Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: How about a little levity?

'OSS 117 Lost in Rio'

One slender plus in all this corona-crisis-ing has been the extent to which friends and strangers alike have gone to amuse each other long-distance, whether in creating videos or simply trading digital quips. But there’s always room for more levity, so below we have part one of a highly subjective recommendation list of movie comedies that should be pretty easy to find via the usual free or paid streaming sources.

While these are all back-catalog picks, needless to say the entertainment industry is continuing to crank out new funny films, some of which had intended to open in theaters before fate intervened. Among them is writer-director Tyler Cornack’s unappetizingly named Butt Boy, in which he plays a listlessly unexciting husband, father, and corporate IT guy who nonetheless discovers a terribly exciting, compulsive, dangerous… er, hobby? As local disappearances mount, he starts being suspected of involvement by the hardboiled police dick (Tyler Rice) he’s assigned to as an AA sponsor.

Shot and scored like a poker-faced thriller, Butt Boy is an impressive stunt that manages to sustain a one-joke premise by taking the most deadpan possible approach to the most juvenile concept imaginable. Available on VOD April 14 (and on DVD/BluRay at month’s end), it’s an improbably smart execution of a willfully stoopid idea—and hence may well tickle the funnybone of those whose automatic response might be “That sounds like the worst Adam Sandler movie ever.”

But let’s look backward at some celluloid classics, and a few movies that might one day qualify as such:

My Man Godfrey
Everyone has their favorite screwball comedy—the 1930s form that officially kicked off with 1934’s It Happened One Night, which itself holds up very well. Mine is definitely this 1936 gem from director Gregory La Cava, a drinking buddy of W.C. Fields’ and an inspired talent of the era whose career barely outlasted it.

The peerless Carole Lombard plays a Manhattan debutante who cheerfully picks up a “forgotten man” (i.e. unemployed victim of the Great Depression) at a homeless encampment as part of a society-ball scavenger hunt, then hires him as butler. Once ensconced in her mansion, Godfrey (William Powell) is amused and appalled to discover that everyone in Irene’s wealthy family is as crazy and oblivious as she is. Its social commentary still bitingly relevant today, this perfect bauble of art deco absurdism remains a joy.

OSS 117: Lost in Rio
Before they created an Oscar upset with 2011’s nouvelle silent film The Artist, director-writer Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin made two spoofs of the innumerable 1960s European spy-intrigue knockoffs that tried to steal some of 007’s thunder. (There actually was an original series of B-grade OSS 117 films from that era, which like the James Bonds were adapted from a pulp novel franchise.)

Both are hilarious, but we slightly prefer this 2009 sequel over 2006’s OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies for its greater retro-swinging-’60s extravagance—and for possibly the funniest orgy sequence in cinematic history. Dujardin again plays the debonair yet thick-witted French secret agent whose caveman mentality is forever coughing up furballs of whopping misogyny and racism. In bed or in peril (or both), the joke is forever on him, and it’s a great joke whose humor aims several notches higher than the not-dissimilar Austin Powers movies.

Finders Keepers
“Stranger than fiction” doesn’t begin to cover the jaw-dropping impact of this 2015 documentary about a notorious case you may have once heard something about—but believe me, the details are more spectacular than you could imagine. In 2004, the dissolute son of a wealthy North Carolina family lost his leg (and his father) in a small plane crash.

Outfitted with a prosthetic replacement, he somehow lost track of the original limb—which wound up, in mummified form, in the hands of a local low-rent hustler and would-be reality TV star eager to use this grisly find to promote his own “brand.” The resulting grotesque legal tussle made incredulous headlines worldwide. With its over-the-top characters and parade of shameless behaviors, this is a real-life trainwreck of true hilarity that (like the current streaming favorite Tiger King) does not lack a certain tragic pathos.

The Kid Brother
For decades no silent comic was held in higher regard than Charlie Chaplin; nowadays we tend to prefer the less sentimental, more deadpan antics of Buster Keaton. But of the top three 1920s celluloid comedians, probably no one delivered more laughs than Harold Lloyd, whose more workmanlike features still hold up very well today. Probably his most famous remains 1925’s campus romp The Freshman, while his signature sequence is the perilous stunt hanging from a clocktower in 1923’s Safety Last! 

But you could make a case for this 1927 comedy western as his finest hour. He plays a milquetoast in hick town (literally named Hickoryville) who’s forever being shamed by the burly masculinity of his sheriff father and siblings. But once some actual bad hombres come to town, naturally Harold gets a chance to prove himself. More than just a series of gags, this is a beautifully engineered piece that both parodies the western genre and sweetly milks its stock pleasures.

Daisies
In part a hymn to the slapstick masters of yesteryear, partly a political critique—whether of Communism or capitalism, you decide—Vera Chytilova’s 1966 Czech New Wave classic is an anarchic delight. Two young women (Jitka Cerhova, Ivana Karbanova) of no visible employment or other means drift through life in a restless yet indolent daze. These manic pixies are like a perverse living embodiment of the “to create, you must destroy” principle, gluttonously devouring everything (from food to fun) in sight, creating an outrageous spectacle while doing so.

The director abets their antic Dionysian frenzy with great cinematic invention that encompasses op-art image manipulation, collage, animation, and so forth. Originally well-received at home, Daisies was just a year later proclaimed decadent (for “depicting the wanton”) and banned by ever-fickle government minders after 1967’s Soviet clampdown on the liberations of Prague Spring. But that did nothing to slow down its development as a worldwide, proto-riot-grrl cult fave.

Phil the Alien and Evil Aliens
If you prefer your humor to be of the interplanetary rather than international kind, these two overlooked indie comedies are worth a look. Rob Stefaniuk’s 2004 Canadian feature Phil the Alien has him as a sort of dimwit humanoid E.T. who lands in the Great White North and tries to fit in—by drinking a lot of beer, saying “ay,” joining a Christian rock band, talking to beavers, and so forth. Either you’ll get the joke or you won’t (Canadian humor is definitely its own specialized realm), but this amiably ridiculous low-budget goof is endearing in its self-deprecating, laid-back, non-rat’s-ass-giving way.

The next year’s U.K. Evil Aliens, on the other hand, goes out of its way to be as rambunctiously rude as possible. A jaded film crew traipses off to a remote Welsh farmstead to investigate a probably-bogus UFO sighting for their trashy tabloid TV show. Unfortunately for them, the invasion turns out to be quite real. Cheerful, tasteless and fast-paced, this splatstick comedy does not exactly appeal to one’s more sophisticated viewing instincts, but it is funny. When it premiered at SF’s own Another Hole in the Head festival, extra screenings had to be added—and many of the attendees were already repeat viewers.

Never Again
Occupying narrative terra more firma is writer-director Eric Schaeffer’s 2001 romantic comedy starring San Francisco-born “Transparent” star Jeffrey Tambor and the late, great Jill Clayburgh. They’re pushing-60 Manhattan singles who’ve separately sworn they’ll never brave the relationship waters again, until…well, you know. Uneven but extremely well-acted, and sometimes startlingly frank about its characters’ less-than-flawless humanity, this is a movie about love in later life that has some big laughs, but also real depth. One friend of mine was so impressed he actually gave a DVD copy to his ex-wife.

She Done Him Wrong
Sexual insecurity had no place in the universe of Mae West, an infamous success of outrageous stage innuendo who was almost too hot for the movies. In fact, the outcry at her “lewdness” was such that many considered her chiefly to blame for the censorious Production Code which made Hollywood product much tamer after mid-1934. For a brief moment, however, she was allowed relatively free rein. After a support turn that stole the show in 1932’s Night After Night, she got her first starring vehicle in this 1933 classic, which barely runs past an hour but is packed thick with risque content.

Mae plays Lady Lou, a nightclub singer—or, er, something—who’s the living illustration of her motto “When women go wrong, men go right after ‘em.” In a pinch, she might be willing to turn “respectable” for the sake of temperance-league official Cary Grant. But if so, she makes perfectly clear, it’ll be on her own terms. Set in the “Gay Nineties” (if only because its fashions suited West’s hourglass figure—she was literally sewn into her costumes), this cheeky underworld melodrama is entirely dominated by the wit and will of a woman whose swaggering sexual self-determinacy remains awe-inspiring.

Screen Grabs: Leap upon your sofa, intrepid explorers

'Lost City of Z'

Now that theaters are closed and basically everyone is reduced to home viewing, it’s easier than ever to see what those viewing trends are. And interestingly enough, a whole lotta people are gravitating towards fictive epidemic narratives like the very good 2011 Contagion or 1995’s thriller Outbreak, as well as dystopian-future sci-fi. Well, choose your own poison, but what may seem amusing while this crisis is still a novelty may just exacerbate mental health issues everyone will be at risk for as the coronavirus situation drags on.

Ergo, we’ll be focusing this column—which, needless to say, isn’t going to be about new theatrical openings for a while—on viewing recommendation lists designed to lift your mood, fight claustrophobia, and otherwise provide some distraction from the news and from the tedium of self-quarantining. As for me, I tend to have a high tolerance for art that may seem unduly depressing or harsh to others. But we’ll be giving that stuff a wide berth for the time being, in the interest of making life a little more positive, fun, or at least diverting while your entertainment options are temporarily reduced to in-house screens.

For the vast majority of Americans, being on lockdown doesn’t mean traipsing off to one’s vacation home, or some other place where isolation is really more an indulgence than an unpleasant necessity. For many urban dwellers in particular, without even a backyard to safely mosey into, the potential for going “stir-crazy” is high—oh, not to the “I hacked my gerbil to pieces in a blackout” level, but certainly to a depressed, lethargic, sleeping-too-much degree.

So this first annotated focuses on armchair travel: Movies that broaden your physical horizons, whether through exotic locales, travel narratives, or other means. I’ve tried to avoid the obvious “luxury vacation porn” (typified by the sort of story in which some movie star as an ordinary Yank discovers romance and joie de vivre in Tuscany, southern France, a Greek island, whatever), already-familiar “sweeping epics,” upscale travelogue eye candy a la Baraka, and titles that you’ll see on every other list of this thematic type. (In addition to a lot of lesser films, that unfortunately means no Y Tu Mama Tambien.)

Many of the recommended features below can be found through free library or commercial streaming services, if not posted gratis on YouTube and such. Just do a little online searching—you’ve got the time.

