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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Looking back at Chaplin—and ahead to International...

Screen Grabs: Looking back at Chaplin—and ahead to International Oscar noms

New biopic digs in. Plus: Slovenia's sweet 'Sanremo,' Chile's chilling 'White on White,' Japan's 'Drive My Car'—and 'Afrofuturistik' hits big screens

Year’s end provides an inevitable opportunity to dwell on past, present, and future, a pursuit conveniently abetted by various newly released movies. Looking in the rear view mirror is the latest installment of the “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco series,” offered this time for free in streaming-only form. Titled “Earth, Fire, Air Water: California Infrastructures,” it promises to travel beyond the limits with archival glimpses of the state’s supporting systems in transportation, industry, labor, communications, and so forth. The show starts at 7pm Tue/14; go here for more details.

A century ago this year, Charlie Chaplin released his first feature as director-writer-editor-star etc., The Kid. It was a global smash—but then he (and/or his signature character “The Little Tramp”), had already been the most famous man alive for several years. Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s The Real Charlie Chaplin manages to find a fresh perspective on the oft-told tale of how a foundling from a desperately poor London background became probably the biggest movie star the world will ever know. It’s an imaginative assembly that incorporates not just plentiful archival clips, but hitherto-unheard audio interviews, discreet reenactments with actors, and its own mock silent-movie intertitles.

There have been better, more thorough appreciations of Chaplin’s art and cultural impact, but The Real Charlie does seem to get at the heart of the elusive private man, whom colossal fame only seemed to make more isolated and unfulfilled. We glimpse the apparently often-cold, volatile, and unfaithful partner with a queasy penchant for teenage girls, though his lasting final marriage to Oona O’Neill seems to have been a happy one. There’s the bitter exile when FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover succeeded in painting the largely apolitical artist as a “Communist sympathizer,” sending him into seclusion abroad. And there’s the maddening perfectionist who couldn’t stop filming 1931’s City Lights—at one point firing, then rehiring, leading lady Virginia Cherrill—and only completed five other films in the remaining near-half century of his life.

While the eventual portrait of a very complicated, almost unknowable man traces a familiar trajectory, this documentary still offers some arresting insights. It began playing on Showtime last Saturday, December 11. (Note that SF Silent Film Festival will present City Lights itself with the Oakland Symphony at the Paramount Theater on February 19.)

Looking forward rather than backward is the latest edition of “Afrofuturistik,” an annual package of new shorts from emerging African filmmakers. It seeks to counter the usual filmic visions of that continent, which almost invariably focus on poverty, violence, and oppression. Instead, these five miniatures from Kenya, Rwanda, Nigeria, and elsewhere offer a diverse array of imaginative content and high style. They run a gamut from Sofia Alaoui’s Sundance prize-winner So What If The Goats Die?, in which a Moroccan livestock keeper fearfully confronts a sci-fi phenomenon, to Baloji’s Congolese Zombies, a piece of social critique presented in the terms of a colorfully dynamic, clubby dance- and posefest. The program plays the Roxie Theater Tue/14 & Sun/19 (more info here), as well as the Smith Rafael Film Center on Wed/15 (more info here).

The present is represented by a mini-flood of titles submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for this year’s Foreign Language Feature Oscar race. They’ll be winnowed down to a shortlist of 15 next week, and then to five final nominees in early February. But for now, the field remains wide open to all 92 films placed in contention by as many countries. A number of them are being shown by the Smith Rafael Center (both on-site and via streaming) in their annual “For Your Consideration: A Celebration of World Cinema” series (more info here). But several are also seeing a general release to theaters and/or home formats:

One of the higher-profile films in the running, Japan’s Oscar hopeful is a quiet seriocomedy based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. Yusuke (Tsuyoshi Goro) is a well-respected theater actor and director who’s devoted to his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a television screenwriter, though theirs is a complicated relationship. It’s also one that has come to an abrupt end he hasn’t recovered from two years later, when he travels to Hiroshima to stage Uncle Vanya. To his initial alarm, the play’s multinational, multilingual cast includes the hot-headed young actor (Masaki Okada) he’d caught having an affair with Oto. Adding further tension is Misaki (Toko Miura), a rather taciturn young woman our protagonist is obligated to accept as his personal driver.

