After 50 years, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ rides again

Jon Voight in 'Midnight Cowboy,' playing as part of the SFFILM Fest. Courtesy of Park Circus

Back in 1967, Hollywood photographer Michael Childers, whose career was taking off, answered a fateful phone call from Broadway star Kaye Ballard, whom he had recently shot for TV Guide. She asked if he’d be so kind as to show her great friend John Schlesinger around Los Angeles.

Schlesinger, the British director of such acclaimed 1960s films as A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, and Darling was in the City of Angels for the opening of his latest movie, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Childers—a senior at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, who had admired Darling so much that he saw it five times, jumped at the opportunity to play tour guide.

Meeting Schlesinger at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the 23-year-old Childers found the 42-year-old director “charming,” “wonderful,” and “brilliant.” One thing led another, and the two became a couple, together for 36 years until Schlesinger passed away in 2003.

A creative partnership was also sparked between the couple when Schlesinger invited Childers to assist on his next film, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. The movie about an unlikely friendship forged between a naive cowboy hustler from Texas named Joe (Jon Voight) and a sickly con man from New York nicknamed Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) would go on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture (the only X-rated film to do so), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as revolutionize cinema.

Childers, who’d eventually photograph 200-plus magazine covers, create 150-plus album covers and film posters, and work as a photographer on numerous films, will appear in conversation with Oscar-nominated director Matt Tyrnauer about the modern classic at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival 50th anniversary screening of Midnight Cowboy, at SFMOMA Fri/19, featuring a new 4K restoration, along with rarely seen footage of Jon Voight’s screen test.

48 HILLS What was going through your mind when you were given the opportunity to assist on Midnight Cowboy?

MICHAEL CHILDERS John said, “Would you like to go to New York to work on a movie called Midnight Cowboy? I asked, “Is that a John Wayne Western?” And he said, “Hardly, hardly, my dear. Read the outline.”

I read it and said, “This is mindblowing. This is wild. How are you going to get this in the theatres? It’s so X-rated.” He said, “I will, I will.” So he had this vision of this great movie and I got so lucky to go to New York to work as a PA.

48 HILLS What exactly did you do on set?

CHILDERS I got to work on the whole movie—the casting, the rehearsals, locations—driving Jon Voight around Texas for 10 days, looking for extras and locations while he learned how to do a Texas accent. That was pretty fabulous.

And I helped shape the whole party sequence because in the book it just said: “A party in Greenwich Village ensues.” It didn’t say “Warhol” or “hipsters.”

48 HILLS And you introduced Schlesinger to Warhol?

CHILDERS I had gotten to know Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, was hanging out with them at Max’s Kansas City and took John down to meet Warhol and the superstars like Joe D’Allesandro, Viva, and Candy Darling and all the drag queens that were shooting up in the bathroom.

So I got all the superstars to be extras in that famous party sequence. In fact, that’s my darkroom that they used. I brought it to New York and set it up. Brenda Vaccaro makes love to the cowboy in it, and those are my behind-the-scenes stills from the movie.

In fact, Andy was meant to be in the film, but two weeks before we started shooting, Andy was shot and very grateful that we hired all his superstars for a week because they were all unemployed for a year while he was recovering.

So it was a learning experience par excellence. I learned so much more in that first year working on Midnight Cowboy than I learned in five years at UCLA film school.

48 HILLS Is it true that you also inspired the film’s opening scene?

CHILDERS There was an impasse in the script and they had a dramatic meeting between the writer and producer to figure out how the hell they open this movie. They were all stuck with ideas, so I showed them a still that I took in Texas of an abandoned drive-in movie theatre out on the prairie with sagebrush and asked, “Why don’t you start it there with perhaps one kid out at this abandoned drive-in playing with toy horses, which says a lot about Texas and the child?” They liked it and used it as the opening sequence of the movie.

Michael Childers. Photo by Stacy Jacob

48 HILLS I read that Schlesinger was so convinced that the film wouldn’t win any Academy Awards that he declined an invitation to attend the Oscars the following year.

CHILDERS United Artists begged him to come to LA for the Oscars but he was filming Sunday Bloody Sunday and he didn’t want to shut down filming. United Artists was producing Sunday Bloody Sunday, too, and they said, “We’ll pay to shut down the movie for four days while you and Michael come to LA for the Oscars, because we think you’re the dark horse and have a really good chance.”

And John thought, no and, of course, I really wanted to go to the Oscars. I said, “Please, let’s go. I’ve never been to the Oscars.” But when he won, we were on the phone at three in the morning in London. We had a friend working on the show backstage, and we heard everything as it was being announced. That was pretty exciting. But I’ve never gotten to go to the Oscars, damn it.

48 HILLS What, in your unbiased opinion, is the legacy of Midnight Cowboy?

CHILDERS Both Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were the most important films because they were so successful. They blew the roof off of Hollywood in the late ‘60s and changed the whole way of filmmaking and introduced a new American cinema where films could be different and not just studio sludge.

Midnight Cowboy was the first X-rated Oscar movie that broke a lot of taboos, so it allowed a lot of freedom for films afterward.

From a technical perspective, the cinematography was way ahead of its time. The use of high-contrast film, color, infrared, black and white, the first tracking shot, the first Steadicam ever used, the first fisheye lens ever used predates what happened in music videos and films 15 years later. It was way ahead of its time, the look of it.

48 HILLS And it surprised me when I watched it for the first time in 15 years how well it still holds up.

CHILDERS A lot of times, 50-year-old films don’t hold up quite as you remember, but this one does. Between the comedy, pathos, and tears, it’s still a very powerful, gutwrenching movie.

48 HILLS What is coming up next for you?

CHILDERS I’m currently in a show in Palm Desert called “Distortions in My Mind,” through April 26th. In June, I’m lecturing at Yale University on my “Author-Author” portrait series at Bernicke Library with head curator Tim Young, then lecturing at the Provincetown Film Festival on Schlesinger’s masterpiece Sunday Bloody Sunday with Schlesinger’s biographer William Mann, and then back to Yale University for a show on select British artists, actors and directors at the Center for British Art. In July, I’m heading to the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana for the award-winning short “I Knew Andy Warhol,” which I co-produced with Marc Saltarelli.

Fri/19, 8:45pm, $13/$16
Tickets and more info here.

