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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: It's a miracle—a new cinema opens in...

Screen Grabs: It’s a miracle—a new cinema opens in SF

Plus: Godzillafest goes Gamera, Indian Forrest Gump, '80s macho meatheads, Planet of the Vampires, more movies

Given the ever-shrinking nature of local film venues, it’s always good news (and a surprise) when a venue actually gets added. Open for business as of last week is The Cut Outdoor Cinema at the Crossing, “the Bay’s first year-round outdoor cinema in the heart of downtown SF.” It’s not a drive-in but a sort of al fresco lounge with a 23-foot LED screen, bean-bag or deck chair seating, plus optional concessions, blankets, and so forth, located in the “East Cut”—one of those real estate promotional neighborhood coinages that nobody uses, but suffice it to say it’s just a bit south of Market near Embarcadero BART.

The billed entertainment menu encompasses “iconic favorites, cult classics, and local community film programming,” though their definition of “iconic” doesn’t turn the clock back very far. Nonetheless, the rest of August offers a mix of fantasy blockbusters (Back to the Future, Thor: Ragnarok), family flicks (School of Rock, Stand By Me, Goonies), teen flicks (Clueless, I Know What You Did Last Summer), cartoons (Ratatouille, Coco, Moana, UP), and indie-ish quirkfests (Moonrise Kingdom, Little Miss Sunshine, 500 Days of Summer, Love Jones). Most likely as the venue builds an audience, its programming will get more adventurous. For schedule, ticket and other info, go here.

Elsewhere, the Balboa is again going back to the future with another Godzillafest, this edition (running Fri/12-Sun/14) featuring special emphasis on Gamera, the giant turtle monster who made his debut in 1965 and has since appeared in a total of 12 kaiju spectacles. As only that first one got a US theatrical release (and even then in heavily altered form), many of the subsequent vehicles being shown here will be getting a rare Stateside outing on the big screen. There will also be non-Gamera titles spanning seven decades of the whole franchise, as well as special guests (including erstwhile child actor Carl Craig of 1968’s Gamer vs. Viras aka Destroy All Monsters), toy dealers, and more. Full info here

Safe from the terrors of rampaging prehistoric giganti but not from any human-scaled abuse are the characters in Lino Brocka’s Manila in the Claws of Light, which the Roxie is showing in a restored digital print this Wed/10 only (more info here). The 1975 drama was a key work in the “second golden age” of Filipino cinema. Then, a new generation of filmmakers broke from the trend towards crassly commercial exploitation films with independent productions that were often a direct challenge to the Marcos regime—no one more prominently than the prolific Brocka, an out gay artist in a repressive climate who was defiantly making gay-themed films as early as 1970’s Dipped in Gold.

He interpolated some gay content into Manila, based on Edgardo Reyes’ novel—whose source material did not venture into the underground of gay parties and rent boys, as the film does for a non-judgmental stretch. (Brocka wouldn’t experience a significant international hit until 1988’s Macho Dancer, a much-imitated, more skin-baringly racy exploration of that terrain.) But the primary focus here is on guileless fisherman Julio’s (Rafael Roco Jr.) search for his girlfriend Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), whose ambitious mother had sent her from their native island of Marinduque, suckered by promises of factory employment and higher education in the big city. Now she’s missing, and there are no prizes for guessing what sort of sordid ilfe she was really lured into. As Julio seeks any trace of her, he struggles to survive himself between brief spurts of construction employment where he’s paid 2.5 pesos per day, the rest of his salary pocketed by a corrupt foreman. Corruption is everywhere, leaving the slum-dwelling poor with no recourse from being ripped off by bosses, landlords, and police.

It’s a downbeat tale that Brocka keeps suspended between neo-realism and melodrama, never letting it get overwhelmed by either irredeemable bleakness or excess hand-wringing. Sandwiched between the equally acclaimed Weighted But Found Wanting the prior year and Insiang the next, this twelfth feature for the director remains one of the greatest Filipino movies of its era, perhaps ever. Brocka still looms large as an influence over that nation’s filmmakers, though his remarkable career (encompassing nearly 70 projects in little over twenty years) was cut short at age 52, by a fatal 1991 car accident.

Also taking a look in the rear view mirror this week are a couple new arrivals. Surprisingly distributed by no less than Paramount Pictures (perhaps due to the recent crossover success of over-the-top Bollywood hit RRR), Laal Singh Chaddha is an Indian remake of Forrest Gump, with Aamir Khan as the titular naif with a Zelig-like knack for stumbling into moments of national historic import. It opens in limited theaters on Thu/11.

Spanning the decades, too, is the non-fiction We Are As Gods, though its subject can hardly be accused of pratfalling into pages of history—he’s helped write them. This documentary about Stewart Brand charts his still-active life from Merry Pranksterdom, the Whole Earth Catalog and formative environmental activism to his status as guru to multiple generations of Silicon Valley-type innovators. Is this “intellectual Johnny Appleseed of the counterculture” an “evangelical optimist” towards technological development ignores its downsides at our collective peril? David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg’s moderately probing/insightful film raises the question, though it waffles on providing any answer. It opens Fri/12 at the Roxie (more info here) and plays Sat/13 only at the Smith Rafael Film Center (more info here), with release to digital platforms on Sept. 6.

