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Sunday, August 1, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Films for the Purple Tier

Screen Grabs: Films for the Purple Tier

SFFILM’s DocStories, Arab Film Fest Collab offer streaming gems—and our critic reviews 'Thirst,' 'Werewolf,' and 'Minor Premise.'

With SF having re-entered the maximum-threat COVID contagion Purple Tier—in the city alone, positive test results have leapt by over 250%—many are resigning themselves to a full winter of self-quarantining. Fortunately, the film world has by now had nine months to adjust as best it can to these circumstances. So, among other things, there are two major festival-type cinematic events kicking off on an online-only basis this week. 

Running Thurs/3 through Sun/6 is SFFILM’s DocStories, their annual showcase for nonfiction filmmaking. Most of its feature selections will be available for streaming throughout that period, including Shalini Kantayya’s previously-noted [see column of 11/17] Coded Bias, which charts the ways in which computer technology may be reinforcing or worsening divisions between class, race and gender. Of particular African-American political and historical interest are Tommy Oliver’s 40 Years a Prisoner, about the violent 1978 siege at activist organization MOVE’s Philadelphia HQ; and Sam Pollard’s MLK/FBI, uncovering on J. Edgar Hoover’s dirty-tricks campaign to destroy the nation’s then-leading civil rights crusader. 

Human rights of various sort take center stage in Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno, which roams several Middle Eastern “trouble spots” to capture civilians struggling in de facto war zones, and Loira Limbal’s Through the Night, about a small private daycare center meeting the desperate needs of multiple-job-working poor parents for lack of any government childcare programs. Two more features look beyond our species’ concerns: Victor Kossakovsky’s B&W Gunda chronicles the daily lives of a pig, her piglets, and other farm animals, while Elizabeth Lo’s Stray trains camera on homeless dogs in the streets of Istanbul. 

DocStories also has two shorts programs, individual filmmaker Q&A’s, several live filmmaker panels and a Thursday afternoon keynote address by Carrie Lozano, a longtime Bay Arean who just became the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program Director. For full program and ticket info, go to www.sffilm.org/presents

Sprawling over 11 days is the Arab Film Fest Collab, a joint venture amongst several U.S. Arabic cultural organizations including SF’s own Arab Film & Media Institute. From Thurs/3 through Sun/13, this collectively produced virtual event offers nine narrative features, ten documentary ones and eight shorts programs showcasing new work from throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The official opening night selection is Najwa Najjar’s Between Heaven and Earth, a drama about the bureaucratic, cultural and literal roadblocks that get in the way of couple who live in Occupied Palestine getting a divorce. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib will provide a special welcome to kick off the festivities. 

Highlighted additional features include Amjad Abu Alala’s Sudanese tale of superstitious prophecy You Will Die at Twenty; Oualid Mouaness’ Lebanese 1982, a classroom tale set in Beirut during that year’s invasion; Alaa Eddine Aljem’s ironical Moroccan does-crime-pay query The Unknown Saint; and Adam & Zack Khalil’s U.S. INAATE/SE/ aka [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls/], an experimental mix of elements pondering both ancient Anishinaabe mythology and a modern Native community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Arab Film Fest Collab will also include filmmaker Q&A’s, panel discussions, performances and more. For full program and ticket info, click here.

Of course, facing a long lockdown season, you may be more inclined to reach for the cinematic junk food than the edifying and arty stuff. No problemo, as this week also brings a slew of above-average horror, sci-fi and thriller releases guaranteed not to exercise your brain too mightily:

Thirst
With her history of drug abuse and miscellaneous arrests, Hulda (Hulda Lind Kristinsdottir) is such a screwup that when her brother abruptly dies, the police suspect she “did it.” (Admittedly, she was in such a haze she doesn’t remember what she was doing at the time.) But hapless as she is, Hulda isn’t really a bad person. In fact, she intervenes upon finding two petty Reykjavik thugs beating up a frail old man. But Hjortur (Hjortur Saevart Steinason) isn’t exactly frail, an “old man,” or even a “person,” good or bad. He is, as she soon discovers to her horror, a vampire of unknown antiquity. But he’s also touched and grateful—no human has ever done anything nice for him before. They become friends, kinda. Needless to say, this ends up a complicated relationship, with a high body count.

Steinpor Hroar Steinporsson and Gaukur Ulfarrson’s first directorial feature, written by Bjorn Leo Byrnjarsson, is a pretty good mix of deadpan Icelandic humor and lowbrow splatstick. It’s no What We Do In the Shadows, but as vampire comedies go, it rises above what’s generally been a pretty low bar. Televangelical hysteria, animated flashbacks, hot dogs, ludicrous blood geysers, Satanism, and 80s-style synth power ballads all factor heavily in a progress that is possibly the most unsexy representation of bloodsuckerdom since Nosferatu. It’s getting released on DVD and to digital platforms Tue/1 by Uncork’d Entertainment.

Werewolf
By contrast, no laughing matter at all is this Polish film from writer-director Adrian Panek. Seemingly the only inmates left alive by fleeing Nazis, a handful of half-starved children are liberated by Russian troops from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in 1945. They’re taken to an abandoned stately home in the countryside, with just one adult female minder, there to await further transport instructions amidst the chaos of war’s end. But soon that minder is dead, and the kids (aged about 5 to 15) realize they are at the mercy of German Shepherds who’ve also presumably fled the camp—but remain trained to lethally attack prisoners. 