SFFILM Fest opens with stars and ‘Tales’

New 'Tales of the City' director Alan Poul, Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney, and writer/showrunner Lauren Morelli at the Castro Theatre. Photo by David Schnur

Opening night of the SFFilm Festival filled the Castro Theatre with basically anyone you could imagine on Wednesday evening, as Netflix premiered the first episode of the new “Tales of the City.” Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney, and more from the original PBS series (DeDe Halcyon Day! Handsome Brian Hawkins!)  were on hand with new cast members, Mayor London Breed, the entire press corps of the city of San Francisco, and some familiar faces from the world of art and politics.

Cast of the new ‘Tales of the City.’ Photo by David Schnur

Unfortunately, Olympia Dukakis couldn’t make it, but the audience practically burst into tears when her face first appeared on the screen as Anna Madrigal, matron of the legendary 28 Barbary Lane. She appears as the subject of an interview one of the new characters is conducting, and is asked what she thinks of the changes San Francisco is going through. Anna hedges her answer in that irascible way she has, but the housing bubble and tech incursion are at least alluded to in the first new “Tales” episode. We’re a long way from the 1970s, and while that’s tragic in a lot of respects, it’s a good thing when it comes to the series’ inclusion of young, diverse, gender nonconforming and trans characters, even if there are some clunky moments of introduction. Ellen Page shines as a pansexual with a chip on her shoulder, holding her own with Dukakis onscreen.

Charlie Barnett plays main character Mouse’s young love interest in the new ‘Tales of the City.’ Photo by David Schnur
May Hong plays a new resident of 28 Barbary Lane. Photo by David Schnur.

And while it remains to see if Murray Bartlett (one of the few interesting things about Looking) can convincingly step into the loafers of Mouse Tolliver, now a hunky daddy, Laura Linney retains all the conflicted incandescence of Mary Anne Singleton. She’s back for Anna’s 90th birthday, unsatisfactory husband in tow, and the first episode deals with all the intrigue and nostalgia of her return after decades. It’s all quite beautiful and often moving—and a perfect cliffhanger moment at the end will keep you watching—even some of the more outlandish parts. (Who is paying for all the Ubers it takes to get these drag queens up to Russian Hill?)

Laura Linney was the force behind reviving ‘Tales.” Photo by David Schnur
Armistead Maupin and London Breed. Photo by David Schnur

At an onstage Q&A afterwards with the cast and producers—including powerhouse writer and showrunner Paula Morelli—Maupin himself was asked what he thought of all the changes. He referenced his good friend London Breed and seemed to try to change the topic, but then, with a nudge, admitted that the “new, incoming aesthetic” was “a but dull.” Finally, with a further nudge, the crowd got what we wanted. “I promised myself I would be a bitter old queen up here,” he said. “But nowadays these kids with their Grindr”—referencing the gay hookup app—”in my day we used to make you walk 10 miles through the snow to suck a cock!” The crowd roared.

From Gorbachev to ‘Red Joan’: SFFILM Fest gets geopolitical

'Meeting Gorbachev'

MOVIES The 62nd SFFILM Festival kicks off next week, and as usual there’s a plethora of movies to choose from (see our preview here). In particular, there are several documentaries and features dealing with geopolitical issues, including nuclear secrets, Perestroika, Syrian refugees, and the recent history of Afghanistan. Below are our reviews.

The British have always had, well, a different perspective on the atomic bomb spies of the 1950s. When upper crust, Cambridge educated spy Kim Philby fled to Moscow, one of his defenders was supposed to have intoned in a posh accent, “If Philby gave secrets to the Bolshies, then he had a damn good reason!”

Now we have a new take on the old conundrum as seen in the feature film Red Joan. Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley, an elderly librarian who is suddenly arrested for allegedly stealing atomic secrets years earlier. The film intercuts the modern day MI5 interrogation with scenes from the 1930s and 40s when we meet Joan as a young woman, portrayed by the very talented Sophie Cookson.

A central mystery soon develops: Was Joan a spy? And if so, why?

Director Trevor Nunn and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero cleverly intermix Joan’s personal story with the politics of the era. She is an intelligent, Cambridge graduate with a background in physics. But she gets hired as a secretary to a scientist researching nuclear fission at a top-secret lab. Had she been male, she may well have gotten credit for developing nuclear fission. 

We see Joan grow emotionally and intellectually from a naïve college student to a politically committed woman. She falls in love with a fellow Cambridge grad who happens to be a Russian agent. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

The film reminds us that times were different back then. The USSR, US, and UK were allied against fascism. Churchill had promised technological assistance to Stalin, according to the spies, and then reneged on the deal. “it’s not really stealing,” argues Leo, Joan’s lover and spymaster. “It’s sharing.”

Joan doesn’t fall for such balderdash. She supported building an atomic bomb because the allies thought the Nazis were developing one. After seeing the horrors of Hiroshima, Joan, like many nuclear scientists in the US and UK, questioned how atomic weapons would be used in future wars.

“I love my country,” she says. “If both sides had the bomb, neither would use it.”

She makes a valid point, and by the end of the film, Joan emerges as an unlikely hero.

Red Joan gets clunky in the middle, some of the spy ring characters come straight out of central casting, and an escape from Britain at the end beggars belief. But the film is based on the real life story of the “Granny Spy” who was arrested in the late 1990s in Britain. She never served time due to her age. 

Was justice served? You decide.

Red Joan
Sat, Apr 13 at 4pm, Castro Theater
More info here

The German government handed over Berlin’s iconic Tempelhof Airport to be used as public space in 2008. Seven years later it became home to thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war torn countries.

Berlin-based director Karim Aïnouz spent a year filming Central Airport THF, telling the refugees’ stories. The filmmaker clearly wanted to show the humanity of the refugees and counter some of the right-wing propaganda denouncing refugees as criminals seeking to take away German jobs. I just wish the results had been as successful as the intent. 

To its credit, the documentary shows how a refugee center can be run. Unlike the US government refugee centers I’ve visited, the Tempelhof complex is clean, airy and organized to respect refugee dignity. The massive hangars are divided into private living spaces. Communal kitchens serve culturally appropriate food, doctors treat patients and volunteers teach German language classes.

We hear refugee complaints. Why do they have blankets over dwelling entrances rather than doors? (Locked doors could be a fire hazard, according to authorities.) Some of the young men refer to the “shitty food.” But such complaints are minor compared to some US facilities where families are forcibly separated and children are locked in cages for most of the day.

We meet an 18-year-old Syrian, Ibrahim Al Hussein, who is waiting to be granted refugee status and thus move out of the airport. Time passes very slowing as the young man meets friends, visits the doctor and smokes a water pipe. The film pacing is slow, recreating the atmosphere of Tempelhof itself. 

But there’s a limit to audience patience. Central Airport has no compelling personal stories, no dramatic reveals, nor any hint of the political controversy caused by the influx of refugees into Germany. 