The Lost City of Z (2016)
Most large-scale period “quest” narratives are either triumphant or tragic, but James Gray’s fact-based film finds something oddly inspiring in a dogged failure that sprawls across decades and continents. Charlie Hunnam is very good as an early 20th century British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett, who became obsessed with finding a supposed lost ancient city in the Amazonian jungle. A delightful Robert Pattinson plays his adventuring sidekick, Sienna Miller the wife forever left behind, and Angus Macfayden a wealthy patron whose inability to endure the rigors of the journey he joins has disastrous consequences for all. Deliberately old-fashioned in many respects, this uneven, episodic two-and-a-half-hour saga is nonetheless quite richly rewarding in the end.

The Lost World (1925)
Likewise seeking something of fabulous South American legend—but this time finding it—are the protagonists in this recently restored silent-era blockbuster adapted from a novel by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Their expedition from London journeys to a remote, hidden area so isolated from time that dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasts still roam its plateau. The precursor to King Kong (not to mention Jurassic Park), complete with innovative stop-motion creature animations, this splashy entertainment holds up very well, and is quite shockingly close in gist to many of today’s multiplex fantasy-adventures nearly a century later.

Alone Across Australia (2004)
Though a celebrity in his native land, Aussie mountain climber and world traveler Jon Muir is also something of an amiably shaggy loner whose often record-setting adventures—from sea kayaking voyages to the North Pole via Siberia—are also often solo ones. This diaristic, self-filmed documentary account of his lone walk (well, with equally adaptable Jack Russian terrier Seraphim for company) through the continent’s geographic center encompasses three deserts, 1600 miles, 128 days, and almost no other human contact. Traveling with very few resources, largely living off the threadbare land, he suffers some serious perils, and one cruel twist of fate that may well reduce you to tears. But he’s so endearing, we root for his success—though it’s hardly a trip you’d want to emulate.

The World Before Your Feet (2018)
Entirely different yet oddly similar in spirit is the obsession of former civil engineer Matt Green, a gregarious sort who’s walked across the US (in just five months), but is seen here embroiled in a project that may never end, if he can help it: Walking every block, nook and cranny of NYC’s five boroughs, from central Manhattan to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn, Governor’s Island, et al. En route he uncovers a whole lot of buried history and diverse humanity. This delightful documentary by Jeremy Workman underlines how many surprises the everyday world we take for granted still has in store, if we just take the time to look closer.

Russian Ark (2002)
While Green’s one-man study of NYC accumulates years and thousands of walking miles, Russian master Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinary feature crams three centuries of history into one building and a single 90-minute shot. Involving over 2000 costumed performers, this feat of camera movement and crowd choreography travels through the Winter Palace of the Russian State Heritage Museum, each room bringing to life a different period from the building’s past. Though not driven by a conventional narrative, and lacking this director’s usual transcendental lyricism (see 1997’s Mother and Son), Russian Ark is enveloping as a kind of cultural-identity summation combining elements of museum tour and live spectacle.

The Necessities of Life (2008)
Travel is a mental as well as a physical state—no one journeys farther than the agoraphobe who ventures outside. This lovely French-Canadian feature by Benoit Pilon (whose prior ones were mostly documentaries) makes the familiar seem startling by viewing it through wholly inexperienced eyes. Tivii (Natar Ungalaaq) is an Inuit man diagnosed with tuberculosis by traveling government medical authorities in 1952, where there was a Canadian epidemic. Speaking only Inuktitut, and having never been beyond his sparsely populated homeland of mostly-frozen tundra, Tivii is endlessly baffled and amazed by the simplest norms at the Quebec City sanatorium where he’s housed for long-term treatment. He forges tentative bonds with a kindly nurse (Eveline Gelinas) and an orphaned, bilingual young patient (Paul-Andre Brasseur), though even with them, the cultural divide is vast. It’s a quiet but deeply moving story that arrives at a beautiful affirmation of what we all share as humankind.

We’ll continue with Part Deux of this travel-oriented movie roundup later in the week…

Screen Grabs: Cinemas go dark, but here’s what to watch

'Blow the Man Down'

As I write this on Monday the 16th, “shelter-at-home” decrees around the coronavirus have negated any need to tell you about all the individual festivals, screenings and venues that had already declared themselves canceled or postponed: Now there will be no public film showings in the Bay Area, period, at least through April 7. Several major events originally scheduled even for after that date have already bitten the bullet and canceled outright (notably SFFilm), while others (including SF Silent Film Festival) announced a move to later in the year.

Many major commercial releases have been pulled from the calendar, their new opening dates TBA. (This is a matter of industry self-preservation, since as you might expect, attendance at movie theaters last week was the lowest in decades. Nobody wants their $100 million movie, or their $500,000 one for that matter, to debut to empty houses.) Numerous smaller films were already planning to be available on home formats simultaneous with their planned theatrical release, and in future weeks we’ll try to keep you apprised of those options.

Meanwhile, most folk already have a plethora of audiovisual home-entertainment choices. But even if you don’t have cable or a particular streaming service, there are plenty of ways to see movies, even for free. Your friendly local public library systems have lots of digital content—SFPL has the large “libraries” of both Hoopla and Kanopy, the latter including a slew of international classics from the Criterion Collection. All you need is your library ID and a simple registration. PBS (right now showcasing Ken Burns’ “Baseball” series) and local affiliate KQED offer a wide range of free online programs, not least the stellar feature documentaries from longtime broadcast showcase POV.

If you’re looking for more esoteric fare, the SF-based Internet Archive has—in addition to millions of other free movies, music, books, software and other media—the huge “ephemeral films” (old instructional classroom and industrial shorts, etc.) collection of the Prelinger Archives. There’s also a deep well of vintage experimental cinema

All arts organizations and workers are going to be hard-hit by the closures, so this is a great time to get online and support their venues by buying theater passes, gift cards and other items for future use. That will at least help them stave off bankruptcy and permanent closure—since this crisis is probably going to hit many people harder financially than in terms of actual physical illness.

This column was written on short notice after the SF mayor’s announcement, following several days’ waiting to hear just what the extent of public shutdowns would be. We promise that in coming weeks we’ll work up some viewing lists of movies old, new, foreign, domestic, et al. that can be duly accessed at home. Meanwhile, the gears of the industry are just starting to address the fact that theatrical exhibition won’t “be a thing” for a little while, and that some alternative release plans must be thrown together for movies that weren’t already planning to simultaneously hit home formats.

Some new independent films that were originally scheduled to hit big screens this Friday have acted quickly to make that leap. Offering a “theatrical at home viewing option” is the seriocomedy Phoenix, Oregon, which can be seen by purchasing a “ticket” at one of the theaters where it is (or was going to be) playing at www.phoenixoregonmovie.com, then emailing a copy of the ticket or receipt to home@phoenixoregonmovie.com, which will then send you a one-time streaming link for the film. (You’ll also get links to any live filmmaker Q&A events still happening.)

Gary Lundgren’s movie is the kind of low-key but rewarding enterprise that will please fans of such past indie crowdpleasers as Big Night and Waitress. Like them, it’s sort of a foodie movie, here involving the re-opening of a Northwestern smalltown’s abandoned bowling alley as a slightly upscaled sport-plus-cuisine joint featuring the rarefied pizza pies of perfectionist chef Carlos (Jesse Borrego). He’s lured as bartender and fellow investor his friend Bobby (James Le Gros), an erstwhile coworker at the Italian restaurant of obnoxious cheapskate Kyle (Diedrich Bader), who needless to say is not happy when the two men depart to become his business rivals. Other major figures here include House’s Lisa Edelstein as a sexy freelance alcohol sales rep, Kevin Corrigan as a cantankerous bowling-alley-repair specialist, and Reynaldo Gallegos as a bigshot venture capitalist who does not send out trustworthy vibes.

The focus here is on Bobby, a somewhat sad-sack divorcee living in a trailer. He’s also an artist working on a graphic novel, but hasn’t really made any effort to get published—his life has been so consistently disappointing, he no longer bothers even getting his hopes up. A familiar face who’s played small parts in big movies (like Zodiac) and big parts in small movies (too many to mention), as well as guest spots on TV shows (from ER to Girls) since the mid-80s, James Le Gros is a terrific actor who probably wouldn’t have played the diversity of roles he has if he’d become the star many imagined he would about 30 years ago, when he was in a string of hits like Drugstore Cowboy and Point Break.

The appealing Phoenix, Oregon is somewhat predictable in its basic story beats. But this slice of cinematic comfort food will indeed make you pine for some high-end pizza, and it will make you appreciate Le Gros, whose wry, soulful performance gives it depth.

Of course, long before anyone heard of COVID-19, plenty of movies were already bypassing theatrical release and going directly to streaming. One that arrives on Amazon Prime this Friday (after a prize-winning premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, followed by dates at several other such events) is Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy’s Blow the Man Down. The writing-directing duo’s first feature is another small town tale, albeit this one more of a black comedy-slash-murder mystery. Two young women (Morgan Saylor, Sophie Lowe) who’ve just buried their mother after a long illness in Easter Cove, Maine—after putting their lives on hold to care for her—are dismayed to discover mom left nothing but debts. Even the house will have to be sold.

But after one sister stomps out, and into a bar pickup that rapidly turns dangerous, the two find themselves having to dispose of another body—one they’re not related to, and which wasn’t expecting to be a corpse so soon. They also discover that mom and several of her seemingly innocuous local contemporaries (including June Squibb, Annette O’Toole, and an imposingly nasty Margo Martindale) were up to considerably more than gossip and bake sales.

At least one more dead body, a full-on bordello, and other surprises turn up in what turns out to be one not-so-sleepy-after-all “quaint” fishing hamlet. It’s a clever movie whose characterful and low-key suspense pleasures are like the screen equivalent of a new book by Kate Atkinson or Louise Penny.

Stay in, stay well, and we will soon be loading you down with further ideas for your streaming watch-list.

Screen Grabs: A major director quietly remakes the Western

First Cow

Austerity is not a quality greatly prized in commercial filmmaking. While we may revere them now, it’s worth remembering that such leading cinematic minimalist auteurs as Dreyer and Bresson had great difficulty raising funds for their projects, which duly repaid investor skepticism by seldom turning a profit. Thus it’s particularly impressive that Kelly Reichardt has managed to make eight features and even cultivated a growing (if still limited) audience over the last quarter-century.

None of this work has been “easy” in any conventional sense, and though she’s employed one more-or-less bona fide movie star (Michelle Williams) several times, her quiet, stripped-down, often somewhat cryptic narratives do not pander to the kinds of acting histrionics that win Oscars, let alone to predictable beats of laughter, tears and thrills. Her most accessible film, 2013’s Night Moves (not to be confused with the 1975 Arthur Penn film), was an ostensible “eco-thriller” that did have tension and (mostly off-screen) violence, but was really another low-key character study like her prior Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff. Even working in the short-story idiom of 2016’s Certain Women, which was essentially three separate tales set in one small-town Montana community, Reichardt offered slices of everyday life rather than neatly contained miniatures.

