Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: ‘War and Peace’ thrills in its gargantuan spectacle

At the time, Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 'War and Peace' was purportedly the most expensive motion picture ever made. See it Sat/25 at the Castro. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

The movies suffered an approximately 15 year case of elephantiasis starting in the early 1950s, when television began to seriously impact box-office returns. Hollywood’s idea was to give audiences more of what they couldn’t get on their—then-tiny—home screens: Bigness. Cast-of-thousands epics in widescreen formats, plus Technicolor and (for the year or two of the trend’s initial run) 3-D.

Of course, not everyone had the money to imitate this level of spectacle. It took the comparatively cash-strapped Soviets about a decade to catch up. But when they did, they more or less won the contest. Arriving a decade after Hollywood’s drastically simplified 3 1/2 hour version (with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn as Pierre and Natasha), Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 War and Peace was purportedly the most expensive motion picture ever made. It was certainly the longest (excluding anomalies like Andy Warhol’s Empire), at over eight hours. Among the publicity claims were that battle scenes had required up to 100,000 real USSR military personnel—which, if true, would have actually compromised Russia’s combat readiness at the height of the Cold War. In fact about one-tenth that number were used, just as the real budget was said to be about one-tenth the alleged $100 million.

Still, ten thousand is a lot of extras, and $10 million bought a lot of spectacle given that the film’s resources were undoubtedly greatly enhanced by full governmental cooperation. This celebration of Russian culture (with a slight edge of modern propaganda, though Tolstoy had already been judged ideologically sound by the Communists) was duly received as a big event around the globe. While not a massive export success in commercial terms (and criticized here for intrusive English dubbing), it did get around, winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar amongst numerous other kudos. Then it more or less disappeared.

For years, the only way you could see Bondarchuk’s grandiose epic was in home-video versions of frequently appalling, third-generation-TV-dupe quality. Even a 1999 DVD restoration was unable to find workable materials in the original 70mm format, forcing a reduced aspect ratio. However, a new restoration being shown at the Castro this Saturday in a single marathon screening (starting at 1 pm, with breaks between the four sections) somehow overcame those  obstacles, so all 422 minutes will be in gloriously wide ’Scope. (If you can’t handle that long a sit, Criterion Collection will be releasing it in Blu-ray and DVD box sets next month.)

This movie probably hasn’t been seen in any comparable form hereabouts in half a century. What is it like now? Well, over its lengthy span, War and Peace has time to be a lot of things. (Except dull, surprisingly, except perhaps in bits of the final and weakest section.) At times it’s clunky, theatrical, a jumble of strategies that feels like a semi-random compendium of four decades’ Soviet filmmaking techniques. The performances are highly variable, with too-old Bondarchuk’s own Pierre a bore, then-highly-praised Lyudmila Saveleva now hard to take as a wide-eyed ninny of a Natasha, while Vyacheslav Tikhonov is perfect as Prince Andrei.

Yet despite all uneven aspects, the whole is an overwhelming achievement. There are passages of startling grandeur—not just the exciting spectacle of huge choreographed balls or colossal, chaotic battle sequences, but some abstractions such as Andrei’s visions at death’s door. Though at times Bondarchuk barely seems in control of his own vision, the gigantic enterprise’s combination of sheer scale, relentless cinematic virtuosity (the tracking/crane shots remain extraordinary) and thematic breadth do manage to convey a real grasp of Tolstoy’s titanic work, not excluding its philosophical dimensions.

Like Berlin AlexanderplatzOur HitlerOut: 1Satantango or whatever other cinematic totem to excess you’d care to name, War and Peace is an experience whose sheer ambition ultimately transcends individual flaws, datedness, even your gradually numbing posterior. A la Mount Everest, it compels climbing simply because it is there. Sat/25 only at Castro Theatre. Tickets and more info here.

By contrast, this week’s commercial openings inevitably end up looking pretty trivial. There’s Disney’s latest live-action reboot, Aladdin, with Will Smith stepping into Robin Williams’ harem pants; a horror movie, Brightburn, which at least has the plus of being the first movie in several years starring Elizabeth Banks; and two comedies, one of which I walked out on (but I’m not saying which). Another actress-turned-director, Olivia Wilde, has gotten some high praise for her feature debut behind the camera Booksmart, which is more or less Superbad for 18-year-old girls. There’s also been advance praise for Michael J. Gallagher’s Funny Story (at the 4-Star), about a self-absorbed actor’s none-too-successful attempts to repair relations with his daughter on her wedding day.

New documentaries this week are led by Nureyev (at the Roxie), a hagiographic look at perhaps the greatest dancer of the 20th century. Can you go wrong with that subject? This often maddeningly pretentious film comes close, yet there’s enough buoyant performance footage here to bail out an even leakier ship. There’s also (at Opera Plaza) Walking on Water, about the latest site-specific sculptural mega-project by Christo—the visual artist who’s probably had his work more extensively documented by filmmakers than any contemporary. It is not to be confused with Once Was Water, the new environmental documentary by Christopher Beaver and Diana Fuller that’s being screened as a sneak preview at the Roxie (Wed/29) in a benefit for the SF Green Film Festival.

Elsewhere (all opening this Friday):


Olivier Assayas emerged in the late 80s and early 90s as an unpinnably independent new French talent, and he’s retained that unpredictable edge despite being accepted into the relative mainstream. There’s something to be said for a director in his mid-60s still capable of creating films as sharply divisive as Personal Shopper, while making others that are almost universally liked—a turbulent non-pattern that hasn’t smoothed out in over three decades.

His latest is one of those that is hard to dislike, and in fact I’d probably dislike anyone who disliked it. Guillaume Canet plays Alain, the chief editor at a fabled Paris publishing house that is struggling like every “old-school” cultural institution in an era of digitalization and free “content.” His wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a successful if dissatisfied actress, is even more of a Luddite; ditto Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), an author whose novels are very thinly disguised exploitations of his own rather messy private life. (His character may be partly a satire of confessional literary celebrity Karl Ove Knausgard, whose art so often consists of bemoaning the loss of privacy he continues to bring upon himself and his loved ones.)

These bright, prickly, demanding people are all cheating on each other, of course. And when they’re not, they’re having erudite conversations about blogs, free speech, the eroding value of truth and expertise, print vs. e-readers, whether the internet is a democratizing utopia or simply a new way of selling ads for content without paying the content-providers … and other topics that should be dry as sawdust, yet here are terribly entertaining.

Non-Fiction is a “typical French movie” (arthouse division, that is), in that it revolves around a lot of interesting problematic, self-absorbed adults in variably discordant relationships, yakking it up. Unlike most such French films, however, it also has some surprising big laughs, which make it even more of a delight. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas, Rafael Film Center. More info here.


This polished and colorful Kenyan drama debuted at Cannes but caused a bigger stir at home, where it was banned by censors for “promoting lesbianism … contrary to the law.” (Gay sex in Kenya can bring a prison sentence of 14 years.) Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is butch enough to be accepted as “one of the boys” by the local lads in her Nairobi ‘hood, but not so much so as to invite the homophobia they freely direct at others. In truth, they simply don’t get who or “what” she is until she falls a little too conspicuously in mutual love with pink-cornrowed Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a rich girl.

Both these young women are the daughters of politicians—Kena’s shopkeeper dad is in fact running against Ziki’s fat-cat office holder—which adds yet more conflict to a relationship doomed to condemnation from nearly everyone around them once it’s found out. Wanuri Kahiu’s feature does not shrink from depicting the darker consequences that await them, but it stops short of tragedy, preferring to let love win. Given the odds against such happy endings for LGBTQ people in Kenya, that seems less a cop-out than a hard-won demonstration of hope. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

The Souvenir

Not long ago a friend learned that a sibling had a big secret: He’d had another spouse and child for years, entirely hidden from his even longer-term wife and children, whom he unceremoniously abandoned as soon as the jig was up. This wasn’t “having an affair” or some such, but a whole, separate, “double life.” Apparently this is a more common phenomenon than you’d expect. The new film by Joanna Hogg also revolves around a character with a (different) big secret, one I won’t spoil here—but be warned, probably every other review you read will give away that big reveal, which doesn’t arrive until well into the movie.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda) is a child of privilege in Britain circa 1980. She wants to be a filmmaker less for reasons of evident talent or passion than because she seeks authenticity—her ideas all feel like ones arrived at because she thinks they’re what people want to hear. She’s the sort others are attracted to, if only because she’s generous with the perks of privilege they lack. (Schoolmates end up sharing her spacious flat, and she’s “too nice” to insist they pay rent.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she seeks a sort of ballast for her hidden insecurities in Anthony (Tom Burke), a much less apologetic toff who might as easily inhabit the era of Downton Abbey. Instead, he’s soon inhabiting Julie’s bed, requiring one “loan” after another, and so forth. If he weren’t so self-confident and privileged himself, one might think he was using her. Then at a dinner party one night when he’s out of the room, an observant guest makes an educated guess about him. It’s shockingly inflammatory—and, Julie soon realizes, quite accurate.

The Souvenir is about the kind of catastrophic abuser-and-enabler relationship that normally would be played for suspense or high melodrama. Yet Hogg’s approach is as neutral as Julie’s personality (or lack thereof), while her film’s aesthetic is grainy and basic in a way you might expect from a working-class Ken Loach drama. It’s a curious but interesting movie I’m not sure I liked. Nor am I sure Hogg views her alter-ego heroine as critically as she’s described above.

But very much in a “write what you know” vein of artistic inspiration (the story is drawn from the writer-director’s own collegiate experiences), The Souvenir does have its own particular integrity. On the other hand, like the three features Hogg has made previously, this first U.S.-released one is an exercise in navel-gazing “rich people’s problems” she observes from the very limited perspective of the bird inside that gilded cage. Embarcadero. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Lessons from the dictatorship mark ‘The Silence of Others’

'The Silence of Other' and its exploration of post-Franco activists seeking justice for the dictator's villains provides lessons worth cogitating in the Trump era.

SCREEN GRABS This week brings the arrival of John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, the latest entry in what’s been one of the few action-oriented franchises worth a look for those not interested in superheroes, or most of the other junk that gets pumped into the multiplexes each month. The first two entries were kickboxing-plus-bullet-ballet escapism à la prime John Woo or the Indonesian Raid series, done with sufficient style, wit, and superior fight choreography that the pleasure was fairly guilt-free—though I confess to remembering practically nothing about them afterward. Well, even great popcorn entertainment needn’t be memorable. This third installment, also directed by star stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski, sports a first hour of neon-noir eye candy as garishly pretty as a roomful of old Christmas tree lights. You can draw your own conclusions about its inspiration level in all other departments from the fact that we didn’t bother sticking around for the second hour.

That’s pretty much it for big commercial openings in a week that has a whole lot of small ones. There are three new documentaries (plus The Silence of Others, noted at greater length below). We did not catch Carmine Street Guitars, veteran documentarian Ron Mann’s latest, a look at the fabled NYC instrument-making shop whose onscreen clients alone include Charlie Sexton, Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, and Jim Jarmusch. We did see The Russian Five, an entertaining flashback to the rebound enjoyed by Detroit’s perpetual NHL also-rans the Red Wings when they took the then-daring initiative of drafting players from the soon-to-be-defunct Soviet Union. It’s a crowdpleaser, as is The Biggest Little Farm, about an L.A. couple’s struggle to make an eco-agri-biz paradise out of 200 arid SoCal acres. This apolitical, feel-good saga is as light on explanatory logistics as it is heavy on adorable critters, pretty nature photography, and short-attention-span-friendly editing. Too cute for my tastes, it’s nonetheless one of those films that people who “don’t usually like documentaries” just LOVE, and will probably be getting remade as a romcom very soon.

In the realm of admitted fiction, there’s Photograph (Embarcadero), a bittersweet Indian love story from Ritesh Batra that sounds closer to his first feature The Lunchbox than his well-received British sophomore effort The Sense of an Ending or ditto American followup Our Souls at Night. Bearing some faint resemblance to historical records, All Is True (at the Clay) is a new costume drama in which director Kenneth Branagh plays a William Shakespeare whose forced retirement after a theater fire is not particularly welcomed by the wife (Judi Dench) who was getting along fine during his prolonged professional absence. Early reviews have not been encouraging.

