Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: Hump! Festival, Eisenstein, Bloody Moon …

The Hump! Film Festival returns for amateur thrills of all kinds.

SCREEN GRABS In an instance of art imitating life, this week’s notable film events are heavy on politics and Russia, with sidenotes of sex, gore, and introspection. If it’s light escapism you’re looking for, you won’t find much here—even Friday’s biggest commercial opening, the un-previewed 12 Strong, does not sound like a fun time. (It dramatizes a real-life U.S. Special Forces unit’s mission in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11.) That seems fair enough: After all, 2018 is clearly not going to be for the faint-hearted. 

A century ago, silent cinema was at its artistic zenith (as well as its commercial endpoint), and Hollywood was already dominating much of global exhibition. Yet no nation’s filmic output seemed more urgently modern than that of the still-practically-newborn Soviet Union, which at least in its early years supported art in arious media as experimentall bold as its previously-untried governmental system. No single filmmaker—arguably anywhere—had more influence on others than Sergei Eisenstein, whose startling leaps forward in montage in many ways set the template for modern film editing. Yet his extraordinary career was also a tragic one, ultimately bound to the whims of the repressive Stalinist regime like many a lesser-known talent. 

This PFA series looks at a remarkable time and place in movie history, encompassing several famous classics by Eisenstein himself (Strike, Battleship Potemkin, Ivan the Terrible etc.) as well as additional works by his brilliant contemporaries including Dovzhenko, Pudovkin and Kuleshov. It kicks off with 1916’s A Life for a Life, one of the few remaining features from Russia’s pre-Revolutionary film industry. Each screening will feature live musical accompaniment and a lecture by UC Berkeley’s Anne Nesbet, an expert in the field. Wed/17-Wed/April 25, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

A Russia that would surely be unrecognizable to Sergei and his colleagues is on jaw-dropping display in this compilation of dashcam footage uploaded by drivers and downloaded by director Dmitri Kalashnikov. It’s apparently a Wild West on wheels in the Near East, with spontaneous interactions with pedestrian crazies and entrapping police, drives through epic fires, and no end of calamitous crashes preserved for your vicarious pleasure. 

At about 75 minutes, the hair-raising hilarity is just enough to leave you craving more, not enough to leave you exhausted and tire-marked. The Road Movie is proof that truth is stranger than fiction—particularly when it’s going 100 mph through a blizzard, sliding off an embankment into a river, then floating down said river as the passengers simply laugh. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.

2017 gave us Mother! In 2018, there is unlikely to be a more masochistic viewing experience than this documentary by Greg Barker about the last months of the Obama White House. While handling crises involving Iran, Syria, Cameroon, and more, the administration dealt with the looming matter of Presidential “legacy” and prepared handing things over to a new regime—which absolutely no one, it’s clear here, really imagined would turn out to be Donald Trump’s. 

Casting a particular spotlight on the roles of UN Ambassador Samantha Power and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes (with just occasional access to The Man himself), this intimate behind-the-scenes record may catch personnel in somewhat best-behavior mode, what with the camera being on and all. Yet it’s clear that whatever the administration’s failings, its personnel were distinguished by deep expertise, ability to compromise, and genuine good intentions. Why is seeing this 2016 flashback a masochistic experience? Duh: Look at what we’ve got now. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to slit your wrists if you haven’t already. Opens Friday at Bay Area theaters. 

An international prize winner at the time, Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s 1968 Cuban feature nonetheless took five full years to get any US release, landing on numerous critics’ 1973 “best” lists. Even then, it remained so little-seen that the PFA’s current limited run of a 4K restoration represents the now half-century-old film’s Bay Area theatrical debut. (Though you’ve probably never seen Memories, you may be familiar with Alea from his arthouse hit a quarter-century later, Strawberries and Chocolate.) 

A sort of semi-dramatic essay film that’s equal parts neo-realism, political documentary, and experiment, it follows a jaded bourgeois man (Sergio Corrieri) in the weeks after his unhappy wife and nearly everyone else he knows have fled Havana for the US in the wake of the Batista government’s overthrow. There’s not much “plot,” beyond our protagonist’s desultory involvement with a neurotic aspiring actress. But there’s a lot of intriguing footage of life in a land on which an “iron curtain” had rapidly descended after years of being a virtual U.S. colony, plus an interesting, ambivalent perspective on the transitional period Communist Cuba had already largely left behind when Memories was made. Thurs/18-Sat/3 (three shows only), Pacific Film Archive. More info here

The 13th annual edition of the Dan Savage-curated amateur sex film festival is back with a new best-of compiled from its larger “hometown” Seattle and Portland events. Sure to play arpeggios all up and down the Kinsey scale, it offers twenty-one shorts including such savory titles as Desert Pussy, Is Queefing an Instrument? and Dildrone (hint: its exactly what you think). Our favorite description, for A Sunday Hike, is “The Blair Witch Project meets an anarchist EDM festival in this witchy, magical, queer porn.” Once a strictly-local affair, at this point Hump flicks are submitted from all over—if you get inspired (and freaky), you might have one yourself in next year’s lineup, competing for such prizes as Best Humor or Best Kink. Wed/17-Sat/27, Victoria Theatre. More info here

It’s been a criticism of some directors from Bogdanovich to Tarantino and beyond that they make movies that are over-much about other movies. But homage, imitation, and pastiche are different from self-reflection and analysis. The latter attributes are what’s on display in this PFA series of documentaries that “interrogate the medium” in terms of its sociiopoilitical impact and moral aspirations, both good and ill. 

The globe-spanning selections encompass looks at an original Nazi propaganda feature (Yael Hersonski’s Israeli A Film Unfinished), Ross Lipman’s Notfilm about the 1965 collaboration between Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett, Chris Marker’s Tarkovsky investigation One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich, and films about film preservation or its lack (the German Cinema: A Public Affair, Uruguayan A Useful Life). This Sunday, Bill Morrison will present in person Dawson City: Frozen Time, his wonderful recent chronicle of a Canadian Gold Rush town and the cache of “lost” silent films that was found in the icy ground under a building there. Sat/20-Thurs/Feb. 22, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.

The Madrid-born director best known as Jess Franco (he accumulated many onscreen pseudonyms) had a fairly respectable entry into films, his career taking off with 1961 horror hit The Awful Dr. Orloff. He spent the rest of that decade making a variety of genre films with some notable international stars like Klaus Kinski, Eddie Constantine, Jack Palance, and Christopher Lee. But at decade’s end his fortunes began to decline, resulting in ever-shrinking budgets and ever-sleazier projects. Not that it seemed to bother him—indeed, he seemed quite content to make a wildly prolific body of violent, sexploitative work right up to his 2013 death. (Some sources estimate he made over 200 features; the precise number is anyone’s guess.) 

