Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: Battle of the giant Russian oligarchs

'Citizen K'

The big event this week is Friday’s return of Noir City, whose latest annual edition at the Castro we’ve previewed separately here.

Among commercial openings this Friday, Guy Ritchie appears to be back in the Brit gangster terrain of Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels with The Gentleman, in which Matthew McConaughey plays a Yank up to no good in a London underworld populated by such shady characters as Charlie Hunnam, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Eddie Marsen and so forth. For better or worse, it is Richie’s first such enterprise in 12 years, during which time he toiled in the realm of generic blockbuster cinema.

A different perspective on action machismo is tapped in Todd Robinson’s The Last Full Measure, a fact-based tale about a heroic act during the Vietnam War and its repercussions decades later. Beyond lead turns by young actors Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Irvine, it’s got a crowd of Oscar-winning and -nominated support players, including Christopher Plummer, William Hurt, Ed Harris, Samuel L. Jackson, the late Peter Fonda, Diane Ladd, Amy Madison, John Savage and more. This long-aborning project, which finished filming nearly three years ago, deals with PTSD and other issues relevant to service veterans.

One-offs of note this week include yet another screening for the latest edition of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, this time at (and benefitting) the Internet Archive on Fri/24 (more info here); and an SF Cinematheque and Canyon Cinema co-presentation of Interludes: New and Recent Films by Nathaniel Dorsky (Thurs/23 at YBCA, more info here). There’s also Alamo Drafthouse’s Tues/28 presentation of 1981’s The House by the Cemetery, IMHO the best film by late Italian horrormeister Lucio Fulci. The 4K restoration print of this silly yet undeniably creepy and very gory Gothic tale will be hosted by William Lustig, the founder of exploitation-restorationist label Blue Underground who is himself the writer-director of such 80s “B” classics as the original Maniac and the (unrelated) Maniac Cop series. More info here.

Recommended openings this Friday:

Citizen K
If you’ve read Rachel Maddow’s recent book Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, you’re probably feeling particularly familiar with issues involving Russia’s huge yet shaky and antiquated oil industry—how it dominates that nation’s economy, and how as a result its needs now have a great  impact on our own nation, thanks to the undeniable if murky BFF relationship between Putin and Trump.

This latest documentary by Alex Gibney—of prior high-profile ones about Steve Jobs, Scientology, WikiLeaks, Elizabeth Holmes, Lance Armstrong, Enron, Eliot Spitzer, Hunter S. Thompson, et al.—sheds some light on that weird new semi-voluntary liaison between countries that for most of the last hundred years considered each other prime enemies. (And most people still hold that opinion.) It does so through the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the self-made billionaire whose canny adoption of high capitalism amidst the desperate economic shambles of just-post-Communist Russia made him one of that nation’s leading oligarchs—the men who controlled the nation’s pursestrings as it became theoretically “free market” yet failed to attain anything like real democracy.

As KGB-trained Putin rose to assume disgraced Boris Yeltsin’s Presidency, the oligarchs retained their mafia-like control over various business sectors so long as they “stayed out of politics.” But when Khodorkovsky defied that rule, openly criticizing Putin’s corrupt rule, he found that even being the richest man in Russia wouldn’t prevent him from being tried, convicted and stripped of all assets (now state-owned) on bogus charges. When finally released from prison after a decade due to international pressure, he fled to London, where he is now a full-time anti-Putin, pro-democracy activist.

As is said of him here, Khodorkovsky “wants to be Jesus Christ, but he has a past.” His oligarch days earned him plenty of enemies, and some people still believe he was responsible for a mayor’s assassination. But his current status as an administration critic is too risky—think of all the Putin foes who’ve been poisoned abroad, or otherwise eliminated—to be simply a pose by someone wanting to regain their former power. (It’s suggested more than once in Citizen K that prison actually improved his character.)

While the impact of Putin’s increasingly paranoid, dictatorial rule on other countries like ours is touched on, this is a film that is primarily not about that, or even about Khodorkovsky. Instead, it’s about the tragedy of Russia, going from one form of authoritarianism to another, its citizens forever kept poor and abused by their latest feudal-style overlord. Whom most of them nonetheless love—because, as Trump is doing here, he so effectively channels their angry frustration towards minorities, foreigners, and everyone else who isn’t actually picking their pockets. The excellent Citizen K provides, at the very least, a scarifying look at just what we’re up against in having Putin’s Russia as our 21st-century frenemy. Opera Plaza, Shattuck. More info here

Color Out of Space
South African director Richard Stanley had a good thing going in the early 1990s with music videos and a couple cult genre films (sci-fi Hardware, horror Dust Devil) before he had the opportunity to realize his dream project, a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. But that big-budget 1996 endeavor turned into a nightmare (as memorably chronicled in the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau), with various calamities including bad behavior from stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer leading to Stanley getting fired from his own film. Nor was anyone very happy with the final result that replacement director John Frankenheimer wrought.

Badly shaken by this ordeal, Stanley took a long hiatus. The H.P. Lovecraft-based Color is thus the first feature he’s directed in nearly three decades. If you’re looking for something eccentric from a famously reclusive genre fanboy type, you won’t be disappointed—this movie is something of a mess, but it’s a fun mess. More, it’s a mix of sci-fi, horror and psychedelia starring Nicolas Cage, in full-on gonzo mode (plus Tommy Chong in a hippie-hermit support turn). Either that will mean nothing to you, or you’re probably already frantically ordering a ticket.

Cage plays the patriarch of an idiosyncratic family that gets more so after a meteor fragment lands in the front yard of their country home. As in Lovecraft’s story, the precise nature or purpose of the invading alien force remains a mystery—but invade it does, to some very random, hallucinogenic and finally grotesque ends.

The movie doesn’t quite seem in control of its own escalating madness, in part because Cage is being distractingly “weird” before there’s any narrative cause for it. But uneven as it is, Color is a welcome departure from genre formula that is entertaining even at its least. Embarcadero, California Theatre (Berkeley). More info here

Screen Grabs: A very contemporary Les Misérables

'Les Misérables'

This very random week at the movies features two big franchise reboots. Doolittle is from writer-director Stephen Gaghan, previously associated with such very grown-up projects as Syriana and Traffic. It features a whole lot of CGI critters plus Robert Downey Jr., who’s looking awfully seedy for “family entertainment” in the trailer. Bad Boys For Life brings back Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, together for the first time since BBII in 2003. Unlike prior installments, this latest is not directed by Michael Bay but, weirdly, the Belgian duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. That may prove a plus, because as we all know, the answer to the question “Who could be better than Michael Bay?” is “Almost anyone.”

Smaller but weirder film events on (or opening on) this Friday include Crispin Glover at the Castro for SF Sketchfest, in a tribute program including his 2005 directorial oddity What Is It?, a surreal doodle that took nine years to make and whose cast consists largely of people with Down’s Syndrome. (More info here.)

The emphasis is also on the surreal with VHYes (at the Alamo, more info here), a channel-surfing media satire in the mode of The Groove Tube, featuring cameos from director Jack Henry Robbins’ famous parents Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Then there’s (at the Roxie, more info here.) Weathering With You, a new romantic anime fantasy from Makoto Shinkai, whose prior Your Name. was a Miyazaki-scaled hit in the genre. We might also note that the Grand Poobah of screen surrealism, Federico Fellini, is getting an extensive birth-centenary retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive starting this week (Thurs/16-Sun/May 17, more info here).

Strangest of all, perhaps, will be the Alamo’s 40th anniversary 35mm screening of 1980’s Can’t Stop the Music, the disco extravaganza that was billed hopefully as “The Movie Musical Event of the 80s” but arrived just as the whole reactionary “Disco Sucks” backlash was peaking. This expensive pet project for Grease producer Allan Carr hedged its bets by carefully sidestepping any overt gay content in a movie nonetheless starring that gayest musical act ever, The Village People—as well as pre-op Olympian Bruce Jenner, hunky future Police Academy regular Steve Guttenberg, buxom Valerie Perrine, and others whose very presence spelt C-A-M-P.

Inexplicably hiring comedienne Nancy Walker for her first/last feature directorial assignment, the film duly stopped its own music by earning probably less than 10% of its substantial budget. Like a car accident, Can’t Stop the Music is awful, painful, and provokes empathy for its victims, yet somehow you can’t look away. It actually makes the same year’s other disco dog, Olivia Newton-John vehicle Xanadu, look good by comparison. And that movie suuuuucks. Wed/22, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

There’s no suckage at all amongst the two new arrivals that get our most enthusiastic recommendation this week, both opening on Friday:

Les Misérables
Many years, one foreign-language features arrives to suck all the air out of the room for any other awards contenders in that category. This year it’s Parasite; last year it was Roma. Excellent movies, certainly, but there were equally worthy ones that got semi-lost in the shuffle as a result. If Parasite hadn’t come along, probably 2019’s foreign awards-magnet would have been Almodovar’s Pain and Glory. But take both of them out of the field, and suddenly this first feature by Mali-born, Paris-based Ladj Ly might be getting the kind of attention it deserves.