Central Airport provides interesting information on how a humanitarian refugee effort can operate, but little to recommend it as cinema.

April 13 at 6:15pm, Creativity Theater
April 17 at 7pm, BAMPFA
April 22 at 1pm, Roxie Theater
More info here.  

If you want to see long, tedious praise of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, then the documentary Meeting Gorbachev is made for you. Otherwise stay home.

Directors Werner Herzog and Andre Singer have managed to deify Gorbachev without providing personal insight, and they describe his political career without offering credible analysis. And they take an agonizing 90 minutes to do it. 

To be fair, the film reflects a commonly held view in the west. For documentarian Herzog, who both wrote and narrated the film, Gorbachev was a great hero because he oversaw the elimination of the USSR, allowed freedom in Eastern Europe and brought  democracy to Russia. 

But in Russia and Eastern Europe today, Gorbachev is widely scorned. Vladimir Putin and rightist leaders in Europe came to power, in part, because of the failings of Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin. But the film presents no serious criticism of Gorbachev. Instead Herzog lards on admiration for his subject from the very beginning. 

“Everything about Gorbachev was genuine,” he informs us, referring to their three interviews in Moscow.  

The use of archival footage during Gorbachev’s early years is the most interesting part of the film. We see a clip of Gorbachev participating in a very funny college satire of American swing dancing where “decadent” Americans throw their partners around, sometimes just dropping them on the floor. 

Soviet leaders faced serious problems in agriculture production in the 1950s and 60s. Unlike other party bureaucrats, Gorbachev met with peasants in the countryside, sometimes arriving by foot when transport broke down. 

But the parts of the documentary that should be intriguing become summary recitations of the rise and deaths of various Soviet leaders in the 1970s. Wikipedia provides more insight. We never learn why the old system failed other than it was evil communism.

When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he proposed radical reforms. Perestroika aimed to restructure the economy; glasnost was supposed to democratize the political system. But those reforms went awry, as even Gorbachev now admits.

At no time does Herzog show Gorbachev’s impact on ordinary Soviet citizens. Herzog devotes exactly one sentence to the topic, “He is a lonely man and considered a traitor by the Russian people.”

Wouldn’t viewers be interested to know why? The left hates Gorbachev because he wrecked Soviet style socialism; the right hates him because he dissolved a once strong nation. Those views deserve a fair hearing. Instead, Herzog and Singer immediately cut to a long homage to the untimely death of Gorbachev’s wife Raisa. 

Given Herzog’s access to the former Soviet leader and prominent western politicians, Meeting Gorbachev could have been an insightful documentary. Instead we get hagiography disguised as history.

Fri, Apr 19, 9:00 pm, Creativity Theater 

This year’s SF Film Festival features two seemingly contradictory films from Afghanistan. One examines the role of cinema during the time of communist party rule from 1978-91. The other eschews explicit politics, focuses on the lives of ordinary Afghans and still manages to show the impact of war.

Documentarian Mariam Ghani, who made What We Left Unfinished, digs into Afghanistan’s state cinema vaults to unearth unfinished feature films shot when leftist governments were in power, backed by Soviet occupation. 

She interviews directors and actors who alternately describe those years as a “golden time” for Afghan cinema or an era of propaganda films with harsh censorship. During the interviews we see seemingly random clips from five old, never completed feature films. But as the documentary progresses, we realize Ghani is actually constructing a whole new feature film using the clips to illustrate the film makers’ memories and political perspectives.

It’s a wonderful concept, but like the Afghan war itself, never really works out. To hear the directors’ talk, they had created the equivalent of Afghanistan’s Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Then we see the actual clips.

Like the commercial movies of Iran and India, these Afghan films featured lots of close in zooms, anguished looks and 

potboiler plots. One film portrays the forbidden love of a boy and girl from different ethnicities. Romeo and Juliet it’s not.

A knife fight scene in another movie features dubbed in swoosh sounds that make the turbaned antagonists look like samurai stuck in the Khyber Pass.

The documentary is far more interesting when it explores the role of state-sponsored cinema. In 1978 one faction of the pro-Soviet communist party launched a coup in Afghanistan. The new government established a state run film company in which, according to some interviewees, actors and directors enjoyed great prestige.

They had virtually unlimited budgets so long as the films praised the new system. One feature film, April Revolution, even starred the country’s new ruler, Hafizullah Amin and his family. 

Amin was overthrown in another coup, and in 1979 the Soviet Union occupied the country. The film makers associated with Amin feared for their lives. 

One director notes that “if you have politicized cinema, when that government ends, so does the cinema.”

Downfall, made during the communist era, exposed the role of the US-backed mujahedeen and Pakistani intelligence service in promoting the heroin trade. Propaganda yes—but also true—as I’ve written about numerous times since 1992. 

However bad cinema may have been before 1991, it ceased to exist altogether when the mujahedeen launched the civil war, which eventually led to the Taliban seizing power. Leftist and virtually all film makers fled the country. The Taliban banned cinema and destroyed 200-300 films. What We Left Unfinished is worth seeing — if for no other reason — to remind us of what happens to the arts when US-backed, reactionary religious forces come to power.

Thurs, Apr 11 at 3:00 pm, Creativity Theater
Sun, Apr 14 at 3:15 pm, BAMPFA
Tues, Apr 16 at 8:30 pm, YBCA Screening Room
More info here

The feature film Kabul, City in the Wind is the polar opposite of What We Left Unfinished. It eschews overt politics in favor of presenting the lives of ordinary Afghans. Yet we never really escape the reality of the brutal war.

Director Aboozar Amini shot the feature over three years with a hand-held camera, using non-professional actors in Kabul. The film’s slow and deliberate pacing recreates the lives of bus drivers, mechanics, carpet weavers and other ordinary Afghans rarely seen in the US – whether in journalism or on film. 

The politics of war are explained as part of everyday life. A former soldier has “the talk” with his eldest son, probably about 13 years old. The father explains the son must never go to crowded areas where suicide bombers may lurk. “It’s too dangerous,” he says.

Amini appeared to use little or no script. He shoots his actors from behind and then dubs in dialogue later. In other scenes he fills the screen with his character’s faces and has them explain their difficult lives. This technique gives viewers a street-level feel for Kabul. 

All the major characters are men. Only one woman has a brief speaking role. That reflects the on-going inequality and social conservatism even for a film shot by a director living in Europe.

Kabul, City in the Wind can be hard to watch. Many American viewers will grow tired of the slow pacing, the lack of an obvious plot and dramatic arc. However, the feature provides an interesting slice of life view of today’s Afghanistan.

