This weekend’s few new releases are almost entirely franchise sequels or formulaic genre exercises, as usual. Even moderate creative risk-taking has become so discouraged in the commercial mainstream that it now seems terribly impressive when anyone builds an actual filmmaking career resisting that current. Fortunately, the week also brings several impressive models for such creative independence, new features as well as retrospectives showcasing veteran directorial iconoclasts.
Certainly among the most singular talents to emerge onscreen in the 21st century to date is that of the Thai master being celebrated in “Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cinema of Now,” which runs at BAMPFA in Berkeley this Fri/10-May 12. Beyond the ten features being shown over that span, and a concurrent installation “(Morakot [Emerald])” at Berkeley Art Museum, he’ll also hold a masterclass on April 7, and lecture on April 11. After studying architecture, he got an MFA in filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which may partly explain why his films seem particularly attuned to physical space and influenced by the avant-garde—as well as Buddhism, among other things.
While he got some attention for a few prior endeavors, it was 2004’s Cannes prize-winner Tropical Malady that introduced him to a wider (if still rarefied) international audience. Indeed, that magically strange mix of implied romantic attraction between two men and mystic happenings in a jungle—with only minimal connection between the two elements—may remain his most indelible achievement. Of course, that’s a matter of taste. Almost any one of Weerasethakul’s films might strike you as profoundly hypnotic or watching-paint dry, perhaps dependent on your own mood as much as anything. They’re poetical, playful, with cryptic narratives often dealing in the fantastical in a disarmingly everyday, non-hyperbolic fashion. For more info on the series, go here.
Also straddling the gallery and cinema, plus other media, is the subject of another BAMPFA series, “Orchestrating Time: The Films of William Kentridge,” which runs this Thu/9-April 2. (He’s also represented in the museum’s exhibition “Out of Africa: Selections from the Kramlich Collection,” through April 30.) The South African artist has extended the implicitly political, sardonic sensibility of his drawings into designs for stage productions, as well as short animations. The latter will be seen this Sat/11 in Drawings for Projection (which pulls together eleven linked miniatures crafted over 30-plus years). Other programs include the documentary study William Kentridge: Anything Is Possible (Thu/9), Short Films By William Kentridge: Variations (Sat/25), and films of three of his opera stagings: Shostakovich’s The Nose (Thu/16), Berg’s Lulu (Sun/26), and Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Sun/2)—not to be confused with the CGI-cluttered mainstream mall-flick fantasy of that name opening this weekend. For info on the whole series, go here.
The Roxie is in the middle of a short “Wims of Desire” retrospective for Wim Wenders. He was a leader in the New German Cinema movement of the 1970s, an international arthouse giant in the 1980s, then a figure of diminishing interest—some excellent documentaries including Pina, Buena Vista Social Club, and The Salt of the Earth aside—ever since. Already played (though reprising again on Wed/15) is 1987’s Wings of Desire, that ultimate existential arthouse date movie, which revealed a romanticism previously little-detected in either director or his frequent writing collaborator Peter Handke. It certainly wasn’t there in the duo’s 1972 The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, adapted from Handke’s novel, which plays Sat/18.
But you could argue its arrival was portended in a way by 1984’s Paris, Texas, where the rural Americana of his European cinephile dreams was abetted by Robby Muller’s location photography, Ry Cooder’s score, and scenarist Sam Shepard’s taste for family melodrama. With Harry Dean Stanton as a drifter running away from, then toward, his country-ballad-like past—which takes the form of improbable Texan Nastassja Kinski—this still seems to me, 40 years later, a movie about “America” more easily swallowed by non-natives. But it is authentic in its idiosyncrasy, at the very least. It opens at the Roxie Sat/11.
At the same time Wenders was fetishizing the dusty West, underground NYC filmmakers’ “Cinema of Transgression” movement was traveling fast in a very different direction. Along with Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, David Wojnarowicz, and others, stars of that scene were Scott and Beth B, who like the others started out making 8mm shorts of deliberately shocking (if also snarky) content, drawing on talent in the overlapping punk and No Wave music worlds. When they broke up as a creative and marital couple, Beth went on to the more substantial solo screen career.
Metrograph At Home (the streaming dimension of the two-screen Lower East Side theater) takes the measure of that career in “Sex, Power, and Money: Films by Beth B,” a retrospective of the “downtown filmmaking legend” that starts this Fri/10. In runs a gamut from scarifying early works with Scott B (like 1978’s Black Box) to documentaries about drag performance (1994’s High Heel Nights), Vietnam veterans (2001’s Breathe In, Breathe Out) and more, plus narrative features that variously parody televangelism (1987’s Salvation!) and probe institutionalized gender power dynamics (1993’s Two Small Bodies). Many of her projects have involved the inimitable Lydia Lunch, whose own career kicking against the pricks in various art forms was surveyed in Beth B’s 2002 Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over (which we reviewed back then here.) For info on and access to the entire series, go here.
