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Friday, December 8, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: From Harry Styles to Predator, via Pasolini...

Screen Grabs: From Harry Styles to Predator, via Pasolini and the UN—what a weekend

Wild and twisty tales from Russia and Korea, an homage to an experimental curator, Emmett Till's mother, more movies

There are a number of special film events of varying duration happening or opening this week. The longest is BAMPFA’s five-week Pier Paolo Pasolini series, running Sat/22 through Nov. 27. following on the heels of the single-day tribute at the Castro last month, it offers a more expansive view of the late great Italian’s screen work, from his early neo-realist exercises Accatone and Mamma Roma to 1964’s acclaimed The Gospel According to St. Matthew (which had even the Vatican applauding a gay Marxist’s Biblical vision), the surreal 1966 comedy The Hawks and the Sparrows, and 1968’s provocative allegory Teorema.

It also includes his entire folkloric trilogy of The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and 1974’s splendid Arabian Nights. For full info, go here.

Spanning eleven days from Thurs/20 through Sun/30 is the latest edition of the United Nations Association Film Festival, now in its 25th year. As usual, the program will provide an array of documentaries addressing human rights issues around the world, its sixty current selections encompassing pressing political, environmental, and minority concerns from Afghanistan to the Ukraine. One of the subjects interviewed in closing night selection The Janes is Dorothy Fadiman, who will also receive the UNAFF Visionary Award. She’s a filmmaker whose 2004 When Abortion Was Legal: Untold Stories showed (like Sundance-premiered The Janes) the harsh realities of life before Roe v. Wade—a reality we now seem to be returning to. A majority of screenings will take place at Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park Community Center, with single-date events also at Stanford University and SF’s Roxie Theater. For full info, go here.

In a more avant-garde vein, San Francisco Cinematheque is presenting Experimental Curator: The Sally Dixon Story at Gray Area this Sun/23. Brigid Maher’s new hour-long documentary is a portrait of the longtime programmer at venues like the Carnegie Museum of Art. In that and other ways she championed work by such luminaries as Marie Menken, James Broughton, Bruce Baillie, Stan Brakhage and the Kuchars. This evening (with Maher in person) will also include screenings of Broughton’s 1976 Erogeny, Roger Jacoby’s 1974 Dream Sphinx, and Storm De Hirsh’s 1968 Third Eye Butterfly. Full info here.

Another career tribute is at Artists Television Access the prior night, Sat/22, as Other Cinema presents a Magick/Cirkus Gala bill of vintage circus, carny, sideshow et al. clips to celebrate the launch of Carl Diehl’s new publication about his great-uncle Werner Dornfield. The latter was billed as “America’s Most Entertaining Magician,” purveying sleight-of-hand tricks in trad white-tie tux. A video provides insight into “Dormy’s” association with Houdini, and other wild tales as recounted by historians and fellow performers. Info here.

On a splashier and trashier level, Sat/22 Movies for Maniacs presents 35mm prints from the studio vault of John McTiernan’s original 1987 sleeper sci-fi action hit Predator, with Arnold S., and Stephen Hopkins’ 1990 Predator 2, a notable hot mess in which those deadly Rastafarians from space terrorize all Los Angeles, including residents Danny Glover, Gary Busey, Ruben Blades, Bill Paxton, and Morton Downey Jr. The Castro Theatre evening starts at 6 pm; full info here

In terms of new commercial releases, this Friday brings a quartet of heavyweight prestige dramas from the US, UK, Korea and Russia.

While the groundwork had been laid for decades, one of the biggest single spurs to the 1960s Civil Rights Movements was the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager visiting relatives in rural Mississippi. Somehow he offended a white woman behind the counter of a grocery store—what happened remains disputed, and what she claimed in court was very likely a grossly exaggerated fiction. Her grievance led to his being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night several days later. He was beaten, tortured, shot in the head, and his body thrown from a bridge into a river.

The case might well have been “just another” racist lynching in the Jim Crow South, ignored by mainstream media, if Emmett’s mother hadn’t cooperated with the NAACP and others to launch a high-profile crusade for justice. In this dramatization from director Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency), Danielle Deadwyler plays Mamie Till-Mobley, a war widow whose only child is the light of her life—one snuffed out when he fails to return from a trip that worried her before it started. As painted here, Emmett (Jalyn Hall) is an extroverted class-clown type whose only sin is failing to grasp the deep humorlessness, not to mention malevolence, of racist Mississippi whites. Needless to say, their institutions closed ranks in the subsequent trial; justice went unserved, even after the known murderers confessed in a national magazine. Yet thanks to the media attention, 14-year-old Emmett Till’s fate ignited widespread outrage like no lynching before it.

Focusing almost entirely on the mother’s grieving crusade, Chukwu’s film is meticulously crafted, and undeniable powerful—ditto Deadwyler’s performance, which is practically the whole show here. At the same time, this is one of those movies so weighted by the importance of its subject, it becomes a kind of inspirational dirge, striking the same notes of maternal torment and nobility over and over again. Even before her son has left Chicago, Deadwyler’s heroine and the movie itself are laden with gloomy foreboding. Till is strong stuff, but it might have been even more moving and less medicinal in effect if its 130 minutes were a bit less narrowly focused. It opens in Bay Area theaters this Fri/21.