There’s also middling buzz on Trial by Fire (at area theaters) a fact-based tale of death penalty protest in the mode of Dead Man Walking. Laura Dern plays a woman who takes it upon herself to plead for a Texas death row prisoner (Jack O’Connell) convicted in the deaths of his three children—despite suspicion that evidence which might’ve exonerated him was suppressed by the authorities. The lead performances have been praised in this latest from director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai).

Revivals this week are highlighted by two 1980s faves that were initially received as disappointments. Even Stephen King didn’t much like Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of his novel The Shining, a movie (whose 4K restoration plays the Castro next Mon/20-Tues/21) that has only risen in popular and critical estimation since. However, that turnabout is nothing compared to the one enjoyed by Elaine May’s Ishtar, a sort of latterday Bob Hope/ Bing Crosby Road to… comedy with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as a would-be singing duo somehow embroiled in Middle Eastern political intrigue, and Isabelle Adjani as their Dorothy Lamour. Its troubled production and huge cost helped get it branded the flop of 1987 even before audiences duly rejected it en masse. Yes, it’s messy and overblown. But it’s also quite funny—and tons better than many a more popular comedy before or since. It plays the Alamo Drafthouse on Sun/19.

If you’ve had enough of other people’s movies, get busy: This Friday night brings a new edition of The 60 Second Film Festival to the Marina Theater. The SF date is a kickoff for what’s intended to be an international tour showcasing one-minute movies by … well, anyone. Though there are cash prizes, there is no submission fee. More info here.

Elsewhere (all opening Fri/17):


Easily the most ambitious and imaginative movie opening this week is something almost unimaginable: An elaborate science-fiction tale based on an epic modern poem. Swedish Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s 1956 cycle of 103 cantos described a no-longer-distant-sounding future in which Earth is an environmental disaster zone beyond repair. Ergo humans, or at least those who can afford it,  are being evacuated to new colonies on Mars. Our nameless heroine here (Emelie Jonsson) operates a virtual-reality attraction that is among many amusements afforded passengers on the space shuttle that will take them from the “old” planet to their new home. But a collision with space debris jars the ship off its course, with the result that a three-week voyage turns into a possibly never-ending aimless drift through the cosmos.

With some sacrifices to the “pleasure cruise” aspects, the ship is indeed capable of generating food, water, and oxygen to sustain life on an ongoing basis. But what kind of life is this, with ever-decreasing hope of reunion with loved ones, or setting foot on terra firma again? Aniara becomes a microcosm of civilization itself, as complacency turns to panic, delusion and conflict, while “society” evolves through phases including hedonistic abandon, religious mania, and police-state repression.

There is nudity and violence here, as well as plenty of character-based human drama. But Aniara is hardly sci-fi of the usual action-based variety. On the other hand, its philosophical aspects are wedded to the narrative in a way less patience-demanding (or ambiguous) than something like Solaris, or even 2001. It’s certainly a more compelling portrait of verrry long term space travel than the recent High Life, and puts women front-and-center in a sci-fi tale more effectively than last year’s disappointing Annihilation. (Not the least among the achievements here is that the script revolves around a thirtysomething, bisexual-but-lesbian-leaning female protagonist, with no case-pleading fuss whatsoever.) Co-directors Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s first feature is as accomplished as it is conceptually expansive, and will provide rewards even for even those who think they have no interest in futuristic fantasy. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinema. More info here.

The Silence of Others

35 years of Spanish dictatorship ended with Generalissimo Franco’s death in 1975. Two years later, the blanket amnesty that freed his surviving political prisoners also forgave his torturers, executioners, and other enablers from any punitive consequence for their actions. The idea was that it was better to help society “heal” by “starting over” with everybody on the same theoretical page. But the past can’t simply be erased—though many a dictator has tried just that—and who does that erasure serve? The wrongdoers, of course, who are highly likely to simply channel their old-school corruption into whatever opportunities a new regime affords.

Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo’s potent documentary, shot over six years’ course, follows the efforts of some to override a lot of official opposition (including even the King’s chiding against “stirring up old grudges or opening old wounds”) and gain some sort of belated justice. Under Franco, thousands (by some estimates perhaps as many as 400,000) were “disappeared,” their fates often unknown, their bodies thrown into secret mass graves. With the Spanish government still suppressing investigation, some 311 plaintiffs decide to file a suit in Argentina. They hope the old regime’s “crimes against humanity”—from murder to stealing women’s newborn children for illegal “adoptions”—might get some redress in international court systems, where local politics won’t be allowed to interfere.

This isn’t a story of complete triumph—those protecting Franco’s legacy remain powerful, even long-distance and nearly half a century later. But it does powerfully illustrate the value of dogged persistence by victims seeking justice. It’s also a disturbing reminder of how difficult it is to extract the claws of fascism once they’ve grasped a country’s leadership. Under our current President, how many years is the U.S. away from violent suppression of dissent? If the “checks and balances” system he’s furiously eroding were to fall apart, what would stop this administration from following Franco’s lead? Certainly not conscience—we ought to have realized by now that the only thing holding them back is fear of consequence. Roxie. More info here. (Also opens Fri/24 at the Elmwood in Berkeley.)

My Son

A change from the historical dramas French writer-director Christian Carion has primarily made so far, this thriller has Guillaume Canet as a divorced father called by his ex-wife (Melanie Laurent) when their pre-adolescent son goes missing from a camping weekend. She thinks he may have run away; the authorities fear it’s a kidnapping. Canet’s Julien does his own investigating, which just past the halfway mark here does indeed uncover some criminal doings.

There’s more focus on the parents’ emotional turmoil than on suspense or action, though those latter qualities do take over eventually. That said, there’s not really enough character depth to this well-crafted film to make it much more than a somewhat elevated genre item. (My Son was also apparently somewhat improvised, with Canet not knowing what his character would be doing from one scene to another. But that working method isn’t detectable in the final result at all.) Nonetheless, if you’re hankering for the kind of movie Liam Neeson has been making lately, albeit in French and not quite so formulaic, this will do fine. Opera Plaza. More info here.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

San Francisco-born Shirley Jackson’s writing career lasted little more than two decades, ending with her premature death at 48 in 1965 from a variety of substance abuse ails. But at least one of her stories (“The Lottery”) has established itself in popular consciousness on a level rare for modern American literature, and several novels (notably The Haunting of Hill House) have been adapted for the movies, TV, and the stage. This 1962 tome has already been turned into a theatrical drama and musical. It’s probably Jackson’s most highly praised book, and arguably an early example of what might be termed Young Adult Gothic—its macabre melodrama struck the same chord with teenagers later plucked by Flowers in the AtticTwilight and other popular series.

The author’s son Laurence Jackson Hyman is a producer on this first big-screen version, directed by Stacie Passon, whose sole prior feature (2013’s Concussion) was a somewhat divisive Sundance attention-getter that led to work on high-end TV shows like TransparentHouse of Cards and the new Tales of the City.

The result is an acceptable if somewhat underwhelming dark fairy tale-slash-thriller in which the surviving members of the wealthy, isolated Blackwood family (Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover), already despised by locals for a past poisoning incident, have their fragile peace disturbed by the arrival of an uninvited cousin (Sebastian Stan). The latter’s attempted coup is one thing; the townspeople’s barely-repressed hostility another. Both finally lead to disaster. This midcentury New England period piece is a faithful, well-cast adaptation. Yet the mordant, mentally-unwell atmosphere Jackson wove doesn’t translate vividly enough to the screen. Passon can’t quite summon the requisite feel of claustrophobia bordering on hysteria, rendering the story’s glimpse of defensive madness more quaintly oddball than traumatic-cathartic. Roxie. More info here.

Micro Cosmic Cinema

Presented by Owlsey Brown in association with Re/Search and SF Cultural History Museum, this one-off evening offers a prime glimpse of some of the coolest aspects of 1960s Bay Area counterculturedom, both cinematic and athletic. The program’s first half serves up eight shorts spanning nearly three decades by late great multimedia artist Bruce Conner, including such dynamic progenitors of the music-video format as A Movie (1958) and the intoxicating Cosmic Ray (1962). Also included is the longer, Terry Riley-scored version of trippy Looking for Mushrooms, his 1978 clip for DEVO’s “Monogoid,” and another for the 1981 Eno/Byrne track “America Is Waiting.”

The second half is given over to a rare screening of Hal Jepsen’s 1970 Cosmic Children, arguably the apex of the psychedelic surf documentary epoch, complete with solarized images and beachside frugging. Its original various-artists soundtrack will be replaced by a live one from Marc Capelle’s Red Room Orchestra, accompanying the 50-year-old curl-shooting of such greats as Corky Carroll, Owl Chapman, David Nuuhiwa and Rolf Aurness. Wed/22 8 pm, Balboa Theater. More info here.

Screen Grabs: All weekend long, the Roxie celebrates French noir

Costa-Gavras' 'Sleeping Car Murders' opens the Roxie's "The French Had A Name For It" noir fest on Fri/10.

SCREEN GRABS If you’re not busy this week with CAAM (see our preview here), there’s a competing mini-festival of sorts which overlaps with it just this first weekend: the latest edition of The French Had a Name For It, Midcentury Productions’ showcase for noir-ish Gallic cinema at the Roxie. This time 13 features will span four decades, with a special emphasis on the enormously popular (not to mention prolific) pulp thriller author Georges Simenon’s most fabled connection, the police detective Inspector Jules Maigret.

That fictive figure has dominated some 75 novels, numerous TV series (as far afield as Japan), and umpteen movies, the very first of which came out just a year after his literary debut. 1932’s Night at the Crossroads is a very low-budget early sound film by the young Jean Renoir, who cast his brother Pierre as the sleuth investigating murder at a remote highway pitstop. Crude in many aspects, it’s nonetheless fascinating as a sort of rough primer in what would much later become the noir genre’s standard cinematic vocabulary. Far more accomplished was the next year’s La Tete d’un Homme aka A Man’s Head, whose noir ambiance is so sophisticated you’ll be amazed it wasn’t made ten or fifteen years later. Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko) directed Harry Bauer as Maigret in a vivid tale of murder and revenge amongst the denizens of lower-end cafe society.

A quarter-century (and many Simenon adaptations) later, Jean Gabin assumed the inspector’s trenchcoat for the first of three times in Jean Delannoy’s Inspector Maigret aka Maigret Sets a Trap, in which he tries to stop an elusive serial murderer of women in Montmartre. Jean Desailly is discomfitingly intense as the hysterical manchild overprotected by both wife Annie Girardot and mother Lucienne Bogaert, who between them have helped create the perfect woman-hating monster. Both star and film demonstrate the stodgier side of 1950s French cinema, soon to be nose-thumbed by the nouvelle vague. But Gabin is well-cast nonetheless, and the colorful supporting performances punch across this inevitably engrossing story.

Delannoy also directed 1954’s Obsession, a circus melodrama in color with Michele Morgan as devoted wife to neurotic, possibly homicidal trapeze partner Raf Vallone. Other notable titles in the current Roxie series include Costa-Gavras’ 1965 first feature (and nearly his last to have a non-political subject) The Sleeping Car Murders. This playful whodunnit places an all-cast (including Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, Michel Piccoli and Jean-Louis Trintingant) on the suspect list after a young woman is strangled on a train. There are two 1949 features (Wicked CityPortrait of a Killer) starring erstwhile Hollywood siren Maria Montez (of Cobra Woman fame) towards the end of her short career.

Her husband Jean-Pierre Aumont got an earlier showcase in Je t’attendrai aka The Deserter, as a soldier whose stalled transport train gives him just the film’s running time to visit his village sweetheart and parents. It’s an accomplished exercise in poetic realm marred only a bit by too much scripted contrivance. The series will also include contributions from Fernandel, Jeanne Moreau (both in 1950’s Three Sinners), Dita Parlo (The Queen of Spades), and more. Fri/10-Mon/13 at the Roxie, double feature tickets $14, $60 all-festival pass. More info here.