Thu, Apr 11 at 5:30 pm, BAMPFA
Fri, Apr 12 at 8:30 pm, Creativity Theater
Sat, Apr 20 at 1:00 pm, YBCA
More info here

Reese Erlich writes about foreign affairs, jazz and cinema for 48Hills. He has reported from Afghanistan since 1992.

SFFILM Fest brings new ‘Tales of the City,’ rare gems, big star power

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis in the new 'Tales of the City'

The big-screen experience for movies is on the cultural endangered list, between venues going under (or having their leases revoked by landlords eager to jump on the development train) and streaming services like Netflix that deliberately keep films out of theatrical release. So an annual blowout like SFFILM, aka the San Francisco International Film Festival, increasingly represents one’s only chance to see many films projected in a communal setting—not just the usual types of “festival movies” that are unlikely to get commercial distribution, but many bigger titles that these days might bypass theaters entirely.

Its 62nd edition unfolding April 10-23 at various SF and East Bay venues, SFFILM 2019 offers the usual feast for cineastes, though not everything is a “movie”: In fact the opening night attraction is Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the latest continuance of that beloved SF-set serial, which will next surface on (where else but) Netflix after the Castro premiere of its first new episode. Expect Maupin, director Alan Poul, and returning star Laura Linney to appear before the show, and at the Regency complex party afterward.

Linney is one of several talents getting her own stand-alone tribute this year, along with fellow blonde thespian Laura Dern (whom she’s joked she’s often mistaken for) and a third versatile veteran performer, John C. Reilly. Directors similarly being feted are the French Claire Denis (presenting her latest High Life, a rare odyssey into both sci-fi and English language cinema), and pioneering African-American documentarian Madeline Anderson, whose work will be represented by films from fifty and sixty years ago.

Other spotlit personalities will include Hollywood child actor turned early SF Film Society chief Claude Jarman Jr., second-generation musical talent Jakob Dylan (starring in concert documentary Echo in the Canyon, which pays tribute to his father’s singer-songwriter generation), Oakland’s own multimedia maestro Boots Riley (offering a State of the Cinema address in the wake of his hit directorial debut Sorry To Bother You), and Kalil Joseph, whose work in various forms (including Beyonce’s epic “music video” Lemonade) has straddled the realms of commercial and experimental.

“The Farewell’

Additional highlighted events include “Centerpiece” film The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s US/China co-production with Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina in a globetrotting dysfunctional family comedy; all-female rock quartet Warpaint performing a live score to accompany films by the great celluloid avant-gardist Maya Deren; a salute to the superb, long-running U.K. television cultural showcase BBC Arena; and official closing-nighter Official Secrets, with Keira Knightley as a real-life whistleblower working for British intelligence.

There will also be documentaries about Dr. Ruth, Ai Weiwei, migrating elephants, Satanists, the “American Dream,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, prison basketball, fashion designer Halston, China’s “one child” policy, Molly Ivins, Toni Morrison, Christo, Miles Davis, Mikhail Gorbachev, a refugee camp in a defunct Berlin airport, Brazilian politics, Mexican cuisine, teenage modeling, SF rock photog Jim Marshall, competitive dog grooming, a Creationist “museum,” lost Afghani film, and…well, there’s a lot.

If you’re more in the mood for fiction narratives, on tap are new movies from up-and-comers like actress turned acclaimed firsttime feature director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) and rapper turned ditto Fab 5 Freddy (Grass Is Greener), plus established favorites including Stanley Kwan, Werner Herzog and Paolo Sorrentino. As ever, the festival’s program spans the globe, with fifty-two countries and thirty-six languages represented. Among the dozen world premiere titles are Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak’s When I’m a Moth, a fact-inspired fiction about a young Hillary Rodham (Addison Timlin) mulling her future options while working at an Alaska cannery in 1969. All this plus shorts programs, the experimental “Vanguard” section, culty “Dark Wave” selections, educational programs, lectures and more.

Since being spurned by its longtime exhibition homebase the Kabuki a few years back (its new owners no longer wanted to host local festivals), SFFILM has diversified its venues, spanning from the Mission to downtown, plus the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and Grand Lake in Oakland. This year’s program even has a handy chart to gauge your likeliest walking times and transit routes between locations.

2019 SFFILM FESTIVAL, Wed/10-Tues/23, various SF and East Bay venues. For the full schedule, individual descriptions, ticket info, et al, go to

What we saw at Sundance (and Slamdance), part 4: Narrative features

'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

SUNDANCE 2019 Our festival critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Sundance Film Festival. Read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here

Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
Winning a Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft in the US Dramatic category, this devastating deep dive into a troubled household that manifests into lifelong, self-destructive tendencies should easily be one of 2019’s most memorable movies. An uncompromising coming-of-age flick, it weaves between multiple periods of a young boy’s turbulent and topsy turvy life, giving 22-year-old Lucas Hedges and 13-year-old Noah Jupe room to shine. Granted, most movies tackling child abuse are usually effective in concept but not necessarily affecting emotionally. Debut director Alma Har’el beautifully bandages the surprisingly severe screenplay with an endless amount of sincerity, especially during the film’s most suffocating sequences.

The fact that Hollywood bad boy Shia LaBeouf comes into his own both as an actor (embodying his own abusive father) and as the writer of this autobiographical journey, should be of major interest to even the most stringent critic of this notorious and infamous child star. Art as therapy is definitely being put into practice here with bold choices like casting UK singer FKA Twigs (LaBeouf’s present girlfriend) as a integral, yet extremely controversial character. But as the post-screening Q&A proved (LaBeouf surprised the cast and crew by showing up), the wounds of childhood don’t mend easily. And anyone who braves this poignant powerhouse should be warned; Honey Boy has the strength to help confront some dark and troubling matters.

The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
Feeling like a contemporary classic already, Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is the kind of “the little indie film that could” that sometimes sparks a mainstream movement (i.e. Welcome to the Dollhouse, Real Women Have Curves, Little Miss Sunshine). Exploring the awkward silences and frustrating foibles of a disfunctional middle-class Chinese family, Wang gives viral hip-hop star Awkwafina the kind of role that many have to wait decades for (see Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.) A crowd pleaser in the truest sense, don’t dismiss the skills it takes to make a John Hughes-esque classic nowadays. Many of us forget how important it is to find our footing by watching some solidly made narrative cinema.