Decision to Leave
Contrastingly, there’s arguably too much narrative and character sprawl in the even-longer latest by Park Chan-wook, the South Korean writer-director who’s had an almost unbroken string of critical and commercial successes this millennium, including OldboyLady VengeanceThirst, and The Handmaiden. This first feature since 2016 (in the interim he did the English-language miniseries The Little Drummer Girl) is characteristically full of twisty plotting, structural tricks and abrupt mood shifts. But while I very much liked his prior efforts, this one was complicated to a rather off-putting degree for me.

A Busan businessman who dies in an apparent mountain-climbing accident is investigated by a policeman (Park Hae-il) who grows infatuated with the Chinese-emigre widow (Tang Wei), despite increasing evidence that she is a not-so-innocent party. This despite the cop having a loving wife of his own (Lee Jung-hyun) that he already neglects, as they work in different cities and thus have a “weekend marriage.” Midway through, that changes, but his obsession does not, as his staff at a different police precinct investigate another fatality connected to this “unlucky” lady.

It’s a classic noirish “femme fatale” premise Park presents in much more ambiguous terms, committing to no particular genre or tone. His craftsmanship is impeccable as always, and others have found this puzzle-box fascinating. But intriguing as it is, I found the story too confusing, and the leading figures’ supposed passion too remote, for the end result to feel all that rewarding. Decision to Leave opens at the Alamo Drafthouse Fri/21.

Petrov’s Flu
Still, Park’s cloudy ambition is a model of restraint next to the unfettered phantasmagoria of this 145-minute whatsit by director Kirill Serebrennikov, a Russian director-designer best known for his theater work, and whose political stances have not endeared him to the Putin regime. (On the other hand, his speech after a different film’s Cannes premiere irked critics of Russia’s war on Ukraine, including Agnieszka Holland.) Petrov’s Flu is somewhat reminiscent of the late Aleksei German’s carnivalesque movies like Khrustalyov, My Car!, and Hard to Be a God, though you could say their shared, careening, surreally comedic indictments of society as a kind of madhouse go back at least as far as Gogol and Dostoyevsky.

Our titular protagonist (Semyon Serzin) is sick, literally and no doubt metaphorically. No wonder, since everything around him in Yekaterinburg (a city in the nation’s remote east, near Siberia) is toxic: His ruined marriage, the frustrated-writer friend (musician Ivan Dorn) who begs help in committing suicide, the other friends constantly dragging him into drunken and/or violent hijinks; the numbskull nationalism and xenophobia from men’s mouths, the apparent tendency of every woman to be a harridan. Feverish, exhausted, Petrov keeps slipping into fantasies and hallucinations he can barely separate from reality (nor can we). He’s not the only one: His fed-up librarian ex-spouse (Chulpan Khamatova) dreams of grisly homicidal vengeance against the louts constantly littering her path—and we’re not entirely sure that’s just wishful thinking, either.

Based on a novel by Alexey Salnikov, Petrov’s Flu nonetheless has a stream-of-consciousness quality. There’s almost nothing it won’t throw into the mix: From animation to sci-fi to a long B&W section, not to mention numerous sex scenes and a fair number of performers who seem to yell their entire roles. It’s a ride, all right, though you may find this journey sans finite destination more arbitrary than exhilarating. I love a lot of Russian cinema, literature, etc. But Flu isn’t the first time I saw a major work and thought “Maybe you need to be Russian to grok this.” It opens Fri/21 at the Roxie.

My Policeman
A much more straightforward literary adaptation is this second feature by Michael Grandage, who’s had a long career as a highly respected stage director. Based on Bethan Robert’s acclaimed 2012 novel, it’s a Carol-like portrait of gay life in stiflingly repressive era. In 1950s Brighton, museum curator Patrick (David Dawson) forms a tightknit social trio with policeman Tom (Harry Styles) and schoolteacher Marion (Emma Corrin).

The latter two are dating, and eventually marry. She does not realize that the two men are already in a love relationship with one another. Needless to say, when the secret finally “comes out,” the consequences are disastrous. Forty years later (in sequences woven throughout), the three reunite: Only now Patrick (Rupert Everett) is a stroke-hobbled invalid taken in by Marion (Gina McKee), over the fierce objections of Tom (Linus Roache), who remains steeped in another era’s angry homophobic self-denial.

Pop superstar Styles has been raked over the coals in some quarters for his near-simultaneous first leading film roles in this and Don’t Worry Darling.(A part in Dunkirk five years ago just kinda vanished into the ensemble.) I think he’s perfectly OK in both, his celebrity status perhaps drawing undue criticism more aptly directed at the films themselves. Darling is a conceptual misfire, for sure, though rather surprisingly it wasn’t a commercial flop.

My Policeman disappoints in a more modest way. It works on its own tasteful, tearjerking terms, with strong performances all around. But like more than a few bold theater talents before him, Grandage evinces surprisingly little knack for this different medium. This movie has a prestige TV feel, more well-appointed than stylish, respectful and a bit pedestrian in its storytelling. Opening theatrically this Fri/21, it will lose nothing being seen at home once it begins streaming on Amazon Prime Nov. 4.

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