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Sunday, May 22, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: A return to rep's heyday, from 'Fantastic...

Screen Grabs: A return to rep’s heyday, from ‘Fantastic Planet’ to ‘Hot Fuzz’

A smorgasbord of big screen classics. Plus: gay love in the Russian military, harrowing tales of Donbass, embalmed Filipina love.

The Castro Theater’s apparent future as primarily a live performance venue has once again made people nostalgic for the heyday of repertory cinemas. In fact, since COVID-shuttered venues reopened, there’s been an increase in that type of programming. This week offers a particularly strong array of big-screen revivals, including some rep-house staples of yore.

That would definitely include the return of French animator Rene Laloux’s 1973 Fantastic Planet, based on a novel by sci-fi writer (and dental surgeon) Stefan Wul aka Pierre Pairault. Its visually arresting, surreal parable of oppression—set in a future civilization where a species of blue giants keep humans as pets and/or hunting fodder—was almost never not on most rep and college-campus film calendars, for many years. The Roxie is bringing this perennial cult favorite back Mon/2-Wed/4.

Equally fantastical in its way is a much more obscure Roxie reclamation showing this Fri/6 only in an original 35mm print, Chris Shaw’s largely SF-shot 1989 Split. Reflecting a sensibility much indebted to midnight movies like Forbidden Zone and Church of the SubGenius-style cut-up snark, it’s a paranoid labyrinth viewed through New Wave (I don’t mean Nouvelle Vague) irony, complete with then-advanced (at least on this budgetary level) computer graphics, imposing hairdos, and a heavy dose of hipster cool. If the message is that we are all pawns in a many-layered reality game, there’s also the hope/warning that “One wacko can fuck up everything.” Shaw himself will be present at this rare revival of a film that wasn’t much seen the first time around.

Taking a more realistic approach to a fantastical life is the same year’s Chameleon Street, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance but received just limited commercial distribution, and has become hard to see in the decades since. Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s sole feature as writer-director has him playing William Douglas Street, a real-life con man with a flair (as well as  compulsion) for impersonation. He variously passed as a pro footballer, Time Magazine reporter, attorney, naval officer, and surgeon—purportedly performing 36 actual hysterectomies—between resultant prison sentences. Clumsy in some respects, with a halting narrative flow, Harris’ movie nonetheless remains an adventuresome early milestone in the “Amerindie” movement, as well as a singular detour for African-American cinema. A new 4K restoration plays the Roxie on Thurs/5.

There’s just unvarnished truth on tap in The Wobblies, another newly restored minor classic. Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s 1979 documentary feature begins a bit oddly, with what feels like a closing-credits sequence. But it quickly grips attention with a mix of equally fascinating archival materials and survivor testimonies about the IWW (International Workers of the World), a labor union movement that did a great deal to create a more equitable workplace in the early years of the last century.

Commencing an uphill battle against the robber barons of nearly all industries, whose economic muscle extended to ordering brutal police crackdowns, the IWW nonetheless fought the good fight against long hours, low pay, miserable housing, and dangerous work conditions in what were still “horse and buggy days”—even though not a few leaders wound up shunted off to prison on trumped-up charges. Particularly in today’s union-averse landscape, it’s a rousing flashback, with particularly felicitous moments like an 80-something grandma recalling turning down an arresting officer’s subsequent overture with “I’m sorry, but I don’t go out with cops.” The Wobblies plays the Roxie Mon/2-Tues/3, with Shaffer present for the second screening.

Down the street at the Alamo Drafthouse, there’s hilarity tonight Mon/2 in a 15th-anniversary showing of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, the Masterpiece Theater/Michael Bay mashup that for my money is even better than the director’s prior collaboration with stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, Shawn of the Dead. On Wed/4 the same venue offers a nutty find in the form of Thrilling Bloody Sword, a 1981 Taiwanese hot mess mixing period wuxia action, children’s movie and fantasy horror.


You see, this UFO-struck queen dies birth to a bloody pulsating sac, which is then sent down the river in a basket like Moses to be rescued by seven dwarves, as meanwhile two demon-worshipping sorcerers infiltrate the court…yes, “whatever” is definitely the organizing narrative principle here. Also featuring a one-eyed turtle monster, quacking bat-men wearing flippers, a talking chicken puppet, a genie in drag and other wonders, this colorful contraption of painted backgrounds and crude FX never met a person or thing it couldn’t levitate. Most re-useable line: ““I’m the little fairy in the forest! Who are you?”

