Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: Gimme Shelter, Solo, A Fistful of Dollars….

SCREEN GRABS We’re already lamented in this space Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ inexplicable decision to cut loose Film Curator Joel Shepard after over two decades, with YBCA’s film program itself put into deep freeze for an unknown period after the end of June. 

A good illustration of why this is a very bad idea comes this weekend, with a particularly savvy and characteristic piece of original Shepard programming—“Please help me I am drownding: San Francisco’s Dark Decade.” Its title taken from a letter famed SF attorney Melvin Belli received from the then at-large (and still never-caught) Zodiac Killer in 1969, this four-day series highlights vintage expressions and latterday reflections of a Bay Area era that had already shed its “Summer of Love” innocence by then. Upsetting signs of societal turmoil piled up from Zodiac’s spree and the tragic “anti-Woodstock” concert at Altamont Speedway to the City Hall assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in 1978. 

It kicks off Thursday night with the Maysles Brothers’ 1970 Gimme Shelter, which chronicles that notorious Rolling Stones/Jefferson Airplane rock show at which members of Hell’s Angels, hired as “security,” contributed to a disturbingly violent atmosphere that resulted in several variably-accidental deaths. Friday brings Paul Schrader’s (see First Reformed, below) underrated 1988 Patty Hearst, with the late Natasha Richardson as the local heiress kidnapped by revolutionist cult the Symbionese Liberation Army. It’s a portrayal both sympathetic and grotesquely funny at times. 

As with the Manson “Family” slayings down south, Hearst’s ordeal spawned several cheap exploitation movie cash-ins before more serious cinematic treatments arrived. Similarly, the “Zodiac” slayings that terrorized the region at the end of the ’60s (with some possibly attributable to the same unknown perp happening both earlier and later) was subject to dramatizations alternately high-minded and very lowbrow. On the latter front, there’s 1971’s highly fictionalized cheapie The Zodiac Killer, a notably tasteless and cynical exercise with not just one but two misanthropic working-class male suspects as lead characters. Strangely, actual SF Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (who covered the real case) was an active consultant on this often unintentionally funny cheesefest. 

It’s double-billed on Saturday with a much more recent genre spin on real-life tragedy: Horror specialist Ti West’s 2013 The Sacrament, which fictionalizes the mass suicide of People’s Temple members after that hitherto SF-based religious cult moved to rural Guyana. The series ends with David Fincher’s harrowing 2007 Zodiac, which makes its own dramatic and speculative leaps but is unlikely to be surpassed as a screen depiction of that never-solved series of homicides. More info here

At the multiplex, of course the big noise this week is Solo: A Star Wars Story, the film that asks the question “Is a new Star Wars movie still a major event if the last one came out just five months ago?” The good news: Alden Ehrenreich, who was the best thing in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! a couple years ago, plays a younger iteration of Harrison Ford’s Han. The maybe-less-good-news: Ron Howard directs. 

The most conspicuous arthouse opening is On Chesil Beach, stage director Dominic Cooke’s respectable but somewhat overblown adaptation of Ian MacEwan’s slender, effective novel. It’s about two clueless virgins (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, concurrently also teamed in The Seagull) making a royal mess of their wedding night in 1962—a last moment of darkness before the dawn of the Sexual Revolution. For nonfiction fans, there’s also the arrival of Love & Bananas, a well-reviewed documentary from actor (The Last Exorcism) turned director Ashley Bell, in which she follows elephant conversationist Lek Chailert’s attempt to rescue an imperiled 70-year-old blind Thai pachyderm. 

Elsewhere (all opening Fri/25 unless otherwise noted):

One of the more unlikely cultural objects to resurface amidst the #MeToo cultural moment is actress Asia Argento’s 2000 first directorial feature—she’s since directed two more, all of them dealing in various ways with sexual harassment and child abuse. This semi-autobiographical fantasia is a headlong tabloid paparrazi lunge toward the glamorous and sensational, with Argento pretty much playing herself as bisexual movie star “Anna Battista.” Its globe-trotting slice of high life shows Anna’s snorting Special K, untying her best friend from the bed an abusive bf has left her bound to, sleeping with a rock star, nearly drowning during a fashion shoot, experiencing unhappy childhood flashbacks, hallucinating, burning herself with a cigarette, getting smacked around, slam-dancing while pregnant, and otherwise exuding maximum drama 24/7. When she wakes up naked and paranoid after a threesome, one of her partners tells the other “She’s freakin’ out, man”—which would have been a great ad line for this movie. 

Shot on video (when that still looked like crap), Scarlet Diva is an ambulance-chasing hot mess that will still register with viewers as shocking, ridiculous, or both. What can you say about a movie whose cast includes Schooly-D, porn star Selen, and the writer-director’s own mother Daria Nicolodi as a monster matriarch? But it’s being revived at the Roxie for reasons of alarming relevancy: Though few realized it at the time, Argento explicitly based scenes in which she interacts with a gross Hollywood producer (played by performance artist Joe Coleman) on her experiences with Harvey Weinstein, whom she’s since claimed sexually assaulted her. The sequence in which he lures “Anna” to his hotel room—only to suddenly appear in a bathrobe, demanding a “massage”—is bizarrely funny, yet also discomfitingly close to the stories many women have told about the disgraced Weinstein. Roxie. More info here

It’s been 40 years since Taxi Driver scenarist Paul Schrader directed his first feature, and this new drama proves he’s no less capable of surprise or adventure in his 70s. Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Toller, a former army chaplain who since a family tragedy has become the lone pastor at an upstate NY “tourist church”—a historic building about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, but which has very few remaining congregation members. 

Among them are a young couple (Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger) who ask him for help, because the husband’s despair over political/environmental issues is arresting his ability to participate in everyday life, let alone imagine a viable future. But while he’s reluctant to admit it, Toller needs help, too: His health is failing, and this couple’s plight makes him question his own faith. Though Schrader’s narrative may ultimately alienate or bewilder some viewers, this strikingly austere film is a rare movie to meaningfully wrestle with theological concerns—and their application in our ever-more-problematic worldly reality—so you are guaranteed ample discussion fodder afterward. At area theaters.

Back for a commercial run after premiering at the SF International last year, Peter Livolsi’s adaptation of Peter Bognanni’s novel is a neat twist on the kind of indie growing-pains seriocomedy familiar from movies like Lady Bird. Asa Butterfield plays a teen raised in unique circumstances by his grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), a diehard acolyte of the late architect, inventor, and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller—in fact, they live in (and off) one of his signature geodesic-dome homes. Encountering Alex Wolff and Maude Apatow as two rebellious offspring of a hapless divorced nice-guy (Nick Offerman) on a guided tour of that abode ends up opening our protagonist’s horizons to more beyond “Bucky’s” retrofuturism. A bit formulaic but well-acted and charming nonetheless, this is a good movie with a great soundtrack—Wolff’s drug of choice being vintage punk tracks he’d like to match someday with his own garage band. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

No one expected the 1964 Fistful to be a big deal: Its director Sergio Leone certainly wasn’t one, nor its star Clint Eastwood, then just a U.S. TV star whose first leading film role earned him only a $15,000 salary. It wasn’t even really the first “spaghetti western”—the term later applied to such European-made enterprises once they became ubiquitous. But something clicked with this relatively low-budget ($200,000) Italian-German-Spanish coproduction: Its cynical, violent content and starkly maxi-minimalist visual style pumped new blood into a genre whose trad, John Wayne-type forms were slowly dying out. 

An unacknowledged remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (over which Leone was sued), Fistful wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967, at which point Leone and Eastwood had already finished their ‘Dollars trilogy’ with For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly—and a bazillion imitations were beginning to flood theaters worldwide. The ‘spaghetti’ vogue died out by the early 70s, but it remains a clear influence amongst filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, not to mention Eastwood himself. Fistful is being shown in a new 4K digital restoration, billed with the other movie that defined its star’s big-screen persona: Don Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry, in which Clint’s terse San Francisco cop makes short work of those dirty, dirty hippies. Tues/29, Castro. More info here

Screen Grabs: Kim Novak live, Jim Carrey gets scary …

Kim Novak

SCREEN GRABS This weekend brings local impresario Marc Heustis’ first Castro Theater event in some time, and it’s one he’s been chasing for considerably longer: A tribute to Kim Novak, one of very few stars from “golden age” Hollywood who is still with us. Her rare in-person appearance will be even more special because she is, of course, the star of perhaps the single most celebrated San Francisco-set movie ever: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which she played the woman—or women—with whom James Stewart’s former police detective is obsessed. 