It’s a familiar sort of movie—the tough urban crime drama reflecting France’s rising immigrant populations and racial tensions—that we’ve been seeing for a while, at least since 1995’s La Haine. But Les Misérables (which really has nothing to do with Victor Hugo’s titular story) is at least as good as that, or A Prophet, or any other film you might credibly compare it to.

Damien Bonnard plays Ruiz, a greasy-haired, newly divorced cop from the sticks who’s moved to the unfamiliar city to be near the child his ex-wife has custody of. Being somewhat of a humorless square, he gets a caustic welcome from his new patrol partners, who’ve long since developed a workable, not-strictly-by-the-book relationship towards the wary-to-hostile, primarily Muslim emigre neighborhood that is their territory. At first, Ruiz seems like he’ll be more “the problem” than the hero here. Yet as the day escalates into crisis mode—triggered by, among other things, the theft of a lion club from thuggish circus folk, and a drone camera’s witness of some police brutality—he gradually becomes our moral center in an ethical minefield.

Les Miserables is electric yet non-hyperbolic, high on tension without succumbing to suspense cliches, managing to maintain a remarkably balanced perspective despite the myriad points of view represented. Those POVs run a gamut from “good cop” to crookedly bad, from religiously upright to criminally jaded, with a whole lot of reckless, impulsive juveniles adding a significant wild-card element. This dynamic, involving film doesn’t apply a case-pleading preachiness to social ills, because while it knows the difference between right and wrong, it also knows that issues of poverty, power, injustice et al. can make the choice between them anything but simple. Whether you classify it as a 2020 release or one from 2019 (it’s qualified for those awards), this very non-Broadway Les Miz is one of the best films of the year—either year.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Surely every hoarder thinks their hoarding is a matter of genuine importance rather than mere neurosis. Marion Stokes turned out to be the rare person for whom that assumption turned out correct. An African-American Philadelphia activist and local current-affairs show host, she was attentive to political currents (and their frequent media misrepresentation) to the point of becoming an early adopter of home videotaping in the mid-70s. Soon she was using multiple VCRs to record multiple TV stations, 24/7—for the next 35 years, until her death at age 83 in 2012.

She and her like-minded second husband (who fortunately was wealthy enough to afford the necessary living spaces) proved hoarders in other ways as well, the 70,000 VHS tapes they accumulated fighting for room alongside a nearly-equal number of books, innumerable newspaper/magazine subscripts, multiples of every Apple product, and numerous other types of things they never, ever threw out. Needless to say, theirs was the kind of mutually obsessive (as well as secretive and paranoid) behavior that leads to social seclusion, as well as the estrangement of children.

Matt Wolf’s documentary isn’t a tragedy of mental illness and cut familial ties, however—or, at least, it’s more than that. We may think something that is broadcast on TV (or put online) is there “forever,” but in fact broadcasters do not preserve everything, or sometimes even anything. Stokes’ seemingly crazy, “useless” collection has wound up being a unique , particularly of local/national news coverage—one that finally made its way to the SF-based Internet Archive for digitalization as a permanent public media research library.

This absorbing feature ends up not just a portrait of an eccentric, somewhat off-putting personality, but an overview of recent history through the selective lens of broadcasters. In an era when media manipulation and “fake news” are pressing concerns, Stokes was prescient in realizing that the truth lay in hard evidence you could point to…or watch. Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: New year, death row

'Just Mercy'

January is generally considered a dumping ground for unloved movies, squeezed in to fill any space remaining by Christmas and awards-bait major releases still playing out. Certainly this week’s new arrivals bear that wisdom out, with the biggest ones being a crime drama (The Informer), deep-sea thriller (Underwater) and workplace comedy (Like a Boss) that all sound like something you’d stream at home on a slow night.

But there’s actually a lot going on on-screen this week, not least the odd simultaneous arrival of two worthy new American dramas about capital punishment (see below)—god knows why, since they premiered at film festivals months apart last year.

Among special events, there’s a benefit party for trans filmmakers (Thurs/9) followed by a free day-long “community forum” on “Trans Stories in U.S. Entertainment Media” (Fri/10) —more info here. Plus a full weekend (Thurs/10-Sun/12) at the Roxie of the Coven Film Festival, a spotlight for “films by emerging women and non-binary filmmakers from the Bay Area and around the world,” featuring not just features and shorts but panels and networking opportunities—more info here.

In this year’s edition of Sketchfest, film-centric events at the Castro include live-and-onscreen tributes to and/or screenings of classic sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, stand-up documentary It Started as a Joke, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Uncle Buck, Clue, Crispin Glover’s What Is It?, Airplane!, The King of Comedy, and more, many with original stars or filmmakers present. SF Sketchfest’s 19th edition runs Thurs/9-Sun/19, click here for full program and ticket intel.

Also of note is the local premiere of Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic, a newly restored exercise in exotic-adventure kitsch that was made in the late 1950s, after the director had returned to Germany from his long Hollywood career sojourn. This lush color extravaganza was drastically cut to create one flop US release in 1960 (called Journey to the Lost City), but at the PFA this month you can see the full original two parts, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, which play in their entirety Sat/11 and Sat/25. (More info here.) Dig this racy “snake dance” by imported American star Debra Paget’s aptly named temple dancer Seetha:

Another ill-treated film getting its belated due at the PFA is actor Charles Laughton’s only directorial feature, The Night of the Hunter, an amazing 1955 Southern Gothic thriller with Robert Mitchum as a homicidal evangelical—a forward-thinking concept if ever there was one. In conjunction with his Berkeley Art Museum gallery retrospective, artist Ron Nagle will introduce a restored 35mm print of a movie he (among many) cites as a personal inspiration. https://bampfa.org/event/night-hunter-ron-nagle

On the sillier side, Alamo Drafthouse is hosting two VHS-era fantasy obscurities. Frog Dreaming aka The Go-Kids aka The Quest is a 1985 Australian whimsy that provided E.T.’s Henry Thomas with his last juvenile role, had a soundtrack by Queen’s Brian May, and was (heavily) contrived by local legends Everett De Roche (scenarist of Aussie exploitation classics Patrick,Long Weekend and Razorback) and Brian Trenchard-Smith (director of guilty pleasures Turkey Shoot, Stunt Rock, BMX Bandits, Dead End Drive-In, and no less than two Leprechaun sequels). It plays Wed/15, though you may be in no shape after having your mind blown by the prior night’s Scanners III: The Takeover, a cheap ’n’ cheerful sequel to David Cronenberg’s 1981 original.

Fear not: There are actually some movies for adults of more discriminating taste within reach. Not least among them are two newly arrived major-retrospective series at the Pacific Film Archive, Next Door to Darkness: The Films of David Lynch(Fri/10-Sat/Feb. 29, more info here) and Federico Fellini at 100 (Thurs/16-Sun/May 17, https://bampfa.org/program/federico-fellini-100 ). We’ll skip over their details for now, because if you’ve read this far, it’s unlikely you need to be reminded who those directors are.

Opening Friday at area theaters:

Clemency
An uneasy quiet pervades this second feature by Nigerian-American writer-director Chinonye Chukwu. Alfre Woodard plays Bernadine Williams, the longtime warden of a prison where she’s expected to oversee the occasional execution of a death row inmate. This regularly brings hostile attention from protestors and the media, particularly after the last such task is so bungled by the medical officer that witnesses hear the prisoner screaming in pain before lethal injection is successfully managed at last. Her grim duties also take a considerable toll on the warden, who refuses to delegate anything, even if that results in her drinking a bit much after work hours and neglecting the husband (Wendell Pierce) who only offers support.

The stress mounts even further when the next execution is planned for Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), a model inmate who insists he did not commit the crime he’s sentenced for. More, he’s in such denial that justice could have failed him so completely, he refuses to acknowledge the imminent reality of his demise—which makes the warden’s methodical, by-the-book involvement in shepherding each case to that conclusion harder than usual.

Woodard is a performer whose by-now-familiar modus of dramatic power through judicious restraint is ideally deployed in this rare big-screen lead. She’s perfect for a character whose rigorous professionalism and emotional self-control is beginning to erode her from within, like a tumor. Hodge is also excellent. But as finely crafted as these and the supporting turns are, they’re somewhat hemmed in by the film’s strict focus and cautious good taste, which keeps its two hours worthy yet a little monotonous. It has both the strengths and the limitations of an old-school prestige TV movie wrestling with important social issues while offering Emmy-attracting acting showcases. You could imagine this material working equally well as a stage play. It’s a thoughtful, provocative piece of dramaturgy, if not terribly interesting or memorable as cinema.

