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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Kick off your new year on Mars,...

Screen Grabs: Kick off your new year on Mars, with the great Nikki Giovanni

Plus: Splendid Spanish-language Oscar contenders, ecstatic dance flicks, 'Freud's Last Session,' more movies

After its Sundance premiere last January (where it won the Grand Jury Prize) and Frameline showing a few months later, I waited the rest of 2023 for Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project—one of the year’s best documentaries—to open locally. It never did, despite the Bay Area being presumably full of the longtime artist-activist’s fans, because we’ve lost so many suitable arthouse venues. (It did open elsewhere around the country, in November.) So it’s worth noting that this complex audiovisual collage charting the life, times, and work of one of the last half-century’s great Black writers—featuring considerable footage of her in conversation with a significant predecessor, James Baldwin—debuts Mon/8 on HBO, and also becomes available to stream on HBO Max.

I’d like to think it’s in serious contention for the Documentary Feature Oscar, though with her involvement in Black Power, feminist, and queer political struggles, Mars may be a bit much for the Academy. This week, however, you can also see quite a number of movies with an inside track to that little golden man. The Roxie is hosting a short “RoxCine Para su consideracion” series of three Spanish-language features already submitted by their respective countries: On Sat/6 it’s The Mole Agent director Maite Alberdi’s new The Eternal Memory (which already played fleeting Bay Area dates), about a famed veteran Chilean journalist’s descent into Alzheimer’s. On Sun/7 there’s the stirring fact-based drama Society of the Snow, which we just reviewed here, as well as Lita Aviles’ more intimately scaled Mexican drama Totem, which will return for a regular run in mid-February. For info on the whole series, go here.

The Smith Rafael Film Center in Marin is doing likewise, albeit with a longer and broader “For Your Consideration” slate of films showing this Fri/5 through Wed/10. Society of the Snow and Totem are also included in this roster, alongside films already released (Icelandic epic Godland, Armenian Amerikatsi, Tunisian documentary Four Daughters), and several that will open locally in coming weeks or months (Denmark’s Promised Land, French The Taste of Things, German The Teacher’s Lounge, Wim Wenders’ Japanese Perfect Days, Bhutanese The Monk and the Gun, Italian Io Capitano). I haven’t seen the last three films named, but the three immediately preceding them are among the year’s best—whether that year is 2023 or 2024. More info here.

Last year was no picnic for many, so you may well prefer to skip the fair amount of angst and suffering contained in those awards contenders and go straight to the 4-Star’s “Get Down, Get Down,” an admirably diverse ode to dance on film. It commences this Sun/7 with Lovers Rock, the most plotless but also most joyous of the six stand-alone features in writer-director Steve McQueen’s 2020 Small Axe miniseries about West Indian community life in London of the 1970s; DJ Boots of Tunnel Records will provide a live DJ set before the 7:30 show. Speaking of joy, probably no “golden age” Hollywood musical stirs that feeling quite so much as Singin’ in the Rain, which plays Sun/7 with Jacques Demy’s 1968 Young Girls of Rochefort—an equally rapturous pastel-colored French homage to the genre with an incredible Michel Legrand song score, though it flopped badly upon original release.

Later entries in the series include (on Jan. 17) “I Hear a New World: Deconstructing the Musical,” an SF Cinematheque-presented program of short mash-ups and experiments; 1984 hip-hop camp classic Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (Jan. 19); sexytime with Dirty Dancing and Magic Mike XXL, both Jan. 20; the original ’82 Fame Jan. 26; and choreographer-director Bob Fosse’s 1979 autobiographical fantasia All That Jazz on Jan. 28. A schedule is here.

If that doesn’t appeal, you should get your head examined. Or you could alternatively delve into the mysteries of the human mind via two new movies opening in theaters this Fri/5. One is a dramatic fiction about the originator of psychoanalysis itself, another a love story in which a PTSD case meets a sufferer from early-onset dementia. (They don’t “meet cute”—it’s not a romcom.) Both are films that have their hopes up for year-end awards gold, with esteemed performers well-deployed in challenging roles… though both are also somewhat conceptually problematic.

Freud’s Last Session

It is 1939 London, just two days after Germany invaded Poland. An aged, ailing Sigmund Freud (Anthony Hopkins) is lucky to have been successfully evacuated here from his native Austria, where as high-profile Jews, he and daughter Anna (Liv Lisa Fries) no doubt narrowly escaped the death camps. (Freud had refused to take the Nazi threat seriously until it was nearly too late.) His name naturally draws visitors, including this morning an unknown young academic who would become widely known theologian and Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis (Matthew Goode).