An Oregon native who broke into the movies after being a model (she was crowned “Miss Deep Freeze” by a refrigerator company for whom she worked at trade shows), Novak was one of the last great star creations of the old Hollywood studio system, promoted as a successor to Rita Hayworth and rival to Marilyn Monroe. Fighting that kind of sex-kitten promotion—and the control of Columbia Pictures’ bullying chief executive Harry Cohn—she nonetheless had some popular and critical triumphs, notably including the film versions of stage hits Picnic and Bell, Book and Candle. (Vertigo itself was neither popular or praised in its initial release, its stature instead slowly rising over the ensuing decades until a 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll named it the best film of all time, knocking Citizen Kane out of that slot.)

The collapse of that “classic” studio system left her career somewhat rudderless amidst the drastic changes in audience taste and film content of the 1960s. In the 1970s she began taking on the occasional TV project, and in 1986 had a successful stint playing a character not unlike her Vertigo heroine in the prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest.

Though she hasn’t acted in over a quarter-century, Novak will have plenty to talk about: She’s worked not only with Hitchcock but such other directorial luminaries as Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Robert Aldrich. Her costars have included Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Kirk Douglas, Zero Mostel, Dean Martin, Angela Lansbury, Charles Bronson, even David Bowie. 

The 7pm Sunday Castro event—featuring clips, an onstage interview, live performances, and Vertigo—may well be sold out by showtime. However, never underestimate how far money and determination can get you. If you’re short on either, there’s still a free noon showing of Picnic.  

Also a suspense tale involving forbidden love and mysterious death, but offering no competition to Vertigo, is the oddest opening of the week. That would be Dark Crimes, a 2016 English-language movie by a Greek director (Alexandros Avranas) that was shot in Poland, with a mirthless Jim Carrey oddly cast as a Krakow police detective investigating a murder tied to an underground S&M sex club. You might wonder why Carrey signed on for this particular project…but then it’s a bit of a puzzle why anyone did. The gloomy thriller manages to be mildly distasteful without even having the energy to cash in on its lurid subject. However, if you catch its run at the Roxie, be sure afterwards to read this article about the real murder case it’s (quite loosely) “inspired by.”

Other specialty openings this week include Boom for Real, Sara Driver’s documentary about the pre-fame years of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Argentinian drama The Desert Bride, with Chilean star Paulina Garcia (Gloria) as a longtime domestic servant shaken when her post evaporates; Timothy McNeil’s indie Anything, in which John Carroll Lynch is a widowed newcomer to L.A. whose horizons are widened by Matt Bomer’s transgender neighbor; and Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a tribute to/message from the progressive pontif. If nothing else, the latter is certain to be the most popular movie Wim Wenders has directed since Wings of Desire three decades ago, if not ever. 

An important note: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s newly rediscovered five-part 1972 German TV series Eight Days Don’t Make a Day (written about in last week’s column) is playing the Drafthouse in its entirety each day this weekend, Friday through Sunday. If you missed it at the Pacific Film Archive the week prior, here’s your chance to see one of RWF’s least-known but arguably best (and certainly most accessible) works. Fri/18-Sun/20, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Elsewhere (all opening Friday): 

Personally I’d rank Kubrick 1968 masterpiece higher than Vertigo, but then designations like “best movie of all time” are kind of inherently ridiculous, eh? Still, there’s nothing ridiculous about this sci-fi mindtrip, which has dated remarkably little in fifty years. If you’re thinking, “Didn’t this play the Castro in 70mm not all that long ago?,” you would be right. The occasion (beyond that half-century anniversary) for this 11-day revival run—which is interrupted by Novak’s event and a few other programs—is that a new print was struck from original-camera-negative elements, resulting in an “unrestored” experience closer to the one audiences had in ’68 than has been possible since. This “un-restoration” was overseen by none other than Christopher Nolan, a latterday sci-fi screen specialist who no doubt sees it as a standard to aspire to—and well he should. Fri/18-Mon/28, Castro. More info here.  

The list of good films based on Chekhov is very short—the last major addition was Dover Koshashvili’s 2010 The Duel, drawn from a novella rather than a play. But it gets a little longer with the arrival of this adaptation by playwright Stephen Karam and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot). (Read our interview with Mayer here.)

Annette Bening plays the insufferably vain veteran actress Irina, whose summer trip to her family’s country estate underlines her neglect of them (including Brian Dennehy as ailing brother Sorin)—and her terror of aging, which is reinforced by writer lover Boris’ (Corey Stoll) attraction towards the jeune fille (Saoirse Ronan’s Nina) her angst-ridden son Konstantin (Billy Howle) loves. Others in the fine cast include Corey Stoll, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, and Elisabeth Moss in a scene-stealing turn as Masha, the original Debbie Downer. Prettily mounted but bruisingly concise in capturing Chekhov’s tragicomedic breadth, this is a very good film—which is to say, something more than just good theater transposed to film. At area theaters.

An English oceanside village is more like a prison for Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman who’s regarded as unstable because of one ugly incident years ago—though these days it’s the suffocating control of her mother (Geraldine James) that’s impacting her mental health, if anything. Unsurprisingly, Moll falls hard after a chance encounter with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a handsome, somehwat mysterious man whose rebellious, confrontative nature suggests the person she’d like to be. 

But even as their romance rapidly heats up, there are reasons to worry: The main one being that Pascal is a prime suspect in a rash of young women’s murders in the area. This compelling first feature by writer-director Michael Pearce is a true psychological thriller, in that the psychology takes precedence over the thriller mechanics—although there’s quite enough of the latter to satisfy. It’s a complexly disturbing tale that never feels routinely exploitative or contrived. At area theaters. 

Screen Grabs: CAAMFest, Sky Hopinka, Hecho en Mexico…

Brenda Wong Aoki performs 'Aunt Lily’s Flower Book: One Hundred Years of Legalized Racism' for the closing of CAAMFest

SCREEN GRABS The big event this week is CAAMFest (May 10-24), or what used to be called the SF Asian American Film Festival—now (like Frameline) boiled down to the name of its producing organization, otherwise known as the Center for Asian American Media. This year’s two-week event kicks off with the world premiere of Bay Area native Diane Fukami’s An American Story: Norman Mineta and His Legacy, about the first Asian-American mayor of a major city—whose high-flying political career took him from a WW2 Japanese-American internment camp to San Jose’s City Hall, then onto cabinet posts under both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. A gala party at the Asian Art Museum will follow this Thursday night. 

The official closer on May 24 is something unusual for CAAM: Not a movie, but a live theatrical performance by veteran local writer-performer Brenda Wong Aoki. She’ll perform her multi character not-quite-solo show Aunt Lily’s Flower Room: One Hundred Years of Legalized Racism at the Herbst with live accompaniment from her jazz composer husband Mark Izu and koto master Shoko Hikage. 

There are also two “Centerpiece” selections, one narrative and one nonfiction. Bitter Melon is the third feature by SF’s own H.P. Mendoza, of Colma: The Musical fame. Another left-field surprise from him, this one isn’t a musical, or a supernatural mystery like 2012’s I Am a Ghost, but a dark comedy about a Filipino family deciding to take violent action against the most problematic member of the clan. Comedian Kulap Vilaysack’s documentary Origin Story is an exploration of her own family background, including the biological father she’s never met. 

Another highlight will be a tribute to martial arts superstar Pei-Pei Chang, whose screen career has now spanned over half a century—including King Hu’s 1966 wuxia classic Come Drink With Me and Ang Lee’s 2000 genre homage Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

The former will be shown as part of a short retrospective also including her latest, Mina Shum’s Canadian seriocomedy Meditation Park

As usual, CAAM will offer a variety of short, feature-length, narrative and non-fiction work from thought the Asian diaspora, with work from China, India, Taiwan, Nepal, Malaysia, Hong Kong and beyond. There’s also a Filmmaker Summit, a four-part showcase for films by Pacific Islanders, a sidebar of “Food Films,” and the usual healthy emphasis on music both on-screen and live. Venues are all over town (as well as in Oakland), but most of the program will be shown at the AMC Kabuki and New People Cinema in Japantown. 

For those whose favorite Asian cinematic flavor is Japanimation, the week brings something outside CAAM’s program: The opening at Embarcadero of Lu Over the Wall, a new feature by Masaaki Yuada, whose surreal 2004 cult favorite Mind Game also just got a (belated) US theatrical release. This latest is about an unhappy teen whose life gets a lot more interesting when he meets a twin-tailed, music-loving mermaid. 