Among regular commercial openings this week, there were several unavailable for preview: Tolkien, a tale of the Lord of the Rings author’s youth that sounds much in the vein of such prior popular-author-biopics as Finding Neverland and Goodbye Christopher Robin; Werner Herzog’s latest documentary Meeting Gorbachev (at Opera Plaza), a sit-down with the Russian leader who finally ended the Cold War, only to see his nation revert to Stalinesque ogliarchy under Putin; and at the Roxie, Qiu Sheng’s debut feature Suburban Birds, a purportedly arty, artful and elliptical tale of two groups—land surveyors and children—roaming the same Chinese streets, the connection between them left for viewers to puzzle out. It’s been called one part Stand By Me to one part Kafka.

ELSEWHERE (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

The White Crow

Ralph Fiennes is unquestionably a great actor, and his first two films as director—Shakespeare’s military drama Coriolanus, and The Invisible Woman, about a secretive aspect to Charles Dickens’ life—were certainly good enough to make one think he was on the brink of achieving brilliance behind the camera, too. But while impressive in some respects, and never less than intelligently competent in others, this movie doesn’t make that leap. It dramatizes the Mariinsky Ballet troupe’s trip to Paris in 1961, when hard-to-control Rudolph Nureyev’s performances caused a star-making sensation, and where he ultimately decided to defect rather than risk what seemed a likelihood of imprisonment back home for his rebellious behavior. The screenplay, by no less than leading British playwright David Hare, also interweaves flashbacks to the legendary dancer’s impoverished childhood, and his training in St. Petersburg under ballet master Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes).

Even if he can’t replicate Nureyev’s magnetism onstage—who could?—dancer Oleg Ivenko is a fair lookalike, and he captures some of the subject’s fiery, willful, often childish personality. Even at this early point, Nureyev had by all accounts an arrogant, egomaniacal capriciousness that nonetheless seemed oddly guileless, and rather forgivable, because after all he was right: He was the best. Yet this handsome production somehow fails to ignite, at least before its reasonably exciting climax of the airport defection. Part of the problem is the leading figure’s relationships with men are superficially dealt with, even Fiennes’ character staying fairly one-dimensional.

Conversely, there’s too much emphasis placed on his rather murky involvements with two women, a young Paris socialite played very flatly by Adele Exarchopoulos (of Blue is the Warmest Color), and Pushkin’s own wife (Chulpan Khamtova). No doubt Nureyev had much more of an “out” gay life after leaving the USSR, but this narrative tilt does feel a bit like “straightwashing.” Fiennes (who performs most of his role in Russian) clearly has great respect for both dance and Russian culture in general. But The White Crow winds up falling short as a respectable but not-quite-inspired portrait of an extraordinary talent. Embarcadero. Various showtimes. Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF. More info here.


For just over a decade, from 1990’s Ju Dou to 2002’s Hero, Zhang Yimou was mainland China’s most prominent and acclaimed director, at least internationally. While his budgets have only gotten bigger since (particularly on some multinational projects featuring stars like Christian Bale and Matt Damon), his luster has faded somewhat in recent years. Many are considering this ornate period action-intrigue his best work in some time, however. In an ancient Chinese court, a weak ruler (Ryan Zheng) depends on the muscle of his military commander (Chao Deng), not realizing that the man currently in that position is a lookalike imposter meticulously trained to “pass” by the man himself, who’s gravely ill and in hiding.

Building rather slowly towards climactic action, this is a corpse-strewn sort of Jacobean revenge drama, its violence staged with considerable panache. But impressive as it is, there’s also something rather suffocating about Yimou’s approach, which has a cold, monolithic feel like late Kurosawa. The undeniably striking film is stylized to a fault, its monochrome palette broken only by flesh tones and (eventually plentiful) blood, an effect that evokes the calligraphic style of traditional Chinese ink paintings. All this aesthetic rigor doesn’t result in a lot of emotional impact, let alone depth. But if you’re after museum-gallery-grade compositions plus the occasional severed limb, this could be your movie of the year. Embarcadero, Shattuck. 

Archive Fever: Revival House

If last week’s Silent Film Fest or this week’s Roxie French noir series gets you thinking about preservation, check out Other Cinema’s program dedicated to “the newly energized field of film archiving.” INCITE journal editor Brett Kashmere will be on hand to discuss “folk libraries” of vintage film, including the one just below ATA’s screening room. There will also be input from erstwhile SF Bay Guardian contributor Max Goldberg on the California Light and Sound project, which is digitizing the state’s institutional audiovisual collections, plus relevant shorts including a new found-film collage by Bill Morrison, an old one by Bruce Connor, and more. Sat/11, Artists Television Access. More info here.

Charlie Says

Proof that it’s still no picnic for female directors lies in the fact that Mary Harron, of I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho (the ultimate case of making a silk purse out of sow’s ear), has only managed to make five features in nearly a quarter-century. Yes, she’s done a lot of TV work, but it’s hard to imagine a male director with such a solid track record having such a hard time getting work outside random cable episodes. Her participation (and that of past collaborating scenarist Guinevere Turner) raises expectations that this rehash of the Manson “Family” saga will be more than a gate-rushing attempt to cash in on Tarantino’s upcoming, similarly themed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s also based on respectable nonfiction tomes on the subject by Ed Sanders and Karlene Faith.

Faith was a graduate student whose work in prison education introduced her to three of the Manson “girls” three years into their never-ending prison sentences. Thus we get the tale of their absorption into drifter Manson’s (Matt Smith) desert-ranch cult from the mouths of Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon) as they regale their new teacher (Meritt Wever) with reminiscences of the communal life whose indoctrination they’re still fully in thrall to. Of course all that peace and love somehow led them to the Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1969, which are duly (if fairly discreetly) depicted at the climax here.

The filmmakers do a fair job conveying how this supposed hippie idyll curdled under Manson’s psychotic leadership, even if the episodic film often feels too conventional to capture the real insanity of the escalating situation. (In that respect, Jim Van Bebber’s crude, ultra-low-budget The Manson Family may remain the best dramatization of this story to date.) It does offer some novelty in showing how the imprisoned “girls” were gradually educated out of their brainwashed stupor. Still, unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid the umpteen prior retellings of this story, Charlie Says won’t provide truly fresh insight, or any other reason to mine the Manson mess yet again. 4-Star.

Screen Grabs: The Nude Vampire, Babylon, Gay USA…

'The Nude Vampire'

SCREEN GRABS For those not glued all weekend to the SF Silent Film Festival (see our preview here), there’s actually another film festival to consider: DocLands, the California Film Institute’s annual showcase for nonfiction cinema. Its subjects ranging from the political to the environmental and musical, this event’s 3rd edition opens with a world premiere (Bill Gallagher’s Runner, about a Sudanese track Olympian) on Thurs/5, and continues through Sun/5 at the Smith Rafael Film Center and Cinearts Sequoia in Marin County. For the complete program, click here.

Among the films opening this Friday that we couldn’t see by deadline are Long Shot, a comedy romance by Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Wackness) with Charlize Theron and Seth Rogan that was well received in its SXSW premiere the other month; Ask Dr. Ruth (at Opera Plaza), a documentary portrait of famed nonegenarian sexpert Ruth Westheimer; another nonfiction portrait, Hesburgh (at Metreon and Elmwood), about an incredibly well-connected Catholic priest, educator and civil rights activist whom some consider one of the great figures of America’s 20th century; and East L.A. good brother/bad brother crime drama El Chicano.

Gan Bi’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (at Embarcadero and Shattuck) is not Eugene O’Neill but a visually lush Chinese neo-noir; Bardo Blues (at the Roxie), a Thailand-set independent US feature involving spiritual questing and mental disability; Clara (at the 4-Star), a sci-fi love story with reportedly more real science in its fiction than is usual for the genre; and (also at the 4-Star) Tell It To the Bees, a 1950s tale of small-town British pride and prejudice. Actually, we have seen that last-named, but if you can’t say something nice… we’ll shut up now.

Elsewhere this coming week:

This creditable slice-of-life drama about life in London’s sound system (i.e. mobile disco) reggae underground premiered at Cannes in 1980 but was never released in the US, supposedly because it was “likely to incite racial tension.” (Keep in mind that the prior year, American exhibitors had been scared by a few instances of violence at theaters showing gang-themed The Warriors, which resulted in several faintly similar films’ releases being curtailed or dropped.) It’s finally getting seen here in a new restoration.

Shot by future Oscar winner Chris Menges (of The Killing Fields and The Mission), directed by Italian emigre Franco Rosso, its loosely plotted script has a crew of youthful black protagonists running an obstacle course of everyday indignities reflecting rock-bottom English racial relations at the start of the Thatcher era. Their travails of poverty and prejudice include one character getting chased on his walk home at night by what we assume are racist thugs—but they turn out to be police, and no less abusive for that. You’ll be glad the almost impenetrably thick patois of the slangy dialogue is subtitled, though you’ll have no problem grokking a fine soundtrack by The Slits’ Dennis Bovell as well as various reggae acts. Opens Friday, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

What is it with gay movies about hustlers? Andy Warhol was making them before Stonewall. Yes, of course, the world’s oldest profession will always have its lurid fascination, and needless to say it provides an opportunity to undress attractive actors every 10 minutes or so. But after umpteen movies on the subject, is there anything more to say? If there is, writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet’s debut feature doesn’t say it. Still, this French movie sorta recalls My Own Private Idaho, among other movies, and that’s all right.

Leo (Felix Maritaud, who was also in BPM and Knife+Heart) is a 22-year-old homeless hustler who smokes crack, has a bad cough, and looks a bit like a thinner, scruffier, taller Marky Mark. He seems to have no past, and no thought of a future. His present is consumed by tricks (mostly unpleasant, though he is a good sport), as well as successive men (Eric Bernard and Nicolas Dibla as fellow hustlers, Philippe Ohrel as a Good Samaritan) he becomes attached to. This is a well-made movie that’s somewhat pointless, but also kinda sweet in a depressing way, or vice versa. It’s the type of film whose enjoyment (or even profundity) may well mostly rest on just how cute you think the lead is. Opens Friday, Clay Theatre. More info here

Dance Film SF Celebrates Merce Cunningham
He didn’t quite live to see it (he died at 90 in 2009), but great modern choreographer Cunningham’s 100th birthday is being celebrated anyway with this special event, which includes a panel discussion amongst former collaborators, and a reception between features. The two films are themselves separated by a half century, but both pay homage to the late birthday boy’s innovation. 

Assemblage is a 1968 experimental film he made with director Richard Moore. In it, Cunningham and his company of (at the time) eight additional dancers stage a public “happening” in San Francisco’s then-new commercial development of Ghirardelli Square. Very much a product of its time, the hour-long film offers a psychedelic blowout of optical effects including split screen, strobing, superimposition, silhouetting, rear-projection, color-keying, kaleidoscoping—and, just occasionally, unmanipulated images of the dancers in real time and space. Made for local PBS station KQED, which was up to some pretty avant-garde things back then, it’s a delightful rediscovery.

After the reception, there’s If the Dancer Dances, a new documentary that depicts former Cunningham associates teaching his famous RainForest (also from 1968, when its original staging had visual contributions from Warhol and Jasper Johns) to the Stephen Petronio Company as part of the Cunningham Foundation’s work to preserve his creative legacy. Sat/4, Delancey Street Screening Room. More info here.

Like many in the first wave of out gay male filmmakers, Arthur J. Bressan Jr. died of AIDS—though not before making Buddies (1985), the very first narrative feature depicting that epidemic. He also made a number of unusually adventuresome gay porn features, and an intense drama (1982’s Abuse) probing several taboo subjects. An ongoing restoration project for his surviving body of work now encompasses this 1977 documentary in which Bressan had separate film crews simultaneously recording Gay Pride parades in five cities (SF, NYC, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego) on one day in July of that year.

