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Thursday, October 6, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The government is no one's friend in...

Screen Grabs: The government is no one’s friend in ‘Costa Brava, Lebanon’

Plus: Heavyweight revival action this weekend, from Poland's The Three Colors Trilogy to—yes—Flash Gordon.

Some heavyweight revival action going on this weekend, ranging from the sublime to the (willfully) ridiculous. Ranking high for many amongst celluloid examples of the former is The Three Colors Trilogy, which comprised the peak—and the near-end—of Polish director Krzystof Kieslowski’s career. His prior Dekalog series (10 short features vaguely inspired by the Biblical commandments), originally made for Polish television, had attracted significant attention on the film festival circuit and beyond. But he suddenly became a major international arthouse name with the 1991 European co-production The Double Life of Veronique, then with this primarily French-language trio, all initially released 1993-1994.

As widely-seen and acclaimed as these films were at the time, their prominence has somewhat receded since—no doubt in large part because Kieslowski (who’d announced his official retirement, yet was purported to be writing a new trilogy) died from complications after a heart attack in 1996, aged just 54. While a handful of films were made later on by other directors from his un-produced screenplays, his reputation has inevitably faded a bit from his having exited just when audiences had adopted him as that rare thing, the “must-see” foreign auteur.

It will thus be interesting to revisit the trilogy (playing the Roxie as of Fri/2 in new 4K restorations) after so long. Produced in order of the “hoist-to-fly” French flag’s three colors, they each reflect that concept aesthetically, as well as one of the Republic’s fabled political ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity. My recollection is of kickoff Blue is by far the most revelatory, offering a transcendent showcase for Juliette Binoche as a woman lost in grief for her husband and child after only she is spared death in a car accident.

The somber, lyrical, metaphysical questioning that dominates Kieslowski’s sensibility is much more playfully deployed in White, a comparatively comedic treatment of a Polish emigre’s (Zbigniew Zamachowski) tumble into dire straits after his wife (Julie Delpy) divorces him. Red occupies a middle ground, its complex narrative and thematic agenda striking variably seriocomic notes as it entangles a footloose young woman (Veronique star Irene Jacobs) and a prickly retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant). As ever, life’s mysteries are affirmed, fate often inexplicable even if morality remains (fairly) fixed. Series passes are available to see all three films at the Roxie; more info here.

The fascination with beautiful women that undeniably drives much of Three Colors is very much the subject of Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo, which Movies for Maniacs will be showing in 70mm at the Castro Theatre this Sat/3. The evening event will feature a Q&A with actress Diane Baker, a busy big- and small-screen ingenue of the era who wasn’t in Vertigo—but she was in the director’s 1964 cult favorite Marnie, and that same year played the axe-murdering daughter pinning blame on mommy dearest Joan Crawford in William Castle’s camp classic Strait-Jacket.

Tormented amour fou thriller Vertigo has risen to great esteem in the decades since it was first released to very middling critical and popular response. Many then found its plot and psychology awkwardly contrived, the style overpowering, the leads (James Stewart as a man obsessed by two women he thinks are one—both played by Kim Novak) mismatched. Those eccentricities have since become accepted, defended, and loved. It’s not one of my favorite Hitchcocks, or San Francisco/Bay Area-set movies—but it’s at the top of those lists for others, and indeed has topped a few critics’ polls of the best film ever, period.

There are certainly more than a few people (if few critics) who’d gladly bestow that lofty honor on 1980’s Flash Gordon, another commercial disappointment upon initial release that fast turned into a cult-movie perennial. Long before Marvel and DC began dominating the multiplex, this version of the popular comic strip (which also spawned several well-loved 1930s Saturday-matinee film serials) managed what 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok (as well as TV’s 1960s Batman) did: Turn superherodom into wittily-self-parodying pop art.

Directed by the perennially underrated Mike Hodges (whose 1998 comeback Croupier made Clive Owen a star), it was indeed a little too tongue-in-cheek to become the box-office smash producer Dino De Laurentiis had hoped for. There was also the problem of Sam J. Jones, a former pro footballer chosen for the lead role; he was apparently so “difficult,” he refused to finish the shoot (a stand-in was used), let alone return for any sequels. Still, the movie itself is pure fun, and its status has only benefitted from the resurgence of interest in Queen, who wrote and performed the original score. Flash Gordon is playing as a programming “staff pick” at the Roxie on Sat/3.

While this outdoorsy, tail-end-of-summer holiday weekend predictably brings little in the way of major mainstream theatrical openings, there are a couple interesting new foreign arrivals in area arthouses, detailed below. It’s also worth noting the Fri/2 launch on major streaming platforms of Tommy Walker and Ross Hockrow’s Kaepernick & America. This fine documentary provides a level-headed overview of the kneeling protest against excessive police force that got twisted by conservative pundits into an “anti-American” focus of outrage for Trumpsters.

It’s also, natch, a portrait of the Turlock-raised erstwhile 49er who sacrificed his NFL career to make that willfully-misunderstood stand.