It’s always a dicey idea to use any aspect of Nazidom or the Holocaust as fodder for genre entertainment. Panek, however, treats Werewolf (which is not about a supernatural menace, title notwithstanding) with sufficient seriousness to get away with it—there’s much attention given to the effect that all trauma has already had on these young protagonists’ psyches, including the sometimes poisonous survival mechanisms their sadistic erstwhile captors enjoyed instilling in them. Beautifully shot, this is a grim but not hopeless thriller, one that inverts Lord of the Flies in that the children left to their own devices here don’t turn on one another, but learn to pull together. It’s also on Blu-ray, DVD and digital platforms as of Tues/1, from Indiecan Entertainment.

Minor Premise
Those with a taste for small-scale, brainy sci-fi a la Primer and Ex Machina will probably grok this first feature from producer turned writer-director Eric Schultz. Neuroscientist Ethan (Sathya Sridaran) is trying to finish his late father’s experiments in mapping the neuropathways of memory and consciousness. 

His obsessive experiments on himself are endangering his university job, his grant applications, and his health—and that’s even before he realizes they’ve “fractured” his own mind into 10 no-longer-integrated parts. So for six minutes each hour, he’s by turns dominated by anxiety, anger, intellect, libido, euphoria, and so on, each part blocking out memory of what the other just did. There’s also the worrying fact that one slice o’ Ethan, “Section 8,” is a mystery operator that may be working to eliminate the rest, possibly to his serious detriment as well as that of concerned colleagues Alli (Paton Ashbrook) and Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook). 

This tricky mad-scientist scenario is very well made, though the single setting (most of it takes place in Ethan’s basement home lab), wonky jargon-heavy dialogue and somewhat confusing progress make for a thriller that’s simultaneously intense and repetitious. Nonetheless, it is exactly the sort of thing that appeals to sci-fi fans more interested in ideas than laser fights and CGI, and suggests Schultz will be a filmmaker to watch. Minor Premise arrives Fri/4 in limited theaters, virtual cinemas, digital and On Demand platforms.

Anything for Jackson
Housebound for very different reasons are the main characters in this clever Canadian supernatural goulash. Small-town doctor Henry (Julian Richings) and his wife Audrey (Sheila McCarthy) are the very picture of respectability, who surely wouldn’t hurt a fly. Unfortunately, single pregnant woman Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos) is not a fly, and the sweet old couple have just inexplicably strong-armed her into captivity in a soundproofed top-floor room of their home. 

They’re very, very sorry for the inconvenience and discomfort (Shannon is shackled to a bed), but they need her for something. That something would be executing a Satanic rite to instill their beloved late grandson Jackson’s spirit into her unborn child. Of course, you know the trouble with such things: Open a gateway to another world, and who knows what awful demonic and/or prankish force might slither through, eager to wreak havoc.

Director Justin G. Dyck and scenarist Keith Cooper have spent the last several years making an ungodly number of mostly Christmas-themed family TV movies whose very names (Ponysitters Club: The Big SleepoverChristmas Wedding Planner, A Puppy for Christmas, etc.) just about give me hives. They would not seem naturally disposed towards black-comedy horror, but perhaps all that sugary good cheer was just a way of paying dues so they could make exactly that.

As macabre devil-worshipping pregnancy movies go, Anything isn’t quite up there with Rosemary’s Baby, or the sorely neglected 1994 indie Aswang aka The Unearthing. But it does build to a satisfying head of unforseen complications with a certain macabre esprit. It premieres on streaming service Shudder Thurs/3.

Survival Skills
Back in the realm of real-world perils, more or less, we have this enterprising first feature by writer-director Quinn Armstrong,  available On Demand from Cranked Up Films as of Fr/4. It’s a dark comedy positing as a glitchy old training video for the Middletown Police Department, with venerable Stacy Keach instructing rookie Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) on the finer points of being a new recruit. 

Survival Skills increasingly blurs lines between staged scenarios and ostensibly “real” ones at Jim’s precinct office (where Ericka Kreutz is his weary veteran partner), his home (where Tyra Colar plays spouse Jenny), and in the field. Problems arise as our hero, who’s as cartoonishly naive and well-intentioned as Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, attempts to intervene beyond the realm of appropriateness after answering a domestic violence call. Is he correct in assuming this family is hiding serious abuse? Is he wise interjecting himself into their lives? Will this all end badly? You betcha!

Made to resemble a glitchy old VHS tape, with fourth-wall-breakings, detours into sitcom terrain, and other postmodernist japes, Skills is a smart concept that isn’t developed as artfully or pointedly as one might hope. It can never quite decide how absurdist it wants to be: Jim gradually shades into something like three-dimensionality, yet his girlfriend remains a Blondie-esque caricature even as she leaves him (why?), while other characters remain rooted in real emotions and conflict.

Those contrasts might have paid off in subversive, even shocking ways, but the film doesn’t seem to have a thought-out gameplan as to how. In the end, this diverting and adventuresome feature might have worked better as a short. it’s certainly less successful than arguably the greatest faux training video of all time , which manages to fulfill its mission and then some in less than ten minutes. Warning: Forklift Driver Klaus is not for the squeamish. 

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