I confess her no-frills naturalism can sometimes feel a little arid, even dull, in a “worthy” way that makes you feel guilty for wanting a tad more melodrama, plot resolution, anything. But her new First Cow—based on a novel by co-scenarist Jonathan Raymond, though apparently quite loosely—provides a case of a filmmaker’s particular sensibility finding an ideal subject. Like their prior collaboration Old Joy, this is a story of male friendship. But where that slight film provided just a platonic relationship’s closing chapter, this period piece charts its entire course. And while that course may finally be tragic (I’m not spoiling anything—the film starts with the discovery of two corpses in a shallow forest grave nearly 200 years later), First Cow has a warmth unusual amongst Reichardt’s features to date. Its protagonists simply enjoy each other’s company, and we enjoy theirs.

In the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, amiable Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is having a rough time of it trying to keep fed and pleased the rough group of fur trappers he’s joined as grub-wrangler. But by chance he meets someone much worse off: King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese emigre fleeing from vengeful Russians. Cookie hides the fugitive, and though they’re soon parted, they are overjoyed to reunite some time later at a trading post, when both are free agents.

Pondering how to make their fortune as a team, they stumble upon a great scheme: Surrounded by frontiersmen desperate for any scarce creature comfort, they put Cookie’s East Coast pastry training and King’s natural salesmanship to work in hawking “oily cakes” that are like a taste of long-lost home for many. There is, however, a catch. The secret ingredient is milk stolen from the region’s first dairy cow, owned by its government overseer (Toby Jones), who would no doubt have them shot if he discovered their theft.

As already demonstrated in the bleaker Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt has a knack for credibly portraying frontier life as it most likely was, as opposed to the action-packed fiction of most “Westerns.” We’re immediately absorbed here by the simple, all-consuming details of everyday life, in which everything must be hand-made, usually by oneself—there are no stores, let alone any Amazon. Our heroes are so likable, and so well-suited as a duo (being two kind-hearted strays of above-average intelligence if little formal education), that suspense arises simply from our beginning to worry about them. They may be smart, but they may be too nice to survive in this rather brutish, barely “civilized” environ.

First Cow may still strike some as too leisurely, and not nearly plot-driven enough. However, if you go in with the proper expectations for a low-key, almost meditative experience—in line with Reichardt’s prior endeavors—this may seem not only her personal best to date, but likely one of 2020’s best films. It opens Friday at area theaters including Embarcadero. More info here.

The director will also be in town this weekend, appearing for a Q&A at a screening of Certain Women this Saturday amidst the Roxie’s short Kelly Reichardt Country retrospective.

Other local openings this Friday include Bloodshot, a new comic-book-adapted action fantasy starring the inimitable Vin Diesel; “faith-based entertainment” biopic/romance I Still Believe, which dramatizes Christian music star Jeremy Camp’s first marriage and his wife’s terminal cancer; prison-set crime drama The Informer, starring Joel Kinnaman as an ex-con sent back “inside” to infiltrate mob operatives for the FBI; and (at the Roxie) a revival of 2003 anime favorite Tokyo Godfathers, which lifts its narrative conceit from a much-remade western tale that was filmed by John Ford twice.

Getting released at last is The Hunt, which you may recall was pulled last fall in the wake of several mass shootings, and because conservatives who hadn’t seen it howled that it apparently portrayed “liberal elitists” hunting down Trump supporters for sport. It turns out, that is indeed the plot gist. You may wonder why Compliance director Craig Zobel and two writers from the Watchmen series would make what amounts to a paranoid conservative fantasy, in which sympathetically caricatured “rednecks” are forced to flee for their lives from unsympathetically caricatured, privileged, literally murderous “progressives.” And having now seen it, I couldn’t tell you why. The Hunt has a jokey tone, but its broad (and gory) ersatz satire isn’t ironical or nuanced enough to justify a claim that it’s anything but reactionary. If the makers intended something else, they sure blew getting that message across.

We did manage to see two sorta-kinda thrillers in advance, both of which were somewhat disappointing. Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy adapts cult author Charles Willeford’s novel about an art critic (The Square’s Claes Bang) who’s introduced by a wily rich collector (Mick Jagger, who still can’t act) to a famously reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland). Intrigue ensues, yet somehow never ignites, or convinces.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow has Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train) as the blank, passive new wife of a privileged junior-executive bro (Austin Stowell). Left alone in their intimidatingly luxe home, her insecurity and ennui generate a dangerous addiction: Swallowing hazardous objects. Billed as a “genre-bending feminist thriller,” and sold as quasi-horror, Swallow is in fact closer to Todd Hayne’s Safe as a portrait of neurotic discontent within stifling gender roles. It does attain some depth and punch in the end, yet the character writing is so thin these people seem like paper cutouts rather than recognizable, dimensionalized human beings.

Entrapment of a different sort is the theme of 83-year-old Brit social realist Ken Loach’s latest, Sorry We Missed You. Its protagonists are a working-class Newcastle family who seem to be working ever-harder only to sink deeper in debt. Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) gets a new job delivering for an Amazon-type company that promises independence and high returns. But what that really means is that the company makes crippling demands on its “franchise” workers without providing any benefits, base pay, or insurance.

Wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is a home health-care provider who is similarly worked to the bone running from one elderly and/or disabled client to another. They depend on her, yet the company she labors for treats her as a disposable cog in a machine. Long hours leave the Turners little time for parenting, which becomes an issue as teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) drifts into mild delinquency.

This is a vivid fictive depiction of how the “gig economy” increasingly asks more from low-end workers as it gives them less in return, and as such, it’s an important movie. (It’s the labor of new-style peasants like the Turners that make Jeff Bezos the richest man on the planet.) But the more self-defeating aspects of Loach’s stubborn neorealist non-style are on full display here: A story that should be hard-hitting and suspenseful only gets partway there thanks to its drab, almost artless presentation and often stilted acting by non-professionals. It’s like a movie made by a political advocacy committee—undeniably well-intentioned, but also something of a chore to sit through. It’s at Opera Plaza.

Fear not, there actually are some movies this week besides First Cow that we recommend (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Jose
Like other countries that have spent years wracked by civil war and additional extreme hardships, Guatemala hasn’t developed much of a film industry—something that is pretty low on the priority list when more essential elements of a stable society are still just coming together. Perhaps surprisingly, two among the rare Guatemalan features we’ve seen in U.S. theaters lately were gay-themed narratives. Late last year there was the very good Temblores aka Tremors, about a married upper-class man’s tumultuous coming out in Guatemala City. Now there’s the equally strong Jose, which is set in the same locale, albeit way down the socioeconomic ladder.

The titular figure (Enrique Salanic) is a young man who’s the last offspring still living at home with his devoutly religious, widowed mother (Ana Cecilia Mota). Both just scrape by on marginal jobs in a milieu where there’s more crime than legitimate opportunity. Jose’s love life consists of random hookups until he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), a transient construction worker. Theirs is a joyful rapport (both in and out of bed) that director Li Cheng conveys in seemingly effortless, persuasive terms. But Luis wants the two of them to have a life together—somewhere other than impoverished Guatemala—and Jose can’t bring himself to cut the cord with his needy mother.

This is film of few words, and on the rare occasion when we do get much dialogue, the inexperienced performers’ limitations become evident. But while docudrama-ish Jose may have little in the way of “plot,” in its quiet way it nonetheless adds up to a full and powerful narrative experience whose themes feel universal. Roxie. More info here

Human Nature
Written nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World has proved alarmingly prescient, particularly in the realm of anticipating various forms of scientific progress that are only now starting to become realities. This documentary by Adam Bolt surveys leading experts world-wide to ponder where humanity is very likely heading, and whether we really wanna go there. “Gene editing” of the DNA sequences known as CRISPR could soon make it possible to remove hereditary inclinations towards diseases or disabilities. But will this also lead to “designer babies” in which people select characteristics on the basis of racist or other cultural biases, summoning the dread specter of Nazi eugenics?

At a moment when it seems like practically every non-fiction feature is some kind of horror story—for very good reason—it is something of a relief and an anomaly that Human Nature refuses to hit the panic button that is well within its reach. The scientists here believe that mankind is too diverse (in its “likes” as well as its physical features) to encourage a new laboratory-bred bio-engineered fascism, and that the good such breakthroughs can do outweighs fears of the worst.

These authorities also explain very complicated science in layperson’s terms, which Bolt frequently illustrates via computer graphics. Human Nature is entertaining as well as highly informative, and you might be shocked to find yourself leaving the theater more hopeful than you came in. Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. (Also opens 3/20 at Roxie in SF.)

Scream for Help
In his first decade as a director, late London native Michael Winner made some good 1960s British features, and remained a solid if seldom-inspired craftsman as his career took an international turn at the beginning of the ’70s. By that decade’s end, however, he’d become one of the industry’s worst hacks, making increasingly lousy Charles Bronson movies (including sequels to the original Death Wish, which he’d directed) and other dross, seemingly more interested in his status as a Thatcherite pundit, occasional actor, and all-around media celebrity back home. (Among his self-promotions was writing a notably crass restaurant-review column, as well as something called The Big Fat Pig Diet Book.)

Possibly the most obscure amongst all his American features, the 1984 Scream for Help was not intended to be directed by him, but its unique combination of the lurid and juvenile seems to be all his. Indeed, scenarist Tom Holland (who’d already written a couple decent genre films, and would later also direct significant ones like the original Fright Night and Child’s Play) was reportedly horrified with what Winner did to his material.

Christie (Rachael Kelly) is a suburban teen whose well-off mother (Marie Masters) divorced her father to marry handsome young Paul (David Allen Brooks). But Christie is convinced he just wants to kill mom and inherit her fortune. Her suspicions are furthered when she discovers Paul is secretly shagging trampy Brenda (Lolita Lorre), who is living with her “brother” (Rocco Sisto). But he is in fact her husband, and they plan to kill Paul for his money after he’s killed Christie’s mom for her money.

Featuring actors from soap operas (as well as several who were never seen again), Scream for Help is like a Nancy Drew mystery, with Christie racing around town on her bicycle and hiding in bushes to hunt down clues. Or at least an alternative-universe Nancy Drew mystery in which our sleuthing heroine is an obnoxious brat (you actually kinda sympathize when Paul starts wanting to kill her), who is somehow forever walking in on people having sex.

