Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: She raised hell!

'Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins'

You can experience complete schizophrenia at the movies by attending all three of this weekend’s new big releases: There’s the uber-manly Rambo: Last Blood, the franchise that won’t stop flexing its biceps; and the terribly tea-cosy Downtown Abbey, yes the big-screen continuation of the new millennium’s Upstairs, Downstairs. Imagine the pandemonium if their audiences wandered into each other’s theaters by mistake.

Then somewhere in a kind of popcorn-fantasy metrosexual netherworld is Ad Astra, a big sci-fi extravaganza with Brad Pitt as an emotionally blocked astronaut in what sounds like a male version of the inner/outer space drama Contact 22 years ago. It’s directed by James Gray, whose most mainstream film to date was the highly idiosyncratic period adventure The Lost City of Z—so this is definitely going to be thinkier than your average missive from the Star Wars or Marvel “universes.”

Two documentaries opening this week also offer high contrast, although I suspect their subjects would have actually enjoyed each others’ company. Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins (at Opera Plaza, more info here.) pays fond tribute to the late Texas firebrand whose stinging political critiques as a journalist and commentator were tolerated in her very “red” state and beyond because she was just so damn funny. Featuring colleagues like Dan Rather and Rachel Maddow as well as input from family and friends, Janice Engel’s feature is as entertaining as the personality at its center.

Unavailable for preview was Desolation Center, about the early 1980s underground music, art and multimedia events in Southern California that are now considered to have been the direct precursors to Burning Man and other ongoing cultural behemoths. It’s directed by Stuart Swezey, credited as these happenings’ principal organizer, and features latterday interviews as well as archival performances by personnel from Einsturzende Neubauten, Survival Research Labs, Sonic Youth, The Minutemen and more. It plays this week at the Roxie. (More info here.)

Also opening this week is the SF Latino Film Festival (September 20-29), featuring a wide variety of programs, features, and shorts. You can find tickets and passes here.

No Regrets: A Celebration of Marlon Riggs
Before he died of complications from AIDS in 1994, Texas-born, Oakland-based Riggs attained an unwelcome kind of notoriety: His hour-long 1989 poetical documentary/essay Tongues Untied was widely denounced as “pornographic and blasphemous” (in the words of the inimitable Pat Buchanan) by conservative politicians and pundits. It was used to argue for the de-funding of PBS, which broadcast it, and the National Endowment for the Arts, which had helped fund it. All this because Riggs had made an artistically adventurous yet non-explicit celebration of black gay male life, something that remained a taboo topic for discussion even within many African-American communities.

The upside was that a work as avant-garde in many respects as Tongues might only have been seen by a few “previously converted” types if not for the national controversy. Working furiously up to his death at age 37, Riggs proved the depth of his talent with 1992’s Color Adjustment and the posthumously released Black Is…Black Ain’t, both bold, fascinating meditations on African-American identity.

This PFA series (timed to the 30th anniversary of Tongues Untied) is a complete retrospective that also makes room for the biographical documentary I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs, and three movies that broaden the context of his work. The group-directed 1977 Word Is Out provided a pulse-taking of the “Gay Lib” culture that coincided with his own coming out, while Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 The Watermelon Woman and Thomas Allen Harris’ Vintage: Families of Value are examples of the art and artists whose paths Riggs broke ground for. Thurs/19-Mon/Nov. 25, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Bogdanovich: The Last Picture Show and Saint Jack
Though he’d already apprenticed under exploitation kingpin Roger Corman and made one interesting prior feature (the prescient mass-shooter tale Targets), ex-critic Peter Bogdanovich’s directorial career began in earnest with 1971’s The Last Picture Show. It was a “New Hollywood” film that Old Hollywood could understand, with its nods to John Ford and nostalgia for a recent, “simpler” American past. He made two more big hits (What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon) before a string of flops considerably reduced Bogdanovich’s golden boy luster. Yet at decade’s end he made another of his best movies, the regrettably under-seen Saint Jack, with Ben Gazzara as Paul Theroux’s protagonist, a disreputable Yankee expat trying to run various get-rich-quick scams in Singapore.

These two bookends to a remarkable cinematic decade are together at last at the Roxie this Sunday, double-billed as an “80th Birthday Bash” for their director (probably better known in recent years as an actor, notably on The Sopranos), who’ll be in attendance. Picture Show will be offered in a “Director’s Cut” (presumably with the seven minutes of extra footage included in a prior home-release “special edition”), while seldom-revived Jack is shown in a new 4K restoration. Bogdanovich is a marvelous raconteur with terrific insight into his own work, so this program should be a bonanza in both live and celluloid entertainment value. Sun/22, Roxie. More info here

Legacy Film Festival on Aging
Though somehow it escaped our attention previously, this is billed as the 9th year for this local festival whose programming focuses on issues relevant to seniors. Its nine wholly distinct programs over three days encompass a diverse range of shorts, including ones from Belgium, Italy and Switzerland as well as the U.S.

There are also a handful of features, including a reprise of Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had, which had an all-too-brief commercial run earlier this year. It’s an exceptionally nuanced seriocomedy about a family dealing with an aging parent’s (Blythe Danner) rapidly escalating Alzheimer’s, with Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon as the adult children pushing for her to be moved to an appropriate fulltime care facility, an option that father Robert Forster vehemently refuses. Fri/20-Sun/22, New People Cinema. More info here

Ms. Purple
Low on star names, higher on mood than narrative structure, Juston Chon’s feature did not exactly set Sundance on fire this January, but in its quiet way it was nonetheless one of the more accomplished and distinctive features programmed. A self-piteous, embittered mess since his wife abandoned their young family, emigre Young-il (James King) had to raise his two children alone—which doesn’t necessarily excuse the crappy job he made of it. Carey (Teddy Lee) fled this unhappy home in L.A.’s Koreatown as soon as he could, but Casie (Tiffany Chu) stuck around as the dutiful daughter, putting her own life on permanent hold while supporting the household with degrading work she hates as a sort of upscale karaoke-bar geisha. She has a boyfriend (Ronnie Kim) who’s rich and generous, yet she seems less his beloved than an ornament that completes his expensive lifestyle.

When sickly dad can no longer be left alone, Casie refuses to put him in a hospice, instead begging the very reluctant Carey to return as a part-time caregiver. It’s an edgy reunion, with plenty of unresolved issues between both the siblings and with their father. But still, the forced reconciliation seems to be working out, even as a few unpredictable variables (immature Carey’s prankish streak, Casie’s barely-restrained anger) tempt disaster.

A sharp detour from the gritty realism of Chon’s prior Gook, Ms. Purple is dreamy and dolorous, more attentive to its saturated-color aesthetics than to the usual particulars of plot momentum or character psychology. This imbalance can be frustrating, even pretentious. Still, it’s an atmospheric slice of intriguingly unfamiliar life whose Antonioni-esque air of poetical ennui is, at the very least, one former arthouse “flavor of the month” one rarely encounters anymore. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas.

Looking Back at the British New Wave
Like many film industries, the United Kingdom’s got a big stagnant in the 1950s, as formulas ran dry and audiences increasingly stayed home watching TV. And like many, it got a rude but much-needed kick in the pants from new talents that began to emerge towards that decade’s end, many from the dread Boob Tube itself. The signature films of this movement were (along with their stage equivalents) termed the “Angry Young Man” school, not because their makers were pissed off, but because their protagonists were frequently rough, spiky, dissatisfied working-class blokes of a type that British cinema had seldom seen before—because it was “nice,” and they weren’t.

This PFA series pulls together fourteen titles from the era, nearly all of them famous (then and now), but some not in circulation or seen in poor condition for some time. The first four are all from director Tony Richardson: 1959’s Look Back in Anger (based on the John Osborne play that set this subgenre’s kicking-against-the-pricks mold) and 1962’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner are quintessential “angry young man” dramas, while A Taste of Honeyexpanded the kitchen-sink realism to encompass complex female and gay figures, and The Entertainer burned the bridge of bad old entertainment via Laurence Olivier’s scurrilous turn as a rakish, untalented music-hall hack at career’s end.

Later films in the series introduced such directorial talents as John Schlesinger, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, Jack Clayton and Bryan Forbes, as well as overnight stars like Michael Caine, Richard Harris, Albert Finney, Julie Christie and Malcolm McDowell. Two titles included here weren’t by British directors, but are key to the period nonetheless: Expat American Joseph Losey (who’d been blacklisted during Hollywood’s Red Scare) commenced his collaboration with playwright Harold Pinter on 1963’s deliciously perverse The Servant, an acid commentary on British class divisions. Three years later, Italian visitor Michelangelo Antonioni packaged “Swinging London” for the masses in the cryptic yet hugely popular Blow-Up.

Another expat, England-bred, SF-based critic David Thomson (A Biographical Dictionary of Cinema), will lecture in tandem with screenings of those last-named films and two others. Sat/21-Sat/Nov. 30, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Screen Grabs: Native American Reelism, Bay Area Thrash Metal …

'The Exiles'

SCREEN GRABS The ever-lengthening annual period known as “awards season” arguably starts this Friday with the arrival of The Goldfinch, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last week.

It’s Brooklyn director John Crowley’s adaptation of the 800-page novel by Donna Tartt—which I’d be tempted to say was the least-deserving Pulitzer winner of recent years, if it hadn’t been followed by All The Light We Cannot See and Less. In any case, Ansel Eigort plays the protagonist who loses his mother in a terrorist attack, then spends the next couple decades bounced around by further arbitrary winds of fate. Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright play other key figures in this tale that sprawls from Manhattan to Vegas to Europe, and which may work quite well as a movie—after all, it practically read like one.

As for the new, more baldly commercial release Hustlers, in which “savvy former strip club members band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients,” let us simply leave you with this fun fact: “Jennifer Lopez trained for pole dancing in preparation for the movie. She even had a detachable pole in her house.” I smell Oscar! Just like the one Demi Moore got for Striptease!

Likewise unpreviewed, if presumably less mercifully, is Benjamin Naishtat’s Argentine Rojo, about a provincial lawyer neck-deep in that country’s dangerous political intrigue of the 1970s, when many citizens were “disappeared” and never found (at least not alive) again. It opens at the Opera Plaza (More info here).

Landmark is also opening (at the Embarcadero and Shattuck) Hannah Pearl Utt’s Before You Know It, an uneven but at times divertingly offbeat comedy about two ill-matched sisters (Utt, Jen Tullock) struggling to retain hold of their lifelong home after the sudden death of their Off-Off-Off Broadway “legend” father (Mandy Patinkin) reveals he didn’t even own it. Judith Light plays the veteran soap opera star mother who does, and whose daughters had no idea she was actually alive. (More info here.)

If it seems early for awards contenders, it seems even more so for Halloween. Nonetheless, there’s Haunt, a pretty good indie horror flick whose collegiate protagonists find themselves trapped in a haunted house attraction where the thrills are a little too convincingly homicidal. You’ve seen its ilk before, but if you like such things, you’ll enjoy this well-made stroll through familiar bloody terrain. It opens at the Presidio. (More info here.)

