By most estimates, The Birds didn’t quite make the top 10 amongst box-office hits of 1963, a list capped by such long, lumbering colossi as Cleopatra, How the West Is Won, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World—as well as trifles like Disney’s Son of Flubber and Doris Day’s Move Over, Darling. But none of those movies have endured so well in popular culture, let alone grown in critical estimation, like Hitchcock’s aviary nightmare.
Fantasy horror was still considered less-than-adult stuff back then, and press still reeling from the assault of the director’s Psycho were inclined to assume a position somewhere between skeptical and appalled, or treating it as a sinister prank. Still, it was a hit, then a perennial revival favorite, and the never-ending line of subsequent creature-features it provided a blueprint for would very seldom benefit from direct comparison.
The Birds remains a brilliant demonstration of schematic-yet-riveting visual storytelling, the kind you can tell was extensively storyboarded in advance. A few years ago at my gym, where films (mostly generic recent blockbusters) are projected on a screen that everyone pretty much ignores, they showed it—and gradually the entire place stopped in its tracks, hypnotized by the diagrammatic genius of set pieces like the schoolyard attack. It is also worth noting that 30-plus years ago when I was on the beach in Bodega Bay (where the film is set), a black seagull kept dive-bombing myself and a friend for no obvious reason until we gave up and left. Just saying. The Birds is being revived in a 35mm print at the Roxie, Fri/26-Sun/28; more shows may be added.
There’s a very diverse and interesting gamut of new films arriving in theaters this weekend as well:
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING
George Miller is 77 years old, so he can do whatever the hell he likes. Still, as one ponders why he chose to make this particular project, it’s hard not to muse upon the overall strangeness of a career very busy in the producer department, but odd and erratic in the directorial one. Why wait 30 years between entries of the Mad Max series that remain his signature work? Why choose the Hollywood films he did (Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil), let alone wade so heavily into computerized animation with Babe: Pig in the City and two Happy Feet toons? Given the exceptional quality of his best work, you can’t help but think: This man’s time could have been better spent.
His latest is another curious detour, based on a short story by A.S. Byatt. Tilda Swinton plays a narratologist at an academic conference in Istanbul who impulsively purchases a bottle that turns out to contain a trapped djinn, or genie (Idris Elba). He/it must grant her three wishes in return for being freed. But she is wary, and while she bides her time, he tells what led to his prior incarcerations, involving servitude to the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum), an Ottoman Empire slave (Ece Yuksel) and a wealthy businessman’s intellectually curious third wife (Burcu Golgedar). All these tales end unhappily—in deciding upon her own “heart’s desire,” can the modern scholar elude such misfortune?
This ornate CGI-laden fantasia is not puerile, yet it fails to transport; it aims for profundity yet still seems more rooted in the kitsch of Maria Montez movies than the serpentine mysteries of, say, The Saragossa Manuscript. Despite gratuitous nudity (in a segment involving a harem of “Corpulent Women,” as they’re billed) that guarantees an R rating, the film still feels like retro juvenile exotica. It is not a woeful failure, but neither is it inspired or inspiring enough to justify going out on such a peculiar $60 million limb. The major plus is Elba, who really does lend his mythological figure a certain splendor, as well as bemused pathos. It’s a memorable turn that nonetheless can’t quite elevate its vehicle to the same level. Three Thousand Years opens nationwide Fri/26.
THE GOOD BOSS
Almost as divinely all-powerful—at least in his own mind—is the titular CEO played by Javier Bardem in his latest collaboration with Spanish writer-director fernando Leon de Aranoa. Introduced addressing his employees with practiced paternal condescension, he’s owner of Blanco Scales, a weight-measuring device factory that’s been in his family for generations. Julio is prosperous, but still hungry—for industry awards, for prime contracts, for young female interns to cheat on his unsuspecting wife (Sonia Almarcha) with.
During the tumultuous week or so chronicled here, many things conspire to knock him off that pedestal: A fired worker’s (Oscar de la Fuente) angry public protest; a longtime manager’s (Manolo Solo) meltdown due to marital troubles; yet another employee’s (Celso Bugallo) difficulties with a racist-skinhead son (Martin Paez); and a tangled web of workplace affairs, including Julio’s own attraction to the latest intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor).
This drolly-underplayed comedy has quite enough intrigue to hold our attention, though it also seems oddly old-fashioned, with no particular reflection of the escalating great changes brought to employee-employer relations by globalization and other factors. As a result, there’s little cumulative satirical sting—but getting to that moderate letdown is still quite entertaining. The Good Boss opens Fri/26 at the Opera Plaza and Smith Rafael Film Center, expanding Sept. 2 to more area theaters including the Roxie and Albany Twin.
If Boss finds society in microcosm under a factory roof, this engrossing documentary from Alex Pritz chronicles a local tempest that very well could have planetary repercussions.
“I believe that the Amazon is the heart not just of Brazil, but of the whole world,” says Bitate, a leader of the Uru-eu-wau-wau tribe—not long ago numbering in the thousands, now under 200—who is just 18 when we meet him. Their ancestral rainforest lands are already under assault from clear-cutters, cattle ranchers, and more. But then the 2018 election of ultra-right President Jair Bolsonaro (seen promising, “There won’t be one inch left of indigenous reserve” on the campaign trail) drastically steps up an “invasion of land thieves,” while eradicating any remaining government protections.
