We’ve been in the middle of all this long enough for events during what’s usually high festival season to start coming up with some programmatic alternatives to flat-out cancellation. Starting this Wed/13, CAAM shifted its annual main shebang, not long ago known as the SF International Asian American Festival, to an “online alternative” that runs through the 22nd, and serves the dual purpose of celebrating Asian Pacific Heritage Month.
CAAMFest Online: Heritage at Home offers over twenty free digital happenings, from panels to parties to live performances (all observing shelter-at-home protocol, of course), plus numerous film/video selections. The latter include new shorts, documentaries, and a 10th-anniversary “sing-a-long version” of H.P. Mendoza’s Fruit Fly, his followup to the beloved Colma: The Musical. These programs are all gratis, but require “ticket” registration for access. For full info, click here. At present, it is hoped that the full, in-person CAAMFest that normally takes place in spring can take place sometime this fall.
Meanwhile, let’s look at some recent arrivals in the world of commercial streaming. Among the more notable additions to Netflix this month is Alice Wu’s The Half of It, a teenage spin on Cyrano de Bergerac. Leah Lewis plays Ellie, the lone Asian American in her small-town upstate NY school, a shy brainiac whose only contact with her loud, shallow classmates is doing half of their homework for cash. She’s got a secret crush on beauty Aster (Alexxis Lemire), a situation that grows more complicated when a sweet but very dumb jock (Daniel Diemer) asks her to ghost-write mash notes to…guess-who. Going beyond his “I like you lets date” vocabulary to pitch woo on her own terms, Ellie is more “successful” than she’d bargained for when the prettiest girl turns out to be starved for intellectual discourse.
The Half of It is somewhat formulaic, sometimes too-cute, and introduces the occasional more-serious theme in rather trite ways. But it’s also quite disarming, heartfelt, well-cast and nicely crafted. Already available on Netflix, it will be the focus of an official CAAM “watch party” at 5 pm next Wed/20, with Wu herself in a live “spotlight conversation” following at 7. More info here.
Another new arrival with an LGBTQ tilt to whet your appetite for Frameline next month (that festival, too, will be shifting to an all-online presence) is the Italian Fairytale aka Favola. A 2017 title that is finally reaching US release (on DVD and VOD), it occupies terrain between John Waters’ Polyester and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven in limning the domestic torment of a “perfect American housewife” (Filippo Timi in drag) trapped like A Doll House’s Nora in subservient splendor, with a perpetually absent husband and an apparently once-living stuffed poodle for company. There’s also her best-friend neighbor Emerald (Lucia Mascino), as well as visits from the fraternal triplets (Sergio Albelli) next door, all of whom may have designs on our self-denying heroine’s libido—or vice versa.
Sebastiano Mauri adapted his professional and personal partner Timi’s play, and Fairytale remains very stage-bound, even if the artifice is somewhat apt—Mrs. Fairytale is, after all, playing a part in a marital/gender-role charade. The exquisitely kitsch decor and costumes (equal parts 1950s Douglas Sirk and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse) can only go so far to redeem the script’s disconnected, sketch-like feel, or Mauri’s fumbling as a firsttime feature-film director. But if you want a big dose of brightly packaged drag camp, this will definitely fill that need.
Other newly released streaming movies:
This terrific documentary chronicles a grand experiment that’s been largely relegated to the dustbin of expired pop-culture trivia. Biosphere 2 (named such in deference to #1, Mother Earth herself) was an early 1990s quasi-space colony—a giant, sealed, three-acre structure of seven domed “biomes” designed to be entirely self-sustaining in everything from air supply to food. It was a test-drive for any such hypothetical enterprise on the moon, Mars, etc., the idea being to sort out logistical problems in advance of that future reality. Vetted as rigorously as real prospective astronauts, eight temperamentally and culturally diverse experts, male and female, were chosen to spend two years in this artificial Arizona desert environ.
That period began amidst great fanfare in 1991. Yet very quickly Biosphere 2 began being derided as a publicity stunt of little true scientific value. Its creators did make some errors, but mostly their crime was simply doing something of this nature and scale outside the approved realms of government (i.e. NASA) or academic research. Its funding was private, its primary motivator one John Allen, a brilliant but unpinnable eco-warrior whose messianic appeal to other questing types (starting, natch, in the 1960s Haight District) looked suspiciously to outsiders like a “cult thing.”