One of his better-regarded films from the ’80s is this 1981 thriller, a for-hire gig cashing in on the then-ultrahot slasher vogue kickstarted by Halloween. Five years after disfigured youth Miguel is institutionalized for killing a girl at a party, murders begin targeting pretty students at the language boarding school his family runs. It’s a bloody cheesefest that, like many of Franco’s films, is distinguished by a mix of elements by turns senseless, inept, eccentric, and stylish. The dreadful dubbed dialogue provides one level of entertainment, while gorehounds will be satisfied by the array of gruesome deaths provided (red-hot fireplace tongs, anyone?). Let’s hope the Drafthouse found an uncut print of this movie that was banned in the UK as a “video nasty.” Tues/23, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Ida Lupino, Intent to Destroy, Stars Never Die….

'Ida Lupino: Hard, Fast, and Beautiful' is a retrospective of the glamorous star's work behind the camera.

You know the flood of awards-bait prestige releases has truly subsided when Liam Neeson is once again chasing bad guys in yet another interchangeable thriller. Paddington 2 aside, this week’s big commercial release is The Commuter, the erstwhile Schindler’s List star’s fourth collaboration with Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra.

The latter didn’t make Taken, the 2008 sleeper that turned the now nearly 70-year-old Irish actor into an unlikely action hero… but he might as well have. The Commuter has Neeson as a “businessman caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home,” one that also involves Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill. These movies all hit the same basic notes, but they’re invariably decent (if forgettable) entertainment — which is more than you can say of, for instance, everything with “X-Men” in the title.

But there’s quite a bit of more promising fare out there this coming week. The major event for many will be the arrival of a new Paul Thomas Anderson film, Phantom Thread, which stars Daniel Day Lewis (in purportedly his last role — he’s announced his retirement from acting) as a fictive top women’s couture designer in late 1950s London. He’s accustomed to picking pretty new model-muses for “inspiration,” then discarding them when “done,” but his latest (Vicky Kris) may not be so easily gotten rid of.

PTA’s films are always as divisive as they are distinctive. We usually love them; this one we didn’t. But you’ll go anyway, right? As you should. (Note: The Alamo Drafthouse is showing Phantom Thread in its 70mm shooting format.)

Also simultaneously worthwhile and somewhat disappointing is Germany’s Oscar-submission feature In the Fade, with Diane Kruger as a Hamburg woman undone when her Turkish emigre husband and their child are killed in an explosion. Adding insult to injury, it soon emerges this was a deliberate racist attack by far-right neo-fascists. This revenge thriller is engrossing and well-acted, but iy’s a somewhat less nuanced treatment of a hot-button subject than one might expect from director-cowriter Fatih Akin (Head-On, The Edge of Heaven).

Three revivals should also be noted in brief, though they couldn’t be more different: One is late Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1986 final feature The Sacrifice, a stunningly photographed (by Sven Nykvist) metaphysical abstract that the Roxie will show in a new 4K restoration this Thursday through Sunday. Another, also at the Roxie (Friday-Sunday), is Soviet emigre Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult classic Liquid Sky, a sci-fi punk fantasia with Anna Carlisle in an androgynous dual role. Then there’s Tommy Wiseau’s inimitable 2003 The Room, which is finally seeing a wide release in the wake of its comedic making-of reenactment The Disaster Artist becoming a sleeper hit. Yes, you can enjoy the latter without seeing the former. But trust me, if you haven’t seen the original, you haven’t fully lived yet.

Some other arrivals that might fly further under the radar:

Forget Coco, Loving Vincent and the rest — the best animated feature of 2017 (though it’s getting to us a bit late) is startlingly original work by Spanish co-directors Alberto Vazquez and Pedro Rivero, based on the former’s graphic novel. Mixing the childlike, dystopian and simply twisted, it’s a bizarre tale of a post-environmental-catastrophe world in which anthropomorphic survivors look like big-eyed bunnies, kittens, etc., but deal with some starkly violent, non-cute realities. Those include insanity, crime, drug addiction, black marketeering, prejudice, and police brutality.

You’ve probably seen similar mixes of surreal humor, adult issues and pop fantasy in comics form, but it feels utterly fresh onscreen. Birdboy (which was previously called Psychonauts on the festival circuit) is not only visually striking and conceptually jarring, it packs surprising poignance into its unpredictable progress. Not to be missed, particularly for animation fans. Opens Fri/12, Roxie. More info here.

Gloria Grahame was an idiosyncratic blonde who made a lasting impression in several superior noirs and a few other films, like It’s A Wonderful Life and the musical Oklahoma! But her stardom was all too brief, curtailed in part by the scandal of her marrying (not at the same time) both Rebel Without a Cause director Nicolas Ray and his son. By the late 70s, between sparse movie and TV jobs, she was reduced to less-than-prestigious regional stage work. It was during one such gig that she became involved with Peter Turner, a much younger aspiring English actor.

Turner’s memoir about their affair is now this film by Paul McGuigan (Gangster No. 1, Lucky Number Seven), with Annette Bening as the erstwhile Hollywood luminary who trudges back to her old (but still-young) flame, played by Jamie Bell, when she suffers a probably-terminal cancer relapse at age 57 in 1981. Bening doesn’t evoke Grahame much physically, and she’s too authoritative a presence to fully inhabit the flightier, more childish aspects of her role’s personality. But it’s still a compelling performance, matched by supporting turns from Julie Walters, Kenneth Cranham, Frances Barber, Vanessa Redgrave, and others. A well-written tale told in somewhat a-chronological order, Film Stars Don’t Die isn’t flawless, but it’s intelligent and touching. Opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.

Another hardboiled dame whose career intersected with the noir era was Ida Lupino, a London-born actress who nonetheless usually “played American” in her Hollywood career, which peaked at Warner Brothers in the early 1940s. When that petered out, she turned to directing — a door that had been all but closed to women in Hollywood for decades. While most of her work in that realm was on TV series (everything from “The Twilight Zone” to “Gilligan’s Island”), today there’s a special regard given to the half-dozen noirish “B” features she directed between 1949-53. Barely noticed at the time, they’re now prized for their economical craft and subtly female perspective within the typically male-driven  thriller genre.

This PFA series cast a spotlight on films from both that period (such as The Bigamist, The Hitch-Hiker, and daring 1950 rape drama Outrage) and from her earlier zenith of fame, when she co-starred with the likes of Bogart and Jean Gabin, directed by such greats as Fritz Lang and Raoul Walsh. Sat/13-Sat/Feb. 24, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.

