This Friday, we’re already getting commercial releases of movies that premiered at Sundance just the other week. Two got a mixed reception there: Downhill was greeted as a fairly good albeit diminished English-language remake of Ruben Ostlund’s exceptional 2014 Swedish Force Majeure, with Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus now playing the bourgeoise couple whose marriage reveals serious cracks after a dramatic incident during a ski-resort vacation; while Mudbound director Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted has Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck in an 80s-set espionage thriller adapted from a Joan Didion novel that most Park City attendees found too convoluted for its own good.
Other mainstream arrivals, unavailable for preview by deadline, include Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island, a horror-comedy revamp of the campy 1970s TV series that at least conceptually sounds fun; Sonic the Hedgehog, a semi-animated spinoff of the Saga videogame franchise, with Jim Carrey’s villain the chief live-action element; and Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, a romantic drama targeted primarily at African-American audiences, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield.
There’s also a number of especially notable rep-house showings and other one-offs this week, including Alamo shows of Walter Hill’s uber-80s action fantasia Streets of Fire (in 70mm!) on Wed/19, and Nicolas Roeg’s improbably delightful 1990 Roald Dahl adaptation The Witches (with live drag show!) as a family matinee on Sat/15.
That same afternoon, the Pacific Film Archive offers an equally colorful double-barrel treat as part of their ongoing Agnes Varda tribute: A screening of her husband Jacques Demy’s 1968 The Young Girls of Rochefort, a delicious salute to “golden age” Hollywood musicals, and her own subsequent documentary The Young Girls at 25, in which surviving participants and Rochefort residents weigh the impact of a movie that’s become a beloved classic within France. (Though it originally bombed in English-speaking nations, and remains under-appreciated here.) More info here.
The next day, Sun/16, the Castro Theater offers something with similar appeal: A pairing of Martin Scorcese’s own 1977 commentary on old-school musicals, New York, New York, with Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 The Clock. The former, offered in an uncut 35mm print (including one long number deleted from the original release), stars Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro; the latter stars her mother in a rare straight dramatic role, as a young woman who falls for a G.I. (Robert Walker) on a two-day pass. More info here.
And still there’s the week’s most-recommended new weekend openings, detailed below:
Come As You Are
If Downhill was greeted at Sundance as a decent but still somewhat redundant U.S. remake of a better foreign-language film, this new feature by SF’s own Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) is that rare thing, the remake that actually improves (at least slightly) on the original. It’s a fresh adaptation of the Belgian film Hasta la Vista, which itself was loosely based on the life of disabled-rights activist Asta Philpott.
Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer), Matt (Hayden Szeto), and Mo (Ravi Patel) are three men with different physical limitations who decide to pool their resources, hire a van with driver (Gabourey Sidibe from Precious), and cross the Canadian border to a bordello designed for special-needs client, so the trio can lose their virginities at last. Personality clashes provide one source of tension; another is the fact that none of them have told their “helicopter parents” just what they’re getting up to.
This road movie is comic without being cartoonish, and touching without getting maudlin about it. It’s a charming film whose occasional raunchiness and political correctitude are both downplayed enough to create a true crowdpleaser. Roxie. More info here.
The breakout amongst Midnight titles at last year’s Sundance Festival, this first English-language feature from the Austrian duo of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is a similar if more overtly horror-ish take on themes from their prior Goodnight Mommy. Again, relations between a mother figure and some excessively pro-active children seriously deteriorate in social isolation: Not long after their religious-hysteric mother (Alicia Silverstone) commits suicide, siblings Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aiden (Jaeden Martell) are dispatched to a country home for the holidays with dad’s (Richard Armitage) new, much-younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). Needless to say, there is much wariness on all sides.
But when the power goes out and the supplies vanish in the dead of snowy winter, with help long miles away, who is responsible? Is it the kids, plotting to drive this family interloper nuts a la Turn of the Screw? Is it Grace, whose past duly suggests mental instability may be on the menu? Or is it a vengeful supernatural force, perhaps furious woman-scorned mom herself? As the situation grows ever more desperate, this atmospheric if somewhat slow-moving thriller comes up with some chilling material, though the script grows increasingly muddled juggling too many potential explanations in the air. It’s a good movie that falls short of being exceptional. AMC Metreon, California (Berkeley). More info here.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
More than a few viewers have considered this original period piece by French writer-director Celine Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy) one of last year’s best films—it qualified for 2019 awards consideration in most places—so I’ll gladly admit my underwhelmed reaction is a minority opinion.
A rare professional female artist in her era of the late 1700s, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is summoned to an underpopulated island in Brittany. There, she is to paint a likeness of young aristocrat Heloise (Adele Haenel), so it can be sent to her prospective husband in Milan. But this task is to be done covertly; Marianne must pose simply as a hired companion, because her subject does not want to be painted. More importantly, what she really doesn’t want is to be married off at all. Yet there’s little hope of an independent life for someone of her station, gender and era. As the two women grow ever closer, the hopelessness of their bond becomes more stark.
This is a love story, even if it takes a very long while to become one. If the last time you took note of a French lesbian romance was Blue Is the Warmest Color, be prepared for its opposite—emotionally as well as physically, this is the ultra-restrained flipside to that sexually graphic tale. So stripped-down it lacks even a musical score, Portrait is a meticulously measured study in repressed desire, stolen glances, trapped lives. I found it admirable yet a little arid, aesthetically and otherwise controlled to the point of being a bit pallid. But again, it’s struck others as a quiet powerhouse, so by all means go and decide for yourself. Embarcadero, Albany Twin. More info here.
Pauline Kael and Fernando Botero: Documentary Portraits
Two newly arriving documentaries shine a spotlight on star personalities in the realm of the arts (and arts criticism). Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael looks at the career of the late New Yorker film critic who began her career writing program notes for a rep house in Berkeley. By the late 1960s she was probably the most influential such writer in the nation.
Whether you agreed with her sometimes-controversial taste or not, Kael made reading about the movies exciting, and personal. She sought to replicate the adrenaline rush of the popular cinema itself in the headlong energy of her prose. A solid introduction to her work, this doc spends a fair amount of time marveling that such in-depth, long-form criticism was ever so widely digested—a phenomenon almost unimaginable in our dumbed-down, “everybody’s a critic” internet age. More knowledgable fans may puzzle over the choice of clips, which encompass some films she wasn’t enthused or didn’t even write about.
Don Millar’s Botero is a similarly admiring look at Fernando Botero, who rose from poor beginnings in Colombia to become one of the world’s most successful painters and sculptors. A superb technician still active at age 87, his style is instantly recognizable: Figurative imagery with a notably rotund exaggerative quality, as if he were the opposite of El Greco. “I am passionate about volume,” he explains simply. Though he’s occasionally handled serious, political subjects (recently including the abuses at Abu Ghraib), his popularity is due primarily to his work’s humor and accessibility.
Not everyone thinks he’s a truly “great” artist, however, and this movie made by a family friend (and produced by Botero’s daughter) barely acknowledges such dissenting opinions. It’s the kind of documentary that too often feels like a testimonial dinner or promotional tool, with primary onscreen “experts” being his own children (and heirs), who endlessly express rehearsed-sounding delight and awe at his wonderfulness.
The sole critical voice we hear here is immediately followed by someone dismissing such nay-sayers as “intellectual snobs.” Botero means to cement its subject’s legacy for the ages. But unintentionally it left me wondering if he’ll wind up like Jeff Koons—a “brand” as much as an artist whose clever, highly referential, even-more-highly-priced work may lose all resonance in another generation or two. What She Said: Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. Botero: Roxie. More info here.