The result is a sort of slick yet ultra-cheesy precursor to the greatly superior The Stepfather, which would arrive three years later. Its absurdities are only heightened by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones’ incongruously lush orchestral score, so over-the-top you may wonder if he was tacitly ridiculing the onscreen action. This is a camp classic—or it would be, if anyone knew about it. Wed/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Traveling the world, popcorn in hand

'In Search of Voodoo: Roots of Heaven' plays at the African Film Fest

This week’s openings personify the movies’ appeal as armchair travel, encompassing cinematic detours to Ireland, Israel, Poland, China (twice), American backroads and various African nations, plus a tribute to sheer creative wanderlust (see East Meets West, below).

Should none of the above destinations appeal, there’s always another trip to Neverland, this time courtesy of Wendy—a new Peter Pan spin that’s the first film from Benh Zeitlin since his debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild. Early reviews have been divided between enthusiasm, and concern that it’s a little too Beast-y in frenetic style while too little concerned with J.M. Barrie’s story.

Other commercial openings we did not see in advance include Burden, a fact-inspired drama about the Ku Klux Klan that was well-received at Sundance in 2018 but has taken its time getting to theaters; Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back, with Ben Affleck as an alcoholic former basketball star seeking redemption through a college coaching gig; and Onward, a new Pixar animation fantasy-adventure with Tom Holland and Chris Pratt voicing brother elves.

For something more aptly reflecting our current reality—in which many people are less outward-bound than slaves to their “devices”—there’s SF Cinematheque’s program I Hate the Internet. Promising “Techno-Dystopian Malaise and Visions of Rebellion,” its centerpiece is Zach Blas’ Contra-Internet: Jubilee 2033, a playful “remake” of Derek Jarman’s original punk phantasmagoria Jubilee now re-set in a near-future Silicon Valley. Riffing on similar themes are additional works by Jesse McLean, Mike Hoolboom and Peter Burr, plus James Duesing’s 1990 computer animation Maxwell’s Demon. Thurs/12, YBCA. More info here.

There’s a lot going on this week, so we’ll try to be brief (all films opening Fri/6 unless otherwise noted). And don’t miss an awesome slate of film revivals that we’ve pointed out this week as well.

Corpus Christi
A relative underdog amongst last month’s otherwise pretty high-profile international feature Oscar nominees, and the only one that hadn’t yet gotten a real U.S. release, Jan Komasa’s Polish drama probably won’t be seen by as many people as Pain and Glory or Les Miserables, let alone Parasite. It is worthy of their company, though.

Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia) looks like every other violent skinhead type at the boys’ juvenile detention center where he’s lived for some time—even if he’s disappointed to learn from the priest that no one with his felony record would be accepted to seminary school. Instead, he’s released to work in a small town’s lumber mill. Yet en route he half-jokingly passes himself off as a young cleric, a ruse that snowballs when the local vicar falls ill and he’s drafted to fill in. To everyone’s surprise, probably including his own, his spontaneous, common-sensical, boat-rocking approach to priestly duties turns out to be just what this community needs as it recovers from a recent tragedy. But of course “Father Tomasz’s” past is going to catch up with him sooner or later.

Working from an excellent script by Mateusz Pacewicz, Komasa has made a movie whose crowd-pleasing and inspirational elements never feel formulaic. (Please, O heavenly powers, do not let Hollywood remake this film, because the story could so easily curdle into schmaltz.) It’s hard to believe the claim that Corpus Christi is “inspired by real events,” but the fiction onscreen has its own emotional truth, as well as considerable dynamism, compassion, and sardonic humor. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

African Film Festival 2020
The Pacific Film Archive’s annual survey of film and video work from Africa begins this Fri/4 with Rosine Mbakam’s Belgium-Cameroon coproduction Chez Jolie Coiffure, a documentary about a Brussels salon for West African emigres’ hair-styling needs. The two-month program then encompasses works new and old, fictive and non- from Mali (Souleymane Cisse’s 1978 Baara, 1982 The Wind and 1987 Brightness, with the director in person), Tunisia (Mahmoud Ben Mahoud’s recent drama Fatwa) and Rwanda (Joel Karekezi’s survival tale The Mercy of the Jungle). There’s also Mbakam’s prior The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, and a May 3 program of “African Short Films: Women’s Stories” that further encompasses films from Nigeria and Congo. Wed/4-Fri/May 8, BAMPFA. More info here.

Not part of this series, but of related interest, is a screening this Fri/6 of actor Djimon Hounsou’s 2018 documentary directorial effort In Search of Voodoo: Roots to Heaven. It looks at traditional religious practices in his native West Africa, a topic that will also be discussed by a live panel on “Spiritual Reclamation as a Revolutionary Act.” More info here.

International Ocean Film Festival
If a mere continent doesn’t cover enough cinematic terrain for you, you can eschew terra firma entirely for this annual spotlight on our globe’s watery majority. Now in its 17th year, the festival programs with an eye on inspiring audiences of all ages to “become better ocean stewards, and help protect our oceans.”

In addition to shorts from around the world, panel discussions, and a student filmmaking competition, there will be feature and mid-length movies from Canada, South Korea, France, the U.K., and more. Subjects include a whole program devoted to whales, plus extinction issues, pollution, tide pools, sharks, octopi, shrinking glaciers, et al. Screenings between Thurs/12 and Sun/15 are scattered between SF (Roxie Theater, Cowell Theater at Fort Mason) and the Smith Rafael Film Center in Marin. More info here.

Incitement
Though highly controversial at the time, the brokering of the Oslo Accords represented a high point in the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians that has never been approached in the quarter-century since. The 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was arguably the turning point from which those hopes began to disintegrate; they now feel more remote than ever.

Though the Accords earned him the Nobel Peace Prize and much international praise, it also got him branded a “traitor” by many who thought he was accommodating terrorists and betraying Jews. Among the right-wing extremists particularly incensed by Rabin’s diplomacy was his assassin, law student Yigal Amir. Portrayed here with convincing fervency by Yehuda Nahari Halevi, his path to that murderous act—which plan he kept secret from his family and all but a couple co-conspirators—is dramatized in this film from Israeli-American director Yaron Zilberman (A Late Quartet). It’s a very compelling mix of smoothly integrated staged sequences and archival news footage, portraying the rising tensions as violent acts on both sides attempted to derail the peace process.

We don’t entirely grasp where Amir’s radicalization comes from, but it’s clearly been influenced by the more inflammatory rhetoric of some rabbis, as well as exacerbated by his own personal frustrations (notably the stymied courtship of a skittish settler played by World War Z’s Daniella Kertesz). A sort of docudrama Taxi Driver, with a terrific central performance, Incitement is a strong portrait of fanaticism that doesn’t provide easy answers, or point any simplistic blame. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Extra Ordinary
Injecting a little much-needed levity into this week’s fairly heavyweight bill of filmic fare is this supernatural comedy in which Irish comedienne Maeve Higgins plays a driving instructor who’s spent her life trying to ignore her psychic gifts. When a fellow village dweller needs help with a domestic haunting, however, she’s reluctantly pulled into it.

This very Gaelic Ghostbusters also features Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte as a washed-up former pop star whose attempts to revive his career wade heavily into the realm of black magic. Writer-directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman’s first feature is unevenly inspired, but it embraces its own silliness sufficient to be likable even when it’s not terribly funny—though it usually is funny, indeed. Alamo Drafthouse, New Parkway. More info here

Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia

East Meets West: The Films of Ulrike Ottinger
BAMPFA follows its retrospective from a year ago with this second installment focused largely on the Western German filmmaker’s later documentary work. It embraces globetrotting topics from the Jewish expat community of 1930s Shanghai to an epic far-north exploration (A Journey to the Bering Sea), as well as sojourns to Japan, Mongolia, Vienna, and fall-of-the-wall-era Berlin.

There’s also room for a couple more of her narrative features, including the Ukraine-set farce Twelve Chairs (which Mel Brooks also filmed) and 1989’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, one of the all-time-great movies about travel (and one of few from a distinctly feminist perspective). For the length of the series, there will be a simultaneous exhibition of Ottinger’s photography at Berkeley Art Museum’s Matrix gallery. Sun/8-Sun/June 28, BAMPFA. More info here.

Two Views of China: In the Rear-View Mirror, and As Prodigal Daughter
Two movies opening local theatrical runs this Friday offer different perspectives on that nation’s shifting, ever-larger role in geopolitics. Originally commissioned by the World Expo, Zhangke Jia’s I Wish I Knew transcends simple city-symphony celebration in its complex view of recent Shanghai history—primarily through the viewpoints of principal interviewees (including Taiwanese cinema master Hsiao-Hsien Hou) who lived it in various ways, including for many the brutal turbulence of the Cultural Revolution. There are also illustrative clips from a wide array of Chinese-cinema classics.

Elegantly shot, leisurely and wistful, this 2010 documentary is making its Bay Area commercial debut in a new director’s cut that restores some previously government-censored material. You may be familiar with Jia’s work from his acclaimed Ash is Purest White, an unconventional fictive gangster saga that played U.S. theaters last year. Roxie. More info here

More lighthearted, as well as focused on the present-tense, is Emily Ting’s U.S.-China coproduction Go Back To China. Sasha Li (Anna Akana) is a spoiled aspiring fashion designer in L.A. forced to obey the titular command when the manufacturing-tycoon father who’s barely been in her life (Richard Ng) pulls the financial plug. She’ll have to come work with him in Shenzhen, or learn to support herself—something she is not exactly experienced in. Her initial culture shock and dismay at factory toil inevitably turns into a learning experience.

If this seriocomic story sounds familiar, it may be because you saw Ting act it out herself: Her 2008 documentary Family Inc., which premiered at CAAM, charted a stormy apprenticeship at the filmmaker’s actual, much-married father’s Hong Kong toy factory. This fictionalized art imitates that real life in portraying tangled family ties, and precarious export business interests roiled by international financial currents. 4-Star. More info here

The Jesus Rolls
The Big Lebowski is not one of my favorite Coen Brothers movies, and John Turturro’s Jesus is probably my least-favorite character in it. However, I understand the appeal of both. Somebody who apparently doesn’t is Turturro, who wrote and directed this terrible quasi-sequel which is also a vague remake of Bertrand Blier’s 1974 Going Places—making for two much-loved movies whose memory this one takes a dump on.

It opens with Jesus released from prison, joining up with buddy Bobby Cannavale, getting joined by hairdresser Audrey Tatou, then the threesome having adventures of the most strainedly wacky kind involving figures played by Jon Hamm, J.B. Smoove, Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Tim Blake Nelson, Sonia Braga (as Turturro’s mother—please note she’s just seven years his senior), and Pete Davidson.