As the project began falling apart due to unexpected troubles (some life-threatening), bad press and infighting, it was easy to treat B2 as a joke—even more so when the inimitable duo of Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin starred in tacky 1996 send-up Bio-Dome. But Matt Wolf’s documentary clears aside the dismissive debris to underline what a truly ambitious endeavor this was, driven by high ideals that the surviving participants still carry like a torch. Their reminiscences, which narrate the assembly of plentiful archival footage here, are very touching, even inspirational. Spaceship Earth also experiences lift-off in the form of Owen Pallett’s original score, which deserves an ongoing life of its own as an orchestral suite. The film is available on various streaming platforms, including through Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.
THE WOLF HOUSE
Also cocooning in an enclosure for apparent years on end is the mysterious protagonist of Joaquin Cocina and Cristobal Leon’s Chilean animated feature. It’s an objet d’art sprung from a germ of historical truth: The often alarmingly authoritarian, isolated communities of expat Germans that sprang up in some South American countries after World War II. (Another screen treatment of this theme is 2015’s Colonia, a terrible live-action thriller with Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl.) Our heroine is a young woman living in such circumstances, then threatened with gulag-grade punishment after she’s responsible for some livestock escaping while doing chores. Instead, she flees, finding an apparently abandoned house in the woods where she hides from her pursuers, and from “the wolf”—not unlike Little Red Riding Hood.
This is little more than a premise, however. The Wolf House isn’t a narrative so much as a particularly female, surreal psychological landscape a la Maya Deren or Susan Pitt’s legendary Asparagus. Its techniques (and macabre feel) may also remind you of the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer, those pioneers of waking-nightmare adult animation. But the feature really has a style all its own, mixing stop-motion and other devices into an endlessly striking visual tapestry that is by turns grotesque, eerie, poignant and sinister. It took the makers five years to create; the painstaking nature of their process is palpable. While the lack of story impetus may eventually be somewhat wearying (even at just 75 minutes’ length), this is nonetheless a must for fans of adventuresome ‘toonage. It’s also available through the Roxie Virtual Cinema, with a filmmaker Q&A scheduled for Thurs/21.
Likewise starting Fri/15, the Roxie is hosting another film about Chile, Italian director Nanni Moretti’s documentary Santiago, Italia. It looks back at the fall of Socialist President Salvador Allende, whose U.S.-orchestrated replacement with Pinochet’s dictatorship generated a storm of human rights abuses—which the Italian Embassy attempted to intervene in. For more info, go to https://www.roxie.com/
DIABLO ROJO PTY
A very different kind of Latin American nightmare is on tap in what’s billed as Panama’s first-ever horror feature. Miguel (Carlos Carrasco) is the driver of one among many garishly decorated private transit buses competing for passengers (and terrorizing everyone else) on the streets of the capital city. Taking a brew break with his assistant, he’s accosted by a frightening, then verrrry friendly female figure outside the saloon, occasioning the great line “So that’s why you ran out of the bar, Miguel? You fucked a witch?”
Indeed, he did. Soon Miguel, his young sidekick, two cops and a priest find themselves mysteriously transported (still in that bus) to a distant countryside. There, they’ve got to deal not only with local folkloric monster La Tulivieja—a woman scorned turned winged beast—but also witches, cannibals, and just about every other peril you can think of. At once slick and a bit klutzy, co-directors Sol Moreno and J. Oskura Najera’s feature doesn’t take itself too seriously, even if sometimes you wish it made more of an effort to be scary. Nonetheless, it’s colorful fun for genre fans seeking something other than the same old chills. It’s available for streaming via Amazon.
Those looking for more traditional slasher fare could do worse than Tommy Faircloth’s A Nun’s Curse, a low-budget, simple but decently atmospheric tale in which some feckless youth make the mistake of sheltering from rain in an abandoned prison. There, a murderous nun (Felissa Rose from the original Sleepaway Camp) is reputed to have levied less-than-Heavenly “justice” on convicts. It’s out on DVD and VOD.