Just Mercy
Somewhat more satisfying, if more predictable in its inspirational social-issue gist, is this latest from director/coscenarist Destin Daniel Cretton of Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle. Those movies gave a big push to Brie Larson, who duly returns the favor here by appearing as a local activist. But the narrative emphasis is on Creed’s Michael B. Jordan, playing a newly Harvard-graduated lawyer who makes the seemingly counterintuitive career choice of moving to Alabama to fight for the rights of death-row convicts. Many of whom hereabouts, it emerges, were convicted on flimsy evidence and/or as a result of piss-poor legal representation.

That’s certainly the case with Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), who seems to have been found guilty of murdering a young white woman simply because public outrage demanded blood penance—whose blood didn’t really matter. The fact that dozens of witnesses could account for his whereabouts (at a church fish-fry!) on the day of the crime was among many little details that somehow didn’t find their way into court. Uncovering numerous other whopping instances of injustice in the case, Jordan’s protagonist runs into a system of entrenched racial corruption and cover-ups amongst police and judiciary that would make you think this was the 1930s South, not the 1990s.

Fact-based Just Mercy has a more conventional filmic perspective on capital punishment than Clemency, as here that most extreme societal “fix” is unquestionably being abused: To silence an innocent man, among other things. It’s not a particularly surprising or imaginative movie, but it is an effective one. What makes it particularly worth seeing, beyond the potency of the message, are the excellent support performances. Foxx is very good as a simple but honest man who’s learned people like him can expect nothing “just” from our society’s institutions. (The one and only thing McMillan was truly “guilty” of, it seems, was having an affair with a white woman—not the murder victim, even, but someone else.) And the always-welcome Tim Blake Nelson gives a knockout turn as the felonious hick whom police arm-twisted into providing fake “evidence” against him.

Varda by Agnes
Belgian director Agnes Varda died last March at age 90, having spent the last couple decades earning new popularity as the maker of endearingly personal, playful documentaries like Faces Places and The Gleaners and I. This, her final work, is a personally guided career retrospective that originally played as a two-part special on European TV. We see her lecturing or being interviewed in front of various live audiences, as well as in archival footage. Plus, of course, there’s a bounty of clips from her films, going back as far as 1955’s La Pointe Courte, which already announced her interest in blending fiction and non-fiction.

Noting “Nothing is trite if you film people with empathy and love,” we see how she brought that idiosyncratic affection to subjects that encompassed bakers, Black Panthers, widows, hippies, recyclers, graffiti and potatoes. As well as, more famously, feminism (1977’s breezily empowering One Sings, the Other Doesn’t), late husband Jacques Demy’s childhood (1991’s Jacquot), and transient outcasts (1985’s atypically stark Vagabond). Her long-term collaborations, still photography and installation art also get discussed.

Varda’s work is so frequently pleasing that it’s a jolt when late in the film, we see a montage of war footage and other horrors. She was indeed a celebrant of life’s little pleasures, but no oblivious escapist. Most viewers of Varda by Agnes will probably be surprised by the sheer volume of creativity sampled here—even serious fans are likely to discover films they didn’t previously know about.

The documentary plays the Roxie starting this Friday (more info here) and is also part of the series Agnes Varda: An Irresistible Force, which is both ongoing at the PFA (through Fri/Feb. 28, more info here), and starts this Thurs/9 at SFMOMA (through Sat/March 21, more info here).

Screen Grabs: Homage to a gorgeous legend + 2019’s best films

Anna Karina

We’ve gotten to the point where icons of the 1960s are now dying off of old age, and last month that number was joined by Anna Karina, who passed away in Paris at age 79. She’d hitchhiked there six decades earlier from her native Denmark, after a somewhat tumultuous upbringing involving an abandoning father and stints living with grandparents, in foster care, and with her mother. Her continued success as an advertising model caught the attention of film critic turned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, though she declined a small part in his 1960 debut feature Breathless upon realizing it would involve nudity. Nonetheless, he gave her the female lead in his second film, La petit soldat, though due to political censorship (it was about the still-recent Algerian War), it was blocked from release for some time.

Thus audiences outside France (where in the meantime she made a few more purely commercial local features for other directors) saw her for the first time in Godard’s third and fourth features: A Woman is a Woman, a character study of a yearning striptease artiste incongruously done in the bright colors and Cinemascope format of lavish musicals; and the contrastingly sober, B&W Vivre sa vie, where her newly arrived emigre to Paris is much less lucky than Anna Karina was—hoping to break into showbiz, she instead gets pulled into prostitution.

These and her other roles for Godard (to whom she was married 1961-65) made her highly visible not only as his “muse,” but as that of the whole Nouvelle Vague. An expressive young beauty, she was a born actress as well as camera subject, despite the lack of any real training. Her ability to shift from naturalism to conspicuous play-acting (including several famous musical numbers) ideally suited Godard’s mix of genre homage and deconstruction, his simultaneous love and critique of cinematic conventions. But as dramatized in the underrated recent biopic Godard Mon Amour by Michel Hazanavicius (of The Artist), in which Louis Garrel played the humorously exasperating auteur and Stacy Martin his post-Karina muse Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Luc could be a difficult collaborator—and a downright impossible husband, simply disappearing for days or weeks at a time.

After that partnership ended, Karina worked all over Europe for an eccentric range of directors including Fassbinder, Ulli Lommel, Rivette, Visconti, Schlondorff, Tony Richardson, George Cukor, Benoit Jacquot and Raoul Ruiz, as well as making a few appearances in generally uninspired English-language films. (She lived for a time in Los Angeles with her fourth, final spouse, director and frequent collaborator Dennis Berry.) She directed a couple films herself, had a singing career, and wrote four novels. If she remained more a beloved symbol of New Wave creativity than a renowned “great actress”—though no one can deny Vivre sa vie, for instance, is a great performance—she seems to have lived a rich, diverse and fulfilled artistic life to the end.

The Castro has programmed two double-bills this month as a memorial tribute: This Sat/4 it’s Vivre sa vie and 1964’s Band of Outsiders, in which she’s the ambivalent girlfriend/reluctant accomplice to two amateur thieves (and they all dance the Madison together in a cafe). Thurs/24 brings A Woman is a Woman aka Une femme est une femme and 1965’s Pierrot le Fou, co-starring with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the latter as a pair of fugitive lovers. It was the star and director’s final collaboration. On Sat/25 the Roxie is also playing the same year’s Alphaville, the cryptic, sci-fi tinged espionage quasi-spoof in which she’s the ostensible love interest to Eddie Constantine’s private dick Lemmy Caution.

There are pleasures to be had in later Godard, to be sure, with the still-active filmmaker’s recent The Image Book no exception. But no one personified his generational notion of the “children of Marx and Coca-Cola” like Karina, and when she was gone from his cinema—replaced by a whole lot more Marx—viewers not only found Godard less lovable, they realized how little the famously cranky semi-recluse wanted to be loved. (Castro Theatre info here. Roxie info here.)

Other film events in this first post-holiday season week are very miscellaneous, with the only significant new commercial arrival being yet another reboot of The Grudge—a remake of the 2004 remake of the 2002 Japanese horror hit Ju-on. It might actually be interesting, given that it’s directed by Nicolas Pesce (of indie oddities Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother), and has a more-intriguing-than usual cast including Andrea Riseborough, Demian Bichir, John Cho and Jacki Weaver.

Among arthouse newcomers, there’s a must for dance lovers: Alla Kovgan’s Cunningham, an overview of the late avant-garde choreographer’s career and work up through the late 1960s, at which point he’d become an accepted (if still challenging) part of the art form’s mainstream. Mixing archival materials with new stagings of seminal pieces, this 3-D documentary doesn’t utilize depth of field as strikingly as Wim Wender’s Pina (about choreographer Bausch) did, and I felt ambivalent about seeing so many works not originally designed for site-specific performance performed as if they were. But then, Merce Cunningham always tended to trigger ambivalence as well as fascination—unless you were a full convert, of course. This feature does preserve his legacy for future generations who may have no idea how revolutionary his ideas were when first introduced.

Other notable arrivals include Invisible Life, Brazilian director (Madame Sata, Futuro Beach) Karim Ainouz’s adaptation of a Martha Batalha novel about two middle-class sisters in 1950s Rio who are kept separated over ensuing decades by a combination of personal choice, family lies, prejudice, and class differences. It’s an interesting story concept, and the film has landed on a number of year-end best lists. But I found the protagonists (played by Carol Duarte and Julia Stocker) irritatingly brittle and self-involved, feeling little sympathy for their plight until a late section beautifully acted by the now 90-year-old Fernanda Montenegro of Central Station. Invisible Life opens in SF and San Rafael Fri/3, with Berkeley and Palo Alto theaters following Fri/10. 

Likewise easier to applaud for intentions than impact is Francois Girard’s The Song of Names, another decades-spanning, music-based drama from the Quebecois director of The Red Violin and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Girard is a polished craftsman, but this tale about the search for a child violin prodigy who disappears after searching for his family of Polish Jews (presumed killed in the Holocaust) sometimes stumbles under the weight of Jeffrey Caine’s often heavy-handed screenplay. Tim Roth and Clive Owen lead an earnest cast that does manage some powerful moments. It opens Fri/3 at the Clay, Fri/10 at the Shattuck, and other Bay Area theaters following. 

