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Sunday, October 1, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Embarcadero Center Cinema is gone, but there...

Screen Grabs: Embarcadero Center Cinema is gone, but there are revivals aplenty

Mourning another rep house gone, and looking forward to old school movies—brilliant, romantic, cheesy, and beastly.

The logic of “Things can only get better” has definitely not applied for San Francisco cinephiles in 2022 so far. First came the news that the Castro Theatre, which had already been largely closed since the beginning of COVID nearly two years ago, would be (eventually) coming back not as a rep-cinema house but primarily as a live-performance venue. Then last week there was the abrupt closure of Embarcadero Center Cinemas, announced last week, whose seven screens had been the city’s premier showcase for first-run arthouse films since 1995. The Landmark chain still operates the much smaller Opera Plaza Cinema, as well as a handful of other Bay Area theaters. But this follows their prior shuttering of the Lumiere, Clay, and Bridge—and for lovers of non-mainstream, big-screen film is the most catastrophic development yet.

If there is any upside to this situation at all, it lies in realizing that in fact the Roxie, Balboa, Vogue, Alamo Drafthouse, Pacific Film Archive, New Parkway, and other outlets had in fact already stepped into the rep-house gap created by the Castro’s disappearing act. To varying degrees and in different ways, they have been offering specialized, often single-show programming in addition to more standard commercial runs. So let’s take a jog through some revivals at various Bay Area theaters over the next week or so, throwing in a couple home-formats releases as well.

Fifty years ago a much-ballyhoo’d but shortlived experiment was announced that brought together the three hottest directors in Hollywood: Francis Ford Coppola (who’d just released The Godfather, which would for a period be the highest-grossing film of all time), Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), and William Friedkin (The French Connection). Together they formed The Director’s Company in order to produce small, economical, “personal” projects between bigger major-studio ones like Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? or Friedkin’s then-forthcoming The Exorcist. Only three movies actually emerged under that banner before it was dissolved. But as it happens, two of them are being revived this week.

The first Director’s Company release was Bogdanovich’s 1973 Paper Moon, which plays the Balboa this Tues/8 (more info here). Starring actual father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal (the latter the youngest-ever winner of a perhaps over-generous Oscar) as an unlikely con-artist team roaming the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, shot in B&W like a series of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange photos, it remains a small but near-flawless gem—as well as a testament to the kind of eccentric film that could a big hit back then. It landed in the year’s top 10, its grosses even higher than 007’s Live and Let Die—albeit just below that of Last Tango in Paris. Yes, it’s true: The ’70s were a better time.

A much more modest commercial success was Coppola’s spring 1974 release The Conversation, which is currently playing a limited run at the Opera Plaza Cinemas. Still, it was inexpensive enough to turn a profit, won immediate critical acclaim that soon turned into minor-classic status, and remains one of the director’s own favorites. Gene Hackman plays Harry Caul, a San Francisco surveillance expert hired to spy on a couple (Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest) who furtively meet in Union Square. In this very Watergate-era thriller of paranoia and violated privacy, nothing is what it seems, and technology can deceive as well as enlighten—sometimes to lethal results. As quiet as its repressed protagonist, The Conversation is an ascetic puzzle that rivets despite defying all conventional genre sensationalism.

The Director’s Company fell apart because its third film, Bogdanovich’s Henry James adaptation Daisy Miller, was a critically dissed flop (though it’s better appreciated now), and his colleagues were focused on humungous productions (Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) beyond its capacities. Though Friedkin was disinterested in doing anything to cash in on The Exorcist’s colossal success, that didn’t stop everyone else: Within a year of that film’s release, there were Exorcist imitations from Turkey (Seytan), Italy (Beyond the Door), Germany (The Devil’s Female), Brazil (O Exorcismo Negro), and US blaxploitationists (Abby), some of which Warner Bros. sued to block.

Perhaps that’s why a second Italian production, Alberto De Martino’s The Antichrist, didn’t actually reach the US until four years later, when it was released as The Tempter. Probably the best-produced of its ilk (official Exorcist sequels aside), it looks great in Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray release. Though its visual extravagances are very much “lipstick on a pig”—high style atop an outrageously crude, sexed-up exploitation movie. The alarmingly game Carla Gravina plays a wheelchair-bound wealthy spinster possessed by a witchy ancestor, and/or the Devil. Whatever’s going on, it’s excuse enough for projectile pea soup, floating furniture, much lewd lip-smacking, some bad green-screen FX, an Ennio Morricone socre, and one hell of a surreal orgiastic Satanic-ritual fantasy…complete with goat. The Antichrist is overlong, but if you’re into a certain sort of campy extremity, it must be seen to be believed.