Pritz is careful to represent all sides on the ground—not the power-mongers in Rio so much, but the self-described “settlers,” loggers, and farmers who see themselves as “liberating the land” for “progress.” But sympathy inevitably flows towards the Uru-eu-wau-wau and their advocates, who face arson, death, and kidnapping threats, as well as the constant shrinkage of their terrain. Needless to say, they are considerably more mindful of the toll this rainforest’s demise might take on Earth itself than Bolsonaro’s plundering hordes. The Territory has the narrative complexity and urgency of a fictive suspense film, with stakes at least as high. This National Geographic release opens Fri/26 at theaters including Metreon and the Smith Rafael.
A MENTAL HEALTH MEDLEY: THREE NEW MOVIES
Running the gamut of psychological not-so-well-being are a trio of new films—one a discomfiting comedy, another a fact-inspired drama, a third a sort of diaristic documentary.
The laughs are heavily cringe-inducing in Funny Pages, a first feature from writer-director Owen Kline, who as a child played the younger son in Noam Baumbach’s 2005 The Squid and the Whale. This takes place in a similar terrain of extreme dysfunction, also recalling the dyspeptic cinema of Todd Solondz, Terry Zwigoff, and Rick Alverson. 17-year-old (Daniel Zolghadri) is an aspiring cartoonist distraught after his high school art-teacher mentor dies—though their relationship was wildly inappropriate. Demonstrating further angry bad judgment, Robert moves out of his antagonistic parents’ (Maria Dizzia, Josh Pais) house and into a squalid Trenton basement inhabited by two much older weirdos. He also starts working in the office of the public defender (Marcia DeBonis) who’d represented him on a criminal charge, and tries to develop a new mentor in another one of her clients, the extremely antisocial Wallace (Matthew Maher).
Like Solondz’s Happiness on a smaller scale, this is a comedy of awful behaviors amongst damaged individuals, one that’s alternately inspired and almost unwatchable in its painful misanthropy. Bookended by two of the most distressingly-wrong private drawing lessons imaginable, it is a strikingly-assured debut likely to attract an instant cult following—though others may well find it about as pleasant as a tonsillectomy. It opens Fri/26 at the Alamo Drafthouse and the Grand Lake in Oakland, simultaneous with On Demand release.
Humor is not much of a factor in Breaking, which played SFFilm and other festivals earlier this year under the title 892. Abi Damaris Corbin’s film is based on an actual incident that occurred in 2017. John Boyega plays Brian, a former Marine scarred by PTSD after tours of duty in Iraq. One day he walks into a Wells Fargo and hands a teller a note saying, “I have a bomb.” His goal isn’t robbery, per se—he simply wants the exact amount owed him in delayed veteran benefits, lest he be rendered homeless on top of his current semi-estrangement from a wife and child. He is distraught, irrational, paranoid, probably more a danger to himself than anyone else during several hours’ standoff. But media attention and over-zealous police response almost guarantee this situation won’t be patiently de-escalated towards a peaceful conclusion.
It’s yet another testimony to over-militarization of US law enforcement, as well as the deployment of excess force towards African Americans. Boyega gives a strong performance (as does the late Michael K. Williams as a chief negotiator), and this Dog Day Afternoon-like tale inevitably packs a punch. Still, the suspense goes slack after a while, and the sum impact isn’t as tragically moving as it could have been. Breaking opens in Bay Area theaters Fri/26.
Finally, there’s Anonymous Club, about 35-year-old Australian singer, songwriter, and guitarist Courtney Barnett who’s acquired a considerable following over the last decade—even getting a Grammy nomination for her first album, which came out not long after she began releasing bedroom recordings on her own label. She is a distinctive talent, whose “singing about panic attacks” in relatably rambling lyrics and a confidential, unpolished voice comes packaged not in twee “sensitive” sounds but gnarly indie rock.
She was new to me, despite being up my musical alley. This film isn’t really a good introduction, though—her songs are for the most part heard just fleetingly, despite Club charting an international concert tour over three years’ course. Instead, the emphasis is on Barnett’s headspace, primarily via the audio diary she kept over that span, using a dictaphone lent by director-longtime collaborator Danny Cohen.
While the on-camera evidence doesn’t much bear this out—she seems confident enough, particularly onstage—Barnett is typically described using terms like “reclusive” and “notoriously private.” So the forced public exposure of touring, interviewing, et al. tend to heighten rather than lay to rest her longstanding issues of depression, anger, and self-doubt. She is not, however, particularly articulate bout those things (at least outside her lyrics), and clinical depression may be one of things least suitable to capture/expression in the filmic medium.
So while fans may find this portrait revealing, those little- or just newly-acquainted with the artist may be unamused when she says, “All I can do is whinge,” wishing the movie had instead delved more into her creative process, life-career backstory, and/or song catalog. If you want to see a less navel-gazing documentary that really does nail the alienating effect of endless international touring and ambivalently-welcomed, sudden popularity on essentially introverted personalities, go thou and watch Grant Gee’s 1998 Radiohead artifact, Meeting People Is Easy. Anonymous Club opens at the Roxie Thu/25, with Barnett in person for a Q&A that night.