There’s a lot of colorful people-watching, not just of gay and lesbian participants, but also of straight supporters, and more than a few ambivalent-to-hostile gawkers. (They include the usual folk claiming “Jesus said” homosexuality is bad—a Biblical passage that has yet to be found anywhere but in millions of vivid imaginations.) Some folks are interviewed, drawing out a number of coming-out stories as well as brief debate over whether drag queens are inherently misogynistic. (Surprise!: Men in drag don’t think so. Actual women mostly do.)

As several here note, the community’s worst enemy at the moment was anti-gay activist and singer Anita Bryant. This alone lends Gay U.S.A. a poignancy, since who imagined the far greater trials that were soon to come? Anyway, this 78-minute slice of exultant celebration and political pulse-taking is an invaluable time capsule, right down to the terrible “gay pride” songs soundtracked. Local filmmaker Jenni Olson will discuss the film and its preservation post-screening. Tues/7, Roxie. More info here

Media Archeology: Incredibly Strange Music 2
Get your retro-technology fix on at this Other Cinema program celebrating the 25th anniversary of erstwhile 8-Track Mind Magazine editor Russ Forster’s So Wrong They’re Right, a documentary that in turn celebrates collectors and aficionados of the 1970s’ clunkiest audiophile antique, the eight-track tape. (Among those interviewed are my erstwhile Boston neighbor Abby Lavine.) Forster himself will also deejay, screen clips, and play the theremin. Plus other instruments from yesteryear, and promo shorts featuring 60s garage psych-pop and rock legends like The Seeds, Chocolate Watch Band, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, 13th Floor Elevators, and others from the Nuggets and Pebbles collections that I should certainly hope you already have. Sat/4, Artists Television Access. More info here.

The Nude Vampire
Horror was not a particularly popular genre in France until fairly recently, and Jean Rollin’s debut feature The Rape of the Vampire was received as a novelty—one triggering both revulsion and unkind laughter. Yet it was also a considerable success, perhaps because its occult B&W dream offered a complete escape from the political chaos of May 1968, when it premiered. Thus he was in a position to make this more elaborate, color 1970 fantasy, which somewhat to his chagrin cemented his pigeonholing as a director of “erotic horror.”

Though very low-budget, often pressured into graphic gore or sex by financiers (even before he got forced into actual porn), Rollin’s best films nonetheless have an almost abstract, hypnotic, almost somnambulant quality only heightened by their frequently stilted performers. He was raised in a family of artists, and significantly one friend of theirs was no less than the surrealist author Georges Bataille.

The Nude Vampire often plays like a Bataille story, introducing its protagonists as fleeing from figures in grotesque animal masks, as freeform jazz squalls on the soundtrack. Things don’t get much more logical from there, as a decadent tycoon’s son probes into dad’s involvement in both a suicide club and the pursuit of immortality through vampirism. A coolly Eurochic variation on familiar exploitation themes, with plenty of (female) nudity, this eccentric exercise in the macabre and ritualistic will seem pretty strange to the uninitiated, yet it’s also one of Rollin’s glossiest, most accessible films. Tues/7, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Screen Grabs: A seriously funny Italian legend, JT LeRoy, Hail Satan?

Ugo Tognazzi

SCREEN GRABS Though he never reached the heights of international fame achieved by such fellow countrymen as Marcello Mastroianni or Franco Nero, Ugo Tognazzi was one of the great Italian film stars of a great Italian film era—primarily the 1960s and ’70s, when that nation’s industry was at a peak of both homegrown artistic expression and international-coproduction commerce. Probably his most famous English-language role was as the fur-clad beardo who rescues Jane Fonda’s futuristic Barbarella from killer dolls, then introduces her to the joys of “old-fashioned” sex. And his best-known part throughout the world would be as Renato, the more staid of the two middle-aged gay protagonists in the original 1978 French La Cage Aux Folles.

But it was in movies made primarily for the Italian market that he excelled, and which will dominate Cinema Italia San Francisco’s all-day salute to the late actor at the Castro this Saturday. Tognazzi (who died in 1990 at age 68) first worked in theater, then television, showing a particular flair for sketch comedy. That talent, combined with his leading-man looks, made him perfect for the kind of social satire that marked the big-screen “commedia all’italiana” style prominent during his peak career years. La Cage aside, all of the films being shown in 35mm prints at the Castro hit his sweet spot, casting Ugo as successful men stuck in one way or another exposing their own hypocrises amidst the “dolce vita” of high consumption and corruption.

In Dino Risi’s farcical 1971 In the Name of the Italian People, he’s a magistrate coolly closing in on the arrogant industrialist (frequent costar Vittorio Gassman) who believes he’s above the law—even when it comes to murder. In Elio Petri’s 1973 Property Is No Longer a Theft, he’s a wealthy man known as “The Butcher” whose possessions (from minor items to a mistress) are serially purloined by a bank teller turned thief out to demonstrate “Mandrakian Marxism.” The same year, Marco Ferreri’s notorious La Grande Bouffe had him as one among four fabulously privileged men who decide to die of gluttony, over-indulging in sexual as well as culinary delights. More serious was Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1981 Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, in which Tognazzi’s factory owner has to question the value of his material success when his son is apparently kidnapped for ransom.

A recurrent favorite for satirists Risi and Ferreri, Tognazzi worked at one point or another for nearly all the leading Italian directors of this era—Pasolini, Fellini, Monicelli, Wertmuller, Germi and more. None of this tribute’s titles (not even La Cage) are frequently revived these days, so the Castro marathon—which includes an optional “Big Feast Party” at 8:30 pm—represents a rare chance to see not only them, but any significant chunk of this great actor’s sizable cinematic ouevre. Sat/27, Castro. (More info here.)

Of course, for much of humanity the only movie event this week that matters is Avengers: Endgame, which is virtually guaranteed to be the most duplicitous title since Friday 13: The Final Chapter (the fourth movie in a series of ten so far) 35 years ago. But there are plenty of other openings. Among other new arrivals we didn’t catch are two family-friendly and critically acclaimed features at the Roxie, the Kenyan wish-fulfillment tale Supa Modo (about a terminally ill little girl whose village orchestrates her superhero fantasies “coming true”) and anime tale Penguin Highway.

Also at the Roxie for just a couple shows is the local premiere of A Bread Factory, Patrick Wang’s four-hour drama with Tyne Daly and Elisabeth Henry as founder-proprietors of a community arts center about to get crushed by an outside corporate entity. There’s also Ramen Shop (at Opera Plaza), a foodie fable about a young Japanese chef who discovers his familial roots in the noodleries of Singapore. We did see Red Joan (at the Clay), in which Judi Dench is top-billed but doesn’t appear much—most of the running time is taken up by flashbacks in which her character is played by Sophie Cookson. It’s a vaguely fact-based tale of WW2 British spying that ought to be engrossing but instead feels tame, cliched, and improbable.

Elsewhere (all opening Friday at area theaters unless otherwise noted):

Hail Satan?
Penny Lane’s latest documentary, a more straightforward piece of reportage than usual for her, is about some particularly antic action on the frontlines of the war for freedom of (and from) religion. When some secular folks took exception to Florida governor Rick Scott’s call for prayer in public schools, they formed a rather faux organization called The Satanic Temple—no actual worshipping of the Dark Lord implied—to cheerfully insist that if one opened the doors of government-supported institutions to one religion, ALL must be admitted.

The idea took off, this political activist group growing chapters all over the country, becoming particularly prominent in instances of demanding statues of the demon Baphomet be erected as well wherever politicians have rubber-stamped the placing of Ten Commandments sculptures on state capitol grounds.

Hail Satan? has some fun archival footage of devilish representation in vintage media, as well as good insights into religion’s place in U.S. history—where “God” wasn’t mentioned on currency or in the Pledge of Alliance until the godless-Communism scares of the Cold War. It also reminds us that the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 90s (when lives were ruined over “ritual child sex abuse” charges that turned out to be entirely fabricated) was hysterical nonsense. But the primary emphasis here is on this semi-satirical “church’s” fight for the continued separation of church and state in a climate that edges closer every day towards evangelical Christian theocracy. It’s a very entertaining documentary, but also a frightening one. Embarcadero, California Theatre (Berkeley). (Also starts 5/3 at the Roxie.) More info here

Orange Is the New Black star Taylor Schilling has not had the best luck in movies (think Atlas Shrugged and Zac Efron), but she’s great in this sharp indie comedy, with is sort of Young Adult meets Role Models. Her Kate is a corporate executive with a personality as repellent as a can of Raid. Filter-free, she’s loathed by her coworkers, with no apparent friends, and no family she speaks to—until her brother (Eric Edelstein) calls as an absolute last resort, having found no one else to babysit tweenager daughter Maddie (Bryn Vale) due to an in-law crisis.

Maddie is a social misfit, and Kate can sorta relate; being bullied helped make her the horrible person she is today. But their tentative bonding is complicated by Kate’s inevitable bad decision-making, and Maddie’s finding a tribe of her own in the off-putting form of Insane Clown Posse’s face-painted fanbase the Juggalos. Yes, it’s a somewhat formulaic sarcasm-with-a-heart-of-gold type comedy. But Schilling makes it work, and supporting turns by the likes of SNL’s Kate McKinnon (as a helicopter neighbor) and Upright Citizens League’s Matt Walsh add further value. AMC Metreon, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. 

Italian cinema has definitely shrunk a few sizes in global stature since Ugo Tognazzi’s day. But there are still notable talents, such as Matteo Gerrone, who made a splash with Gomorrah a decade ago. Like his subsequent Reality, this latest feels like a sort of footnote to that epic tale of life at the bottom of the mafioso ladder.

In a bleak Southern Italian town, dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is both friend and supplier to Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a vicious coke-addicted brute whom a wiser person would avoid like the plague. When Marcello takes the fall for Simone after being muscled by the latter into being an accessory to a crime, Dogman turns into a poker-faced march towards revenge. Faintly recalling Fellini’s classic La Strada in the hopeless co-dependent cruelty of its central character dynamic, this is a tense character drama that always hovers on the edge of violence, often spilling over that line. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

The Visitor
Italy was fading out as a center for cheesy international co-productions by 1979, the year this mind-boggling sci-fi horror monstrosity directed by “Michael J. Paradise” (aka Guilio Paradisi) came out. But thank god it snuck under the wire. Joanna Nail (whom you might recognize from her starring role in an established cult fave, Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters) is Barbara, mother of Katy (Paige Conner), a seemingly normal little girl with a disconcerting tendency to swear like a longshoreman when out of ma’s earshot.

Also unbeknownst to mom is that her boyfriend (Lance Hendriksen, no less), as well as characters played by Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, John Huston, Sam Peckinpah and the inimitable Shelley Winters are all very interested–on both the good and the evil side–in Katy, a “miracle of nature” with “immense powers.” Those powers apparently include making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball explode at the hoop, and sending teenage boys through plate glass at an ice rink. Some of the adults nosing around Katy really, really want Barbara to give her a similarly gifted baby brother, others do not. It all involves some kind of interplanetary conspiracy to…well, beats me, frankly.

Its utter senselessness part of the charm, The Visitor includes any number of bizarre moments, including Winters’ evident relish of slapping some sense into Katy (the child thesp later confirmed the Oscar winner went a little too “Method” in that scene), and crusty old Huston intoning the line “I’m, uh…the babysitter.” This glossy mess turned cult favorite, which the Alamo is showing in its “Weird Wednesday” series, borrows elements freely from 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (a fiasco that inspired very little imitation), The Omen (or rather 1978’s Damien: Omen II) and, strangely, Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (directly ripping off its famous Hall of Mirrors scene, as does Us). Yet there’s a certain undeniable originality to its pastiched incoherence, which results in an experience you may never forget—even if you want to. Wed/1, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

JT Leroy
This real-life story has been dredged up quite enough already, and Justin Kelly’s (I Am Michael) film is a somewhat pedestrian if starry recap. Still, there is a lingering trainwreck fascination to the story of how aspiring San Francisco writer/musician Laura Albert (Laura Dern) created an authorial persona—an abused, androgynous, ex-prostitute teenage male called JT (for Jeremiah Terminator)—then “sold” him by conning various editors, fellow authors, celebrity readers etc. in that guise on the phone.

