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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: It's all Greek (Film Fest) to us...

Screen Grabs: It’s all Greek (Film Fest) to us this weekend

Mythical monsters, immigration drama, gay romps (and history) are highlights. Plus: Animal Kingdom, The Sweet East, more movies

It’ll be Greek to you, too, as this weekend welcomes the 21st edition of the San Francisco Greek Film Festival, which runs March 16-23 at Delancey Street Screening Room—with an online program available throughout that span in addition to the in-person screenings.

Featuring nine documentaries, eight narrative features, and two dozen shorts, the festivities kick off this Saturday night with Asmina Proedrou’s Behind the Haystacks, a complex tale of debt, smuggling, immigration and intergenerational conflict that we previously reviewed here. The prize-winning drama was Greece’s submission to the Oscars’ Best International Feature competition this year. Also arriving laden with laurels is another drama involving refugees, Corinna Avraamidou and Kyriacos Tofarides’ Iman, which plays Thu/21.

Other prominent titles in the program run a storytelling gamut from the historical to the very current. In the former camp is Murderess aka Fonissa, the latest version of a famous 1903 novella by Alexandros Papadiamantis. Its titular protagonist is Hadoula (Karyofillia Karabeti), a midwife and healer in a bleak coastal hilltop village. She’s had a lifetime to absorb how grim the lot of women is here—and begins taking that plight into her own hands. Not by attacking the wife beaters and other agents of patriarchy, but by providing uninvited euthanasia to babies, girls, and any other females she thinks she’s sparing from misery. It’s a harsh tale whose arresting aesthetic in director Eva Nathena’s hands owes much to the grey-to-black palette of the rocky landscape, in which it seems impossible anything might grow—least of all human kindness. Another literary period piece is Kostas Haralabous’ amour fou saga Capetan Michalis, whose source novelist Nikos Kazantzakis also spawned famous films Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ.

The characters in those costume dramas might faint dead away at the ultra-modern protagonists in Periklis Chousoglou’s The Summer With Carmen. It’s a simultaneously randy and soft-hearted comedy in which two gay men (Yorgos Tsiantoulas, Andreas Labropoulos) lounging on the beach recall the momentous (well, to them) events of a couple summers prior. This very meta exercise, in which these personnel are writing a script as we watch it unfold, provides a good time while ambling bemusedly nowhere in particular. The scenery is outstanding: Meaning you get a whole lot of hirsute ’n’ hunky lead Tsiantoulas in the buff, the exhibitionism so shameless it becomes a kind of running joke. Of related interest is AKOE/AMFI: The Story of a Revolution, which chronicles the heyday of the Greek Homosexual Liberation Movement—that nation’s pioneering gay rights organization. It’s one of several documentaries available for streaming only in the festival’s online component.

Bridging past and present, then setting fire to the bridge, is Konstantinos Koutsoliotas’ Minore. It starts out as a romantic mysterioso ensemble piece, with a bouzouki-playing young foreign sailor arriving in a seaside town, searching for the father he never knew. A horny gay painter (whose favorite local subject is perpetually shirtless), gangsters, frequent earthquakes, traditional music/dance interludes, phonetically spoken English dialogue, and a seemingly supernatural fog tug the loose plot this way and that. Then suddenly we’re in a campy mashup of The Mist and Shaun of the Dead, as tentacled flying giganti from a retro drive-in sci-fi movie turn this into an absurdist creature feature. A WTF mixture of comedy, fantasy, gore and whatnot, Minore may not quite have the finesse to ace its gambits, but you have to admire the sheer chutzpah of the attempt.

Those are just a few of the titles in the 2024 SF Greek Film Fest; for full program, schedule, ticket and other info, go here.

The kind of conceptual leap taken by Minore, while seldom found at the movies in general, actually finds a few rough equivalents this week in other out-there features arriving on local screens or streaming platforms. Formulaic, they are not, even if they’re not all particularly stellar, either.

Slickest and most serious-minded of the lot is The Animal Kingdom, which opens at the Alamo Drafthouse and is available On Demand as of Fri/15. Winner of five awards (in tech/design categories) among twelve Cesar nominations, Thomas Cailley’s French-Belgian coproduction is set in a familiar but fantastical near-future in which a mysterious new evolutionary wave is turning at least some humans into “critters”—going feral as they acquire everything from wings to octopus tentacles. Francois (Romain Duris) moves to a rural area in order to be close the facility where his furrily afflicted wife will be housed, along with other “mutants.” But when she apparently escapes, he commences a desperate, incessant search in the surrounding woods. And the situation is not eased by the realization that their teenage son Emile (Paul Kircher) is also beginning to change.

Cailley’s film (co-written with Pauline Munier) isn’t a horror movie. It’s closer to the X-MenTwilight, Divergent and other expansive fantasy franchises in which specially gifted/cursed characters (often teens) must face societal persecution while developing their powers. It has much less of those films’ comic-book and YA tenors, though, aiming for something more sophisticated if still widely accessible. The result is less than a complete success—its world-building feels unoriginal, and I’d be indifferent towards the prospect of sequels—but nonetheless very handsome, accomplished, and enjoyable as a sort of mainstream magical-realist adventure.

Taking place in a recognizably real world, yet taking considerable liberties with its realism, is Sean Price Williams’ The Sweet East. Pretty, petulant Lillian (Talia Ryder) is a South Carolina high schooler who wanders away from her tour group on a class trip, then neglects to wander back—for a period long enough to trigger a “missing person” search by the folks back home. Fleeing a potential mass shooting by a Qanon nutcase, she falls in with some artist-anarchists, then stumbles into a white supremacist gathering. There, she’s taken in by a college professor (Red Rocket’s Simon Rex) who’s “in the closet” about his far-right views. And that’s hardly the end of her journey, with later detours involving characters played by Jacob Elordi (of Saltburnand Priscilla), Rish Shah, Ayo Edebiro, Jeremy O. Harris, and others.

This picaresque narrative, written by Nick Pinkerton, offers a slightly surreal cross-section of a US gradually losing its mind in umpteen different ways. It’s too deadpan to be simply branded satire, and Lillian is no victim—she’s a pokerfaced manipulator untroubled by conscience, quite happy to exploit her looks in getting out of (or into) any dicey circumstance. The Sweet East was more of an interesting experiment to me than any bold, or even cogent, statement. But there is definitely something impressively liberated about its refusal to adhere to any particular rules of plot structure or ultimate “meaning.” Shot on 16mm, it’s being exhibited at the Balboa on 35mm this Fri/15 and Sat/16, following a separate brief run at the Roxie.

Embracing the surreal in an entirely different way is Bubble Bath aka Habfurdo, a 1979 Hungarian animated feature—the first and last from painter Gyorgy Kovasznai, who died of leukemia not long after its completion. Drawn in a cool underground style that embraces everything from the Fleischers to Peter Max to R. Crumb, it exerts a great deal of visual imagination on a tiny scrap of storyline. Buxom medical student Aniko is interrupted in her studies by Zappa-looking Zsolt, who’s experiencing major jitters on the eve of marrying her high-maintenance best friend Klara. That’s about it—but these characters also frequently burst into song, which music runs a very Seventies gamut from cabaret jazz a la Manhattan Transfer to funk, mock-opera, tango, disco, et al.

Apparently a commercial disaster at the time, this combination of old-fashioned bedroom farce and hipster presentation languished in obscurity for decades before its recent restoration. It remains weak in narrative terms. But fans of idiosyncratic adult animation will be sufficiently delighted by Kovasznai’s free-ranging technique to rate this as a significant discovery. It opens at the Roxie this Fri/15.

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