Whether Gumping, rescuing a damsel in distress, saving the planet or imperiling it, these are all manly-man pursuits—even Gamera is supposedly a boy-monster. They get nicely complemented by a slew of recent home-format issues from Kino Lorber, most in Blu-ray, a few also available on DVD. (They are also likely to surface soon for streaming on KinoNow.com.)

For knucklehead machismo, of course, you can’t do better than the 1980s, that decade of original Rambo and Top Gun. Among their many cheesy imitations was the 1987 Steele Justice, with smirking Martin Kove (usually a villain in movies like the Karate Kid series and Rambo II) as a ‘Nam veteran turned horse trainer and general “stubborn pain in the ass” who carries around a poisonous snake as a pet. When a fellow combat buddy is killed in So. Cal. by their erstwhile nemesis (who says things like “The only law is Black Tiger law!”), naturally our hero must go medieval on many asses. The cops who reluctantly accept him as an ally note “He isn’t being recruited…he’s being unleashed!” Complete with synth score, a piano prodigy who apparently can’t play anything but “Clair de Lune,” and other wince factors, this movie cries out for its own drinking game.

Ditto the more eccentric High Desert Kill from 1989, in which General Hospital’s Anthony Geary, Beastmaster Marc Singer, forgotten shirtless hunk Micah Grant, and the always-welcome Chuck Connors (Tourist Trap) are dudes on a hunting trip. Unfortunately, so is an alien life force, which plays tricks designed to make them “go right round-the-bend crazy.” There’s scenery-chewing, solarized E.T.-POV imagery, and a lot of obvious low-budgetary workarounds, in the realm of “OMG! Some invisible monster is making me strangle myself! Arrrgh!!” It’s no camp classic, but you will get a few yoks… especially during the almost-orgy scene involving alcohol, arm wrestlin,g and hitherto-standoffish-yet-suddenly-slutty backpacker chicks.

Somewhat more dignified are a few resuscitated early ’70s cop flicks. When Sidney Poitier slapped a wealthy white bigot in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, he and his northern police detective Virgil Tibbs introduced a new type of cool to movies—and gave chills to racist viewers. It made perfect sense to bring that popular character back, although there are good reasons two big-screen sequels are little-remembered today. First, they weren’t nearly as well-written or directed as the original. Second, in taking Tibbs out of the South, they removed all fish-out-of-water cultural tension, rendering him a more vague, generic protagonist.

1970’s mediocre They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! has him based in San Francisco with a wife (Barbara McNair) and kids, investigating the murder of a prostitute who was somehow tangled up with his personal friend, a crusading preacher (Martin Landau). At least actual SF location shooting is more prominent in The Organization, a slightly better 1971 followup whose corny anti-drug message has a multi-ethnic group of ersatz hippies (including Raul Julia and future Superfly Ron O’Neal) stealing heroin from a crime syndicate to try curbing an addiction epidemic. Without Heat’svivid racial conflict, these movies try to drag in different forms of “social relevance” (including Tibb’s dull domestic problems), but in such a wishy-washy fashion that they don’t really say anything about those issues.

Those movies have been justifiably forgotten, but 1973’s Electra Glide in Blue—not particularly popular or admired at the time—has gradually acquired a cult rep as one of those idiosyncratically cool little movies they ground out in bulk during the Me Decade, then never again. Robert Blake (just before Baretta made him a TV star) plays a drolly eccentric Arizona highway motorcycle cop with a wee Napoleon complex who perhaps gets in over his head investigating an apparent suicide he suspects was really a murder.

Shot by the great Conrad Hall, folding an anti-Establishment attitude into a story that’s from the “fuzz” perspective, it was the first—and last—directorial feature for music biz bigwig James William Guercio. He’d worked with acts including Chad & Jeremy, Zappa, The Beach Boys, Chicago, and Blood Sweat & Tears, and several of his musician pals appear in the cast. Flip, laconic, digressive, and kinda existential, its vibe is more Five Easy Pieces than Dirty Harry, with an ending that seems a direct “answer” to Easy Rider’s famous one. Electra Glide will be manna for those who already dig such determinedly offbeat entertainments from the era as Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Zachariah, or The Last Detail.

Going still further back to the 1960s, and easily the best of this lot, is Mario Bava’s 1965 Italian-US coproduction Planet of the Vampires—not to be confused with the next year’s Queen of Blood, another American International Pictures release that was also later regarded as partly inspiring Alien. In it, a group of astronauts are lured onto a mystery planet. There, they they find the crew of another interplanetary vessel already dead, and they themselves overtaken by spasms of murderous madness.

Eventually the plot turns out to be rather like that of High Desert Kill—an alien force is seizing control of human bodies to impose its sometimes violent will.

But silly as the script is (not to mention the astronauts’ nonsensically high-collared costumes), Planet has an atmosphere of unsettling quiet that remains eerie. It’s also just a fantastic-looking movie—resourcefully combating severe budgetary limits, Bava dressed in psychedelic lava-lamp colors a world admittedly “built” from little more than smoke and a couple plastic rocks on a soundstage. Like his prior mythological blowout Hercules in the Haunted World, supernatural trilogy Black Sabbath, and proto-slasher Blood and Black Lace, not to mention all the baroque horrors to come before his premature death in 1980, this is a luxuriant genre wallow in style-over-substance at its best.

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