This telling begins with the point at which “JT Leroy’s” success was such that someone was needed to play the part in person. Auspiciously arriving at that juncture was Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), the suitably androgynous little sister of Albert’s husband Geoffrey Knoop (Jim Sturgess). The ruse ratcheted up several notches with her participation, painted here as somewhat reluctant. Based on Knoop’s own tell-all memoir, JT Leroy predictably casts her as a guileless heroine, just as the Albert-approved “documentary” Author made her seem a hapless victim of circumstances. (The most credible film representation of this story to date remains Marjorie Sturm’s 2014 The Cult of JT Leroy, which flatters none of the principal participants.)

To avoid further litigation in a saga that’s already attracted plenty, Kelly’s film features Courtney Love as a composite agent figure, and Diane Kruger as someone not exactly Asia Argento, who took the “JT” bait as far as directing and starring in an entire feature (The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things) based on “his” writing. Stewart is well cast, while Dern is discomfitingly vivid as a figure of many manipulative moods and overbearing needs. It’s an involving enough movie, even if the end you’re not sure why this literary scandal had to be rehashed yet again—the lessons that can be learned from it seem to get smaller with each passing year. Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: Cannabis nuns, Sapphic poets, Riot Grrrl blues….

A scene from 'Breaking Habits'

SCREEN GRABS The SFFILM Festival, whose second half continues through Tues/23 at various SF and East Bay venues, has like many such organizations made a significant effort in recent years to balance the gender scales programming-wise: This year there are seventy-two women directors among the makers of its 163 features and shorts.

Still, in the everyday world of film exhibition, it’s unusual when a lot of movies by and about women open at once (though no one even notices when that’s true of men). This is one of those weeks, when the new arrivals have are dominated by work from women directors—see Wild Nights with Emily and Little Woods, below—and narratives entirely centered around female protagonists. Fitting into both categories are some titles we were unable to preview, including Julia Hart’s Sundance-premiered Fast Color, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from Belle) as a fleeing woman with supernnatural powers in a non-Marvel type of sci-fi “superheroine” story, and Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, in which a battalion of female freedom fighters try to reclaim a Kurdish village from ISIS occupation.

Directed by men but strongly focused on women’s perspectives are Handmaid’s Tale actor Max Minghella’s first behind-the-camera effort Teen Spirit, with Elle Fanning as a Polish farmer’s daughter hoping a music career can free her from her bleak life on the Isle of Wight; and Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (at the Alamo) in which music already has taken Elisabeth Moss pretty far. But in that long, grueling drama, her defiantly unsympathetic Riot Grrrl-type star nearly self-destructs while alienating everyone around her. It’s like Vox Lux with less makeup and no stage choreography—a masochistic wallow in another well-acted but repellant personality whose music isn’t all that inviting, either. You can’t fault Moss’ character commitment. But as with Vox, it’s a matter of taste whether you’ll find spending this much time with a tantrum-throwing egomaniac fascinating or purgatorial.

For dude cinema, the 4-Star has you covered: It’s opening both The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam’s forever-aborning Cervantes update (with Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver now playing the windmill-tilter and Sancho Panza, replacing an abandoned prior version’s Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp), and Breaking Habits, a pot doc about activists nuns running a cannabis farm in Merced. The latter sounds like a Cheech & Chong sketch…but then, wouldn’t Don Quixote have sorta worked for them, too? I’m freaking myself out here.

Without or without herbal assistance, you can fully regress to giggling infantilism at masterfully named Nobody Stopped Him: The 1994 Jim Carrey Triple Feature at the Alamo Drafthouse on Sat/20. Long before he became today’s headline maker of trenchant if not very skilled political-caricature paintings, the ex-In Living Color whiteboy dialed the comedy clock back to Jerry Lewis Time with back-to-back hits Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb and Dumber. Can you take them all in one dose? Let us know after you’ve come down. (More info here.)

On the other hand, if you want nonstop hysteria and nuns, look no further than the same venue’s Wed/24 screening of Noribumi Suzuki’s breathlessly (yet stylishly) sexploitative 1974 School of the Holy Beast, in which a Japanese convent is home to practically every vice known  save recognizable Christianity. It may seem tasteless to mention such faux-“lesbian” masturbatory matinee fodder in the same column as so much feminist filmmaking. But really, some schlock cinema is so berserk it transcends offense, and School is definitely in that rarefied WTF league. (More info here.)

Should you want to crawl into a cave afterward, there is the handily scheduled SF Cinematheque show at ATA on Thurs/24 of Peter Burr: Labyrinths, with the filmmaker in person. His short animations play with the visual language of video games to create what has been called “a mix of intricate patterns that vibrate, flicker and hypnotize…viewing (them) feels like entering into a dark, digital cave.” (More info here.)

Someone who’d probably like to be in one of those rather than whatever cage he’s currently inhabiting is the star of Other Cinema’s own ATA show on Sat/20, the inimitable if no longer un-arrestable Julian Assange. This Scritti Politti: Sousveillance program will feature a many-sided view of the man himself by David Cox, drawing on prior screen scrutinies by Laura Poitras, Adam Curtis and others. There will also be additional works about CIA black sites, BFFs Trump ’n’ Putin, and more. (More info here.)

Elsewhere (all opening on Friday unless otherwise noted):

Hagazussa: The Heathen’s Curse
Director Lukas Feigelfeld’s graduation project feature(!) is this gorgeous, unclassifiable fable-cum-nightmare. Albrun (Aleksandra Cwen) is raised in isolation by a mother (Claudia Martini) who’s shunned as a “witch” by fearful peasants in their rural corner of 15th-century middle-Europe. When plague claims her only relation, Albrun is even more alone, until befriended by gregarious Swinda (Tanja Petrovsky). But the latter proves duplicitous in the worst way, prompting Albrun to exact a supernatural revenge—which then requires its own merciless payment in return.

If last year’s Mandy was lycergic cinema par excellence, this German-Austrian production is equally singular psilocybic cinema, its halluincatory nature more indebted to Herzog than Roger Corman. Similarly suspended between genre horror and psychedelic abstraction, it’s beautiful, mysterious and disturbing, poetical yet also sometimes repugnant. Be warned: Tolerance for slow pacing and narrative ambiguity is required. But if you can get onto its peculiar wavelength, this is an extraordinary debut feature. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Wild Nights with Emily
A great but wildly uneven filmmaker, Terence Davies, made probably his worst movie a few years ago with A Quiet Passion, a horribly arch and stilted portrait of Emily Dickinson. A sort of tonic to that misfire is this latest from Madeleine Olnek, whose prior features Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same and The Foxy Merkins were variably inspired but highly original absurdist comedies.

She hardly has the budget here to come up with a convincing 19th-century New England atmosphere, yet the impudence of this sly sendup of a literary biopic makes up for its lack of standard costume-movie “sumptuousness.” It portrays the posthumously famous poet (played by “Saturday Night Live” veteran Molly Shannon) not as a spinster recluse—a persona it suggests her later popularizers created for their own purposes—but a barely-closeted Sapphic whose lovers offer some compensation for the lack of literary recognition or understanding during her lifetime. Not as anarchic as Olnek’s earlier films, but more consistent, this is a witty revisionist portrait that in its own way appreciates Dickinson’s legacy at least as much as the stuffy Passion. Embarcadero, Shattuck, Rafael Film Center. More info here

Little Woods
It’s a common belief (one frequently exploited politically) that anyone who commits a crime must be simply a “bad person.” But as the rich/poor gap continues to widen, there should be some room to accept that folks in desperate financial straits can get pushed into illegal activities because they’ve run out of other options to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, and so forth. This first feature by writer-director Nia DaCosta, reminiscent of Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River a decade ago, provides one fictive illustration.

Ollie (Tessa Thompson) has sacrificed much of her short life to date, traveling across the nearby Canadian border to illegally access pain medication for the sake of the now-deceased, terminally ill mother she’d stayed in a bleak North Dakota oil town to care for. That led to larger-scale drug smuggling, which led to arrest and a conviction—now she’s finally near the end of her probationary period, and ready to leave this place to start over elsewhere.

The problem is that her hapless sibling Deb (Lily James), who already has a son, is now pregnant again. The father (James Badge Dale) is a hopeless screwup, job prospects are nil, and the family home that might lend Deb & brood a stable future is about to get repossessed by the bank. Once again putting others’ needs above her own, Ollie sees no option but to risk prison and cross the border again to raise the needed funds.

Well-acted and involving if not especially memorable, Little Woods illustrates a bind many Americans are increasingly finding themselves in, especially in rural areas: They’re in debt and at risk of losing their homes, even as others benefit from corporate exploitation of local natural resources whose profits somehow never quite “trickle down” to longtime residents. Opera Plaza. More info here.

Boundless: Pema Tseden’s Cinema of Tibet
Independent film production outside the heavily government-controlled industry in China is already difficult enough; all the more so in Tibet, where Chinese occupiers are happy to suppress any artistic expressions of political discontent, or simply native cultural pride. So it’s impressive that novelist turned filmmaker Tseden has managed to make several defiantly “indie” features since 2002. This PFA retrospective (which overlaps with a Berkeley Art Museum exhibit of “Contemporary Tibetan Artists at Home and Abroad”) introduces Bay Area audiences to three of those works.

2009’s The Search is a Kiarostami-like mix of documentary and narrative elements as a film crew travel the countryside to recruit locals as actors on a different, theoretical movie. Old Dog (2011) sees a prized Tibetan mastiff, long used to herd sheep, passing from hand to hand as a commodity in a new rural reality where tradition is constantly being upended for the sake of short-term profit. The striking B&W Tharlo (2015) charts the downfall of another sheepherder when he’s sent to the city to get a government ID. There, he attracts the attention of a shorthaired (by local standards) woman who works in a hair salon—or rather, his money does, once she finds out how much his flock is worth. It’s a sort of ultra-minimalist spin on The Blue Angel, one that (like all Tseden’s films) demands but also rewards considerable viewer patience. Thurs/25-Sun/May 12, PFA. More info here

Screen Grabs: Aretha’s Amazing Grace, Blood for Dracula, Peterloo…..

Aretha Franklin in 'Amazing Grace'

SCREEN GRABS Yes, this is the opening week of the SFFILM Festival, the event so big we gave it its own separate feature (see here). But if you don’t want to brave those particular crowds, there are still plenty of interesting cinematic happenings around town. Not so much at the multiplex, where you’ve got generic-looking family films (Missing Link, Little) and romances (After, starring the preposterously named Hero Beauregard Fiennes-Tiffin as the “mysterious and brooding rebel” that nice girl Josephine Langford falls for) trying to steal a little box-office thunder from comic-book holdover Shazam!

Elsewhere, however, lay some intriguing titles on the arthouse and rep-house circuit. The upmarket choices are two period pieces. (A third, Lion director Garth Davis’ self-explanatory Mary Magdalene, is only opening in San Jose after weak initial critical and audience reception.) At Opera Plaza and Shattuck, The Chaperone is based on a good novel by Laura Moriarty that fictionalizes silent-film luminary Louise Brooks’ early years as a Wichita wildcat and aspiring professional dancer. Elizabeth McGovern plays the titular respectable matron hired to accompany the teen when she’s invited to study under fabled modern dance mavens Ruth St. Denis (Miranda Otto) and Ted Shawn (Robert Fairchild) in NYC.

Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes’ adaptation softens the book’s amusing (and probably accurate) portrayal of bratty, uncontrollable Brooks, and Broadway/TV director Michael Engler gives the production a routinely respectable Masterpiece Theater-type feel. Haley Lu Richardson (so great as the irrepressible Maci in last year’s Support the Girls) is stuck in the same boat as Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn—a talented actress who can’t possibly reproduce the unique charisma of a legendary performer with limited range but an indelible personality. Still, it’s a pleasant, moderately touching film whose strong cast also includes Son of Saul’s Geza Rohrig, Campbell Scott, and Blythe Danner. (More info here.)