Elsewhere, all opening Friday unless otherwise noted:

SF Indie Short Film Festival
The Goldfinch is 2 1/2 hours. In that amount of time you could probably watch at least twenty complete movies at this latest offshoot from the giant impersonal local corporation that already gave you SF Indiefest, Docfest and Hole Head. All those by-now-longrunning festivals have always sported shorts programs, so it’s a natural evolution that we should get a festival entirely devoted to “the perfect snack” on the cinematic menu.

The twelve themed programs offered this weekend run a wide stylistic and genre gamut, from documentary to animation. Titles featured come not just from local and North American talents, but also China, Iceland, Namibia, Ukraine, Palestine, South Africa and more, with a fair number of filmmakers in attendance. Adding further incentive, every ticket comes with a free beer or other beverage of your choice. But beer is good. Fri/13-Sun/15, New People Cinema. More info here.

Voices Carry: Women in Film
SFMOMA’s fall film series showcases recent works by women around the world, only a few of which were seen (however briefly) in Bay Area commercial runs. The uniformly strong nine-week program comprising fifteen features commences this Sunday afternoon with Lucretia Martel’s elliptical Argentine period epic Zama, then includes work from the U.S. (Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline), Zambia (Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch), Lebanon (Nadine Labaki’s exceptional Capernaum), Mexico (Natalia Almada’s Everything Else), China (Cathy Yan’s Dead Pigs), Indonesia (Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts).

There’s also the final film by Chantal Akerman (documentary No Home Movie), the latest by fellow Frenchwoman Claire Denis (sci-fi psychodrama High Life), the horror omnibus XX, and more. We’d give you a direct link to the series info, but SFMOMA’s reliably crappy search engine wouldn’t let us find one, so you’re on your own. Sat/14-Thurs/Nov. 21, SFMOMA. More info here

Berkeley Film Foundation and Native American Reelism at the PFA
Two new series launching at the Pacific Film Archive this week spotlight filmmaking of a politically activist, community-oriented stripe. Founded a decade ago, the Berkeley Film Foundation has supported diverse projects, including the six documentaries being showcased here.

Their subjects include Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz (This Ain’t No Mouse Music), the business of Oakland recycling (Downtown Redemption), Robert Reich’s insights on the devolving American economy (Inequality for All), classical avant-gardists Kronos Quartet (The Whistleblower of My Lai), at-risk youth mentoring (The Pushouts), and the self-explanatory In the Image: Palestinian Women Capture the Occupation. There will also be several BFF-funded shorts shown. Thurs/12-Sun/Oct. 27, PFA. More info here

“Out of the Vault: Native American Reelism” comprises three programs bringing together representations of our indigenous peoples outside the Hollywood mainstream over the last nine decades—going back as far as 1930’s The Silent Enemy, a rare indie feature about pre-colonial Ojibwe life made in collaboration with Native actors.

Thirty years later, Kent Mackenzie captured the poverty and alcoholism that beset many urbanized “Indians” in The Exiles, one of the great documentary/narrative hybrids of its era. Ranging from four minutes to an hour, other films in the series include a 1973 Bill Moyers TV investigation (Why Did Gloria Die?), the historical inquiry Report from Wounded Knee, and Lay Claim to an Island, which recalls the fabled 1969 occupation of Alcatraz by Native protestors. Thurs/12-Thurs/Nov. 14, PFA. More info here

Monos
Brazilian Alejandro Landes’ striking feature is a mix of brute realism and Lord of the Flies-type allegory. In remote mountains of an unnamed Latin American country, eight armed teens comprise a paramilitary “squad” charged with safekeeping “La Doctora” (Julianne Nicholson), a kidnapped American apparently being held for ransom. With names like Rambo and Smurf, these youths are not exactly the most level-headed spokespersons for the vague revolutionary concepts they spout. They’re reckless enough to accidentally shoot dead the milk cow they’ve been entrusted with in a moment of trigger-happy exultation.

When an attack by government forces scares them into a jungle retreat, the “commandos” begin to self-destruct, undone by their own immaturity and the captive woman’s determination to escape. A sort of queasy adventure story from which you can glean whatever moral you want (or none), Monos is a sometimes poetical, sometimes jarring portrait of desperation and fanaticism amongst people too young to understand their own ideology—or what they’ll be called upon to sacrifice for it. Alamo Drafthouse, SF. More info here.

A Faithful Man
Duly opening with a shot that encompasses the Eiffel Tower, second-generation director Louis Garrel’s sophomore feature seems to be competing for the title of Most Thoroughly French Film Ever. He also stars as Abel, a broadcast journalist who lives with Marianne (Laetitia Casta) in her apartment—until she mentions that she’s pregnant by another man and needs him to move out so they can live together as a married couple. Surprise! Thus robbed of home, girlfriend, and nearly his sanity in one blow, Abel trundles onward until some years later he hears that Paul (the “other man”) has suddenly died.

Very quickly our hero finds himself back in Marianne’s life, a situation complicated not only by her precociously odd, even menacing son (Joseph Engel) but by Paul’s younger sister Eve (Lily-Rose Depp, another second-generation talent), who unbeknownst to Abel has been obsessed with him nearly all her life.

A Faithful Man was co-written by the nearly 90-year old Jean-Claude Carriere, fabled veteran collaborator on films by Louis Malle, Bunuel, Schlondorff, Forman, Peter Brook, Babenco, and Pierre Etaix. There are several unstable players in this game of love, which can be taken as either a poker-faced farce or slightly absurdist drama. Either way, it certainly packs a lot of plotty incident into just over 70 minutes, and seems consummately French in the way that characters behave with methodical irrationality, taking in stride approaches to relationships that might impress the viewer as near-lunatic. This movie is fun, but if any of its events befell you in real life, you’d run screaming to the nearest therapist. Opera Plaza. More info here.  

Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story
Adam Dubin’s documentary, which premiered at SF Docfest this summer, traces the arc of our region’s hugely influential thrash metal scene—not just famous acts like Metallica, Exodus, Possessed and Death Angel, but lesser-remembered bands like Laaz Rockit and Vio-Lence, as well as long-gone venues like the Mab, Keystone and Ruthie’s Inn. There’s plenty of old video performance footage, as well as latterday insights from MVPs like Kirk Hammett and Dave Mustaine.

This 80s flashback provides a good overview of how a punk-influenced club movement gradually came to rival and perhaps finally vanquish the excesses of the “hair metal” era, musically and otherwise. When they won, it was a sad day for the manufacturers of guyliner, spandex and Aqua Net…but a very good day for headbanging music in general. Don’t miss this single reprise screening, which is sure to sell out, as it did at Docfest. Sat/14, Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: The 5000 fingers of Dr. Seuss

'The 5000 fingers of Dr. T.'

SCREEN GRABS For those not hustling out to the week’s big commercial opening, Stephen King-derived “evil clown” horror sequel It Chapter Two, there’s a great deal else happening this week film-wise. Serious new dramas we weren’t able to get to in advance are Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets, a fact-based tale of international political skullduggery with Keira Knightley as a British whistleblower; and Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, with Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki as the Bloomsbury literary luminaries Sackville-West and Woolf. The first has gotten mixed early reviews, the second rather unfavorable ones.

The Pacific Film Archive’s autumn calendar is kicking off with continuations of two large-scale series that started earlier in the year, Abbas Kiarostami: Life as Art (resuming this Sun/8, running through Nov. 24), and View Finders: Women Cinematographers (Thurs/5 through Nov. 21). The second installment of the latter contains several documentaries amongst features highlighting the work of d.p.’s including Ellen Kuras, Iris Ng and Joan Churchill. More info here.

Several new documentaries are opening at local theaters, all of them focusing on stellar creative individuals. We previewed the one about singer Linda Ronstadt (see below), but there’s also Stanley Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, a portrait of the jazz master at the Roxie; Jamie Catto’s Becoming Nobody, about Harvard prof turned psychedelic guru turned Buddhist sage Ram Dass nee Dr. Richard Alpert (also at the Roxie, as well as the Elmwood and Rafael); and (at Opera Plaza) Stephen Wilkes’ Jay Myself, which follows photographer-artist Jay Maisel as he undergoes the arduous process of leaving his vast Manhattan home (a former Bowery bank) after nearly half a century. Forced out by property taxes, he’s compelled to pack up 36,000 square feet crammed with a compulsive collector’s esoterica, en route logging what is (at $55 million) the largest private real estate sale in the city’s history.

Meanwhile the Mechanics Institute’s Film Lit program is dedicated this month to the American films of recent PFA retrospective subject Fritz Lang. It kicks off this Friday with the first Hollywood film by this expat director who’d fled Nazi Germany. The 1936 Fury is a forceful indictment (esp. for normally milquetoast studio MGM) of vigilantism and mob violence in which Spencer Tracy is an innocent man mistaken for a kidnapper, and nearly lynched by the residents of a small town more eager to satisfy its vengeful bloodlust than wait out the tedious process of legal justice. Subsequent films in the series are You and Me, a seldom-revived 1938 drama with Sylvia Sidney and George Raft as ill-starred ex-criminal lovers, and music by Kurt Weill; plus two of Lang’s solid later noirs, the Zola-derived Human Desire (1954) and serial killer thriller While the City Sleeps (1956). More info here.

Backing up its ever-provocative marquee messages with some onscreen political messaging, the Grand Lake in Oakland is hosting the 9-11 Truth Film Festival next Wed.—yes, September 11. Billed as “Deconstructing a Myth With Truth,” this 15th annual event promises to address WTC “truther” theories, other “false flag” conspiracies, miscellaneous “deep state deceptions” and more in a program of films and live speakers. If all that sounds a little too woo-woo for your taste, keep in mind: What could be more bizarrely improbable than our escalating current national political reality?  Info: More info here.

If semi-truth is sufficiently stranger than fiction for you, there’s always the Castro’s current week-long run of Tarantino’s revisionist history Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. Over the weekend, it will share the screen with two movies of special related relevance: 1967’s Valley of the Dolls, the famously bad (but very popular) adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s trashy bestseller that gave Sharon Tate her big break (albeit via her worst performance). That’s playing Sat/7 at noon; on Sunday, it’s the comparatively little-known 1969 Model Shop, French director Jacques Demy’s only American film. Starring 2001’s Gary Lockwood and A Man and A Woman’s Anouk Aimee as star-crossed almost-lovers, it’s a mixed bag, but has acquired a reputation in recent years for being one of the best representations of Los Angeles life and geography in the period when Once Upon a Time… is set. More info here.

Nothing this week promises to be wiggier, however, than another Castro event. No longer hunky but plenty crusty, the inimitable Glenn Danzig of The Misfits (and, of course, Danzig) will arrive next Tuesday to host a single screening of his feature directorial debut. When it premiered at the genre festival Cinepocalypse last June, horror omnibus Verotika immediately set the internet on fire, with lucky witnesses comparing it to the likes of Ed Wood Jr.’s beloved “worst movie ever” Plan 9 From Outer Space as well as Tommy Wiseau’s latterday campsterpiece The Room.