This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
The Slamdance Film Festival sported a slew of spectacular films this year, including closing night selection This Teacher. Showcasing a stunning neo-realist performance by Hafsia Herzi (who plays a French Muslim woman named… Hafsia) as she meets up with her childhood best friend Zahra (played beautifully by  Sarah Kazemy), who now resides in an upper class New York. Director Mark Jackson’s third feature is a seriously discerning look at Islamophobia through countless subtle, yet distressing situations. Plus, any movie that presents a musical performance by Rebekah Del Rio (Mulholland Drive) has me absolutely transfixed.

Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
Definitely the most unique movie at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival (which was celebrating its 25th Anniversary) was Ronny Sen’s debut feature Cat Sticks. Digging deep into the dark alleys of Calcutta’s  “brown sugar” addicts (a cheaper form of heroin, averaging only 20 percent pure content), the film’s inhabitants fumble their ways through hauntingly drawn out sequences, punctuated by static B&W cinematography. Sen’s ominous tone and languorous pacing give you the feeling that you are in the film itself. Fans of slow cinema (Lav Diaz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bela Tarr) take note. This 94-minute Bengali film is an absolute must see (and probably more than once.)

Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
My absolute favorite film at Slamdance this year was an 18-minute magical-neorealist South Korean film Hands and Wings directed by 28-year-old Byun Sung-bin. Shot in extreme B&W close-up and with the purposefully minimal catalog description of “one day, a disabled son rejects his mother’s help,” not much can prepare you for the stirring depths of empathy on display here. Byun is a filmmaker to keep your eyes on. In fact, take a look at his spoiler-free trailer above; It’s as unique as the film itself.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, US)
While you’ve perhaps read more reviews and think-pieces about this Bay Area sensation (even deciding how you feel about the film before having even watched it), Joe Talbot & Jimmie Fails loving tribute to San Francisco is well worth all the hullabaloo. Awarded both the Best Directing in the US Dramatic category and a Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration, this spirited and highly stylized quest, exploring the rapid transformation of our unique communities, was in fact, surprisingly, quite heartbreaking. Many of the most powerful scenes in the 120-minute film come from newcomer Jonathan Majors (who is an absolute revelation on every acting level) and Jimmie Fails (who literally plays himself) as they talk sensitively and sincerely to one another.

With the Bay Area being the living metaphor for “gentrification in America”, each new film that gets released (Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and now Joe Talbot’s The Last Man in San Francisco) seem to be attempting a near impossible task of speaking up (and to) all people gentrification is harming. No matter how passionate your feelings are towards this modern day, American “land grab”, make sure to actually watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco and then after, we can have a vigorous discussion as to how to push things even further.

1. The Mountain (Rick Alverson, US)
2. Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
3. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
4. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/US)
5. This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
6. Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
7. Midnight Traveler (Hassan Fazili, US)
8. Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
9. The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
10. Acid Rain (Tomek Popakui, Poland)
11. Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance, Part 3: MiDNiTE MOViES and Beyond!

Our critic basking in the interactive wonders of 'Dirtscraper' at Sundance

SUNDANCE 2019 Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from Sundance. See part 1 here and part 2 here

The Death of Dick Long (Daniel Scheinert, US) 
Absurdism dates back to the work of Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, often exploring life’s most impossible contradictions through a kind of preposterous or irrational philosophy. Topping all entries for me in the Park City at Midnight category, Daniel Scheinert delivered a unique blend of sincere slapstick with profound nonsense, probing two lovable knuckleheads as they flounder through their lives in small town, Alabama.

Scheinert, who co-wrote and co-directed the similarly controversial Swiss Army Man (2016) with Dan Kwan, has perfectly captured the pointlessness of life and the difficulties with loneliness beyond all rationality. All three actors, Michael Abbott Jr. (Pilgrim Song), Virginia Newcomb, and especially Andre Hyland (whose seven-minute film Funnel from 2014 is still one of the funniest flicks of the decade!) are unstoppably hilarious, down to the existential finale. Do your best to stay away from all reviews of The Death of Dick Long. This is an outrageously brave movie that could very easily be dismissed by the casual viewer. A24 will be releasing the film later this year.

The Lodge 
(Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala, UK/US)
Hands down the scariest film at Sundance this year was Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s second feature The Lodge. Following up on their exquisitely terrorizing debut Goodnight Mommy (2014), this English language excursion needs to be experienced with as little plot information as possible. Riley Keough (of Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike and the TV version of The Girlfriend Experience) gives a stunning performance, Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography (who has shot Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) keeps the frame relentlessly eerie and the menacing music by Saunder Jurriaans’ (who did the score for one of the my favorite films of the decade, Anna Rose Holmer’s 2015 debut The Fits) makes The Lodge a must-see for off-beat horror fans. Or take my still-healing “chewed-up cheeks” as the highest recommendation for this sophisticated scarefest.

Wounds (Babak Anvari, UK)
Following a screening of Babak Anvari’s heart-stopping 2016 debut Under the Shadow, Armie Hammer decided he would star in Wounds, Babak’s second feature to be showcased in Park City at Midnight. Placed alongside the stunning likes of Zazie Beetz (Deadpool 2), Dakota Johnson (Suspiria), and Karl Glusman (Love), Hammer delivers a fabulously frenetic performance, wrapped up in a wickedly, wild web of meandering midlife alcoholism. While Anvari tends more towards ambiguous terror here as opposed to the hardcore horror of Under the Shadow, I have a feeling that Wounds could be a huge crossover date flick when Annapurna Pictures releases it on March 29. I know I’ll be there for seconds. 

The Wolf Hour (Alistair Banks Griffin, US)
Naomi Watts had two films at Sundance this year and while Julius Onah’s universally celebrated family drama Luce was picked up for distribution by NEON and Topic Studios, it’s her enthralling performance in Alistair Banks Griffin’s The Wolf Hour that still has me reeling. Inhabiting a writer who’s emotionally paralyzed by a flurry of phobias, Griffin’s deliciously disturbing descent into one woman’s isolated world reminded me of Chantal Akerman’s Je, Tu, Ile, Elle (1974) combined with Rip Torn’s underrated 1988 cult classic The Telephone (1988) which flaunts a similarly stunning performance by Whoopi Goldberg. Add to that another memorable musical score by Saunder Jurriaans (The Lodge, The Fits) and some seriously sweaty cinematography by Khalid Mohtaseb, The Wolf Hour is a surprising solid throwback to a tumultuous 1970s.

The best “shorts program” of Sundance this year was the “Animation Spotlight,” showcasing eight electrifying films. Renee Zhan won the Animated Short Film Jury Award for her beguiling piece Reneepoptosis following three different Renees who all go on a quest to uncover who God is. Weaving through the ups and downs, peaks and valleys, rocky and calm, I was left in a profoundly peaceful place… all in 10 minutes.