Elsewhere this coming week:

After starting out in theater (where he found most of his recurrent acting ensemble), Rainer Werner Fassbinder spent only 13 years on the screen works that made him famous, before dying in 1982 at age 37. But he was so astonishingly prolific during that period that hitherto forgotten projects keep surfacing decades later. One such is this five-part 1972 drama, recently restored and seen for the first time since its original TV broadcast. Subtitled “A Family Series,” it stars Gottfried John as a factory worker who meets the self-possessed Marion (Hanna Schygulla in a giant mop of Shirley Temple curls) by chance. They set out to make a life together, with complications on both the domestic and labor front. But after the first, each of the five episodes focuses on a different “couple” in those protagonists’ orbit, en route illuminating larger social issues and changes—notably the rising independence of women. 

Not the usual Fassbinder tragedy, this surprisingly boisterous and upbeat (if still occasionally barbed) snapshot of working-class life was supposedly meant to run longer, but despite its popularity ended early—the story goes that trade unions objected to the unrealistic portrait of negotiations with management. (The workers here generally come up with clever ways to convince the bosses to do what they want them to, rather than going through official arbitrators.) 

The PFA is showing the entire eight-hour series in two marathon screenings: The first broken up between this Friday and Saturday, the second all day Sunday. If you love Fassbinder, you’ll be in heaven. If you don’t, this might actually be atypical enough that you’ll enjoy it nevertheless. I’m in the middle, and Eight Hours immediately leapt to the top of my short list of favorite RWF works. Fri/11-Sun/13, PFA. More info here

Washington-born, Milwaukee-based filmmaker Hopinka finished his university studies less than two years ago—so it’s very auspicious that his work has already been included in the Whitney Biennial and Sundance Film Festival. While his own ancestral roots are in the Sioux-speaking midwestern Ho-Chunk tribe, his videos have explored myriad indigenous identities, in landscape and politics as well as hereditary specifics. He’ll present seven recent shorts at this SF Cinematheque show, encompassing subjects from the Pacific Northwest to West Virginia, from a logging father’s legacy to the protests at Standing Rock. Thurs/10, Artists’ Television Access. More info here

The favorite kicking post of our current POTUS, modern Mexican society has a lot more complexity than it seems the GOP would like Americans to be aware of. This RoxCine-presented long weekend brings together some of the most acclaimed Mexican documentaries of recent years. Friday’s much-awarded opener Devil’s Freedom is an incendiary look at the pervasive role of organized crime in Mexico, with perps and victims alike interviewed wearing masks for anonymity-bestowing safety. 

Other features include looks at Mexico City sex workers (Plaza de la Soledad), the political aspects of agriculture (Maize in Times of War), life in the remotest reaches of Usumachinta River jungle lands (The Swirl), and a California-raised 10-year-old boy’s trip south of the border to visit the mother who can’t get a visa to join him (Artemio). Filmmakers will be available for Q&A’s in person or via Skype after each screening. Fri/11-Sun/13, Roxie. More info here

With a rising tide of “religious freedom” laws seemingly directed largely at abetting discrimination against the LGBTQ communities, not to mention our POTUS’ ongoing love affair with the Kremlin, it seems an apt moment for the Castro to host Hurricane Bianca 2: From Russia With Hate. The 2016 original indie feature starred Roy Haylock as a Manhattan schoolteacher lured to a job in Texas, only to be unceremoniously fired for being gay. He returns incognito as femme fatale Bianca del Rio to wreak elaborate revenge. 

Director Matt Kugelman’s sequel finds our hero/heroine once again locking talons with Rachel Dratch, whose narrow-minded nemesis this time entices the much-mascara’d lady to Moscow—but hopefully not Siberian exile. As before, there will be familiar painted faces from RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as celebrity cameos (Cheyenne Jackson, Wanda Sykes, Janeane Garofolo). At the Castro itself, the evening will include the star and fellow performer Shangela being interviewed onstage by local luminary Peaches Christ. 

If this crossdressing superheroine puts you in the mood for more vintage fantastical females, the Castro is putting up one hell of a Swinging Sixties campfest on Thursday. Jane Fonda was at her early sex-kitten peak in then-spouse Roger Vadim’s 1968 Barbarella as the titular 41st-century “queen of the galaxy,” a planet-hopping adventuress forever getting into life-threatening (and clothes-depriving) scrapes. Likewise based on a hip comic strip was Joseph Losey’s very arch 1966 Modesty Blaise, with Antonioni muse Monica Vitti abandoning all ennui for frolicking amidst pop-art settings as a beautiful but deadly superspy. Hurricane: Mon/14. Barbarella/Modesty: Thurs/17. Both at Castro Theater.

Screen Grabs: RBG, Tully, Sins of the Fleshapoids …

SCREEN GRABS It’s not normally a priority of this column to follow internal changes at Bay Area film organizations, but last week news broke that is a major blow to the film community in San Francisco and beyond. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts announced that, effective immediately, its film curator Joel Shepard and assistant David Robson would be “departing”—their positions eliminated, the entire film program put “on hiatus”—to help “maximize our impact in the world” and “enable YBCA to be a creative home for civic action.” 

In this post for two decades, nearly since YBCA’s opening, Shepard has carved out a unique niche in the Bay Area and even national film world that’s only gained importance as positions like his (and venues that program non-commercial cinema) edge toward an Endangered Species list. His programs have brought considerable prestige to YBCA, while appealing to very diverse communities. He’s orchestrated major events that draw under-served demographics, like the annual New Filipino Cinema festival; given short runs to important films that wouldn’t otherwise be seen locally, from the rapturous recent documentary Cielo to Lover for a Day (see below); and programmed innumerable extreme rarities, Bay Area oddities and archival treasures from the avant-garde to vintage exploitation. 

It seems his and Robson’s film program doesn’t meet YBCA’s goal of making some future incarnation “more fully integrated into our public engagement efforts and working in service of YBCA’s mission,” which is apparently now more political than arts-centric. But it’s difficult to see how the often politically-alert nature of what YBCA admits is Shepard’s “exceptional work” falls short—save by some narrow, murky new standard that that doesn’t bode well for the institution itself as a continued important part of the cultural landscape. 

In any case, Shepard’s ouster feels like a slap in the face to filmmakers and film audiences. There are precious few such positions, and programs, left in the Bay Area—or indeed in the nation. It seems extremely short-sighted to throw one such out, particularly as it’s so highly regarded. 

If you have any things to say on the matter, YBCA is “encouraging you to share them with us at [email protected]” through the end of next month—though be warned, a message I sent last week got no response whatsoever. It may be more effective to send any protesting words directly to the Board Chair and/or individual YBCA board members (listed at via YBCA, 701 Mission, SF CA 94103

On the non-crisis film front, openings this week include Disobedience, the first English-language film from Chile’s Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Gloria), with Rachels McAdam and Weisz as two women whose romance rocks an Orthodox Jewish community. Also looking for love is Juliette Binoche in French director Claire Denis more lighthearted latest, Let the Sunshine In

Those inclined towards non-fiction fare can schlep across the bridge for a global smorgasbord via California Film Institute’s four-day annual DocLands festival (at the Rafael Film Center, Thu/3-Sun/6). Or if you want something nonfiction, but also really pretty, as well as free and outdoors, PROXY closes this year’s Spring Series at the Lower Hayes Valley “Walk-in Theater” Friday night with Viktor Jakovleski’s Brimstone & Glory, a spectacular look at Mexico’s premier fireworks-manufacturing town.

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted): 

Though he’s only just turned 70, Philippe Garrell has been making features for over half a century. His earlier work was often abstract and experimental, notably several titles featuring his then-companion Nico (of the Velvet Underground) and other druggy Euro countercultural luminaries. Gradually he turned toward slightly more conventional but still idiosyncratic relationship dramas, frequently involving his actor children (you may have just seen son Louis as the titular figure in Godard Mon Amour). 

This latest is a typically economical, aesthetically immaculate (in widescreen B&W), intimate and surprising enterprise. Daughter Esther Garrel plays Jeanne, a university student who runs home to daddy’s flat after the breakup of her first serious relationship. She’s somewhat nonplussed to discover professorial dad is no longer living alone—and his new lover (Louise Chevillotte) is also a student about her own age. Needless to say, things get complicated. Simultaneously guileless and unpredictable, this very French seriocomedy probably wouldn’t get seen locally at all if not for YBCA’s already-fired film programmers. YBCA, Thu/3 & Sun/6. More info here

Garrel was the perfect age to be shaped forever by the events of 1968, when the whole world seemed to be hurtling towards massive change. Joao Moreira Salles’ quiet film essay, entirely composed of found footage plus his own first-person narration, examines that tumultuous year from four vantage points. In his adoptive nation France, a more radical youth-driven resistance to status quo authority nearly overthrew the government whole amidst May’s chaotic upheavals. In his native Brazil (he’s brother to Central Station and Motorcycle Diaries director Walter Salles), a military junta was busy silencing all liberal voices. 