In 2016 two ambitious multinational period dramas were released, focusing on a seldom-portrayed yet still-controversial section of early 20th century history: The genocide of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians by forces of the Ottoman Empire, which a full century later Turkish authorities continue to deny happened at all. Hotel Rwanda director Terry George’s The Promise was a fictionalized expose, with Oscar Issac, Christian Bale and other Western marquee stars. Joseph Ruben’s The Ottoman Lieutenant, partly funded by the Turkish government, was a romanticized whitewash with the less-starry likes of Josh Hartnett.

Neither film was a critical or box-office success. But The Promise did generate another, highly acclaimed feature: This documentary by Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost). It was originally commissioned as a behind-the-scenes “making of” for the more commercial enterprise, then developed into a freestanding, in-depth examination of both the Armenian Genocide and its continued suppression from the historical record by many global powers (including the US). It’s a penetrating look at an act that, sadly, set the precedent for globe-spanning government “purges” of unwanted citizens that have only increased in number and frequency as we’ve entered a new century. Opens Friday/12, Roxie. More info here.

Before he took a long, not-entirely-voluntary sabbatical finally broken by 2008’s gloriously rude Bad Biology, Frank Henelotter had a great decade as one of the high VHS era’s cultiest horror directors. He started with 1982’s grotesque Basketcase, finished with its (second) sequel, and perhaps peaked in notoriety with the hilariously self-explanatory Frankenhooker.

But probably the best single feature of that initial run was this 1988 indie classic about a boy (Rick Hearst) and his best friend — a mysterious “small, disgusting creature” that attaches itself to his brain-stem base, providing rushes of hallucinogenic euphoria while indulging its own needs via homicidal attacks. Grungy, macabre, funny, and oddly touching, this weird-ass portrait of a truly addictive relationship will make for a particularly special Terror Tuesday at the Alamo. Tues/16, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: The Green Fog, Quest, Hostiles, Happy End …

In 'The Green Fog,' director Guy Maddin remakes 'Vertigo' with footage from other films

SCREEN GRABS The holidays are over, but the holiday movies remain, or in some cases are still arriving—a few awards-bait features opened only for qualifying runs in New York and LA before year’s end. The biggest such is Steven Spielberg’s The Post, about one real-life coverup spanning several Presidencies that unraveled during Nixon’s second term, handing the NY Times and Washington Post a big scoop not long before the regime-ending scandal of Watergate. 

This paean to the power of a free press could hardly be more timely, yes. Still, it’s the kind of prestige mediocrity that inevitably gets nominated for umpteen Oscars not because it’s good—it isn’t—but because it’s “that kind of movie,” and because its major talents already have a walk-in closet worth of Oscars between them. Showboating lead performances by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks only underline the obviousness of an enterprise whose good intentions are compromised by its air of banal self-congratulation. 

There are, however, a fair number of more interesting films on tap this week:

To close its 60th anniversary program last year, the San Francisco International Film Festival had the excellent idea of commissioning beloved Canadian iconoclast Guy Maddin (The Saddest Music in the World) and his recent collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson to make a film with a likewise newly commissioned score by Jacob Garchik, played by the Kronos Quartet. The starting premise was to “remake Vertigo without using footage from the Hitchcock classic,” instead weaving a wide variety of archival clips—”golden age” Hollywood classics, ’70s thrillers, TV series, recent hits, all shot and/or set in San Francisco—to create a “parallel universe” version.

If you were lucky enough to see the Castro world premiere with live musical accompaniment last spring, or if you’d like to see the delightful results again, the Roxie is bringing The Green Fog back, this time with the score soundtracked. This collage feature may recall Vertigo only in the vaguest ways, but it’s a wonderful tribute to SF as a much-mined movie location, as well as a frequently hilarious prank of mash-up absurdism. You’ll catch not just your favorite local landmarks, but a bizarre array of stars ranging from Bogart and Joan Crawford to John Saxon, Sandra Dee, Richard “Shaft” Roundtree, and a particularly funny emphasis on that definitive non-representative of “San Francisco values,” Chuck Norris. Opens Fri/5 (four shows only), Roxie Theater. More info here.

The upside to the fact that they don’t make many Westerns these days is that when they do make one, it’s no throwaway—it’s usually pretty good. This latest by director Scott Cooper of Crazy Heart and Black Mass is an ambitious tale set in 1892, when a US Army captain on the verge of retirement (Christian Bale) is ordered to escort a dying, long-imprisoned Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) back to his ancestral lands—a most unwelcome task, given the history of violent enmity between the two. En route their party—which grows to include a frontierswoman (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family has been killed by raiders—is under constant threat of attack by both white outlaws and warring tribes. 

A mournful tale of loss and forgiveness, Hostiles might strike some as too “politically correct,” as it labors a bit artificially at times to orchestrate reconciliation between the US government, settlers, Natives, and even African Americans. (Jonathan Majors plays a black Army corporal, in a cast whose other notables include Stephen Lang, Adam Beach, Peter Mullan and Call Me By Your Name’s Timothee Chalamet.) Nonetheless, it’s an engrossing period adventure with strong performances and plenty of handsome scenery. Opens Friday at Bay Area theaters. 

After the triumph of formerly SF-based Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and other films in 2016, 2017 emerged an equally strong year for African-American cinema: Not just in narrative features like Get Out and Mudbound, but in myriad strong documentaries about current and historical issues in the black community. Making its local debut a year after an acclaimed Sundance premiere, Jonathan Olshefski’s film chronicles several years in the lives of the Raineys, a couple in North Philadelphia who persevere despite some shocking, unexpected setbacks that we live through right alongside them. 

It’s a powerful testament to the hurdles related to race, crime, financial hardship, and so forth that frequently arise even for black families who “do everything right.” Sober, gainfully employed, loving parents who stress the importance of education, the Raineys don’t fit any racist stereotype of how African-Americans “only have themselves to blame” for failing to advance in our supposedly classless society. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.

Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke has only been a staple on the US arthouse circuit for fifteen years, since The Piano Teacher memorably initiated his enduring collaboration with Isabelle Huppert. So it might not have registered that he’s 75 years old—old enough to begin repeating himself, certainly. This latest (his first since 2012’s Amour) feels like a respectable but rote retread, critiquing bourgeoise hypocrisy and social inequities without the stronger impact he’s usually managed before. 

A mother’s overdose lands a 12-year-old girl (Fantine Harduin as Eve) in the Calais household of a remarried father (Mathieu Kassovitz) she’s had little to do with until now, and who isn’t exactly a natural in the paternal role. Also under that roof are his sister (Huppert), an icy businesswoman whose attentions do nothing to help a hapless adult son (Franz Rogowski); and their senile tycoon father (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who wishes Death would hurry up to claim him. It takes him a while to realize that budding little dormant-volcano-of-dysfunction Eve might help. 