For his part, Mr. Danzig appeared to have been somewhat nonplussed that his purportedly T&A-crammed, gory and incoherent effort provoked laughter—a whole lot—where he meant it to be scary, or sexy, or whatever. But to his credit, the rock god appears to be going with the flow, taking the film on the road to fans and enjoying their reactions, even if they’re not the reactions he intended. If conflicting duties didn’t call me elsewhere, I’d be at this screening in a heartbeat. It just might be the greatest thing since Yma Sumac last hit town, apparently oblivious to a set-long wardrobe malfunction, forever yelling at her poor pickup band while still managing to run the gamut (more or less) of eight singing octaves. That was an unforgettable night’s entertainment, and we suspect Verotika will be another. Tues/10, Castro. More info here.

You can slide gently into that promised insanity by attending Saturday’s family-friendly Alamo Drafthouse screening of a true classic: The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the only movie Dr. Seuss ever wrote as a big-screen original. This musical fantasy set in a subterranean Hell of enforced piano lessons—every child’s nightmare!—was a commercial flop in 1953, but has since been appreciated as one of the great cinematic dives into inspired absurdism. Co-presented by Media Meltdown, it’s offered as the main attraction of an all-you-can-eat “cereal party.” So sleep in late and have breakfast at high noon, with or without any available children. Sat/7, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Two of our favorite movies this year

'Brittany Runs a Marathon'

SCREEN GRABS Two of my favorites of the year—Brittany Runs a Marathon and This Is Not Berlin, see details below—open this Friday, so it’s a none-too-shabby week at the movies, with a few other worthy new arrivals and special events as well.

Among those events are the return of this year’s previously discussed runaway revival hit, the 1966 Soviet epic War and Peace, whose four feature-length parts will play repeatedly at the Pacific Film Archive between Sunday Sept. 1 and Fri/27. (More info here.) Focusing on the new, this Saturday the Castro will host a shorts program and four features (some of local origin) from the annual California Independent Film Festival, following immediately on its week-long schedule across the Bay in Orinda. (More info here.)

The same day at the Roxie, Midnites for maniacs will present a 35mm print of The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), a sort of junior edition proto-Thelma and Louise that was not well-received at the time (though the ’80s were a golden age for teen flicks), but has acquired a cult following since. Starring alongside Supergirl’s Helen Slater in the title role are such future notables as Christian Slater (no relation) and Yeardley Smith (voice of Lisa Simpson), as well as the Bay Area’s own Peter Coyote. (More info here.)

But you can really get your 80s trash fix on with this weekend’s two-day John Carpenter Film Fest, which occupies both screens at the Balboa Theater this Friday and Saturday. Carpenter was one of the coming directors of the Seventies, gaining critical attention if not much box-office action for the sci-fi spoof Dark Star (not in this retrospective) and terrific siege action movie Assault on Precinct 13 before sparking the whole slasher vogue with the original 1978 Halloween.

But it was in the Reagan years that he really excelled as a stylish populist of horror, action and/or sci-fi, in movies so well-remembered that several have already been remade by now. The Balboa will offer up The Fog, Escape From New York, his own remake The Thing, atypically sweet Starman and Big Trouble in Little China. (Sorry, no They Live.) That’s as good a run as any genre director has managed, even if Carpenter’s mojo did run out fairly quickly in the next decade. His working pace greatly slowed after the turn of the millennium, and he seems basically retired now. But he continues to be the man who provided a template for much of the vocabulary of horror cinema (and dystopian sci-fi action) today. (More info here.)

Elsewhere, all opening Friday unless otherwise noted:

Brittany Runs a Marathon
Every year the Sundance Film Festival raises up a few films on a wintry wave of Park City near-hysteria. Almost invariably, a few months later those films hit regular theaters with a whimper, rather than a bang. Here’s hoping writer-director Paul Downs Colaizzo’s first feature proves just as heady to audiences at sea level as it did at 7,000 feet. Normally the mere mention of the word “crowdpleaser” is enough to put me off a film. But this is the one out of umpteen that really earns that description, and not for simply manipulating viewers in a formulaic way. This comedy with a big heart is a joy. I laughed, I cried—honest.

Colaizzo based his script loosely on the real story of a same-named friend who hit bottom and got her act together with a vengeance. This Brittany (Jillian Bell) is a 28-year-old Manhattanite who’s living the “fun city life” dream, except it’s getting kind of old—crap job, too much partying, no prospects dating-wise or any-other-wise. Told in no uncertain terms by a doctor that she needs to make the kind of lifestyle change that (among other things) involves dropping 55 pounds, she throws herself into that task…as reluctantly as possible.

It’s not worth spoiling the rest of the plot, which does very generally go in the inspirational direction you might expect, but also brings in some real dramatic depth, a lot of big laughs, and several terrific support characters. “Based on a true story,” “feel-good,” et al., this is not at all the kind of movie I normally enthuse about—in fact, I’ve walked out on many manipulative treacle-fests of its basic ilk. But Brittany is so good it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking it—or, indeed, liking anyone who didn’t. Embarcadero and other area theaters. More info here

This Is Not Berlin
Another loosely fact-based fiction, Hari Sama’s feature turns his adolescent experiences into an exceptional spin on coming-of-age conventions. Androgynous-looking Carlos (Xabiani Ponce de Leon) and bestie Gera (Jose Antonio Toledano) are middle-class Mexico City teens who gain provisional entree to that sprawling burg’s punk/performance scene circa 1986, and are instantly addicted to the freedoms it affords. Of course, that also involves a certain amount of danger, not just from police shutdowns and druggy excesses but from the little-mentioned but omnipresent specter of AIDS.

“Is this a gay bar?” Carlos asks, spying two men kissing amidst the spectacle of an intimidatingly anarchic underground club. “It’s an everything bar” deadpans Gera’s older sibling Rita (Ximena Romo), who’s so impossibly cool she fronts her own band. But far from a simple gawk at a past era’s stylish decadence (though the film takes great pains to get every mid-80s detail right), This is Not Berlin offers nuanced, complex, non-preachy insights about class, politics, sexual identity and artistic integrity. Sama clearly waited the perfect amount of time before commemorating his formative years: This New Wave flashback is at once exhilarated, cynical, nostalgic and bemused about the steep learning curve it puts its naive protagonists through. Opera Plaza. More info here.

Creativity under stress: The Amazing Jonathan and Vision Portraits
Two nonfiction features opening this weekend examine the artistic process under duress—self-inflicted and otherwise. Benjamin Berman’s The Amazing Jonathan Documentary, which was unavailable for preview, trains camera on the titular comedian/magician who has seemingly beaten a terminal medical diagnosis a few years back. But his subject proves contrary and difficult, at one point insisting the filmmaker smoke meth with him if he wants to portray “Jonathan’s” substance problems. The film makes a running theme out of its star being not only arguably his own worst enemy, but the director’s as well. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

On the other hand, Vision Portraits is a thoroughly sympathetic look at artists who persevere despite extreme, unasked-for adversity: All of those profiled here have lost varying degrees of their sight due to degenerative conditions. They practice disciplines that should not, one might assume, be practicable for the blind. One is a high-art photographer, another a dancer, a third a screenwriter. Director Rodney Evans, who received this year’s Frameline Award, has seen his vision gradually deteriorate while nonetheless forging forward with a successful career including the indie features Brother to Brother and The Happy Sad. He uses various optical devices here to convey his subjects’ different limits of ocular perception—though their work shows how well they’re able to transcend and even incorporate it. Opera Plaza. More info here

Fiddler: Miracle of Miracles
Though it has long since been surpassed as Broadway’s longest-running musical, arguably none has ever been quite so culturally pervasive as Fiddler on the Roof, the now 55-year-old adaptation of Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye the Milkman and his five daughters in a turn-of-the-19th-century Russian shtetl. In fact, it seemed a somewhat improbable commercial venture in 1964, when Zero Mostel played Tevye under Jerome Robbins’ direction. But it proved extraordinarily successful, not just on Broadway but internationally, then onscreen in the 1971 film version, and on into innumerable professional revivals and amateur productions.

Why would a show about poor, persecuted Russian peasant Jews be so enduringly popular with such diverse audiences? Pondering that matter (with the help of plentiful archival performance clips) in this entertaining overview of a popular phenomenon are a host of Fiddler veterans and fans including Joel Grey, Harvey Fierstein, Fran Lebowitz, Topol, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hal Prince and Norman Jewison. Clay, Shattuck, other greater Bay Area theaters. More info here

Adam
Though written and directed by a trans man, Rhys Ernst (who’s been a producer on the acclaimed TV series Transparent), this indie comedy has been mired in controversy since before its Sundance premiere this January. Some in the trans community took great offense at Ariel Shrag’s original novel, and while few have seen it yet, assumed this somewhat altered film adaptation will be objectionable in the same ways.

They find the basic premise insulting, even potentially dangerous: It involves a straight teen boy dating a slightly older lesbian who takes him for a trans male, a misapprehension he’s slow to pick up on, then too embarrassed (and besotted) to correct. The notion is that this conceit toys frivolously with the fear of trans people “passing” as biologically-born to their chosen gender, something that has gotten many of them beaten or killed over the years.

I’m certainly not going to tell anyone in a minority I’m not part of what they should think about their own screen representation. But having actually seen Adam, it’s hard to throw the book at what’s played as a gentle hipster comedy of good intentions and complicated realities. Adam (Nicholas Alexander) is a virginal high schooler who jumps at the chance to escape his helicoptering suburban Nor Cal parents and spend the summer with collegiate older sister Casey (Margaret Qualley) in Manhattan. She’s neck-deep in a gender-fluid LGBTQ scene, and is far too cool to explain its intricacies of identity to the little bro. Thus he realizes too late that his crush object Gillian (Bobbi Salvor Menuez) thinks he’s FTM, and is too mortified to correct her as their relationship progresses.

Improbable as this may sound, it plays credibly enough, and rather charmingly. It’s best to think of Adam not as a movie by/for trans people (though there are many on both sides of the camera), but as a kind of cinematic YA novel on the subject for other viewers—those who want to grok this complicated new world of evolving gender-identity politics, but frankly haven’t a clue. Though there’s some surprisingly (and humorously) graphic content here, the movie is really more like a funny/earnest John Hughes teen flick filtered through the indie aesthetics of Go Fish and Slacker. Sue me: I liked it. Kabuki.

Give Me Liberty
Kirill Mikhanovsky’s indie comedy is a freewheeling Altmanesque ensemble piece that is, among other things, a portrait of our nation’s future: One in which service workers are stretched increasingly thin while those needing assistance in one form or another just keep growing in number. Young Vic (Chris Galust) has an underpaid, stressful, difficult job—as driver of a transport vehicle for Milwaukee special-needs citizens—only made more so by the constant demands of nearly everyone around him that he perform a special favor (or three) just for them.

During the very hectic day portrayed, he’s already running well behind schedule when a group of seniors in his Russian emigre community insist on being taken to a funeral. He has to deal with one woman’s diabetic attack, a sideswiped Mercedes, circumnavigating local protests against police violence, and a thousand other things in addition to the routine needs of his physically and/or mentally challenged official clients.

This is one of those movies distinctive for showing off different communities seldom represented onscreen, complete with a fair amount of non-professional performers in the cast. Mikhanovsky handles a complex agenda without resorting to melodrama or sentimentality. But Vic’s exasperation-filled day borders on chaos so consistently the effect is rather exhausting—it’s a refreshing film, but also a wearying one. Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: All hail the mighty Godzillafest!

