The pandemic killed off more than a few film festivals that were unable to survive putting their operations on hold for an initially indeterminate amount of time. Among the first casualties was the San Francisco Green Film Festival, whose lifespan didn’t quite reach the 10-year mark before COVID-related difficulties forced the organizers to hang it up. On Earth Day last year the ever-industrious SF Indiefest stepped into the breech with Livable Planet Film Festival, a cinematic showcase for environmental issues that for its second annum has been (a bit confusingly) renamed Green Film Festival of San Francisco. Presented both in-person at the Roxie Theater and via streaming, it runs Thu/14-Sun/24.
The 85 total features and shorts include plenty of eco-conscious nonfiction work, much of it divided into thematic categories of “Climate Change,” “Wildlife,” “Oceans/Rivers/Polar,” and “Food & Agriculture.” Nine titles spotlight Bay Area stories and storytellers, while elsewhere the focus travels everywhere from Arkansas (Broken Wings) to Laos (Elephant Keeper) to Siberia (Holgut). The opening night feature Do I Need This? finds Novato-based filmmaker Kate Schermerhorn examining society’s penchant for material acquisition, hoarding and waste, while coming to terms with her own resistance to “let go” of “stuff” as her elderly parents drastically downsize in preparation for life’s closing chapters.
But this being an Indiefest production, not everything is instructive nonfiction, or only that. There’s also a 50th anniversary screening of Silent Running, the 1972 sci-fi adventure that was the first directorial feature for fantasy FX whiz Douglas Trumbull, of 2001, Close Encounters, Blade Runner and The Tree of Life fame. (His second and last, 1983’s Brainstorm, suffered great difficulties getting completed after star Natalie Wood’s death mid-shoot.) It has a shaggy Bruce Dern as the caretaker of an orbiting greenhouse that carries the last surviving specimens of plants facing extinction on an environmentally devastated Planet Earth. When he’s ordered to destroy those precious contents, our hero goes rogue.
Released at the height of the early 1970s ecological movement, Silent Running was both a “thinking man’s” futuristic story and a family-friendly one (there are cute robots), its serious message and tie-in book extensively marketed to grade-school readers of Scholastic Magazine. One might file under “family-unfriendly” the Green Fest’s other genre feature, Lee Haven Jones’ Welsh-language The Feast, which we reviewed late last year. It’s a sardonic, eventually grisly fable of a rich, powerful clan whose despoiling of the pristine countryside draws a visitor in disguise delivering vengeance on behalf of Mother Nature herself.
Bridging the nonfiction and the fantastical is closing night feature (though it’s available for streaming throughout the festival) A Machine to Live In. Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke’s documentary is a freeform meditation on Brasilia, Brazil’s federal capitol—a planned city built in 1000 days, opened in 1960, its “space age” architecture of awesomely white, featureless, rounded surfaces (designed by Oscar Niemeyer and others) loved and hated ever since. It’s like the antiseptic underground futurism of THX-1138 dragged into the blinding sunlight, a striking if alienating abstraction some have called a “landscape of insomnia.” The directors bring in any number of related utopian ideas, from Esperanto to religious and UFO cults, from bikers to ravers—plus a lot of psychedelic imagery. While it will probably make more sense to Brazilians, this is a film of great beauty, mystery and inventiveness.
For info on the Green Festival in general, including program, schedule, ticket and streaming details, click here.
Of overlapping interest is the Bay Area stop of the touring Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival, which lands at SF’s Palace of Fine Arts for two evenings next week, Mon/18-Tue/17. More oriented towards extreme sports, it includes films about mountain biking, climbing, wingsuit flying, caving, and river-running, along with more environmentalist subjects. More info here.
For those in search of some plain old narrative entertainment, a few new home-formats releases:
If you thought COVID and climate change were quite enough to deal with, brace yourself for the worst-scenario near future of this sequel to 2014’s Australiian Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead. In that resourceful low-budget action-comedy-gorefest, a meteor shower triggered an outbreak of contagious zombie-dom. Here, that crisis has turned into a seemingly permanent status quo, with characters from the prior entry either infected or struggling not to be. A mad scientist type appears to be working on a cure, but when that turns out to be a ruse, our protagonists—some of whom are only mindless flesh-eaters part of the time, and/or have mind-control power over the similarly afflicted—get very mad.
Between Wyrmwood chapters, the Roache-Turner siblings Kiah (director-editor) and Tristan (co-writer and producer) made Nekrotronic, a fantasy action exercise that pushed their high energy and low humor into the realm of “loud and dumb,” to tiresome effect. This is a return to form, in the sense that its splattery bombast is just jaunty enough to transcend a lack of original ideas, with sufficient visual and pacing stimulation to make so much grungy silliness fun rather than exhausting.