Jeron Braxton had won the Short Film Jury Award for Animation last year for his self taught, 13-minute Glucose (2018) that hypnotically explores everything from his own private bedroom to the terrifying streets of America. Braxton’s much anticipated follow-up OCTANE clocks in at six minutes, astounding me yet again with homemade animation as well as furthering the horrors of growing up Black in America.

Polish filmmaker Tomek Popakui’s ecstasy extravaganza Acid Rain had me bleary-eyed with every emotion possible at the end of his 28-minute masterpiece. Taking audiences through an evening’s entire life cycle by way of 1990s rave culture, each stage brings another level of uncertainty. Popakui’s level of skill and inspiration being displayed here is on par with any feature film this year. I wanted to watch the film again as soon as it ended.

Dirtscraper (Peter Burr, US)
Peter Burr made one of my favorite films of 2017, Pattern Language, a mesmerizing 11-minute experience, engrossing its audience in some of the most fascinating B&W digitized layering of patterned life that I have ever witnessed. At this year’s New Frontier Exhibitions, Burr utilized the massive, three-sided interactive projection stage (complete with portable headphones) with a stunning large-scale abstract installation. Simulating “an underground structure whose smart architecture is overseen by artificial intelligences—spatial and social designers that observe, learn, and make changes to the system”, this long form piece (running over an hour) hypnotized me like no other movie at this year’s Sundance and has magnified Burr’s “endlessly mutating labyrinth” to the umpteenth degree. Keep your eyes, ears and inner parts peeled for this truly unique occurrence. (It has been presented by various institutions around the world, including Documenta 14, MoMA PS1, and the Barbican Centre.)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance, part 2: Documentaries

Hail Satan?

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Sundance Film Festival: See part 1 here and part 3 here

SUNDANCE 2019 The Documentary categories are often the best part of Sundance and this year was no different. Save this SPOiLER-FREE list as a guide to look for at film festivals, art house theaters and streaming sites during 2019.

Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
Quite easily the best documentary at Sundance 2019 and winner of three (count that, three) top awards: World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize, Special Jury Award for Cinematography and a Special Jury Award for Impact for Change. This immersive vérité experience about a middle aged woman named Hatidze, who takes care of her mother in a deserted Macedonian village, has as many layers to it as the beehives that she cultivates. This quiet story doesn’t just slow your blood flow down; it seeps into your entire bloodstream. No narration, no talking heads, no explanations, it reminded me of the early works of Iranian masters Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, who also concealed sensitively, structured allegories within their neo-realism. This is the kind of cinema cinephiles wait years for, patiently. An absolute must see. (NOTE: Honeyland was just purchased for distribution by NEON)

Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, US)
The most buzzed about documentary in Park City this year was Penny Lane’s third feature, Hail Satan? a radical exploration into The Satanic Temple, a nontheistic religious and grassroots activist group based in Salem, Massachusetts. Lane, who won Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Editing in 2016 for her second feature Nuts!, stays focused on this group’s systematic deconstruction of our country’s systemic theology. In other words, no matter what your beliefs are going into the film, you will come out with a whole lot of inspired questions than absolute answers. The film was purchased for distribution by Magnolia Pictures and should have a theatrical release later this year.

Midnight Traveler (Hassan Fazili, US)
Hassan Fazili’s debut feature took my breath away with Midnight Traveler, a jaw-dropping, first-person account of his own family’s years-long journey fleeing the Taliban. After Fazili’s previous short, Peace in Afghanistan aired on Afghan television, the Taliban assassinated the film’s main subject and put a price on Fazili’s head. The immediacy of this deeply gripping allegory for the modern refugee experience became even more powerful when the producers explained why Fazili and his family were unable to attend the festival, and that much of the film’s raw footage had to be smuggled out of the country on thumb drives. Winner of two awards—World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for No Borders and the Special Jury Award for Cinematography in the US Documentary category—vérité cinema was made to be experienced in a movie theater and Midnight Traveler is one of the year’s finest. Vérité cinema was made to be experienced in a movie theater and Midnight Traveler is one of the year’s finest.

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (Irene Taylor Brodsky, US)
Following up on her memorable Audience Award winning debut Hear and Now (2007), director Irene Taylor Brodsky turns her camera on her own family, crafting “an intergenerational exploration of living with deafness.” While her elderly parents and her eldest son each have cochlear implants, Brodsky heart achingly explores the metaphors of struggling to adapt within an impaired world and attempting to accept one’s own struggles silently. Documenting her son’s passion towards performing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (a piece the composer created when losing his own hearing) is just the tip of the iceberg to this emotional roller coaster, punctuated by a particularly profound perseverance by Brodsky’s own parents. Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements is distributed by HBO and should be popping up at a film festival near you soon.

Words From a Bear (Jeffrey Palmer, US)
Kiowa writer Navarro Scott Momaday won a pulitzer prize for his first novel House Made of Dawn in 1969. His life that preceded and followed this prestigious award is explored exquisitely in this extremely moving doc, Words From a Bear. While director Jeffrey Palmer, who is of Kiowa descent as well, carefully captures the many different sides of Momaday’s personal complexities, the film stays focused on its subject’s ever-present question, “What are our origins and how do we connect to them through our collective memories?” Indigenous cinema was unfortunately very sparse at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which used to have an entire Native category, making this all the more important to track down when it screens online or at a local film festival.

Pahokee (Ivete Lucas & Patrick Bresnan, US)
Directors Ivete Lucas & Patrick Bresnan delivered their gorgeously shot debut feature to Sundance this year, their third film about high schoolers in the small town of Pahokee, Florida. Their previous 12-minute films: The Send Off (2016)and Rabbit Hunt (2017)should both be screened before Pahokee(as a trilogy of some sort) to perhaps give audiences more context and history as to how the relationship has formed between these filmmakers and their subjects. Which brings up the film’s dilemma of attempting to genuinely capture coming-of-age moments within poorer Black and Brown families without it becoming a purely ethnographic experience. (One approach was using footage made by their subjects and allowing multiple voices to tell their own stories.) Moved to tears many times throughout this film, I did get caught in some real debates with fellow peers after the screening as to how documentary cinema can continue to keep pushing past the surface of what are often categorized as marginalized communities.

David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton, US)
Sundance seems to have an aging rock star doc at every festival and this entertaining overview of the wild life of David Crosby, ranging from his beginnings with The Byrds to CSN (Crosby, Stills and Nash) to CSNY (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) to his recent solo efforts, too often shied away from confronting some of the most impending questions towards this frustratingly flawed man. Oddly enough, this might be exactly why I find myself still thinking about it, days after. It’s almost as if the film is like a Song with No Words or a Tree with No Leaves or a Man Who Almost Cut His Hair.