Meanwhile USSR tanks similarly crushed “Prague Spring” progressivism in Czechoslovia, and China’s already-in-progress Cultural Revolution would destroy countless lives in an unprecedented ideology-driven scourge. Somewhat didactic in a very ’60s manner (Chris Marker and Godard are clearly influences), this 127-minute archival flashback is nonetheless a potent reminder that while politics today may seem out of control, a half-century ago they appeared even more cataclysmic to many. Roxie. More info here

Still, the prize for this week’s most unmissable revival might go to Mike Kuchar’s 1965 underground classic, a 43-minute camp sci-fi epic in gaudy 16mm color that was his first directorial effort without twin brother George. Nonetheless, the late and lamented latter is very much here, as the tyrannical “Prince Gianbeno,” with Kuchar regular Donna Kerness as the erotically roiling “Princess Vivianna,” and one Julius Middleman as a hunk who seldom wears a shirt, thank god. In the distant future, humans live a life of feckless luxury, catered to by humanoid androids—but these slaves are getting restless. A favorite of John Waters’, this woozy delight will be screened (with Mike Kuchar present) to celebrate its DVD re-release. It’s the main but not the only attraction in a “Comedy of the Underground” program that also includes a vintage documentary about George K. Sat/5, Artists Television Access. More info here

A generation after Garrel, new filmmakers like the now-mainstream Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Late August Early September) emerged to pump fresh blood into French cinema. Never commercially released in the US until now, this 1994 feature was nonetheless widely seen enough on the festival circuit to announce him as a major French director. (Two years later the contrastingly playful Irma Vep would prove his international commercial breakthrough.) 

Nearly plotless, it follows two disaffected youths from variously dysfunctional family backgrounds as they run away to the hopeful sanctuary of an artists’ commune. En route, they stop at an abandoned house turned teenage squat where a seemingly never-ending, druggy party goes on—the film’s most memorable setpiece. Bridging the Nouvelle Vague terrain (the film is actually set in the early 70s) with a harsher new realism, Cold Water is a seemingly offhand yet memorable slice of life that’s well worth catching up with. Roxie. More info here

Though it didn’t attract many awards or much of an audience, 2011’s barbed comedy Young Adult was a near-perfect match of talents, notably star Charlize Theron, scenarist Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman. So it’s definitely good news that they’ve all retimed on this equally worthwhile if less acidic seriocomedy. 

Theron plays Marlo, a woman exhausted by the demands of two young children (one a difficult “special needs” case), with a third on the way. Adding further stress, she and her husband (Ron Livingston) are barely keeping their heads above water financially. Her much more comfortably situated brother (Mark Duplass) offers a gift they can’t refuse: A “night nanny” whose ministrations will allow them to actually get some sleep and enjoy their lives a bit. The arrival of Tully (Mackenzie Davis) proves liberating in many ways for Marlo—maybe a little too much so. Clever but not as self-consciously so as many of Cody’s prior scripts, this very well-acted and -crafted domestic semi-fantasy makes a late conceptual leap some may find too gimmicky. But it’s still a fine movie that shows all participants in peak form. At area theaters. 

If Tully is about an ordinary woman drowning in ordinary responsibilities, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary celebrates the remarkable life of a woman who never let herself get in any such predicament—despite having children of her own in a much less liberated age. Ruth Bader Ginsberg was among the very first women admitted to Harvard Law School; when no law firm would hire someone of her sex, she went into academia. The rising tides of Women’s Liberation pushed her towards gender equality work, and soon into the courtroom, where she successfully argued several key discrimination cases before the Supreme Court during the 1970s. 

Presidents Carter and Clinton boosted her towards a seat on that judiciary, where she is now perhaps the most influential (and certainly most beloved/loathed) dissenting voice on increasingly right-leaning decisions. This fond portrait shows that at age 85 she’s still all work and (almost no) play—though we do get glimpses of her opera fandom, workout routine, and surprising friendship with arch-conservative colleague Justice Scalia. Embarcadero. More info here

Moritz Bleibtrau has been a big star in German-language territories for at least twenty years (since Run Lola Run), and he’s had a few Hollywood roles as well as some big arthouse hits in the interim. Still, it’s doubtful many US cineastes know who he is, though they might recognize him as a familiar face. Once he begins to register, however, he becomes one of those actors whose name in the credits immediately brightens expectations. 

In this seriocomedy from Irina Palm director Sam Garbarski, he plays David Bermann, an inveterate hustler who’s survived the concentration camps and is trying to figure his way from broken 1946 Frankfurt to a viable future in America. He drafts a crew of other desperate men to come up with a linen-selling scam that will generate the money, official paperwork, and so forth to get them there. But a nosey German-American Allied Special Agent (Antje Traue) might derail that, as her investigation keeps threatening to uncover some unsavory things Bermann might have done to stay alive during the war. 

It’s not easy to draw humor from this subject matter, but Bye Bye manages it, delivering a sort of antic caper with a dead-sober undercurrent. And Bleibtrau expertly balances persuasive charm, comic finesse and a certain tormented pathos in a typically strong star turn. Opera Plaza. More info here

Screen Grabs: Grace Jones, Spaghetti Westerns, Ghost Stories …

'Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami'

SCREEN GRABS Though good new movies continue to emerge every year, no one would argue the Italian film industry has experienced anything that might be termed a “golden age” since the 1970s. (The first one was fairly early in the silent era—Italy was a more ambitious and sophisticated producer than the US before Hollywood began eclipsing it in the late 1910s.) But oh man: For a good thirty years after WW2, arguably no nation’s cinema was more exciting, or (excepting Hollywood again) internationally popular than Italy’s. 

If Italy is the birthplace of the “madonna and whore” school of viewing womankind, one might fairly-enough apply the same logic to its filmic output during those fabulous, prolific decades. On the one hand, auteurs from DeSica and Rossellini through Fellini, Pasolini, Wertmuller and Bertolucci wowed arthouse audiences around the world with their unique creative visions. On the other, pulpy genre exercises made largely for dubbed export—including vogues for “swords ‘n sandals” muscleman adventures, giallo horror-thrillers, and softcore sexploitation—kept the industry’s economic wheels turning until the advent of cable and VHS largely killed off their markets. 

Both sides happen to be getting represented at the Castro this weekend in two otherwise unrelated, back-to-back programs. First up on Saturday, Cinema Italia SF is pretending a full 12-hours-plus on Saturday of movies by the late, great Michelangelo Antonioni, the medium’s principal poet of postwar spiritual malaise. The five films playing in chronological order encompass nearly all of his best: There are enigmatic vehicles for his muse Monica Vitti, the international breakthrough L’Avventura (1960), the next year’s La Notte, and his fascinating experiment in color Red Desert (1964). Antonioni moved into English-language cinema for a period bookended by ’66 Swinging London mystery Blowup—almost certainly the “artiest” film ever to become a true popular hit—and 1975’s The Passenger, which starred Jack Nicholson and Last Tango in Paris’ Maria Schneider. All these movies reward repeat viewings, and should be a particular treat as seen in the Castro program’s combination of new 35mm prints and restored DCPs. \

The next day celebrates Italy’s greatest commercial contribution to 60s moviegoing: The so-called “spaghetti western,” a term applied to European-produced (Spain was the other major contributor) action films ostensibly set in the American Wild West. The long-popular genre was actually dying out in the US when these more violent, cynical foreign variations arrived to revitalize it, at least briefly. Their undisputed superstars were director Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, who was just a TV actor when the latter hired him to play the laconic, quick-drawing antihero in 1964’s low-budget sleeper smash A Fistful of Dollars. Four years later, Leone couldn’t afford Eastwood anymore—so he had to make do with Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda (strikingly cast as a despicable villain) in Once Upon a Time in the West, arguably the apex of his sardonic, monumentalist style. 

Leone’s fame tended to overshadow the work of nearly every other spaghetti western specialist—and admittedly, the genre did produce a whole lot of worthless, interchangeable junk before it petered out in the early ’70s. But one major talent was Sergio Corbucci, whose 1966 Django was as influential as the Dollars trilogy, and whose The Great Silence plays Sunday with West, which was released the same year. Starring the seemingly unlikely western duo of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski (though virtually every major male European star made spag westerns in this period), it’s a striking, wintry parable about a mute gunfighter squaring off against a sadistic bounty hunter ally named Loco. (There are no prizes for guessing which actor plays which part.) Despite its classic status amongst fans, Silence is rarely revived on the big screen these days. As a further incentive, both films are scored by the inimitable Ennio Morricone. 