The other period drama arriving this week is Mike Leigh’s latest, Peterloo (at the Clay), which commemorates a dark chapter in British history exactly 200 years ago. In 1819 a large Manchester protest for expanded voting rights and Parliamentary representation was met by government militia gunfire, which resulted in several deaths and hundreds wounded. Though Leigh has made period pieces before (notably biopic Mr. Turner, small-scale drama Vera Drake, and the sprightly Topsy Turvy), this kind of somber historical epic is new to him, and response to date suggests that it is not a form to which the 76-year-old filmmaker is ideally suited. (More info here.)

Other specialized openings on Friday include Ferrente Fever (at the 4-Star, more info here), a new documentary about the pseudononymous Italian literary sensation Elena F.; and Master Z: The IP Man Legacy, a revival of the Hong Kong martial arts series that starred Donnie Yen. This time there’s a new cast going through the athletic motions under famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s direction, with Max Zhang supported (and sometimes kicked) by Dave Bautista, Liu Yan, Tony Jaa, Xing Yu, Michelle Yeoh and others.

Of note at Artists Television Access next Thursday (the 18th) is an SF Cinematheque program by and with Roger Beebe (more info here). The “performance cinema practitioner” will show a retrospective of works, which are said to be heavy on collage, multiple projectors, and surreal humor.

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Amazing Grace
There’s a long history of music documentaries going unreleased or becoming inaccessible due to legal issues, often because music rights weren’t cleared for all media (some of which didn’t exist at the time) and/or sufficiently far into the future. But this famously elusive Aretha Franklin doc was shelved nearly half a century for technical reasons, at least initially. While the film meant to accompany it went unseen, the original double-album live recording remains the highest-selling gospel (and Aretha) record of all time.

Though he was well into a high-profile career that had already included They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, director Sydney Pollack was inexperienced with non-fiction (and particularly concert) cinema, failing to take the measures necessary to ensure that the 16mm footage shot over two 1972 nights at L.A.’s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church could be synched with audio tracks. Matching the two turned out to be impossible for decades, and when it was finally managed after Pollock’s 2008 death, the imperious “Queen of Soul”  sued to prevent its belated premiere. The film was finally free to be shown for the first time ever just last November, three months after her own demise.

So, was it worth the wait? But of course, and then some. Amazing Grace is very simple—no interviews, no behind-scenes footage, no distractions beyond a glimpse or two of some Rolling Stones amidst the smallish, otherwise all-black onscreen audience. (You’ll soon forget even that Rev. James Cleveland’s incredible gospel choir is wearing silver vests that look like they’re made of glitter-coated aluminum foil.) It’s pure musical performance, and utterly rapturous as such. There’s an assortment of contemporary gospel tunes, traditional hymns and spirituals covered in superb arrangements, plus a sacred co-opting of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” Aretha’s father Rev. C.L. Franklin gets to say a few words—a few too many words—before the end, but even that feels apt. Amazing Grace is so close to perfection it almost needs one short, dull digression to remind us how remarkable everything else here is. Embarcadero, more info here.

Apocalypse, Ow: Relaxer and Starfish at the Alamo
Two movies getting exclusive runs at the Drafthouse this week are both almost one-person narratives—each centering on a protagonist whose isolation might be mental, due to the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it, or maybe all the above. Otherwise, their idiosyncratic visions are very different, although likely to sharply divide viewers between the entranced and the impatient.

Michigan minimalist Joel Potrykus’ latest Relaxer is eccentric even by his standards—it’s hard to think of another feature-length film that would dare to keep its protagonist glued to a sofa throughout. Of course, one might also ask why it would bother, or if in fact it was a very good idea that this one did.

Joshua Burge plays Abner, whose endlessly competitive relationship with bullying brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) has somehow resulted in a never-ending dare that keeps Abbie rooted to the apartment’s tattered pleather couch. It’s a “challenge” in “survival skills” that is also “makin’ fucking art.” Uh…right. Meanwhile, Y2K catastrophe looms, and Cam’s eventual, prolonged absence might be the literal death of his little bro. This Millennial slacker Waiting for Godot has a few more tricks up its sleeve, but still feels like an overstretched stunt—though admittedly, some have found Relaxer as rewarding as it is undeniably offbeat.

“I wonder if the world still exists if I choose to ignore it?” asks the heroine of A.T. White’s debut feature Starfish, whose isolation is less voluntary than Abner’s. Here, Aubrey (Virginia Gardner) wakes up one day to find the rest of society has apparently vanished—whether “raptured up,” extinguished by disaster, or eaten by CGI monsters she occasionally glimpses, we never know. There’s also the possibility that she may simply be going through an awfully extensive projection of the “stages of grief,” as she has just attended the wake of her late best friend Grace, whose home she also moves into for some reason.

This unclassifiable mix of PTSD drama, end-of-world fantasy, and hallucinatory horror is like a mixtape, the thing that figures so prominently (Grace left many such cassettes behind) in its cryptically minimal plot. In that it has good stuff, much borrowed, some of it a bit show-offy, and all wanting you to be really, really impressed. You’re grateful for the effort but not always for being the designated recipient. It’s science fiction as mental landscape, and I’m not sure I find writer-director-composer White’s mind all that interesting, either as a creative sensibility or as alter-ego’d in the form a self-absorbed heroine who’s alone and terrified and without resources, yet whose makeup always appears freshly done.

Sometimes a little too music-video-like, and playfully random enough to sport a fairly long animated sequence, this a movie for people who might wonder what emoji would best suit post-apocalyptic depression, yet never doubt it’s their job to stay supercute under duress. I couldn’t relate. Still, many millennial viewers seem to think Starfish is amaaaaaazing. Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. Relaxer: more info hereStarfish: more info here.

High Life
Iconoclastic French director Claire Denis’ first English-language film is a departure in more ways than one, as it’s also a science-fiction story set at some indeterminate point in the future. Robert Pattinson and a baby are the last survivors of a voyage beyond our solar system in which convicts were part of a “radical experiment” in attempted procreation outside Earth, under the direction of doctor Juliette Binoche. (Who, it should be noted, proves she’s still game for anything at age 55 in a scene involving aerial hoops and a dildo.) Initially intriguing, this slow-moving tale involves much creepy sexual content and a lot of bodily fluids—but it’s no Alien. It’s an audience-polarizer that you may find interesting, unpleasant, riveting, exasperating, and/or dull. High Life will be shown at the Victoria Thurs/11 as part of SFFILM’s evening’s in-person tribute to Denis (more info here); it opens the next day at Embarcadero, more info here.

Blood for Dracula
Asked why the absurdly funny Drac and (3-D) Frank movies made by Factory protege Paul Morrissey were released in the U.K. and U.S. as Andy Warhol’s Dracula & Frankenstein, Warhol himself shrugged that he did indeed contribute…by attending the premiere parties. Still, there’s a definite edge of Warholian camp to these films, which were made back-to-back in Italy, and break from such prior Andy/Paul joints as Trash and Chelsea Girls in their technical polish and relatively sumptuous settings. Blood for Dracula (its title elsewhere) was shot immediately Flesh for Frankenstein, sharing some of its cast and much of its crew.

It’s not as outrageous as that gory travesty of Mary Shelley, in which Udo Kier’s Baron von F brags “To know life, you must fuck it in the gall bladder!” while doing exactly that. But it’s still a hoot. This time Udo is an even more decrepit aristocrat, the Count D, who must leave his Romanian homeland for lack of “wirgin blood.” He lands at the villa of some impoverished Italian nobles, entertainingly played by the great Italian director Vittorio de Sica and Continental socialite/ex-model Maxime McKendry. The Count claims he seeks a bride, and this family has plenty of marriageable daughters (including Stefania Casini, before her famous encounter with the razor-wire room in the original Suspiria).

Unfortunately, these girls are all—as hunky, horny estate handyman Joe Dallesandro puts it in his inimitable Noo Yawk accent—“a buncha hoors.” Blood for Dracula has perhaps the most literal “running gag” in cinematic history, as the poor, desperate Count is repeatedly sent dashing to the toilet in order to hurl up the freshly sucked fluids of yet another comely maiden who turns out to be no “wirgin” at all. Its initially X-rated tastelessness furthered by tons of gratuitous nudity and soft-core sex, this is deliberate trash of a delightfully high grade. Tues/16, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Screen Grabs: A wonderful ‘Diane,’ Czech newbies, public library drama….

Mary Kay Place in 'Diane'

SCREEN GRABS The inevitable comic book adaptation aside, this is a week full of rather serious movies. So perhaps we should start off with the least-serious movie possible: Holy Flame of the Martial World, a wholly berserk slice of 1983 Shaw Bros. excess whose supernatural kung fu-lishness requires incessant special effects from the usual wire-flight to mummies to Disney-esque animation. Playing just one show at the Alamo Drafthouse next Wed/10 (more info here), it is extremely silly, eye-poppingly colorful, and hard to resist.

Films we were unable to preview this week include the wide releases Shazam! (life is short, comic book movies too many); horror remake Pet Sematary (didn’t screen in time); and fact-based race relations drama The Best of Enemies (ditto). Didn’t get to Alison Klayman’s verite documentary about Steve Bannon The Brink (at Embarcadero and Shattuck, more info here) because…well, to channel the spirit of his ex-boss and our tantrum-thrower-in-chief for a moment, I don’t wanna and you can’t make me!! Really, what could be more repellent than the prospect of following the Breitbart brainiac spreading his poison ‘round the globe for 91 minutes, encouraging nationalist extremism hither and yon? But hey: Knock yourself out, if so inclined.

Then there’s An Elephant Sitting Still at the Roxie for two days (Sun/7-Mon/8, more info here), which was missed because last week life seemed even shorter than usual, and that movie is four hours long. However, Bo Hu’s first/last feature sounds very much worth the time for those not in a hurry: Its bleak tale of four luckless protagonists in a provincial Chinese city has been highly acclaimed as a major debut, all the more poignant for the writer-director’s suicide after its completion eighteen months ago, at age 29.

Elsewhere (all opening Friday):

When conservative politicians insist the public volunteering sector can pick up the slack left by one social-service cut after another, they seem to envision a nation of people like the heroine of this indie drama. You know the type: Those citizens in every community who wear themselves to the bone in service of the needy, getting no compensation save “Thanks” (and sometimes not even that), often seeking to drown their own sorrows in attention paid to strangers’.

Mary Kay Place’s titular figure is a sixty-something divorcee whose days are endlessly filled with hospital visits, food drop-offs, soup-kitchen shifts, driving people to their doctor’s appointments, and so forth. Now part of those rounds are her cousin Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who’s in the last stages of cervical cancer, and Diane’s own son Brian (Jake Lacy), whose angry denials that he’s yet again relapsed into drug addiction convince no one. Perpetually giving her all for others, Diane neglects her own needs until the cumulative strain creates its own crisis.

This first narrative feature by documentarian, critic, and programmer Kent Jones is valuable enough as an astute character study of a character type we seldom see onscreen, save as background. But it turns out to be much more than that, pulling some surprising narrative leaps of ambition and imagination to achieve a whole that’s ultimately quite profound. The reliable Place is ideally cast, and there are good parts for other veteran actresses including Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Glynnis O’Connor, Joyce Van Patten and Phyllis Somerville. Diane isn’t The Golden Girls, though. It’s about the totality of a lived life, with all faith, duty, and disillusionment distilled in ways that are rarely done so well in movies, sans easy sentimentality or cynicism. Alongside the concurrent German Transit, it’s as good as anything that’s come out so far in 2019. Opera Plaza. More info here

Czech That Film
The 8th installment of this annual showcase for the best in Czech cinema offers four new features. Deserter is the latest from veteran director Jan Hrebejk (Divided We Fall, Beauty in Trouble), a seriocomic period piece about protagonists who manage to survive Nazi occupation only to find themselves at odds with their homeland’s new Communist regime. Olmo Omerzu’s prize-winning Winter Flies is a road trip amongst young runaways in a stolen car; Ondrej Havelka’s fantastical Hastrman finds a mysterious nobleman returning to claim family property in a Bohemian village two centuries ago.

