Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: The world’s most popular comedy duo shows its seams in ‘Stan & Ollie’

From 'Stan & Ollie'

Laurel & Hardy may be the most popular comedy duo ever — their fame was international, easily surviving the transition from silents to talkies in large part because their “universal” physical humor depended so little on dialogue. They were particularly beloved by children (many of whom knew them by the local equivalent of “Skinny and Fatty”), getting another lease on life when their films became standard fare on TV in the 1950s. 

Yet unlike most comedy stars of their calibre, they did not exactly enjoy the high life. This has usually been blamed on the skinflint ways of Hal Roach, whose studio was their professional home for many years. But in fact they were quite well-paid. The problem lay more in the fact that neither performer was very business-savvy, and both had small armies of ex-wives requiring alimony. Those plus other factors (medical expenses, gambling losses, etc.) further conspired to keep them working out of necessity well past the point when they should have retired — not least because while Hardy’s ever-growing weight kept him ageless in a way, diabetic Laurel began looking like an old man, lending a queasy touch to his perpetually childish screen persona. 

Thrown together more or less by accident—each was considered a leading player for comedy shorts specialist Roach before they gradually became a “team” — they had an amiable partnership despite very different personalities and work ethics. However effectively he played a simpleton, Britisher Laurel was in fact the “brains” of the operation, compulsively hatching and polishing their material, while Georgia-born Hardy was content to punch the clock as an actor. 

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do not immediately leap to mind as likely candidates to play L&H, but being good actors, they prove capable of disappearing into the roles with surprising aplomb. Nor does Jon S. Baird, the director of aptly named Irving Welsh adaptation Filth, seem an obvious choice to direct Stan & Ollie. But this biopic nonetheless proves a solid piece of work on all counts. It’s much in the vein of two other fairly recent British features, My Week With Marilyn and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which likewise mixed nostalgia, humor, and pathos to limn scenes from a fading real-life Hollywood glory. 

After a prelude in 1937 (just before they jumped ship from Roach to MGM), we greet the duo again nearly 20 years later, when the prospect of securing one last film deal ropes them into an arduous European stage tour. Neither are in the best of health, physically or financially; the arrival of their quarreling current wives, played by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson, does nothing to relieve the general stress. Things grow increasingly downbeat as the veterans’ fortunes fail. 

Nicely if conventionally written by Jeff Pope, this bittersweet tale is unlikely to convince any newbie of the team’s greatness — taken from their original celluloid context, the routines recreated are just kinda cute — but will be enjoyable for anyone who has formative memories of watching Laurel & Hardy. It’s a nicely depthed tribute to the men behind mirth, without being quite warts-and-all enough to sour the legacy of that humor. 

Elsewhere this week, there’s not a whole lot of new-film activity, with the sole major commercial arrival being M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest-hits thriller (it reprises characters from his Unbreakable and SplitGlass. The Roxie, which has had great success of late as SF’s de facto center for anime, should have another hit with Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the latest installment in the giant multimedia franchise that’s been a Japanese cultural behemoth since 1984. It’s the twentieth feature film in that sci-fi fantasy series, and has been acclaimed as the best to date among all its big-screen incarnations. 

Slipping into town with no fanfare is a Henry James adaptation with Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson. That certainly sounds promising, yet when you see it, you’ll understand why The Aspern Papers has sidestepped early reviews—it’s a hamfisted travesty that completely misses the ironic wit of James’ novella, and is full of cheesy anachronisms. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is dreadful as the 1880s American (wait till you hear his honking accent) who schemes his way into a majestic but cash-poor Venetian home for two expatriate spinsters, hoping to get his hands on love letters once written by a long-dead poet. Even Redgrave is underwhelming amidst the kind of posey, smirking costume-party tosh that reflects first-time director Julien Landias’ background—he’s worked primarily in commercials and the fashion industry. This is exactly the movie you might expect from an ex-model, more heavy-breathing perfume ad than Henry James.

However, one of the year’s best movies (be it 2018 or 2019) is also opening on Friday, and there are a few flavorsome one-shot screenings around town this week:

Cold War

Damn that Alfonso Cuaron: If Roma hadn’t become the first foreign film in aeons to sweep all the early critics’ prizes that don’t explicitly omit non-English-language titles, this latest by Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski would be getting all that attention, or nearly as much. A late bloomer who didn’t make his first dramatic feature until he’d past 40, the writer-director made diverse documentaries and a couple relatively high-profile films in English (My Summer of LoveThe Woman in the Fifth) before having a most unexpected international hit five years ago. Ida was an improbable success story — a somber little B&W drama about a young nun, set in the less-than-swinging Sixties of Poland behind the Iron Curtain — but the rare such movie to prosper simply because it was so profoundly conceived and beautifully made. 

Cold War is also a remarkable piece of work, more ambitiously scaled yet still rigorously controlled. In a late 1940s Poland still reeling from the devastation of WW2, beautiful young Zula (Joanna Kulig) determinedly gains berth in a state-funded folk arts ensemble being assembled by pragmatic manager Irena (Agata Kulesza) and exacting music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Their project soon becomes one of those acts that defines a nation’s cultural heritage (and current propagandic mission) both at home and on tour abroad, while Wiktor and Zula (to Irena’s vague annoyance) become a secret romance. But he’s dissatisfied with the artistic limitations thrust upon him by government minders, yearning for escape. So their love, frequently discordant yet inescapable, has to weather the trials of separation and expatriation over the long haul of Cold War’s episodic, decades-spanning story. 

Expertly mixing the political and the personal without ever growing too obvious about either — this is a movie whose narrative lives largely in unexplained gaps we must fill in with our imaginations — Pawlikowski’s very complicated love story is like La La Land with a brain. It’s a musical in everything but the “bursting into song” sense, with song and dance integral throughout, albeit never presented in classic movie-fantasy terms. There are dazzling individual sequences gorgeously shot (again in B&W) by Ida’s Lukasz Zal. Still, the emotional effect is stripped-down, reflecting the deprivation and compromise these characters must live with in their endless political straits. It’s a great movie that is sure to reward repeat viewings. At area theaters. 

Julius Eastman/Gay Guerrilla

Adventuresome NYC pianist, singer and composer Julius Eastman died just short of age 50 in 1990. Since then, there’s been a steady effort at reconstructing a body of work rendered elusive by his erratic notation of scores, failure to be embraced by mainstream institutions, and troubled non-artistic life. (His later years plagued by drug use and homelessness, his death wasn’t even publicly noted until months later.) As a gay African-American mixing elements of minimalism, jazz, pop, improvisation, and multimedia along with sometimes outre political statements (one piece was called Evil Nigger), he was perhaps too far ahead of his time for his own good. During his life, he was best known for participating in other people’s work—notably as a member of the great Meredith Monk’s vocal/dance ensemble.

This weekend SF Cinematheque is co-hosting a two-part tribute to Eastman’s legacy. Sun/13 will bring a concert of his works at Old First Church. The prior night at YBCA is film-focused, with U.K. collective The Otolith Group’s recent The Third Part of the Third Measure providing a meditation on and amplification of Eastman’s “aesthetics of black radicalism.” There will also be the Group’s prior Be Silent, For the Ears of God Are Everywhere, and Cauleen Smith’s Entitled, a tribute to pioneering African American still-life painter Charles Ethan Porter. Sat/12, YBCA Screening Room. More info here.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Largely dismissed at the time as yet another of director Terry Gilliam’s expensive commercial failures, this 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 roman à clef now seems one of his most fully realized works. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro play the greatly drug-and-alcohol-addled duo whose trip to Vegas on a journalistic assignment turns into a monumental dive into hallucinatory comedy and paranoia. 

Gilliam’s fantastical imagination here drinks deep from not just Thompson, but Ralph Steadman’s famous drawings, making this arguably the most expensive ever approximation of an LSD wig out. That was way too much for critics and audiences at the time; they were more appalled than amused. But it’s a hilariously discomfiting film whose achievement the almost perpetually thwarted director hasn’t come near equalling since. This 20th-anniversary 35mm screening is presented by Spoke Arts and Midnights for Maniacs. Sat/12, Roxie. More info here.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

The sleeper success of Wes Craven’s original Nightmare in 1984 made sequels inevitable, and for once, welcome: The surreal-dream-peril conceit was one horror hook that could be expanded upon endlessly without losing its mojo. Still, this first followup, rushed into release less than a year later, was a bit more than most moviegoers were prepared for. It’s being offered up by the Alamo Drafthouse on Terror Tuesday as “the single most powerful cinematic depiction of a young man coming to terms with his latent homosexuality.” They’re not kidding, exactly — even at the time, Freddy’s Revenge was regarded as having a whole lotta, er, “subtext.” 

From its spectacular schoolbus-in-hellscape opening onward, teenage protagonist Jesse (Mark Patton) is the persecuted odd man out — a “new kid in town” whose house turns out to be cursed by the spirit of guess-who. Freddy wants Jesse to “kill for me,” possessing the perpetually sweat-drenched, writhing-in-bed adolescent’s body to slay the men in his life. 

Whether it’s a strapping jock pantsing him on the baseball diamond, discovering his coach is a leatherman (who’ll die a bondage death), everything around our hero is loaded with homophobic/homoerotic innuendo at Jesse’s expense. (And at the expense of the franchise’s fundamental “rule” — here, sleep isn’t required for those being menaced by the supervillain.) His basement incinerator now a metaphor, Robert Englund’s Freddy Kreuger is positioned as the flaming little secret Jesse didn’t ask for, and doesn’t want to “come out.” Good luck with that. 

The only fire that doesn’t start around here is the one Jesse’s wannabe-girlfriend (Kim Myers) keeps trying to light in his libido. (Actor Patton, who really was closeted at the time, later blamed the filmmakers for ending his career by surreptitiously “outing” him onscreen.) Jesse’s plight had a queasy quality — hitting a note at once sympathetic and exploitative — arriving at a moment when the AIDS crisis was stirring maximum public paranoia. The film was adopted as a guilty pleasure by some ‘mo’s, yet one wonders just how “gay-positive” the makers were being when after all their dude-on-dude teasing, they suggest at-risk Jesse can finally only be saved by “real love” — a woman, natch. 

This festival of shirtless locker-room jailbait directed by Jack Sholder (whose career peaked with sci-fi cult fave The Hidden two years later) isn’t the best Nightmare movie, but it is definitely the weirdest. This 35mm screening benefits the American Genre Film Archive’s preservation efforts. Tue/15, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Screen Grabs: ‘Lost Landscapes of San Francisco’ returns

From 'Lost Landscapes of San Francisco'

SCREEN GRABS In the silent era there were numerous important women filmmakers—a testament, alas, to how the medium wasn’t taken “seriously” for many years, for by the time the “talkies” arrived, men had usurped nearly every last director’s chair. There were only two women who managed to significantly buck that trend in Hollywood before the 1960s. One, Dorothy Arzner, made a substantial body of underrated mainstream features (including vehicles for Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford) between 1928 and 1943, after which she turned to television and academia. 

The other wasIda  Lupino, a British-born Warner Brothers star on the wane (Crawford and Bette Davis were pretty much the only “old” actresses still allowed to dominate movies in the 1950s) when she decided to take her accumulated knowledge behind the camera. Actually, it wasn’t entirely her decision: She took over 1949’s Not Wanted only when its original director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack, from which he died some months later. But that independently produced “B” melodrama of unwed motherhood and crime proved an apt start, in that the half-dozen other films Lupino directed over the next few years would also be tough, economical, noir-ish potboilers that managed to wrestle with social issues despite their lack of major-studio prestige or budgets. 

These interesting little movies are being revived in recent restorations at the Alamo Drafthouse and Pacific Film Archive. Those being shown also include The Bigamist (1953), about a man with wives in both SF and L.A.; and the same year’s The Hitch-Hiker, a tense thriller in which two staid men on a camping trip find themselves taken hostage by a homicidal maniac on the run. Lupino subsequently moved into TV, directing episodes of myriad popular series like Gilligan’s Island, The Fugitiveand Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But it’s these low-budget features, little-noticed upon their original release, that have now made her seem an industry pioneer with a subtly proto-feminist outlook. Alamo Drafthouse: Not Wanted Wed/9, Hitch-Hiker Wed/16, Bigamist Wed/23. More info here. Pacific Film Archive: Not Wanted on Sat/12, Sun/20. More info here

Elsewhere this week, there aren’t a lot of new films—the only incoming wide release is the thriller Escape Room, which wasn’t press-previewed in time for this column. But there are a few interesting rep-calendar items, as well as plenty of opportunities to catch up on the year-end prestige films (Roma, The Favourite, et al.) you haven’t caught yet. Unless otherwise noted, all the following open this Friday:

2018 Sundance Short Film Tour
Though they only get a fraction of the attention given feature-film premieres, it’s still a very big deal to get your short accepted into Sundance—less than one in a hundred amongst the approximately 8,000 annual submissions do—and many filmmakers use that stepping stone as an entree to long-form work. This 90-minute program brings together seven shorts from last year’s festival, just weeks before the 2019 edition launches in Park City. 

While Sundance’s feature selection leans heavily towards US independents, these shorts represent a more international tilt, as well as a considerable range in style and genre. There’s animation (the South Korean Jeom and Swedish stop-motion musical The Burden), documentary (Kamau Bilal’s Baby Brother, chronicling her sibling’s bumpy return to the parental roof), and neo-realist drama (Alvaro Gago’s Spanish Matria, about a much-put-upon grandma’s attempt to eke a little joy out of life). 

Two American entries are very different black comedies: Anna Margaret Hollyman’s Maude is a tale of vicarious motherhood, while Mariama Diallo’s Hair Wolf views white appropriation of African-American culture through a satirical horror-movie lens a la Get Out. Perhaps the most striking single film here is Jeremy Comte’s Canadian Fauve, in which two boys’ rough-housing around some industrial sites takes a turn towards real danger. Roxie. More info here.  Also opens Fri/11 at Rafael Film Center. More info here

Communion
A surprise inclusion in the Oscars’ current Documentary Feature shortlist, Anna Zamecka’s Polish film isn’t an entirely “pure” nonfiction—she gives herself a writing credit, and presented the titular event to her real-life protagonists as a sort of structuring narrative device. But it’s nonetheless a memorably strong portrait of premature adult responsibilities forced on children by childish adults. 

14-year-old Ola is “just” a schoolgirl, yet her plate is ridiculously full: She is cook, cleaner and general minder for not just autistic brother Nikodem but also their useless-layabout father Marek. It’s perhaps reasonable that her mother should have left this crap marriage to an irresponsible manchild, rather less so that she should have abandoned her children as well. Ola copes as well as she can, though sometimes the weight of the burden her barely-adolescent shoulders carry seems crushing. 

When it is decided Nikodem will study for his communion ceremony—an almost impossible task for someone so clinically short-attention-spanned, but a highly desirable achievement in this very Catholic nation—that only puts yet more pressure on our young heroine. This verite “drama” ekes a rare amount of emotional involvement and suspense out of its unscripted events. Playing just twice in the Bay Area for the time being (as part of the Oscars Documentary Shortlist series), it’s well worth a look. Sun/6, Alamo Drafthouse (with director Zamecka in person). Also Sat/12, Rafael Film Center.

Beyond the Darkness
Joe D’Amato was the most prolific of Italian schlockmeisters, starting out working in reasonably respectable genre exercises before gradually sliding down a slippery slope of gore, softcore, pseudononymous work, and finally hardcore—his umpteen titles in the latter realm including Rocco Siffredi’s Tarzan X. In a brief moment between Emmanuelle movies and cannibal flicks—more precisely, between the same year’s nunsploitation joint Images From a Convent and 1980’s inimitably named Porno Holocaust—he made this nasty 1979 item, whose trailer bragged “If you enjoy the violent emotions, this film is for you!” 

Handsome but maladjusted Francesco (Kieran Canter), who’s been raised by an alarmingly possessive housekeeper Iris, is in despair when his fiancee Anna dies. He decides the solution to his problems is, of course, to preserve her corpse. Unfortunately, people keep finding that corpse, and suffering grisly deaths as a result. D’Amato approach to horror didn’t rely on such niceties as atmospherics or high style; he simply aimed to gross you out, however crude the viscous FX might be. With music by the fabled Goblin, this movie (also known as Buried Alive) is better than it should be—but you’ll still need to shower off a certain stench afterward. Tues/8, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 
Rick Prelinger’s popular, ever-changing show of vintage clips, which ran for two nights at the Castro just a few weeks ago, now plays the more intimate confines of the Internet Archive, which it will benefit. Among the images of local yesteryears offered by the assembled mix of home movies, industrial films and more are glimpses of the 1966 “Human Be-In;” Native American protestors of the Alcatraz occupation a few years later; a promotional film for the then-new Union Square Garage; Bay Bridge construction footage; and a 4K restoration of the famously rediscovered 1906 short A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, which captures downtown just prior to the catastrophic earthquake. Mon/7, Internet Archive. More info here

Screen Grabs: Our favorite movies of the year (and what’s on now)

'Support the Girls' was one of our favorites of 2018.

SCREEN GRABS As 2018 comes to a close, we can pause and reflect that as so often is the case, what was a pretty horrible annum for nearly everything else turned out to generate some pretty good art. There is general consensus that this was an above-average year at the movies. While I don’t share some of the common enthusiasms (Black Panther is still just a comic-book movie in my book, and the appeal of A Star is Born eludes), there must be some truth to that: I couldn’t chop my “top 10” down past 25, despite relegating documentaries to a separate list. There were so many good-ish movies that not even the Honorable Mentions could encompass many I liked well enough but had significant reservations about (Blindspotting, Buster Scruggs, Sorry to Bother You, The Other Side of the Wind, Spider-Verse, etc.). 

Anyway, all this stuff is highly subjective, and should not really even be taken as a “best” list but simply one of the movies I happened to personally like and admire the most. Science has yet to invent a formula for determining value in art, although try telling that to a fanboy (or film major). So, here we go, in alphabetical order:

Narrative Top 25

Araby (Brazil, d. Joao Dumans & Affonso Uchoa)

Beirut (U.S., d. Brad Anderson)

The Cakemaker (Israel—Germany, d. Ofir Raul Graizer)

Capernaum (Lebanon, d. Nadine Labaki)

Cold War (Poland, d. Pawel Pawlikowski)

Disobedience (Ireland—U.K.—U.S., d. Sebastian Lelio)

The Endless (U.S., d. Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead)

En el Septimo Dia (U.S., d. Jim McKay)

The Favourite (Ireland—U.K.—U.S., d. Yorgos Lanthimos)

Godard Mon Amour (France, d. Michel Hazanavicius)

Green Book (U.S., Peter Farrelly)

Journey’s End (U.K., d. Saul Dibb)

Mandy (Canada—U.S., d. Panos Cosmatos)

Mid90s (U.S., d. Jonah Hill)

Mom & Dad (U.S.—U.K., d. Brian Taylor)

Museo (Mexico, d. Alonso Ruizpalacios)

1985 (U.S., d. Yen Tan)

Paddington 2 (U.K.—France—U.S., d. Paul King)

The Rider (U.S., d. Chloe Zhao)

Roma (Mexico, d. Alfonso Cuaron)

Summer 1993 (Spain, d. Carla Simon)

Support the Girls (U.S., d. Andrew Bujalski)

Tully (U.S., d. Jason Reitman)

The 12th Man (Norway, d. Harald Zwart)

You Were Never Really Here (U.K.—U.S.—France, d. Lynne Ramsay)

Hon. Mentions: Beast, Bitter Melon, Blackkklansman, Boy Erased, Ghostbox Cowboy, Hereditary, The Little Stranger, Lowlife, Men and Monsters, Private Life, The Quake, A Quiet Place, The Seagull, Thunder Road, Wildlife

Documentary Top 10

Bad Reputation (U.S., d. Kevin Kerslake)

Cielo (Chile—Canada, d. Alison McAlpine)

Dark Money (U.S., d. Kimberly Reed)

Fail State (U.S., d. Alexander Shebanow)

Filmworker (U.S., d. Tony Zierra)

Free Solo (U.S., Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi)

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (U.S., d. RaMell Ross)

Minding the Gap (U.S., d. Bing Liu)

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (U.S., d. Morgan Neville)

The World Before Your Feet (U.S., d. Jeremy Workman)

This is traditionally the sleepiest week in the entire calendar for new openings—the assumption being that everybody is already queued up for Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, or whatever. But there are a few things happening for those willing to walk out the door and brave those spine-chilling winter temperatures in the high 50s…including the arrival of the last-mentioned title on my documentary list, above. 

The World Before Your Feet
This year everybody got their own hit documentary about a driven, high-achieving individual: Free Solo for boys, RBG for girls. More charming than either is this portrait of another person committed to a singular mission that no one is going to derail, hard as they may try. Matt Green is a thirtysomething ex-civil engineer who no longer works, yet is very, very occupied. His chosen task is walking every block (also including parklands, cemeteries, and other “open” spaces) in all five boroughs of NYC. So far this has consumed over six years, logging over 8,000 miles—and there’s no end in sight, yet. 

One suspects Green doesn’t want it to ever end, as he’s endlessly entertained not just by the human and scenic diversity encountered, but by the voluminous research into historical trivia he’s taken on as part of his wanderings. This amiable obsessive is great company for ninety minutes. As multiple ex-girlfriends here attest, however, trying to take up any more of his time is a loser’s game; the streets beckon. 

Jeremy Workman’s feature is itself a delightful compendium of sights, sounds and errata, as well as a testament to the difference between just looking and really seeing. Green encounters people who’ve lived in their neighborhoods their whole life, yet the deeper intel he’s sussed out about the area always takes them by surprise—like everybody, they take their environment for granted. Some scratch their heads at his seemingly useless (and non-income-generating) quest, but he says “It’s just about the value of paying attention to something.” And that turns out to be a very high value indeed. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

Oscar Shortlisted Documentaries
Speaking of good non-fiction, some cinemas around the U.S. are hosting special screenings of the fifteen documentary features on the Academy Award shortlist, from Dec. 31 through Jan. 21. (On the 22nd, that list will be reduced to five remaining actual nominees.) There’s no lack of worthwhile titles here, from the theatrical hits Free Solo, RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Three Identical Strangers to strong meditations on current U.S. political issues (Charm City, Crime + Punishment). Venturing farther afield to probe injustice is The Silence of Others, about the legacy of Gen. Franco’s four-decade dictatorship in Spain, and On Her Shoulders, in which a young woman exposes ISIS-condoned sexual slavery to the international community.

Child welfare is the focus in a powerful verite domestic drama from Poland (Communion), a study of life in Eastern Ukraine’s war zone (The Distant Barking of Dogs), a look at the fostering of radical Islamic jihadists in Syria (Of Fathers and Sons). Our favorites in the roster include the poetical Hale County This Morning, This Evening, the much more conflicted slice of small-town life Minding the Gap, and Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money, a forceful analysis of the biggest single problem in American politics today. Mon/31-Mon/21, Alamo Drafthouse & Rafael Film Center. 

Roma in 70mm
Netflix has come under fire for acquiring films designed with a theatrical viewing experience in mind, then giving them little or no theatrical release. It seems the universal acclaim being showered on Alfonso Cuaron’s period Mexico City tale is forcing their hand, as the film continues to be enormously successful on the few screens it’s playing. Let’s hope a wider release ensues. 

In the meantime, the Castro is playing a short run of the feature (which was shot in 65mm) on 70mm, which should be splendid—it’s doubtful any primarily small-scale, B&W family drama has ever demanded the big screen so much as this one, with its commanding use of interior space and tracking shots. Wed/2-Sat/5, Castro Theater. More info here.

2001: A Space Odyssey X 2
The science-fiction movie the family goes to see in Roma is Marooned, a starry 1969 “space opera” that benefitted from being released shortly after the real-life Apollo moon landing, but was quickly forgotten as a flop and a bore. Never forgotten was the prior year’s much more cerebral Stanley Kubrick opus, which after a muted initial reception became one of the defining hits of the era—and an endlessly revisited classic ever since. 

Because some people can’t see 2001 enough, the Castro is showing the now half-century-old feature in both of its recent new versions: A 4K restoration, and an “unrestored” 70mm print struck from the original camera negative. Which to choose?!? Please see both, discuss the minute differences between them, and get back to us with your conclusions. Fri/28-Tues/1, Castro Theater. More info here

Screen Grabs: Xmas Weekend flicks galore

'If Beale Street Could Talk'

SCEEN GRABS This week brings two major new films about “divisive” American political figures—not exactly what the general public usually wants for Xmas, but oh well. Neither of them are very good. Mimi Leder’s  On the Basis of Sex is a drearily on-the-nose inspirational dramatization of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s early struggles at Harvard Law School and in the legal profession, with Felicity Huffman as the future Supreme Court Justice. 

Earlier this year, the runaway documentary hit RBG respected its subject—if it hadn’t, she’d have stared it down. This is the “For Dummies” version, packaging an anti-gender discrimination message about as broadly and simplistically as Hidden Figures did an anti-racist one a couple years ago. That approach might actually work for less mature audiences who’d be bored by the doc. But while Sex would be a fine junior high social studies class discussion-spur, it isn’t working as the awards-bait it was rather too obviously designed to be, and no wonder.

Doing somewhat better in those awards sweepstakes so far is Adam McKay’s Vice, a less fatuous movie but also a more flummoxing one. The regular Will Ferrell collaborator and Big Short writer-director here takes on no less than Dick Cheney, chronicling the latter’s crawl up the GOP ladder to his position as de facto President “under” nitwit POTUS George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Cheney (played by Christian Bale under layers of latex) is a figure whose name can evoke loathing even in the depths of the Trump era, so making a film—let alone a starry, expensive one—about him requires a little craziness. 

But Vice is a bewilderingly safe movie, one that seeks to “humanize” him in pat, maudlin ways (awww look, he really loves his wife and daughters!), and on the other hand excoriate him for his crimes of Machiavellian malevolence and guile, without quite having the stomach to make those vivid enough. Much like Oliver Stone’s W. a decade ago, it ends up a superficially daring portrait of a living politician that has little specific to say about him—and Cheney is not a person you can take a neutral stance towards. It’s an entertaining, sometimes funny film, with a mostly-good cast that doesn’t always disappear very effectively into their roles (see: Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell). Still, why on Earth make a movie about DICK CHENEY that can ultimately be described as just “entertaining”? 

More in tune with the holiday spirit is the arrival of Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns, which has gotten positive-to-mixed early reviews—positive for Emily Blunt as the magical English nanny, more mixed for the film itself, purportedly a “sequel” some think a little too slavishly imitative of the 1964 Disney version. If you really can’t bear the thought of Poppins without Julie Andrews, there’s odd comfort to be found in Aquaman—this season’s big gift from the DC Comics universe—where she makes a (voice-only) cameo. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Capernaum 
Though it’s gotten somewhat overshadowed—like every other 2018 foreign-language release—by the dynamic B&W duo of Roma and Cold War, this Lebanon-U.S. coproduction from actress turned writer-director Nadine Labaki is still one of the year’s best films. 12-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is serving a long criminal sentence when he voluntarily goes back to court, this time in order to sue his parents for neglect, and for otherwise creating the circumstances that led him to this bleak current reality. 

We then see that backstory, in which a poor family in the slums of Beirut uses resourceful eldest child Zain as its primary source of income (while the aforementioned parents sit around and complain), going to far as to virtually “sell” his beloved sister when finances get even tighter. Zain runs away, landing in the humbler shack of a kindly Ethiopian refugee (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby, only to find his responsibilities grow still heavier when she’s detained by immigration authorities. 

Though colorfully shot, Capernaum (which means “chaos”) has that particular hard-to-watch quality of other great movies about poverty, desperation and suffering among the very young, like Los Olvidados or Pixote. Our pint-sized hero’s dialogue is a mite too precocious at times—we don’t really need him to spell out the damning social message that’s already quite clear here—but that aside, Labaki does a terrific job maintaining credibility and suspense, as well as gleaning fine performances from her mix of professional and debuting actors. Too skillfully crafted to be a simple downer, it’s a tough film, but also an exceptional one. Clay. More info here

If Beale Street Could Talk
Perhaps no director’s “followup” film was as eagerly awaited this year as Barry Jenkins’, following as it does the extraordinary Moonlight. (Which in turn followed the promising, micro-budgeted, SF-set indie Medicine for Melancholy.) Friends since childhood, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) finally give in to their mutual secret desires and become lovers as young adults in late 1960s Harlem. Their kinship is so perfect that not even an unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy can dim their joy. (Which is not to say his snobbish family doesn’t react differently.) What does manage to dim that shared light is Fonny being framed for a crime he had nothing to do with.

At least the sixth or so significant movie this year to deal with police injustice towards African-Americans, Beale Street is certainly the dreamiest of the lot. As luminously shot by James Laxton and alluringly scored by Nicholas Britell, it’s a romantic idyll of period NYC life whose swooniness is only heightened by the protagonists’ pain of forced separation. But where Moonlight’s dark journey towards daylight made Jenkins’ impressionistic style vividly striking, this time (as in Melancholy) he over-bets on a not-always-evident chemistry between leads whose rightness for each other the film insists on with every quivering bone. It’s a movie that runs a narrow gamut between rapture and thwarted rapture. Jenkins is a poet in the prose medium of narrative cinema, and here his dolorous style somewhat overwhelms—and over-stretches—James Baldwin’s source story. 

There’s a lot to like, including some powerful individual sequences, and fine supporting performances by the likes of Regina King and onetime SF stage actor Colman Domingo (both playing Tish’s parents). Some may indeed get swept up in Beale Street’s pining poetry as intended. For others, it will be that preferred type of disappointment: The one that is too much of a good thing. Opens Christmas at area theaters.

Bird Box
Sandra Bullock plays a newly pregnant (but single) NoCal artist whose path towards reluctant motherhood grows suddenly, drastically complicated due to an inexplicable disaster: Around the globe, people suddenly start killing themselves, under the apparent influence of some mysterious force. The only means of survival is to not go (or even look) outside, or wear a blindfold if absolutely necessary, since the phenomenon induces psychosis through some visual means. 

This latest English-language film by Danish director Susanna Bier (Brothers, After the Wedding, In A Better World) cuts between two periods: In one, Bullock tries to get herself and two young children down a river to what she hopes is a safe haven. In another, five years earlier, she’s one of several strangers (also including John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes, Danielle Macdonald and Jacki Weaver) holed up in a house, trying to survive the catastrophe’s initial onslaught. 

Based on a novel by Josh Malerman, this dystopian sci-fi thriller recalls many prior tales, but is bound to be compared primarily to this year’s A Quiet Place—which is conceptually similar but more of a straightforward horror thriller. The menace here is invisible, and the suspense more psychological than physical. Bird Box doesn’t aim for profundity, and it’s not quite imaginative, ingenious, or terrifying enough to be truly memorable. Still, it’s a strong piece that effectively moves from crisis to crisis without ever growing too hyperbolic or improbable. If you’re looking for a grownup movie over the holidays that’s neither heavy-lifting awards fodder or a trashily escapist mallflick, this offbeat, well-crafted tale offers one viable choice. At area theaters. More info here.

The Night of the Hunter 
This Southern Gothic fairy tale for adults was a complete flop upon its original 1955 release, as well as, sadly, the first and last directorial feature for actor Charles Laughton. But since then it’s been embraced as one of the great American movies of its era, or any other for that matter. Robert Mitchum plays a sociopathic ersatz preacher, ex-con, and violently misogynist seducer who insinuates himself with a widow (Shelley Winters) to access the stolen money he thinks her husband left behind. He won’t stop at murder, even when it comes to her two young children, who flee downriver into the care of a sort of backwoods fairy godmother (Lillian Gish). 

Gorgeous and harrowing, with one of the most memorable screen villains ever, Night is being shown at the Castro as Noir City’s annual “Cruel Yule” presentation, which will include a preview of its full-scale annual festival next month. Wed/19, Castro. More info here

The Apartment 
This acerbic seriocomedy seemed the apex of intelligent, “adult” American cinema in 1960, a few years before the censorship walls would really start tumbling down. Jack Lemmon plays a low-level white-collar striver who hopes he’s expediting a rise up the corporate ladder by “lending” his Manhattan apartment to executives for trysts with their mistresses. Things get problematic when the biggest of these bigwigs (Fred MacMurray) turns out to be thus exploiting the elevator girl (Shirley MacLaine) Lemmon is besotted with himself. 

With its cynical yet ultimately redeeming perspective on moneyed privilege, love and adultery, The Apartment was very up-to-the-moment back then, and would prove an influence on everything from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to American Beauty to Mad Men. Coming after a string of other highly esteemed hits (the latest one being Some Like It Hot), it secured Wilder’s status as the wittiest of mainstream Hollywood filmmakers. No one would have guessed then that it would, in fact, be his last unqualified success before a long, slow creative and commercial decline. Sat/22 & Thurs/27, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.  Also Thurs/27, Castro (with Some Like it Hot). More info here.

Avant to Live
San Francisco keeps changing in ways we don’t necessarily like, but at least one thing stays blessedly the same: Every Other Cinema calendar ends with a program of “New Experimental Works” that highlights some of the best and most diverse current avant-garde film (and video). This time tere will be world premieres with the makers present for Tim Johnson’s March of Time, David King’s Male Men, Bryan Boyce’s Fake But True, and Jeremy Rourke’s multimedia performance may two thousand and eighteen. There will also be new pieces by Julie Murray, Lana Caplan, Anthony Buchanan, Greta Snider, Haley McCormick, Sabine Gruffat, and others. Sat/22, Artists Television Access. More info here

Screen Grabs: Robin Hood, Spider-Verse, The Quake …

Errol Flynn in 'Robin Hood'

SCREEN GRABS There’s a rather large number of films we didn’t get (and/or want) to see in advance opening this week, including Once Upon a Deadpool (a recut, more family-friendly re-release of Deadpool 2 from earlier this year); YA fantasy Mortal Engines; The Mule, a crime drama starring and directed by Clint Eastwood that, unusually for him, hasn’t gotten any awards push at all; and Mary Queen of Scots, with Soairse Ronan as that ill-fated monarch and Margot Robie as Elizabeth I in a purportedly handsome but problematic costume epic. 

Not made available for critics was Lars von Trier’s already-notorious The House That Jack Built, a long, gory serial killer tale opening in an R-rated version toned down from the unrated one that played U.S. theaters for just one day a couple weeks ago. 

Never fear, there’s a lot more opening this week, much of which we did pre-screen for your benefit. All the below open Friday, unless otherwise noted:

Roxie Animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Liyana
The Roxie has turned into a hub of international animation of late, with two new features arriving this weekend that reflect that programming trend. Never Ending Man is about Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned master of the hand-drawn ‘toon form (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, et al.) whose announced retirement in 2013 at age 72 was an occasion for mourning for many. But despite his prior resistance to computer-generated imagery, he found himself drawn back into a new project by a group of enthusiastic young animators. Originally a Japanese TV special, Kaku Arakawa’s non-fiction feature chronicles Miyazaki’s somewhat tortured return to the creative hot seat. 

Playing just Saturday and Sunday is Amanda and Aaron Kopp’s Liyana, which combines documentary and computer animation to depict S. African storyteller Gcina Mhlophe’s collaboration with five Swaziland orphans—and the original “fairy tale” they concoct. Roxie. Never Ending: Opens Fri/14, more info hereLiyana: Sat/15-Sun/16, more info here

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Though arguably the most ridiculously over-milked superhero in the whole comic-book-movie universe, Spider-Man turns a new page with this justifiably praised new animation feature that wreaks playful havoc both with his mythological conventions, and with the boundaries between his familiar stomping-ground media. Toying with all kinds of imagery, from graphic-novel panels to the truly psychedelic, this semi-satirical, kinda-post-modernist new adventure is definitely a “marvel” (sorry) in design terms. It’ll be a dream come true for fanboys (and -girls) of all ages. However, if you’re not really much of a Comic Book Guy at heart, you may find its very busy two hours too much of a good (but still somewhat hollow) thing. At area theaters. 

The Quake
2015 Norwegian hit The Wave revived 1970s disaster-movie tropes with admirable success in a straightforward tale of a tsunami hitting a small town. In this sequel, the first film’s ignored whistleblower (Kristoffer Joner) is revealed as since having become a recluse, torn by guilt over not saving more people even though he did manage to rescue his family. Now he realizes a major seismic event is about to hit Oslo. Of course, once again no one heeds his warnings until it’s too late, and his family members all find themselves in possibly lethal individual perils. 

Directed by John Andreas Andersen (replacing the original’s Roar Uthaug) this is just as good as the prior movie, in exactly the same ways: If you can get through a tolerably talky buildup to the point where crisis strikes, there are fine cliffhanger setpieces with ripping FX. It’s not a particularly sophisticated kind of thriller, but it’s better-crafted and more pandering than your average Hollywood equivalent these days. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Bathtubs Over Broadway
Good fun for musical theater addicts as well as general aficionados of the weird, Dava Whisenant’s documentary trains focus on a subterranean showbiz strata that is largely forgotten now, and eluded popular notice even at its peak. For several decades there existed a whole “alternative Broadway” of revues created for corporate conventions—original shows designed to entertain visiting businesspersons of a particular industry (whether agricultural, home-appliance, or whatever), then never be heard of again. In some cases limited “original cast recordings” were made as souvenirs for the attendees; very rarely, someone shot some footage of the act. 

Yet these throwaway “musicals” celebrating the joys of wheat, toilets, copy machines, and such often attracted top theatrical talent, lavish production budgets, and future stars (like Chita Rivera and Martin Short, both interviewed here) at the start of their careers. In fact, some musical-theater types wound up spending years in these shows, whose employment could be more dependable (and even lucrative) than Broadway itself. Structured as a sort of detective story, driven by latterday collectors who scour the Earth for the few remaining artifacts of these singing, dancing industrial oddities, Bathtubs is a hoot. Opera Plaza. More info here

Ben Is Back
The breakout star this year most likely to have a very long career ahead of him—after all, he’s just turned 22—is Lucas Hedges, whom most people first met as the nephew in Manchester by the Sea. Last year he appeared in Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. His good taste in projects was further underlined by three 2018 movies, all of which he was excellent in: As the bullying older brother in the lamentably under-appreciated Mid90s; as the evangelical family scion dispatched to a “gay conversion therapy” program in Boy Erased; and now as a teen struggling to stay sober in his father Peter Hedges’ (Pieces of April) new feature. 

When Ben shows up unexpectedly on his mother (Julia Roberts) and stepfather’s (Courtney B. Vance) for Christmas, he sparks as much worry as welcoming: Did he really get permission to leave his rehab facility? After numerous prior failures, can he really be trusted to stay off drugs? 

Ben Is Back arrives just weeks after the thematically very similar Beautiful Boy. Comparisons are inevitable, and not all that flattering: Boy is flawed but feels organic in a way that the earnest but more contrived Ben does not. Writer-director Hedges errs in pushing the initially strong, intimate psychological study towards a half-assed sort of crime melodrama in its second half. Worse, he’s over-tailored it to his star—not son Lucas, but Roberts. She’s fine, but eventually the movie feels rigged so her character can run the gamut of Oscar-worthy histrionic emotions, from brave smiles to anger to hysteria and so forth. 

The result is a film whose many strengths end up undermined from within. But it’s still worth seeing for Lucas Hedges, who is the real deal, and who never hits a false note in a quiet, anguished turn that might easily have been geared towards showy acting bravado. At area theaters. More info here

The Adventures of Robin Hood
Kevin Costner was bad enough, but the recent flop Robin Hood was so painfully, clumsily “revisionist” (Matrix-style costumes? Jamie Foxx as Little John?!) that you could feel all Sherwood Forest wilting in despair. Ergo it’s a particularly good time to revisit this arguably best of all such cinematic representations—rivaled only by Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 version. It was certainly the best role for Errol Flynn, a limited actor but a figure of athletic joie de vivre who could actually make those green tights seem kinda dashing. 

The Technicolor 1938 hit, Warner Brothers’ most expensive project to date at the time, remains a jaunty delight, with a peerless support cast: Olivia De Havilland as love interest, Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains as bad guys, Eugene Pallette and Alan Hale among the “merry men,” Una O’Connor a very merry woman, etc. Its co-feature is a little obscurity from four years later called Casablanca, also directed by Michael Curtiz. Grab these good times at the Castro while you can: The following three days of its calendar are occupied by Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the worst (if also most popular) movies of 2018. Sat/15, Castro. More info here

Christmas Evil
There have been a lot of Yuletide-themed horror movies since, most of them heavily tongue-in-cheek. But Lewis Jackson’s feature was somewhat pioneering in 1980, and it remains a quirkier, better deadly-Santa movie than the more widely seen slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night, which arrived four years later. Harry Stadling (Brandon Maggart) is a sad sack, an insecure child-man obsessed with Christmas to a degree inappropriate for a grownup. Duly employed at a toy factory, he’s ridiculed by coworkers, abused even by the brattier local children. When Harry’s tether finally snaps, he dons his Santa suit and doles out some serious consequences to those who are more naughty than nice. 

A black comedy “fairy tale” with a sad misfit center, this John Waters-endorsed cult film was the final feature for Jackson, whose prior ones were lowly sexploitation obscurities. It was originally released as Better Watch Out—a title more recently used by another good Christmas horror comedy worth digging up, Chris Peckover’s 2016 Australian/U.S. film. Tues/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Holiday zombies, wild Youtubers, Japanese classics…

Anna and the Apocalypse

SCREEN GRABS There was so much happening last week, we didn’t have room to mention two major series now already in-progress at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. One is the fourth and final segment of “Bergman 100,” a year-long retrospective of the late Swedish master’s films and TV work, programmed on the centenary of his birth. There will be two showings (on 12/21 & 27) of 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, not only Bergman’s warmest work, but the only Christmas-themed one—in both its feature-length US version, and the full, five-hour original Swedish miniseries form. The other series is The Puppet Master: The Films of Jiri Trinka, which celebrates the work of a Czech stop-motion innovator whose versions of popular fairy tales, whimsies and parables (from The Emperor’s Nightingale to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) played a major role in introducing audiences worldwide to adventuresome animation not entirely aimed at kids. Two additional new PFA series arrive this week—see details below.

Among movies opening this week that we did not see in advance are the wide release Anna and the Apocalypse, an English teenage zombie musical comedy that is reportedly good fun, a la Clueless meets Shawn of the Dead; and (at the Roxie), Mamoru Hosoda’s anime fantasy Mirai, involving an attention-needy little boy whose wigout over the arrival of a little sister is tempered by instructive visitors from the future. 

Duly seen but not necessarily recommended is actor-turned-director Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (at the Alamo Drafthouse), in which a school shooting survivor (Raffey Cassidy) grows into an obnoxiously bratty adult pop star (Natalie Portman) with substance-abuse problems and a teenage daughter (Cassidy again) of her own. The climax is a concert, and while admitting that “Celeste’s” whole act (her songs are written by actual pop star Sia) isn’t my kinda thing, it’s disconcerting that I’ve no idea whether we’re supposed to find the heavily choreographed show-within-the-movie dazzling, fatuous, or both. It’s a well-made, well-acted character study, but spending two hours with this particular character may well seem pointlessly punishing. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Bitter Melon
Local director, writer, actor and indie pop composer H.P. Mendoza is probably still best-known for his 2006 debut feature Colma: The Musical, an enduring delight still known to regrettably few (at least outside the Bay Area). His fourth film is his most accomplished, however, even if it lacks characters bursting into song. Instead, the protagonists in this densely packed seriocomedy are extended family members of a working-class Filipino-American clan reuniting in SF’s Excelsior district over Xmas weekend for the first time in quite a while. 

It’s an occasion complicated by plenty of emotional baggage, not least a history of abusive husband/father-figures that continues, despite the by-now-longtime estrangement of matriarch Prisa’s (Josephine de Jesus) drunken batterer of an ex-husband. His absence hangs over the often boisterous festivities like a dark cloud. But it’s the unruly temper of middle son Troy (Patrick Epino) that eventually triggers a crisis, and drastic action. Despite this domestic-violence theme, much of Bitter Melonis refreshingly, caustically funny, with plenty of unpredictable tonal shifts handled with great aplomb by Mendoza and his collaborators. This isn’t a perfect movie, yet its occasional flaws are part and parcel of its bracing ambition and vibrancy. AMC Van Ness.

Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes
As too many liberals continue to waste energy arguing whose fault it is that Trump got elected, they seldom mention one leading guilty party, perhaps because he’s safely dead: Ailes, the Chairman/CEO of Fox News who died (after being forced to resign those positions) last year. Driven by anger, resentment and insecurity, like so many successful assholes, he went from producing TV talk-variety program The Mike Douglas Show to basically “producing” Richard Nixon’s media image in the 1968 Presidential campaign. He introduced hitherto unknown levels of popular media manipulation to U.S. politics, swiftly becoming the Republican Party’s top strategist. 

According to this well-crafted documentary by Alexis Bloom, Ailes’ founding of Fox News twenty-two years ago was—typically for him—in large part an act of retaliation for a perceived slight. Former staff members here recall being instructed to pursue stories they termed “riling up the crazies,” because they were sheer sensationalism designed to drum up ratings. Conspiracy theories, barely-concealed racism, far-right “personalities” like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck all became part of the “fair and balanced” company’s successful mainstreaming of propaganda as quasi-reportage. Meanwhile, perpetual malcontent Ailes, called a “profoundly paranoid person” here, spied on his own employees and perceived enemies alike. He also undermined the careers of women who refused his advances—something that would ultimately trigger his downfall. But not before he’d seen the election of Trump, whom he’d done as much as anyone to “sell” to the voting public. 

Needless to say, Divide and Conquer is an unpleasant watch, but also a worthy one, as it does a great deal to explain how we got to our surreal and destructive present state of a reality-TV POTUS whose glaring flaws are dismissed by so many as “fake news.” Opera Plaza. More info here

People’s Republic of Desire 
Another disturbing new documentary is Hao Wu’s portrait of a bizarre phenomenon that has taken particular root in mainland China: “Internet idols” who cater to their fanbases via live streaming, begging virtual “gifts” from their “patrons,” competing against one another for all-important popularity ratings. Many of these people have no particular “talent” to offer beyond a powerful drive for attention—but that makes them relatable to viewers for whom they offer a popular fantasy of escape. 

There’s an addictive, gambling-like quality to these largely short-term “fames” on both the giving and receiving side, not least because fans have to spend money to get their idol’s notice for a fleeting moment. It all seems so wildly empty-calorie and dysfunctional, even the Kardashians start to look fairly “real” by comparison. (One hostess got so caught up she live-streamed her own suicide attempt, then hospital recovery.) Simultaneously colorful and creepy, this is a bizarre cautionary tale of profound disconnection and loneliness in the digital age, with the suggestion that society as a whole might be headed in such counter-productive directions. Wu will appear in person at the 4:15 show on Sat/8. Roxie. More info here

Fritz Lang & German Expressionism
With its abstract sets making madness physically tangible, Robert Weine’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a film that first introduced many to the idea that movies could be a serious art form. Its German Expressionist style would prove highly influential, stretching as far as the visual style of the 1940s film noir wave and beyond. This PFA series encompasses Caligari as well as other famous silent works by FW Murnau (The Last Laugh, Faust, Nosferatu), Paul Wegener (The Golem) and Joe May (the lesser-known Asphalt). But its principal focus is on the school’s greatest acolyte, Fritz Lang. The schedule stretches from his monumental silent-era achievements (including of course the incredible dystopian-future classic Metropolis) to early-talkie masterpieces M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Refusing to work for the Nazis, Lang eventually wound up in Hollywood—where his films (not featured in this series) were on the whole far less epically scaled, but retained strong elements of German Expressionist style. Fri/7-Fri/Jan. 18, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Japanese Film Classics From the BAMPFA Collection
Attending its year-round public exhibition programs, you may well forget that the Pacific Film Archive really is an archive, with an enormous permanent collection of classic, experimental and miscellaneous films in its West Berkeley storage facilities. This series cherry-picks some of the great Japanese features that have been preserved in 35mm form there for decades, in many cases since the early 1970s. It will include major works by Mizoguchi (Sancho the Bailiff, Ugetsu), Kurosawa (Ikiru, Sanshiro Sugata), Ozu (Early Summer), Shinoda (Double Suicide), Ichikawa (Harp of Burma), Naruse (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs), and more. Wed/12-Sun/Jan. 27, PFA. More info here

Archive Fever 3: YouTubers
This Other Cinema evening probes the pervasive presence and influence of “found footage,” as deployed in works ranging from musicians Kristin Cato and Cindy Sawprano’s “live film” performance of L00p8L008 to cultural critiques by Penny Lane (Normal Appearances), Dominic Gagnon (Going South), Katherine McInnis (Eye of the Needle), and many more. Sat/8, Artists Television Access. More info here

The Brood
In 1979 David Cronenberg ended his seven-year first marriage to Margaret Hindson, an apparently acrimonious split that weighed heavily on their portentously named daughter Cassandra. The same year he released this mind-warping Canadian horror movie, in which the malevolent, institutionalized ex-wife (Samantha Eggar) of one Frank Carveth (Art Hindle) unleashes her anger—in the form of homicidal dwarf-children—on him, their young daughter (Cindy Hinds), and anyone who tries to help them. 

Arguably cinema’s most macabre (and misogynist) custody battle, The Brood is nuts, its toe-hold on reality scarcely helped by the presence of Oliver Reed as a sinister experimental psychotherapist. Though a box-office success, it was considered by many the most distasteful film yet by Cronenberg, whom at the time mainstream critics like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin  thought unduly attracted to “disgusting” content. 

His work would gradually, if erratically, grow more “respectable” with the commencement of his bigger-budgeted, Hollywood-connected features a few years later. Eventually, few would deny that Cronenberg was a major artist. But it’s still true that not everyone can stomach The Brood—which despite (and/or because of) its lurid extremes, remains one of his best movies. It’s a possessed Freudian nightmare whose terror of female sexuality and motherhood goes so far over the top, it also functions as a deconstruction of paranoid male fragility. Tues/11, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Lost Landscapes of San Francisco, Roma, The Favourite …

'A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire, 1906' plays at 'Lost Landscapes of San Francisco,' Tue/4 and Wed/5

SCREEN GRABS This is no time for Christmas shopping, at least if you’re a film buff—not only is the genre festival Another Hole in the Head (previewed last week) already in progress, but two other significant festival events of shorter duration arrive this weekend. (See NICE and Silents below.) Plus, Friday brings two of the year’s most acclaimed narrative features, as well as two new documentaries about films and filmmaking itself. Then there’s the latest edition of Lost Landscapes of San Francisco… all detailed below. 

Also opening this week is Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Becoming Astrid (at Opera Plaza) a handsome if rather heavy-handed biopic about the early years of Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren. 

Opening Friday (unless otherwise noted):

A Day of Silents
Many people simply camp out for the entirety of SF Silent Film Festival’s Castro Theatre events during the year, and 2018’s single-day winter program merits that kind of dedication even more than usual. Of course you’re not obligated to the approximately 14-hour long haul, but if you can manage it, you’ll get a remarkably diverse and exciting array of films from the pre-sound era. 

First up (in honor of the imminent biopic Stan & Ollie) is a program of three silent Laurel & Hardy comedy shorts—all delightful, but none more hysterical than 1929’s Big Business, in which the duo are door-to-door Christmas tree salesman whose disagreement with homeowner James Finlayson turns into an orgy of destruction. It’s followed by Walter Lang and Dorothy Davenport’s 1925 The Red Kimona, a slow-moving but admirably serious-minded, case-pleading “fallen woman” drama. Then there’s the next year’s Exit Smiling, the first of very few big-screen appearances for beloved stage comedienne Beatrice Lillie, who plays a backstage “drudge” pining for her own big break while touring with a cornball theatre troupe. 

The evening shows are stylistically sophisticated dramas. Frank Borzage’s 1927 7th Heaven introduced the highly popular duo of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in a delicate sentimental romance between a Parisian waif and a street cleaner living in the City of Light’s most spacious “garret.” It’s a famous classic, while Karlheinz Martin’s 1920 From Morn to Midnight is a rarity that was little-seen upon release, then thought lost for decades—a parable of avarice and decadence considered one of the few true cinematic works (alongside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Waxworks) of “pure” German Expressionism. It’s certainly a visually striking experiment, with sets closer to the gritty social caricature of Georges Grosz drawings than Caligari’s skewed futurism. 

But the day’s highlight and great discovery may well be the 4:30 showing of 1923’s Coeur Fidele by Jean Epstein, a director better known for his 1928 version of Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. This working-class triangle drama anticipates both Jean Vigo and the neo-realists in its mix of poetical and documentary-like elements, and is an undersung masterpiece of the silent era. As usual, all the programs will have live musical accompaniment. Sat/1, Castro Theatre. More info here

NICE (New Italian Cinema Events)
it’s fitting that the Silent Fest and NICE should overlap this week, since for a short period ending just about a century ago, Italy was at the forefront of global film production in terms of innovation and ambition. (By 1920, however, Hollywood had seized the leading role it’s never relinquished since.) That industry has undergone several further booms and busts since, and if Italian cinema is hardly at a high point these days, there’s nonetheless always interesting work by established and emerging filmmakers.

The latter are always the focus at NICE, whose 22nd annual edition brings six first or second features by new directors that will compete for the audience-voted City of Florence Award. They’ll include a documentary about local cattle wranglers (The Last Italian Cowboys), a troubled-youth fiction (Here and Now), an inebriative thriller (The Last Prosecco), latterday neo-realism (Manuel), and more. 

The opening night film is As Needed, a culinary comedy that touches on the issue of mental disability in the workplace. Director Francesco Falaschi is expected to be present, as is Silvia Bellotti, whose prize-winning nonfiction Open to the Public (about the bureaucratic chaos that attends Naples’ public housing projects) is the closing night selection. It plays with another hour-long documentary, Enrico Maisto’s The Call, about citizens who suffer the ill luck to be drafted as jurors on mafiosi criminal trials. Fri/30-Sun/2, Vogue Theatre. More info here

Roma
Aside from the imminent Cold War, from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida), no foreign-language movie this year has drummed up the kind of widespread acclaim and awards anticipation as this latest from Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. Both films happen to be gorgeously shot in B&W, and have a certain autobiographical element, but there the comparisons end.

In his first Spanish-language movie since 2001’s Y Tu Mama Tambien—in between he’s done a Harry Potter, dystopian critical favorite Children of Men and intelligent sci-fi hit Gravity—Cuaron looks back at his childhood (and its politically turbulent period of Mexican history) through the lens of a servant in a middle-class Mexico City household in 1970. 

Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is one of two live-in housemaids working for a doctor, his wife, their four children and one grandma. They toil pretty much all day, every day, but have no other expectations, and for the most part it’s a fairly pleasant gig. Or at least it is until the “master” of the house leaves on what the kids are told is a trip to a conference in Canada. But in fact it’s something else, very likely something more permanent. (Hint: The Sexual Revolution may have liberated women in many ways, but it also led a lot of husbands to abandon their families for swinging “freedom”—expecting their wives to stay behind tethered to the home, of course.) Another evolving crisis is Cleo’s discovery that she’s pregnant by a suitor who disappears into thin air the minute she breaks the news. Meanwhile, Mexico itself is undergoing enormous changes, as was the U.S. during the same era.

Both intimate in focus and occasionally grand in scale, this period piece has a great deal to say about class, politics and the sexes, although it’s all presented in a subtextual, non-schematic way. Cuaron stages some magnificent tracking-shot setpieces, but as impressive as it often is stylistically, Roma is at heart an exercise in neo-realist observation and modesty. (Even if the sentimental, melodramatic ending is a tad much.) It’s both a straightforward pleasure to watch and a prime example of a kind of nuanced, insightful movie for grownups one rarely sees these days—at least not without the sugar-coating of marquee stars or an obvious inspirational “message.” At area theaters. 

The Favourite
At the opposite end of the scale from Roma’s proletariat chronicle is this willfully perverse costume bauble that is as aesthetically rarefied as it is great, often rude fun. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, the English ruler of the early 18th century, here portrayed as a gouty, insecure, self-pitying widow without children (she’d suffered numerous miscarriages) who’s putty in the hands of court favorite Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). 

Clever and ruthless, the latter uses alternating currents of flattery and bullying to manipulate the Queen—with consequences that reach as far as policies abroad in a time of war against France. This power dynamic is upset, however, by the arrival of Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), a fallen gentlewoman with no wealth or power save in her own scheming resourcefulness. As she worms her way into the monarch’s confidence, a bitter rivalry develops between the two younger women. 

This is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ (Dogtooth, The Lobster) first time realizing someone else’s script (one penned by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara). But while the results are more mainstream in appeal than he’s managed before, they retain his characteristic flavor of absurd, sometimes grotesque black comedy. An editor friend aptly described The Favourite as “Barry Lyndon meets All About Eve as directed by Peter Greenaway.” It’s a splendidly ornate-looking, precisely acted, ironical and impudent comedy of very ill manners. At area theaters. 

Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 
Rick Prelinger’s popular, ever-changing show of vintage clips returns to the Castro, this time for a two-night run. Among the images of local yesteryears offered by the assembled mix of home movies, industrial films and more are glimpses of sand dunes (!) in 1920s Outer Richmond residential blocks; baseball games of yore; a 1966 “Human Be-In;” Native American protestors of the Alcatraz occupation a few years later; Sputnik-era high school science projects; and a 4K restoration of the famously rediscovered 1906 short “A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire,” which captures downtown just prior to the catastrophic earthquake. Tues/4-Wed/5, Castro Theatre. More info here

Shirkers
Movie production barely existed in Singapore when student Sandi Tan—fueled by adoration of the French New Wave, emerging U.S. independent cinema, and one charismatic American film teacher—decided to make an absurdist “road movie” with like-minded friends. It would be unlike anything the island city-state had generated before, or for the most part even seen. (In the late 80s and early 90s Tan exerted considerable ingenuity simply to access Blue Velvet and other foreign features too daring or esoteric for local release, even on video.) 

But their intended Shirkers, though fully shot, remained unfinished—for reasons only gradually revealed in this acclaimed documentary made by Tan nearly forty years later. Its unedited footage vanished along with the key figure whose motives, actions and relation to the truth remain a mystery after all these years. 

The film that was never seen eventually acquired a sort of “urban legend” status in Singapore. The recovered material seen here (alongside interviews with surviving participants) raises a question: If the feature had actually been completed in 1991, would it have gone down as an enterprising but amateurish lark? Is it, in fact, more valuable for having lay hidden so long, finally resulting in a nostalgic excavation-slash-lament that may be more meaningful than the original thing itself? Opera Plaza. More info here

Searching for Ingmar Bergman
Though he doesn’t seem to be so much in cultural fashion anymore, arguably no single director did as much to bring cinema credibility as a high art form and intellectual pursuit as the great, late Swedish master. This year has seen an increased number of tributes to Bergman (who died in 2007), as it’s the centenary of his birth. Among them is Margarethe von Trotta’s documentary, which charts his towering career through clips, as well as interviews with surviving collaborators (Liv Ullmann, Gunnel Lindblom) and latterday filmmakers he influenced (Olivier Assayas, Mia Hansen-Love, Carlos Saura, Ruben Ostlund, etc.)

Von Trotta counts herself among the latter, and indeed she has compiled a significant body of her own work in the last four decades. However, In Search, while a decent enough introduction for those not already steeped in Bergman, offers only elemental insight into his work. Worse, Von Trotta insists on inserting herself into the entire film, both as a first-person narrator and frequent on-screen presence, frequently dragging her own career into the picture—to the point where it feels like the film should more properly be called Ingmar & Me, Me, Me. The result, alas, comes dangerously close to being more of an exercise in navel-gazing than homage. Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: Another Hole in the Head, Green Book, Shoplifters …

'The God Inside My Ear' opens the Another Hole in the Head horror film fest.

SCREEN GRABS As SF bathes in a toxic haze, with citizens walking around like the masked denizens of a dystopian-future movie, it might seem a bad idea to watch, say, a horror film. Au contraire. When things are at their seeming worst is exactly the right moment to enjoy the escapism of films whose protagonists are in even worse straits than you.

So it’s a perversely good moment for Another Hole in the Head (starts next Wed/28 but  start planning now), the genre-focused offshoot of SF Indiefest that is now entering its 15th year. Running a full two weeks starting next Wednesday (the 28th), it offers the usual range of splat-tastic indie horror, sci-fi, fantasy and thrillers starting with Joe Bandon’s hallucinatory opening night selection The God Inside My Ear. But there will also be a virtual reality day, several shorts programs, documentaries, a Nicolas Cage double header (1993’s Deadfall and last year’s Arsenal, in both of which he plays the same character), two “live film re-scores” of TBA classic titles by The Firmament, and more.

There’s a lot of comedy this year, including such genre semi-parodies as the Japanese Ghost Squad, Chinese zombiefest Lost in Apocalypse, women-in-prison exploitation spoof Amazon Hot Box, deliberately cheesy space opera Galaxy Lords, and very queer slasher sendup Killer Unicorn, in which a ripped dude in a horn-y equine mask stalks the drag queen stars of Brooklyn’s club scene. There’s also a final couple days’ programming that leaves behind such genre categorization entirely, encompassing a gore-free British comedy (I Love My Mum), self-explanatory Industrial Accident: The Story of Wax Trax! Records, and retro teen coming-of-age tale Bernadette. The festivities again take place this year primarily at Japantown’s New People Cinema, Wed/28-Wed/12. More info here.  

Meanwhile, there are plenty of regular films opening this Thanksgiving week. We did not catch in advance Creed II, foodie documentary Chef Flynn, or (alas) Ralph Breaks the Internet, which is said to be great. (Its predecessor Wreck-It Ralph was definitely one of the best mainstream animated features in recent years.) However, we did manage to vet the following, which due to the holiday week are opening either Wed. or Friday as noted:

Hale County This Morning, This Evening 
When RaMell Ross moved to rural Alabama to teach photography, he began filming the locals—in particular, two young men—and their milieu for what turned out to be five years. The impressionistic result is anything but a conventional verite non-fiction narrative; indeed, this is the year’s best poetic documentary this side of the (slightly more straightforwardly informative) Cielo

Some may feel a degree of frustration at how little gets spelled out about the nominal protagonists’ lives, or indeed about the primarily black community in general. But this first feature is an enveloping, richly textured wallow in place and culture, evocative rather than explicatory—not unlike a photography exhibit. It is probably the most lyrical achievement in what’s been a remarkable year for African-American cinema in general. Ross and producer Danny Glover will appear in person on opening night. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

Green Book
“Oscar bait” in the best way, this is a crowdpleaser that really earns that Pavlovian emotional response. Mahershala Ali of Moonlight plays Don Shirley, the Jamaica-born, classically trained U.S. jazz pianist and composer who enjoyed great prestige with “crossover” audiences, playing with symphony orchestras and small combos alike. This factually inspired drama is based on a memoir by Tony Vallelonga—a Noo Yawk goombah and nightclub bouncer Shirley hired as driver (and bodyguard) on a risky concert tour of the South at the tail end of the Jim Crow era. It’s named after a guidebook that African-Americans used for decades, which gave them traveling tips on restaurants and hotels willing to serve “Negroes”—and segregationist hot spots to avoid. 

Yes, the Driving Miss Daisy comparisons are vaguely apt, and yes, the movie does hew to a familiar inspirational seriocomedy mold, though it doesn’t get too mawkish or obvious about that until the very end. But particularly compared to the pandering likes of recent Hidden Figures, it’s a model of dramatic restraint and droll humor. Which surprises, since it’s the first “serious” movie by director Peter Farrelly, whose ouevre to date (basically a crass downhill trajectory since There’s Something About Mary) did not suggest such capabilities.

It’s a very mainstream pleasure in general—so much so that you can safely take parents and grandparents over the holidays—considerably elevated by the two leads. Ali is luxuriously mannered as the highly intelligent (he spoke eight languages), somewhat effete and definitely snobbish Shirley, a man at once celebrated by presidents for his talent and treated like a second-class citizen for his skin color. 

But the movie is stolen whole by Viggo Mortensen, who gives a performance as delightful as any you’ll see this year. He plays the good-natured but brass-knuckled Vallelonga as a classic Italian-American “wiseguy” whose stereotypical lack of sophistication is hilarious, but who also easily convinces us of his fundamental decency. While great comedic turns seldom seem to win the big awards, in my book Mortensen here deserves a little gold man for his mantel. Opens Wed. at area theaters. 

Shoplifters
In this latest from Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda, a little girl is found by a family of petty grifters, who decide to keep her—after all, the home she’s fled is volatile, possibly abusive. With the innocence of the very young, she adapts to their idiosyncratic, legality-circumventing ways, from the titular five-fingered discount shopping to a scam that even Grandma’s got going on. Our wee protagonist isn’t the first outsider to be absorbed into this unconventional clan, which is close-knit and affectionate—but also petty-criminal to the core. 