Godzillafest takes over the Balboa

SCREEN GRABS It’s a monstrous week at the movies, capped by an entire weekend with the official “king” at the Balboa: Godzillafest takes over both that theater’s screens Fri/23-Sun/25 for a giant monster mash encompassing films from the Japanese franchise that’s still going strong after 65 years.

The eleven features being screened will feature the big green guy in many of his Tokyo-destroying adventures (though not, oddly, the original 1954 one), plus other rubber-suits-runs-amuck-through-miniature-cityscapes epics like War of the Gargantuas, Rodan, Destroy All Monsters, and Frankenstein Conquers the World, plus this year’s CGI-dominated U.S./Japan co-production Godzilla: King of the Monsters. There will also be live “vendors, artists and prizes.” In a nod to the fact that many of these movies were originally marketed to kids, the matinee showings will be English-dubbed prints, while evening shows will be in Japanese with subtitles. More info here.

At the Castro there will be two days of competing vintage mayhem all from 1982. Friday offers the hard-R-rated remakes of The Thing (John Carpenter) and Cat People (Paul Schrader), with their respective emphases on gore and erotica. Saturday is more kid-leaning, though not in a good way: Who can forget little Heather O’Rourke getting sucked into a TV by malevolent forces in the original Tobe Hooper Poltergiest, while cult favorite Halloween III: Season of the Witch targets the nation’s children with a sinister costume-mask conspiracy. It’s the chapter in that franchise so eccentric it doesn’t even bother to feature Michael Myers. (These films are preceded on Thursday by yet another memorable 1982 double bill, sci-fi classics Blade Runner and Tron.) More info here.

Fresh horror arrives in new multiplex entry Ready or Not, which was not available for preview by deadline. But its black-comedy-thriller tale of a bride marrying into a wealthy family, only to discover her in-laws’ intentions are anything but friendly, has gotten some very positive advance notices. There’s also Angel Has Fallen, the latest in a franchise that’s gotten very little critical acclaim whatsoever, and hasn’t even been all that commercially successful. Nonetheless, here we are again with Gerard Butler’s Secret Service agent saving the President (Morgan Freeman, not Twitler) once more from shadowy hostile forces. Expect dumb fun of a “yep, things sure blowed up real good” variety.

In another vein entirely is one more film we weren’t able to preview, veteran Israeli director Avi Nesher’s new drama The Other Story, a densely plotted overview of religious, political and lifestyle conflicts amongst overlapping lives in modern-day Tel Aviv. It opens Friday at the Opera Plaza in SF and Elmwood in Berkeley. More info here.

Also opening Friday (unless otherwise noted) are a slew of films we did manage to catch in advance:

Aquarela
Beauty is a beast in this visually stunning new documentary shot and exhibited at unusually high frames-per-second rates, for maximum image clarity. Nature documentaries began as a way for audiences to glimpse something they might not otherwise get the chance to see in person. Perhaps it’s time to admit that their function now is largely to record things that soon enough no one will be able to see—wildlife on the verge of disappearing, landscapes that will be submerged or otherwise forever altered.

Victor Kossakovsky’s feature is free of narration, text or any other commentary, offering merely the spectacle of water in myriad forms. It’s an element we can’t live without. But maybe we’re about to find we can’t live with it, either—as the melting of polar ice much-evidenced here is on track to drastically raise sea levels and otherwise upset what’s left of Mother Earth’s delicate balance.

Much of what’s here is beautiful, but we seldom forget that it’s also a progress of disintegration, sometimes a violent one—as part of a glacier abruptly collapses, or icebergs bob haplessly into the water, losing bulk by the minute. Not until the last reel do we glimpse the ugly future this majestic spectacle portends: Already-flooded human habitats that may never be habitable for land-life (of any species) again. A magnificent visual poem with a tragic undertow, Aquarela is marred only by a sometimes distractingly inappropriate, headbanging score by Eicca Toppinen of cello-based metal band Apocalyptica. At area theaters.

The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil
South Korean director Won-Tae Lee’s splashy thriller is anchored by entertaining performances from Don Lee aka Ma Dong-seok as a bearish crime boss and Lee Mu-yeol as a recklessly cocky police detective. These two professional enemies become unlikely allies when the latter is the first to suspect the former was nearly killed not by a gangland rival, but a serial killer (Kim Seong-gyu) attacking random strangers. As much a mismatched-buddy comedy as a suspense exercise, this is slick, colorful genre fun with some good action sequences. A Hollywood remake (produced by Sylvester Stallone) is already in the works. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Bunuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles
In 1930, Luis Bunuel was a Spanish expat ensconced in the Parisian avant-garde, with two legendary surrealist films already under his belt. 1929’s notorious short Un Chien Andalou was a scandalous success—somewhat to his annoyance, as he’d wanted to mortify the bourgeoise, not titillate them. But the following year’s feature L’age d’Orrealized those hopes a little too effectively. The appalled response to his blasphemous, absurdist tale of two horny yet perpetually pried-apart lovers was enough to get the film banned (in some countries for many decades), and close all doors to financing for his future projects.

This new animated biopic by Salvador Simo chronicles his soldiering on nonetheless with what would become 1933’s Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan aka Land Without Bread, a documentary (with some staged and surreal elements) about life in a remote, impoverished mountain region of Spain. With a skeleton crew of friends and a shoestring budget, the filmmaking was an adventure in itself. It’s an intriguing footnote to a fabled career, in an unexpected form—though I admit to having been a little nonplussed by the film’s conventional line-drawing style, which is almost plain enough for a Scooby-Doo episode.

The Roxie will also be showing two related programs this weekend: “A Bundle of Bunuel,” which brings together all three of his above-named earliest films, at 6 pm this Sunday; and (Sat/24 at 7 pm) 1962’s corrosive satire The Exterminating Angel, made towards the beginning of his final career phase as a celebrated European arthouse master. Roxie. More info here.

Piranhas
Nicola (Francesco di Napoli) is a 15-year-old in Naples whose poor neighborhood is entirely at the mercy of various organized-crime elements. Naturally ambitious, he turns a stupid blunder into an opportunity to work for a local don, collecting protection money from local shopkeepers—and squaring off against rival racketeers. Of course, power corrupts, particularly among the young and dumb. It’s not long before Nicola’s gang of impulsive teenage idiots with guns are overreaching themselves, risking their own necks as well as those of anyone who happens to get in the way.

Claudio Giovannesi’s film is an adaptation of a novel by Roberto Saviano, the investigative reporter turned dramatist (Gomorrah) whose portraits of mafioso have hit so close to home that he’s had to live under 24/7 police protection for years. By all reports the film makes his protagonist made considerably more sympathetic (and his deeds less heinous) than in the book.

As a result, we don’t fully believe the ruthlessness Nicola eventually demonstrates, and it’s somewhat frustrating that Piranhas abruptly ends just when it seems to be headed towards a real, consequential conclusion. Nonetheless, this is a strong, well-directed look at how delinquency can easily turn into career criminality in a milieu where that’s the most inviting “profession” available—if you survive long enough to enjoy the spoils, of course. Opera Plaza. More info here

Screen Grabs: What happened to Dag Hammarskjold?

'Cold Case Hammersjold'

SCREEN GRABS It’s mid-August, the weather is theoretically fine, the summer blockbusters are already well into their runs—it is not a time of the year when heavy-hitters arrive in the multiplexes, or awards contenders are launched. Still, this kind of commercial lull provides space for a lot of smaller films to get some space, and there are plenty of those this week.

Among films we weren’t able to see in advance are Where’d You Go Bernadette, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the whimsical Maria Semple novel, with Cate Blanchett as an eccentric mother who pulls a disappearing act on her teenage daughter and husband. Blinded by the Light is a feel-good seriocomedy about a British Pakistani teen transformed by the music of Bruce Springsteen, not to be confused with the recent feel-good seriocomedy Yesterday, whose presumably British Pakistani hero was transformed by the music of The Beatles. Likewise unpreviewed were documentaries Love, Antosha, a tribute to the young Russian-American actor Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy, the Star Trekfranchise), who died in a freak accident at age 27 three years ago; and One Child Nation, an acclaimed look at the downsides of a longtime (though now repealed) policy in China of strictly enforced family planning.

There’s also The Peanut Butter Falcon, a road/buddy movie with Shia LaBeouf as a bayou trapper on the lam who winds up taking along a young man with Down’s Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) who’s escaped from a state institutional home to pursue his pipe dream of pro wrestling. Also featuring Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes and Thomas Haden Church, it’s a pleasant feel-good movie that is certainly less edgy than LaBeouf’s other, upcoming 2019 release: Honey Boy, a self-penned autobiographical drama in which he plays the exploitative, unsympathetic father of his own child-actor years.

Speaking of exploitation, there’s the bad-taste wallow of Good Boys, a sort of teen sex-and-drugs comedy starring…11-year-old boys. The whole joke being that these kids are too young to grasp all the raunch going on around them (though not too young to drop constant f-bombs). If that sounds hilarious, be my guest. If it sounds crass and obnoxious, trust me: It is.

Special events this weekend include Microcosmic Cinema, a program benefitting Canyon Cinema presented this Thursday at the Balboa by Owsley Brown and the SF Cultural History Museum. It’s a showcase for experimental film by San Francisco women, including works by Sophie Michael, Stacey Steers, Jodie Mack and the recently departed Barbara Hammer. The second half will involve dual 16mm projectors and live music (by Voicelander) in the SF premiere of Kerry Laitala’s multimedia City Luminous series. Thurs/15, Balboa. (More info here.)  Meanwhile, if you missed its successful run at the Roxie, the Alamo Drafthouse is offering a two-day reprise (Fri/16-Sat/17) of Tilman Singer’s mind-bending German horror tale Luz—a work highly experimental in its own right, and which was also shot in 16mm. (More info here.)

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Cold Case Hammarskjold
If you only see one paranoid conspiracy-theory documentary this year, it might as well be Mads Brugger’s alarmingly credible one. The Danish journalist and TV host has a penchant for inserting himself into his investigative narratives, as previously demonstrated by 2011’s The Ambassador, in which he impersonated a Liberian diplomat—and proved (to the fury of that government) how easily real or bogus foreign authorities can take advantage of political corruption to access “blood diamonds” and other tainted financial bonanzas in modern-day Africa.

Here, he is onto something possibly even bigger, sniffing around the many suspicious circumstances in the 1961 Rhodesian plane-crash death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. Was it an accident, or an assassination? Not just many people, but entire governments had reason to want Hammarskjold out of the picture: He was a powerful proponent of African autonomy at the tail-end of the overt colonial era, when foreign powers remained accustomed to controlling the political destinies and (more importantly) profitable resources of that continent’s nations.

Much of Brugger’s digging points at something called SAIMR (South African Institute for Maritime Research), a harmless-sounding organization that was an apparent cover for paramilitary white supremacism in Africa. But this purported “clandestine mercenary agency for hire…used by foreign governments to destabilize foreign countries” remains so well-hidden that for much of Cold Case, the filmmakers are unable to confirm that it ever truly existed. Meanwhile, we get a lot of Brugger describing ideas that may or may not simply be “idiotic conspiracy theories” out loud in a hotel to a couple transcriptionists, in his annoying voice. At a certain point, he even admits his investigation/movie could turn out a complete failure.