Over at the Roxie, Jon Kasbe’s When Lambs Become Lions examines the ethical complexities of elephant hunting in Kenya, where poachers risk their own lives winnowing an already-endangered pachyderm populace for the lucrative ivory trade. They have few other options for supporting themselves and their families. On the other side, of course, are the rangers, conservationists and animal-rights activists who see no justification for the rapidly approaching extinctions of numerous species around the globe. Shot over three years’ course, this documentary promises a vivid look at some very complicated issues—ones not at all helped by our POTUS’ oblivious rubber-stamping of eased hunting regulations both at home and for Americans (like his trophy-crazed idiot sons) abroad. It opens Sat/4. More info here

Also playing the Roxie this week is the 2019 Sundance Short Film Tour, a 97-minute program of seven cinematic miniatures from last year’s festival. (The 2020 festival starts in three weeks.) It runs a gamut from comedy, drama and fantasy to nonfiction and animation, with entries from as far afield as Tunisia and Estonia. More info here.

Likewise opening Friday for a week’s run is another high-end sampler: The Rafael Film Center’s For Your Consideration series, which hand-picks from among the films (92 this year) submitted annually to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as contenders for the Best Foreign Language Feature award. Some of those showcased here have already played local theaters (like Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, the Colombian Monos, or above-mentioned Invisible Life). Others will be having regular local runs soon, such as Czech The Painted Bird (from Jerzy Kosinsky’s novel), Italian mob saga The Traitor, Norwegian bestseller adaptation Out Stealing Horses, Russian Beanpole and Moroccan Adam. But this series may be your only chance to see still others on the big screen, including entries from Afghanistan, Algeria, Iceland and Hungary. More info here

Speaking of the year’s highlights, here’s my two cents on the best features of 2019, in no particular order of preference:

US Narrative Features

Brittany Runs a Marathon

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Sword of Trust

Mickey and the Bear

Extra Ordinary

Us

Diane 

Rocketman

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Marriage Story

The Dead Center

The Cat and the Moon

Doctor Sleep

1917

Foreign features

This is Not Berlin

Transit

Sluts in a Good Way

Hagazussa: The Heathen’s Curse

Aniara

Non-Fiction

Too Late to Die Young

Socrates

In the Aisles

Luz

First Love

Parasite

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Pain & Glory

By the Grace of God 

Les Miserables

Documentaries

Amazing Grace

The Silence of Others

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorcese

Mike Wallace is Here

For Sama

The Great Hack

Maiden

Barbara Rubin & Exploding NY Underground

Cold Case Hammarskjold

American Factory

Screen Grabs: The (first world) war on Christmas

1917

In years past it’s seemed customary for Christmas to bring some shiny presents for moviegoers—a mainstream comedy or two, probably some Disney opus, maybe a late-arriving “prestige” film, perhaps even a musical. (Admittedly, last week we did get Cats, whose general reception might warrant its reclassification as a horror movie.) This year, the week is bringing an unusually paltry and unpleasant assortment of new arrivals, apart from the family-friendly cartoon Spies in Disguise. It’s an unusually downbeat assortment, not excluding Little Women, which is certainly meant as an upbeat delight, and has been received as such in most quarters, but… Well, we beg to differ (see below).

Aside from all that rustling crinoline, we have new dramas about WWI trench warfare and the kind of in-ya-face personality most of us hope to avoid in real life, but occasionally find ourselves paying $15 to watch self-destruct for 2 1/4 hours onscreen. Merry Christmas! Admittedly, the cultural climate at present is apt for masochism. If you really do need sweetness and light, there’s always the nth visitation of the Sing-A-Long Sound of Music at the Castro (Thurs/26-Tues/31), which run will be broken up on Wed/30 by two of the currently lesser-remembered A Star Is Borns: The non-musical 1937 Janet Gaynor version, and the 1976 Streisand one, which if memory serves might be a more painful experience than all the aforementioned new releases combined. It was, however, Warner Brothers’ big Yuletide gift to audiences that Bicentennial year, and despite mostly scathing reviews, became a giant hit.

1917
Definitely the must-see among this lot is the period war movie from Sam Mendes, the stage director whose films over the last 20 years have been erratic but sometimes inspired, whether the bleak domestic drama of Revolutionary Road or the superior James Bond entry Skyfall. Loosely based on an anedote he was told by his grandfather, 1917 is set in the spring of that year, when the “Great War” had seemed to be going on forever. (It would finally end about eighteen months later.)

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman play two ordinary British enlistees surprised to be given immediate orders for a quite-possibly-suicidal mission: They must leave their battalion and deliver a message to a different one, before its 1600 soldiers march into what intelligence has learned is a deadly German trap. The distance they must travel for that purpose would be merely an afternoon’s pleasant stroll in peacetime. But in this Northern France war zone, with enemy planes overhead and enemy combatants possibly behind every barn and bush, each step could be their last.

The heavily publicized novelty of 1917 is that it’s been assembled to appear as if composed of “one continuous shot,” with Roger Deakins’ camera endlessly snaking behind, before and around our protagonists as they traverse from trench to bunker to open field to bombed-out town, and so forth. Of course, with its elaborate $100 million mix of impressive production design, practical effects, digital ones, etc., there’s no way it could have actually been done in a single take. Instead, the movie maintains that illusion through numerous stealth cuts rendered almost undetectable by taking place amidst moments of darkness, explosive chaos, and other distractions. Still, the success of 1917 isn’t so much that it pulls off a tricky technical stunt, but rather that most of the time we’re too engrossed to notice it.

The opposite of something like Dunkirk, in which visceral combat staging completely overwhelmed any identification with the array of almost interchangeable characters, this movie wisely gives us two distinct protagonists from whose POV we never stray. (Some famous faces including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott make just fleeting appearances, as personnel encountered by our heroes en route.) The result is emotionally as well as physically and atmospherically vivid. Though there are minor things to quibble about (I found Thomas Newman’s score too intrusive at times), 1917 is definitely one of the best war movies in a long time. It is not, however, better than last year’s Journey’s End—another very fine WW1 British trench drama, albeit one that nobody saw, and which you are encouraged to seek out. Opens Wed/25 at area theaters. 

Little Women
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Greta Gerwig’s followup to the very nice (but rather wildly overrated) Lady Bird, and no, it’s not a matter of preferring a “boy thing” like 1917 over a “girl thing” like the 7th big-screen version of Louise May Alcott’s beloved novel. Did we really need another Little Women? Well, why not? Every generation deserves a version of the perennially popular book that they can call their own. At least two of the priors (George Cukor’s 1933 edition and Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 one) are classics in their own right. This latest might end up with that status as well, since it’s already landed on numerous year-end best lists.

Handsomely produced as it is however, Gerwig’s vision grated on my nerves, though for reasons that may well cinch its popularity with current younger audiences. In ways that the better past versions avoided, this adaptation is interested in the period setting (New England during the Civil War) only as an opportunity for costume-party dress and decor. In everything else, it’s insistently “modern,” with the March girls (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen) directed to behave like 21st-century teenagers. They’re always hugging, running, crying, dancing, yelling, even cross-dressing; everything is pitched in a key high enough to arrest the attention of even the most stubborn Instagram addict.

Of course there’s soft-boiled feminism served up in obvious, speechifying ways that absolutely no one would have uttered in the mid-19th century. Alcott and her heroine Jo were proto-feminist—can’t the independence of their actions be allowed to speak for themselves? Nope. I understand how this “updating” of tone, dialogue and behavior might have seemed necessary to connect with modern youth, who at present seem even less interested in the historical past than usual. But it feels pandering in a way that doesn’t acknowledge older viewers who still love Little Women might prefer their dose straight-up, so to speak.

There are good actors here (also including Laura Dern as Marmee, Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, a hammy comedy-relief Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Louis Garrel, etc.), nearly all of whom have done better work elsewhere in 2019. And what’s with the scrambled chronology in Gerwig’s script? This isn’t Proust. There is no reason to toss Little Women’snarrative as if it were some sort of memory-salad. Many people apparently do and no doubt will like this movie. But I say: Phooey.  Opens Fri/25 at area theaters. 

Uncut Gems
Gratingly high-energy in a different way is this latest from the Safdie brothers, who in the past have managed the daunting feat of starting their movies on a note of crisis, with off-putting central characters already pushing the envelope, then successfully sustaining that tension through an entire serpentine story. That’s something very hard to pull off—as proven by Uncut Gems, which fails at the same task. Again, this is a minority opinion. But while many critics have praised Gems, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it to anyone. Anyone that I liked.

Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a motormouthed walking stereotype—a Jewish Noo Yawk jewelry dealer of the Diamond District constantly hustling everyone in sight—who burns bridges so constantly and impulsively, you’re amazed he hasn’t self-immolated yet. (But he will, of course.) He’s a compulsive gambler in deep hock to some very threatening mob-type guys; a cheater who’s currently planning to leave his fed-up wife (Idina Menzel) for his predictably younger mistress (Julia Fox); a neglectful father whose two kids have already learned to expect nothing but disappointment from him. He might yet be able to land on his feet, at least financially, if he can turn a brick-sized uncut Ethiopian opal into a triumph on the auction block. But when he reluctantly “loans” that stone to a transfixed NBA star (Kevin Garnett as himself), getting it back proves difficult, and Howard’s problems just keep escalating over the course of 48 frenetic hours or so.

Gems isn’t so different from the Safdies’ earlier features. But where they (particularly Daddy Longlegs and Good Time) went out on a limb and suspensefully held us there, this time the constant ratcheting up of stakes 2is just exhausting and exasperating. That’s mostly because Sandler’s protagonist is a noxious irritant from the get-go. There’s no questioning the performer’s commitment, or that he’s very good in this rare dramatic role. But Howard has no redeeming qualities—we can’t even imagine what wife Menzel (a standout here) ever saw in him—and the character is relentlessly one-note, even if his dynamic range does span from loud to louder to temporarily-unconscious.

There’s a difference between tension and annoyance. Howard isn’t just hard to root for, he’s hard to be in the same room with—he’s a pushy boor. Scene after scene is a yelling match. If we’re supposed to feel the weight of tragedy when this saga finally jerks to a violent halt, instead what we feel is relief. Uncut Gems is like the joke where someone asks “Why do you keep hitting yourself with that hammer?,” and the answer is “Because it feels so good when I stop.” Its ending may bring sweet deliverance, but for me that wasn’t fair compensation for the preceding 134 minutes of fingernails on chalkboards. Opens Wed/25 at area theaters. 

Decoder
Newly restored, this little-remembered but striking dystopian-future oddity duly was originally released in the ideal dystopian sci-fi annum of 1984. F.M. Einheit, then a percussionist in fabled industrial noise outfit Einsturzende Neubauten, plays the malcontent protagonist who discovers that replacing the Muzak in the fast-food emporium where he works with dissonant sonic mashups spurs customers into acts of anarchic violence against the repressive capitalist State.

Other figures in the diffuse narrative are played by such Berlin underground scenesters as the real Christiane F. (as a peepshow-performing romantic interest), Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV founder Genesis P-Orridge, and William S. Burroughs, on whose writings Decoder is loosely based. It was the second and last feature directed by Muscha, with vivid photography by Johanna Heer (who would next shoot the equally candy-colored hit Sugarbaby for Percy Adlon), and a soundtrack that includes no less than three uses of Soft Cell’s “Seedy Films.” Sat/28, Roxie. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Fake news from Clint Eastwood and Imelda Marcos

'Richard Jewell'

As impeachment proceedings move forward, suggesting there might yet be room for truth in politics after all, the week’s major new commercial arrival (apart from family fantasy sequel Jumanji: The Next Level and horror remake Black Christmas) apparently moves in the opposite direction.

We were unable to preview Clint Eastwood’s 38th directorial feature, but advance word is that Richard Jewell—yet another in his recent run of fact-based, biographically focused dramas—is not among his better efforts.

Based on the story of the Georgia security guard who foiled a 1996 Summer Olympics bomb plot but wound up briefly accused of being its perpetrator, the film (which stars Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Jon Hamm and Olivia Wilde as well as Paul Walter Hauser in the title role) is said to wander off into alt-right conspiracy theory-type discussions of the alleged “Deep State” and America’s greatest villain, that Lying Liberal Media. (The most recent dust-up is is a fake relationship in the movie between a female reporter and her source, a lazy, sexist trope made doubly offensive by the fact that the reporter in question is no longer alive to defend herself.)

It’s amazing that 89-year-old Clint is still churning out taxing, complex projects like this. But maybe it’s time for him to take a well-deserved rest.

There’s plenty of less biased reality and recent history in the week’s smaller openings on Friday, particularly four new documentaries:

The Kingmaker
Another bewilderingly active octogenarian like Clint (well, actually, she turned 90 a few months ago), Imelda Marcos is the subject of this latest by Lauren Greenfield, who explored the lifestyles of the very, very rich in prior documentaries The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth. Here she has a peerless pioneer in the realm of personal extravagance, political skullduggery and faux-benevolence, one who  blazed a trail of sorts for our own current POTUS. Still kept spry by the same overwhelming ambition that’s driven her whole life, the erstwhile First Lady of the Philippines continues to nonetheless sell herself as a simple soul and suffering benefactress who only wants to use “my spirit of mothering” to generate “world peace.”

This starts out seeming like a sympathetic portrait—certainly Imelda herself thinks it is—but her own words soon begin weaving ample rope by which she hangs herself. The whoppers range from her claiming she was a very reluctant public figure whose dictator husband offered to quit politics to save her stress, to her saying other global tyrants must have simply been “misunderstood” because she got along with them. (She also says an enchanted Mao told her “In five minutes you have started the end of the Cold War.”)

Naturally, she declines to acknowledge the reality of her regime’s massive corruption, crackdown on free press, seized control of courts, dissolved Congress, arresting and torturing of critics, myriad executions, et al. She also cries about having been left “homeless and penniless” by attempted reclamations of stolen loot, even as she points out Picassos and Michelangelos hanging in one of her amply gold-gilded mansions.

What’s most galling, perhaps, is that the Widow Marcos is indeed getting just what she wants: She and her brood are back in power under President Duterte, whose use of death squads to indiscriminately kill “undesirables” (mostly drug users and the miscellaneous poor) have naturally endeared him to President Trump. We used to laugh at Imelda (and her infamous shoe collection), but the last laugh may be hers. After all, bottomless sociopathic narcissism has turned out to be the winning personality trait of the 21st century so far. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas, Albany Twin, Rafael Film Center. More info here

63 Up
A little faith in humanity is restored by this latest in Michael Apted’s long-running series, which began in 1964 as an hour-long BBC documentary providing “a glimpse of Britain’s future” through portraits of fourteen disparately situated 7-year-olds. Returning to catch up with his subjects every seven years, Apted saw the series become an international phenomenon with the release of 1984’s 28 Up.

Having now passed through childhood, youth and middle-age, his protagonists are on the edge of retirement, many more settled and content in their lives than before, but inevitably dealing with the problems of an unstable world. If entrenched British class differences often seemed to dominate prior chapters, now the bigger issues (beyond health and mortality, of course) are those of skyrocketing costs vs. shrinking jobs/wages that are impacting nearly everyone save a profiteering global elite.

One subject has died since 56 Up, while a couple others have declined to participate. (The fame and not-always-sympathetic scrutiny the series brought them has always been problematic for many, though one suspects it’s also responsible for the fact that several have made a sideline out of acting.) But 63 Up still offers the great pleasure of a reunion with de facto old friends, whom we’re pleased to learn are mostly doing pretty well, life’s major sources of turmoil (failed marriages, etc.) already behind them. It’s also a pleasure just to witness their rapport with 78-year-old Apted, who stays off-camera but is welcomed as a valued if occasionally irksome lifelong pal. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas, Rafael Film Center. More info here

Midnight Family
In Mexico City the government operates just 45 ambulances for a city of nine million. Ergo, the vast majority of such services must be privately owned, and an “informal industry” has grown to meet that need. We discover just how informal it is in this rather hair-raising documentary by Luke Lorentzen. He profiles a few hectic nights in the life of the Ochoa family, who operate and staff one such private ambulance. The designated driver and natural leader among them is handsome Juan—who only just turned 17. He’s capable, but still, you have to shudder a little at lives being in the hands of someone so young, and presumably little-trained. (One minus here is that we really don’t find out just what level of certification or experience is required in what appears to be a wide-open field, if any.)

Midnight Children certainly has drama, what with such passengers taken on as a battering victim, a mother and daughter in an accident, a glue-sniffing father whose baby is unresponsive, and a young woman who’s fallen four stories. It’s also alarming that their fates are tied up with competing ambulances who practically drive each other off the road to reach a potential client first, and that our protagonists have to bargain for their fees on the spot with bloodied patients or their panicked loved ones.

“How can all this be legal?” you may often wonder. Well, the police often seem to be shaking down ambulance crews for bribes, so clearly no actual law enforcement is coming from that quarter. Complain as you will about the state of U.S. health care, you’ll still be glad you aren’t at the mercy of the system depicted here. Roxie. More info here

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound
Veteran sound editor Midge Costin’s first directorial feature is a worthy appreciation of key filmic elements too often taken for granted, as their success frequently lies in going unnoticed—sound design is often simply absorbed into the total experience, in a way that flamboyant images or acting aren’t. She provides a brief history of sound in the medium before focusing on a trio of stars in their field, Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom.