Antonioni: Sat/28, Castro. More info here

Spaghetti Westerns: Sun/29, Castro. More info here

Elsewhere this coming week (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

One of the most gorgeous documentaries ever made, Canadian director Alison McAlpine’s film trains its camera on Chile’s Atacama Desert, “where the sky is more urgent than the land.” In that sparsely populated region, the nocturnal view of the heavens is so startlingly alive with the earth’s rotation, shooting stars, and other phenomena that you’d be forgiven to think numerous jaw-dropping shots here are actually the result of elaborate special effects. 

In addition to the insights of astronomers and physicists studying space from this extraordinary terrestrial vantage, we spend time with locals who claim to see UFOs, feel supernatural presences or experience intense spirituality here—and who can blame them? Simply watching Cielo is at times akin to a kind of awe-inspiring, meditative rapture. It plays three times at Center for the Arts this week. Thurs/28-Sat/28, YBCA. More info here

Jean-Luc Godard made a notable non-appearance in old friend and colleague Agnes Varda’s recent documentary Faces Places—he invited her to his house, then wouldn’t answer the door. One suspects he’s no more willingly associated with this latest from French director Michel Hazanvicius, best known for his work with actor Jean Dusjardin (The Artist, the OSS 117 spoofs). It’s a barbed valentine in which Louis Garrel plays the dyspeptic Godard at the height of his international fame. In 1967, he was in the process of moving from commercial (though still experimental) projects towards the more rigorously, radically political essay-cinema that would occupy him until the mid-’70s—and which he never fully abandoned thereafter. 

Stacey Martin portrays Anne Wiazemsky, the much younger woman who became his muse, collaborator, star and wife for the next few years—until she, like many before and after, was driven away by his exasperating, petulant, contrarian nature. Part homage, part dissection, this cheeky drama (based on the recently deceased Wiaemsky’s memoirs) is a cleverly meta piece that is often very funny, and only gains additional edge from the fact that you just know Godard loathes its very existence. Embarcadero. More info here

Partnering with the Bay Area Book Festival for a third year, the Pacific Film Archive is again hosting this five-day bonanza of screenings, panels, keynote speeches and other events celebrating the ties between cinema and literature. Adaptations to be shown will include John Frankenheimer’s original version of The Manchurian Candidate (introduced by Greil Marcus), Alison Maclkean’s Jesus’ Son (from Denis Johnson short stories), Raul Ruiz’s Proust epic Time Regained, and Czech animator Karel Zeman’s 1961 The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. Films focusing more on the author themselves are Pablo Larrain’s marvelous biographical fantasia Neruda, and Jennifer Kroot’s homage to a fellow Bay Area talent, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. Among the guest speakers will be famed documentarian Errol Morris, who’ll show his acclaimed 1991 screen translation of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Wed/25-Sun/29, PFA. More info here.

Video artist K8 Hardy discovered her artistic aesthetic and political sensibility through the punk bands and radical, queer-embracing feminism of the Riot Grrrl movement around the turn of the millennium. She exercised that cultural identity through a long-term project of self-documentation recording her disparate “looks” and living circumstances in 21st century NYC. A mosaic of personal evolution as a form of performance art, Outfitumentary is co-presented by SF Cinematheque, Frameline and Roxie Theater at the latest venue. Wed/25, Roxie. More info here

Though stage plays are not customarily a good source of scary cinema, Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s adaptation of their English theater piece provides a pretty decent 97 minutes of spookiness. An author and TV host specializing in the debunking of alleged supernatural phenomena (Andy Nyman) accepts the challenge to look into three cases an irate viewer claims he can’t disprove. Each one provides a creepy good time with a slightly cartoony, comic undercurrent. But what lifts these Stories above well-crafted familiarity is a long wrap-up that comprises a whole additional story itself, and sports some interesting reality-warping leaps. Opera Plaza. More info here

When Jones first appeared on the music scene over four decades ago, few would have guessed this androgynous, Jamaican-born model turned boldly theatrical disco diva would be more than a short-lived novelty act. Now on the brink of 70, and still stunning, she’s fully ensconced as a cultural icon in various media. Sophie Fiennes’ documentary eschews chronicling her fabled career to date of mixing recent concert performances with footage of this colorfully assertive personality simply going about her regular globe-trotting business. Embarcadero. More info here.

Randall Wright”s pleasing documentary portrays everyday life at L”Arche, a progressive institution fifty miles north of Paris that has become a model for care of mental
special needs” patients around the world. Where once such people were hidden away in prison-like asylums or closely minded by burdened family members, co-founder Jean Vanier’s vision allows the mentally disabled to live in their own community—an exceedingly pleasant one outside a small town, on the edge of a forest—working, socializing and even marrying on their own terms and within their own limitations. L’Arche has sparked numerous spinoff communities (we see one such newbie in Bethlehem), and it’s hard to argue against their wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s also hard to imagine such enlightened treatment happening in the US outside the expensive private health-care sector. Opera Plaza. More info here

This first feature from director Ryan Prows, co-written by and starring other members of his comedy collective Tomm Fondle, isn’t what you might expect from such folk: The laughs are almost subterranean in an ensemble black comedy/thriller that plays out its increasingly outlandish action with a fatalistic poker face. Several lives unluckily intersect around a downscale L.A. motel, all of them tied to an unsavory hustler who runs a taco stand as a front for much, much shadier (and often lethal) doings. Lowlife is structured in chapters that cover overlapping incidents from different points of view, a la Pulp Fiction. But that film’s giddy garrulousness is replaced by a much more vinegary sensibility that is close-mouthed but just as clever in its own way. This is one of those under-the-radar sleepers most people will (one hopes) eventually discover at home, but here’s your first, quite possibly last chance to catch it on the big screen. 4 Star Theatre. More info here

SCREEN GRABS: The Rider, Women Animators, School of Chairs

'The Rider'

SCREEN GRABS Apparently much of the local film world was holding its breath until the San Francisco International Film Festival ended—because now that it has, the floodgates have opened to a ton of new arthouse releases and other notable events. 

Probably the most acclaimed of the fresh arrivals—and justly so—is Chloe Zhao’s Cannes prize-winning The Rider. Like her prior  Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which took place on a Lakota reservation, the China-born director’s second feature is a low-key drama set in hard-scrabble rural South Dakota. Actual former bull-riding star Brady Jandreau plays a fictionalized version of himself as a young man who has a difficult time adjusting to his forced new reality after an accident leaves him with a head injury and a steel plate in his skull. He slowly gets back to the work of training horses (in some fascinating scenes involving no stunt personnel), but even that outlet—let alone going back to rodeo competition—may be closed to him if his condition worsens. Jandreau’s real-life, somewhat ne’er-do-well father and mentally disabled sister also play variations on themselves, as do various of his roping and wrangling cowboy peers.

Whether any of them could—or even should—go on to professional acting careers is anyone’s guess. But the performances Zhao has gotten from her non-professional cast members are remarkable, and The Rider is one of those films that feels utterly, urself-consciously true to a reality not terribly close to the usual mythology of movie westerns. As quietly intense as its leading figure, this is a terse, poetical, moving drama that could well end up one of the year’s best.  

Among the films we did not have time to preview are Little Pink House, with Catherine Keener in a fact-based David-and-Goliath tale of average citizen vs. big development that should resonate with local viewers; Ismael’s Ghosts, a triangle drama with Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg from Arnaud Desplechin, the talented French director of A Christmas Tale and My Golden Days; I Feel Pretty, an Amy Schumer comedy with the promising conceit that her hitherto-insecure-wallflower character experiences drastic life changes after a head trauma convinces her she’s a fabulously successful knockout; Claire’s Camera, a second playful collaboration between South Korean director Sang-Too Hong and French superstar Isabelle Huppert; and Kodachrome, a road-trip seriocomedy with Jason Sudeikis, Elizabeth Olsen and Ed Harris. 

If you’re looking for something free and fun, nothing could be better than the Proxy Spring Series’ Friday night screening of The Road Movie—a hair-raising and hilarious compilation of Russian dash-cam footage—outdoors in Hayes Valley. BYO blanket; beer and food-truck eats will be available for purchase. (More info here.)


Two special events this week celebrate the work of women animators, local and otherwise. SF’s own Kara Herold will host a reception and screening next Thursday at YBCA to support her work-in-progress: 39 1/2, a feature continuing the playful self-analysis of her 2009 Bachelorette, 34 in which she uses elements of documentary, live action, animation and more to ponder the single life (and parental push-back) on the brink of 40. Short works by Lynn Peril, Emily Hubley, Kelly Gallagher and more complete the program. This Saturday, Other Cinema at ATA presents a “veritable mothership of animators” including Gallagher, Ellie Vanderlip, Mary Ellen Bute, Sally Cruikshank and more. A highlight will Martha Colburn’s new Western Wilds, a semi-autobiographical piece that’s also a meditation on the legacy of late Western pulp writer Karl May, German’s answer to Zane Grey.

Kara Herold: An Evening of Films & Storytelling by Women: Thurs/19, YBCA. More info here

X-Peri-Mental Animation: Sat/21, ATA. More info here. 

This quiet but striking new B&W drama by Hungarian director Ferenc Torok is set in the immediate aftermath of WW2. A small village is ruffled by the mysterious arrival of two black-clad strangers in the railway station. What do they want? Conspicuously, they are Jews—and that stirs worry, because this country hamlet (and many like it) had passively turned its Jewish citizens over to the Nazi-aligned authorities and claimed their “abandoned” property for its Gentile populace. Have these men come to reclaim? Accuse? Refusing to hit us on the head with its message, 1945 instead subtly reveals the complicity of “good” people are capable of when outside forces target their neighbors. Opens Friday, Landmark Theaters. More info here.

Those who prefer their fantasy/sci-fi cinema heavy on intriguing ideas rather than CGI effects will be delighted with this third feature by the brainy genre duo of scenarist Justin Benson and co-director Aaron Moorhead. They also star as brothers who fled a rural commune years earlier, the elder believing it was a “UFO death cult” headed toward Jonestown-like disaster. But they’ve floundered in the outside world, and the younger sibling still misses the “home” he has only fond memories of. Begging a return visit for “closure,” they arrive to discover that decade later, the residents haven’t aged a day—among other peculiarities.

This supernatural mystery recalls the likes of Inception or Looper for its toying with time as an “infinite loop” in increasingly hallucinogenic ways, albeit on a tiny fraction of those films’ budgets. Which is all to the good: What The Endless lacks in spectacle (though it does have some FX) it more than makes up in character detail and narrative invention. Some may find there are too many questions left dangling at the end, but getting there is a fascinating journey. Opens Friday, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

You call yourself a cult movie aficionado? Be prepared to turn over your badge in shame if you have never seen either of these demented Asian genre classics, both of which get a showing at the Alamo this week. 1975’s Infra-Man, from legendary Hong Kong producers the Shaw Brothers, is the nuttiest super-hero movie ever—a fever-pitched mix of Godzilla-type monster mash and proto-Power Rangers cartoonish chop-socky. Take the kids and fry their brains! No less delirious is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 Hausu aka House, in which a group of schoolgirls visiting an aunt’s country home find it chock-a-block with supernatural perils that come off like an LSD trip on amphetamines. 

Infra-Man: Sun/22, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Hausu: Tues/24, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

In conjunction with the same-named group exhibition showing at 500 Capp St. through June 9, this SF Cinematheque program pulls together an assortment of film and video shorts that explore the “secret life of objects.” Do we own our possessions, or do they own us? The relationship between identity, home and decor is explored in works by Ken Kobland, Julia Dogra-Brasell, Karissa Hahn, Jean-Paul Kelly, Bettina Hoffman, Coral Short, and Dana Berman Duff. Admission to this special on-site screening includes access to the ongoing exhibit at late visual artist David Ireland’s home, which he modified so uniquely and extensively it’s considered a permanent art installation in itself. Thurs/19, David Ireland House. More info here

Considered one of the most distinctive and original Latin American filmmakers of the 21st century to date, Argentina’s Martel made a splash with her 2001 debut La Cienaga, and has continued to do with each of three features since. Visiting the Bay Area to promote her latest, Zama (which opens commercially April 27), Martel will appear at two Bay Area venues this weekend. She’ll discuss both Zama and 2018’s acclaimed The Headless Woman at the onset of a complete Pacific Film Archive retrospective that runs through May 10. She’ll also present Zama—an experimental take on 18th-century Spanish colonialism—in person at SF’s Center for the Arts this coming Monday.

Fri/20-Thurs/10, PFA. More info here. 

Mon/23 YBCA. More info here.

Though it may no longer command the international attention it did in the 1960s, when Czechoslovakia was the jewel in the crown of a fantastic Eastern European filmmaking renaissance, the Czech Republic continues to carry on a rich cinematic tradition. The sixth edition of this traveling showcase for new work runs a gamut from the nation’s Oscar submission feature Ice Mother, a contemporary romantic tragicomedy, to WW2 drama Barefoot and sci-fi Accumulator 1. Fri/20-Sun/22, Roxie. More info here.

A very talented director trapped in a subgenre he remained forever ambivalent about, the recently deceased Romero made some of his best movies outside it, like offbeat vampire variation Martin and the Arthurian motorcycle saga Knightriders. Still, to the end he was largely stuck with the thing that launched his career: Zombies. There’s no questioning the greatness of his original Night of the Living Dead or its immediate sequel Dawn of the Dead. But admirably, this three-day Roxie tribute sidesteps all six of his undead features to throw a spotlight on a trio of Romero’s least-seen films. 

1973’s The Crazies, about a small town whose residents (accidentally poisoned by a military biological weapon) go homicidally nuts, suffered from poor distribution at the time but eventually became enough of a cult classic to merit a 2010 remake. More uneven if sporadically striking was the prior year’s equally unlucky Season of the Witch aka Hungry Wives, in which suburban Pittsburgh women unwisely get involved with witchcraft. But surely the most obscure of all Romero films is 1971’s There’s Always Vanilla, an aggressively groovy yet essentially sour “romantic comedy” about cynical modern relationships—an annoying movie, but a real time capsule of the Sexual Revolution’s jaded downside. Roxie, Sat/21-Mon/23.

It’s hard to convey to people who weren’t alive or cognizant at the time what a cultural phenomenon The Exorcist was: Beyond being by far the most commercially successful horror film to date, it sparked some serious religious debate and no small about of paranormal paranoia. The Roxie pairs the “extended director’s cut” (longer than the original release by ten minutes) of that 1973 mega-hit with director William Friedkin’s latest feature. 

His first-ever documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth is a rather pulpy inquiry into not just The Exorcist’s history, but also the ongoing reality of exorcisms in the Catholic Church. He brings his camera to Italy, where we’re told a somewhat hard-to-belief half-million citizens are exorcised each year, and where he gets permission to film a woman getting her 9th such attempted spiritual cleansing. It plays rather like tabloid TV (and is the woman’s “possessed” voice been digitally altered, as it sounds?)—but it’s a interesting footnote/prelude to a 45-year-old film that remains mightily impressive.Tues/24, Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: Beirut, A Bag of Marbles, Three Women ….

Sissy Spacek in 'Three Women'

SCREEN GRABS The SF International Fit Festival is still in progress, its second week providing plenty of must-sees for cinephiles through Tuesday the 17th. But this week also brings several notable commercial openings, the most high-profile being Brad Anderson’s Beirut, which opens at area theaters this Wednesday April 11. 

This Sundance-premiered period political thriller stars Jon Hamm as a former diplomat dragged back by the U.S. government to the now civil-war-torn titular site where he’d experienced a personal tragedy in 1972, 10 years earlier. This is an excellent old-fashioned espionage tale that is highly eventful but not as purely action-driven as the Bourne movies, and touches on current issues like global terrorism in a historical (if fictive) context. Hamm, whose post-Mad Men career has been a bit spotty, is terrific in a best-yet big screen turn. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise specified):

This adaptation of Joseph Joffo’s novelistic memoir details the adventures of his 10-year-old self and a 12-year old brother when their parents instructed them to flee Nazi-occupied Paris to the countryside. Already filmed once in 1975, it’s a perilous yet surprisingly upbeat tale that this time has been directed by Quebec-based Christian Duguay, whose long career has encompassed everything from horror-sci-fi Scanners sequels to a Belle & Sebastian documentary. This location-shot drama appears to be his best-reviewed big-screen effort to date. Landmark Theatres. More info here

It’s shaping up to be a very good year for the always-interesting Joaquin Phoenix, who after taking a brief sabbatical now appears in Gus Van Sant’s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot (SFIFF’s closing-night selection this Sunday), will play Jesus in Garth Davis’ Mary Magdalene, and stars in this latest from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin). Her he’s a Gulf War vet with PTSD who works as a sort of private detective-slash-strongarm tracking down missing teens. One particularly troubling case tips his fragile sanity over the brink in what sounds like a variation on themes from 1990 cult classic Jacob’s Ladder. Based on a short story by Jonathan Ames, it won two major prizes at Cannes last year despite being screened in a work-in-progress version. Opens at Alamo Drafthouse and Embarcadero Cinema.