But then it isn’t. Suffice it to say your mind will be blown by some of what emerges here. Not only do we get damning intel from former SAIMR personnel about Hammarskjold’s death, additional murders, coups, CIA involvement, even deliberate spreading of the AIDS virus as germ warfare against black people (to keep South Africa in the hands of Afrikaaners, among other things). Is it all true? It certainly sounds frighteningly plausible. Brugger’s film has already made a lot of real-world waves, and let’s hope it triggers long-term U.N. investigations that could end up rewriting considerable chunks of the 20th-century history books. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Jirga
Mike (Sam Smith) is a man on a mission, but in Benjamin Gilmour’s stripped-down feature, it takes quite a while before the nature of that mission is revealed. An Australian man and former soldier, he has returned to Kabul and is determined to travel into Afghanistan’s dangerous rural interior three years after participating in a raid on a village. Getting to that location is a perilous business that takes up much of this short (78 minutes) drama’s running time, but Mike doesn’t care about the punishing conditions: He is determined to realize his goal, which turns out to be an act of atonement for a deed of violence that he cannot live with otherwise.

This very simple story offers no standard melodrama or “action,” and may be too minimalist for some. (In fact, in general feel it’s not at all distant from the Abbas Kiarostami movies the Roxie is simultaneously showing, complete with considerable use of presumably non-professional actors.) But the result is that it arrives at a resolution whose poignancy is all the more effective for the lack of any overt string-pulling. Gilmour & co. originally intended to shoot in Pakistan, but when permission was denied at the last moment, they basically snuck over the border and shot with a minimal crew in Afghanistan itself—so the air of authenticity (and danger) here is well-earned. Roxie. More info here

After the Wedding
Julianne Moore has now starred in two remakes of near-perfect foreign language films in a row, and if you saw the original, there is no more reason to see this remake of Susanne Bier’s same-named 2006 Danish film than there was to see Gloria Bell, Sebastian Lelio’s watered-down American remake of his own Brazilian Gloria.

However, if you haven’t seen the prior version, this is a strong drama with a good cast in roles whose gender-switching works well enough. Michelle Williams gets Mads Mikkelsen’s part as an activist volunteer at an orphanage in India whose past comes back to haunt her when she must reluctantly return to the U.S. to court a potential rich donor. That’s tycoon Moore—and the latter’s husband turns out to be an old flame (Billy Crudup) whom Williams left under still-painful circumstances long ago.

Directed and adapted by Moore’s frequent collaborator (as well as husband) Bart Freundlich, this Wedding makes some changes to better fit the current cast, yet overall preserves the moral complexity and cunning plot of Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s original script. If it all feels a bit second-hand and more obvious this time around, that may well be because the Danish movie still stays fresh in the mind 13 years later. I’m not sure this one will have that staying power, but it’s still an intelligent drama that will reward fans of the principal actors. Embarcadero. (Also opens Fri/23 at the Albany Twin in Albany.)

Screen Grabs: A devil in Tasmania, Tel Aviv on fire…

'The Nightingale'

SCREEN GRABS The San Francisco Cinematheque has been doing all too many posthumous tribute programs of late, as major figures of experimental film and video die off. This week is a particularly unfortunate case, because Phil Solomon was only 65 when he passed away from surgery complications this spring, and though primarily shorts, his films were meticulously crafted enough to have only numbered twenty or so over the last four decades.

Curated by former Cinematheque head Steve Anker, and co-presented with Canyon Cinema, Still Dreaming: Remembering Phil Solomon will offer a program of five works by this most poetical and densely textured of contemporary celluloid (and video) avant-gardists. A colleague of the form’s legendary prior-generation master Stan Brakhage’s at the University of Colorado, Solomon incorporated elements in his remarkable, spectral, highly worked collages that ranged from home movies and vintage Hollywood clips to imagery from the videogame Grand Theft Auto. The program will include Twilight Psalm I: The Lateness of the Hour and Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance, both from 1999, as well as earlier works Remains to be Seen and The Exquisite Hour, as well as later Still Raining, Still Dreaming. Thurs/8, YBCA. (More info here.)

Among wide openings this week are, unusually, three family-oriented, non-franchise features: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, an Indiana Jones-type adventure spun off Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer series that’s gotten some good early reviews; Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, drawn from the popular 1980s trilogy of “horror lite” books for kids; and The Art of Racing in the Rain, an inspirational man-and-his-dog tearjerker based on one of the worst bestselling novels I have ever read.

Also aiming to inspire is Brian Banks, a biopic about the linebacker whose NFL aspirations were derailed by a wrongful conviction for which he spent six years in prison before being exonerated. It is, weirdly, the first directorial feature in twelve years by Tom Shadyac, whose credits hitherto have run towards the likes of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Patch Adams. The intent is presumably less lofty in action drama The Kitchen, which (in a premise alarmingly similar to Steve McQueen’s dud Widows a couple years ago) has Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss as wives forced to take over their husbands’ organized-crime business after the menfolk are yanked out of commission.

There are a whole lot of less overtly commercial, interesting smaller movies opening this week—all on Friday, unless otherwise noted below.

The Nightingale
Australian actress Jennifer Kent’s first feature as writer-director, 2014’s The Babadook, was a well-made, above-average supernatural horror thriller that got (I thought) wildly overrated in many quarters. Her second, however, is likely to get underrated—if only because it has elements jarringly unpleasant enough in an all-too-real-world way to scare off some prospective viewers. Instead of malevolent spirits, what we get here are the very tangible horrors of corrupted human nature and institutionalized injustice.

In 1825 Tasmania, young Clare (Aisling Franciosi) works at a colonial outpost, having to endure the frequently inappropriate attentions of its chief officer, Lt. Hawkins (Sam Clafin). She has little choice—she and her husband came here as convicts, and have few rights despite her having completed her original sentence, with a baby now to protect. When Hawkins and his men commit a terrible crime against the helpless family, there is scant hope the local authorities will believe an Irish ex-con over a British officer. So Clare, drafting the very reluctant assistance of Aboriginal tracker Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), goes after Hawkins as he journeys to a larger settlement, determined to exact her own revenge.

Long, sometimes punishingly brutal (there is graphic sexual and other violence here), not inclined to ingratiate, The Nightingale—a title derived from the pleasant singing voice Clare soon has little use for—may be too grueling for some viewers. As if rape and infanticide (for starters) weren’t enough already, the film does not sugar-coat the era’s hostile racial relations, even in portraying the otherwise righteous heroine’s ignorant, condescending attitude towards her own hired guide. But it’s a powerful film that is never dull despite its 2 1/4-hour length, and which provides a strikingly gritty contrast to the usual romantic lace-and-teatime tenor of British Empire period dramas. Embarcadero, California Theater (Berkeley). More info here

The Mountain
People love or hate Rick Alverson’s films. Well, most people hate them, which may be at least partly why a minority fervently love them—contrarianism runs rampant amongst cinephiles. I really did hate his 2013 breakthrough of sorts, The Comedy, so was flummoxed to very much like 2015’s Entertainment, particularly because they were so similar (right down to the ironic title). He takes the humor of misanthropy to its logical extreme, where we’re amused and/or repelled by loser characters precisely because they are so not-funny. His cinema is a particularly deadpan form of masochism, and you can’t explain the joke to those who don’t get it any more than you can assure that even those who get it will enjoy it.

Almost everybody hated this latest on the film festival route. It finds Alverson thinking himself Paul Thomas Anderson (esp. re: The Master), in that he’s made a weird, mannered period piece whose willful idiosyncrasies are semi-explicable at best. Tye Sheridan plays the glum, motherless son of an ice rink owner (Udo Kier) who after dad’s death takes a job assisting a traveling lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) at a point when that alleged “treatment” for mental illness was starting to be widely discredited.

With its square aspect ratio, muted pastels and other design tropes, The Mountain serves up the American 1950s like a queasy spoonful of Pepto-Bismol. As if you didn’t already guess from that cast (which also includes Hannah Gross, Denis Lavant and Larry Fessenden), this is an exercise in arch, questionably pointed eccentricity that practically dares you to like it. I kinda did, snail-paced and indulgent as it is. Goldblum is an unpredictable pleasure, as ever, as the hard-drinking, skirt-chasing practitioner of a procedure even his character clearly fears does more harm than good. There are some strikingly good supporting performances. (There are also a couple that are striking not.) And for all his self-conscious off-kilterdom, Alverson transcends snark here: In its oddball way, this indulgent movie really does take the plight of the mentally ill in a semi-enlightened era seriously. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Luce
As if Naomi Watts and Tim Roth didn’t suffer enough in the American remake of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, they return to the arena of domestic agony in this new drama. They’re the adoring adoptive parents of Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an Eritrean war refugee whose model-student poise fails to impress high school history teacher Mrs. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). She senses his act is a little too good to be true—and perhaps it is.

A paper he writes for her class rings an alarm bell, which triggers a whole series of events, lies, retaliations, exposed secrets, and whatnot that make this one plotty two hours. En route we get a slew of hot-button issues addressed, including fear of school violence, excessive police force, viral video as weapon, parental trust, “rape culture,” the burden placed on minorities to “excel,” and more.

Luce is as thick with moral conundrums and people doing the wrong thing for the right reasons (or vice versa) as a David Hare play. Indeed, it has the kind of borderline overly-finished-dialogue—in which characters talk in position points—that is redolent of the stage, no doubt because it’s based on a play by J.C. Lee. Ergo there’s a certain schematic nature to this material, which is not to say it doesn’t hit its marks with significant dramatic impact. Nigerian-American director Julius Onah and the faultless cast make that material play as naturalistically as possible, and if Luce still feels a bit rigged, at least it’s rigged in personalizing-the-political ways that do make you think, just as you’re intended to. Embarcadero, Shattuck. More info here.

This week’s documentaries: Blue notes & honeyed images
Two documentaries opening this week offer two kinds of extravagant aesthetic pleasure. Everyone knows (or should know) that the imperiled status of bees worldwide is one domino that could topple the lot in Mother Nature’s increasingly precarious balance. Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s first feature Honeyland weights that risk through the plight of Hatidze, an aging lone last female beekeeper in rural Macedonia, whose centuries-old trade is abruptly endangered by something more immediate than a degrading ecosystem—she acquires boisterous, covetous new neighbors who cannot or will not appreciate the cautious intricacies that honey manufacture requires to be sustainable. This compelling verite human drama is complemented by the frequently ravishing camera eye the filmmakers turn on Hatidze’s rustic landscape and insect charges. Opera Plaza. More info here

The joys are sonic in Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. Sophie Huber’s film looks at the history and influence of the great American record label that has flown the flag of modern jazz for eighty years. Among the innumerable artists who’ve been on its imprint are John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Latterday musicians interviewed here include Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, Ambrose Akinmusire, Wayne Shorter and Don Was. Blue Note Records is such a beloved institution that it survived death—“retired” for financial under-performance by new corporate minders in 1979, it was revived due to fan and artist insistence just six years later, and survives today. The documentary charts an odyssey from swing to bebop to the avant-garde and beyond, with plentiful archival performance footage on tap. Roxie, Rafael Film Center. More info here. 