Director Radim Spacek will appear at the screening of Golden Sting, another tale of hard times in the early days of Czech Communism—this one about basketball, which the nation excelled in at European championships as early as 1935. But in this drama, the American-originated sport is seen as being subject to political persecution and mechanizations for some years after. Each of the films plays just once in this three-day mini-festival. Fri/5-Sun/Sun, Roxie. More info here.

The Wind
Though it was a failure at the time, perhaps the most respected of Lillian Gish’s silent vehicles now is Victor Seastrom’s The Wind, a stripped-down prairie Gothic melodrama in which she plays an unhappy frontier wife slowly driven mad by isolation and the relentless, punishing weather. Director Emma Tammi and scenarist Teresa Sutherland’s first narrative feature isn’t an actual remake of that ninety-year-old film, being closer to the realm of straight-up  horror thriller. But it does share a number of surprising similarities with its namesake predecessor.

Lizzy (is it a coincidence that Gish’s heroine was named Letty?), played by Caitlin Gerard, is a wife living a very solitary existence on a Great Plains homestead in the late 1900s with husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) when they suddenly get neighbors. But Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon (Dylan McTee) are a quarrelsome couple ill-suited to this harsh life as well as each other, and as her pregnancy advances, Emma appears to snap tether. After her suicide, and Lizzy’s own stillbirth (these are events made clear right at the film’s outset), Lizzy herself begins to fear there are malevolent spirits in the area that have now transferred themselves from haunting Emma to herself.

This tale of settler hardship, paranoia and possible supernatural terror may recall for many Robert Eggers’ acclaimed sleeper hit The Witch. It’s not in the same league, but it’s still an atmospheric, sometimes chilling cut above the genre norm. Alamo Drafthouse. 

The Public
Actor Emilio Estevez’s latest film as writer-director is a Capra-esque seriocomedy that’s a throwback in ways both good and not-so-good. He also stars as a Cincinnati librarian who decides to let himself be barricaded in along with a larger number of homeless persons when the latter decide to spend the night at the main branch—too many of their number having died on the streets already amidst one of the coldest winters on record. Alec Baldwin plays a sympathetic Police Dept. negotiator, Christian Slater a highly unsympathetic D.A., Michael K. Williams the homeless contingent’s de facto leader, Jena Malone and Jeffrey Wright fellow library staff.

The Public is hokey and entertaining, well-intentioned yet simplistic, both crowd-pleasing and shamelessly manipulative. The depiction of the indigent hews a little too close to the “lovable misfit” cliches afforded hoboes and Skid Row denizens in Hollywood movies 75 years ago. But Estevez’s heart is in the right place, and his movie ultimately works just as it intends…even as you see all the narrative rigging which gets you there. Plus, it’s about time someone made a movie about this subject: I can’t be the only person who once started volunteering at the library, then stopped because part of the “job” was waking up homeless people who were quietly sleeping, not bothering anyone. At area theaters. 

Storm Boy
Colin Thiele’s classic 1964 children’s book was already filmed once, though that 1976 version arrived a little too early to benefit from the international vogue for Australian cinema that would ensue within a few years. It starred Walkabout’s David Gulpilil as the aboriginal man Fingerbone, who befriends a boy living in rather bleak circumstances with his antisocial father in an unpopulated stretch of the southern coast.

Forty-three years later Gulpilil is back, albeit this time taking a smaller role, in Shawn Seet’s remake. Geoffrey Rush plays the adult protagonist looking back on his distant childhood, when he (Finn Little) and stranger Fingerbone (now played by Trevor Jamieson) helped care for orphaned pelican chicks, one of which refused to leave his human minders.

Whereas the earlier version was a somewhat humble, TV-movie-looking enterprise, this more elaborate production features attractive period trappings and lyrical photography, as well as added levels of political commentary re: climate change and such. The result is actually less effective as family entertainment, and a bit heavy-handed. (There’s also the problem of Rush, who became mired in highly public sexual harassment accusations related to a theater production just after this film was shot.) But it still has measures of scenic and sentimental appeal that should win over most viewers, particularly those not already invested in memories of the story’s prior incarnations. At area theaters. 

Screen Grabs: Jeff Adachi, Romanian scandal, magnificent cake…

Recently deceased SF public defender Jeff Adachi is a focus of 'Presumed Guilty: Tales of the Public Defenders'—playin the Roxie Wed/3

SCREEN GRABS In a week that brings the literally elephantine spectacle of a (mostly) live-action Dumbo remake by Tim Burton, you might well run in the other direction, towards idiosyncratic documentaries. Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles (at the Roxie, more info you) is a very personal, first-person meditation on that late creator, particularly viewing his life and work through the lens of the voluminous sketchbooks he left behind.

Billy Corben’s Screwball (at the 4 Star, more info here) is a stranger-than-fiction chronicle of major league baseball’s 2013 doping scandal. It’s a tossup whether the biggest, shadiest meatheads involved the players or the gallery of rogues who helped supply them. With this saga’s bizarre ties to the tanning and “anti-aging” industries (not to mention organized crime), it’s a Pain & Gain-like parable of uber-Sunshine State folly—as a journalist says here, “Fraud is basically the unofficial State Business of Florida.”

Almost as mind-boggling in an entirely different way is Jafar Panahi’s new 3 Faces, if only because it’s the fourth feature he’s managed to make (and smuggle out of the country) since being banned from such activities by the Iranian government in 2010. Who knows how many more films he’ll complete before that ban officially ends in 2030?

Like its predecessors a stripped-down “microbudget” film shot in secret, it begins with a young would-be actress (Marziyeh Rezael) filming a presumably suicidal “selfie,” which is then sent to well-known actress Behnaz Jafari. She and Panahi (also playing himself) set off to the remote rural area the video came from, in order to find out if its grim content was real, a prank, or some kind of perverse audition. What they discover is a third, retired actress (albeit one who stays off-screen) living in a village where the rigid, “traditional” gender roles provide an ongoing mirror of the sexist treatment she endured in her career. Another idiosyncratic narrative experiment with a pointed undertow of sociopolitical commentary, 3 Faces (which opens at the Roxie, more info here) is further proof that Panahi continues to have much to say—and still finds ways to bring those personal statements to an international audience.

Another lady in ambiguous distress is Irisz Leiter (Juli Jakab), the heroine of Laszlo Nemes’ new Sunset. Arriving in 1913 Budapest, she hopes to be hired at the millinery—that’s a women’s hat store, you philistines—once owned by the parents who orphaned her long ago. But she’s repelled by its current owners in the first of many uncertainly motivated events here that sweep her into a murky family-related mystery involving much scandalous, chaotic, violent, and inscrutable behavior, past and present. It’s all an enigmatic window on the corrupted mittle-European society that would soon implode into WW1—or, at least, that’s what one assumes the intention is.

Writer-director Nemes created the biggest stir by a Hungarian film in years with his 2015 feature debut Son of Saul, an arresting tale set in Auschwitz. Shot with hand-held camera in a narrow aspect ratio, its jagged stylistic urgency made it unlike any prior Holocaust drama. Set over little more than a day’s course, it seemed to unfold almost in real time, in dank natural light, from the doomed male protagonist’s frantic, dire perspective. In contrast, this second feature (which opens at the Embarcadero, more info here) is a handsome, elaborate costume piece that sprawls over 2 1/2 hours’ screentime, providing gobs of ominous atmosphere and period detail, but little clear thematic or dramatic reward. It’s an interesting, idiosyncratic film, yet also an aloof and unsatisfying one. Oh well: Nemes is hardly the first talent to hit a sophomore slump.

Unpreviewed openings of interest this weekend include [cut material here] Anthony Maras’ Hotel Mumbai, with Dev Patel and Armie Hammer among the imperiled caught in a dramatized re-creation of a 2008 terrorist siege. There’s also two films that just premiered to mixed response at the SXSW Film Festival. Period crime drama The Highwaymen is about the police detectives (Woody Harrelson, Kevin Costner) charged with hunting down infamous Depression-era outlaws Bonnie & Clyde. Harmony Korine’s new The Beach Bum stars Matthew McConaghey as a Key West stoner-poet drifting through life. Despite a colorful cast also including Snoop Dogg, Martin Lawrence, Zac Efron, Jonah Hill and Jimmy Buffett, word at the festival was that this plotless construct doesn’t compare well to Korine’s last such joint, Spring Breakers. To which we can only say: Uh-oh.

Elsewhere, all opening Friday unless otherwise noted:

Slut in a Good Way
Veteran actress turned director Sophie Lorain is in her 60s, scenarist Catherine Leger pushing 40—but you’d never guess it from this critically acclaimed French-Canadian teen comedy, which feels like a first work from particularly precocious recent film-school graduates. Charlotte (Marguerite Bouchard) is inconsolable when her boyfriend breaks up with her (he’s got a good excuse—he’s gay).

Getting drunk with best friends Megame (Romane Denis) and Aube (Rose Adam), however, it soon turns out the 16-year-old high school student can be consoled after all. The three stumble into a Costco-like toy store, discover a lot of cute boys work there, and apply for employment on the spot. The place is indeed a regular hotbed of youthful flirtation, something that Charlotte and co. eagerly embrace—until she finds out that her enthusiasm has gotten her branded as someone who sleeps with “everyone.” Just because it’s kinda true doesn’t make it any less hurtful. A “Lysistrata”-like girls’ protest to “level the playfield” amidst sexual double standards ensues.

The B&W Slut in a Good Way is refreshingly matter-of-fact about teen sexuality (there’s no moral hand-wringing here), and it manages a surprising depth after its primarily comic (but not American Pie-style “raunchy”) early going. We don’t see nearly enough from the often-impressive Quebec film scene in the U.S., so it’s particularly cheering that this little gem is getting a proper release. Starts Thurs/28, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Presumed Guilty: Tales of the Public Defenders
The life and career of recently-deceased SF Public Defender (and sometime filmmaker) Jeff Adachi will be celebrated in this Roxie evening. While he made several documentaries himself, he’s a principal subject in Pamela Yates’ 2002 Presumed Guilty, an acclaimed look at the inner workings of the city’s judicial system and its oft-embattled public defenders. In addition to following a couple high-profile murder cases, the film sees Adachi jousting with the peevish political mechanizations of Mayor Willie Brown’s administration, which briefly ousted him in favor of an ally’s daughter before a public election restored him to his position.

An exemplary public servant, author, and noted spokesperson for undocumented immigrants and pension reform, Adachi was also a frequent watchdog-critic of police misconduct, which in turn won him enmity from SFPD to (and after) his dying day. The screening will feature personnel from the Public Defenders Office and other in-person guests. Proceeds benefit the Jeff Adachi Legacy Fund, which will fund a “fellowship in Jeff’s name to aid deserving young law students and lawyers.” Wed/3, Roxie. More info here

The Other Side of the Lost Continent
Having proved local audiences are ready for vintage noir and noir-ish entertainment from beyond Hollywood, Don Malcolm and Midcentury Productions are now launching this quarterly Roxie showcase for le “Cinema de Papa”—the derogatory term Truffaut and other nouvelle vague-ers used for the “cinema of old men” they hoped to euthanize by injecting fresh blood into a staid film industry. But that blanket dismissal by Godard, Rivette, et al. of (nearly) all who came before them willfully overlooked a great deal of good work in the commercial sector, some of which has aged considerably better than the New Wavers’ self-conscious experiments.