Nigerian photographer and music-video director Andrew Dosunmu’s made an arresting narrative directorial debut in 2011 with Restless City—which, like its equally visually sumptuous 2013 followup Mother of George, was a seriocomedy set in NYC’s African immigrant communities. This third feature is something different, a somber drama with Hollywood stars and a sort of suspense plot. Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a divorcee struggling to find work, depending on her ailing mother’s Brooklyn apartment and disability income—both imperiled when mom dies. A tentative affair with a man (Keifer Sutherland, very good) in the same building factors into her decision to head down a path of deception that is dangerous, even if it’s the only choice she’s got. A problem here is that despite her conscientious performance, it’s hard to believe any character played by Pfeiffer—who radiates intelligence and iron will as well as physical beauty—would get so down-on-her-luck. Nonetheless, this flawed work underlines the distinctiveness of Dosunmu’s talent. Opens at Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinema.

Few double bills could seem more natural than this pairing of Ingmar Bergman’s famous 1966 classic and Robert Altman’s equally dreamlike 1977 drama, which has slowly acquired equal stature after being greeted with initial puzzlement. In the B&W Persona, a successful actress (Liv Ullmann) suffers a mysterious breakdown that leaves her temporarily mute. She is put in the care of an equally tight-lipped nurse (Bibi Andersson), and their personalities begin to blur—or are they really just facets of one person’s splintered mind? An equally elliptical psychological study is 3 Women, which was not what Altman watchers were expecting after the adventurous but boisterously different likes of MASH and Nashville. A garrulous, affectedly fashionable physical therapist (Shelley Duvall in a career-best performance) takes a perilously shy new co-worker (Sissy Spacek) under her wing, only to find her protegee becoming her undoing. A mute older muralist played by Janice Rule is the third titular figure. Consciously inspired by Persona, this curious tale is full of eccentric character and arresting color imagery. Wed/18, Castro Theater. More info here.

Screen Grabs: The SF International Film Fest is here

Lakeith Stanfield stars in Boots Riley's 'Sorry to Bother You,' showing at the SF International Film Fest.

SCREEN GRABS The Big Kahuna of Bay Area film events is back, a little earlier than usual this year: The San Francisco International Film Festival lands at numerous venues in SF and the East Bay, this Wednesday, April 4 through the 17th. The opening night film will be Silas Howard’s A Kid Like Jake, an adaptation of Daniel Pearle’s acclaimed play, with Claire Danes and Jim Parisons as a Manhattan couple who face some unexpected choices when they realize their young child may be transgender. 

Also at the Castro, the official closing night selection (which is actually on Sun/15, not final-fest-day Tues/17) is Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot, Gus Van Sant’s most lauded film in some time, with Joaquin Phoenix as late quadriplegic Portland cartoonist John Callahan. The Centerpiece selection on April 12 (at both the Castro and Grand Lake) is local hiphop artist Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, a spinoff of The Coup’s acclaimed album. It’s a reputedly outrageous satire of race relations that could be this year’s Get Out.

Other special events include tributes to Charlize Theron, Wayne Wang, documentary masters Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, experimentalist Nathaniel Dorksky, and the recently deceased Stephen Parr of SF’s unique Oddall Cinema; a State of the Cinema address by Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin; Blonde Redhead performing a live score to Ozu’s late-silent classic, I Was Born, But…; a multimedia evening (Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences) that brings back to the city Cory McAbee of The American Astronautand The Billy Nayer Show; A Thousand Thoughts, Sam Green’s “live documentary” collaboration with the Kronos Quartet. 

Plus, of course, a hefty array of new (and a few archival) films from around the world, including some world premieres and numerous films of particular local interest. For the full skinny, go to

For many cinephiles it may seem like life grinds to a halt to make room for SFIFF these next two weeks. But in fact, life does go on, and in fact foolish mortals continue showing other movies. Here are a few highlights, all opening Friday:

Some movies don’t get the love they deserve simply because they’re too good—in a non-flashy, non-star-driven way that you know won’t incite the kind of word-of-mouth or gushing reviews needed for smaller movies to stick around long enough to find their audience. That seems the likely fate of Journey’s End, already a fair candidate for the best movie of 2018 that no one will remember come awards-time. This British movie by Bullet Boy director Saul Dibb is an adaptation of an already oft-filmed 1928 play by R.C. Sherriff—the first and most famous prior edition was a 1930 film debut for the great James Whale, who had directed it on stage (giving young Laurence Olivier an early triumph), and who would direct Frankenstein the following year.

Even though its action is almost entirely confined to a WW1 dugout for Allied troops on the French border, there’s nothing stagy or even very claustrophobic about Dibbs’ film. But then, neither has has he “modernized” the material in any forced way beyond lending it a grittier, dirtier look and feel. The basic story is simple: British officers receive orders for a raid that they realize will constitute a further blood sacrifice of troops for the sake of larger strategic gain. It’s 1918, and the war now finally chugging toward an end has been long and cruel, beyond anything hitherto imagined. 

Contrasting with the all-action overload of Christopher Nolan’s recent Dunkirk, in which it was difficult to distinguish characters, Journey’s End is all about the individuality of both officers and grunts. There’s affection and poignancy as well as psychological insight in the portrayal of various figures played by Sam Clafin, Paul Bethany, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones and others. Their relationships—with all the intricacies of the British class system—are flawed but primarily supportive, and it is perhaps the revelation of this moving film how kindly, even politely the soldiers treat each other. This is war without macho posturing, which only underlines that war is primarily tragedy, not action-adventure. 

There is action here, eventually. But this engrossing story about sacrifice doesn’t see such heroism as good guy vs. bad guy “glory,” but as a prizing of power-wrangling amongst ruling institutions over human life. Finely acted, produced, and scored, this Journey’s End is a skilled enough to make an air of pervasive melancholy and loss artful rather than depressing. But its excellence is self-effacing—you’d better hustle off to the theater soon, because without wanting to be too Debbie Downer about this, it probably won’t linger there long. Vogue Theatre, SF. More info here.

A first US film for Andrew Haigh, who directed the excellent 2011 gay drama Weekend, is adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel is a rather serious story about a boy and his horse. Charlie Plummer plays an unhappy teen in the Pacific Northwest whose miserable living conditions force him to seek work at a horse farm. This isn’t My Friend Flicka—it’s a tough story about poverty and loss. Adding further grit are such always-welcome faces as Chloe Sevigny and my two favorite Steves, Buscemi and Zahn. Opens Friday at Landmark Theaters. More info here.

“They seem nice” is not something one is frequently moved to say about celebrity couples these days, but it seems to apply to John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. They star in this new horror thriller about a family trapped in a home where they are at risk of grievous harm from “creatures” that find their prey via sound. Thus the need to be (insert Elmer Fudd voice here) vewy, vewy quiet. Apparently the original script had only one line of dialogue. That sounds interesting, and Krasinski’s two prior directorial features were also interesting, though rather little-seen: One (Brief Interviews With Hideous Men) was a nasty portrait of misogyny adapted from stories by David Foster Wallace, while The Hollars was an offbeat family seriocomedy. At Bay Area theaters. 

It is a depressing reality of our era that people still need to be informed that rape is a bad thing, “no” means “no,” and women don’t “deserve what they get.” The rare feature from Tunisia to get US release indicts that country’s institutions for callous sexism and worse, as a woman (Miriam Al Ferjani) is thwarted at every step in her attempts to prosecute police officers for rape after they seize her for no good reason walking home from a party. Director Kaouther Ben Hania stages his story as a series of long single takes, which no doubt only intensify the cruel injustice of the story. Sigh: Who imagined that in the 21st century, there would still be so many places where women are called (and treated as) “a whore” because they wear a dress they like? Arrrrrgh. Landmark Theatres. More info here

If you really can’t stomach some rape drama this week, you will be in safe hands with Alison Chernick’s feel-good documentary about the great violinist Itzhak Perlman. An Israeli child prodigy turned global phenomenon, he makes for very good company in this appealing portrait, which is less a career overview than a chance to hang out with a nice man (and his wonderfully garrulous wife Toby), as in his 70s he still maintains a full schedule that includes making lunch for Alan Alda and jamming with Billy Joel. You want “charming”? This movie is charming. Landmark Theaters. More info here

Screen Grabs: A kung fu classic, an unsung war epic …

Legend of the Mountain


SCREEN GRABS A few tasty revivals, one new documentary of unusually up-to-the-moment political relevance, and an avant-garde ode to retro 3-D highlight this week, your last before the annual cineaste overdose of the San Francisco International Film Festival:

British director Stuart Cooper’s very brief big-screen career—before and after, he worked primarily in television—was highlighted by this underseen 1975 feature, which many consider one of the greatest war films ever made. Shot by cinematographer John Alcott the same year as his astonishing contribution to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the B&W drama won multiple awards at the Berlin Film Festival. Its most striking achievement was closely intercutting actual WW2 combat footage (culled from both Allied and Axis sources) with a fictive dramatic narrative. Yet Overlord remains a rarity known by few. This 35mm screening will no doubt be your only chance to see it projected in the Bay Area for some time. Wed/28, Roxie. More info here.