There are also a couple new movies (and one rare oldie) serving up their own singular visions at local theaters:
Spanish comic book artist Albert Vazquez made one of the great animated features of recent years with 2015’s Birdboy: The Forgotten Children, adapted from his 2006 graphic novel Psychonauts. In its weird, visually arresting, cruel-yet-poignant mix of critter cuteness and dystopian hellscape, it was a subversive fantasy of unusual, resonant complexity. Very much in the same vein—sometimes a little too much so—is this second feature from Vasquez, which similarly very much looks like something “for kids,” then turns out to really, really not be.
It opens with Bambi-like scenes of idyllic forest life, soon to be darkened by our fawn heroine Maria losing her unicorn mother in circumstances considerably more grotesque than Felix Salten ever imagined. Meanwhile at “Love Camp,” whose motto is “Honor—Pain—Cuddles,” adorable teddy bears are put through a rigorous training of military zeal and religious hypocrisy by one Sgt. Ironstroke. They’re unaware they’ll soon be cannon fodder in a never-ending “holy war” being waged against the denizens of the “magic forest.” When these fuzzy recruits get duly dispatched to that terrain, things grow hallucinogenic, then gory, in a hurry.
Vasquez has nothing less in mind than a parable about man’s terminal penchant for aggression (and fascism) through the ages … as acted out by pastel-colored teddies and very sharp-horned unicorns in a forest that’s all Avatar colors, sea-green, and fuchsia. Outrageous as that sounds, it somehow feels a little less original than Birdboy, with a mite too much conceptual overlap. Still, this Care Bears versus My Little Pony version of Apocalypse Now should not be missed by anyone with an interest in animation whose adventurousness falls well outside Pixar’s boundaries. Unicorn Wars opens Fri/10 at SF’s Roxie Theater, and is also available On Demand from GKids.
Likewise mixing the seemingly sweet with the dyspeptically sour—albeit more in a Donnie Darko kinda way, minus the vague undercurrent of horror—is Colin West’s sophomore feature, an intriguingly offbeat seriocomedy on the edge of fantasy. Astronomer Cameron (Jim Gaffigan) is the goofy Bill Nye-like host of a children’s science show on which he explains things like air pressure, gravity, and entropy.
But at home, things are considerably less cheerful: His wife (Rhea Seehorn) is disappointed with how both her career and his own have turned out, while teenage daughter (Katelyn Nacon) is a misfit whose new friend (Gabriel Rush) is the son of the astronaut who’s moved here to take Cam’s job. When space junk lands in the family’s suburban backyard, he decides to build his own rocket—another crazy idea likely to go nowhere. But the way reality increasingly seems to warp here, it begins to look like somebody might achieve liftoff, one way or another.
This odd, depressive, spacey, slightly surreal comedy can seem a frail whimsy at risk of overstaying its welcome. Still, it is headed somewhere, towards a pulling-the-rug-out resolution that may strike you as inspired and/or too gimmicky, but which nonetheless does neatly recontextualize everything before it. I didn’t completely love this elaborate construct. Plenty of people will, however, and Linoleum does impress with its conceptual ambition and distinctively soft-boiled absurdist tone. It opens at the Opera Plaza on Fri/10.
I Like Bats
For all I know, actor and TV director Grzegorz Warchol’s sole theatrical feature may have been the Donnie Darko of later-20th-century Poland, a repeat-watch cult hit. But it never surfaced on my radar before Alamo Drafthouse’s screening this coming Tue/14. The newly restored 1986 film has Katarzyna Walter as Isabella, a beauteous blonde working at her maiden aunt’s shop in a quaint town whose nocturnal serial killer she’s not very concerned about. Well, no wonder: Isabella is the culprit, and a vampire to boot, though no one is inclined to believe her. Not even the doctor (Marek Barbasiewicz as “Professor Jung”) whose sanatorium she checks herself into for a cure.
Like films of the Eastern European New Wave a couple decades earlier, I Like Bats uses lurid genre elements in a primarily comedic way, its antic approach underlined by surreal gags and garish colors. It also reflects ’80s music-video aesthetics in a sort of New Wave gothicism not too distant from, say, Shock Treatment—minus the songs, but with a similar cocktail of camp and kink. Fun if unmemorable, it sure is a whole lot better as a hip goof than 1973’s Son of Dracula, which managed to be near-unwatchable despite starring personages no less than Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson.