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Monday, February 6, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: A lost local '90s gem finally gets...

Screen Grabs: A lost local ’90s gem finally gets a revival

Plus: A Lebanese all-woman rock band doc, the return of Dario Argento and Claire Denis, and 'All Quiet on the Western Front"

My first visit to Park City, Utah 25 years ago was memorable for a lot of reasons, including providing a couple candidates for all-time favorite and worst Sundance Film Festival feature that have maintained prominent headspace all this time. The nadir was something called Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest, an attempt at surreal Eurotrash whimsy involving fashion-model “actors,” Nick Cave, John Cale, homophobic humor, and fussy visuals redolent of its director’s resume in music videos and advertising campaigns. I don’t think it ever actually got released.

The zenith was another first directorial feature, one that effortlessly had all the hipster cred the aforementioned effort strained for. Oakland native Finn Taylor’s Dream With the Fishes was an autobiographically inspired fiction about a nerdy, withdrawn loner (David Arquette) who makes a deal with a stranger (Brad Hunt) who stops him committing suicide. It’s a macabre arrangement between a man who wants to die and another who doesn’t want to (but is terminally ill, it turns out), one that somewhat inadvertently lends them both a new lease on life.

That outline might sound like a recipe for cutesy inspirational schmaltz. But Dream With the Fishes was—still is—slyly funny, mordant, surprising, and ultimately touching in ways that never feel sentimental. It combined the raffishness of ’70s movies by Robert Altman and Ivan Passer with a ’90s indie-rock sensibility, while distilling something unique about both San Francisco and weed-growing redwood country at the time. It was a moderate success on the arthouse circuit, though the main collaborators’ careers did not go in an ascendant direction that might have kept drawing new viewers to a film with a small cult following.

Ergo it’s rather unexpected good news that Taylor’s first and still-best effort as writer-director is getting a deluxe anniversary celebration at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael this Mon/17. Not just Taylor and producer Mitchell Stein will be there, but cast members Arquette, Hunt, Kathryn Erbe, Cathy Moriarty, and Patrick McGaw, plus cinematographer Barry Stone and music supervisor Charles Raggio, all of whom did exceptional work on it.

They’re apparently reuniting for the first time in a quarter-century, long enough for me to marvel that back then I apparently smoked enough to actually require a mid-movie break. Sneaking into the frigid cold outside the Yarrow Hotel for a couple minutes, I found myself sharing an ashtray with erstwhile Raging Bull star Moriarty, who in her distinctive Bronx voice asked of the film premiering inside, “It’s funny, innit?” Yes, it is. For full info on the Rafael event, go here.

More adventuresome filmmaking from the Bay Area and beyond can be found in the last two current programs in a Roxie series from Canyon Cinema Discovered, a fellowship opportunity for guest curators to create exhibition bills from that fabled SF-based distributor’s enormous backlog of independent and avant-garde works. Showing at the theater this Sun/16 is Trajectories of Self-Determination: Experimental Cinema’s Embrace of Jazz (more info here), in which Juan Carlos Kase pulls together shorts by Bruce Baillie, Harry Smith, Julie Dash and others that go back as far as 1957; and Chrystel Oloukoi’s Playing in the Dark: Watery Experiments (more info here), whose aquatic miniatures span four decades, as well as creative origins from Senegal to Canada. The former program is also available for streaming via Canyon Cinema Connects on Sat/16-October 22, the latter October 23-29.

Among new films opening this Friday:

All Quiet on the Western Front
For a fairly brief period between the First and Second World Wars, there was a renaissance of antiwar messages in art. No example was more prominent than German veteran Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, a decidedly unheroic depiction of the horrors both physical and psychological experienced by soldiers like himself during the long, catastrophic “Great War.” Its international impact, and the not-especially-flattering portrait of postwar German society in his later books, got him denounced by the Nazis as early as 1933. As a result, his books were banned in Germany, and he was accused of being secretly Jewish and not a “real” WWI veteran (both falsehoods). While he fled to Switzerland, then the US, in exile, a younger sister left behind was executed for purported treason.

Somewhat surprisingly given its classic status, All Quiet has only been filmed before twice, both times in English-language Hollywood productions—in 1930 as one of the most highly regarded early talkies, then as a well-received TV movie in 1979. This latest, directed by Edward Berger, is the first in German. Our protagonist Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) is a teenager pumped full of patriotic fervor at school, who enlists with his like-minded classmates in 1917—seemingly unaware of the brutal casualty toll exacted in the conflict’s three years to date, let alone of his “side” already fairly certain to be the losing one. Needless to say, disillusionment fast ensues in the trenches, where the traditional horrors of war are only heightened by new technologies (armored tanks, flamethrowers, etc.).

Berger’s 150-minute film makes full use of current filmmaking technologies, including drone shots and CGI, to aesthetically striking ends. But unlike recent acclaimed period war movies like 1917 or Dunkirk, the aim here isn’t exciting action-adventure, but combat as hellscape in which we’re very aware of the individual human element. There are moments of humor here, and a real warmth in camaraderie. But the main effect is of constant, cruel, pointless, and tragic loss.

