Though the annual fall decathlon of local film fests is mostly over by the time we get to December, there’s still at least one such event this week: The AfroComicCon International Film Festival plays this Thu/7 at the Regal Jack London Theater in Oakland, as part of the larger multimedia showcase for creatives and fans that is now in its seventh year. The four-hour evening program will encompass short animations, documentaries, horror, sci-fi, and social justice narratives—all finalists in a competition whose winners will be announced at a closing awards ceremony. Ticket info is here and more detail on the program here.
Also playing that night (as well as January 31) at BAMPFA is Selcen Ergun’s engrossing debut feature Snow and the Bear, in which a city-bred med school graduate posted to a remote mountain village for her compulsive national service becomes snared in local prejudices and paranoias. This beautifully shot suspense drama was a highlight earlier this year at SFFilm, when we wrote about it at greater length. Info on the Berkeley screenings is here.
Also worth a trek is A Revolution on Canvas, which opens at the Roxie on Fri/8. This documentary is a portrait of Nicky Nodjoumi, an Iranian artist who’s taken as his subject the gross injustices of that nation’s regimes—and others around the world—despite having lived primarily in NYC for half a century. At art school in Tehran he met his wife, Nahid Hagigat, an equally admirable and influential artist of strong political expressions.
But while his work had openly criticized the Shah, he found it denounced for “deviant views and shrewd trickery” after the Iranian Revolution he’d supported, by a new Islamic Republic government at least as intolerant of dissent as its royalist predecessor. Ergo the couple became permanent exiles. They are both compelling personalities as well as striking talents. The film’s least interesting aspects are filmmaker Sara Nodjoumi’s insistence on working through her own emotional issues with dad on camera. Still, the glimpses afforded of her parents’ vivid, provocative, ambiguous art are worth the price of admission alone. She and co-director spouse Till Schauder will appear in person for a post-screening Q&A on Sun/10.
Of course, ’tis also the season to stay in and stream movies while plotting the imminent holidays. New arrivals in that realm run a global gamut from Spain to O’ahu, and Quebec to southeast Asia.
Troubles in Paradise: ‘Waikiki,’ ‘Bodyshop’
Two enterprisingly offbeat indie dramas offer the scenic travelogue pleasures while probing darker terrain in their somewhat murky fictive narratives. Christopher Kahunahana’s debut feature Waikiki, which finally hits On Demand platforms this Tue/5 (it began playing festivals in 2020), is hardly the standard surf ’n’ sun snapshot of that longtime tourism nexus. Indeed, it has a largely nocturnal, noir-ish grittiness as things keep going from bad to worse for protagonist Kea (Danielle Zalopany).
She’s a stage hula dancer with some shadier sidelines who has been reduced to living in her van. Her life is a mess, but then she’s on the run from a controlling, rage-aholic spouse (Jason Quinn) whose temper can turn violent in a heartbeat. Fleeing yet another such abusive altercation, she accidentally drives into a homeless man (Peter Shinkoda as Wo). Kea may be desperate, but she’s still compassionate enough not to leave him lying in the road—she loads the unconscious man into the vehicle she just hit him with. Dirty, uncommunicative, occasionally paranoid-delusional, he’s not exactly great company. But in a way, they turn out to be the support each other needs.
Even at a slim 77 minutes, Waikiki feels underplotted, its characters’ straits barely illuminated by eyeblink flashbacks. Kahunahana’s screenplay could have used another developmental pass or two. But he’s got a poetical eye and rhythm that makes this not-particularly-satisfying story worthwhile as an atmospheric underside to the illusion of island “paradise.” Kea may sell the aloha spirit on the job, but it’s distinctly lacking in the treatment she’s afforded as a native rapidly sinking towards down-and-out status.
A sort of touristic afterlife is the novel central conceit in Bodyshop, which Hong Kong writer-director-producer Danny Cheng Wang-Cheung aka Scud has announced as his likely final feature—he’s retiring due to an increasingly hostile climate in both financial and political terms.
When a young gay soldier is raped multiple times in one night, he commits suicide, only to immediately become a “wandering ghost” capable of possessing bodies of the living—mostly other hot young gay men—to enjoy amorous encounters and relationships that cannot last.
The sex scenes here are not exclusively male-male, nor are they hardcore-graphic, but Bodyshop nonetheless has so much chiseled, full-frontal masculine nudity that it frequently seems the film’s raison d’etre. Certainly plot isn’t: The episodic sequences often have little obvious connection to one another, and it’s hard to draw any ultimate point from Scud’s vague, “wandering” script. Yet as with Waikiki, the graceful assembly and handsome photography—not to mention all those buff bods—make for an experience rich in aesthetic value if not substance. Breaking Glass Pictures releases the film to U.S. Digital platforms on Tue/5.
Meanwhile in Hades: ‘Burn,’ ‘Sacrifice’
Any afterlife looks quite toasty with hellfire in two above-average new horror films. In David Hebrero’s Spanish Everyone Will Burn, Maria Jose (Macarena Gomez) is about to take a suicidal jump off a bridge—she’s got her reasons—when she ’s halted by a little girl (Sofia Garcia as Lucia) so dirty she might’ve dug her way out of a grave. The town they’re in has a history of apocalyptic religious cultdom, and it soon appears this less-than-angelic child has arrived to make those superstitions come true. In fact, she’s a “monster of prophecy” MJ is not averse to assisting, given this burg’s Peyton Place-level quantity of hypocrisies, scandals and prejudice.
Not quite a slam dunk, this juicy 125-minute occult saga still has impressive ambition and audacity, at times approaching the zestful nuttiness of Larry Cohen’s 1976 God Told Me To—another tale of religious hysteria that turns out to be all too reality-based. It launches on Digital platforms Thu/5.
Something akin to End Times also appear to be nigh in The Sacrifice Game, the second directorial feature from Jenn Wexler. It’s the 1971 holiday season at a girls’ boarding school where two students (Madison Baines, Georgia Acken) and two staffers (Chloe Levine, Gus Kenworthy) are stuck spending the break while everyone else rejoins their families. Unpleasantly, the area is being terrorized by “The Christmas Killers,” a quartet of Manson-ish hippie freaks who show up on the doorsteps of strangers to deliver something other than Yuletide cheer. Thus, it is very bad news when just such a crew arrives at this isolated institution, forcing their way in to realize a goal of summoning a demon connected to the school itself.
Written by Wexler and Sean Redlitz, the confidently crafted thriller is pretty creepy for a while, as these uninvited guests duly discomfit in their grinning lack of empathy or mercy. But the film’s third act is its weakest, as infighting amongst the bad guys renders them less menacing, too much evil presence is demanded from a juvenile performer, and the fadeout inexplicably defangs the very thing we’re meant to be most afraid of. Still worth a look for genre fans, The Sacrifice Game begins streaming on Shudder Fri/8.