Tel Aviv on Fire
Bumbling new production assistant Salam (Kais Nashif), a Palestinian man living in Jerusalem, is hired by an uncle to work on a TV soap opera shooting in Ramallah. He finds himself becoming a real-world political pawn when he’s mistaken by military authorities for the show’s lead writer—and various forces insist he use his non-existent clout to make sure the serial’s heroine ends up with her fictive Jewish rather than Arabic lover, among other partisan revisions. Sameh Zoabi’s Israeli comedy manages the hat trick of mining dire political divisions for harmlessly apolitical humor, rendering a deeply unfunny context amusing in an inoffensive way—at least for 100 minutes. Clay, Shattuck. More info here

Them That Follow
Mara (Alice Englert) and Dilly (Kaitlyn Dever) are Appalachian teens reluctantly tethered to a rattlesnake-handling Pentecostal church with strict 24/7 rules enforced by the former’s pastor father (Walton Goggins). Mara is already engaged to fervent disciple Garret (Lewis Pullman), but attracted by the secularism of peer Augie (Thomas Mann), whose parents (Jim Gaffigan and Olivia Colman, doing a 180 from her English queen in The Favourite) lament his nonconformity. The isolated community as a whole is also in conflict with local authorities, who take a dim view of their possession of poisonous wildlife.

Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage’s unevenly compelling first feature is at heart a familiar indictment of oppressive patriarchy, fear-based religious doctrine, and the abuses they inevitably invite. But it sports the inevitable fascination of cult life, made at least somewhat emotionally relatable by strong performances. It’s a handsome if occasionally squirm-inducing (hey, snakes gonna bite) drama that will make you glad you live in our supposed liberal Babylon. Embarcadero. More info here

Lake of Dracula
By the early 1970s, Hammer’s highly successful Dracula series with Christopher Lee (in many ways still the best screen Count) was winding down, albeit with campily enjoyable “Swinging London” exercises like Dracula A.D. 1972. But at the same time, Japan’s Toho Studios embarked on what would be an unofficial “Bloodthirsty” trilogy of vampire films, all directed by Michio Yamamoto—who apart from a couple other horror films, directed very little else. This 1971 middle entry (following 1970’s The Vampire Doll) has its heroine visiting her sister in the countryside where as a child she had had a disturbing “dream.” Alas, a truck soon brings a delivery—a coffin bearing the undead Dracula, whom she’d glimpsed as a tot.

Complete with figures standing in for Renfield, Mina, and Jonathan Harker, it’s a very loose translation of Bram Stoker’s original story, though set in the present day, and with some variably silly new wrinkles all its own. Very polished in the manner of the era’s Japanese major-studio B movies, it’s both atmospheric and mediocre, with a flute-dominated cocktail jazz score not exactly heightening the terror. It Tohoscope imagery should certainly look good on the Alamo’s big screen. Yamamoto and his chalk-white vampire (Shin Kishida) returned for a belated final outing in 1974, Evil of Dracula, in which the victims are all (surprise!) uniformed Japanese schoolgirls. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Celebrating an Iranian giant’s ‘life as art’

Abbas Kiarostami's 'Close-Up' from 1990.

SCREEN GRABS As the White House agitates off-and-on for war against Iran, it’s a particularly poignant juncture for the first major posthumous retrospective of that country’s leading cinematic talent throughout most of the last half-century. A five-month series titled Abbas Kiarostami: Life As Art opens at the Pacific Film Archive this Friday, while Saturday also brings the start of a more concentrated three-day (spread over three weeks) Roxie tribute highlighting works from his first two decades as a feature director.

Originally trained as a painter and graphic artist, the Tehran native began making movies in 1970, caught up in the initial rush of activity in Iran’s own “New Wave.” His debut full-length effort was 1974’s The Traveler, which found many enduring artistic trademarks already in place: The emphasis on impressionistic observation over narrative contrivance, a preference for non-professional performers (esp. children), the blurring of fictive elements into documentary ones, and an air of poetical simplicity that nonetheless leaves plenty of room for interpretive ambiguity.

But he didn’t begin attracting significant attention internationally until the “Koker Trilogy” of Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), And Life Goes On (1992) and Through the Olive Trees (1994), all set in the northern village that would suffer enormously from a 1990 earthquake. These stirred great interest on the film festival circuit, while Close-Up (1990) and Taste of Cherry (1997), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, were proclaimed as masterpieces. After 1999’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Kiarostami was awarded the San Francisco International Film Festival’s lifetime-achievement Kurosawa Prize—though he handed it over to veteran actor turned No. Cal. resident Behrouz Vossoughi (to whom the festival would award a similar laurel sixteen years later) for his own formidable contributions to Iranian cinema.

As his international fame grew, Kiarostami’s films frequently became even more experimental, culminating in the ravishing abstraction of 2017’s 24 Frames (released the year after his death), in which his career-long obsessions with photography, time, nature, mortality and more are distilled into two dozen meticulously realized green-screen tableaux. Illness had partly forced this retreat into more reclusive forms of art-making. But before that, his problematic relationship with the Iranian government (and particularly his criticism of their censoring or imprisoning fellow filmmakers) had led him to work abroad—when the authorities allowed him to travel, that is. Thus he shot the fascinating two-character puzzle Certified Copy (2010) in Italy, with French and English actors, while 2012’s Like Someone in Love was made in Japan.

In the end, before he died from cancer complications in early 2016 at age 76, Kiarostami was a citizen of the world (and master of many media) who nonetheless remained eloquent spokesman for a complex, ancient culture and troubled modern nation-state’s soul. Even the most accessible of his movies are far from populist, requiring viewer patience and depth of inquiry. In addition to his variably well-known features, both the PFA and Roxie series feature rarely-seen shorts going back as far as his very first, 1970’s ten-minute Bread and Alley. Abbas Kiarostami: Life as Art: Fri/2-Sat/December 21, Pacific Film Archive. (More info here.) Tribute to Abbas Kiarostami: Roxie, Sat/3-Sat/17. (More info here.)

This weekend’s only major commercial opening couldn’t offer a sillier contrast: It’s the movie that seems to exist because apparently Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel can’t stand each other, which has forced the Fast and the Furious franchise to fission. Thus Fast & Furious 9 (expected next May) will provide Vin but no Rock, but in the meantime we get spinoff Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, which is Rock (plus Jason Statham) with no Vin. Well, the important thing is that everyone keeps making money! And timeless art, of course.

If you’re in the mood for neither high-octane Hollywood action or austere Iranian metaphysical musings, there’s actually some decent alternatives also available this week:

Luz
It’s taken a while to get here, it’s only 70 minutes long, and it was German writer-director Tilman Singer’s thesis project. But don’t let any of those unpromising factoids dissuade you from seeing this rigorous, inventive and flummoxing movie, which is most definitely a supernatural horror movie even as it overturns most of the expectations you might have towards such a joint.

A disheveled, androgynous young woman (Luana Velia as Luz) turns up at a police station, seemingly out of her head. Meanwhile, a psychotherapist (Jan Blurhardt) is plied with drinks in a bar by an aggressive stranger (Julia Riedler), who seems to want his professional expertise about a “friend’s” case. Maybe she just wants to pick him up—or perhaps she has something much more sinister in mind. When these characters end up in the same room shortly thereafter, so Chilean Luz can be interviewed by a police detective (Nadja Stubinger) and translator (Johannes Benecke), the weirdness level soon goes off the charts.

Icily ironic and minimalist in its stylistic concision, Luz is a sleek little Pandora’s Box from which all conceptual hell breaks loose, though those expecting ordinary payoff in terms of clear narrative explanations or gory mayhem may be frustrated. What you get instead, however, is something much better, not to mention rarer: A film that is giddily shocking because its ideas bend our perceptual reality into pretzel shapes. It is one audacious mindfuck that I’ve already seen twice, and look forward to seeing again. Highly recommended, even (if not especially) for those who think they don’t like horror films because they’re icky or stupid. This is neither. Roxie. More info here

Mike Wallace Is Here
The late Wallace was a famously “tough interviewer” not inclined to be over-awed by his famous and powerful subjects, who’d ask them point-blank about personal weaknesses, lies and (where applicable) crimes. If his friend Barbara Walters turned making interviewees cry into a melodramatic signature, Wallace made them call their lawyers. What he saw as “asking serious questions” others reviewed as “being a prick”—but then, most of the people who felt that way were very prickly themselves.

This excellent documentary by Avi Belkin portrays the late broadcaster (who died seven years ago at age 93) locking horns with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Bill O’Reilly to Ayatollah Khomeini, always seeking to get at some uncomfortable truth. Moving from radio to early television, he bolted at the first opportunity from frivolous entertainment gigs to trailblaze unusually hard-hitting interview programs. They eventually led to CBS News and 60 Minutes, a programming longshot when launched in 1968 that turned into the standard-bearer for investigative journalism on TV, its profile particularly raised by being an active player in exposure of the Watergate scandal.

While not exhaustive (allegations of sexual harassment are omitted here), and light on probing the private life he admits he had little time or patience for, this documentary nonetheless presents a strong portrait of a driven, competitive, sometimes cranky man whose integrity nonetheless is hard to question—a species that’s endangered in today’s severely compromised, under-threat media landscape. Embarcadero, Albany Twin. More info here

The Queen
This newly restored 1968 documentary was an eye-opener for audiences half a century ago, and it’s well-crafted enough to survive as more than just a valuable historical memento now. Frank Simon’s feature chronicles the path to the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest at NYC’s Town Hall—an extravaganza of cross-dressing camp in which about two dozen contestants from all over the country compete for a rhinestone crown. It’s an elaborate affair with celebrity judges, a live band, production numbers, and a guest appearance by Warhol “superstar” Mario Montez. (Andy himself is seen in the audience, which is clad as formally as if attending an opera gala.)

Presiding over it all is Jack Dorowshow aka “Flawless Sabrina,” at 24 already a veteran organizer and promoter of such affairs whose  “bar mitzvah mother thing” generally manages to keep the variously fragile and volatile personalities involved from spinning out of collective control. Nevertheless, the climactic announcement of a winner triggers a major meltdown from one contestant (Crystal LaBeija, later founder of a still-extent drag ball “family” featured in Paris Is Burning) who angrily denounces the whole shebang as rigged.

The Queen premiered at the ’68 Cannes Festival that was notoriously curtailed by political unrest. It got a rave New York Times review and was a significant (if controversial) popular success by the era’s documentary standards. While many naive viewers may have come away with the mistaken impression that it represented typical “homosexual life,” as opposed to just one particularly “flamboyant” aspect, at this late remove it’s hard not to be impressed by the degree of self-confidence manifested by many onscreen subjects. They may have been marginalized and worse, but their brassy individuality is unapologetic, and feels very much like the match that might trigger the explosion of Stonewall and “Gay Lib” within two years of this pageant’s jokey spectacle. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas.