“How could a movie with this cast and pedigree totally miss?,” you might be asking. You’ll find out. I know there’s not much point in telling Lebowski fans to avoid at all costs—some of life’s big disappointments can only be truly accepted via bitter first-hand experience. Roxie. More info here

These film revivals prove SF is still a place for movie lovers

'Spartacus'
Though exhibition is perennially imperiled—the most recent bad news being that after 110 years, the Clay Theatre is no more, the good news that the Opera Plaza has a new long-term lease and nonprofit ownership—San Francisco remains a pretty good place for movie lovers. The proof of that often lies in the realm of revivals, which typically fall outside commercial exhibition. 

And this week provides a particularly impressive array of events from classic Hollywood to vintage world and experimental cinema, taking place at various SF and Berkeley venues without even the excuse of a film-festival umbrella. We can congratulate ourselves: For the time being, at least, we remain a community that can support this range of retro celluloid activity (even if most of it is probably being projected digitally).

Though by no means exhaustive, the following are our chosen cream of an exceptional week’s programming crop:

Come and See
Arguably the premier revival event of last year was the restoration of the gargantuan eight-hour 1960s Russian epic War and Peace, whose popular marathon shows were reprised several times at both the Castro and Pacific Film Archive. Equally overwhelming in its way is this late-period Soviet classic from director Elem Klimov, who never directed again. He considered that with this final work he’d said everything he had to say, and when you see it you’ll understand why.

Somewhat autobiographically inspired, the 1985 feature centers on Flyora (Aleksei Kravchenko), a Belarusian boy of just 14 or so who’s thrilled to be conscripted by partisans in 1943—even as his already probably-widowed mother despairs at how she and his sisters will survive alone. But the boy’s naive expectations of heroic adventure are almost immediately dashed amidst the brutality and chaos of Nazi invaders.

There’s not much “plot,” per se, but Come and See is far from a mere catalog of war’s horrors. Instead, it’s a bravura waking nightmare with alternating elements of magical realism, harsh violence, humor, terror, docudrama, and lyricism. At times almost unbearably intense—more in psychological than graphic-content terms—it makes credible the reports that lead actor Kravchenko, who really was just 14 when filming started, suffered PTSD afterward. Considered one of the great anti-war movies, and/or just one of the greatest movies, period, this newly restored masterpiece is indeed an extraordinary experience. Roxie, Fri/6 & Sun/8 (but check the Roxie calendar for possible added screenings). More info here

Kirk Douglas tribute at the Castro
When Douglas died a month ago at age 103(!), you could almost say the last of the great “golden age” Hollywood movie stars was gone. (Only “almost,” though, because same-aged Olivia de Havilland is still hanging in there.) Along with peer Burt Lancaster and some others, he was both product of that old-school studio star system and an agent of its demise, as he aggressively pursued career independence as a producer and free agent.

An assertive, “virile,” frequently intense (as well as occasionally hammy) performer who did not disappear easily into more passive characters, Douglas was nominated for an Oscar three times in the 1950s, finally grabbing an honorary statuette for his overall career decades later. His social conscience was conspicuous—he virtually ended the Hollywood Blacklist by insisting writer Dalton Trumbo be credited for Spartacus—and his artistic preferences led to some interesting enterprises as both actor and producer. The Castro is paying tribute with a number of representative double bills throughout March, beginning Sun/8, beginning with classic 1947 noir Out of the Past (in which he played a villainous supporting part) and from a decade later, western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, one of his several teamings with Lancaster.

The series continues on Mondays with a stellar lineup: Vincente Minnelli’s Tinsel Town tell-all The Bad and the Beautiful with Billy Wilder’s bitter Ace in the Hole on the 15th; Kubrick’s anti-war classic Paths of Glory and the 1962 revisionist western Lonely Are the Brave on the 22nd; Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life and the inevitable Spartacus on the 29th. More info here

Francis Ford Coppola and 50 Years of American Zoetrope
Disillusioned by his first experiences working within the creaking Hollywood studio system, young Coppola moved operations north to SF, founding his own production company with pal George Lucas. Their mission of making more personal, artistic films was fulfilled by Zoetrope’s first two features, Coppola’s own road-trip drama The Rain People and Lucas’ debut feature THX-1138. Both were commercial flops—which forced FFC into the for-hire gig of The Godfather, whose box-office bonanza considerably raised the new company’s fortunes.

Those three features kick off this series that celebrates Zoetrope’s 50th anniversary, followed on Sat/14 by 1963’s Dementia 13—one of many low-budget Psycho imitations around that time, but a superior thriller as well as the finest of Coppola’s early dabblings in exploitation cinema. Later on, the partial retrospective offers a mix of his personal projects (The Conversation, One From the Heart), other idiosyncratic expressions Zoetrope helped steer to the screen (Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi), and works by foreign masters that it produced and/or distributed (Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, Godard’s Passion and Every Man For Himself). Though it’s gone through various permutations over the decades, American Zoetrope remains a Coppola joint: It’s currently owned by his children Roman and Sofia. Thurs/5-Sun/May 17, BAMPFA. More info here

Fellini 100
The kind of auteurist filmmaking Coppola’s generation inclined towards wouldn’t have existed without the influence of a handful of postwar European mavericks, among which none was quite so bold or liberating as Federico Fellini. Like most Italians who joined the industry in the 1940s, he began in neorealism, working as a writer on significant early titles by Rossellini and Lattuada. That carried over into his first directorial efforts, but even then he was beginning to show signs of whimsy and fabulism which would soon explode into the phantasmagoria of La dolce vita, 8 1/2, and his later work.

This day-long Castro Theatre event from Cinema Italia San Francisco offers quadruple dose of Fellini to mark the centenary of his birth. (He died in 1993 at age 73.) Kicking things off is his 1954 international breakthrough, the pathos-drenched circus melodrama La Strada, in which the director’s wife Giulietta Masina plays a gamine in greasepaint who takes much abuse from Anthony Quinn’s big-top strongman. A decade later she’d star again as Juliet of the Spirits, in a sort of female equivalent to Vita and 8 1/2 that was Fellini’s first feature in color. For many, it heralded the beginning of a decline into directorial indulgence and self-imitation.

But the same critics were thrilled when another decade forward, he’d make all his by-then-familiar surreal and carnivalesque devices seem fresh again in Amarcord, a marvelous, somewhat autobiographical portrait of provincial childhood in the 1930s. After a “La Magia di Fellini” party featuring multiple pastas and an exhibition of Fellini’s own drawings, the program concludes with 1953’s I Vitelloni. A companion piece to Amarcord in a way, it similarly casts a wry, fond eye on the indolent lives of several small-town young men, albeit though a more straightforwardly neorealist lens. Sat/5, Castro Theatre. More info here

(Note: The Pacific Film Archive is also hosting an ongoing, more extensive “Fellini at 100” retrospective through May 17, with a sidebar “In Focus: Federico Fellini” pairing guest lecturers with screenings.)

Jesus Christ Superstar
Though the movie musical was seriously flagging in the early 1970s following a string of expensive flops (all hoping to replicate The Sound of Music’s massive success), In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison scored a surprise smash with his 1971 version of Broadway’s long-running Fiddler on the Roof. Much of that zesty adaptation’s effectiveness was attributed to its being shot more-or-less “on location” (exteriors for the Ukrainian-village-set story were filmed in various parts of Yugoslavia), so it made sense for Jewison’s next project to follow suit.

Allowing him a neat thematic turn from Judaism to Christianity, Jesus Christ Superstar translated the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice “rock opera” to the screen, with the novelty of being shot again kinda-sorta “where it happened”—on largely Israeli “Holy Land” sites where Jesus might well have trod. Sue me, but I still think this was a big mistake: While Fiddler was “naturalistic” as musicals go, JCS was always intended to be a wildly theatrical, hip, exaggerative take on an already-larger-than-life (or death) religious tale. Setting it amidst realistic, desert-y MIddle Eastern backdrops was a poor fit to the very “now” (c. 1970) flamboyance of the music, lyrics and general semi-camp ambiance.

Nonetheless, it’s the only big-screen Jesus Christ Superstar we’re likely to get, so it remains a favorite for many, despite its mixed-bag reputation. This screening (which marks the show’s 50th anniversary year) will feature live appearances by Ted Neeley, who also played the title role onstage both before and after the film, and “Mary Magdalene” Yvonne Elliman, who had a chart-topping disco hit in 1977 with the BeeGees’ “If I Can’t Have You.” (Carl Anderson, who played Judas, died of leukemia in 2004.) They’ll take questions onstage before the movie. Thurs/5, Castro Theatre. More info here

16mm Punk Restorations at Other Cinema
Staying in a musical mode, Other Cinema’s program this Saturday offers a host of 16mm punk-scene shorts that Peter Conheim has restored for the collection “Eyes, Ears and Throats, 1976-1981.” It will include memorable early music “videos” by The Residents and Devo, Liz Keim’s In the Red about SF’s Fab Mab, plus audiovisual material on such local legends as The Offs, Dead Kennedys and Avengers. Don’t miss Richard Gaikowski’s 1980 Moody Teenager, in which a longhaired lass (Susan Pedrick) gives herself a series of increasingly radical makeovers to the sounds of James White, Lydia Lunch, Suicide and others. Sat/7, Artists Television Access. More info here

Aliens and Victorians at the Alamo
Two semi-live events at Alamo Drafthouse this week further spice up its usual sidebar programs of revivals and genre favorites. On Tues/10, historian Mallory O’Meara will host a screening of 1953 sci-fi classic It Came From Outer Space. Anticipating Invasion of the Body Snatchers, among other things, it finds an American small-town populace beginning to “change” under the influence of what turns out to be stranded interplanetary visitors. (Who, when finally glimpsed, turn out to look halfway between “sea monster” and H.R. Pufnstuf.) Originally released in 3-D, it was the first sci-fi feature from director Jack Arnold, who’d direct other genre classics of the era (including Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man) before spending later decades toiling on TV series—his final credits were for The Love Boat. More info here

The next night, a different strain of fantasticism will be on display with Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 Alice. It’s a striking, surreal interpretation of Lewis Carroll rendered in the master Czech animator’s distinctively creepy/beautiful stop-motion style. There will be a pre-film live drag performance from local ensemble Media Meltdown, which describes itself as “a queer celebration of weird pop culture and cults of nostalgia.” More info here

Screen Grabs: A tragic star hounded by the FBI

Kristin Stewart in 'Seberg'

A couple of the smaller, more idiosyncratic local film festivals add to the celluloid mix this week. Within the larger Noise Pop schedule of concerts, parties and other events, the Noise Pop Film Screening Series opens this Wed/26 at the Roxie with Lance Bangs’ Pavement: The Slow Century, a somewhat raggedy documentary 2002 overview of the Stockton band’s decade-long existence. The same director’s Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation plays the next night, while Saturday (as screenings move over to the Alamo Drafthouse) there’s a feature about NYC’s legendary indie record store Other Music. On Sunday there’s a double bill of the newly excavated SF punk doc featurette Crime: 1978 plus that year’s terrific Philip Kaufman-directed, SF-set Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake. On Mon/2 the series ends with El Duce Tape, about the infamous late lead singer of shock-rock outfit The Mentors. More info here.