The emigre is indifferent to his guest at first, but eventually becomes aware of a worthy sparring partner—so that they end up spending the whole day debating (sometimes good-naturedly, sometimes bitterly) each other’s ideas, with Freud as the fervently atheistic believer in science, Lewis refusing to relinquish his Christian faith despite his host’s calling it “a ludicrous dream, an insidious lie.” Adding further tension to the hours is the older man’s physical pain (he’s fighting oral cancer), and the psychological pain endured by Anna, whom we come to see is trapped in a cruel interdependency with her father, who refuses her an adult life of her own.

Attractively shot and produced, Last Session is a ruse—it is highly unlikely that these two famous men ever actually met. Theirs is the kind of erudite imaginary dialogue that feels like it came out of a play, or a novel, and indeed it did. (First came a novel by Armand Nicholi, then a play by Mark St. Germain, who co-adapted it to screenplay form.) The script and director Matthew Brown “open up” the mostly parlor-set action by having lead figures constantly zone out. This allows for heavy-handed flashbacks to personal histories that include the horrors of Lewis’ WWI military service, and the Freuds’ more recent brush with the Gestapo.

If the movie can be said to choose a side in this debate between the secular and sacred, it goes with sentimentality—Lewis’ belief in God is ultimately found nicer than this clever but bullying, selfish old skeptic. Acting-wise, it’s a draw. Hopkins, who at 86 is a couple years older than Freud was then, is in very good form as the alternately brusque, cantankerous, generous and frail founder of psychoanalytic theory/practice. A less showy actor in a less showy role, Goode is nonetheless equally fine, more than holding his own in this sometimes woundingly personal intellectual duel.

But however it worked in previous incarnations, as a movie Freud’s Last Session is a rather awkward patchwork of What Makes A Great Man biographical highlights and artificial verbal jousting. The fantasy cage match needs to become something more than an“what if…?” stunt, and it never quite does. This is a thoroughly respectable effort, but in the end, the point eluded me.

Memory 

No, Cats is not being re-released. Instead, this is a second U.S. film by Mexican writer-director Michel Franco, whose first (2015’s Chronic, with Tim Roth) hardly anyone saw. More widely seen was his Cannes award-winning 2012 After Lucia, 2020 societal-meltdown freakout New Order, and last year’s Sundown—all baroque, provoking psychodramas. This is a les- jarring story about figures that are easier to empathize with, though it’s still not exactly a feel-good narrative.

Social worker Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is a recovered alcoholic and single mother whose scarring past experiences have made her perhaps too zealously over-protective towards daughter Sara (Elsie Fisher). Reluctantly arm-twisted into attending a high school reunion with her sister, Sylvia gets approached by a man (Peter Sarsgaard as Saul) who terrifies her—she thinks he’s someone who assaulted her long ago. He exacerbates the situation by inexplicably following her home and sleeping on her doorstep.

It turns out, however, that Sylvia is mistaken. Not only could Saul not have been her rapist decades ago, but he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know why he followed her. In fact, the next day he doesn’t even remember having done so. He lives with his brother (Josh Charles as Isaac), and requires hired minders to make sure he doesn’t simply wander off like that, as his mind drifts between cogency and confusion. Isaac asks Sylvia if she’d be willing to do some of that adult “babysitting” for pay. As she is struggling financially, she agrees.

Sarsgaard, who won an acting award at Venice for this performance, is a personal favorite. He doesn’t underline Saul’s disability in any obvious way; we can clearly see who he used to be, and to an extent still is, even as frustration and irrationality sometimes overwhelm him. Chastain is fine as usual, and there are some startling later scenes involving Sylvia’s estranged mother—all the more so when you realize that the senior actress is Jessica Harper, who left an indelible impression in several 70s/80s cult films (Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria, Shock Treatment, Pennies From Heaven).

But strong as Memory is on a scene-to-scene basis, it’s also got a somewhat credulity-straining, overloaded agenda as a whole. We don’t quite buy that fragile, wary Sylvia would commence a romantic relationship with a man succumbing to dementia…let alone one she’d just briefly confused with a sexual abuser. When we find out more about her past, it’s powerful and shocking—but again, rather too much for one narrative arc to withstand. The tone here admirably resists sensationalism. Yet Memory piles up so many hot-button issues (including incest) that the restrained direction and exemplary acting still can’t quite prevent the result from seeming like a dramatic house of cards that might topple at any moment.

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