This All Quiet has the impressive scale of those other films, but also the emotional depths of 2017’s smaller-scaled, very fine Journey’s End, another WW1-set remake regrettably few people saw. If not for the lack of marquee stars (Daniel Bruhl is the only “name,” cast as a real-life armistice negotiator) and the movie’s going to Netflix on October 28, it would likely be a major year-end awards contender. It’s certainly worth seeing on the big screen while you can, though the only local option is SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas, where it opens Fri/14.

Sirens 
Likewise under the thumb of a government’s heavy-handed policies, albeit in very different ways, are the protagonists of Rita Baghdadi’s documentary. Five-piece Slave to Sirens are “Lebanon’s first all-female metal band,” a designation that may be an attractive novelty abroad. But at home, it tends to get them targeted as sluts, Satanists, et al. by both Christians and Muslims in a beleaguered nation whose woes get largely addressed by applications of religious belief. Speaking out on LGBTQ+ rights, or anything else, invites death threats and canceled concerts. “Since the day my grandparents are born, this country is fucked up,” one member says. “Anytime a woman wants to be something other than what society wants, it’s always an issue… We’re living in this cycle of fear, and our band is the only outlet for us.”

Sirens charts the group’s professional and personal struggles over a stretch that also encompasses mass political protests, the catastrophic Beirut port explosion of 2020, and other larger events. They manage to play some overseas gigs, but also nearly break up over tensions between co-leaders Lilas and Shery. I’d have liked to hear more of their music, with its very tight thrashy sound—but the film ultimately rewards in its decision to focus more on the personal and the political. It opens at the Roxie Fri/14.

Strange Bedfellows: Denis, Meet Dario
The week also brings new narrative features from two fabled directors who are near-contemporaries, even if her directorial debut feature (1988’s Chocolat, not to be confused with the later Johnny Depp film) came along nearly two decades after his (1970’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage). Neither are among their best works, but it’s cheering that both are still plugging away while pushing and/or past age 80.

French writer-director Claire Denis remains prolific; her last effort, triangle drama Both Sides of the Blade, opened here just three months ago. Stars at Noon is likewise a prickly love story of sorts, based on a 1986 Denis Johnson novel. Trish (Margaret Qualley) is an American in Managua, Nicaragua, ostensibly a journalist but mostly getting along by turning tricks, with a couple variously placed “protectors” as regulars. Political unrest has heightened her desire to get the hell outta here, though financial and passport snafus render that problematic. She spies a potential helpmate in visiting Brit Daniel (Joe Alwyn), who’s supposedly here on behalf of a foreign oil company. But both of them seem to be of hostile interest to local authorities, as well as CIA agents and others, eventually forcing a dual attempt to flee to Costa Rica.

The late Johnson’s writing traded in ambiguities that were intriguing and evocative. Those turn pretentiously vague here—unhelped by Denis’ decision to reset the story from the Sandinista era to today. That makes the political context murkier, particularly as we never get a clear sense of who these people are, or why they’re in trouble. Worse, we can’t quite believe in their bond, or even their amply illustrated sexual chemistry: She’s a pretty but obnoxious Ugly American, and he’s a comparatively genteel blank. The film’s meandering 137 minutes lack tension, despite the threat of violence. It all ends up seeming like The Constant Gardener minus the compelling characters, plotting, or actors, albeit with an Under the Volcano-esque quantity of alcohol imbibed. Still, even a misfire from Denis has its idiosyncratic points of interest. Stars at Noon opens Fri/14 at the Opera Plaza and Roxie.

Italian horror great Dario Argento hasn’t made a good movie in at least 20 years (arguably much longer), and the new Dark Glasses isn’t one, either. Nonetheless, his first film in a decade is better than he’s managed in some time, as well as a throwback to the gialli he built his career on in the 1970s, and which gory-murder-mystery genre has surged in revival popularity of late. (In fact the Roxie, where Argento’s latest opens Fri/14, commences its annual retro Gialloween showcase next week, when we’ll cover its selections.)

Diana (Ilenia Pastorelli) is another prostitute heroine. As such she’s targeted by a serial killer who’s already claimed three lives amongst Rome’s practitioners of the “oldest profession.” Fleeing that perp results in a collision that leaves her blinded, while it also orphans a young boy (Andrea Zhang) in another car. Both survivors, plus Asia Argento as a mobility & orientation instructor for the visually impaired, are soon stalked anew by the bad guy.

Somewhat clumsy and silly (there a particularly ridiculous sequence involving water snakes), Dark Glasses is poorly written—never this director’s strong suit—and it lacks the elegance of staging that used to distinguish his homicidal sequences. Still, it’s fast-paced, with a feel of firmer artistic control than such weak semi-recent Argento joints as Dracula 3D or Mother of Tears. Taken as an homage to his own celluloid past, it offers enough familiarity and fun to satisfy nostalgic horror fans.

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