While at first it seems close to the sentimental child-centric model of such recent Kore-eda joints as I Wish and Our Little Sister, the narrative arc eventually shades into darker terrain—recalling earlier works Nobody Knows and Distance. This isn’t on a par with his best movies, like Still Walking or Like Father, Like Son. But it’s still a strong effort by a great filmmaker, and a welcome return to form after the arid legal procedural of his last film The Third Murder. Opens Wed., Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

At Eternity’s Gate
There have been so many good films about Vincent Van Gogh—from Vincente Minnelli and Robert Altman’s classic dramatic treatments to the beloved Paul Cox documentary and last year’s ravishing animation Loving Vincent—that I suppose it’s only fair we finally have a bad one. Actually, casting Willem Dafoe as the tragic-in-life, immortal-in-death Dutch painter was an inspired choice. Despite his accent, the script’s incongruously modern language, and the age difference (the actor is 25 years older than Van Gogh lived to be), he’s physically apt and summons up the appropriate near-possessed intensity. 

Alas, almost nothing else feels right about Julian Schnabel’s feature, which will inevitably remind you that apart from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, his movies are regarded about as well as his paintings—which is to say, as pretentious luxury items. Working from a screenplay credited to him, his domestic partner Louise Kugelberg, and famed veteran scenarist Jean-Claude Carriere, he chronicles Vincent’s last couple years, when the artist painted nearly all his great works but lived in poverty and deteriorating mental/physical health. 

Schnabel portrays the latter aspects by the most heavy-handed means possible, repeating entire dialogue exchanges verbatim and partially obscuring the image to convey a “compromised” perspective. Worse, he wildly over-does the already tired stylistic device of jittery hand-held camera work to suggest “immediacy.” Rupert Friend is fine as brother Theo, Oscar Isaac is OK as an unflatteringly depicted Gaugin, and there is no lack of good additional actors wasted in nothing roles (Mads Mikkelsen, Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, etc.). But this ugly, affected, tedious, and exasperating film lets them all down. Opens Wed. at area theaters. More info here

Schlock and Cock at the Alamo
Two notably eccentric 1970s exploitation films play the Drafthouse this week. Long before he directed Trading Places, An American Werewolf in London, Animal House or even Kentucky Fried Movie, a 21-year-old John Landis made his feature debut with Schlock aka Banana Monster, a fun sendup of drive-in movies like Trog and Gorilla at Large in which a “missing link” (i.e. Landis in an ape suit) falls in love with a blind Southern California redhead. 

It’s funny, but not as funny—let alone mind-bending—as Jamaa Fanaka’s 1975 Welcome Home Brother Charles aka Soul Vengeance, in which an African-American man avenges his systemic racist abuse by realizing whitey’s worst fear (and greatest fantasy) of black male, er, prowess. OK, we’ll stop being coy: Yes, this is the Giant Strangling Penis blaxploitation movie people don’t really believe exists until they see it. Fanaka’s later Penitentiary movies were more professionally crafted (and Penitentiary II is arguably just as nuts), but this is one of the most conceptually outrageous movies ever made. Welcome Home: Mon/26; Schlock: Wed/28. Alamo Drafthouse. 

Screen Grabs: The French Had a Name For It …

Jeanne Moreau in 'Until the Last One' at The French Had a Name For It 5

SCREEN GRABS Importation of foreign language films has reportedly been on the decline for many years because US audiences are growing more resistant to reading subtitles. That doesn’t appear to be the case at the Roxie, however, where this week brings the fifth edition of The French Had a Name for It, Midcentury Productions’ popular series of vintage Gallic noirs, melodramas and miscellany. 

This time the focus is on the 1950s, when much of French cinema was approaching a state of artistic stagnation that would require the Nouvelle Vague to refresh—though as is usually the case with such things, the New Wave’s auteurs exaggerated the mustiness of the epoch they were replacing. Plenty of worthy work was made in that decade, just as it was in Hollywood, despite the admittedly increasing stolidity of the major studios. 

Particularly highlighted in these six days’ 20 films—none reprised from prior series, as far as we can tell—is the career of Henri Vidal, a strapping actor whose stardom was still ascending at the start of the 1950s. It would be over, along with his life, at its end: Heroin addiction and overwork (no less than five features were released in his final year) contributed to a fatal heart attack at age 40 in 1959. He’d first attracted public notice as the winner of a Parisian physique contest in 1939, and as a protege of singer Edith Piaf. But those good looks doomed him to leading-man parts and genre films that evidently frustrated his desire to be taken more seriously as a talent. 

He is, nonetheless, very good in the genre-oriented films on tap here. They include 1950’s The Strollers aka Quai de Grenelle (1950), an engrossing (if improbable) cautionary tale where a rough-mannered but law-abiding man is mistaken for a bank robber, forcing him to flee to Paris where no end of predatory creeps seal his doom. In the next year’s The Passersby aka La Passante, he’s a simple bargeman who reluctantly takes on a “complicated” woman fleeing criminal peril. His rapidly deteriorating (but still magnetic) looks proved apt for the less sympathetic role of a homicidal thug in Rene Clair’s 1957 The Gates of Paris aka Porte des Lilas

Other highlights in the current series include a double bill of early vehicles for the recently departed Jeanne Moreau; two with the ravishing Marina Vlady, including one (Double Agents aka La Nuit des Espions) co-starring and directed by her then-husband Robert Hossien, by now a Roxie favorite; and Julien Duvivier’s 1952 Holiday for Henriette, a genre-spanning film-within-film construct so pomo it would take the Nouvelle Vague over a decade to catch up with its structural inventiveness. 

One of the finds of the program, a European classic that should be much better known here, is Andre Cayette’s 1949 The Lovers of Verona. This Romeo & Juliet update has brawny peasant glass-blower Serge Reggiani and flower of the wilted aristocracy Anouk Aimee (who was just 16 at the time, nearly two decades before A Man and a Woman) employed as stand-ins for the vain stars of a new silver-screen Shakespeare adaptation. But of course the old tragedy pursues them in modern life, with class conflict and elite greed replacing clan feuds. It’s a marvelously complex screenplay and a beautifully atmospheric, ambitious film. 

There’s a great deal more to be found in this latest “French Had a Name For It,” which runs Thurs/15-Tues/20 at the Roxie. More info here.

Also opening in theaters this week is Steve McQueen’s Widows, with Viola Davis as one of several women reluctantly dragged into the Chicago crime world after their husbands die in a botched big-league robbery attempt. Based on an British TV series from the 1980s, it’s a labored pulp fiction that seems a strange choice for the director of 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger. Not exactly up my alley either was Narcissister Organ Player (at the Roxie), a documentary showcase for the titular masked Brooklyn performance artist whose work plays with issues of gender and race. As identity-politics experimentation, it’s interesting stuff, but watching 90 minutes of it requires a big tolerance for a particular kind of p-art that I got my fill of in the 1980s. 

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

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen Brothers’ last movie Hail, Caesar! was a very mixed-bag tribute to “golden age” Hollywood whose single best element was a singing cowboy played by Alden Ehrenreich. History repeats itself with their latest, another homage in which the titular character is another singing cowpoke. He’s also, as portrayed by the inimitable Tim Blake Nelson, a thing of pure joy—a white-hatted, trigger-happy yodeling nutcase who starts this western omnibus off with a priceless fifteen minutes or so of cheerfully faux-folky black comedy that is pure Coen gold. Not so shabby either is the next segment, with James Franco as an outlaw whose botched bank robbery is merely the start of a very, very bad luck streak. 

These opening miniatures are such an inspired mix of genre cliche, irony, humor and gore that you might reasonably expect the remaining half-dozen stories to suffer a bit by comparison. Still, you don’t expect them to sag quite so much. Taken on their own, later tales involving Tom Waits as a grizzled gold prospector, two traveling frontier buskers (Liam Neeson, Harry Melling), a young woman (Zoe Kazan) on a wagon train, and a stagecoach full of squabbling passengers, do offer certain, more leisurely rewards. But after the energetic two-fold knockout at the start, they seem slow and pedestrian. 

Even that might be intentional—the Coens appear to be paying homage here not so much to classic big-screen westerns as to their later TV knockoffs like Death Valley Days, a never-ending omnibus series that recycled well-worn actors and storylines alike. But it doesn’t prevent the very long (133 minutes) film from becoming a bit of a slog. Made for Netflix, this handsome but minor indulgence for two major filmmakers might best be seen at home, where you can watch each “episode” in isolation rather than swallowing them all in one increasingly onerous gulp. 

El Angel
The blondly pretty, androgynous child of a staid middle-class Buenos Aires home, Carlos Robledo Puch (played here by Lorenzo Ferro) became an Argentinian legend for the same reason his guilt went unsuspected before his capture—no one could quite believe this “angelic” teen capable of bold armed robberies, let alone numerous brutal killings, all executed without a qualm in the early 1970s. 

Luis Ortega’s somewhat fictionalized recap has an inevitable true-crime fascination. But while the portrayal of “Carlitos’” bland sociopathic immorality seems apt, the film ought to eke considerably more suspense and horror out of his acts—which included taking 11 lives. It’s also questionable why Ortega omits certain elements of the case, including rapes committed by “El Angel’s” accomplices (here turned into a composite figure played by Chino Darin), and some of the more abhorrent murders.

Optronica2: Dark Synth
Please excuse our anticipatory orgasmic screams at the very thought of Hans Grusel’s Krankenkabinet ensemble and celluloid mixologist Brutello wreaking musical mashup mayhem on two of our all-time-favorite exploitation maestros: Doris Wishman and Jack Hill. Wishman is the legendary female grindhouse auteur whose unique primitivist style made something unique of such no-budget gentlemen’s joints (ahem) as Nude on the Moon, Keyholes Are For Peeping, Bad Girls Go to Hell, and so forth. Jack Hill is the (marginally) more mainstream talent who lent particular verve and humor to drive-in classics like Switchblade Sisters, Foxy Brown, The Big Doll House and Spider Baby. One can only imagine their commingled and excerpted filmographies will make for one special evening. Also on the Other Cinema bill is Buchia synthesizer music by area electronicist Thomas DiMuzio, plus films by Lori Varga, Tommy Becker and more. Sat/17, Artists Television Access. More info here.

Burning 
South Korean director Chang-dong Lee’s first feature in eight years, since the highly acclaimed Poetry (and Secret Sunshine before it) is another long, leisurely drama, although one that this time heads in a vaguely thriller-like direction. Just vaguely, though. 

Based on a Haruki Murakami short story, it stars Ah-In You as a shy young aspiring writer living in Seoul, though forced to temporarily tend his jailed father’s farm outside the city. A chance encounter reunites him with an erstwhile neighbor and schoolmate (Jong-seo Jeon), but the romance he hopes for with her is complicated by her new friend Ben (Steven Yeun), whom our literary-minded hero calls a “Gatsby”—someone attractive, charming, rich, and mysterious. Turns out Ben isn’t the only side to this triangle that has secrets, either.

Some are calling this ambiguous puzzle, with its subtly backgrounded social and political critiques, a masterpiece. Others are bound to find its cryptic, slowly paced narrative ultimately hollow and exasperating. Either way, it’s worth investigating as one of the year’s more accomplished if divisive arthouse objets d’art. Embarcadero, Alamo Drafthouse, Shattuck Cinemas. 

