This Friday sees the re-opening of the Opera Plaza Cinemas, which will drastically increase the number of SF arthouse screens in a form we’re told is “completely renovated,” with an “all-new look and significant technical upgrades.” Its four auditoriums will be back in business with fare that includes the Kosovo drama Hive (see below), literary docu-bio Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, the meditative Hawaiian ghost story I Was A Simple Man, and a double bill of vintage San Francisco thriller favorites Bullitt and Dirty Harry. For general info on the venue, as well as current and upcoming programs, go here.
Though it lost the Best International Feature Oscar to Denmark’s more popular Another Round, there has arguably been no better 2021 US theatrical release (never mind its 2020 nomination) than Jasmila Zbanic’s Bosnian war drama Quo Vadis, Aida? Blerta Basholli’s debut film feels like a sort of companion piece, in that it also deals with recent violent conflict in the Balkans from a desperate wife and mother’s perspective. Only while Aida? dealt with the frantic attempt to save loved ones in the midst of “ethnic cleansing,” Hive focuses on the aftermath of such events, when the presumed-dead are still officially “missing” in large number, and those they left behind remain in a stasis of waiting.
Fahrije (Yllka Gashi) is a woman in a Kosovo village that seven years earlier in 1999 was the site of one of the war’s worst massacres, during which her husband “disappeared.” Now the war is long over, but everyone still acts as if their missing men will return. Fahrije has doubts on that score (she’s introduced searching for her spouse’s remains in body bags transported by UN peacekeepers), but her angrily quarrelsome teenage daughter and elderly father-in-law remain stubbornly hopeful. Meanwhile, they must be fed, and Fahrije’s beekeeping can only generate so much income. So she proposes local women get entrepreneurial, forming a collective to sell their native specialty ajvar (a sweet-pepper relish) in the nearest larger town.
Such enterprise is admirable—or so you’d think. But despite their greatly reduced numbers, the men hereabouts have very backward ideas of “a woman’s place.” And that place does not encompass learning to drive, making business deals with strangers, or otherwise upsetting the trad patriarchal order. Yes, this is the kind of culture in which a woman might be publicly called a “whore” (and rocks thrown) for simply devising means to keep her family from starving.
Anchored by Gashi’s quietly determined performance as the heroine—a real person whose company now employs 50 people—Hive is itself restrained but powerful, delivering an implicit message of feminist empowerment without needing to spell it out. It’s a worthy choice as Kosovo’s Oscar candidate for this year, one that’s already won a slew of awards at Sundance and elsewhere. In addition to the Opera Plaza, the film opens Fri/19 at Rafael Film Center and other venues.
Feeding a family proves hazardous in entirely different ways in TV director Lee Haven Jones’ first theatrical feature, which is also the rare Wales-set movie in the Welsh language—at least rare among those ever seen abroad. Parliamentarian Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) and his glossy wife Glenda (Nia Roberts) spend most of their time in London. At the moment, however, they’ve returned “home” to a coldly imposing, ultra-modern country manse—an anomaly on the once-pristine landscape of her inherited ancestral farmlands, which they’ve allowed mining interests to plunder. More of that lucrative but environmentally janky business is on the agenda for tonight, when they’tre holding a dinner party. To prepare, Glenda has day-hired local waitress Cadi (Annes Elwy) as kitchen help and server.
But Cadi is not what she seems to this decadent clan—whose ranks also include two ne’er-do-well adult sons, druggy Guto (Steffan Cennydd) and creepy Gwerydd (Sion Alun Davies). Long before guests arrive, we detect weird, distracted, sometimes near-feral behavior that somehow her employers fail to notice. When they do, it will be too late, because this murkily explained entity in borrowed human guise is actually on a mission of vengeance against these rich tosspots for their crimes against the Earth.
The Feast is the latest in a long line of films from Teorema through To Sleep With Anger, The King, The Guest etc. in which a mysterious stranger enters a decadent, discordant household and delivers everyone from—or to—their sins. It straddles the arthouse and genre extremes of that concept’s usage, with a slow, arty, self-conscious presentation that finally turns towards the gory and grotesque. It’s a pretentious movie, but always an interesting one. IFC Films is releasing to limited theaters and rental platforms on Fri/19.
Dean Martin: King of Cool and other starry documentaries
It’s a celebrity-packed weekend in nonfiction cinema, as several new features train a spotlight on creative luminaries. In addition to the aforementioned Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, about the late Slaughterhouse-Five scribe (available in limited theaters as well as streaming platforms), there’s Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, another career appreciation of the Beach Boys’ original pop genius (On Demand as of Fri/19); and Paper & Glue (opening at the Roxie and Shattuck), a self-portrait by the globe-trotting French artist known as JR whom you may remember from his “co-starring” appearance with Agnes Varda in her 2017 Faces Places.
Then there’s King of Cool, a fun flashback to the Rat Pack staple whose appeal laid largely in the fact that he seemed to regard showbiz as a goof. Humbly born in 1917 Steubenville, Ohio (not-so-fondly nicknamed “Stupidsville” by many), Dino Paul Crocetti tried out a boxing career and started a successful singing one before fate brought him together with manic comedian Jerry Lewis. Their unlikely “playboy and putz” chemistry made them a nightclub sensation, then huge movie and TV stars before Lewis’ megalomania triggered an acrimonious breakup in 1956.
Figured as the Garfunkel of the duo, straight-man Martin’s solo career prospects were not rated high. But he surprised everyone by holding his own as a dramatic actor (opposite Brando and Clift in The Young Lions, then John Wayne in Rio Bravo), as well as a deft light comedian and massively popular crooner, talents also showcased in a long-running broadcast variety show.
Tom Donahue’s documentary is the kind that grates in needing to throw in some irrelevant latterday celebrities (Alec Baldwin, RZA, Jon Hamm, Josh Homme) as commentators alongside friends, family, and colleagues who actually knew Martin. Though even intimates admit they didn’t know him well—he was genial and loved, yet also held himself at a tangible remove from all.
Still, the evidence of his indelible cool is everywhere here, from footage of him perpetually laughing off on-air gaffes (though his “drunk” act was mostly just that, an act) to his boycotting JFK’s inauguration in solidarity with fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr., whose interracial marriage to actress Mai Britt had rendered him too “controversial” for the honor. Even if you’re too young to remember Martin, King of Cool makes a persuasive case for his stature in 20th-century American culture. This Fri/19 It begins playing Turner Classic Movies, which will also program four of the star’s vintage big-screen vehicles.