A Woman’s Torment
On consecutive evenings next week the Alamo Drafthouse is serving up two vintage exploitation ultra-obscurities, in restored prints struck by the American Genre Film Archive and Vinegar Syndrome. 1977’s A Woman’s Torment is the R-rated cut of a movie that was also made in a XXX version by Roberta Findlay, who worked both sides of that fence as a director/producer/writer/actress/editor/et al. for two prolific decades. Up to this point, she’d made films primarily in conjunction with equally multi-hat-wearing husband Michael Findlay, scoring a huge hit by repurposing footage from a shelved 1971 feature as Snuff (1975). But just as they seemed poised to enter the mainstream, he was killed in a freak helicopter accident.

She retreated for the most part into the smaller milieu of porn production, though Torment straddled (ahem) both worlds. As porn, it struck some (including the inimitable Al Goldstein) as “a hard-core Psycho,” an unusually serious and narrative-driven mix of graphic sex and violence. As an “R,” however, with most of the sex removed, it’s just a terrible would-be thriller whose acting is, well, worthy of porn. (Watching these not-very-attractive people act is painful enough—you’ll be glad you don’t have to see them fucking, too.) Karen (Tara Chung) is a twitchy nutcase taken in by in-law relatives. They let her go alone to their beach house, where she flings herself at the occasional stray visitor before killing them, because why not. She’s craaaazy!!!

Imagine “Doris Wishman’s Repulsion,” and you’ve got the basic idea. It is truly terrible, but there are some laughs to be had. As is often the case when porn folk make a “regular movie,” characters do and say things that suggest somehow the people involved this production have no idea how ordinary people behave. Much of the dialogue feels (badly) improvised, but surely the following post-coital marital spat was scripted. Wife: “You never touch me!” Husband: “But I just made love to you!” “Wrong my friend—you just masturbated inside of me!”  Tues/6, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Murderous Intent
The other Alamo Drafthouse rediscovery is this 1985 curio, which is a particular kind of farrago—the movie assembled out of pieces of two or more unfinished features to create something that is at least marketably full-length, if most likely completely incoherent. There have been a few minor camp classics of that ilk, including They Saved Hitler’s Brain, Night Train to Terror, and the mid-60s sexploitation cheapie Satan’s Bed, which starred a pre-John Yoko Ono.

Jamaican-born director Len Anthony apparently began several indie projects in NYC, but was unable to finish them, ultimately tossing the footage together into this weird conglomeration in which a former academic and blocked writer being supported by his exasperated former student-turned-wife has various fantasies. They involve Alvin Ailey-like modern dance interludes, a mime, a homicidal Rastafarian alter ego, a “punk” band, samurai vengeance, and other elements that make no sense whatsoever. (Except in that—you guessed it—the ending reveals “It was all a dream.”)

It’s a well-shot whatsit that’s part downtown indie club-scenester dive, part quasi-horror exploitation. Anthony did subsequently complete a couple unrelated features, but this Bill Gunn meets Susan Seidelman meets direct-to-video thriller mess is probably more memorable, precisely because it is such a Rube Goldbergian construct. Wed/7, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: A gripping dispatch from the heart of Aleppo

'For Sama'

SCREEN GRABS No doubt many cineastes in the Bay Area and well beyond will be lining up this weekend for arguably the first interesting mainstream release of the summer, Tarantino’s much-anticipated Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. This starry blend of imagination and history set in 1969 Los Angeles features Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio as fictive industry success stories, while Margot Robie plays Sharon Tate and Dakota Fanning is Squeaky Fromme—so you know this tale will head in at least one very unpleasant fact-based direction. Others in the big cast include Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, the late Luke Perry, Emile Hirsch, Lena Dunham, Brenda Vaccaro (!) and Bruce Dern.

Let’s hope it’s closer to the outrageous but entertaining historical fantasy of Inglourious Basterds than to the garrulous excesses of Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. But in any case, Once did not screen in time for this column’s purposes, so you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Other new films opening this week that we were not able to preview are both turning up at the Roxie after debuts at SF Indiefest and its offshoot SF Docfest. Marie Losier’s Cassandro the Exotico! profiles the real-life “Liberace of lucha libre,” a flamboyant veteran star on the Mexican show wrestling circuit who’s trailblazed “out” LGBTQ visibility in the ring, albeit at the frequent cost of a battered body and fan hostility. It opens a regular run this Friday. (More info here.) Playing Sun/28 afternoon only is local filmmaker Daniel Kremer’s Overwhelm the Sky, a three-hour B&W neo-noir epic based on an early American novel. It’s said to be a model of artistic ambition on a low budget. (More info here.)

Elsewhere this week (all opening Fri/26 unless otherwise noted):

The Great Hack
Worried about next year’s elections? Well, if you somehow aren’t yet, this new documentary from Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer will certainly provide plenty of cause for anxiety. It details the efforts of a very few journalists and ex-employees to blow the whistle on Cambridge Analytica, the English firm whose skullduggery many think actually swung the Brexit vote and 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign—to name just two major disasters so far.

While billing itself as a disinterested data-collection business, CA has been called a “full service propaganda machine” manipulating public opinions, spreading disinformation and riling up the rubes as a key element in (among other things) Steve Bannon’s “culture war” worldwide. With Brexit as the “petri dish” that tried out viral techniques then unleashed full-bore for the benefit of the Trump campaign, Cambridge Analytica here is accused by insiders of diabolical online “psychological experiments” aimed at subverting democratic processes and heightening paranoid divisiveness.

It mined without consent the info of tens of millions of Facebook users (and their “friends”) to create “personalized content” (mostly in the realm of convincing “fake news”) to “trigger those individuals”—stirring outrage at guilty-of-something-or-other “Crooked Hillary,” etc. There’s even been a UK campaign aimed at convincing minority citizens that it’s more cool and rebellious not to vote. All this amounts to privatization of military-style “psy ops” to influence elections, directly benefitting the rise in authoritarian regimes and reactionary movements we’re currently seeing.

It’s a completely chilling indictment that will make you want to keel-haul CA’s CEO Alexander Nix and our very own FB BFF Mark Zuckerberg, both seen lying through their teeth in government committee testimonies here. (Not just that—they actually pretend to have been the innocent victims of one another.) No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, this documentary should be required viewing, as it really punches across how personal data (now considered a more valuable commodity than oil) is being widely if covertly exploited to change the world—and that our individual legal rights over that data are at present practically nil. Opera Plaza. More info here

For Sama
The modern US has never experienced full-scale foreign military invasion, and our last/only civil war was 150+ years ago. Which may go a long way in explaining why so many American politicians and citizens seem insufficiently concerned when we wage or threaten war against other nations—sure, war is “bad,” but it’s still an abstraction to them. Such complacency is hard to hang onto after watching something like this documentary, a vivid first-person account of filmmaker Waad al-Kateab’s raising her first child… in Aleppo, under siege amidst Syria’s civil war. She and her doctor husband Hamza stayed there to care for the wounded despite all fears for their own lives, let alone that of the infant daughter that eventually came along.

Al-Katreab and Edward Watts’ feature is full of harrowing footage shot in the middle of bombings, power outages, military police beating protestors, etc. Be warned: This movie doesn’t flinch from showing bloodied children in emergency wards, corpses of the tortured and executed, and other brutal realities. (There’s even security-camera footage of the protagonists’ hospital being bombed by Russian planes attempting to prop up the flailing regime.) But it’s precisely the fact that we’re spared flinching at such sights that is part of the problem, isn’t it? This survivors’ journal should be required viewing for those who think refugees of every stripe must have somehow brought it on themselves, and anyway aren’t our problem. Roxie. More info here

Three Peaks
German architect Aaron (Alexander Fehling) is making a real effort to create a new family with French girlfriend Lea (Berenice Bejo) and her eight-year-old son Tristan (Arian Montgomery). After two years, it seems to be going well—yet there are signs the boy still thinks his American father is only temporarily out of the picture, and that Aaron is an interloper whose presence must be jettisoned so dad can return. On vacation in the Italian Dolomites, that tension takes a more overt turn in a very slow-burning thriller that in classic European fashion refuses to indulge the story’s melodramatic potential at all.

Instead, there’s a neutral, detached perspective on figures who remain psychologically somewhat hidden—particularly Lea, who alternates between the overprotective and noncommittal, and Tristan, who may be a more sophisticated manipulator than he appears. This second directorial feature by cinematographer Jan Zabeil (whose first, The River Used To Be A Man, was also a wilderness-set collaboration with the excellent Fehling) is a scenically impressive tale whose impact sneaks up on you. The last half hour or so is, in fact, quite gripping. Opera Plaza. More info here

David Crosby: Remember My Name
Now in his late 70s, the former Byrds and CSNY member made a memorable impression in the recent documentary Echo in the Canyon, cheerfully admitting that the reason he got canned from the Byrds was “because I was an asshole.” There will presumably be a lot more candor where that came from in this feature entirely dedicated to Crosby, whose druggy personal lows over the decades (which at one point resulted in a nine-month prison stint) have been almost as notorious as his musical highs with songs like “Eight Miles High” and “Guinevere.” Produced by Cameron Crowe, directed by A.J. Eaton, the mix of archival and new interview materials has gotten rave reviews since its debut at Sundance early this year. Embarcadero. (Also opens next week in other Bay Area theaters.) More info here

Queen of Diamonds
Nina Menkes has been making movies for nearly four decades, yet her work has remained most under-radar outside the realm of film festivals. Primarily occupied as an educator these days (she teaches at the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita), she hasn’t made a feature since her sixth in 2010, Dissolution, which was shot in Israel. Stark and minimalist, her movies have always been longshots for significant commercial exposure, but she seems overdue for wider discovery as a now-longstanding female independent auteur with a distinctive personal vision.

This 1991 drama, which followed her 1986 debut feature Magdalena Viraga, is a coolly objective character study of a blackjack dealer (the director’s sister Tinka Mendes) alienated from her Las Vegas environs and everyone around her, save the bedridden old man of uncertain relation she cares for at the seedy hotel where she lives. The decrepit townie side of Vegas is on full display here, with its rollcall of societal discards and eccentrics. Our heroine is an emotionally removed character who holds her cards close to her vest—we glean that a husband might have recently disappeared (or simply left her), but like other suggested issues she might be grappling with, that isn’t something she cares to discuss. Despite cryptic interactions with others, she is very much alone, seemingly by choice. But then she seems no stranger than anyone else here, in a city where the surreal and the banal are often interchangeable.

Showing at the Roxie in a new 4K restoration, Queen of Diamonds is an enigmatic piece, short on dialogue (let alone backstory), that nonetheless has a striking rigor to it. Sat/27, Roxie. More info here

The Neon Slime Mixtape
In the 1980s so many newly VCR-owning households were sold thrilled by the idea of being able to rent any movie they chose—every night, if desired—that it seemed just about any piece of amateurish crap could get some toehold on the near-bottomless videocassette marketplace. This compilation blends trailers and condensed versions of some such under-radar genre trash. A couple of them may already be known to the more dedicated fans of grade-Z horror, like the deliciously dreadful 1982 Boarding House or 1989’s Things, considered by some the worst Canadian movie ever.