In the Presence of a Clown
Ingmar Bergman famously stopped directing for the big screen after 1982’s uncharacteristically warm (and autobiographical) Fanny and Alexander, which itself was originally a five-part miniseries. But he continued writing and directing for the stage as well as television for many years, close to his death in 2007. Some of his TV movies were given limited release abroad, some not. One of the least-known is this 1997 telefilm adapted from a Bergman play premiered three years prior. 

Its bizarre storyline has two Swedish mental patients in the late 1920s creating a “living talkie,” a movie performed live called “The Joy of the Joyous Girl.” Add sex with hallucinated coneheaded hermaphrodite clown, a formal philosophy of farting, irrational obsession with composer Franz Schubert, plus the usual musings about existence and death—and you’ve got what is definitely one of the more eccentric works in the Bergman canon. It plays twice this weekend as part of the PFA’s “Bergman 100: Late Works” series. Fri/16 & Sun/18, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Screen Grabs: Festival mania fills local cinemas!

'A Land Imagined' is the closing film of the Second Cinematografo Film Festival at the Kabuki.

SCREEN GRABS There is surely nowhere in the world with more film festivals per capita than San Francisco. While the bigger annual events are mostly over by this time of the year, this weekend provides a good example of just how much diversity our city offers in terms of smaller festivals geared towards serving particular communities and spotlighting particular film genres.

The longest of the four such events taking place over this week alone is a newbie, the 2nd Cinematografo Film Festival, which plays Thurs/8-Sun/11 at the Kabuki. The latest of several Bay Area spotlights on Filipino cinema to arise in recent years, it opens with Chito Rono’s new drama Signal Rock, the Philippines’ official Oscar submission feature this year. Other highlights include a revival of Gene Cajayon’s 2000 The Debut, a pioneering Filipino-American feature, and closing night selection A Land Imagined. The latter is an international co-production set in Singapore, and announces Cinematografo’s intention to cast its programming net beyond solely Pinoy film. More info here

In its third decade now, the SF Transgender Film Festival—the first of its kind of North America—operates this year in an atmosphere of unfortunate extra-relevancy, as the Trump administration is busy eradicating all the protections for trans citizens achieved (mostly) during the Obama years. The six distinct programs (including a kid-friendly Sunday matinee) unspooling at the Roxie this Friday through Sunday encompasses works from around the world. They include documentaries, music videos, narrative miniatures, and other primarily short-format pieces. More info here

Shorts are the whole idea for the inaugural SF IndieShorts, the latest offshoot of that independent local festival mini-empire that already encompasses the long-running SF Indiefest, Docfest, and the imminent Another Hole in the Head. And like those established local fests, it will feature theme parties and live music events as well as film/video programs. Taking place this Friday through Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse, its bills include spotlights on VR, family dysfunction, youth flicks, and an opening night tribute to Sam Green, who was Oscar-nominated for co-directing The Weather Underground and since has specialized in adventuresome “live documentary” performances. More info here

Finally, there’s another newcomer on the scene: Cine Chileno is making its debut at the Castro this Sunday with a one-day tribute to director Silvio Caiozzi, with features stretching the length of his long career: 1979’s coming-of-age saga Julio Begins in July, eccentric 1990 drama The Moon in the Mirror, and his latest, last year’s And Suddenly the Dawn. There will also be a program of his 2010 TV project Cheers from Chile, a documentary miniseries celebrating Chile’s nation-founding bicentennial (and its growing wine industry). More info here

BONUS: This weekend also sees the the 43rd annual American Indian Film Festival at Brava, with dozens of features, hosts and forums “which bring artists, filmmakers, musicians, talent and the general local public together to celebrate, support and experience work produced by native and non-native peoples while advocating for authentic representation of native people in the media. More info here

Among movies opening Friday that we did not get a chance to preview are two well-reviewed ones about ill-fated women of courage. Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland (at the Vogue) is a documentary about the 28-year-old African-American woman who was arrested under suspicious circumstances (the dashcam footage eventually released by police appeared to have been tampered with) during a routine traffic-violation stop in 2015 Prairie View, Texas. Three days later she was found hung to death in her jail cell—a supposed suicide with far too many question marks around it, particularly given the general climate of controversy over recurrent deaths of unarmed blacks in police custody. Ominously, that was a subject Bland had been publicly outspoken about. 

Documentarian Matthew Heineman’s (City of Ghosts, Cartel Land) first narrative feature A Private War stars Rosamund Pike in what many are calling an Oscar-worthy turn as Marie Colvin, the London-based American journalist who lost an eye to a in Sri Lankan Army grenade in 2001, then lost her life covering the siege of Homs in 2012 Syria. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Fail State 
This infuriatingly informative documentary by Alexander Shebanow, executive produced by Dan Rather, examines how government policies have led to an explosion of for-profit “rip off schools”—alleged institutions of higher learning that in many cases lack accreditation, in-person teachers, supplies, or even an actual physical location. Preying largely on the most vulnerable minority and lower-income students hoping to climb up that educational ladder towards the “American Dream,” they instead often saddle them with useless degrees, no improved job prospects, and tens of thousands of dollars in loan debt. 

Government regulations have periodically clamped down hard on such fraudulent exercises, with predictable squawking from the financial sector that now sees them (or rather the loan debts they incur) as a huge money-machine. But Pres. George W. Bush undid all those regulations and then some with a “fox in the hen house” approach to staffing the Dept. of Education. And now Trump, Betsy DeVos et al. are busy dismantling what few protections Obama managed to re-introduce—under a President who himself owned a bogus university that was forced to pay $25 million back to its bilked students. The whole picture is being gamed so heavily in investors’ favor that this documentary worries U.S. public education may face eventual extinction altogether. Roxie. More info here

Afterimage: Corneliu Porumboiu
A major figure in the Romanian New Wave, Porumboiu has personified its characteristic mix of documentary realism, mordant humor and a well-earned cynicism towards societal structures in several striking features to date. His 2006 debut feature 12:08 East of Bucharest was an exercise in poker-faced absurdism as a provincial TV station’s commemoration of the Ceaucescu regime’s 1989 overthrow reinforces heroic myths far removed from the reality of local events. 

2009’s Police, Adjective applied a similar scalpel to the trustworthiness law enforcement, while The Treasure (2015) found a core of national desperation and haplessness in neighbors’ greed for imagined loot buried in a backyard. The director’s latest Infinite Football is a documentary, ostensibly about one man’s obsession with soccer, but like all Porumbuiu’s works its soon manages to encompass more universal, tragicomic themes. The auteur himself will be on hand for the entirety of this four-day retrospective. Thurs/8-Sun/11, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Keaton and Callas…together at last!
Well, not exactly. But two docu-bios showcasing two 20th-century artistic geniuses happen to be opening this Friday. Veteran filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich’s The Great Buster: A Celebration (at Opera Plaza) opens with the director himself being interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1972 about his current subject. Geez, what humility. Fortunately, the rest of this entertaining overview focuses solidly on the great silent comedian’s life and work. 

We get glimpses of his formative years as a “human projectile” child star in a family vaudeville act, as well as of his somewhat sad fate in the talkies—victim of what he admitted was his “biggest mistake,” signing on to a studio (MGM) that took away all his creative autonomy and fast reduced his star wattage to the faintest glow. But few great comedians are more rewarding in excerpt than Keaton, and the film spends plenty of time on the slapstick brilliance of the 1920s features he primarily directed, including such classics as The General and Sherlock Jr. 

Tom Volf’s Maria by Callas (at the Clay—Berkeley and San Rafael openings follow next week) tells the legendary diva’s story “in her own words,” drawing on voluminous TV interviews as well as personal writings read here by Fanny Ardant. Hustled (like Keaton) onto a professional performing track from an early age, the U.S.-born, Greece-raised beauty became what many still consider the greatest operatic talent of the last century. 

But it was her stormy off-stage life (notably a long-term involvement with the married tycoon Aristotle Onassis) that too often dominated public attention, and we see her here constantly hounded by pushy journalists—an early example of today’s common celebrity culture, in which stars resent the loss of privacy to an incessant intrusion that they themselves nonetheless encouraged to an extent. (We glean that Callas quite enjoyed talking about herself to reporters, except when she didn’t.) 

This is a true fan’s tribute, drawing on a treasure trove of footage as well as audio recordings, and with numerous arias seen performed at full length. A full two hours, Volf’s first directorial feature may be a bit much for the just-casually-interested, but devotees will be in heaven. 

Monrovia, Indiana
Still working tirelessly and artfully at age 88, great American documentarian Frederick Wiseman has made a long career out of examining institutions—from the state mental asylum of his notoriously suppressed 1967 debut Titicut Folliesthrough last year’s Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. Here he turns his wry yet carefully neutral gaze towards the thousand residents of a “deep red” state burg still rooted in agriculture, high school sports, and homespun patriotism. It’s this kind of seemingly timeless, insulated community that put Trump in the White House. 

Yet as handsomely crafted as it is (and relatively short by Wiseman’s standards at “just” 143 minutes), Monrovia proves one of the filmmaker’s less rewarding studies. There are moments that surprise, as when an African-American woman’s presence at a funeral (where she is, natch, performing as a singer) jolts us with the realization that until then we haven’t seen a single person of color. But at this roiling, “divisive” political moment, the leisurely slice of small-town life proves disappointingly superficial in terms of probing why so many nice people apparently voted for corruption, against their own best interests…and probably will do so again. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. 

Wierdness and Terror at the Alamo
The Alamo Drafthouse’s Terror Tuesdays and Weird Wednesdays have coughed up more than a few memorable hairballs of retro exploitation entertainment, but in the coming days they are outdoing themselves with three psychotronic gems you need to make part of your cinematic lexicon. Next Tues/13 brings Deadbeat at Dawn, the 1988 no-budget urban gang warfare movie from Jim Van Bebber, the Cincinnati auteur who’d later become (slightly) better-known for Charlie’s Family, the fictionalized Manson movie that became legendary for being unfinished for so many years. Dawn is a scruffier, nastier violent delinquent movie than Roger Corman ever dared to make, as crazy as Switchblade Sisters or Class of 1984 without being quite so cartoonish. 

On Wed/14, it’s Philip Brody’s 1993 Body Melt, an unclassifiable Aussie mix of horror, social satire and enthusiastic bad taste involving (among other things) a nutritional supplement that causes eventual great bodily harm. It’s not unlike Larry Cohen’s The Stuff in some respects, but with a crass, often very funny outrageousness all its own. It was a first and last feature for writer-director Philip Brophy, but it is one you will not forget. 

Finally, getting a bit ahead of ourselves, there’s the Tues/20 showing of The Manitou, perhaps the most demented of the fairly big-budget, mainstream “possession” movies that followed in the wake of The Exorcist. Susan Strasberg plays a San Francisco woman who finds out the tumor in her neck is actually a gestating “vengeful 400-year-old Indian spirit,” and…well, aren’t you sold already? Need we add that the cast also manages to include Tony Curtis, Stella Stevens and Burgess Meredith? That it ends on a note that aspires towards 2001: A Space Odyssey’s cosmic mysticism? Director William Girdler (Three on a Meathook, Grizzly) died in a helicopter crash the next year, which is tragic, but you can’t say his filmography didn’t end on a very, very high note. More info here