Though the favorite author of many, Murakami is too twee for my personal taste. Fortunately, director-adaptor Ryusuke Hamaguchi (Asako I & II, the recent Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) dials down the sometime preciousness of that literary style. Nonetheless, Drive My Car won’t be for everyone. It is well-acted and crafted, with enough narrative intrigue to hold one’s attention. However, it is also the kind of modest character drama that takes three full hours to reach a point where two broken people can share a hug. Sometimes less is just less—though judging from the major prizes it’s already collected, my slightly underwhelmed opinion is a minority one. Drive is currently playing the Roxie, Metreon, Shattuck, and other Bay Area theaters.

By contrast piling on way too much melodrama for one movie to bear is the Oscar submission feature for Latvia. As it opens, 10-year-old Markuss (Damir Onackis) has done something inexcusable to a little-girl playmate, though by the end of Dace Puce’s debut feature, we realize he was reacting to something pretty inexcusable that she said to him. Regardless, that act makes him even more of a pariah in the town where he’s already viewed as a wildchild, his dead father and abandoning mother forcing him to be raised by grandmother Solveiga (Dace Eversa). At wit’s end, she farms him out to “assist” in a brutish relative’s auto garage. But Markuss, artistically inclined like his unhappy late pa, drifts instead into a sort of apprenticeship with Sailor (Indra Burkovska), an eccentric recluse who makes stained-glass panels in a barn studio.

If at first our preadolescent protagonist seems like a monster-in-training, we gradually glean he’s more sinned-against than sinner, a sensitive soul prematurely hardened by experience. That aspect of The Pit is effective enough, but as nicely made as the film is, its script eventually goes way overboard piling on too many additional social issues and narrative crises. There’s bullying, transphobia, domestic violence, drug abuse… so much kick-dropped into a cluttered agenda that the movie eventually grows a bit ludicrous. Puce has already made an intriguing-sounding second feature, Manny. But this first effort makes the classic mistake of trying to cram what feels like the creator’s every backlogged idea into one movie, which messily bursts from the pressure. The Pit releases this Fri/17 exclusively on streaming service Film Movement Plus (more info here).

Slovenia’s Oscar feature is careful not to bite off more than it can chew in exploring a life at the opposite end of the age continuum. Bruno (Sandi Pavlin) is an elderly gent we first encounter on the side of the road, trying to flag a ride to “go home.” It is some time later, when he’s happily knee-deep in a local creek, that the attendants come to take him back to the elder care facility he’s once again forgotten he lives in. There, he is attracted to a fellow resident (Silva Cusin as Dusa) who shares his yearning for nature and the outdoors. But she, too, suffers from senile dementia, and their tentative bond is vulnerable to each party’s bouts of confusion and temperament.

Sweet, soft, a bit meandering at times, veteran writer-director Miroslav Mandic’s film sometimes seems to lose narrative focus—but then you could say that’s a deliberate reflection of its protagonists’ no-longer-firm grip on reality. In the end, it has a poetical lilt that is quite lovely, as is the way in which this small story about two people becomes something larger: A tale about individuality merging back into the greater mysteries of life itself, from which we came. It’s also launching exclusively on Film Movement Plus (more info here), this Wed/15.

Stylistically the most striking of this particular batch, Chile’s Oscar entree is a period piece both beautiful and forbidding. Pedro (Alfredo Castro) is a photographer lured to the remote “frontier” of Tierra del Fuego to take wedding pictures for a rich landowner somewhere around 1900. Yet the elusive latter, one Mr. Porter, never consents to meet this anxious hireling, let alone be photographed by him. Nor does there appear to be any precise date set for the wedding.

Stuck in a harsh landscape amidst rough cowpokes, not unlike the characters in The Power of the Dog, Pedro finds his situation increasingly unbearable. The only ray of light provided in this grim place is the presence of the bride (Esther Vega as Sara). But she is, disconcertingly, a preadolescent child, and his own creepy fascination with her soon brings severe disapproval.

Austere and elegant, White on White is cryptic—keeping us as mystified by what’s really going on as hapless Pedro—but gradually reveals the violence hidden largely from view here. Because Mr. Porter’s real mission in this remote outback is not just entrepreneurial but genocidal, his lackeys charged with the “humanitarian work” of “carving out a homeland” by killing off the area’s indigenous peoples in regular hunting expeditions.

Pedro is methodically broken down until he’s willing to not just document but abet this effort, staging photographic tableaux to frame needless massacres as heroic “making history.” Theo Court’s second feature (and first since 2010) may strike some as too slow, formal and mannered, but its vision of “civilization” at bloody work is chillingly distinctive. It’s currently playing the Smith Rafael Film Center.

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