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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Chasing one of the Swinging Sixties' most...

Screen Grabs: Chasing one of the Swinging Sixties’ most infamous ‘It Girls’

Plus: Doclands 2024, Johnny Depp's French, Japanese reality, worthwhile 'Nowhere Special,' Free Palestine, more movies

Celebrity and/or notoriety—two concepts that seem pretty interchangeable these days, since so often a celebrity’s primary value is their gossipy notoriety—are explored in three new movies this weekend. One is a documentary tribute to one of the Swinging Sixties’ most infamous “It Girls;” another a lavish biopic about her equivalent a couple centuries prior; a third records one of the most grotesque instances yet of fame via “reality TV.”

Catching Fire begins with its posthumous subject (well, an actor reading from her unpublished memoirs) saying “I’ve been called a witch, a slut, and a murderer.” The lady attracting that resume of accusations was Anita Pallenberg, whom Kate Moss—a friend in her later years—credits with basically inventing “the original bohemian rock chick” as both fashion style and general persona.

Rebellious child of a well-off German-Italian family, she ran away to NYC in 1963 at age 19, somehow immediately falling in with the Warhol Factory scene. A couple years later she met the Rolling Stones in Munich, first becoming the doomed Brian Jones’ girlfriend. When that got too hairy, she transferred her affections to Keith Richards. She stopped modeling to do more acid (“You couldn’t do both”), then paused a nascent film acting career (memorably including Barbarella and Performance) because Richards preferred it—particularly once they started having children. But he was frequently away on tour, and needless to say, neither of them was exactly ideal parenting material, being strung out for long years on heroin.

Glamorous counterculture royalty, they certainly were photographed and filmed a lot, so this is hardly a talking-heads kinda documentary. (In fact, Richards and Marianne Faithfull are heard in audio-only interviews.) Pallenberg was no glorified groupie; called “the alpha in the room” by one observer here, she was a powerful presence, influence, and muse for many. But while words like “Machiavellian” and “chaotic” do surface here, as well as some sordid episodes (in 1979 a 17-year-old boy she was having an affair with shot himself dead in her presence), Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill’s movie eventually takes too conventional an approach to a highly unconventional woman. It frames her life story in currently de rigueur “victim” terms, with a redemptive inspirational third act (she got sober) it nonetheless spends scant time on.

Her surviving children’s testimonies, certainly, limn a character who could be violent, contrary, and neglectful. But the surprisingly banal passages from her memoir are recited in tritely empathetic tones by a miscast Scarlett Johannson, reducing a complex, sometimes destructive personality to a stock triumphing-over-adversity story. Catching Fire (which opens at Cinelounge Tiberon and launches on VOD platforms Fri/3) can hardly help compelling interest. Yet in the end, one feels it does a disservice to an adventurous beauty who fascinated so many.

Another gorgeous consort to powerful men is portrayed in Jeanne du Barry, French writer-director-producer-star Maiwenn’s costume spectacular. Like Anita P., this accomplished and resourceful woman pushed the limits of roles allotted her sex at the time, rising from humble origins to the position of King Louis XV’s scandalously overt long-term mistress. After her benefactor’s death, however, she could not escape the guillotine of the French Revolution.

Maiwenn looks nothing like the pink, powdered, blonde du Barry of portraits (she’s closer to 1970s Carly Simon), and her revisionist take owes something to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette in spirit, as aesthetically it mimics the pastel raptures of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. This very modern interp sees “Madame” as a fun nonconformist who loosens up the king (a melancholic Johnny Depp in his first French-language role), showing up all the suckups and snobs around him. Again, this feels like a superficial, voguish treatment of a complex and controversial character. Opening in theaters Thurs/2, Jeanne du Barry is not a great movie. Still, it’s entertaining, and a feast of decorous eye candy.

Both those well-placed ladies might’ve been appalled by the masochistic humiliations endured in pursuit of fame in The Contestant, which premieres on Hulu the same day. Well before “reality TV” got a death grip on so much US television, the Japanese were known for particularly outre broadcast pranks and challenges visited upon wide-eyed citizens. Clair Titley’s documentary focuses on one particularly notorious such incident a quarter-century ago.

The classic bullied, lonely kid who learned to protect himself by making others laugh, Tomoaki Hamatsu—nicknamed Nasubi or Eggplant for his comically elongated face—hoped to make it in Tokyo as a comedian when he won a supposed lottery for an indeterminate “show-business related job.” Soon he found himself basically in solitary confinement, naked, ordered to survive solely from what he won by entering magazine contests. He was not informed that this stunt was for the show Susunu! Denpa Shonen, let alone that his travails eventually attracted 30 million viewers per week.

In theory, Nasubi could have left at any point. But he soon developed a captive’s eagerness to please his captors, as his ordeal stretched out to a stupefying fifteen months. He was subjected to what one can only call physical and psychological torture, including being woken by loud noises and bright lights—like some sort of “America’s Funniest Home Videos: Abu Ghraib Edition.” (In fact, the show was eventually canceled in a government crackdown on such abusive programming.)