There’s the usual masochistic Haneke payoff of some truly cringe-worthy moments—notably a classic “ruined dinner party” climax, and one memorably over-the-top karaoke performance that’s a rare comedy highlight for this director. Still, this is a comparatively minor work by a major artist. Opens Friday at Bay Area theaters. 

While the SF Main Library continues its series of local punk films, the Drafthouse offers a one-night look at NYC’s underground music of the late 1980s. Video artist Charles Atlas’ 1989 Put the Blood in the Music takes the pulse of Manhattan music-makers at the time, with particular emphasis on avant-garde composer and improviser John Zorn as well as the emerging noise-rock gods Sonic Youth. Others heard from in passing include Lydia Lunch, performance artist Karen Finley, veteran scenester John Cale, and the Times critic John Rockwell. Little seen outside one UK television broadcast, it’s a valuable time capsule whose subjects positively reek of that classic “downtown” Noo Yawk combination of brattiness and pretension. Mon/8, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

There’s nothing pretentious in the least about the next night’s Terror Tuesdays selection, 1980 Italian exploitation flick Contamination. It, too, reflects its cultural moment—when nearly every piece of horror shlock felt compelled to imitate the chest-bursting gore of recent smash Alien. There are plenty of exploding bodies in this mostly Earthbound tale of humanity imperiled by acid-filled space-creature eggs that turn out to have been secretly brought back by a recent mission to Mars. British actor Ian McCulloch (not to be confused with the Echo and the Bunnyman frontman) plays the “good” astronaut. There’s also a bad one—and a giant green alien “cyclops” straight out of a cheesy 1960s Japanese sci-fi thriller. Other attractions include a score by rock soundtrack specialists Goblin (of Argento’s Suspiria) and some really terrible dubbed English dialogue. Offered in a new restoration transfer, Contamination (also known as Toxic Spawn) was directed by Luigi Cozzi, also responsible for the camp classic Star Wars ripoff Starcrash (1978) and Lou Ferrigno’s two wonderfully ridiculous Hercules movies. Tues/9, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Seemingly half the Bay Area film community will soon be leaving for Park City, Utah for the biggest annual event in national indie film and video. They’ll be braving the freezing cold to take their chances on whatever they can score tickets for at the Sundance Film Festival. But while you’re waiting for the breakout films (last year’s big ones included The Big Sick, Get Out, and Call Me By Your Name) to reach theaters, you can catch up with some of last year’s best short-form Sundance selections in this traveling program. It runs a prize-winning international gamut from documentary to narrative to experimental. 

One we’ve already seen (as part of the Pacific Film Archive’s Polish Animation series) is Renata Gasiorowska’s Pussy, a delightful line-animation about a woman’s dedicated, albeit much-interrupted, quest for masturbatory fulfillment.  Also on tap are actress Kristen Stewart’s directorial debut Come Swim, Peter Huang’s Canadian 5 Films About Technology, and several more. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

Favorite films of 2017

Sion Sono's wild 'Antiporno' plays at the Roxie.

SCREEN GRABS Hollywood has already loaded the multiplexes with both entertainment fluff and awards bait for your between-holidays viewing pleasure, so openings this week are very, very few. However, there are a handful of worthy repertory gigs (at those venues not actually shuttered until after NYE), plus one live event so special we couldn’t resist including it… at least during this really slow week. 

Toward the bottom of this week’s column are two lists of my favorite films of the year — narrative and documentary. Enjoy.

A rival to Takashi Miike as the cultiest living Japanese director, Sion Sono has attracted a whole lot of fan attention over the last couple decades with such variably outré entries as Suicide Club, Noriko’s Dinner Table, Strange Circus, Exte: Hair Extensions, Love Exposure, Why Don’t You Play In Hell, Tokyo Tribe, and many more. One genre he’s dabbled in more reluctantly than others (unlike horror, action and teen drama) is sexploitation. Tasked with contributing to a reboot of Nikkatsu Studio’s “roman pornos”—stylish softcore opuses that flourished in the 1970s—he delivers this willfully perverse exercise in flashy aesthetics, surreal logic, and social critique. 

A vainglorious pop celebrity (Ami Tomite) greets yet another day of tedious fame, taking out her frustrations on a readily humiliated assistant (Mariko Tsutsui). But fourth-wall-breakings, flashbacks, pure fantasy, and more soon twist their routine into a sexed-up (yet weirdly anti-erotic) female Groundhog Day. Whether there’s much meaning under all Sono’s toying with time, reality, and identity will be a matter of personal opinion. But few will deny the frequently knockout visual invention he manages to pack into 76 garishly colorful minutes. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

The 89-year-old French artist has topped many award lists this year with her latest film Faces Places, a charming collaboration with photographer JR, who is 55 years her junior. That documentary—which chronicles their travels around France meeting ordinary small-town folk to create giant art installations—plays the last of a short run at the Pacific Film Archive this Thursday. 

The day prior, the PFA also shows one of Varda’s most famous early works. Cleo from 5 to 7 tells the tale (more or less in”“real time”) of a pop singer who anxiously wanders Parisian streets one afternoon as she awaits the results of a cancer biopsy. With a score by Michel Legrand and appearances by Godard and Anna Karina, this unique 1961 feature could hardly be more of a nouvelle vague snapshot. Faces Thurs/28, Cleo Wed/27, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

The hills may not be alive, but the Castro definitely will be awash in the sounds of music from Julie Andrews—and you—as this popular participatory experience settles in for a week-long run. When it was released in 1965, Robert Wise’s adaptation of the Rogers & Hammerstein stage musical ran for a whole lot longer than that—for years, in fact, in some locations. (Its initial theatrical release alone lasted nearly five.) It was the highest-grossing film ever, stealing that crown from 1939’s Gone With the Wind, though much less time would elapse before The Godfather (then Jaws, then Star Wars, and so on) would yank it away again. 

You can sing your little heart out to “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss,” “The Lonely Goatherd” et al., assuming your voice holds out for 174 minutes. Holding up very well these days is Andrews’ now-octogenarian costar Christopher Plummer, who frightened children as the stern Baron Von Trapp. He’s currently frightening moviegoers as imperious billionaire miser J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World—the role he notoriously took over on short notice, re-shooting all the scenes already completed by Kevin Spacey after the latter’s sexual harassment Waterloo. But never mind: The Sound of Music is so wholesome you’ll forget sex (let alone sexual misconduct) even exists for three hours. Tues/26-Mon/1, Castro Theatre. More info here.

2017: Worst year ever? Let’s hope so. However, at least you can bid a happy adieu to that mess via one live albeit definitely film-related event on New Year’s Eve: Jeff Goldblum with the Mildred Snitzner Ochestra at cabaret-scaled Feinstein’s at the Nikko. Yes, this is a musical event. Did you know Goldblum plays (as one critic recently put it) “a mean jazz piano”? Neither did we. But then, is there anything the man who saved the world in Independence Day—and also memorably just about destroyed it in this year’s Thor: Ragnarok—can’t reasonably be expected to do? Surely not. 

Reportedly he mixes plenty of audience participation and film trivia in with his Thelonious Monk and “Caravan” during these unpredictable live shows, of which there will be two Sunday evening. Frankly, Jeff Goldblum could play the kazoo and/or read the phone book for an hour and it would probably be gold. If 2018 sees the end of life as we know it, at least you can say you ended 2017 in the company of one of the entertainment world’s most entertaining personalities. Sun/31, Feinstein’s at the Nikko. More info here.

Not that you asked, but here are my movie top tens (in chronological rather than preferential order) for 2017:



God’s Own Country

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer

The Lost City of Z

The Sense of an Ending

Brigsby Bear

Patti Cake$


The Square

Good Time

Runners-up: John Wick: Chapter 2, Get Out, The Belko Experiment, Free Fire, Logan, Logan Lucky, Ingrid Goes West, The Florida Project, The Other Side of Hope, Thor: Ragnarok, Life and Nothing More, Atomic Blonde.


Keep Quiet

Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower

Living Stars

Mr. Gaga

Long Strange Trip (first half)

Dawson City: Frozen in Time


Brimstone & Glory

Faces Places

LA 92

Runners-up: Too many to mention. We are living in a golden age for non-fiction cinema.

Screen Grabs: A Christmas weekend movie bonanza

Brazil is part of a Terry Gilliam double-feature at the Roxie, Fri/22

We are now in that time of year where for many, going to the movies means finding something “suitable for the whole family.” Ergo this week brings Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, a fantasy adventure which is expected to be huge despite early word that it is possibly even worse than the Robin Williams movie it remakes. Much more of a commercial gamble is The Greatest Showman, that very rare thing today—an original movie musical—starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, with Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Rebecca Ferguson and Oakland’s own Disney-groomed Zendaya in support roles. (It is not, rather strangely, connected at all to the widely successful 1980s stage musical Barnum.) There’s will also inevitably a whole lot of singing, as well as girl power, in Pitch Perfect 3

Elsewhere, the year-end march of award hopefuls continues with famed TV writer Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game, his big-screen directorial bow. It’s dramatized true story, with Jessica Chastain as a sidelined Olympic skier who turned her intensely competitive nature towards orchestrating extremely high-stakes, questionably-legal poker games. Slick and extremely garrulous in the Sorkin style, it’s this year’s Portrait of a Winning Asshole, in the tradition of Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short—except this time the asshole is a woman! Yay? Laden with showy speeches (at one point Kevin Costner arrives to basically deliver the entire movie’s psychological depth in checkoff-list form), it ends on perhaps the emptiest note of Inspirational Uplift ever. But it’s still more fun than The Post

Those looking for family-unfriendly entertainment with no redeeming social consciousness whatsoever will get the gift of Father Figures, a slab of raunchy R-rated comedy in which Owen Wilson, J.K. Simmons, Christopher Walken, Ed Helms and others are men behaving badly. 

But if I were you, I’d go see something among the below instead: 

Struggling heartland couple Paul and Audrey (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig) are chasing that American Dream, but not getting any closer. In this seriocomic fantasy penned by Alexander Payne and his usual writing partner Jim Taylor, they mull the titular option: Being scientifically shrunk to minute size, in which form they’d enjoy the relatively luxurious life their modest savings can bankroll in a specially designed Lilleputian community. 

Gradually moving from quirky social satire to something more weighty—even addressing such topics as income inequality and global warming—this is not another home run from the director of Election, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and so forth. But it’s a welcome if mixed-bag leap of the imagination that is never dull, and ultimately quite rewarding. Perhaps the oddest duck amongst 2017 Christmas releases, Downsizing is refreshing for the risks it takes, and for the thoughtful sociopolitical commentary it pulls off within a rather soft-edged whimsical concept. Opens Friday at area theaters. 

No doubt more curiosity will be directed at this year-end release, however, if only because of the bizarre high-profile circumstances that engulfed its completion: When Kevin Spacey became persona non grata due to umpteen sexual harassment accusations, director Ridley Scott re-cast his part… in the already completed movie. Nine presumably frenetic days were spent filming Christopher Plummer (who says he was semi-prepared anyway as an early candidate for the role) as wealthy, miserly industrialist J. Paul Getty in a drama about his grandson’s kidnapping for ransom in 1973. Michelle Williams again, Mark Wahlberg and Charlie Plummer (no relation) also figure in the cast. 

Will the last-minute rehaul complicate Scott’s usual meticulous craftsmanship? Money wasn’t press-screened in time to provide an answer. Still, his fascinating true story has got to make for a better movie than his profoundly disappointing recent Alien prequels. Opens Friday at area theaters.

Yet another ripped-from-headlines tale… yeesh, can’t Hollywood do anything but docudramas and sequels anymore? (Hats off again to Downsizing.) However, there is plenty to like about Suicide Squad’s Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding, the Olympics-aspiring US figure skater who notoriously was involved—to what degree is still murky—in an attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. 

Director Craig Gillespie and scenarist Steven Rogers’ film gets a little too cute at times with winky fourth-wall-breaking and other gimmicks that feel second-hand. Yet like The Disaster Artist, this is a comedy about hapless real people that nonetheless ultimately manages to avoid ridiculing them. Robbie is terrific as the fiercely determined, not-especially-likable heroine, and Allison Janney is terrifyingly good as her monstrous stage mother. I, Tonya finally does have its cake and eat it too: It gets us to laugh at “white trash” culture, yet also underlines how hard it can be to transcend just such class divisions in our supposedly “classless” society. Opens Friday at area theaters.

Surely Tonya Harding would have been happier if she hadn’t been pushed into a “princessy” competitive arena and had instead been allowed to flaunt a mohawk and slamdance to the Misfits. This kickoff program to a four-part series at the SF Main Public Library features “shorts and clips from 1977-1980,” presented by the San Francisco History Center’s SF Punk Archive. It will include archival performances by local punk legends The Nuns, CRIME, The Avengers, Mutants, Dils and more. Further installments in the series will play Dec. 30, Jan. 6 and Jan. 10. Free, but advance reservations are advised. Wed/20, SF Main Library. More info here

On the other hand, the Nancy Kerrigans of the world can feel safe attending either of two utterly wholesome celluloid traditions at SF’s favorite movie palace. On Friday it’s none other than Frank Capra’s deathless 1946 classic. with James Stewart as the small-town Everyman who loses all hope and gains it all back on Xmas Eve. Admit it: You, too, cry when you see this thing. And its political edge might seem a little sharper this year. A few days later, the Castro brings back the Sing-a-Long Sound of Music, which may not have a Yuletide theme—but it’s got singing nuns fer Chrissakes! Life: Fri/22, Music: Tues/26-Mon/1, Castro Theatre. More info here.

Mercifully for some, there’s much less conventional holiday-revival fare going on a few blocks down in the Mission. Midnights for Maniacs presents a 100-minute director’s cut of this infamous 1980 black-comedy slasher, the first but not the last horror film to feature a homicidal Santa Claus. It has been designated the favorite Xmas-themed movie of John Waters—even more so, presumably, than Santa Claus Conquers the Martians with little Pia Zadora. Sat/23, Roxie Theater. More info here.

Striking even more of a counter-programming note are the two vintage Terry Gilliam dystopian fantasias the Roxie is screening in 35mm prints tonight. There is indeed a Christmas theme buried in the crazy quilt of 1985’s surreal comic blowout Brazil, as well as Twelve Monkeys from a decade later. Jonathan Pryce plays the hapless protagonist negotiating a demented future in the former; Bruce Willis a time-tripping victim of fate (and manic Brad Pitt) in the latter. This double bill of mind-warping imagination and visual excess will render your seasonal cheer that much more inebriated. Fri/22, Roxie Theater. More info here

Screen Grabs: California Typewriter, Lost Landscapes of San Francisco …

Tom Hanks with some of his collection of 250 typewriters, in 'California Typewriter'

It’s a big weekend for family entertainment, with not only the new Star Wars joint (The Last Jedi—one of the falsest “last” promises in the history of movies, one suspects) but also Ferdinand, a new animated film based on the same children’s book about a flower-loving bull that inspired a famous Disney cartoon short eighty years ago. Even SF Symphony gets into the act with several performances of Home Alone. Yes, the 1990 comedy with Macauley Culkin will be projected at Davies Hall while the orchestra plays John Williams’ score live. (Maybe they’ll throw in his Star Warstheme as a bonus.) Roll over, Beethoven.

Fortunately, there are plenty of local alternatives for those seeking celluloid entertainment of a more grownup nature.

Two well-reviewed documentaries are opening at Landmark Theaters: Israeli directors Alon and Shaul Schwarz’s Aida’s Secrets probes the very complicated saga of how two Jewish brothers born in a European refugee camp just after WW2 came to be raised on different continents, unaware even of each other’s existence. Bobbi Jo Hart’s Rebels on Pointe chronicles the over half-century history to date of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male “drag ballet” ensemble whose parodies of classical dance have proven enduringly popular despite some initial hostility and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic.

The Roxie offers a single screening Tue/19 of Barney’s Wall, a new doc about legendary Grove Press publisher and censorship foe Barney Rosset. Co-presented by City Lights and Litquake, the program will also feature a live panel discussion with speakers including director Sandy Gotham Meehan.

There’s also the arrival of one of the year’s most acclaimed films, Call Me By Your Name from Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), with rich-kid teen Timothee Chalamet and visiting American Armie Hammer drifting into romance in the idyllic 1983 Tuscan countryside. It’s certainly a handsome piece of escapist-touristic fantasy, though I remain skeptical of Guadagnino, who often seems truer to his sideline as a luxury-product advertiser than he does to the narrative and psychological depth his feature films skim over. (For one thing, this movie completely avoids the specter of AIDS, which would have been very much on the minds and in the conversations of any Italians mulling a gay affair with an American in 1983. I know—I was there.) In the end, this pretty posefest feels like an upscale homophile version of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, albeit with less conflict. I’ll stick with the grittier, heartfelt God’s Own Country as the celluloid gay love story of the year. 

Elsewhere, there’s a variety of limited runs and special events: 

Dennis Hopper spent his later years as a dutiful industry staple, playing villains in blockbusters, collecting fine art and renouncing aspects of his hedonistic past as a registered Republican. But he never really shook the wild-man image of a self-proclaimed James Dean acolyte turned surprise counterculture king of New Hollywood as director of 1969’s Easy Rider, the low-budget “biker flick” whose colossal success helped kick-start an era of more adventurous and independent filmmaking. He followed it up with The Last Movie, a wildly self-indulgent 1971 flop that is nonetheless one of the most truly experimental features ever to come out of a major studio (which hated it). He stumbled along in a druggy stupor until sobering up and re-emerging as an actor in 1986 with the one-two punch of a sympathetic turn (for which he got an Oscar nomination) in Hoosiers and a terrifying one in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet

That latter film will be featured in this week-long tribute ballasted by Nick Ebling’s new documentary Along for the Ride, which views Hopper’s eventful life and career through the perspective of his longtime assistant/minder Satya de la Manitou. There will also be screenings of Tony Scott’s 1993 Tarantino-written True Romance, wherein Hopper has a memorable scene opposite Christopher Walken; the rare 1985 featurette A Hero of Our Time; several short films by Hopper’s close artist friend Bruce Conner; and Out of the Blue, the intense 1980 family psychodrama that’s probably the best thing Hopper ever directed. Opens Friday, Roxie Theater. More info here.

A more recently deceased American film great is Demme, who began toiling in the B-movie factory of Roger Corman, making such idiosyncratic drive-in treasures as Caged Heat and Crazy Mama before beginning to ascend towards the Oscar-winning likes of The Silence of the Lambs. Yet he never lost his taste for edgier projects, whether filming performances by Talking Heads, Neil Young and Spalding Gray, or taking on such dicey later commercial projects as the criminally underrated version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Rachel Getting Married and the little-seen A Master Builder,playwright Wallace Shawn’s take on Ibsen. 

Center for the Arts provides a one-night tribute to the filmmaker (who passed away last April at 73) with 1993’s AIDS-themed drama Philadelphia, a somewhat overrated hit, and 1998’s Storefront Hitchcock, a concert showcase for quirky British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock that premiered at the SF International Film Festival and has barely been seen since. Thurs/14 and Sun/17, YBCA. More info here

Named after Herb Permillion’s Berkeley typewriter-repair store, a stubborn holdout in the digital age, Doug Nicol’s documentary celebrates the history and mystique around the humble machine whose heyday lasted about a century—from the 1880s to the advent of the personal computer. Enthusiasts interviewed include actor Tom Hanks (who owns some 250 of them), recently deceased playwright Sam Shepard, and musician John Mayer, as well as sculptor Jeremy Mayer (no relation to the last), whose artworks make use of discarded typewriter parts. Yes, typewriters (and paper) are bulky. But what physical artifacts will survive—let alone reside in museums—when future literary manuscripts and policy documents exist only as bytes? Where’s the romance in an On the Road found not on an endless roll of paper, but on iCloud? Sat/16, Fri/22, Sat/23, Thurs/28, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Another limited run at the PFA is a newly restored print of the 1945 drama that kicked off Joan Crawford’s contract at Warner Brothers (she’d spent the two decades prior at MGM) and snagged her that elusive Oscar. She plays the waitress whose homemade pies eventually propel her up a ladder of entrepreneurial success, turning her daughter (Ann Blyth) into a society debutante—and a horribly bratty ingrate who even steals mom’s boyfriend (Zachary Scott). Based on a pulp fiction by James M. Cain (of The Postman Always Rings Twice), this domestic noir was purportedly turned down by Bette Davis before La Crawford and director Michael Curtiz recognized its possibilities. The recent TV miniseries remake with Kate Winslet, directed by Todd Haynes, hews closer to the excellent novel; but this B&W classic retains its own strengths as deluxe vintage melodrama. Fri/15, Sat/23, Wed/27, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.