Memphis 69 (Joe LaMattina, US)
The Slamdance Film Festival showcased the best music doc at Park City this year with Joe LaMattina’s purely found footage fiesta, Memphis 69. In 1969, the Fourth Annual Memphis Country Blues Festival showcased some truly jaw dropping blues masters like Sleepy John Estes, Jo Ann Kelly and 106 year-old Nathan Beauregard, while excavating some truly amazing performances by more celebrated musicians like Rufus Thomas and The Bar-Kays and John Fahey. Perhaps my favorite performer of the entire event was a riotous guitarist named Mississippi Fred McDowell, who embodied so much impassioned ecstasy, that I have made him my new role model for this next stage of my life. Do not miss this rare musical extravagnaza magically preserved by one of the attendees in 1969 named Gene Rosenthal, who “brought along a couple of cameras, a small crew and left with 40,000 feet of color film that was left untouched for nearly 50 years.”

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

What we saw at Sundance, Part 1

Baykali Ganambarr in 'The Nightingale'

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2019 With more than 14,000 submissions from more than 150 countries, the Sundance Film Festival (which celebrated its 35th Anniversary) narrowed down their feature film total to 120 this year while the related Slamdance Film Festival (25th Anniversary) screened 18 features from more than 5000 submissions. I attended 30 features and 20 shorts at both festivals and have compiled a SPOiLER-FREE list of the most memorable movies to keep your eyes glued for this coming year.

The following are the best of the Spotlight section, a category devoted to unreleased movies that premiered at other film festivals earlier in the year.

The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/US)
Following her feature debut, the 2014 horror masterpiece The Babadook, Jennifer Kent has constructed one of the most confrontational films of 2019. Set in the 1820s in the region of Australia now known as Tasmania, this relentlessly violent Western follows Clare (wildly performed by Aisling Franciosi) as she vengefully tracks down the men who destroyed her family. Kent’s powerful choice to emphasize the outrageously atrocious acts committed by the British colonists (towards women, children and especially the Aboriginal Tasmanians) will undoubtedly shock audiences beyond belief.

Yet I would argue that Kent is intentionally exacerbating this unrecorded historical violence, combining Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) and Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2018) with Abel Ferarra’s Ms. 45 (1981). Adamant filmmakers making unwavering films have always been tough to swallow at first, especially when attempting to disentangle an unabashed or shameless history. But these are movies that years from now will resonate the strongest and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale is truly, one for the ages. Important to mention Baykali Ganambarr’s stunning performance as Billy, an Aboriginal tracker who brings love and levity to what may feel like an incessant inhumanity. (Ganambarr deservedly won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Talent at this past year’s Venice Film Festival.)

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Colombia/Denmark/Mexico)
This often surreal, two-hour epic follows a family of Wayuu (an indigenous community in Colombia), whose descent into illegal drug trafficking during the 1960s uniquely presents the complete opposite perspective on the drug crime genre. From the filmmakers of the stunning Embrace of the Serpent (2015), which opened the 50th edition of the Directors’ Fortnight section at this past year’s 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

While it seems I am not the first person to note the film’s remarkable storytelling similarities to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy (yes, including the universally underrated The Godfather III), it also brought a complexity similar to Zacharias Kunuk’s monumental inuit epic Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001). Constructing a near Shakespearian web of familial tragedy, Birds of Passage layers an unfathomable amount of social critiques within its poetic narrative. In fact, I’m very interested in how recreational Americans will respond to the film’s observations on the entitlement and romanticized use of marijuana verses those that rely on growing and selling it to literally survive?

The Mountain (Rick Alverson, US)
Beyond a doubt the best film at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Rick Alverson’s (The Comedy, Entertainment) fifth feature was so purposefully perplexing, I had to watch it twice. Showcasing absolutely hypnotic performances by Jeff Goldblum, Tye Sheridan, and Denis Lavant, The Mountain does more than just polarize its audiences with its disturbing content; the movie bravely creates space for a transcendental discomfort.

The careful procedure of unraveling endless unpleasantness (based roughly on Walter Freeman, the man who invented the lobotomy) was explained by the director to be a “counterweight” to the typical narrative that often follows characters who have “unlimited potential and boundless opportunities.” In fact, this “very beige,” deeply melancholy pilgrimage is consciously framed through an Academy aspect ratio (1.37:1) perhaps reinforcing a stifled, suffocating 1950s America. Fans of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018) and Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) take note; this may very well may be the most important (and disturbingly empathetic) film of 2019.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the Midnites for Maniacs series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.

Score free tickets to SF Indiefest!


We’ve got 10 pairs of tickets to give away to the below movies screening at SF Indiefest! To score them, send an email by 5pm Thursday/7 to with:
Subject line: “Indiefest” + the name of the movie you wish to see below
Body of email: your full name

Fri Feb 8, 5p, WILDLAND
Sat Feb 9 715p, SEVEN STAGES
Sat Feb 9, 930p, THE SECRET POPPO
Sun Feb 10, 5p, I AM MARIS
Sun Feb 10, 715p, I MAY REGRET
Sun Feb 10, 930p, CRUEL HEARTS

Alex Jablonski, Kahlil Hudson
USA 90 min Documentary
Fri Feb 8, 5p Roxie Theater
Epic and intimate in the same breath, Wildland tells the story of a single wildland firefighting crew as they struggle with fear, loyalty, love, and defeat. What emerges is a story of a small group of working-class men, their exterior world, their interior lives, and the fire that lies between.

Seven Stages To Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through The Gateway Chosen By The Holy Storsh
Vivieno Caldinelli
USA 96 min
Sat Feb 9, 715p Roxie Theater
A hapless couple arrive in L.A. and end up living in the suicide headquarters of a cult. A dark comedy starring Dan Harmon as a John Candy-esque cop, Caldinelli’s debut doesn’t leave the audience room to question its absurdity, just feel the assault of maniac joy on the senses.

The Secret Poppo
Nevi Cline, Zach Harris, Sean Pierce
USA 86 min
Sat Feb 9, 930p Roxie
Discovering his granddaughter is missing, Poppo goes on quest of diminutive proportions, eventually uncovering a conspiracy that’s either a cult, or sci-fi, or a sci-fi cult. The team behind Meathead Goes Hogwild (IndieFest 2015) return with a largely improvised headscratcher that plays out like Poirot on a park bench.

