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Thursday, September 23, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Will you strap in for the re-opening...

Screen Grabs: Will you strap in for the re-opening of SF cinemas?

Even if you're not ready to go to IRL theaters, here's a full lineup of new releases and online festivals to keep you glued to the screen.

Top photo: Dark Star Universe – Resistance Hangar: Outer Rim plays at Drunken Film Fest on Oct. 6

San Franciscans who’ve been pining for re-opened movie theaters got big news this week with the announcement that as part of the continued cautious relaxation of COVID restrictions, those indoor venues will be permitted to operate again as of next Wed/7, with limited capacity and other restrictions. As of this writing, there were no specifics yet on just what movie houses will be back in business right away, let alone what they’ll be playing. But no doubt somebody will be throwing Tenet on a local screen ASAP. 

Otherwise, for the time being, things are proceeding as they have been these last few months, which means that a number of festivals and other special events are happening—albeit primarily on a “virtual,” online basis. That includes the arrival of the San Francisco Greek Film Festival, which runs Oct. 3-10. A highlight will be the Sun/4 evening tribute to late screen diva Melina Mercouri via screening at the Par 3 drive-in of 1964’s all-star, Istanbul-set caper comedy Topkapi, one of many films she made with her blacklisted American director husband Jules Dassin. Mercouri was made for the big screen—indeed, it’s hard to imagine not fleeing in a panic from her overscaled personality in any smaller-scaled environment. 

Other, newer films in the festival include Minos Nikolakakis’ Entwined, a sort of folkloric supernatural mystery-romance in which a new village doctor is held spellbound—then held rather literally captive—by a forest-dwelling woman who is not what she appears to be. My Name is Eftyhia is a biopic of Greece’s greatest 20th-century songwriter, while Siege on Liberti Street and When Tomatoes Met Wagner deal in different ways with the nation’s recent crippling economic crises. There are also a dozen shorts in the 2020 festival; full schedule and ticket details are available here.

Speaking of drive-ins, the new Fort Mason Flix program, which offers a temporary al fresco screen in SF itself, gets a little more tnteresting this weekend. Departing from its usual terrain of recent mainstream films, this Saturday and Sunday a quartet of SFFILM-curated movies caters to more idiosyncratic tastes. The first night, there’s Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ SF-set first feature Medicine for Melancholy (2008), then actor Alex Winter’s self-explanatory new music documentary Zappa. Sunday brings the family-friendly likes of Pixar’s brainy 2015 ‘toon Inside Out, then star-turned-director Ida Lupino’s suspenseful 1953 B&W programmer The Hitch-Hiker. More info here.

You shouldn’t drink and drive, but imbibing isn’t exactly discouraged at the 3rd Annual Drunken Film Festival Oakland, taking place Oct. 4-11. Its eight nights of diverse independent shorts from around the world will be available to locals (mask-wearing required) most evenings in the Tribune Tower’s 13th St. parking lot, as well as digitally on Twitch. It’s all free, with details available here.

Last but not least, San Jose’s biggest annual film festival Cinequest, which normally happens earlier in the year, is finally coming in for a landing Oct. 1-14. Though by necessity it’s primarily limited to online events this time, there’s no lack of ambition in scale, with some 154 world and US premiere titles, “maverick” tributes (to Jesse Eisenberg, Hong Chau and ruth weiss), virtual reality and television spotlights, some actual in-person parties (in SJ and Redwood City), and more. Go here for the complete rundown.

Otherwise, this Friday brings a slew of diverse new features to streaming, which we’ll run through quickly for the sake of fitting them all in: 

Kingdom of Silence

Rick Rowley’s engrossing Showtime documentary is ostensibly about the murder of expatriate Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But in tracing what led to that horrific event, it provides an unusually clear (and damning) overview of relations between the US, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Middle East over the last 50+ years. In his remarkable career, Khashoggi was close to the then-obscure Osama bin Laden when both sided with the US against Soviet incursions in Afghanistan. 

But that relationship eroded, as did eventually the writer’s relationship to the Saudi royal family when he supported Arab Spring and criticized King Salman’s harshly repressive regime. You know the rest—but you may not know that the gruesome assassination he was lured to was recorded, and its audio transcript is chillingly reprised here. We also get to see our POTUS tell the world that America’s financial interests with the Saudis were too important to fuss over this premeditated execution of a US resident and media representative. Kingdom is important viewing.

Other new documentaries of note include (at Roxie Virtual Cinema) A Place to Breathe, about specialized healthcare practitioners dealing with immigrants and refugees in the US, including one facility in Oakland; and (at CinemaSF and Rafael@Home) Herb Alpert Is…, a tribute to the 1960s lounge music maestro, among many hats he’s worn. Unfortunately, that two-hour doc is the kind of vanity project that’s too invested in flattering its subject to dwell on what’s fun or interesting about him. Instead we get a roll call of barely-relevant celebrities (Bill Moyers? Questlove?) telling us what a great man he is, as if this were a testimonial dinner.  