The idiosyncratic sense of adventure Castro programmer Keith Arnold brought to Berkeley’s short-lived Fine Arts Cinema is fully present in this thematically linked double-bill. Mulholland Dr. is, of course, David Lynch’s last great big-screen exercise (even though it was originally shot as a 2000 failed TV pilot), still graded by some critics’ polls to be the greatest movie of the 21th-century to date. Its flummoxing fantasia of Hollywood’s sinister under-life is paired with the rare 1972 Play It As It Plays, which has never been released to any home format. Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins star as neurotic victims of success in Frank Perry’s (Diary of a Mad Housewife, Mommy Dearest) adaptation of Joan Didion’s angsty Hollywood-expose novel. It’s pretentious AF—but when will you ever get to see it otherwise? Thu/29, Castro. More info here.

If you don’t already feel enough terror over the direction in which the US (hell, the world) is heading already, check out this new documentary by the producers of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Having already picked apart that financial scandal, they and director Jed Rothstein turn their attention towards the little-reported subsequent financial-sector heist in which corrupt Chinese and US players managed to manipulate a shared investment market into a corner that (once again) benefitted a few while bleeding many. Deregulation: The leading vampire of our era. Opens Fri/20, Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas. 

If you like what used to be called “kung fu movies,” your sweet spot will be ‘gasming over this Roxie revival of a prime 1979 specimen newly restored by the Taiwan Film Institute. Purported to be visually magical, it’s a simple tale of a Buddhist scholar who falls into a fantastical warp bridging the worlds of supernatural and mortal peril—you know, like you did last Tuesday. This three-hour epic from late director King Hu (who also directed the more famous Taiwanese wuxia feature A Touch of Zen) won the first-ever prize at Cannes for a Chinese-language film. Opens Fri/30, Roxie. More info here

This evening-length Other Cinema ode to the 3-Dimensionally-Diabolical cinema features heavy input from “SF’s scariest band” Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinket, who are so scary that watching them on YouTube briefly disabled my word-processing abilities. They wear carpet pieces as clothing! Start trembling now. They will provide live accompaniment to two extended cinematic mash-ups: Brutallo’s “surreal mix” of excerpts from late exploitation “kiddie matinee” maestro K. Gordon Murray’s forays into fairy-tale cheese, and a re-edit of the 1961 3-D horror oddity The Mask (no, not the one with Jim Carrey). Plus the usual array of Other Cinema miscellany. Sat/31, Artists Television Access. More info here

Screen Grabs: Ramen Heads, Tiny Dance, Que Viva Mexico!

Mmmmm... Ramen Heads

SCREEN GRABS Cinephiles might want to spend their entire weekend at the Roxie, which is offering the awesome revival series “Dark Side of the Dream” as a collaborative effort between former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine’s I Wake Up Dreaming and current one Don Malcolm’s Midcentury Productions. But not everybody likes that sort of thing (PS what’s wrong with you?!), so here are some other delectable choices in what’s quite a rich week for movie lovers. Which judgment includes the arrival of Isle of Dogs, a new animated film by nearly the only American director (Wes Anderson) we allow to be a weirdo on a major-studio budget, and whose last venture into this particular form (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) was absolute gold. 

Were the 1970s great for movies? Damn straight, as exemplified by this one-night Castro double bill of two incredible films that were popular successes at the time, though they’re both far too idiosyncratic to attract a wide audience now. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 Paper Moon was an outright hit, despite being a B&W Great Depression seriocomedy about a dubious alliance between a con man (Ryan O’Neal) and the child he “adopts” primarily as a business partner (Tatum O’Neal). It would prove Bogdanovich’s (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc?) last hit for over a decade, until Mask (1985). 

There was a more mixed response to Stanley Kubrick’s much more costly 1975 Barry Lyndon, with Ryan O’Neal as the titular early 19th century rogue who charms his way from humble beginnings to marital wealth. Nonetheless, it was a relative box-office success—an near-unthinkable result now for a three-hour period epic of glacial pace and emotional remoteness. One of Kubrick’s more divisive efforts, it remains a thing of extraordinary, hypnotic beauty to some, a flaccid indulgence to others. No one has ever doubted the extraordinary effects achieved by director of photography John Alcott. Even those who found the Thackeray-based saga a stilted bore had to admit it was a ravishing one. Sun/25, Castro. More info here

I guess there’s still some hippie weirdness left in Berkeley: Where else would a public institution program a retrospective of films by the marvelous Cruikshank as a kiddie matinee? Not that the wee ones won’t enjoy it… but you may have to explain the concept of “head film” afterward. Her antic, insanely colorful, humorously surreal sensibility proved adaptable to such mainstream outlets as Sesame Street and several big feature assignments, contributing animation elements to films like Twilight Zone: The Movie and Top Secret! But she will always be the idol of High Times readers for her very trippy ‘toons starring quarrelsome critter couple Quasi and Anita: Quasi at the Quackadero (which is in the National Film Registry!) and Make Me Psychic. Fear not for your children’s herbal wellness: Even a pot-o-phobe like me can’t get enough Cruikshank. Sat/24, PFA. More info here

If you stick around at the PFA after the hour of Cruikshank madness, you can tally a double bill arguably even higher-contrast than Paper Moon and Barry Lyndon. Que Viva Mexico! was genius Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt to make a six-part, semi-documentary epic about Mexican history and peasant struggle. But the funding ran out, among other problems, leaving him with fifty hours of footage that were only exhibited in fragmentary form during his lifetime. 

Decades later, surviving collaborator Grigori Alexandrov edited that raw footage into a feature based as closely on Eisenstein’s intended structure as possible. The result naturally isn’t entirely complete, or cohesive. But it’s full of stark, stunning B&W images like nothing anybody else was creating in 1931. They suggest what a phenomenal career the Soviet maker might’ve had abroad if politics and commerce hadn’t conspired to hobble his genius—and place him at the fickle mercy of Stalin’s cultural watchdogs. This “Film to Table” screening is followed by a “four-course, prix-fixe meal in a convivial, dinner-party atmosphere” at the PFA’s cafe Babette. There’s a reprise screening (without attached dinner) on April 4. Sat/24, PFA. More info here

If like me you more or less abandoned Italian pasta for various Asian noodles some time ago—were udon always hiding in the supermarket? How could they have eluded notice for so long?!?—you will probably drool at the very thought of this new documentary. It lets Japan’s “Ramen King” Osamu Tomita take us on a “tasting tour” of the slurpable starch’s master chefs, while also filling us in on its history and fanatical fans. In a word (well, sort of a word): Mmmmmm. Opens Fri/23, Opera Plaza and Shattack Cinemas. More info here.

‘This Black’ screens at the Tiny Dance Film Festival.

The fourth annum of this dance-oriented mini-festival reminds me of a great line by rock critic Robert Christgau, reviewing the album in which Elton John’s hit “Tiny Dancer” first appeared: “Just how small is she?” But there will be no Elton (as far as we know) in this showcase for “the complicated relationship between body and lens—and the choreographers who traverse both forms.” The three distinct programs, all comprised of shorts under ten minutes’ length, encompass work by not just American talents but ones from as far afield as Norway, Slovenia, Singapore and Italy. Sat/24-Sun/25, Roxie. More info here

One of the most flummoxing critical and audience failures of recent years to my mind was Max Winkler’s directorial debut Ceremony (2011), a wickedly astute sort of latterday screwball comedy in which a neurotic loser (Michael Angarano) pulls every dirty trick in the book to win back the woman (Uma Thurman) he’s obsessed with. So there’s hope for this new black comedy in which an already edgy teen leaps off the cliff of irresponsible behavior once her mom’s boyfriend’s crazy son renders home life untenable. It’s co-written by Matt Spicer, whose own directorial debut Ingrid Goes West was one of last year’s more adventuresome American movies. Opens Fri/23, Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

For decades a staple in church basements and revival tents, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 Biblical epic is rarely seen today. San Francisco Silent Festival very special screening of this newly restored Biblical epic, partly shot in two-tone Technicolor, features David Briggs playing live accompaniment on Grace Cathedral’s 7,466-pipe (!) organ. This reverent depiction of New Testament events, with H.B. Warner as Jesus, is no Passion of the Christ—you won’t risk vomiting from all the torture. Sat/24, 7 pm, Grace Cathedral. More info here