Though while the filmmakers interview numerous prominent personalities in pro sports and beyond, one person not heard from (save in archival footage) is the man himself: Colin Kaepernick remains a potent symbol, but has declined the spotlight since his football career ended in unofficial, apparently still-active blacklisting five years ago. Rather than participate here, he was evidently chosen to let his past actions speak for themselves—and they do, eloquently.

Costa Brava, Lebanon

Mounia Akl’s international co-production is a rueful domestic seriocomedy set “in a near future” that looks like tomorrow, or today, or yesterday—because Lebanon has been in a state of political instability and/or outright war for nearly half a century now. The Badri family are bohemian artist types who fled perpetually-embattled Beirut for the relative tranquility of a rural home eight years ago. Still, the isolation has cost them: Mother Souraya (Nadine Labaki) gave up a prominent singing career, husband Walid (Saleh Bakri) his political activism. Now the ramshackle retreat from trouble that they’ve built together is itself under threat: To deal with the massive garbage disposal-pollution crisis it’s created for itself, the government has simply appropriated land next to their abode.

There are the usual false promises for the benefit of TV cameras, that the landfill site will be “green” and hew to eco-friendly standards approved by foreign development-aid bodies. But, predictably, the truth turns out to be something else. Soon the Badris are alarmed by armies of invasive workers, bomb-like detonations, heavy machinery destroying the pristine landscape … then poisoned water, smoke-filled air, and trash piling right up to their fence-line. This isn’t just unpleasant, it’s unlivable. The tension applies pressure to the couple’s marriage, also encouraging the acting-out of a spiky grandma (Liliane Chacar Khoury) and their OCD-afflicted youngest daughter (played by twins Ceana and Geana Restom.) It is also ill-timed to further complicate the first stirrings of adolescent sexual curiosity in elder daughter Tala (Nadia Charbel.)

Akl’s film, which opens at the Smith Rafael Film Center this Fri/2, is at once casual and complex, with streaks of magical realism as well as the non-magical kind. Its details of domestic dysfunction dovetail very nicely with the allegorical reflections on a whole nation’s beleaguered modernity. While change may or may not ultimately be good for the Badris, what’s embittering is that once again, change is not something they can really choose—it is being forced upon them. (Of related interest: The BAMPFA in Berkeley will host a short New Lebanese Cinema series Nov. 10-17.)

Peter von Kant

The dysfunctionality also runs thick, albeit in very different directions, in this latest from prolific French director Francois Ozon. It’s a remake of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a savage chamber piece that was in turn based on his same-named stage play. Ozon had already demonstrated fealty to the late, notorious New German Cinema auteur by adapting another of his plays, Water Drops On Burning Rocks, in 2000.

This is a much looser translation that maintains the original’s plot and character outlines, more or less, but also alters them to accommodate fond satirical takes on Fassbinder himself. Thus fashion designer Petra is now Peter (Denis Menochet), an aging enfant terrible film director very much like guess-who. He compulsively enmeshes his professional and personal lives in both past heterosexual marriages with actress-collaborators (Isabelle Adjani appears as his starriest ex) and ruinous gay relationships with hunky “trade” (the incoming example being Khalil Gharbia’s Amir) whom he promotes to fame, then petulantly resents. Meanwhile, he showers various combinations of abuse and neglect upon a long-suffering servant-assistant (Stefan Crepon), his needy teenage daughter (Aminthe Audiard), and his mother (played by none other than Fassbinder’s own brightest star, Hanna Schygulla, who played Amir’s equivalent in ’72.)

The original screen Bitter Tears was a theatrically-stylized, cruelly-ruthless dissection of relationship power dynamics—always either sadistic or masochistic, though sometimes roles were flipped. It was a key work in Fassbinder’s artistic evolution and public recognition, even if it largely went undiscovered till Schygulla vehicle The Marriage of Maria Braun made them both internationally famous towards the decade’s end. (Tears wasn’t even released in the US until four years after its festival premiere.) Like Kieslowski, RWF died at a career peak, although in his case leaving behind such a trail of self-destructive scandal that his cult of personality has only grown since that death 40 years ago, at just 37. He himself been dramatized many times already, including in his own thinly-veiled Beware the Holy Whore, former collaborator Eva Mattes’ crossdress showcase A Man Like Eva, Gary Indiana’s roman à clef novel Gone Tomorrow, and a recent, rather awful film duly titled Enfant Terrible.

If Bitter Tears is chilly tragedy, Peter von Kant is closer to hot farce—Ozon treats his Fassbinder manque like a drag queen impersonation of a Golden Age Hollywood diva in a tearjerker, endlessly high on his own histrionic emotions. He is vain and insecure, imperious and self-pitying, a bottomless pit of need who constantly pushes away those he claims to love. Almost entirely confined (like the original) to the title character’s spacious abode, this is relatively minor Ozon, in which he seems more concerned with amusing himself than with entertaining the audience (or any Big Ideas). Even the film’s poster is an in-joke, a play on Andy Warhol’s famous one for Fassbinder’s Querelle. Still, this merry, barbed yet affectionate homage is fun—not something you can always say about his even-more-prolific idol’s ouevre. It opens Fri/2 at Bay Area theaters including the Opera Plaza.

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