to and/or screenings of classic sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, stand-up documentary It Started as a Joke, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Uncle Buck, Clue, Crispin Glover’s What Is It?, Airplane!, The King of Comedy, and more, many with original stars or filmmakers present. SF Sketchfest’s 19th edition runs Thurs/9-Sun/19, click here for full program and ticket intel.

Also of note is the local premiere of Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic, a newly restored exercise in exotic-adventure kitsch that was made in the late 1950s, after the director had returned to Germany from his long Hollywood career sojourn. This lush color extravaganza was drastically cut to create one flop US release in 1960 (called Journey to the Lost City), but at the PFA this month you can see the full original two parts, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, which play in their entirety Sat/11 and Sat/25. (More info here.) Dig this racy “snake dance” by imported American star Debra Paget’s aptly named temple dancer Seetha:

Another ill-treated film getting its belated due at the PFA is actor Charles Laughton’s only directorial feature, The Night of the Hunter, an amazing 1955 Southern Gothic thriller with Robert Mitchum as a homicidal evangelical—a forward-thinking concept if ever there was one. In conjunction with his Berkeley Art Museum gallery retrospective, artist Ron Nagle will introduce a restored 35mm print of a movie he (among many) cites as a personal inspiration. https://bampfa.org/event/night-hunter-ron-nagle

On the sillier side, Alamo Drafthouse is hosting two VHS-era fantasy obscurities. Frog Dreaming aka The Go-Kids aka The Quest is a 1985 Australian whimsy that provided E.T.’s Henry Thomas with his last juvenile role, had a soundtrack by Queen’s Brian May, and was (heavily) contrived by local legends Everett De Roche (scenarist of Aussie exploitation classics Patrick,Long Weekend and Razorback) and Brian Trenchard-Smith (director of guilty pleasures Turkey Shoot, Stunt Rock, BMX Bandits, Dead End Drive-In, and no less than two Leprechaun sequels). It plays Wed/15, though you may be in no shape after having your mind blown by the prior night’s Scanners III: The Takeover, a cheap ’n’ cheerful sequel to David Cronenberg’s 1981 original.

Fear not: There are actually some movies for adults of more discriminating taste within reach. Not least among them are two newly arrived major-retrospective series at the Pacific Film Archive, Next Door to Darkness: The Films of David Lynch(Fri/10-Sat/Feb. 29, more info here) and Federico Fellini at 100 (Thurs/16-Sun/May 17, https://bampfa.org/program/federico-fellini-100 ). We’ll skip over their details for now, because if you’ve read this far, it’s unlikely you need to be reminded who those directors are.

Opening Friday at area theaters:

An uneasy quiet pervades this second feature by Nigerian-American writer-director Chinonye Chukwu. Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, the longtime warden of a prison where she’s expected to oversee the occasional execution of a death row inmate. This regularly brings hostile attention from protestors and the media, particularly after the last such task is so bungled by the medical officer that witnesses hear the prisoner screaming in pain before lethal injection is successfully managed at last. Her grim duties also take a considerable toll on the warden, who refuses to delegate anything, even if that results in her drinking a bit much after work hours and neglecting the husband (Wendell Pierce) who only offers support.

The stress mounts even further when the next execution is planned for Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a model inmate who insists he did not commit the crime he’s sentenced for. More, he’s in such denial that justice could have failed him so completely, he refuses to acknowledge the imminent reality of his demise—which makes the warden’s methodical, by-the-book involvement in shepherding each case to that conclusion harder than usual.

Woodard is a performer whose by-now-familiar modus of dramatic power through judicious restraint is ideally deployed in this rare big-screen lead. She’s perfect for a character whose rigorous professionalism and emotional self-control is beginning to erode her from within, like a tumor. Hodge is also excellent. But as finely crafted as these and the supporting turns are, they’re somewhat hemmed in by the film’s strict focus and cautious good taste, which keeps its two hours worthy yet a little monotonous. It has both the strengths and the limitations of an old-school prestige TV movie wrestling with important social issues while offering Emmy-attracting acting showcases. You could imagine this material working equally well as a stage play. It’s a thoughtful, provocative piece of dramaturgy, if not terribly interesting or memorable as cinema.

Just Mercy
Somewhat more satisfying, if more predictable in its inspirational social-issue gist, is this latest from director/coscenarist Destin Daniel Cretton of Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle. Those movies gave a big push to Brie Larson, who duly returns the favor here by appearing as a local activist. But the narrative emphasis is on Creed’s Michael B. Jordan, playing a newly Harvard-graduated lawyer who makes the seemingly counterintuitive career choice of moving to Alabama to fight for the rights of death-row convicts. Many of whom hereabouts, it emerges, were convicted on flimsy evidence and/or as a result of piss-poor legal representation.

That’s certainly the case with Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who seems to have been found guilty of murdering a young white woman simply because public outrage demanded blood penance—whose blood didn’t really matter. The fact that dozens of witnesses could account for his whereabouts (at a church fish-fry!) on the day of the crime was among many little details that somehow didn’t find their way into court. Uncovering numerous other whopping instances of injustice in the case, Jordan’s protagonist runs into a system of entrenched racial corruption and cover-ups amongst police and judiciary that would make you think this was the 1930s South, not the 1990s.

Fact-based Just Mercy has a more conventional filmic perspective on capital punishment than Clemency, as here that most extreme societal “fix” is unquestionably being abused: To silence an innocent man, among other things. It’s not a particularly surprising or imaginative movie, but it is an effective one. What makes it particularly worth seeing, beyond the potency of the message, are the excellent support performances. Foxx is very good as a simple but honest man who’s learned people like him can expect nothing “just” from our society’s institutions. (The one and only thing McMillan was truly “guilty” of, it seems, was having an affair with a white woman—not the murder victim, even, but someone else.) And the always-welcome Tim Blake Nelson gives a knockout turn as the felonious hick whom police arm-twisted into providing fake “evidence” against him.

Varda by Agnes
Belgian director Agnes Varda died last March at age 90, having spent the last couple decades earning new popularity as the maker of endearingly personal, playful documentaries like Faces Places and The Gleaners and I. This, her final work, is a personally guided career retrospective that originally played as a two-part special on European TV. We see her lecturing or being interviewed in front of various live audiences, as well as in archival footage. Plus, of course, there’s a bounty of clips from her films, going back as far as 1955’s La Pointe Courte, which already announced her interest in blending fiction and non-fiction.

Noting “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love,” we see how she brought that idiosyncratic affection to subjects that encompassed bakers, Black Panthers, widows, hippies, recyclers, graffiti and potatoes. As well as, more famously, feminism (1977’s breezily empowering One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), late husband Jacques Demy’s childhood (1991’s Jacquot), and transient outcasts (1985’s atypically stark Vagabond). Her long-term collaborations, still photography and installation art also get discussed.

Varda’s work is so frequently pleasing that it’s a jolt when late in the film, we see a montage of war footage and other horrors. She was indeed a celebrant of life’s little pleasures, but no oblivious escapist. Most viewers of Varda by Agnes will probably be surprised by the sheer volume of creativity sampled here—even serious fans are likely to discover films they didn’t previously know about.

The documentary plays the Roxie starting this Friday (more info here) and is also part of the series Agnes Varda: An Irresistible Force, which is both ongoing at the PFA (through Fri/Feb. 28, more info here), and starts this Thurs/9 at SFMOMA (through Sat/March 21, more info here).

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