Moving beyond crime mellers to embrace straight comedy and drama, the first film in the occasional series (whose next installment arrives July 11) is Marc Allegret’s 1938 Entree des Artistes aka The Curtain Rises, a fine, sophisticated seriocomedy set in a prestigious Paris acting conservatory. What starts out as an intriguing, somewhat flummoxing look at teaching techniques (with Louis Jouvet as the most exacting of professors) gradually turns into a romantic triangle between students, then takes a surprising late turn towards apparent murder mystery.

A protege of both Andre Gide and Jean Cocteau, Allegret did grow more staid as his five-decade career went on (despite an early version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover), but remained respected for his role in grooming numerous emerging stars, including Bardot, Belmondo, Gerard Philipe, Michele Morgan and others. Entree des Artistes finds him naturally at home amidst the aspirations and insecurities of young actors; its “backstage” ambiance feels unusually genuine. Thurs/4 & Sat/6, Roxie. More info here

The Invisibles
This compelling mix of documentary and dramatization details a little-known chapter in the annals of Nazi Germany: During WW2 some 7,000 Jews managed to avoid “deportation” to concentration camps, remaining in Berlin. Some hid in sympathizers’ homes, others “in plain sight” by posing as Aryans.

Claus Rafle’s film is based on the stories of now-elderly interviewees who were mostly teens at the time. Each of their individual, often harrowing experiences might easily have floated an entire film like Agnieszka Holland’s 1990 Europa Europa, which was also about a real-life Jewish protagonist who survived by “passing” as a “pure” German. They lived out the war years at times homeless (when a temporary shelter became too dangerous), trying to blend in, often walking the streets in terror that they might be recognized by someone from their prior life.

Less than a quarter of them actually managed to escape detection long enough to see the Allied victory. The Invisibles is less another indictment of fascist cruelty than a testament to resilience, as well as the kindness of strangers—more than a few Germans risked their own lives to save those victimized by racist policies they disagreed with. Opera Plaza. 

Adventures in Animation: This Magnificent Cake! & Ariana Gerstein
Belgian animation duo Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels crafted this unique 44-minute stop-motion feature that meditates on their country’s often abhorrent history in the “Belgian Congo,” a late and particularly brutal instance of European colonialism. Its five sections each focus on a different character, from King Leopold II (who started the country’s exploitation of Congolese resources and people in 1885 with the ironically named Congo Free State) on through a chronological series of archetypal victims and victimizers.

Perhaps the signature personality is a corpulent, drunken, oblivious Belgian emigre in a pith helmet whose hapless antics seem to inevitably result in death for “natives”—not that he even notices.

Its meticulously realist technique using puppets made of felt and other fabrics, Magnificent Cake! (named after a famous Leopold quote comparing Africa to a dessert to be sliced up and consumed) is an indictment more in the realm of ironical humor and absurdist anecdote than sweeping historical depiction. At once modest and impressive, it’s another significant recent demonstration of animation put usefully at the service of themes well outside the usual realm of children’s entertainment. Thurs/27, Roxie. More info here.

Note: Animation fans with a more experimental tilt will also want to check out the SF Cinematheque program Glass House: Films of Ariana Gerstein. A specialist in hand-wrought editing and optical printing, she will appear in person at this evening retrospective of her dense, beautiful short works. Thurs/4, YBCA. More info here

This crazy 1984 “sword and sandal” contraption stars Sandahl Bergman of Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonja as an Amazonian-type self-proclaimed goddess…but that’s about all it has to do with H. Rider Haggard’s titular fantasy novel, which had already been filmed (much more faithfully) several times over. Israeli director Avi Nesher was hired to make yet another of the umpteen Italian Conan and/or Mad Max ripoffs being churned out at the time. But he clearly didn’t take that assignment at all seriously, and amazingly no one stopped him from creating a movie that ridiculed that (and any other) earnest genre aspiration.

23 years after “The Cancellation,” a catastrophe of unknown specifics and no obvious environmental impact, humanity is…uh, kinda random. Our protagonists meander from one nonsensical “adventure” to another, encompassing cannibals in togas, telekinesis, a guy who seems to think he’s impressionist Rich Little, a Frankenstein monster, chainsaw battles, whipping by Druids, Women in Prison-type exploitation, a full-length performance of the Green Acres theme, and a whole lotta whatnot. Some of this seems to have been determined simply on the basis of costumes available, presumably left over from other movies.

“Surreal” in the cheesiest possible way (i.e. more Attack of the Killer Tomatoes than Bunuel), it’s a cheapo tongue-in-cheek mess as dumb as heck—but hard not to admire for its unwillingness to give the slightest fuck. Almost more entertaining than watching it is imagining the dismay on the faces of the financiers when they discovered they didn’t have the new Ator the Invincible but something too weird even for undiscriminating drive-ins and grindhouses. Wed/3, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: The terror that is ‘Us’

Lupita Nyong'o in 'Us'

SCREEN GRABS For many, the movie of 2017 was Get Out, the first directorial feature for Jordan Peele of the comedy duo Key & Peele. Surely the timing had a lot to do with the popular sensation it caused: Arriving early in the reign of Twitler, its tale of a young black man lured into a picture-perfect white community’s insidious, slightly fantastical trap was the ideal pop-culture commentary for a moment when years of rising Black Lives Matter-related anger were suddenly buried by the “white is right” tidal wave of President Trump & co.

Had we really come half a century from the Civil Rights Movement just to experience widespread nostalgia for a “simpler” earlier time when racism a.) could be practiced freely but also b.) didn’t officially exist? Apparently so. Get Out’s juiced-up genre mix of horror, satire and black comedy seemed no less enjoyable for being so wildly, ingeniously relevant.

Peele’s eagerly awaited second feature is here, and Us does not disappoint. In service of not spoiling anything (though everyone else will), I’ll say only that it involves a little girl who experiences a mysterious trauma at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in 1986, then grows up to be Lupita Nyong’o, who with husband Winston Duke has two children played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex. When they return to the scene of mom’s formative fright, strange things rapidly start to happen…and do not stop, for most of a solid two hours. At risk of hyperbole, let’s say that if Get Out was Peele’s Psycho—a startling, subversive, macabrely amusing high concept—followup Us is sort-of his The Birds, in that it takes an outlandish, unexplained yet elemental fantasy premise and runs with it in a virtuoso demonstration of suspense direction. (Side note: Hitchcock’s SF-set Vertigo plays midnights this weekend in a 4K restoration at the Clay.)

From the title down, Us can definitely be interpreted as sociopolitical metaphor, though it’s much less obvious in that respect than Get Out—and it will be very interesting to see press and public parse its possible meanings in the coming weeks. (I’m particularly looking forward to hearing theories on a late twist that, for my money, does more to confuse than deepen whatever Peele is saying here.)

At the most basic level, however, the two films are alike in that they are well-crafted thrill rides that enjoy a bit of mindfuckery at your expense, though not enough to be punitive. (Some of the early action may vaguely recall Michael Haneke’s cold, cruel Funny Games, but Peele is too much of an entertainer to consider deliberately giving the audience a genuinely hard time.) What does Us’ uprising of a malevolent force that looks just like, well, us, say about America today? Enjoy, and please discuss.

Also opening at area theaters on Friday is The Hummingbird Project, an interesting drama with Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard as entrepreneurial cousins attempting to pull off a crazily ambitious cross-country fiber optic tunnel. Salma Hayek chews scenery entertainingly as the boss whose make they make this potentially-hugely-enriching deal behind, and whose subsequent campy rage knows no bounds. An odd parable about folly and striving in the e-commerce age, it’s distinguished primarily by the lead performances. Skarsgard is showily cast against type as a code-writing dweeb, but it’s Eisenberg who lends the film its emotional drive and eventual poignance.

Unpreviewed openings include The Aftermath, an intrigue set in just-post-WW2 Germany, with Skarsgard again and Keira Knightley; plus (at the 4 Star) Out of Blue, a cryptic mystery with Patricia Clarkson as a New Orleans cop on a crime trail. There’s also (at the Roxie) documentary Genesis 2.0, which looks at both the hunters of ancient buried treasure (mammoth tusks) in modern Siberia, and  scientists who may be able to resurrect the woolly mammoth and other extinct species with rapidly-evolving technology (more on that here).

‘Reach’ by Billy Boyd Cape is featured in the Tiny Dance Festival

Other worthwhile events include the two-day weekend Roxie residence of the Tiny Dance Film Festival, which brings two separate programs of dance-centric shorts from around the world (more info here); a fascinating-sounding Cinematheque bill of Taiwanese experimental shorts from the 1960s next Thursday (more info here); and this Saturday, an Other Cinema animation showcase primarily dedicated to ‘toonful women’s work (more info here).

If you’re in the mood to praise famous men, join the city-wide celebration of our legendary, still-kicking poet’s birth centenary with the Roxie’s Saturday screening of 2009 documentary portrait Ferlinghetti (more info here).

Some recommended additional Friday openings:

Christian Petzold is nearly sixty, but it’s just recently that he entered that shrinking list of arthouse directors whose latest works are pretty much guaranteed wide dissemination—even theatrical release in the U.S., something that gets harder for foreign films every year. This latest, his first feature since 2014’s Phoenix, is like it also a drama about mistaken (or assumed) identity in a time of extreme societal upheaval. Franz Rogowski plays a German refugee in France, who uses official papers to pass as a man who died as they were both fleeing persecution. Trying to escape Europe, he keeps running into a mystery woman (Paula Beer) who turns out to be the dead man’s oblivious widow.

Transit is based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers that was explicitly about Jews and others desperately trying to escape the Nazis and their “final solution.” In translating the story to a more-or-less “present day” in which xenophobia and fascism is again on the rise, Petzold has created a subtle but powerful commentary on our current climate of simmering white nationalism and hostility towards immigrants, one that has a sort of timeless, Camus-like flavor.

A more poignant (not to mention credible) work than Phoenix, it’s a fine, serious-minded movie with a compelling leading man in the slightly off-kilter Rogowski. That Talking Heads song at the end is a bit of a mood-killer, though. Clay, Shattuck, Rafael Film Center. More info here

The Mustang
Another fine European actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, brings his particular gravity to another very good multinationally-produced drama. He plays Roman Coleman, a man in a Nevada prison for a violent crime. Just out of isolation, and admittedly “not good with people,” he’s assigned outdoor work duty that comes to include breaking wild mustangs for the facility’s annual charity auction.

This stripped-down feature directorial debut from French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnere resists the usual “inspirational” obviousness in a man-and-horse tale like this, even as walking cloud-of-anger Roman duly gets tamed himself by devotion to the animal he’s tasked with domesticating. Though there are good supporting performances (notably by Bruce Dern, Jason Mitchell and Connie Britton), this is primarily a stark portrait of a loner, its aesthetics as spare as the protagonist’s terse verbiage. If you liked last year’s The Rider (and if you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?!?), you’ll probably also be moved by this thematically different yet tonally similar equine drama of the modern West. Embarcadero. More info here.

The Juniper Tree
Most viewers assumed idiosyncratic pop star Bjork’s memorable performance in Lars von Trier’s 2000 Dancer in the Dark—a director and filmmaking experience she later denounced as abusive—was her acting debut. But in fact she’d appeared a decade earlier in this B&W feature made in her native Iceland, an austere English-language feminist parable by late American filmmaker Nietzchka Keene. It played the Sundance Film Festival in 1990 (some years after its financially-hobbled original production), but otherwise was little-seen or noticed in the U.S. before this restoration re-release.

Based on a Brothers Grimm tale, it’s still less “fairy tale” in tenor than it is close to Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality dramas The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal, at once mystical and harshly realistic. Bjork (who was just 21 when it was shot) plays Margit, who with older sister Katia (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) flee home after their mother is killed as a witch. They’re taken in by a farmer and his young son, but they too feel threatened by the magical powers the sisters have indeed inherited from her ma.

Its fantastical elements presented in very matter-of-fact terms, The Juniper Tree (named after a passage from a T.S. Eliot poem) is a slowly paced work of gentle faith in powers beyond the visible—it’s a bit like Robert Eggers’ rural period piece The Witch, albeit with the significant difference of there being no Devil’s handicraft at work. Roxie. More info here.