This weekend brings brief SF residencies for two notable LA-based auteurs who can be counted on to surprise and amuse. The Film on Film Foundation, Canyon Cinema, and SF Cinematheque are bringing up Alee Peoples, who works in various media but will be here with her “complete body of 16mm films” at the Roxie on Sat/6 and Sun/7.
She began making experimental shorts in 2006 (initially on Super 8), and their diverse range since has some through-lines in terms of employing archival footage, vividly surreal new images, and a DJ’s fondness for manipulating classic song samples. Whether touching on taco worship, the history of the mohawk ‘do, or exuberance on a swingset, these playful collages have a singular sense of humor. More info here.
Humor is what magnetizes a substantial cult audience to onetime San Franciscan Tommy Wiseau, even if at the start it seemed to be mostly at his expense. Now 20 years old, his writing-starring-directing-producing debut The Room became the Rocky Horror (or perhaps Reefer Madness) of millennials, who developed a whole roster of participatory rituals to accompany its flabbergastingly “off” screen dramatics—which are like an earnest yuppie take on Arthur Milleresque soul searching, as conceived by a space alien with very little grasp on ordinary human behavior.
It is still like nothing else, not even other bizarro one-off vanity projects. When it began accruing a following that probably wasn’t quite the respectfully admiring kind he’d had in mind, he gamely began calling it a “black comedy” and doing personal appearances, which became a career in itself.
It has taken two full decades for him to complete a second feature, the tongue-in-cheek horror Big Shark, a New Orleans-set joint that looks like Sharknado meets Birdemic. That, The Room, and the man himself will all be at the Balboa for multiple showings all weekend, Fri/5-Sun7. More info here.
In terms of regular new releases, there’s Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and a couple mainstream romcoms arriving at the multiplexes. But the more interesting titles are all international, from well-separated places scattered around the eastern hemisphere:
A quaint-looking village in rural Transylvania might not be the first place you’d expect a dissection of global-economy woes and xenophobic/anti-immigrant trends to be set. But that indeed turns out—eventually—to be the gist of this latest by Cristian Mungiu, who 15 years ago made 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Set in the last days of Romania’s dystopian Communist rule, it was one of the most grimly forceful pro-choice dramas ever made anywhere, depicting in nightmarish terms the travails of seeking an illegal abortion.
The ghost of Ceausescu no longer seems to linger over lives in the picturesque town here, though the transition from isolationism to market capitalism has left its own painful marks. For one thing, many natives must work abroad to make living wages, like burly, bearded Matthias (Marin Grigore)—though at the start, he blows his job in Germany by hitting a supervisor who calls him a “fucking lazy Gypsy.” Returning home, he gets a wary welcome from wife Ana (Macrina Barladeanu), who hasn’t missed this taciturn, macho spouse much, and is not very helpful in dealing with 5-year-old Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), who’s been traumatized by something in the woods he refuses to explain.
Carnally, at least, Matthias is more interested in reuniting with ex-lover Csilla (Judith Slate), who’s second-in-command to owner Mrs. Denes (Orsolya Moldovan) at the bread factory that is now the major local employer. It does not pay well enough to attract many residents, however. This forces management to hire a few Sri Lankan guest workers in order to expand sufficiently to qualify for EU investment funds. Those men could not be nicer. But to townies, they are unwanted aliens with dark skin and scary “Muslim terrorist” associations—never mind that they aren’t even Muslims, or that the jobs they’ve taken no one here wanted. Grumbling turns to verbal threats, then potential mob violence, culminating in a single nearly 20-minute shot of a tumultuous town hall meeting—something much more compelling to watch than it sounds.
Matthias ultimately proves somewhat superfluous to the important matters here, and the surreal ending is bizarre. Mungiu does not score the kind of bulls-eye he managed with his last film Graduation, a brilliantly orchestrated intrigue of entrenched institutional corruption. R.M.N. feels more unruly in its ambitions, but it is also visually impressive, consistently engaging, and absorbing even in its unanswered mysteries. It opens Fri/5 at the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center.
Thirty-plus years after the fall of the Soviet bloc, Mungiu’s Romanians don’t have much time for navel-gazing—the outer world and its economics are too pressing. That is not the case in Walk Up, which opens at the Roxie this Fri/5, or for that matter in prolific veteran South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo’s films in general. His milieu is the low-key comedy of those too self-absorbed to ever be much good to one another, their conflicts playing out in the strained politeness of sustained medium-shots.
Here, Kwon Hae-hyo plays a presumed caustic stand-in for the director himself. Byung-soo is a famous filmmaker introduced visiting old friend Ms. Kim (Lee Hye-young) for the first time in years, at the Seoul building she owns and lives in. Were they lovers once? Hard to tell. In any case, she’s so excited by his presence that she offers him the rooftop dwelling for little or no rent. He does move in, and commence a romance—albeit with another resident. By the end, as years pass by unmarked, his vanity, self-pity and passive wearing out of relationships (including with his own daughter) has taken its toll on his health and career. It’s also gradually turned his dynamic with Mrs. Kim from mutual admiration to classic stubborn landlord/undesirable tenant adversity.
Walk Up is in B&W, which adds to its air of minimalist drollery. I’ll admit, after many tries, Hong’s peculiar, personal, very consistent cinema still doesn’t do much for me. The nuances and depth others perceive never quite pull me in, resulting in a sum impact that always feels a bit insubstantial. But this complexly structured seriocomedy does keep one intrigued, and will no doubt be rapturously received by the director’s fanbase. It opens at the Roxie Fri/5.
Other People’s Children
The motivations and emotions that remain teasingly less than clear in Walk Up are right there on the surface in this French film by Rebecca Zlotowski. It starts out with a view of the Eiffel Tower at night—suggesting we’re about to get a straight-up swoony romance. It looks that way for a while, too, as vocational high school teacher Rachel (Virginie Efira) falls in love with car designer Ali (Roschdy Zem). Then she falls in love with his 5-year-old daughter Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), whose custody he shares with the wife (Chiara Mastroianni) from whom he’s separated.
Rachel’s biological clock is ticking, and she worries this fragile alliance might be her last chance at parenting—even if it’s not really “her” child. There are also subplots involving a problematic student (Victor Lefebvre), a mother who becomes terminally ill (Anne Berest), a sister (Yamee Couture) whose unwanted pregnancy contrasts with our heroine’s desperate desire for the same, and more.
You know it’s a French movie when everybody smokes at the dinner table, and nudity seems both gratuitous and nonchalant. OPC is confidently crafted and well-cast, with moments of poignant insight—I particularly liked the way the fate turned out for the troubled student. But as it moves from rom-com to tear-jerking territory, the film begins to seem soap-operatic, too contrived and superficial to have the resonance intended. As Gallic as this movie is in details, it is not a compliment to say that its story could just as well be re-set in a glossy Hollywood take on, say, Chicago, and recast with someone like Sarah Jessica Parker. It opens Fri/5 at the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center.