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If you’d rather stick with more familiar, respectable corridors of celluloid goodness, the Vogue is double-billing two of the greatest Hollywood movies about Hollywood ever this Mon/2-Wed/4. There’s Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, the caustic quasi-noir with actual former silent star Gloria Swanson as grotesque fictive former silent star Norma Desmond, whose delusions of return grandeur fatefully ensnare handsome, loutish younger writer William Holden—who narrates from the grave she put him in. The other is George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born, still by far the best incarnation of that showbiz soap opera. Particularly given the peerless casting of Judy Garland as the star who is born thanks to James Mason’s established one, whose alcoholic slide her love cannot prevent.

Equally classic in an entirely different way is Fellini Satyricon, the 1969 tangle of Petronius-inspired decadent spectacle and sensuality that impressed some at the time as evidence of the Italian director’s self-indulgent decline. It has aged very well, though, and stoned rep-house audiences of the ’70s and ’80s seldom minded its excesses of everything but plot. It plays Wed/4 at Berkeley’s BAMPFA, followed Fri/6 by Nights of Cabiria, Sun/8 by Fellini’s Roma, with still more on the schedule before that venue’s Fellini 100 retrospective ends on May 14.

Meanwhile, there are notable new films arriving in theaters and on streaming platforms:

Firebird
A movie about gay love amongst Soviet military personnel? Its mere existence might seem surprising—until you realize that Peeter Rebane’s film, set in the 1970s, is not a Russian production but a UK/Estonian one. Not surprising at all is the fact that Firebird has been damned with the usual “Western homosexual propaganda” cries in Russian media, and is unlikely to ever see release there. At least not under the present, ever-so-manly administration.

While based on the autobiography of late Sergey Fetisov, this plush period piece feels in many respects more like a chunk of old-fashioned romantic fiction. It’s got a gender dynamic they surely wouldn’t have dared when such stories were starring the likes of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, however. Sensitive aspiring Moscow photographer-actor Private Sergei (Tom Prior), reluctantly doing his mandatory service stint, becomes fascinated with handsome officer Lt. Roman (Oleg Zagordnii), a fighter pilot with a fiancee. Despite all hurdles, they start sneaking some time together, then more. But the fear of being found out is real, not to mention consequential.

This is the kind of “sweeping epic” people complain “they” don’t make any more, with some elements of rather heavy-handed and obvious melodrama that you probably forgot were also key to those golden oldies. But if it ultimately adds up to a contrived weepie with less-than-full-blooded characters, Firebird is nonetheless earnest and well-produced. Plus, it’s refreshing to see some of these cliches rehashed on behalf of an unashamedly romantic gay narrative. Firebird is already playing at theaters including the Metreon and Elmwood.

Bad Roads
Surely not on Vlad’s chillaxing watchlist either is this episodic Ukrainian film from Natalya Vorozhbit, based on her stage play. Its bleak, sometimes shocking five dramatic miniatures all cast light—whether indirect or graphic—on abuses of women in the Donbas region, which has suffered from Russian hostilities for years now. They include a tipsy headmaster, stopped at a checkpoint, who thinks he spies a female student being held by soldiers; two young women who are indeed being held hostage for sexual assault by combatants; and an apologetic woman driver who experiences the full brunt of a local couple’s rage at living in a war zone.

These scenes are grim, though they generally leave the worst to our imagination. While the theatrical roots sometimes show through, this debut feature still summons considerable power in evoking the cruelty and hopelessness that become status quo in civilian areas overtaken by such conflicts—and, in particular, the violent misogyny that’s almost inevitably part of that package. Film Movement has just released Bad Roads (Ukraine’s Oscar contender this year) to nationwide virtual cinemas and to its own streaming platform, more info here.

Oakland’s New Parkway is also showing another recent Ukrainian film, Valentyn Vasyanovych’s challenging, striking 2019 Atlantis—an eerily apt nightmare vision of the nation’s near-future as a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland ravaged by years of war. Previously written about in 48 Hills here when it briefly played virtual cinemas last year, it is at the Parkway through Wed/4. 

Ode to Nothing
The stench of death also hangs heavy over this feature from Philippines writer-director Dwein Baltazar. Her heroine is an unlikely figure: Middle-aged, in debt, understandably cranky Sonya (Marietta Subong, aka pop star/comedienne Pokwang) is stuck running the run-down family business, an “old maid” further shunned because that business is a funeral home. When an unidentified elderly woman’s corpse is dropped off by some shady characters, who do not return to retrieve it, this seems a final indignity. But after embalming this unasked-for “guest,” Sonya begins treating her/it like the company she so desperately lacks. What’s more, the body seems to bring with it good luck that begins to turn her life around.

Not the macabre horror film or even black comedy you might expect from that summary, Ode is more a quiet character study with a hint of magic realism. It may be odd, and it’s certainly minimalist, but there’s a low-key warmth that makes Sonya’s tale surprisingly poignant—as well as, yes, a little haunting. A 2018 film, it is just now getting released to US streaming platforms including Amazon and Vinegar Syndrome.

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