Truly off the beaten cinematic path is the third edition of the Unnamed Footage Festival, which celebrates that least-loved genre stepchild, the “found footage” horror movie. Well, apparently somebody still loves it, even if many folks may have long since tired of the form that gave us the original Blair Witch Project and all those Paranormal Activities.

Taking place at Artists Television Access, the Little Roxie and the Balboa Theatre, the four-day event features a substantial lineup of such faux-documentary thrillers, from opening night’s double bill of Ricky Umberger’s 2018 The Fear Footage and its world-premiere sequel to films from Mexico (Feral), Japan (Noroi: The Curse), South Korea (A Record of Sweet Murder), and such tantalizing U.S. titles as Lensface, Phony, A Very Important Film, Peeping Tommy, UFO Abduction and They’re Inside.

Not every film here is new; there’s the Elijah Wood-starring Maniac remake from a few years back, and 2016 festival-circuit favorite Fraud. Laughter unintended by the filmmakers (who’ve since disowned the movie) will presumably be encouraged at the screening of 2012’s The Lock In, a Christian would-be horror movie of truly stupefying ineptitude in which the presence of a “dirty magazine” at a church youth sleepover apparently summons Satan Himself, or something. The Unnamed Footage Festival runs Thurs/27 (at Artists Television Access), Fri/28 (Roxie), and Sat/29-Sun/1 (Balboa Theatre). More info here.

Major commercial openings on Friday include two new versions of much-adapted literary classics. The Invisible Man sees H.G. Wells’ story turned into #MeToo-era horror as Elizabeth Moss’ abusive ex vanishes yet continues to terrorize her. Emma features The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy in a period-faithful adaptation of Jane Austen’s comic-romantic intrigue that’s gotten some admiring early reviews. Love is also in the air with Just One More Kiss (at the 4 Star), a supernatural sudser whose writer-director Faleena Hopkins is also a best-selling novelist in the Harlequin Romance mode.

If you want a literal cartoon, there’s My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising, an anime sequel that the Roxie will be showing in both subtitled and dubbed versions. There’s also The Times of Bill Cunningham (at the Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas and Rafael Film Center), a new documentary about the late, great photographer who was profiled a decade ago in the sleeper hit Bill Cunningham: New York.

Previewed but not particularly recommended are Michael Winterbottom’s Greed (at area theaters), a colorful but unfunny satire of today’s predatory super-rich, with Steve Coogan as a British fashion mogul-slash-money-shuffling con man; and Bertrand Bonello’s French Zombi Child. The latter is a mix of listless teen drama and vague colonialist indictment that ends up the biggest hunk of pretentious voodoo-related nonsense since Shirley MacLaine faced Puerto Rican Santeria practitioners in The Possession of Joel Delaney half a century ago. It opens at the Embarcadero and Shattuck.

Definitely recommended is Parasite, which many previously disinterested folks have gotten interested in since its surprise Oscar victory. As a result it’s playing a lot of return theatrical dates, including a special four-day Bong Joon-Ho minifest at the Castro that includes Parasite in its director-approved alternative B&W version (Sun/1-Tues/3), plus on Wed/4 a double bill of his two most popular prior films, 2006’s delicious old-school creature feature The Host and 2013 English-language dystopian sci-fi blowout Snowpiercer. More info here.

Also opening Friday:

Seberg
Jean Seberg was a movie star, but she never quite escaped the onus of being a failed one. A complete unknown, she was chosen amongst thousands of hopefuls to play Saint Joan (yes, of Arc) in Otto Preminger’s 1957 epic. But the turgid movie flopped, her performance seemed anticlimactic after so much hype, and the barely-adult actress reportedly endured much abuse from the famously tyrannical director. (Nonetheless, he used her in his next film, Bonjour Tristesse, in which she was excellent.)

The remainder of her career wobbled between Hollywood and European projects, never finding a stable footing in either, despite the hipster cachet she earned from playing the female lead in Godard’s 1960 breakout Breathless. Her personal life was messy, and the way her support of progressive political politics played out in the press didn’t really help—a sincere belief in racial equality wound up making her look like the poster child for rich white liberal dilettantism. That also made her a person of interest to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which sought to discredit not just black activists but their supporters. There is still speculation that the Feds virtually hounded her to a lurid death, found overdosed in her car on a Paris street in 1979. Her forty-year-old body had been sitting there for ten days.

Seberg has Kristin Stewart as the star at the start of this downhill trajectory, in 1968, when she was back in Hollywood for a supposed “comeback” in the flop musical Paint Your Wagon. (This movie doesn’t detail her affair with costar Clint Eastwood, or even mention his name.) On that trip she met Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a Black Power figure with some vague attachment to the Panthers, and commenced an affair with him—despite his being married with kids, and her own marriage to French novelist Romain Gary (Yvan Attal). Her subsequent political fundraising drew FBI attention, in the form here of two agents assigned to spy on her: One with some compassion (Jack O’Connell), one without (Vince Vaughn). Benedict Andrews’ film charts the combination of good intentions, bad judgments, and malicious government inference that would begin seriously unraveling her already somewhat fragile well-being within the next couple years.

Stewart is less a conventional apple-pie beauty than Jean Seberg was. But she’s styled to a fair approximation, and gives a creditable performance. Particularly coming on the heels of some less exacting celebrity biopics of late, this one merits some points for being at least reasonably accurate to known events. It’s pity Amazon apparently bailed on its awards campaign late last year—if nothing else, Seberg is certainly a better movie than Judy, even though its central performance may be less showy than Renee Zellwegger’s Oscar-winning one. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band
One of last year’s best movies was Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorcese, though it seems to have slipped through the cracks of most awards-giving bodies—probably because it contained just enough fictive content to confuse classification as a strict documentary. Of related interest is this more straightforward feature by Daniel Roher, executive produced by Scorcese and Ron Howard. It chronicles the intersection of five musicians who were initially known (and remained perhaps best-known) for their association with Dylan, but who on their own arguably kickstarted the “Americana” genre decades before that coinage existed.

Teens Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm first met when the latter was already playing on tour with rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, whom the former left Canada to join as well. Soon other future members of what would be simply called The Band took spots in Hawkins’ ever-changing backup group, becoming their own stand-alone act only to immediately attract the attention of Dylan—whom they then accompanied on the tumultuous tour when he first went “electric” (and was booed by folkie purists at every stop). In 1967 they began recording their own material, resulting in the next year’s Music from the Big Pink, critical acclaim, and some eventual commercial success. (Read the 48 Hills interview with Robbie Robertson here.)

The Band’s mix of country, rock, folk, blues and other elements was highly distinctive, going far beyond the influences of their professional mentors to date. Alas, it all slowly dissolved in a haze of substance abuse (from alcohol to cocaine to heroin), clocking one final glory with the 1976 SF Winterland concert Scorcese shot for The Last Waltz. Yet even that film was somewhat bitterly contested by Helm, who felt his erstwhile BFF Robertson had once again grabbed the “star” role at everyone else’s expense.

As the title makes clear, this is The Band’s saga from Robertson’s POV, skimming over many of Helms’ gripes and anything else that might not make the principal interviewee look so good. Thus it may comprise a less-than-definitive overview of an act with five significant talents and personalities, even given additional insights from such admirers as Clapton, Springsteen, Taj Mahal, Van Morrison and David Geffen. Nevertheless, it’s doubtless the best such document we’ll get while any of the principals are still alive, and is recommended not just for Band fans but those interested in the evolution of 60s/70s rock in general. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas, Rafael Film Center. More info here

Screen Grabs: Raining Internet cats and live-action dogs

Cat Video Fest plays at the Roxie

It’s raining cats and dogs with the more family-friendly film events of the week. One is the new 20th Century Fox Animation/Disney live action version of Jack London’s Call of the Wild, which stars Harrison Ford and other actual sentient beings in the much-filmed tale of a Gold Rush era sled dog’s life and times. But judging from the trailer, this is “live action” in the same sense as Disney’s recent remakes of its animated classics, with the critter protagonists very obviously computer-generated. It sure doesn’t look like the comparatively faithful version of London I was hoping for, and which we haven’t gotten even once in over a century now.

A corrective to all that expensively expressive canine cuteness will be the Roxie’s hosting on Sat/22 of the annual Catvideofest, in which man’s best acquaintance (“friend” would be presumptuous, even if that title weren’t already claimed) cavorts in amateur shorts, as well as music videos, cartoons, viral vids, and so forth. The show reprises on Mon/24, and also plays other venues around the Bay Area this week. More info here.

We’ll just make the assumption that there are at least a few felines and puppy dogs involved in the 12th annual Bay Area International Children’s Festival, which opens Thurs/20 at the Grand Lake in Oakland with a preview screening of the new Peter Pan spin Wendy. It then continues Sat/22-Sun/23 at Chabot Space & Science Center with sixty films around from the world, plus animation workshops for kids, guests from Pixar, and more. Full program and ticket info here.

About a child, but not exactly for children, is Brahms: The Boy II, William Brent Bell’s sequel to his 2016 original, in which a “babysitter” entrusted to care for a creepy older couple’s “child”—a male doll—began finding it a little too lifelike for comfort. That film was enough of a sleeper hit that this followup features a name star (Katie Holmes), though otherwise it sounds like more of the same. It opens wide at theaters nationwide.

There’s also horror of a much less mainstream variety to be found at the Alamo Drafthouse on Sun/23, as a “J-Horror Bloodbath” bill excavates two obscure, sub-feature-length Japanese gorefests made for the video market in the high VHS era. 1985’s Demon Within finds a journalist and his photographer infested with “ghoul larva” after they investigate a “Hitodama” or devouring spirit. The slick hour-long film goes from mixing Gremlins and Alien to a prolonged climax more indebted to Trilogy of Terror. The next year’s even shorter, sillier Biotherapy is a hysterical excuse for mayhem as the staff of a medical research laboratory are nastily slain one by one by a mysterious stranger seeking a developmental serum. This stuff is lurid trash—but it’s better trash than the equivalent that was being made in the U.S. at the time. More info here.