Interviewed later, he admits “I lost my faith in humanity,” emerging with a case of PSTD that improved only once he got involved in some offscreen emergency rescue efforts. Lively as it is, The Contestant is a pretty brutal indictment. No one should have to endure such cruelty for the sake of “entertainment,” and it’s infuriating to see the show’s producer still gloating over how treating a man like a lab rat made for must-see TV.

There are more celebrity portraits in the DocLands festival that returns to the Smith Rafael Film Center this Thurs/2-Sun/5, this year’s starry subjects including Russian daredevils (Skywalkers: A Love Story), a Chinese freediving champion (7 Beats Per Minute), a crusading Seattle immigration attorney (From Here), celebrated costume designer Patricia Field (Happy Clothes), evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev (Hunt for the Oldest DNA), feminist Texas journalist Liz Carpenter (Shaking It Up), surfing royalty (Maya and the Wave), even a favorite Disney character (Not Just a Goof).

Of course the nonfiction fare on tap also includes features from around the world on environmental, political, technology, human rights, Bay Area and spiritual subjects, plus redwoods (Giants Rising) and geezer rock (Revival 69). For full program and schedule info, go here.

Other new releases of interest to local theaters and/or streaming arriving this Friday, May 3:

Nowhere Special

The long-term effects of COVID shutdown and writers’ strike on the film industry continue to emerge and evolve. But one plus is that some very good movies previously deemed “not commercial enough” for US distribution are getting belatedly picked up, for lack of new product. At least one assumes that’s why we’re finally seeing this 2020 drama shot in Northern Ireland by Uberto Pasolini, a veteran producer (including of The Full Monty) and very occasional writer-director. James Norton plays John, a working-class man in Belfast raising four-year-old son Michael (Daniel Lamont) alone—his mother abandoned them some time ago.

They’re getting along fine, or would be, if John weren’t terminally ill (the cause unspecified here). Thus they spend much of this quiet, very low-key tale visiting well-meaning strangers auditioning for the role of Michael’s future parents. Social-service authorities grow impatient, because John can’t decide between these prospects—it’s agony for him to choose a specific future for a son who can’t yet comprehend the necessity for such drastic change.

You could argue Nowhere Special is a little too spare, so tastefully restrained it almost misses touching our emotions. But that tactic pays off when, in the end, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved to tears. Norton, perhaps still best known as the detestable psychopathic killer in the British Happy Valley series, gives a beautifully pained performance, and his rapport with young Lamont is convincingly tender. Well worthwhile, Nothing Special opens this weekend at SF’s Opera Plaza, then May 10 at the Rafael Center.

Limbo

Also demanding a certain amount of work—maybe more than I was willing to expend—to access its wounded emotional core is this Australian murder mystery in the general wheelhouse of sleeper hit The Dry. This time it’s Simon Baker (rather than Eric Bana) who travels to a dusty, hostile outback burg to investigate a cold case crime, the disappearance and presumed killing of young aboriginal woman twenty years prior.

Ivan Sen’s film doesn’t have that prior film’s compelling plot, however, or indeed seem to want it. The writer-director keeps us at a clinical distance with characters who are suspicious and uncooperative, including Rob Collins and Natasha Wanganeen as the victim’s estranged siblings. Even Baker’s police detective protagonist is less than sympathetic, a junkie who seems to enjoy human contact little more than those he interrogates.

Shot around opal-mining center Coober Pedy, whose strikingly stark landscape is so heat-baked that many dwellings are underground, Limbo has a great widescreen B&W look—but that somewhat reinforces the feel of a dispassionate, mannered objet d’art. I found it more pretentious than impressive, though in aesthetic terms it would make a great double bill with Jeanne du Barry, as a monochrome apertif to chase that film’s candied court splendor. Limbo opens this Friday at the Roxie.

Worth brief note are several other openings and events this weekend. Also new at the Roxie is Jeremie Perin’s Mars Express, a French sci-fi animation in which another murder investigation turns into a colorfully convoluted, Blade Runner-esque probe of blurred future lines between humans, robots and hybrid “synthetics.”

Police work again takes a somewhat fantastical turn in John Rosman’s debut feature New Life, whose initially confusing two strands—one following a middle-aged “fixer” with ALS (Sonya Walger), another a fugitive young woman (Hayley Erin)—merge as we realize one is pursuing the other because she’s unknowingly carrying a deadly biological-warfare plague. This interesting attempt to mix body-horror suspense with character drama doesn’t entirely work, because the intended psychological depths are underdeveloped. But it’s worth a gander, not least for former Berkeley Rep company member Tony Amendola in a major support role. It’s on VOD as of May 3 from Brainstorm Media.

Last but far from least, this Sat/4 at ATA, Other Cinema presents a “Free Palestine” program to benefit the Palestine Children’s Relief fund. The bill includes Mohamed Malas’ 1988 The Dream aka Al-Manam, a 45-minute documentary interviewing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon during the civil war, plus works by Jayce Salloum, Mary Jirmanus Saba, and more. Info here.

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