Costin’s own career in sound has largely been confined to major-studio projects, often of the bombastic-giant-popcorn-flick variety (like Armageddon and Con Air), so it’s unsurprising if perhaps a little disappointing that Making Waves also gravitates almost exclusively towards the most high-profile Hollywood product. That includes yet another recap of how several “mavericks” (Lucas, Coppola, Spielberg) allegedly rewrote the rule book in the 1970s, with the inevitable clips from Star Wars, Apocalypse Now, and so forth. Likewise, more recent films spotlit are all the most conspicuous box-office or Oscar-winning success stories.

We do get fleeting consideration of some sound-innovating directors of the “golden age” period (like Welles and Hitchcock), a few technical insights, a glimpse at specialized jobs like the foley artist, and input from Barbra Streisand on how her 1976 A Star is Born trailblazed stereo sound in movies. But if you’re looking for a lot of cineaste esoterica, this very mainstream-focused overview aimed at the casual fan is probably not for you. Roxie. More info here

Mickey and the Bear
Sneaking into town without much fanfare at this very cluttered time of the movie-calendar year is Annabelle Attanasio’s first feature, a modest affair that is nonetheless one of the year’s best American independent dramas. Mickey (Camila Morrone) is a small-town Montana teen who’s just turned 18—a moment when anyone really begins thinking what form their future might take. But that is an especially fraught question for our motherless heroine, as she’s housekeeper, babysitter and tether-to-reality for father Hank (James Badge Dale), a PTSD-afflicted Marines veteran who cannot hold a job, or a thought for that matter.

She’s long been forced into the parental role, caring for an adult child who cannot be expected not to gulp down his month’s supply of meds in one go, or pick yet another fight that lands him in jail. He’s not a “bad” person, per se, even if he is a not mess. But it’s clear by now that he’s never going to get “better,” and that Mickey’s only chance of shaping her own future lies in abandoning him.

Comprised of telling small moments rather than big melodramatic ones, Mickey and the Bear is a familiar coming-of-age tale in gist, with no great stylistic or other innovations. But it always feels true, and arrives at its destination in a quietly satisfying way. If the film’s virtues are primarily low-key ones, it nonetheless has a spectacular element in the performance by Dale, who makes his often childish and self-destructive bad dad a complex figure whose myriad flaws we want to forgive, if Hank would let us. Opera Plaza.

The Bloody Curse
Telling three separate horror tales from “The Book of Bloody Stories,” this unique and ultra-obscure stop-motion animation feature was apparently made in the late 1980s by a German teenager using plastic action figures, toy cars and model sets. Its dialogue-free progress relates various incidents in the grim history of Gortswill Castle, a cursed place where residents, stray travelers, real estate agents and prospective buyers invariably meet a terrible end. Featuring ghouls, monsters, guillotines, many severed limbs, magic-markered intertitles, and elaborate orchestral scoring borrowed from other movies, Michael Kahlert’s Super 8 splatterfest is an amateur wonder to hold along side the likes of Pink Narcissus, Todd Haynes’ similarly doll-driven Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and that Mississippi kids’ restaging of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sun/15, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Strange fantasies, just before the holidays

'Little Joe'

This week was so packed, we separated the revival and rep-house screenings into a separate feature (here). What’s left is a particularly idiosyncratic array of new features from the U.S., Europe and Latin America, all opening this Friday:

In Fabric
Excluding his first feature a decade ago, Carpathian suspense drama Katalin Varga, English director Peter Strickland’s films have demonstrated a fetishistic obsession with the stylistic and narrative tropes of vintage European exploitation cinema. Berberian Sound Studio (2012) was an homage to the Italian giallo genre of murder-mystery horrors, while The Duke of Burgundy (2014) revisited the lipstick-lesbian eroticism of the high softcore era. His latest is more of the same, and it seems to be getting a somewhat reduced U.S. release. Yet it’s the most entertaining of the lot so far, as there’s an amusingly fantastical story here—however cryptically told—that proves less monotonous than the alluring but limited, purely aesthetic interest of his prior efforts.

A department store staffed by some conspicuously witchy women sells a scarlet evening dress to Sheila (Secrets and Lies’ Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a divorced bank teller and single mother who needs it for her occasional “Lonely Hearts ad” blind dates. But there’s something sinister about this dress, which wreaks havoc not only on Sheila, her washing machine, the son (Jaygann Ayeh) who still lives with her and his annoying girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie), but also eventually on an appliance repairman (Leo Bill) and his fiancee (Hayley Squires). The frock seems to have a murderous mind of its own—and why not, since it is the color preferred by Halloween-costume Satanists.

Eventually bordering on black comedy, In Fabric is not afraid to be ludicrous and nonsensical, with some content more outlandish, even sexually rude (flying splooge!) than Strickland has dared before. Needless to say, it’s all slavishly styled as if made in Italy circa 1972, complete with an original score by “Cavern of Anti-Matter” (a side project for Stereolab’s Tim Gane) that could not possibly be more retro-kitschy. I admired Strickland’s prior films more than I enjoyed them, but this one is really fun. If you liked Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, this will be right up your alley. Roxie. More info here

Little Joe
Another outre U.K. fantasy, if a less successful one, is this first English-language feature by Austrian director Jessica Hausner. Alice (Emily Beecham) is a scientist working for a private firm whose genetically engineered new flowering-plant species—which she dubs “Little Joe”—is designed to give off a scent that actually generates happiness amongst people in its vicinity. The trouble is, it also seems to subtly change the personalities and control the behavior of those people, among them Alice’s 13-year-old son (Kit Connor).

If you’re going to lift your concept from Invasion of the Body Snatchers so blatantly, you might as well embrace the earlier incarnations’ sci-fi horror emphases. But Little Joe is pretentiously poker-faced in a way that only makes it sillier, its slow, mannered tenor suggesting a profundity beyond mere genre thrills. Yet no meaning emerges here beyond a vague “Messing with Mother Nature = BAD!!,” rendering the film’s affectations useless. It’s visually interesting in a deliberately sterile way that offers scant relief from the general lack of energy, or the stilted performances from normally capable actors including Ben Whishaw and Kerry Fox. The inedible icing on this plastic cake is a taiko-based score as clamorously intrusive as the storytelling is tediously restrained. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Temblores
Handsome fortysomething Pablo (Juan Pablo Okyslager) creates shock waves in his devout upper-class Guatemala City family—coinciding with actual earthquake tremors, which naturally get attributed to “God’s wrath”—when he comes out as gay. Moving in with working-class boyfriend Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua), he hopes to maintain a civil relationship with his wife Isa (Diane Bathen) and continue parenting their two young children, while supporting them all.

But the blowback is swift and severe: He’s fired from his white-collar job for “immorality,” barred from seeing his kids, even legally warned from being near any minors—the assumption being that someone with homosexual tendencies must also be a pederast, natch. Meanwhile, his family continues to hammer him with insistence that he is “mistaken,” is sinning, and can be “cured” by their evangelical church’s form of “conversion therapy.”

Our current White House may be turning the clock back on gay rights, but sometimes you need to remember how much worse it is elsewhere—and Temblores (i.e. Tremors) provides vivid illustration, as Pablo’s exiting the closet is received about as badly as it would have been in our own 1950s. This new film by Ixcanul director Jayro Bustamante may depress those looking for a “positive portrayal” of gay life.

A happy ending does not seem possible in this cultural context for Pablo. (We’re not even sure he’s a good match with the very different Francisco, anyway.) As he bows to overwhelming pressure that he get off his “evil path” to have any kind of life at all, the film may seem to endorse “pray the gay away” tactics. But that’s a misreading: In this effective, painful drama, Bustamante is simply showing the extent to which some people will deny their own nature when given no other viable option. Opera Plaza. More info here.

The Two Popes
A more upbeat view of religion is afforded by this latest from another Latin American director, Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener). At once impressively large-scale and an intimate two-person tale, it imagines the behind-scenes negotiations in 2012 between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce)—ideological adversaries, and past rival candidates for the papacy, now meeting for two conflicting purposes.

A rigid, doctrinaire conservative embattled by the Church’s recent scandals (notably priest sexual-abuse coverups), this Pope wants to make the almost unprecedented move of resigning. The progressive-minded Cardinal, on the other hand, wants to retire from his duties, feeling himself at odds with current backpedaling Vatican policies. Their initially prickly discourse eventually grows less awkward as the two men find some common ground, as well as a way forward for the institution they represent.

This is not a film for those who believe the Catholic Church is so tainted it can do no good, and that any flattering (if not-uncritical) portrait is de facto propaganda. While hypocrises and moral conflicts (both personal and systematic) are discussed, The Two Popes embraces the future Pope Francis’ notion of the Church as a dynamic organism that can, and must, change with changing times. Faith itself is not on the table here—just the best means to serve it.

Based on a play by Anthony McCarten, the film is sometimes too heavy-handedly polemical, at other times straining too hard to be flashily “cinematic.” Yet overall it’s a satisfying, surprisingly good-humored treatment of complex political and theological issues, with the expected fine performances by two esteemed actors (who duly speak Spanish, Italian, German and Latin at times here, in addition to English). At Embarcadero and area theaters. More info here

The Aeronauts
Hitherto best-known for his TV projects, including several episodes of the much-liked Peaky Blinders and an acclaimed War and Peace miniseries, director Tom Harper transitioned to theatrical features with no less than two awards-contender films this year. The first was Wild Rose, an underdog tale with Jessie Buckley as an aspiring country music singer from Glasgow that a lot of people liked better than I did.