The mix is equal parts Mad Max and Evil Dead, with a pinch of Soylent Green (another sci-fi celebrating its 50th anniversary this year). It’s not easy to hit this desired note of cartoonish excess straight off and sustain it, but Apocalypse manages that task, even if the results remain very much geared towards short-attention-spanned genre fans. If it’s credible human behavior you’re looking for, be warned: This ain’t the Night of the Living or Walking kind of Dead. Those are Ingmar Bergmanesque dramas compared to this Road Runner-ish series of grisly gags and singularly Aussie wisecracks. XYZ Films is launching Wyrmwood: Apocalypse on U.S. digital platforms Thurs/14.
Speaking of the outback, look what the ‘roo dragged in: An intriguing curio that has been very hard to see for most of the last three decades, after a festival run failed to generate much commercial distribution. Dutch-born, Australia-based director Rolf de Heer was between two cult favorites—the cryptic, minimalist sci-fi Encounter at Raven’s Gate and gonzo blowout Bad Boy Bubby—when he and scenarist Marc Rosenberg made this wish-fulfillment drama advertised with the tagline “Listen To The Music…Follow Your Dreams.” At bare bones, Dingo is exactly as formulaic as that sounds: Stuck in a hick town, its protagonist dreams of playing jazz in the big leagues, and finally gets there.
On the other hand, this is also a movie in which a boy in 1969 Poona Flat (a dusty hamlet somewhere in remotest Western Australia) is boggled when a jet plane lands in this middle-of-nowhere for no obvious reason, from it emerging Miles Davis as “Billy Cross,” a famous trumpet player. He stays just long enough to play a short set with his band, then tell the wee lad to look him up if he ever gets to Paris.
Decades later, adult John “Dingo” Anderson (Colin Friels) is a dingo trapper barely supporting his wife and kids, playing incongruous trumpet for a cow-billy “bush band” whose music he makes no effort to complement. (He’s playing, y’know… jazz!) He is, frankly, kind of an asshole. For a long time it’s not clear whether we’re meant to take John’s “gift” seriously, or assume he’s a talentless showoff with delusions of grandeur. (His solos, dubbed by US veteran session player Chuck Findley, do not clarify matters.) When he does travel to Paris at last and reunite with his inspiration, we have an answer—but it doesn’t make the movie any more plausible, or less bizarre.
De Heer’s films are erratic, eccentric, and sometimes brilliant (notably 2006’s Ten Canoes, one of several movies made with late Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil). Even his misfires are compellingly off the beaten track, a category Dingo definitely falls into. It is beautifully shot and crafted, providing Davis a rare celluloid showcase all the more alluring for the fact that he died before it was even released. Yet the music here (made “in cooperation with” French composer Michel Legrand) is far less memorable than his hurriedly improvised soundtrack for Louis Malle’s 1958 Elevator to the Gallows. And his acting… well, perhaps to his credit, being no actor, Davis doesn’t try to act. He just appears. Dingo’s achievement is similar: It doesn’t quite work, but there it is, an undeniable conversation piece of ambivalent rewards. Dark Star Pictures releases it to US Digital platforms and DVD on Tue/12.
All the Old Knives
Much closer to home, there is this tricksy new thriller, which was released to limited theaters (including the Opera Plaza) and to Amazon Prime Video last Friday. Chris Pine plays a CIA agent sent to interview former colleagues about a catastrophic airplane hijacking eight years earlier—it seems the agency now suspects there was a traitorous “mole” in their own ranks. Thus Pine goes to London to speak with retired Jonathan Price, and then to Northern California to reunite with Thandiwe Newton as his former coworker-lover, now a wife and mother in Carmel.
I was partly lured in to see how this second English-language feature (after Borg/McEnroe) by Danish documentarian Janus Metz Pedersen used Monterey County locations, which have memorably figured in projects from Play Misty For Me to Mad Men. But aside from some establishing shots driving down 1 and such, the main action is disappointingly limited to one spacious restaurant interior where Pine and Newton have their long, talky tete-a-tete. That is interrupted by many flashbacks, to Vienna and elsewhere. Still, Knives remains essentially static, a dramatic exercise in which it is obvious that characters are explaining things they already know so we can hear it. There is a decent eventual twist or two. But despite the skill of the players, this adaptation by Olen Steinhauer of his own 2015 novel remains the kind of intrigue you guess might’ve worked better in literary form.