The latest edition of this beloved annual event—so beloved that, in fact, this year it occupies two nights at the Castro—is an audiovisual archaeological dig into the past of our rapidly changing city. At least the past caught on film, from the beginning of the 20th century to the Me Decade. Favorites from prior programs will be abetted by new finds that we’re promised will include clips of vintage North Beach nightlife, as well as behind-the-scenes footage from the local shooting of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?, with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Audience participation in terms of location identification and other insights. Proceeds benefit archivists Rick & Megan Prelinger’s SOMA “famed experimental research” facility the Prelinger Library. Tues/12-Wed/13, Castro Theatre. More info here

Speaking of experimentation, The Other Cinema ends its latest ATA calendar with as usual with a night of recent short film and video works in that vein. The eclectic mix will include the world premiere of Anthony Buchanan’s Oriental Flames, plus new titles by Linda Scobie, Isaac Sherman, Tommy Becker, Misha Steier, Kent Lambert, Mike Morris and more. Many of the filmmakers featured will be present, with one (Ellie Vanderlip) providing her own live banjo accompaniment. Sat/16, Artists Televison Access. More info here. 

Screen Grabs: The Shape of Water, Shadowman, Agitprop 2….

Guillermo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' opens this weekend.

SCREEN GRABS Two of the year’s more Oscar-hyped performances hit theaters this week, from two reliably excellent performers. There’s Gary Oldman under a whole lot of makeup as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, the latest period drama from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), who handles this populist history lesson in his default style balancing the flashy and conventional. The movie, which portrays the legendary statesman as he assumes post of Prime Minister and rallies a reluctant Britain into WW2, could be better. But Oldman’s turn is indeed the kind of flamboyant transformation that wins little golden men. 

Then there’s Kate Winslet as an unhappy wife (to Jim Belushi!) and mother commencing an affair with lifeguard Justin Timberlake on 1950s Coney Island in Woody Allen’s latest, Wonder Wheel. Much as we love Winslet, this is not among her finer hours, nor Woody’s—though legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro does work some visual wonders with a screenplay that often feels like a dismal off-off-Broadway play circa 1962. You know, the kind where salt-of-the-earth characters spout ersatz poetry de la tenement in rare moments when they’re not yelling at each other. “I gotta migraine!” clam-joint waitress Winslet frequently shouts, and you might get one, too. 

Other major openings include Bull Durham director Ron Shelton’s Just Getting Started, a geezer-buddy action comedy vehicle for Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones. But for many the big attraction will be Guillermo del Toro’s latest:

Sally Hawkins stars as a mute night janitor at a government scientific facility in early 1960s Baltimore. She develops a curious empathic connection to a captured humanoid sea creature (Doug Jones in heavy prosthetics) that’s being held for research there. Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon represent different sides of the surrounding Cold War political milieu, while Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins play Hawkins’ respective workplace and domestic allies. This beautifully crafted fantasy falls somewhere between del Toro’s more personal Spanish-language films (like Pan’s Labyrinth) and his American popcorn spectaculars. You’ll either find it enrapturing, or a lush but essentially silly Creature from the Black Lagoon that ramps up the inter-species romance. Opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) has landed in Helsinki, not entirely by choice, while trying to find the sister he lost while fleeing their war-torn native land. Immigration authorities are not particularly sympathetic, but when his fortunes hit rock-bottom, he finds an unlikely haven in the nondescript restaurant recently bought by a dour traveling salesman with poker winnings (Sakari Kuosmanen), and staffed by an equally laconic crew stiffed by the previous owner. This latest by Finland’s leading filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki is his best in years, a potentially precious little fable whose inner warmth is well-cloaked in a healthy dose of his characteristic deadpan humor. It’s a secretly sentimental feel-good movie with a perfect poker face. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza, SF. More info here.

Vancouver-born Richard Hambleton made a splash in the exploding NYC art scene of the 1980s, anticipating Banksy with his guerrilla street-art paintings of eerie, life-sized silhouette figures. For a brief while, his notoriety and celebrity rivaled that of Basquiat and Haring. Unlike them, he didn’t die tragically young—instead, he simply disappeared into a two-decade black hole of addiction and occasional homelessness. Before dying at age 65 just a few weeks ago, he did live long enough to re-emerge into the public spotlight, partly via this new film by veteran documentarian Oren Jacoby. it charts the stormy path of a fascinating, enigmatic figure whose art seemed inextricably bound with his self-destructive tendencies. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here.

Arguably the greatest of all U.S. experimental filmmakers, and certainly among the most prolific, Brakhage (1933-2003) spent five decades carving out a unique cinematic oeuvre that at various points embraced collage, hand-painting and scratching on celluloid, in-camera editing and much more. This special event marks the republication of his 1963 tome Metaphors on Vision, one of the key written statements about avant-garde film. Thomas Beard of Light Industry will discuss the book and present a screening of Brakhage’s 40-minute 1958 Anticipation of the Night, which Brakhage described as an attempt to embody an infant’s formative recollecting thought process. This represents the last in a series of SF shows honoring famed distributor Canyon Cinema’s library and the 50th anniversary of its founding. Fri/8, YBCA Screening Room. More info here.

A German cult movie almost completely unknown in the US, Eckhart Schmidt’s 1982 feature starts off as a downbeat study of an odd, friendless teenage girl (Desiree Nosbusch) whose only real focus in life is her obsession with a not-particularly-impressive pop star called “R” (Bodo Steiger, lead singer of a band called Rheingold at the time). She does manages to meet him, realizing her dream—to a point. But Simone won’t be satisfied by a one-night stand, and the film moves into horror terrain as her fixation assumes truly disturbing dimensions. This envelope-pushing rarity will be screened in an English-dubbed 35mm print one time only, as part of the Alamo’s “Weird Wednesday” series. Wed/13, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here


Two single-day Roxie programs from guest curator Don Malcolm will spice your Yuletide cheer with a double dose of gloomy foreboding. 