1974 was also a very good year for Charles Bronson, who at age 52 finally had a huge US starring hit with the original Death Wish—and a decade later would end his career churning out its cheesy sequels. Still, he never “lowered” himself to horror movies. Two decades after his death, however, someone has done that lowering for him, sort of: The new Exorcist Vengeance, out this week on DVD and On Demand from Uncork’d Entertainment, is the latest vehicle for Hungarian actor “Robert Bronzi,” whose entire career appears based on his close resemblance to you-know-who.

Here, he plays Father Joseph, ex-drug dealer turned pistol-packing priest, called in to save a British household beset by Beelzebub. (You can tell because Satanic symbols have been burnt into the shag carpeting.) Cheap and silly, bad if not quite as bad as one might hope for entertainment’s sake, Vengeance does pretty much answer the question “What would Charles Bronson have looked like in an Exorcist ripoff?” Answer: Like a fool, of course.

Getting back to local rep house-style programming, the Roxie is hosting three bemusedly sexy throwbacks. For a while in the 1970s, some people really believed that the line would imminently disappear between mainstream and porn cinema. That did not happen, but some decades later Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell went there anyway with Shortbus (more info here).

That 2006 indie, which returns Fri/11 in a 15th-anniversary restoration, offered a polysexual Manhattan romcom roundelay that’s more about feelings than feel-ups—even if the cast members, few heard from again, really did get busy on camera. (An exception was former SF resident Mx. Vivian Bond, who plays the hostex of a titular orgiastic “salon for the gifted and challenged.”) It’s a disarmingly sweet movie about dysfunctionality and connection, no matter how much penetration is going on.

Considerably shyer about showing such things are two revived 21st-century Asian cinema classics that do a lot of dancing around the subject of S-E-X. Already playing the Roxie is Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda’s (Shoplifters, Still Walking) atypical 2009 Air Doll (more info here), a fantasy in which a “life-sized” erotic toy (Bae Doona) develops a soul, and life, of her own. It’s an oddly charming movie that’s primarily about loneliness—a description that also fits Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 Goodbye, Dragon Inn (more info here), in which the denizens of an old Taipei movie house lament its imminent closure, even as some try to furtively score with one another. This melancholy, meditative piece is considered one of the greatest Taiwanese films ever. Its own 4K restoration opens at the Roxie this Fri/11.

If that’s too much Art, or sex, or both for you, there’s the Vogue’s double bill through Thursday of two peak Hitchcocks: 1954’s ode to voyeurism Rear Window, with James Stewart as the invalid busybody who spies a murder in an apartment across the way; and 1963’s The Birds, in which too-beautiful San Franciscan Tippi Hedren seems to provoke our feathered friends into peckerheaded revolt—an interspecies nightmare originally intended to end with the Golden Gate Bridge engulfed.

Other revivals on the calendar provide variably barbed takes on Love, Valentine’s Day being just around the corner. At the Roxie, there’s the poisonous marital portrait and general polymorphous perversity of Kubrick’s 1999 swan song Eyes Wide Shut (Feb. 12 and 14) whose aftertaste you might wash out with the sunlit romance and Michel Legrand music of Jacques Demy’s 1964 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Feb. 14 only). At the Alamo, love is bloodthirsty (’70s cult fave The Velvet Vampire on Feb. 9), twisty (the Warchovskis’ 1996 first/best Bound on Feb. 14), kinky (Fifty Shades of Grey, Feb. 13, quirky (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Feb. 14 ), dreamy (Wong Kar-wait’s In the Mood for Love, Feb. 16 and plain bonkers (De Palma’s Femme Fatale). There’s also the more upbeat first two-thirds of a relationship arc in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, an Alamo double bill Feb. 13.

Yes, yes, human relationships: Way too complicated. The ultimate “Just Say No” statement in that direction may be a wee trash nugget the Alamo digs up next Tues/15: Wild Beasts, an improbable final feature to date by Franco Prosperi, who’d co-directed the original shockumentary Mondo Cane and other notorious envelope-pushers. This belated 1984 ripoff of ’70s US eco-horror flicks like Day of the Animals finds a northern European city terrorized when animals at the zoo are accidentally dosed with PCP—then the electrical system malfunctions, opening their cages.

At one point a lady speeding in a convertible is explained with the line “She’s not crazy! She’s being chased by a cheetah!” Many gory deaths occur due to nibbling rats, stomping elephants, stampeding cattle, et al.—and don’t count out the homicidal potential of ballet-class kiddies, once they’ve drunk from the same toxic well. Unlike much of the animal kingdom here, we may not know what mankind tastes like. But we do know there’s no taste like bad taste, and Wild Beasts offers a smorgasbord of that.

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