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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Transgender Film Fest celebrates 25 eye-opening years

Screen Grabs: Transgender Film Fest celebrates 25 eye-opening years

Plus: Canadian legends in 'Moments of Perception,' Housewife Aryan Nation in 'Soft & Quiet,' Jennifer Lawrence in 'Causeway,' more

It’s another week filled with special film events and series, the largest being the 26th annual Arab Film Festival November 11-20, which we’ll preview later in the week. Also opening Friday (through November 17) is the Tiburon International Film Festival, now in its 21st year. Taking as motto “Understanding The World Through Films,” this Marin showcase’s 2022 edition will encompass shorts and features from 22 nations, with emphasis on under-radar discoveries—nearby Mill Valley’s festival a few weeks prior has the higher-profile Oscar bait titles pretty well covered. For full program and schedule info, go here.

Thu/10 brings the arrival of several smaller-scaled, more precisely focused events. Now a quarter-century old, the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival offers two programs this Thursday and Friday onscreen at the Roxie, both also available for streaming November 14-20. Five additional programs will be viewable On Demand only (some just at a designated time, some during the festival’s entire span) through November 20.

There will be over 40 titles on tap, running a wide gamut of narrative, documentary, experimental, animation, and other genres from around the world. At a moment when trans rights and alleged “gender ideology” are a focus of more politicized heat than ever, this should be a particularly good year to dive into SFTFF’s positive representational diversity. For full info, go here.

David Rimmer’s ‘Variations on. a Cellophane Wrapper’ from ‘Moments of Perception’

This week also brings two separate, non-overlapping programs marking the recent publication of the book Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada, whose co-editor Jim Shedden will appear at both. BAMPFA’s bill on Wed/9 (more info here) has him presenting four landmark works from the late 1960s, including ones by Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow. The next night, SF Cinematheque will host “Random Canadian Moments” at Oakland’s Shapeshifters Cinema (more info here). Shedden’s selection there spans the last four decades of avant-garde film up north, with Guy Maddin, Eva Kolcze, and Richard Kerr among the makers represented.

If you’re up for something a little more in the realm of pop culture pranksterdom, on Sat/12 Other Cinema at Artists Television Access offers the world premiere of Ryan Worsley’s Stand By For Failure (more info here), a documentary appreciation of longtime Bay Area sonic deconstructionists Negativland. The accompanying “Incredibly Strange Music 3” program will also feature clips from the band’s videos and other “audiovisual oddities.

The same night, Movies for Maniacs provides a 75th birthday tribute to Stephen King (more info here) via 35mm print projections of two particularly beloved adaptations from his books: Rob Reiner’s family-friendly 1986 Stand By Me, and Brian De Palma’s definitely-not-family-friendly Carrie from a decade prior.

Don’t fret, there are still some regular, commercial new narrative features circulating for your viewing pleasure, including a couple already in limited theatrical release:

Causeway
Stationed in Afghanistan to work on water projects as a US Army engineer, Lynsey is lucky to survive an ambush that claims several of her fellow soldiers’ lives. But the struggle to regain her speech and motor skills is nothing compared to the challenge of returning to a “home” she’d fled years before, since she is still recovering and has no other options. In New Orleans, her perpetual fuckup of a mother (Linda Emond) still lives in the same house where Lynsey spent her unhappy youth; her brother is in prison. Fighting anxiety attacks, she gets a job as a pool cleaner, a solitary gig she finds calming. She also makes a friend in car mechanic James (Brian Tyree Henry), with whom she has things in common—like PTSD from a major trauma.

Stage director Lila Neugebauer’s film debut is the kind of modest, serious-minded drama you want to applaud, and it does work to an extent. Yet the script mistakes sketchiness for tasteful discretion, leaving the main characters mere outlines that the actors are expected to fill in—something Henry manages much better than the usually reliable Lawrence. We never really believe the two leading figures would be friends (and why doesn’t affable, generous James seem to have any other ones?), or grasp why none of these Nawlins natives have a regional accent.

Causeway is gracefully made, and sometimes poignant, with good supporting performances. But it also hasn’t really thought its basic premise or primary personalities through well enough to achieve the depth aimed for, resulting in something that feels like it would have been better as an impressionistic short subject than a 90-minute feature. It’s currently playing theaters as well as streaming on AppleTV+.

Something in the Dirt
Also somewhat protracted at nearly two hours is this latest from writing-directing-producing-starring duo Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, who shot this COVID lockdown project primarily in the latter’s apartment. They play new neighbors in an LA residential complex who find they’re on the same wavelength. And why not, since Levi (Benson) is a registered sex offender—he claims it’s just a misunderstanding, of course—while John (Moorhead) belongs to an “evangelical armageddon church.” One is helping the other move some furniture when they witness a paranormal event of the floating-crystal-ashtray variety. It sets them on a path of paranoia and conspiracy theorizing they are all too willing to traipse all the way down.