I am Maris: Portrait of a Young Yogi
Laura Vanzee Taylor
USA 54 min Documentary, Local
Fri Feb 8, 5p; Sun Feb 10, 5p Roxie
Tormented by mental illness and hospitalized for life-threatening anorexia, a teenage girl confronts her buried emotions through yoga. Her journey from despair to self-acceptance is illustrated through vivid animation based on her haunting artwork and writing.
with: Introducing the Super Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point, 20 min

I May Regret
Graham Streeter
USA 100 min
Sun Feb 10, 715p Roxie
Suffering from dementia, an ailing woman finds herself at the mercy of a young live-in nurse who is out to kill her and take her life’s fortune–or is she? Dementia plays a starring role in this brilliant thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last minute.

Cruel Hearts
Paul Osbourne
USA 86 min
Sun Feb 10, 930p Roxie
Discovering the woman he has been sleeping with is married to a crime boss, a man seeks out the notorious criminal and offers himself up for punishment forgiveness. A film noir that conjures up memories of Hitchcock and Preminger, Cruel Hearts harkens back to a Hollywood of characters and intricate plotting.

Sam Elliott talks ‘The Man Who Killed Hitler’ and Oscar buzz

Sam Elliott as Calvin Barrinthe in 'The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Big Foot'. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

Calvin Barr has a tall order ahead of him in Robert Krzykowski’s debut movie The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (which opens the San Francisco Independent Film Festival on Fri/31). The military man was to hunt down and kill the German dictator at the height of WWII and, decades later, do in the legendary hirsute hominid known as Bigfoot while the creature hides out in the Canadian wilderness, carrying a deadly plague.

These two monstrous figures were, in reality, impervious to entire armies of men, so it’s marvelous to think that one man could locate and assassinate them both — especially a character as peaceable as Barr, played by the mustached and deep-voiced Sam Elliott of Tombstone, The Big Lebowski, and Hulk (and by The Hobbit‘s Aidan Turner in flashbacks.)

That being said, it’s the struggle within that is the toughest to conquer for Barr in Krzykowski’s character study about a sensitive, lonely man who must come to terms with these killings and the other casualties he has left in his wake.

Elliott, currently up for an Academy Award for his much-lauded supporting role in “A Star Is Born,” told me he’d have no reservations about killing the Führer.  He also spoke about what drew him to this fantastical tale, abotu playing a reluctant killer, his Oscar nomination, and why both A Star Is Born, and The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot are the right films for the wrong times we’re living in.        

48 HILLS What drew you to The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot when your agent first presented it to you?

SAM ELLIOTT It’s a very provocative title that makes people wonder what it’s about. I read what was presented to me and knew that it was a very young, first-time director. Then I got on the phone with Robert D. Krzykowski and heard how intelligent and well-spoken he was, and how long he had been working on it, and also about some of the people that Robert had gotten involved and were mentoring him along the way. As soon as he said that [writer-director] John Sayles (Eight Men Out, Passion Fish, Lone Star) and one of the great effects wizards in the business, Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner) were involved — that spoke everything of Robert and the kind of story he’s telling.  

Ultimately, it was really about what’s on the page, this fantastical tale. There are a lot of things about this character — the way he deals with people, his goodness — that were really touching to me, and close to me in terms of the way that I am as a person.

Elliott as Calvin Barrand and Ron Livingston as Flag Pin in ‘The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot’. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

48 HILLS In the film, you play a kind of reluctant killer. First he kills Hitler during World War II on behalf of the U.S. military. Then decades later, he is summoned by Canadian authorities to kill a deadly plague-carrying Bigfoot. While he’s good at what he does, he’s not dying to do it and it actually takes a major emotional toll on him.

SAM ELLIOTT He was very unsettled about killing. Clearly, when push comes to shove, he had no trouble with it. But it wasn’t anything he was proud of.

I think he’d gotten away from it and finally made peace with it. Then, when they come to him at his home and ask him to go after Bigfoot, telling him he’s the only person who can do it, he just went back in it again, because he was a military man, had worked for the government, and had allegiance to it.  It’s like a lot of the great warriors in this country that lay down their lives for the rest of us. They’re committed to it, and he’s committed to it.

But I think he’s very sad about it, also because he lost the love of his life precisely because he was in the military.  

48 HILLS Conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro recently admitted at a March for Life rally that he couldn’t, on principle, kill a baby Hitler. I have to ask: Could you?

SAM ELLIOTT Yep, if I could have gotten to him. There’s no doubt that the world would have been a much better place if he, or anybody else of his ilk, had never been around. And I think that’s one of the things that makes this film the right film for the right time.

I’m also expecting to get a lot of blowback on being the man who killed Hitler in the movie, from all the people who are still out there who share his mentality. Nobody’s holding back on anything today, and I think it’s obvious who set the tone for it.

But it’s the times we are living in. It’s like A Star Is Born. One of the elements of A Star Is Born is talking about addiction and alcoholism. There isn’t anybody in the world who doesn’t know someone who’s been touched by alcoholism, either from personal experience or a family member or loved one. It’s the world we live in, and it’s a terrible thing about it.

“I’ve never had such heat burning under me as I do right now”; Sam Elliott in ‘The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot’. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.

48 HILLS Speaking of A Star Is Born, I have to congratulate you on your Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

SAM ELLIOTT Thank you. It feels good. On some level, I think it’s about fucking time, from a tongue in cheek standpoint. For me, it’s always been about the creative gain, but to be recognized for your work is a wonderful thing. I’m thrilled to see all the nominations that have come to the film because it means that a lot of people are being recognized for a lot of hard work.

It’s very interesting to have A Star Is Born energy going on right now, and behind that I’m going to be going out and enjoying seeing what happens to this little indie movie. It’s like opposite ends of the poles as far as what kind of films they are and where they came from. I’m very excited for Robert Krzykowski, and beyond anything, I’m very excited to see what happens to the film on his behalf.

48 HILLS What’s coming up next for you?

SAM ELLIOTT I’m filming the last 10 episodes of “The Ranch” for Netflix with Ashton Kutcher, and then I’m looking forward to doing nothing for a time. I’ve never had such heat burning under me as I do right now, so I’m sure some work will be offered somewhere. It’s really about what’s on the page for me and the people that are there.

That’s why I’m thrilled to talk about The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot. I started working on this little indie movie a week after I wrapped on A Star Is Born. It’s been a long time coming — 12 years for Robert — so I’m almost more excited on Robert’s behalf than my own.

Thu/31 7pm, $13 
Roxie Theater, SF  
Tickets and more info here.