The other is this new period spectacle that reunites The Theory of Everything stars Felicity Huffman and Eddie Redmayne in another science-y tale. This one is a loosely fact-based saga of hot air ballooning and meteorology (then a fledgling field of study) in the early Victorian era. It is purportedly visually spectacular, though sorry, we didn’t manage to catch an advance screening. At Embarcadero and area theaters. More info here

A Million Little Pieces
Why would anyone want to make a movie of James Frey’s best-selling 2003 “memoir,” which was widely discredited (and reclassified as a “semi-fictional novel”) after it turned out the author had fabricated much of it? Actually, it’s clear right away why Nowhere Boy and Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson chose to: It provides a vanity showcase for her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson from the Kick-Ass films. He not only gets to run the gamut of awards-bait emotions as a recovering addict, but has several gratuitous scenes of full-frontal nudity in which to show off his perfectly buffed (if improbable for an alcoholic crackhead) body and impressively large flaccid penis. Well, if you’ve got it, why not flaunt it? Oh, plus, I almost forgot: Hey kids, don’t do drugs!!

Rather like the real Frey, who has since provided additional reasons to be loathed (look up his Wiki bio), this character is variably a jerk and a blank, though neither actor or movie seem to grasp that. His redemption struggle at a residential treatment center is thus alternately exasperating and interesting, the latter mostly due to subsidiary characters played by Billy Bob Thornton, Charlie Hunnam, Juliette Lewis and others. As a glossy sobriety sermon, this has some value. But as art or drama, it does not do much to redeem a tainted literary source. Roxie. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Escape your family at the movies

'Knives Out'

Apparently obeying the logic that audiences will be sufficiently occupied with such recent popular entries as Frozen 2 or Ford v Ferrari—if they aren’t simply too immobilized by food intake to leave the house—this Thanksgiving brings relatively few arrivals. The biggest among them is Knives Out, a slavish homage to old-school, Agatha Christie-type whodunnits from writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, The Last Jedi). Daniel Craig plays the Hercule Poirot-esque sly fox poking around for evidence of murder when a rich author (Christopher Plummer) seemingly commits suicide, with lots of greedy heirs (including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson) a little too eager to see how the dead man’s will disburses his fortune.

A lot of people have already loved this throwback in its fall festival appearances, and I certainly wanted to. But I and my equally game companion wound up being disappointed. There are some witty lines and performance moments here. Yet the tricky plot feels more effortfully contrived than ingenious, the character writing is one-dimensional, there’s too much hyperbolic action for the benefit of the short-attention-spanned, and the humor is too often fairly lowbrow. (The major running gag involves Ana de Armas’ immigrant nurse vomiting whenever she tries to tell a lie.) Yes, it would be fun to see this kind of all-star murder mystery movie make a comeback—but I suspect people’s desire for that is making them think Knives Out better than it is. It’s the kind of film at which you may well have a good time, if only because the film can’t stop winking and nudging, telling you just how much fun you’re having.

Among other commercial openings this week are Queen & Slim, a purportedly stylish Bonnie and Clyde update for the Black Lives Matter era that’s the first feature for Linda Matsoukas, best known previously from her frequently award-winning music videos for artists like Beyonce and Rihanna. It stars Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as a couple whose first date turns into permanent flight after a racially-profiling cop’s traffic stop goes south. China-U.S. coproduction White Snake is an animated action-fantasy spectacular based on the same traditional Chinese legend that inspired Tsui Hark’s Green Snake a quarter-century ago, among many other interpretations in various media. Kim Longinotto’s documentary Shooting the Mafia profiles Letizia Battaglia, a photojournalist who had the almost-unbelievable (some might say foolish) courage to snap images of Cosa Nostra figures—and the scenes of murders they committed, or fell prey to, amidst the factional “wars” that made a bloody chaos of 1970s and 80s Sicily. Even more incredibly, she survived to tell the tale.

For intel on genre festival Another Hole in the Head, whose annual program begins this Sunday, stay tuned for our separate preview coming later this week.

Elsewhere:

Dark Waters
Todd Haynes is a great American director, so it was notable when 2017’s Wonderstruck—a complex, literary mix of drama, whimsy, multiple time periods and more, which combination seemed right in his comfort zone—fell short with both critics (who were mixed) and audiences (who just weren’t interested). It was a rare miss by the director of Far From Heaven, Safe, Carol, I’m Not Here, Poison, and other adventurous projects. Perhaps as a consequence, the new Dark Waters is Haynes’ most conventional film, if only by his normally far-more-idiosyncratic standards: It’s a fact-based whistleblower tale in the mode of Erin Brockovich and such.

Mark Ruffalo plays a Cincinnati lawyer referred in 1998 by his grandmother to a farmer in her West Virginia town whose livestock have been sickly and dying since DuPont started using neighboring property for a landfill—one that wasn’t supposed to house hazardous chemicals. As the case balloons and the evidence grow ever-more damning, there’s blowback not just from DuPont but from the townspeople themselves. Despite their sky-high levels of cancer, birth defects and other suspicious ails, they’re loathe to bite the corporate hand that has fed them for decades. But it eventually emerges that the chemicals used in making Teflon products have infiltrated the area water supply, and are extremely harmful—something that DuPont knew, yet suppressed public knowledge of, as early as the 1970s.

An important story told in solid if sometimes heavy-handed terms, this isn’t the year’s best whistleblower drama (that would be The Report), and it’s got a few dully formulaic aspects, not least Anne Hathaway as the protagonist’s wife, who nags and sighs and gets lines such as “You’re talking like a crazy person!”  The same history of corporate malfeasance and local health issues was also chronicled in one of last year’s best documentaries, The Devil You Know, which was not only more informative, but arguably had more emotional and dramatic punch. Still, this is a respectfully crafted work with a compelling theme (particularly given Trump’s current dismantling of the EPA), even if it hardly elicits particularly creative treatment from an atypically impersonal Haynes. Opens Wed/27, Embarcadero, Shattuck, and area theaters. More info here

Fantastic Fungi
In late 1978 Walon Green, director of alarmist “Insects are taking over the world!!” nature film The Hellstrom Chronicle—quite possibly the silliest thing ever to win a Best Documentary Oscar—completed a big-screen companion piece to a Stevie Wonder concept album that was in turn based on a nonfiction book. The Secret Life of Plants was not well-received, neither in its premiere or in its minor theatrical release nearly two years later. (And it has been virtually impossible to find ever since, suggesting possible legal-rights issues.) Despite Wonder’s full participation, the hope of creating a midnight-movie hit about plant sentience for “head” audiences died on the vine.

Forty years later, that goal has been achieved at last. The midnight-movie circuit may be long gone, but at least the plant-life feature that would have ideally suited it is finally here in Louie Schwartzberg’s Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us, which plays a regular run at the Roxie after a one-off Castro screening last month. It deploys a lot of time-lapse photography, computer animation and more to note how mushrooms and the rest of “the fungus kingdom” play a key role in the grand planetary ecosystem we’re currently wreaking havoc on.

Narrated by Brie Larson, the feature offers the kind of trippy eye candy (with whoa-worthy statements like “Trees are communicating”) that would have rated a High Times cover and endless repeat views from stoner viewers back in the day. There’s even a sequence depicting pre-human primates dosing on psilocybin, which it’s theorized sped up the evolution of their brain capacities. Scientists and other experts weigh in with various facts of environmental and political interest. But it is the visual factor here that will have you feeling like you’re swinging gently in a cosmic hammock over a tie-dye river, absorbing (as Brie puts it) “the pulse of eternal knowledge.” Opens Fri/29, Roxie. More info here

Duet for Cannibals
In the late 1960s film suddenly seemed the most adventurous, important and “now” of all art forms—after basically being dismissed as “entertainment” previously—so some of the leading public intellectuals felt compelled to try their hand at it. This resulted in any number of (mostly) near-unwatchable movies from the likes of Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Susan Sontag. The latter, for reasons best known to her, chose to write and direct her first two features in Sweden, perhaps because (thanks to Ingmar Bergman) that nation then seemed to represent the medium at its most “serious.” The first fruit of that labor was this B&W 1968 drama which wasn’t widely seen at the time, and has been very hard to see since. Let’s face it: No one would be watching the recently-restored Duet for Cannibals now, or ever, if not for Sontag’s lasting fame. But if her association is the only truly interesting thing about it, that thing is still kinda interesting.