But others will be new to even the most ardent obscurantists, though though may be directed by still-active “talents” like gay porn maestro Tim Kincaid (Mutant Hunt), Donald Farmer (vampire flick Demon Queen), Bavarian gorehound Olaf Ittenbach (Der Gefallene Engel) or DIY king Damon Packard (Dawn of an Evil Millennium). There are also glimpses of a few jokey shorts from the era, including The Psychotic Odyssey of Richard Chase (a doll biopic about the late 1970s real life cannibal killer known as “The Vampire of Sacramento,” a la Todd Haynes’ Carpenters Barbie epic Superstar) and the self-explanatory Horror Brunch! Most of these movies are below even Troma standards; all were shot on camcorders, and look it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be glad you’re only seeing these films in excerpt. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

 

Screen Grabs: A Japanese master of ‘The Human Condition’ gets his due

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi's 'The Human Condition'

SCREEN GRABS Considered by some one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of a brilliant period (the Fifties and Sixties), the late Masaki Kobayashi nevertheless never achieved the international fame of many others, including Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse and Oshima. This despite the fact that he made one of the finest samurai movies, 1962’s Harakiri, as well as arguably the single best entry in the Japanese ghost story subgenre (1965’s color omnibus feature Kwaidan)—both great successes at home and abroad. But his subsequent films grew steadily less prominent, perhaps attesting to the fact that he was already an “old man” (turning 50 in 1966) amidst a new era increasingly fixated on young talent.

It doesn’t help, either, that his most towering work is of a nature that made exhibition difficult in the first place, and renders revival even more so: Based on a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, requiring four years’ production, The Human Condition consisted of three long features released between 1959 and 1961, totaling nearly ten hours altogether. (It is still occasionally shown in Japan in marathon screenings.) The Pacific Film Archive’s month-long Against Authority: The Cinema of Masaki Kobayashi retrospective, which starts this Saturday, offers a rare chance to see that trilogy on the big screen, as well as five other features from the director’s career peak of 1956-1967.

Not so unlike his pacifist intellectual protagonist in The Human Condition, Kobayashi himself was an art and philosophy student drafted into the Imperial Army during WW2, sent to Manchuria, and captured by the Chinese to spend time in a POW camp. Afterward he returned to Shochiku Studios to continue his apprenticeship, making his directorial debut in 1952. The first film in the PFA series is I Will Buy You, a caustic portrait of corruption in the world of Japanese pro baseball (a sport that had already been popular for nearly a century there). Indeed, criticizing institutionalized injustice would prove a running theme for him, whether demonstrated in society as a whole or something as outwardly rigid yet vulnerable as samurai codes of “honor.”

The hugely ambitious Human Condition pits the supposed “clumsy humanism” of proficiency expert Kaji (the director’s strikingly handsome go-to star Tatsuya Nakadai) against venality of every stripe. In the first film, No Greater Love, he and his wife are sent to a remote Manchurian labor camp where the cruel officials resist all his attempts at reform, no matter how effective they prove. In The Road to Eternity, Kaji is rewarded for his idealism by getting thrown into the army. Despite being branded a “red,” his natural leadership qualities inevitably push him ahead—yet again, his compassion and high principles continue to get him in hot water. “No good deed goes unpunished” remains the rule in 1961’s A Soldier’s Prayer, in which Kaji tries to rejoin his wife amidst the chaos of Japan’s final defeat by Allied forces. But his grueling journey through enemy terrain and a POW camp (now as a prisoner himself) again finds scant reward for endless self-sacrifice.

Never ponderous despite its extreme length, superbly crafted, The Human Condition was controversial at the time for showing Japan’s wartime struggles in a far-from-heroic light—slave labor, “comfort women,” executions, torture and sheer dumb meanness are all depicted as routine parts of Imperial Army life. (One of Kobayashi’s last films, not in this series, was Tokyo Trial, a 4 1/2 hour 1985 documentary about Japanese war crime proceedings.) Kaji is a great character, his virtues as credible as his vulnerabilities are vivid in Nakadai’s towering performance. While his saga may be almost unbearably bleak in the end, the trilogy’s visual beauty and stubborn insistence on individual nobility nonetheless provide a ray of hope in this brutal dramatic landscape.

After that vast endeavor, Kobayashi retreated into the small-scale domestic “battle” of 1962’s The Inheritance, an incisive, twisty morality tale of illegitimate children scrambling for the favor of a dying businessman father who hitherto hadn’t acknowledged them. After that detour, the director made his three most commercially successful features: The aforementioned Harakiri and Kwaidan, both acknowledged world classics, and 1967’s Samurai Rebellion, which stars Toshiro Mifune (who’d just had a permanent falling-out with Akira Kurosawa) as an 18th-century swordsman forced into fatal opposition towards his region’s clan lord. Playing a key support role is Nakadai, who would actually assume Mifune’s place as Kurosawa’s future principal star. It’s a handsome, ceremonial, slow-moving if ultimately bloody piece of classic samurai conflict.

Though he continued working through the mid-80s (dying a decade later in 1996 at age 80), Kobayashi’s later films met with decreasing interest outside Japan, even if they remained acclaimed at home. (Actor Tatsuya Nakadai still occasionally works today, at nearly 90.) While his work gradually fell out of international fashion, the Against Authority series suggests it holds up at least as well as many better-remembered films from the arthouse “golden age” of the 1960s. Against Authority: The Cinema of Masaki Kobayashi runs Sat/20-Sun/August 18 at Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Among major commercial openings this week, of note is The Farewell, if only because it’s the first obvious consequence of Crazy Rich Asians’ huge success last year—another sudsy, globetrotting mainstream comedy with an all-Asian cast (led by CRA’s breakout star Awkwafina). Sure to be even bigger news at the box-office is The Lion King, the latest entry in Disney’s weird new means of endlessly milking its back catalog. Does the world really need a live-action (well, with plenty of CGI) remake of every cherished Mouse House animated classic? Apparently so, given that The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin have already been giant hits. (However, earlier this year Dumbo actually managed to lose money, grossing a mere $350 million.)

A one-night event of special interest is San Francisco Cinematheque’s For A Winter: Remembering Jonathan Schwartz, a tribute to the filmmaker and teacher who passed away last year at age 45. The program, co-presented with Canyon Cinema, will feature nine of his 16mm and video shorts. They encompassed collage, global travel, poetical text, personal portraiture and aesthetic experiment in a meditative yet adventuresome body of work. It plays Thurs/25 at YBCA Screening Room. More info here

There’s also the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival, which returns to the Roxie this weekend for a 13th annual program of shorts from “independent filmmakers, youth, filmmakers of conscience, and artists from under-served communities.” Traversing a gamut from experimental, animated and narrative to local and international work, its whopping fifteen separate programs run from Fri/19 through Sun/21. (More info here.) The Roxie is also premiering Adam Sherman’s gonzo U.S./Japan crime fantasia She’s Just a Shadow, which opens Friday and was unavailable for preview. (More info here.)

Opening elsewhere (all on Fri/19 unless otherwise noted):

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank
This documentary by Gerald Fox was completed in 2004 and broadcast on the U.K.’s “South Bank Show,” but blocked from wider exposure by its subject until now—famed photographer Frank, already 80 at the time, thought it too discomfitingly “personal.” Ironically, the same logic kept his infamous 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues out of public view for decade, as the subjects worried its portrait was too unflatteringly intimate (and possibly incriminating re: drug use).

Now 95, Frank has apparently relented. As a result we can finally see this impressionistic portrait, which shows him both in oft-cranky old age (resisting the yuppie invasion in his longtime NYC neighborhood, spatting affectionately with his sculptor spouse June Leaf) as well as reflecting on past career landmarks. They include his intensely controversial 1958 photography book The Americans, which discomfited people because it emphasized the less-flattering realities—racism, poverty, etc.—that our nation has always preferred to think are marginal problems. Soon considered groundbreaking, it was initially perceived by some as a deliberate insult by a foreigner (Frank was a Swiss emigre).

Then there were his variably accessible journeys into filmmaking, most famously providing the Beat Generation with its closest celluloid reflection in the Kerouac-narrated Pull My Daisy (1959). An admitted workaholic, Frank admits his failings as a husband and father, particularly given the tragic fate of troubled son Pablo. Those painful confessions are probably the reason Leaving Home remained unavailable for so long, but they help make this tribute to an important artist particularly insightful. Roxie. More info here

Sword of Trust
Improv-based comedies may look easy, but they are very hard to pull off—even king of the subgenre Christopher Guest found collective inspiration flagging in his efforts after the much-loved Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. But this new film by indie veteran Lynn Shelton is a droll gem sparked by players who know exactly what they’re doing, and give the loose screenplay (by Shelton and Mike O’Brien) a loopy satirical snap.

Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) are a 40-ish lesbian couple who’ve inherited a Civil War relic from the former’s grandfather. They take it to caustic Alabama pawn-shop proprietor Mel (podcaster Marc Maron) in hopes of making a sale. He’s unimpressed, yet once his dim-witted but computer-savvy assistant Nathaniel (Jonathan Bass) uncovers some intel online, it looks like the item might be worth a small fortune after all. This leads the mismatched quartet down a rabbit hole of historical revisionists and white nationalists who think “the South really won.”

While it does slyly take the pulse of crazier political currents in Trump’s America, Sword of Trust is mostly just a delightful shaggy-dog tale sparked by inspired comic rapport amongst the principal players. It seldom goes for big laughs, but the cumulative effect of many small ones makes for a movie that hits a sweet spot—though white nationalists and historical revisionists probably won’t appreciate the joke. Opera Plaza. More info here.

Sea of Shadows
With species extinctions around the globe escalating alarmingly, this new documentary spotlights one such crisis you may not have known about. The vaquita is a small, dolphin-like whale that has the ill luck to claim as its habitat the Gulf of Mexico, which is shared by the totoaba—a fish whose bladder is thought by some Chinese to have medicinal value, and which can be worth up to $100,000 each as a result.

Thus between the underground Chinese market and Mexican cartels, one species is being fished into extinction, with the other facing a similar fate simply by being caught in the same nets. All this is illegal, but did that ever stop anyone when the monetary stakes are so high? This nature-slash-crime investigation ties the ongoing fight to climate change and other consequences of environmental degradation worldwide. Metreon, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Emma Mae
Also known as Black Sister’s Revenge, this great 1976 comedy-action pic by underrated blaxploitation maestro Jamaa Fanaka was produced just after his outrageous cult debut Soul Vengeance and before his popular, over-the-top Penitentiary movies. Jerri Hayes plays the titular “country cousin” from Mississippi who comes to live with her more sophisticated relatives in Southern California. She seems like a real hick at first, but they’re surprised by her ability to kick serious ass when riled. She falls for an amphetamine “fender bender” who gets in trouble beating up some abusive cops. When legit efforts at raising money for his bail fall short, she turns into a Black Power revolutionary, orchestrating an armed bank robbery.

Emma Mae is a refreshingly down-to-earth heroine, particularly compared to the era’s more cartoonish Pam Grier/Tamara Dobson type blaxploitation babes. The movie straddles conventions from those films and more naturalistic African-American dramas of the period, like Claudine. It’s got Fanaka’s usual zesty dialogue and performances, while also functioning as a great time-capsule of mid-70s soul slang and fashions. Wed/24, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.