Monday, September 21, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Cinemas go dark, but here's what to...

Screen Grabs: Cinemas go dark, but here’s what to watch

As even the Silent Film Fest falls silent, there are local resources and online releases to keep you occupied.


As I write this on Monday the 16th, “shelter-at-home” decrees around the coronavirus have negated any need to tell you about all the individual festivals, screenings and venues that had already declared themselves canceled or postponed: Now there will be no public film showings in the Bay Area, period, at least through April 7. Several major events originally scheduled even for after that date have already bitten the bullet and canceled outright (notably SFFilm), while others (including SF Silent Film Festival) announced a move to later in the year.

Many major commercial releases have been pulled from the calendar, their new opening dates TBA. (This is a matter of industry self-preservation, since as you might expect, attendance at movie theaters last week was the lowest in decades. Nobody wants their $100 million movie, or their $500,000 one for that matter, to debut to empty houses.) Numerous smaller films were already planning to be available on home formats simultaneous with their planned theatrical release, and in future weeks we’ll try to keep you apprised of those options.

Meanwhile, most folk already have a plethora of audiovisual home-entertainment choices. But even if you don’t have cable or a particular streaming service, there are plenty of ways to see movies, even for free. Your friendly local public library systems have lots of digital content—SFPL has the large “libraries” of both Hoopla and Kanopy, the latter including a slew of international classics from the Criterion Collection. All you need is your library ID and a simple registration. PBS (right now showcasing Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series) and local affiliate KQED offer a wide range of free online programs, not least the stellar feature documentaries from longtime broadcast showcase POV.

If you’re looking for more esoteric fare, the SF-based Internet Archive has—in addition to millions of other free movies, music, books, software and other media—the huge “ephemeral films” (old instructional classroom and industrial shorts, etc.) collection of the Prelinger Archives. There’s also a deep well of vintage experimental cinema. 

All arts organizations and workers are going to be hard-hit by the closures, so this is a great time to get online and support their venues by buying theater passes, gift cards and other items for future use. That will at least help them stave off bankruptcy and permanent closure—since this crisis is probably going to hit many people harder financially than in terms of actual physical illness.

This column was written on short notice after the SF mayor’s announcement, following several days’ waiting to hear just what the extent of public shutdowns would be. We promise that in coming weeks we’ll work up some viewing lists of movies old, new, foreign, domestic, et al. that can be duly accessed at home. Meanwhile, the gears of the industry are just starting to address the fact that theatrical exhibition won’t “be a thing” for a little while, and that some alternative release plans must be thrown together for movies that weren’t already planning to simultaneously hit home formats.

Some new independent films that were originally scheduled to hit big screens this Friday have acted quickly to make that leap. Offering a “theatrical at home viewing option” is the seriocomedy Phoenix, Oregon, which can be seen by purchasing a “ticket” at one of the theaters where it is (or was going to be) playing at, then emailing a copy of the ticket or receipt to, which will then send you a one-time streaming link for the film. (You’ll also get links to any live filmmaker Q&A events still happening.)

Gary Lundgren’s movie is the kind of low-key but rewarding enterprise that will please fans of such past indie crowdpleasers as Big Night and Waitress. Like them, it’s sort of a foodie movie, here involving the re-opening of a Northwestern smalltown’s abandoned bowling alley as a slightly upscaled sport-plus-cuisine joint featuring the rarefied pizza pies of perfectionist chef Carlos (Jesse Borrego). He’s lured as bartender and fellow investor his friend Bobby (James Le Gros), an erstwhile coworker at the Italian restaurant of obnoxious cheapskate Kyle (Diedrich Bader), who needless to say is not happy when the two men depart to become his business rivals. Other major figures here include House’s Lisa Edelstein as a sexy freelance alcohol sales rep, Kevin Corrigan as a cantankerous bowling-alley-repair specialist, and Reynaldo Gallegos as a bigshot venture capitalist who does not send out trustworthy vibes.

The focus here is on Bobby, a somewhat sad-sack divorcee living in a trailer. He’s also an artist working on a graphic novel, but hasn’t really made any effort to get published—his life has been so consistently disappointing, he no longer bothers even getting his hopes up. A familiar face who’s played small parts in big movies (like Zodiac) and big parts in small movies (too many to mention), as well as guest spots on TV shows (from ER to Girls) since the mid-80s, James Le Gros is a terrific actor who probably wouldn’t have played the diversity of roles he has if he’d become the star many imagined he would about 30 years ago, when he was in a string of hits like Drugstore Cowboy and Point Break.

The appealing Phoenix, Oregon is somewhat predictable in its basic story beats. But this slice of cinematic comfort food will indeed make you pine for some high-end pizza, and it will make you appreciate Le Gros, whose wry, soulful performance gives it depth.

Of course, long before anyone heard of COVID-19, plenty of movies were already bypassing theatrical release and going directly to streaming. One that arrives on Amazon Prime this Friday (after a prize-winning premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, followed by dates at several other such events) is Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down. The writing-directing duo’s first feature is another small town tale, albeit this one more of a black comedy-slash-murder mystery. Two young women (Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe) who’ve just buried their mother after a long illness in Easter Cove, Maine—after putting their lives on hold to care for her—are dismayed to discover mom left nothing but debts. Even the house will have to be sold.

But after one sister stomps out, and into a bar pickup that rapidly turns dangerous, the two find themselves having to dispose of another body—one they’re not related to, and which wasn’t expecting to be a corpse so soon. They also discover that mom and several of her seemingly innocuous local contemporaries (including June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, and an imposingly nasty Margo Martindale) were up to considerably more than gossip and bake sales.

At least one more dead body, a full-on bordello, and other surprises turn up in what turns out to be one not-so-sleepy-after-all “quaint” fishing hamlet. It’s a clever movie whose characterful and low-key suspense pleasures are like the screen equivalent of a new book by Kate Atkinson or Louise Penny.

Stay in, stay well, and we will soon be loading you down with further ideas for your streaming watch-list.

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