It has always surprised me that some people have a tradition of going to the movies after Thanksgiving and/or Christmas dinner—a surprise only because I can’t quite grasp the appeal of shlepping out to a theater while in a food coma. Curling up on the couch to watch something after engorging seems more logical, as well a more forgiving circumstance once you start to snore mid-feature.
In any case, here’s a whirlwind tour through some of the more idiosyncratic new streaming choices, plus a couple re-released old rarities at the Roxie. You probably don’t need reminding of the heavily advertised new mainstream releases available, which encompass a historical epic (Napoleon, which we’ll get to later this week), horror (Eli Roth’s Thanksgiving), the Hunger Games prequel, family animation (Wish, Trolls Band Together).
Worth noting in passing is Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s English-language debut Dream Scenario, whose opening last Friday was announced too late for our deadline purposes. A playful mind-bender in the tradition of Being John Malkovich and The Truman Show, if not quite in their league, it’s got (who else but) Nicolas Cage as a neurotic university science professor. His life takes an inexplicable turn when he begins appearing in other people’s dreams—first passively, then malevolently, disturbing not just family, friends and students but complete strangers far afield. It’s a caustically clever fantasy parable that plays with the notions of “viral” fame and “cancel culture,” though in the end I found it more intriguing as a concept than terribly rewarding in either comedy or insight. Currently playing SF’s Metreon, Kabuki and Alamo Drafthouse theaters, it expands through the Bay Area this Fri/24.
But on to some lesser-sung recent releases:
The Stones and Brian Jones
Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield, whose work can range from the profound to the indulgent and tabloid-y, is back with another dive into celebrity culture that lands squarely in the middle of his ouevre. Which is mostly a good thing—this portrait of the late Rolling Stones’ founder and guitarist is duly narrated by the director, but eschews his more blatant tendencies towards first-person interjection and speculative muckraking.
Jones was a teenage blues aficionado born to a “very posh, very bourgeoise” East Sussex family that strongly disapproved of his career choice, not to mention the long hair and other accoutrements of hippiedom. Initially the band’s leader, he got increasingly lost in alcohol and drugs as its power center shifted to Jagger and Richards—a natural-enough development, since Jones wasn’t a songwriter. He became the first high-profile counterculture casualty of the era, found drowned in his home pool in 1969 at age 27, not long after he’d been ousted from the act for his erratic and unreliable behavior.
There’s not much new intel here (I was a bit shocked to realize just how many famous girlfriends got “passed” from Stone to Stone), and the film doesn’t entirely make the intended case for Jones as some sort of neglected tragic genius. But the mix of vintage concert footage, interviews both new and archival, and other material is inevitably absorbing. There’s also a reminder that fandom had its scary side even back then: Beatlemania may have grabbed the headlines, but as we see here, the Fab Four’s chief “rivals” were also subject to alarming mass hysteria. The Stones and Brian Jones was released to On Demand platforms last Friday.
More Sixties Flashbacks: ‘The Plot Against Harry,’ ‘Rush to Judgment’
Two revivals playing the Roxie this week offer flipsides to the “swinging” decade. Michael Roemer’s Harry is a very special case—an independent B&W comedy that was shot in the late 1960s, then abandoned when no distributor wanted to touch it, finding the results pointless and unfunny. Yet the film’s sensibility was simply ahead of its time, anticipating the bubbling-under ensemble humor of 1970s Robert Altman joints and deadpan 1980s efforts by Jarmusch & co.
Twenty years later, it got rediscovered, finally achieving theatrical release, critical praise, and a slot at Cannes. Still, it hasn’t been seen much since then, so this tale of a low-level Bronx mobster and ex-con getting absorbed into the world of NYC Jewish event catering is a welcome addition to the Roxie calendar, playing Tues/21 and Sun/26 in a co-presentation with the Jewish Film Festival. It’s a droll gem.
Don’t expect any laughs from Emile de Antonio’s Rush to Judgment, a 1967 filmic complement to lawyer Mark Lane’s best-selling book of the prior year. That tome was first serious, widely disseminated attempt to dispute the conclusions of the Warren Commission, which had fingered Lee Harvey Oswald as a lone-actor assassin of President Kennedy. Here Lane himself interviews numerous shooting witnesses and others who poke more holes in the commission’s report than you’d find in a block of Swiss cheese.
They report myriad reasons to doubt the official findings, not least the apparent coziness of the entire Dallas Police Department with Oswald’s own killer Jack Ruby. It is also noted that quite a number of these plainspoken testifiers, many of whom were never even questioned by the government, suffered “strange deaths” within the immediate ensuing years. Hmm. As filmmaking, Rush (whose 4K restoration plays the Roxie and Rafael Film Center on Wed/22, the 60th anniversary of JFK’s death) is dry as dust, a retro-televisual series of talking heads and lectures. But as a disturbing historical artifact, it is invaluable.