We can’t tell you what the trash-to-class ratio will be the prior day at the Alamo, as it presents Stars and Snipes Forever: The Wesley Snipes Mystery Marathon. Starting at 11 am, with between-film breaks, you’re promised at least eight hours of entertainment starring “Orlando, Florida’s greatest cultural export,” whose major status in the 1990s was toppled by some serious tax-evasion issues and others of an…er, “artistic temperament” nature. For a while there he was reduced to making cheesy grade-B action movies in places like Romania and Bulgaria, but lately he’s had a bit of a comeback, notably in last year’s Eddie Murphy vehicle Dolomite Is My Name.

The Alamo isn’t revealing all-35mm program’s contents in advance, but I’d place money on at least one Blade installment, plus maybe one of his films with Woody Harrelson (White Man Can’t Jump, Money Train), maybe a Spike Lee joint, and how about The Fan, in which he’s a major league baller terrorized by Robert DeNiro? More info here.

Stardom of a different sort is explored in the SF-shot Kamikaze Hearts, Juliet Bashore’s sole directorial feature, which the Alamo is showing this Friday and Saturday in a new 4K restoration. Seldom seen since its original 1986 release, this neglected piece of 80s Amerindie cinema muddies the line between “truth or fiction” (an earlier title) as porn luminaries Sharon Mitchell and Tigr carry on their offscreen love affair on and off the set of a new XXX opus loosely inspired by Bizet’s Carmen.

“Mitch” is the dominating personality, always “on,” claiming “I’m always in character,” and that ““Things aren’t worth doing unless there’s someone there to watch it.” She’s the compulsive exhibitionist to mullet-haired Tigr’s comparative introvert. Theirs is not a particularly healthy relationship, even without the fillip that they’re both using heroin. Featuring both additional adult industry players and some miscellaneous local scenesters (like Jennifer Blowdryer), Kamikaze Hearts remains queasy viewing, with its very meta self-consciousness and variably self-destructive lead characters. Strangely, no one here mentions AIDS, even though they’re bisexuals living at the epicenter of the epidemic. More info here.

It’s also a good week for animation fans, as the never-ending Roxie wellspring of new anime features brings Masaaki Yuasa’s surf-and-turf romance Ride Your Wave, from the director of cult favorite Mind Game. (More info here.) Playing at ATA on Saturday night alone Other Cinema hosts a program of Experimental Animation featuring works by Janie Geiser, Salise Hughes, Bill Plympton, Martha Colburn, Art Clokey, the late great Sally Cruikshank and more, plus live multimedia performance by Tommy Becker. More info here.

Friday openings of particular note:

From Russia (and former territories) With Trepidation: Beanpole, And Then We Danced
It’s rare enough that we get one new theatrical release from former Soviet territories, but this week brings two. Kantemir Balagov’s Cannes prize-winning Beanpole is set in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg again) just after the end of 1945, as surviving soldiers return and the nation begins transitioning back to peacetime. The very tall blonde Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a nurse at a hospital for the wounded, a soothing presence despite her occasional seizures due to a concussion. She’s raising a child that isn’t her own—it’s her friend Masha’s (Vasilisa Perelgina). But when the latter returns from the front, the boy has died in an accident. Consumed with the need to have a another child, as well as to exact some kind of revenge, now-sterile Masha forces the hopelessly loyal, possibly-smitten Iya into increasingly alarming situations to conceive a “replacement.”

A very bleak film somewhat incongruously served up in a rich, warm color palette, Beanpole is at core about a poisonous bond between two damaged people. I found it a distinctive but perverse, often alienating work that piles up abuses with rather gloating satisfaction. It is impressive in many ways, but hard to recommend with much enthusiasm. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Another discordant love story of sorts, but a far more engaging one, is offered in Levin Akin’s Swedish-Georgian-French coproduction And Then We Danced. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a third-generation traditional Georgian dancer struggling for a place in the professional corps of the nation’s leading folk performance ensemble when newcomer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) shows up, cocky and ingratiating—a potential rival, but also a possible romantic interest.

While while gay members and relationships might be a given in most western dance companies, that is apparently still taboo here. Not only is Merab closeted (he even has a semi-girlfriend who’s just about given up on ever losing her virginity to him), but when there’s a vacancy in the main company, it’s precisely because a star dancer has been “outed.” Once the duo finally cave to their emotions, the stakes are high.

Warmly shot, with a mood variously ebullient and wary, this is a sensitive, non-preachy dramatic reminder that there remain plenty of places where being gay can still cost one a career, a family, a whole community. It gains psychological complexity as well as stylistic bravado as it goes on, until by the end And Then We Danced is a clear early entry for 2020’s year-end best lists. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

Ordinary Love
There’s also trouble in relationship-land in this very fine Irish drama by directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn. Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson play a retired couple whose affectionately sparring dynamic is tested when she finds a lump in one breast. Upon getting it checked out, the news is not good. Much of Belfast playwright Owen McCafferty’s economical, incisive script is about the endless waiting and debilitating drudgery of one required medical appointment after another, even before the grueling eventualities of surgery, chemotherapy, and so forth. These two imperfect characters, who’ve already lost a daughter, stick together through the ordeal because they must. Yet neither of them necessarily behaves in any ideal “noble sacrifice” fashion, each buckling under pressure in their own way.

Without being gratuitously unpleasant (or medically graphic), Ordinary Love approaches something very ordinary indeed—the specter of possibly-terminal illness late in life—with a candor rare in movies. It has plenty of room for compassion, but none for easy sentimentality. Needless to say, these two actors are fully up to the task: Manville is expectedly fine, but it’s a particular pleasure to see Neeson doing something worthy of his talent, rather than yet another routine revenge thriller. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

Two Indie Comedies
If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, but not so far off it involves breast cancer, homophobia, or sadistic psychological manipulation in Leningrad, two pleasant new indie comedies are conveniently opening this Friday.

In Matt Ratner’s Standing Up, Falling Down, Ben Schwartz plays a 30ish Long Island native who comes crawling home in defeat after his comedy career has failed to take off. Family members shrug, thinking he’s overdue for a “real” adult life anyway.. More encouraging is Marty (Billy Crystal), an alcoholic, twice-widowed dermatologist met by accident, whose self-destructive ways don’t stop him from being nonetheless a rather supportive new pal.

Peter Hoare’s screenplay doesn’t quite come up with the depth needed for this story to resonate as it means to at the end. Yet it’s a polished, likable movie with some very good performances—especially that by Crystal, who’s terrific. Roxie. More info here

Jeremy Teicher’s Olympic Dreams has a novel hook: It’s the first fictive film allowed to shoot at an Olympic “village” (the one for the 2018 Pyongyang winter games). That setting provides a whole lot of background color and spectacle for what’s otherwise a modest romance between two visiting Americans.

Penelope (Alexi Pappas) is a cross-country skier facing the discomfiting fact that the thing she’s trained and waited her entire life for is about to happen—and then it’s over, being one of the first events scheduled after the opening ceremonies. Ezra (Nick Kroll) is a dentist volunteering at the athletes’ medical center. He’s here for an exotic semi-working vacation, but also to think about something other than the longtime relationship he’s currently having a “break” from, none too willingly.

Needless to say, these two cross paths, and sparks fly. Well, sorta. If Dreams doesn’t make a memorable final impression, that’s in part because the lead actors (who co-wrote the script with Teicher) don’t have any special chemistry together. Still, it’s a nicely crafted little tale, and the chance to glimpse how Olympic competitors spend their non-competing time on site is quite fascinating. Opera Plaza. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Get in the van!

'Come As You Are'

This Friday, we’re already getting commercial releases of movies that premiered at Sundance just the other week. Two got a mixed reception there: Downhill was greeted as a fairly good albeit diminished English-language remake of Ruben Ostlund’s exceptional 2014 Swedish Force Majeure, with Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus now playing the bourgeoise couple whose marriage reveals serious cracks after a dramatic incident during a ski-resort vacation; while Mudbound director Dee Rees’ The Last Thing He Wanted has Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck in an 80s-set espionage thriller adapted from a Joan Didion novel that most Park City attendees found too convoluted for its own good.

Other mainstream arrivals, unavailable for preview by deadline, include Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island, a horror-comedy revamp of the campy 1970s TV series that at least conceptually sounds fun; Sonic the Hedgehog, a semi-animated spinoff of the Saga videogame franchise, with Jim Carrey’s villain the chief live-action element; and Stella Meghie’s The Photograph, a romantic drama targeted primarily at African-American audiences, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield.

There’s also a number of especially notable rep-house showings and other one-offs this week, including Alamo shows of Walter Hill’s uber-80s action fantasia Streets of Fire (in 70mm!) on Wed/19, and Nicolas Roeg’s improbably delightful 1990 Roald Dahl adaptation The Witches (with live drag show!) as a family matinee on Sat/15.

That same afternoon, the Pacific Film Archive offers an equally colorful double-barrel treat as part of their ongoing Agnes Varda tribute: A screening of her husband Jacques Demy’s 1968 The Young Girls of Rochefort, a delicious salute to “golden age” Hollywood musicals, and her own subsequent documentary The Young Girls at 25, in which surviving participants and Rochefort residents weigh the impact of a movie that’s become a beloved classic within France. (Though it originally bombed in English-speaking nations, and remains under-appreciated here.) More info here

The next day, Sun/16, the Castro Theater offers something with similar appeal: A pairing of Martin Scorcese’s own 1977 commentary on old-school musicals, New York, New York, with Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 The Clock. The former, offered in an uncut 35mm print (including one long number deleted from the original release), stars Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro; the latter stars her mother in a rare straight dramatic role, as a young woman who falls for a G.I. (Robert Walker) on a two-day pass. More info here.

And still there’s the week’s most-recommended new weekend openings, detailed below:

Come As You Are
If Downhill was greeted at Sundance as a decent but still somewhat redundant U.S. remake of a better foreign-language film, this new feature by SF’s own Richard Wong (Colma: The Musical) is that rare thing, the remake that actually improves (at least slightly) on the original. It’s a fresh adaptation of the Belgian film Hasta la Vista, which itself was loosely based on the life of disabled-rights activist Asta Philpott.

Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer), Matt (Hayden Szeto), and Mo (Ravi Patel) are three men with different physical limitations who decide to pool their resources, hire a van with driver (Gabourey Sidibe from Precious), and cross the Canadian border to a bordello designed for special-needs client, so the trio can lose their virginities at last. Personality clashes provide one source of tension; another is the fact that none of them have told their “helicopter parents” just what they’re getting up to.