This is a goof by the inventive duo, whose prior collaborations (notably excellent The Endless five years ago) were also playful spins on fantasy genre ideas. They stumbled a bit with 2019’s Synchronic, a heavy-handed time travel tale (and their sole movie to date with “name” stars), so Dirt’s conspicuous silliness may be something of a course over-correction. Its deliberately convoluted spoof of Christopher Nolan/X Files-type terrain on a DIY budget is resourceful and amusing to a point, introducing extra meta-narrative layers that subvert the story’s already none-too-steady logic.

Watching these actors riff is entertaining, especially when they give themselves lines like “I might be one of the first people in the universe to taste an interdimensional fruit.” But not for the first time, their ideas start to wear thin before their running time does, making for a fun movie that would be more so were it a half-hour or more shorter. It’s currently playing the Alamo Drafthouse, with VOD release on November 20.

Soft & Quiet
Characters whipping themselves into a paranoid frenzy is a dynamic utilized to more finite ends in writer-director Beth de Araujo’s unpleasantly impactful first feature. Emily (Stefanie Estes) is a grade-school teacher in a leafy, hilly small town that could pass for something in Marin County. Nonetheless, we glimpse a resentment seething beneath her princessy Junior League exterior when she takes silent umbrage at the mere presence of a Latinx janitorial worker.

After work, she hosts the first meeting of an invitation-only “club” designed for local women to support each other through this “multicultural warfare”—their chosen name being Daughters For Aryan Unity. Gulp. It doesn’t take very long for all these terribly “nice” ladies to start spewing bigoted venom, as they seem to blame “other” people for their own loneliness, career hurdles, and any other frustration. One attendee whines a coworker got promoted over her because “she’s brown,” despite their boss explaining “She has better leadership skills.” Another wails “I work paycheck to paycheck!,” as if that weren’t the reality for many Americans, especially non-white ones. A third snipes about the supposed impossibility of trying to get “a loan from a Jew bank.”

Having primed their prejudices to oil-strike pressure by the time they’re kicked out of the church they’ve met in (Emily neglected to tell a furious minister the nature of her “club”), this clutch of soccer-mom Karens is not in a good space to encounter People of Color at a local market. An altercation blows up in a hurry. Then the offended ladies make a terrible decision: To pay a riled-up, “avenging” home visit to the women they just went out of their way to offend. It’s no surprise that this situation escalates from bad to worse to Gone Horribly Wrong.

Crafted in a fashion so it plays like one continuous “real-time” shot, Soft & Quiet might seem a bit caricatured and implausible if it didn’t so vividly illustrate how misdirected anger and a mob mentality can trigger actions individuals would otherwise never dare—and which they will just as quickly come to regret. Our principal characters are pretty loathsome, whether expressing hate, panic or self-pity. Yet they are also recognizable as ordinary people at a collective worst. They are very much like those January 6 insurrectionists who cannot believe they’re being treated as “common criminals”… even though absorbing so much violent rhetoric made made them act exactly as such. Soft & Quiet is currently playing the Lark in Larkspur, while also available for streaming On Demand.

Mandrake
Sisterhood also assumes pretty freakin’ alarming shapes in this strong debut feature from Irish director Lynne Davison, written by Matt Harvey. Probation officer Cathy Madden (Deirdre Mullins) wearily accepts the case of newly released murderess Mary Laidlaw (Derbhle Crotty) when a frightened colleague begs off. She soon realizes why: “Bloody” Mary killed her husband with an axe, but there are even worse rumors about her, which the ex-con does little to allay by flaunting all signs of witchy powers and malevolence. She hasn’t been free a full day before two local children go missing. And when Cathy investigates, she too is yanked against her will into something horrific.

It’s typical for a somewhat upscale, non-cheesy supernatural thriller like this one to pour on the atmospheric buildup, then deliver too little payoff. If anything, however, Mandrake moves too quickly—nasty shit happens fast, and it’s ickier than expected, having a potent impact yet leaving some key narrative points convoluted and murky.

Too bad Something in the Dirt couldn’t forfeit its surplus half hour to this 85-minute feature, which could’ve used the extra space for its rushed narrative to stretch out in. Nonetheless, the excellent performances, astute tension, and queasy atmospherics make Mandrake as disturbing in its (mercifully more fantastical) way as Soft & Quiet, as well as an equally impressive directorial bow. It begins streaming on genre platform Shudder this Thurs/10.

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