Truth and/or Consequences: ‘Relative,’ ‘Cypher’
Two new features play with the documentary form to probe hidden realities—or incorporate conspiratorial fictions. Relative is filmmaker Tracey Arcabasso Smith’s very personal investigation of her own Italian-American family, in which generations of women have endured “inappropriate” behavior from generations of male relatives. Everyone onscreen (some of whose faces get blurred) in the present-day footage admits to some form of physical abuse, from grandmothers to the director herself.
Yet many of them are still making excuses for the men responsible—“brutal” husbands and fathers only glimpsed in old home movies—explaining that things were “different then,” “nobody talked about it,” and at least “it wasn’t rape.” Asked if her spouse beat her, one granny shrugs “Yes, if I needed it. Even if I didn’t need it,” then saying “I didn’t allow it to effect me. I had to be strong.” Despite changing times, the conspiracy of silence actually continues, leading some to drop out of the film after they’ve already participated in it.
In deference to them (and any potential lawsuits), Relative doesn’t name names. But this interweaving of testimony and archival materials does render vividly how a “sickness” of molestation and violence from “people you’re supposed to love and trust” can endure over decades, inflicting scars that “never leave you.” Gravitas Ventures releases it to digital and cable VOD platforms Tue/21.
Obfuscating the truth rather than seeking to expose it is Chris Mouarbnel’s Cypher, an adventurous hybrid that won the Best US Narrative Feature prize at Tribeca this year. It starts out very much looking like a documentary, with myriad real-world music industry insiders contributing to a look at the fast-rising career of Grammy-winning rapper Tierra Whack. There is no reason to suspect what we’re watching is staged before a seemingly crazy fan informs her that she is in danger from a “cult of lenses”—a purported secret society of star-makers involved in murky Qanon-ish doings.
The line between reality and paranoid fiction grows ever-blurrier here, until the film starts seeming like some sort of glorified blu-ray extra for a horror movie riffing on conspiracy-theory culture. The idea is fascinating, but it doesn’t quite take on a life of its own; Cypher ends up more a novel tease than a full-blown leap into mystery, suspense, or even satirical terrain. Still, its conceptual originality holds the attention, and many viewers will enjoy seeing various hip-hop luminaries “playing” themselves on this slippery slope. It’s opening in limited theaters and streaming on Hulu as of Fri/24.
Tripz: ‘Do Not Disturb,’ ‘5000 Space Aliens’
Finally, two more new features take flying leaps off any terra firma of realistic storytelling—or even any storytelling at all. The comparatively more conventional among them is John Ainslie’s Do Not Disturb, in which argumentative Canadian couple Chloe (Kimberly Laferriere) and Jack (Rogan Christopher) fly to Miami for a vacation that will hopefully revive their flagging relationship… or at least make it clear they should break up.
But after a beach encounter with a raving weirdo (“one of those bath salt guys,” they reckon) leaves them in possession of a mysterious bag o’ drugs, they partake, and things get very weird. Soon large chunks of time are disappearing, though disturbing evidence (such as an eventual corpse under the bed) emerges to suggest those hours were not spent in peaceful slumber. The film gets a tad less interesting once its content drifts from the hallucinogenic to the horror-ish. Still, its mix of black comedy, grotesquerie, and bloody thrills has a certain panache as well as chutzpah. Dark Star Pictures releases it to On Demand platforms Tues/21.
Even farther out is 5000 Space Aliens, a title that is somewhat self-explanatory—about the only thing in this 86-minute whatsit that is. Director and animator Scott Bateman’s opening onscreen text announces that the ensuing public announcement from a “Space Alien Commission” compiles images of all such visitors known to be on planet Earth. “For your physical and mental safety,” each of them are shown for exactly one second only.
What follows is like a giant gallery exhibit of umpteen tiny artworks, toured at a speed that allows them to be absorbed but not dwelt on. Turns out these interstellar travelers have heavily infiltrated our media of the last century or so, since they frequently are recognizable figures from advertising, newsreels, music videos, feature films, broadcast shows, home movies, and other archival errata. So it’s just like They Live, only with higher beauty standards!
These materials are variously tinted, solarized, blurred, lent snazzy background or motion graphics, and so forth, giving many of them the quality of retro Xerox collage art. Needless to say, the sum impact is very much in the realm of sensory overload, compounded by Bateman’s own diverse rock-electronica score. Whether watched in one go, or a few minutes at a time, it’s an equally intense, singular if rather depthless experience—an audiovisual blitz. Freestyle Digital Media releases 5000 to digital download on Tues/21 (more info here).