This road movie is comic without being cartoonish, and touching without getting maudlin about it. It’s a charming film whose occasional raunchiness and political correctitude are both downplayed enough to create a true crowdpleaser. Roxie. More info here

The Lodge
The breakout amongst Midnight titles at last year’s Sundance Festival, this first English-language feature from the Austrian duo of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is a similar if more overtly horror-ish take on themes from their prior Goodnight Mommy. Again, relations between a mother figure and some excessively pro-active children seriously deteriorate in social isolation: Not long after their religious-hysteric mother (Alicia Silverstone) commits suicide, siblings Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aiden (Jaeden Martell) are dispatched to a country home for the holidays with dad’s (Richard Armitage) new, much-younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). Needless to say, there is much wariness on all sides.

But when the power goes out and the supplies vanish in the dead of snowy winter, with help long miles away, who is responsible? Is it the kids, plotting to drive this family interloper nuts a la Turn of the Screw? Is it Grace, whose past duly suggests mental instability may be on the menu? Or is it a vengeful supernatural force, perhaps furious woman-scorned mom herself? As the situation grows ever more desperate, this atmospheric if somewhat slow-moving thriller comes up with some chilling material, though the script grows increasingly muddled juggling too many potential explanations in the air. It’s a good movie that falls short of being exceptional. AMC Metreon, California (Berkeley). More info here

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
More than a few viewers have considered this original period piece by French writer-director Celine Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy) one of last year’s best films—it qualified for 2019 awards consideration in most places—so I’ll gladly admit my underwhelmed reaction is a minority opinion.

A rare professional female artist in her era of the late 1700s, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is summoned to an underpopulated island in Brittany. There, she is to paint a likeness of young aristocrat Heloise (Adele Haenel), so it can be sent to her prospective husband in Milan. But this task is to be done covertly; Marianne must pose simply as a hired companion, because her subject does not want to be painted. More importantly, what she really doesn’t want is to be married off at all. Yet there’s little hope of an independent life for someone of her station, gender and era. As the two women grow ever closer, the hopelessness of their bond becomes more stark.

This is a love story, even if it takes a very long while to become one. If the last time you took note of a French lesbian romance was Blue Is the Warmest Color, be prepared for its opposite—emotionally as well as physically, this is the ultra-restrained flipside to that sexually graphic tale. So stripped-down it lacks even a musical score, Portrait is a meticulously measured study in repressed desire, stolen glances, trapped lives. I found it admirable yet a little arid, aesthetically and otherwise controlled to the point of being a bit pallid. But again, it’s struck others as a quiet powerhouse, so by all means go and decide for yourself. Embarcadero, Albany Twin. More info here

Pauline Kael and Fernando Botero: Documentary Portraits
Two newly arriving documentaries shine a spotlight on star personalities in the realm of the arts (and arts criticism). Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael looks at the career of the late New Yorker film critic who began her career writing program notes for a rep house in Berkeley. By the late 1960s she was probably the most influential such writer in the nation.

Whether you agreed with her sometimes-controversial taste or not, Kael made reading about the movies exciting, and personal. She sought to replicate the adrenaline rush of the popular cinema itself in the headlong energy of her prose. A solid introduction to her work, this doc spends a fair amount of time marveling that such in-depth, long-form criticism was ever so widely digested—a phenomenon almost unimaginable in our dumbed-down, “everybody’s a critic” internet age. More knowledgable fans may puzzle over the choice of clips, which encompass some films she wasn’t enthused or didn’t even write about.

Don Millar’s Botero is a similarly admiring look at Fernando Botero, who rose from poor beginnings in Colombia to become one of the world’s most successful painters and sculptors. A superb technician still active at age 87, his style is instantly recognizable: Figurative imagery with a notably rotund exaggerative quality, as if he were the opposite of El Greco. “I am passionate about volume,” he explains simply. Though he’s occasionally handled serious, political subjects (recently including the abuses at Abu Ghraib), his popularity is due primarily to his work’s humor and accessibility.

Not everyone thinks he’s a truly “great” artist, however, and this movie made by a family friend (and produced by Botero’s daughter) barely acknowledges such dissenting opinions. It’s the kind of documentary that too often feels like a testimonial dinner or promotional tool, with primary onscreen “experts” being his own children (and heirs), who endlessly express rehearsed-sounding delight and awe at his wonderfulness.

The sole critical voice we hear here is immediately followed by someone dismissing such nay-sayers as “intellectual snobs.” Botero means to cement its subject’s legacy for the ages. But unintentionally it left me wondering if he’ll wind up like Jeff Koons—a “brand” as much as an artist whose clever, highly referential, even-more-highly-priced work may lose all resonance in another generation or two. What She Said: Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info hereBotero: Roxie. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Forget those Oscars, let’s go to Berlin & beyond

German actress Christiane Paul will appear at the Berlin & Beyond festival.

The Oscars are this Sunday, which ceremony will provide its annual mercy-killing service of putting a stop to the endless “awards season” talk—at least for the next eight months. If you want to heckle in public, there’s always the Roxie’s annual “Up the Awards” yellfest, among other local bashes.

But there’s also plenty of alternative programming for those who want to celebrate cinema. including the Alamo Drafthouse’s hosting (Fri/7-Mon/10) of the 21st Annual Animation Show of Shows, an international program of ten ’toons including entries from Germany, Belgium, Russia, Israel, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic. (More info here.)

The same venue is offering a particularly diverse mix of one-off screenings this week as well, from new table-soccer documentary Foosballers and Mario Bava’s sumptuously stylized 1964 proto-slasher Blood and Black Lace (both on Tues/11) to “outsider” auteur Damon Packard’s berserk 2002 magnum opus Reflections of Evil. There’s also John Cassavetes’ only directorial comedy, 1971’s quasi-screwball romance Minnie and Moskowitz (Sat/8) with Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, a shrill, hammy mess—or an endearingly quirky triumph, if you’re a Cassavetes fan, which I am not.

Even farther off the beaten path is certainty is becoming our nemesis, an SF Cinematheque program of films and videos about the fluidity of identity, including works from the last half-century by Alice Anne Parker, Pere Girard, Zach Blas, Rosa John, Nazh Cincel, Zackary Drucker, Antoinette Zwirchmayr, Julia Dogra-Brazell and Karly Stark. They’ll screen during gallery hours at McEvoy Foundation for the Arts in SF’s fast-growing Dogpatch, in conjunction with that institution’s simultaneous exhibit of an Orlando-themed exhibit guest-curated by Tilda Swinton, Fri/7-Sat/May 2. More info here.

On the beaten path, major commercial openings this Friday are Birds of Prey, a new DC fantasy adventure that brings back current Oscar nominee (for Bombshell) Margot Robbie as DC antiheroine Harley Quinn; and The Assistant, with Julia Garner as a studio executive’s gofer who confronts the systemic sexism of a toxic corporate environment. There’s been outrage that Little Women got nominated in umpteen Oscar categories without including Greta Gerwig amongst the designated directors, but it’s surely good news that both this week’s new releases are directed by women—Cathy Yan and Kitty Green, respectively.

The other new arrival is a manly-man’s-world kinda joint, however.

80-year-old Italian master Marco Bellocchio’s latest The Traitor is, not unlike The Irishman, a fact-based mob saga that sprawls over recent decades. It’s the story of Sicilian Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a longtime Cosa Nostra associate who was extradited from Brazil (not for the first time) in 1984. Having grown disillusioned amidst murderous power struggles over the heroin trade, he decided to turn state’s witness, informing on numerous enraged fellow “men of honor” in lengthy, heavily guarded trials whose circus-like atmosphere is colorfully captured here. Though an hour shorter (and a lot less expensive) than The Irishman, this is arguably a better film—not least because for all its masculine focus, it still manages to find a bit more room for the wives, children and other impacted family members of these “made men.” The Traitor opens Fri/7 at the Embarcadero (and Fri/14 at the Shattuck in Berkeley). More info here

Another contender regrettably omitted from the Oscars shortlist was Christian Petzold’s Transit, one of 2019’s best films, foreign-language or otherwise. It was hardly alone among very good German-language features in the last year or so, as evidenced by this coming week’s major event for serious cineastes: Berlin & Beyond, the annual showcase for recent films from Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Now in its 24th year, the Goethe-Institut’s festival runs Fri/7-Thurs/13 at various San Francisco venues, and Mon/10 at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas.

Included in the schedule are the latest from several familiar talents, including Doris Dorrie (further indulging her long-established Japanophilia with Cherry Blossoms & Demons), Caroline Link (All About Me), Marko Kreuzpaintner (The Collini Case) and Sonke Wortmann (whose new How About Adolf? is a comedy about new parents’ very unfortunate baby-naming choice).

One running if accidental theme in the current program is that of couples whose travel adventures take a perilous turn. In Florian Koener von Gustorf’s opening-night selection What Might Have Been, that takes the form of a woman in her 40s running into her lost, lamented first love—unfortunately, while she’s on a weekend trip to Budapest with her boyfriend. Florian Gottschick’s Rest in Greece has a 30-ish duo renting a house on a Grecian isle, where their increasingly problematic relationship gets a jolt of energy from the unexpected arrival of the owner’s freespirited, college-student daughter.

More seriously disturbing is Sven Taddicken’s The Most Beautiful Couple, whose married schoolteacher protagonists are beaten and assaulted by teenage fellow tourists while on vacation in Mallorca. Back home, their lives gradually return to something like normal—until pure chance crosses the husband’s path with their chief tormentor, re-opening all the traumatic psychological wounds. While there’s some light at the end of its narrative tunnel, this unpleasant drama is often acutely discomfiting, just as it should be.

Another thematically matched set are two films involving compulsively controlling mothers involved—along with their children—in the highly disciplined realm of classical music performance. Jan-Ole Gerster’s Lara has Corinna Harfouch from Downfall as the titular figure, an off-putting personality whose 60th birthday is also the day that her piano prodigy son has a sold-out major concert. Which she is determined to be a part of…even though he is not speaking to her, for no doubt very good reasons.

It’s a fine film, but even better is Ina Weisse’s The Audition, in which Petzold regular Nina Hoss’ somewhat OCD-afflicted violin teacher finds her behavior alienating her husband, but also her son and new protege—the latter two both students at the conservatory where she works. Both these dramas may recall Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, and if neither get quite as freaky as that, they nonetheless each pack a considerable queasy punch.

Other Berlin & Beyond titles of note include several documentaries, from Berlin Bouncer (about that city’s fabled club scene) to #Female Pleasure (a global survey of 21st-century sexist sexual repression), and the self-explanatory Hi, A.I. There’s also Stefan Haupt’s The Reformer, a biopic about a 16th-century Swiss champion of the Protestant Reformation, and Huseyin Tabak’s official closing nighter Gipsy Queen, a well-reviewed tale of a struggling single mother whom desperation eventually lures into the boxing ring. For full schedule and ticket info, click here.