Monday, April 19, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Forget those Oscars, let's go to Berlin...

Screen Grabs: Forget those Oscars, let’s go to Berlin & beyond

The beloved German film fest starts this week. Plus: The Traitor, Show of Shows, The Assistant, and more in cinemas.


The Oscars are this Sunday, which ceremony will provide its annual mercy-killing service of putting a stop to the endless “awards season” talk—at least for the next eight months. If you want to heckle in public, there’s always the Roxie’s annual “Up the Awards” yellfest, among other local bashes.

But there’s also plenty of alternative programming for those who want to celebrate cinema. including the Alamo Drafthouse’s hosting (Fri/7-Mon/10) of the 21st Annual Animation Show of Shows, an international program of ten ’toons including entries from Germany, Belgium, Russia, Israel, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic. (More info here.)

The same venue is offering a particularly diverse mix of one-off screenings this week as well, from new table-soccer documentary Foosballers and Mario Bava’s sumptuously stylized 1964 proto-slasher Blood and Black Lace (both on Tues/11) to “outsider” auteur Damon Packard’s berserk 2002 magnum opus Reflections of Evil. There’s also John Cassavetes’ only directorial comedy, 1971’s quasi-screwball romance Minnie and Moskowitz (Sat/8) with Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, a shrill, hammy mess—or an endearingly quirky triumph, if you’re a Cassavetes fan, which I am not.

Even farther off the beaten path is certainty is becoming our nemesis, an SF Cinematheque program of films and videos about the fluidity of identity, including works from the last half-century by Alice Anne Parker, Pere Girard, Zach Blas, Rosa John, Nazh Cincel, Zackary Drucker, Antoinette Zwirchmayr, Julia Dogra-Brazell and Karly Stark. They’ll screen during gallery hours at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in SF’s fast-growing Dogpatch, in conjunction with that institution’s simultaneous exhibit of an Orlando-themed exhibit guest-curated by Tilda Swinton, Fri/7-Sat/May 2. More info here.

On the beaten path, major commercial openings this Friday are Birds of Prey, a new DC fantasy adventure that brings back current Oscar nominee (for Bombshell) Margot Robbie as DC antiheroine Harley Quinn; and The Assistant, with Julia Garner as a studio executive’s gofer who confronts the systemic sexism of a toxic corporate environment. There’s been outrage that Little Women got nominated in umpteen Oscar categories without including Greta Gerwig amongst the designated directors, but it’s surely good news that both this week’s new releases are directed by women—Cathy Yan and Kitty Green, respectively.

The other new arrival is a manly-man’s-world kinda joint, however.

80-year-old Italian master Marco Bellocchio’s latest The Traitor is, not unlike The Irishman, a fact-based mob saga that sprawls over recent decades. It’s the story of Sicilian Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a longtime Cosa Nostra associate who was extradited from Brazil (not for the first time) in 1984. Having grown disillusioned amidst murderous power struggles over the heroin trade, he decided to turn state’s witness, informing on numerous enraged fellow “men of honor” in lengthy, heavily guarded trials whose circus-like atmosphere is colorfully captured here. Though an hour shorter (and a lot less expensive) than The Irishman, this is arguably a better film—not least because for all its masculine focus, it still manages to find a bit more room for the wives, children and other impacted family members of these “made men.” The Traitor opens Fri/7 at the Embarcadero (and Fri/14 at the Shattuck in Berkeley). More info here. 

Another contender regrettably omitted from the Oscars shortlist was Christian Petzold’s Transit, one of 2019’s best films, foreign-language or otherwise. It was hardly alone among very good German-language features in the last year or so, as evidenced by this coming week’s major event for serious cineastes: Berlin & Beyond, the annual showcase for recent films from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Now in its 24th year, the Goethe-Institut’s festival runs Fri/7-Thurs/13 at various San Francisco venues, and Mon/10 at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas.

Included in the schedule are the latest from several familiar talents, including Doris Dorrie (further indulging her long-established Japanophilia with Cherry Blossoms & Demons), Caroline Link (All About Me), Marko Kreuzpaintner (The Collini Case) and Sonke Wortmann (whose new How About Adolf? is a comedy about new parents’ very unfortunate baby-naming choice).

One running if accidental theme in the current program is that of couples whose travel adventures take a perilous turn. In Florian Koener von Gustorf’s opening-night selection What Might Have Been, that takes the form of a woman in her 40s running into her lost, lamented first love—unfortunately, while she’s on a weekend trip to Budapest with her boyfriend. Florian Gottschick’s Rest in Greece has a 30-ish duo renting a house on a Grecian isle, where their increasingly problematic relationship gets a jolt of energy from the unexpected arrival of the owner’s freespirited, college-student daughter.

More seriously disturbing is Sven Taddicken’s The Most Beautiful Couple, whose married schoolteacher protagonists are beaten and assaulted by teenage fellow tourists while on vacation in Mallorca. Back home, their lives gradually return to something like normal—until pure chance crosses the husband’s path with their chief tormentor, re-opening all the traumatic psychological wounds. While there’s some light at the end of its narrative tunnel, this unpleasant drama is often acutely discomfiting, just as it should be.

Another thematically matched set are two films involving compulsively controlling mothers involved—along with their children—in the highly disciplined realm of classical music performance. Jan-Ole Gerster’s Lara has Corinna Harfouch from Downfall as the titular figure, an off-putting personality whose 60th birthday is also the day that her piano prodigy son has a sold-out major concert. Which she is determined to be a part of…even though he is not speaking to her, for no doubt very good reasons.

It’s a fine film, but even better is Ina Weisse’s The Audition, in which Petzold regular Nina Hoss’ somewhat OCD-afflicted violin teacher finds her behavior alienating her husband, but also her son and new protege—the latter two both students at the conservatory where she works. Both these dramas may recall Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, and if neither get quite as freaky as that, they nonetheless each pack a considerable queasy punch.

Other Berlin & Beyond titles of note include several documentaries, from Berlin Bouncer (about that city’s fabled club scene) to #Female Pleasure (a global survey of 21st-century sexist sexual repression), and the self-explanatory Hi, A.I. There’s also Stefan Haupt’s The Reformer, a biopic about a 16th-century Swiss champion of the Protestant Reformation, and Huseyin Tabak’s official closing nighter Gipsy Queen, a well-reviewed tale of a struggling single mother whom desperation eventually lures into the boxing ring. For full schedule and ticket info, click here.

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