The Antenna 

Very different but likewise unsettling Middle Eastern signals emanate from this political allegory-slash-horror film from Turkish director Orcun Behram. When the government launches a new 24/7 news/propaganda service, a satellite dish must be installed on a decrepit apartment highrise’s roof to receive it. Somehow the installer falls to his death, but that’s just the start of a series of misfortunes in which a black tar-like substance seeps down through the entire building, triggering madness, violence, and death. 

At various points this ominous mood piece may remind you of Orwell, Barton Fink, early David Cronenberg, Kafka, Italian giallo thrillers, even The Blob. Less adventurous genre fans will probably find it too slow and cryptic, but Behram has a real knack for striking, queasy set-pieces—and his notion of the state as an all-consuming organism is blunt enough to make you wonder why the Turkish government let him get away with it. The Antenna is playing some virtual theaters nation-wide, then launches on VOD platforms Oct. 20.


Speaking of Cronenberg, that actual Canadian veteran’s son Brandon wrote and directed this fantasy thriller. The apple certainly hasn’t fallen far from the tree, but this is an improvement over Junior’s prior feature Antiviral, with a stronger narrative and slightly less blatant indebtedness to dad’s familiar themes and style. Andrea Riseborough plays a woman whose unique skill set lets her temporarily inhabit the brains of strangers, whose bodies she then uses to commit high-level assassinations for a shadowy organization (where her supervisor is Jennifer Jason Leigh). 

Her latest assignment is jumping into the skin of the boyfriend (Christopher Abbott) of the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of an abhorrent tycoon (Sean Bean)—a mission that rather quickly runs off the rails. Intense and interesting, sometimes surprisingly sexually explicit, Possessor is a twisty tale that’s impressive but cold, well-acted yet short on characters we can care about. So that at the end of its skillful progress, you half-wonder just what the point was, or if there is one. It’s playing available theaters as of today, arriving on home formats Nov. 6.

Eternal Beauty

Another identity-crisis extreme is explored in Craig Roberts’ UK drama, with Sally Hawkins as Jane, a schizophrenic woman living alone—though she really probably shouldn’t be. In flashbacks (with Morfydd Clark as her younger self) and the present day, we see her interact with family members helpful (Alice Lowe as one sister) and not (Billie Piper as another sibling, Penelope Wilton as their rather awful mother), David Thewlis’ equally unstable eventual boyfriend, various social workers, etc. 

There have been numerous movies attempting to enter the world of a schizophrenic (one of the best being Cronenberg Sr.’s Spider), but actor turned director Roberts tries so hard he fails to come up with any cogent stylistic or narrative path to that tricky destination. Reality and delusion blur, chronology scrambles, tonal shifts give you whiplash. It’s all too much, making a 95-minute movie feel longer. There’s a lot of good acting here, but the film lacks the cohesive vision that would turn an illustration of mental illness into actual insight.

Once Upon a River

Reassuringly grounded by contrast are the travails faced by the teenage heroine of this indie drama adapted by firsttime feature director Haroula Rose from Bobbie Jo Campbell’s novel. Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna) is living in 1977 rural West Michigan with her Native American father until violence and prejudice put her on the lam, searching for the mother who abandoned them both some years before. 

This is the kind of picaresque, rambling, anecdotal road narrative that generally plays better as literature than onscreen, and as a former Michigander I was disappointed that the film was shot in Illinois and New York state. (Yes, the landscapes are different.) Rose is a musician whose end-credits song kinda sums things up here—it’s pretty, wispy, folky, a little bland. Still, River (which is currently playing some virtual cinemas, including Rafael@Home) has conviction, and brings up some tougher issues than your run-of-the-mill YA cinema. 

The Devil to Pay

Margo’s woes are nothing compared to the crises faced by Danielle Deadwyler’s heroine Lemon Cassidy in this tough indie thriller written and directed by marital duo Lane and Ruckus Skye. Lemon lives with her son on a hard-scrabble Appalachian farm; they’re seemingly the only African-American family around, and her husband hasn’t been heard from since he went off on a murky “errand” for the area’s dominant family some time ago. 

Their matriarch (Catherine Dyer, deliciously despicable) calls in his alleged still-outstanding debt, to the result that Lemon and her child soon seem in mortal danger due to obligations thrust upon them, and which they are obviously not expected to get free of. Add the wild card of a local religious sect suicidally eager to go “back to the ether,” and all the elements are here for an excellent, compact, slightly grotesque revenge tale that’s a little bit Deliverance, a little bit I Spit On Your Grave. It’s opening today at some drive-ins, with On Demand and DVD release next Tuesday. 

Alien Addiction

There’s not a lot of levity among the aforementioned new releases, a lack remedied by inclusion of New Zealand music video maestro Shae Sterling’s debut feature. It’s a UFO stoner comedy with local layabout Riko (Jimi Jackson) stumbling upon two E.T.’s who’ve landed in nearby woods. They’re not here to invade; they’re apparently just joyriding, and want nothing more than to smoke some shit. Literally. 

The poo humor is, needless to say, rather lowbrow, as are some other aspects here—on the scripted page, Alien Addiction would look none too promising. But there’s a simultaneously deadpan and absurd geniality to the whole enterprise that’s quite enjoyable, and lead Jackson is a real comedic find whose riffing requires very little substance to bounce off of. It’s available On Demand, on Blu-Ray and DVD. 

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