Handsome young academic Tomas (Gosta Ekman) is hired to assist Bauer (Lars Ekborg), who’s some kind of former revolutionary leader, in assembling his papers for literary posterity. But the boorish, bullying older man keeps insisting Tomas instead attend to his wife, Italian Francesca (Adriana Asti), whom Bauer claims is unstable and/or terminally ill. But then, she also claims the same things about him. Soon Tomas’ girlfriend Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner) is also pulled into these mind-games, which sometimes involve sex and frequent, inscrutable role-plays. The senior couple are nothing if not high drama, wreaking a destructive influence on themselves and anyone in their orbit. But is it all just some perverse sport for them?

What this “means” is not only murky but off-limits, given that Sontag famously wrote the case “Against Interpretation.” Still, sussing just what she was going for here is more intriguing than what, if anything, she achieves. Though the actors are competent, the filmmaking is basic to the point of seeming disinterested—this material would’ve worked just as well as a stage play. Duet is a particularly arid example of the kind of pretentious sexy psychodrama that everyone from Bergman (Persona) to Joseph Losey (The Servant) to exploitation-mongers like Joe Sarno (Young Playthings) was doing back then, and it’s somewhat flummoxing that she made so little of it. Still, if you’re a Sontag reader or just a 1968 cinema completist (what a year!), this curio is worth crossing off the bucket list at long last. Thurs/5, Roxie. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Now that’s Italian!

'The Traitor'

Most weeks of the year in the Bay Area there’s some film festival or other—sometimes several at once. Amidst such plenty, it’s easy to forget that some local festivals have actually left the building, like Women in Film or Fearless Tales. A more recent casualty was NICE (New Italian Cinema Events), though that annual showcase has more or less morphed under different auspices into the new form of Cinema Italian Style, whose official first edition takes place this weekend at the Vogue.

While dedicated to new Italian feature filmmaking, its opening selection nods to the past with the latest film from 80-year-old Marco Bellocchio, whose first feature Fists in the Pocket made an international splash way back in 1965. No one else of his generation and stature is remains alive and active, let alone still operating at the top of their game: The Traitor is even Italy’s chosen contender for the foreign-language Oscar this year. Indeed, it’s a major work, a fact-based 2 1/2 hour mafioso saga that’s arguably at least as good as Scorcese’s The Irishman, achieving the same narrative scale on a fraction the budget and in about 65 minutes’ less time.

It’s the story of Sicilian Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a longtime Cosa Nostra associate who was extradited from Brazil (not for the first time) in 1984. Having grown disillusioned with amidst murderous power struggles over the heroin trade, he decided to turn state’s witness, informing on numerous enraged fellow “men of honor” in lengthy, heavily guarded trials whose circus-like atmosphere is colorfully captured here. It’s a big, ambitious, impressive slice of recent Italian history from a filmmaker who’s had a significant place in that nation’s culture for over a half-century.

When Bellocchio was just starting out, Italy was still a major exporter of non-arthouse, highly commercial features worldwide, often grinding out en masse films in a particular exploitation flavor. Before the “spaghetti western,” the favored genre was peplum, or “sword and sandal,” those cheesy pseudo-epics of mythological antiquity that often starred American bodybuilders in togas. The form arguably reached its apex with future great spaghetti western director Sergio Corbucci’s 1961 Duel of the Titans, in which onetime Mr. Universe Steve Reeves and former screen Tarzan Gordon Scott played Romulus and Remus, the shepherding twins whom legend has it founded the city of Rome.

Matteo Rovere’s The First King: Birth of an Empire retells that tale, with Alessandro Borghi and Alessio Lapice now playing the Iron Age brothers. This isn’t an old-style peplum, but a fantasy-tinged action adventure in the mode of such recent, quasi-historical spectacles like 300, Gods of Egypt, and the Clash of the Titans remake. It’s a big, brutal, handsome popcorn epic, even if it does stumble pacing-wise after the midway point. Sorry, there’s no classic “muscle men” on display here. But if you want to see toned (if skinny, and very dirty) men in loincloths—including quite possibly the best-looking shepherds in movie history—this is the movie for you.

Other films in the three-day festival include Stefano Mordini’s murder mystery The Invisible Witness, Francesca Archibugi’s drama Vivere, Gabriele Salvatores’ musical road-trip tale Volare, Edoardo De Angelis’ human-trafficking expose The Vice of Hope, and Daniele Luchetti’s official closer Ordinary Happiness, a fantasy comedy about short-term reincarnation. There will also be some cuisine-related events tied to the festival. Fri/22-Sun/24, Vogue Theatre. More info here

For a large number of children (and princess aficionados of any age), there will be no film event worth thinking about this week—or probably for a few weeks to come—but Frozen 2, the animated-musical sequel that’s gotten some disappointed early reviews. However, critical consensus doesn’t mean a lot to its target demographic. Adults wanting to revisit a bit of their childhood might be heading instead to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers aka Mr. Rogers, and Matthew Rhys the cynical journalist who becomes less so while getting to know him for an Esquire profile. That may sound treacly, but this latest by director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Diary of a Teenage Girl) has been very well-received on the festival circuit.

Other films opening Friday that we weren’t able to screen in advance are Brian Kirk’s thriller 21 Bridges, with NYPD cop Chadwick Boseman hunting down two cop killers; Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest (at Embarcadero), a concert film for the veteran Brit synth band; and (at the Roxie) Minhal Baig’s directorial debut Hala, a drama about a 17-year-old Chicago teenager pulled between secular society and her family’s traditional Muslim values.

Also opening on Fri/22:

Gay Chorus Deep South
A couple of years ago in response to the “vitriolic” tenor of the last Presidential election, as well as the resurgence of legalized homophobia as alleged “religious freedom,” the San Francisco Gay Chorus decided to tour the mostly deep-red Deep South. The idea was to bring comfort to embattled communities, and hopefully change some minds along the way. People like the Chorus’ own artistic director Tim Seelig had southern roots themselves, which had in some cases been the source of sexual repression, still-damaged family relationships, and so forth.

This documentary by David Charles Rodrigues charts that trip, which turned out to be educational on both sides—not just for audiences and others on the tour, but for chorus members who often found open minds where they anticipated closed hearts. Still, not all divisions can be bridged, particularly when it comes to matters of religious belief. Though Gay Chorus Deep South may hit its “inspirational uplift” note a bit more shrilly than some viewers can stomach, it too seeks to find common ground between groups constantly pitted against each other in our current culture wars. Roxie Theater. More info here

Waves
One of the films stirring the most excitement on this fall’s film festival circuit was this third feature by Trey Edward Shults. This drama returns to the charged, almost manically tense domestic drama of his striking 2015 Krisha, although with a more ambitious narrative sprawl. The family here are an upper-middle class African-American quartet in South Florida, outwardly living “the good life,” but very much consumed by the discipline and achievement it took to get there in the first place.

Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a successful businessman who maintains the body of a pro athlete, and there’s nothing very playful about the arm-wrestling contests he has with teenage son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The latter has plenty of partying friends and a devoted girlfriend (Alexa Demie), but is under so much pressure to excel that the slightest hurdle can send him into a near-panic. The only upside to dad’s high expectations of Tyler is that younger sis Emily (Taylor Russell) gets left comparatively alone. Both kids are wary about accepting the emotional support they desperately need from stepmom Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry)—she’d love to provide it, but there is unresolved baggage in the way from their late biological mother.

Cinematically inventive, energetic, even nervous, Waves stacks causes for concern atop its central characters until inevitably it all crashes down on them in truly catastrophic fashion. Then the film in a sense begins anew, from a different character’s perspective than its long first section. Shults is a stylistically bold director, but not in a flashy, empty way. His dynamic presentation always serves psychological truth, even if sometimes it may feel like too much of a good thing.

That could also be said of Waves in general—it’s almost too rich in themes and conflicts for one narrative to bear. Still, it’s pretty rare these days you get to complain about an American movie having more serious ideas than it can fully handle. This is an imperfect film, but one well worth seeing, and even its flaws are ones of laudable overreaching. Embarcadero, California Theatre (Berkeley). More info here.

Light from Light
Waves’ opposite number is this independent feature, which is also a family drama of sorts but contrastingly quiet, meditative, ultimately balming in tenor. Sheila (Marin Ireland) is an ordinary Knoxville, TN single mom with a well-adjusted teenage son (Josh Wiggins) and a banal dayjob at an airport car rental desk.

But there is something extraordinary in her life, even if she’s rather ambivalent about it: For years she’s had sporadic paranormal experiences, and sometimes works with a volunteer group to offer her “gift” to others. As a result, she winds up visiting Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a fish-hatchery worker who’s experienced some poltergeist-y phenomena in the farmhouse his late wife’s family has lived in for generations. Is he being haunted, and if so, by spirits benevolent or malevolent?

This may sound like a setup for a horror film, but Paul Harill’s film doesn’t go in that direction at all. Instead, it’s a non-religious affirmation of things (spirits if you like) beyond our full understanding that is lovely, nuanced, and finally quite moving. Neither frightening or mawkish, Light From Light is an unusual drama of the supernatural that is very small in scale yet leaves an indelible impression. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here