On Saturday an impressively diverse triple bill benefitting the ACLU features political protest cinema of myriad eras and nationalities: There’s soon-to-be-blacklisted Abraham Polonsky’s classic 1948 Hollywood thriller Force of Evil, a tale of systemic corruption starring John Garfield; Karel Kachyna’s 1970 Czech The Ear, a Kafkaesque nightmare that so disturbed government authorities they banned it for two decades; and English director Peter Watkins’ controversial 1971 Punishment Park, depicting a near-future fascist US in which dissidents are hunted for sport in a desert survival “game.” Sat/9, Roxie. More info here.

Wednesday brings two vintage French films whose Christmas settings belie hearts of darkness. Returning after its prior play in one of Malcolm’s “The French Had a Name For It” series is Marcel Bluwai’s 1962 Le Monte-Charge aka Paris Pick-Up. It’s a fine, intricately plotted latterday noir programmer in which a newly released ex-con (ever-magnetic Robert Hossein) who lucks out with a gorgeous Italian woman (Lea Massari) on an otherwise cheerless Christmas night, only to discover himself implicated in her husband’s murder. New to Roxie audiences will be Christian-Jacque’s 1941 Who Killed Santa Claus?, a poisoned seriocomic bon-bon from Vichy-era France revolving around the mystery of the murder of a small village’s “Pere Noel.” Just a few months following its release, star Harry Baur (whose wife was Jewish) would be arrested and tortured the Gestapo, dying soon thereafter. Wed/13, Roxie. More info here

Winnowed from 126 submissions, the fourth edition of this annual Roxie program showcases fourteen recent short works that span the breadth of the Bay Area filmmaking community, from live-action narrative and animation to documentary and experimental work. Veteran artists featured include Marian Wallace, who contributes an absurdist mystery, Project Y; and Jay Rosenblatt, whose new The Kodachrome Elegies pays tribute to the preferred amateur film stock of a pre-video and pre-digital era. Among other seletions are Luz Olivia’s hand-processed 16mm Nothing To Write Home About, Darryl Jones’ stop-motion animation There’s Always a Way, and politically pointed shorts from Nelson Murray (The Clock and the Compass) and Noemie Serfaty (Treasure Island). Most if not all the directors will be present at this two-part evening with intermission. Thurs/14, Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: Disaster Artist, Polish Animation, The Breadwinner….

SCREEN GRABS Not a lot going on this week in the realm of mainstream releases. But there’s no end of interest on the arthouse and rep-house circuit, with the Silent Festival’s annual one-day winter blowout and a couple major treats for grownup animation fans.

Notable openings on Friday include two at the Roxie: Juan Sebastian Mesa’s Venice prize winner The Nobodies aka Los Nadie, a B&W slice of teenage metalhead life in Medellin, and Luke Korem’s Dealt, a documentary about famed card-trick magician Richard Turner, whose prowess is all the more amazing considering that he’s blind. There’s also Jason Headley’s black comedy A Bad Idea Gone Wrong at the Alamo, and Danish auteur Joaquim Trier’s (Reprise, Oslo August 31st) new Thelma, a curious character study-cum-thriller with supernatural elements that opens at Landmark theaters.

But for some of you — and you know who you are — all else will be overshadowed by the arrival of the year’s most eagerly-awaited movie. No, we’re not talking about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, or even the imminent latest Paul Thomas Anderson, but rather…

Even in the annals of stupefying cinematic vanity projects, there is nothing quite like writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 The Room, the midnight-movie sensation of the new millennium. If one learns anything best by making mistakes, there is probably no better book about moviemaking than his friend and co-star Greg Sestero’s The Disaster Artist, which chronicled The Room’s hapless production. 

Now another multi-hyphenate, the more presentable (and explicable) James Franco, has adapted that tome into by far the best and most accessible film of his own directorial career to date. He’s also got arguably his best role since Spring Breakers in playing Tommy, with brother Dave as Greg. Wiseau and Sestero’s path from SF acting classes to big-screen infamy is amusingly retold in a comedy that deftly manages to sidestep ridiculing its principal subject.

Instead, this portrait of an admittedly inexplicable personality achieves a certain open-hearted pathos as he discovers the realization of his heart’s desire only provokes public laughter. With its array of famous faces in small parts (Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Seth Rogen, Adam Scott, Sharon Stone, et al.), Artist is an accessible crowdpleaser. But for full appreciation, you really, really should see The Room first. At Bay Area theaters. 

San Francisco Silent Fest’s annual winter bash offers one very full day of retro celluloid gold. Many devoted patrons will be familiar with at least a couple of the six features on tap: Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 German The Adventures of Prince Achmed is an exotic fairy tale famous as the oldest surviving animated feature, done in a style redolent of Far Eastern shadow puppetry. Henry King’s 1921 Tol’able David is an enduring US classic with Richard Barthemless as the sweet-natured country boy who must prove himself a man when some criminal relatives turn up to terrorize his family as uninvited “guests.” 

There are plenty of relative rarities and newly restored films as well. For comedy, there’s not just Lubitsch’s 1925 Lady Windermere’s Fan — an improbably successful adaptation of Oscar Wilde sans dialogue — and the prior year’s wacky obscurity Last Man on Earth, which imagines a distant future (1954!) in which women have adopted all the traditional masculine roles after nearly all the menfolk die out. The Rat (1925) is an action-packed intrigue and vehicle for U.K. stage star/composer Ivor Novello that was so popular it generated two sequels. 

Lastly, Sex in Chains from future A-list Hollywood director William Dieterle is a very serious 1928 German drama about an improbable topic: Sexual frustration in prison. While pleading for legalization of conjugal visits as a solution, it does not shrink from implying that convicts will find alternatives among themselves. As usual, all programs will feature live musical accompaniment. Sat/2, Castro Theatre, SF. More info here

Peter and the Wolf

At a time when U.S. cartoonery was considered strictly kid-stuff, numerous Eastern Bloc nations began encouraging artists to use the form in expressing more complex, grownup, even abstract ideas in both style and content. A particular hotbed was Poland, as borne out by this four-part PFA retrospective highlighting work from the late 1950s onward. The “Masters of Animation” bill features such legends (at least to serious animation fans) as Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica; two “Festival Favorites” programs encompass a diverse range of award-winning titles spanning decades; while “Emerging Artists” finds a new wave of talent expanding the terrain yea further. On each program you’ll find caustic views on the eternal battle of the sexes, black comedy, political allegory, diverse techniques, and a notably high percentage of impressive work by women artists. Sun/3-Wed/20, Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley. More info here

American advertising can be clever, but it’s often noted that across the Atlantic, they are cleverer—perhaps because audiences in most EU countries (never mind the “Brexit”) can handle a higher degree of wit and/or envelope-pushing. Now in their 40th year, the British Television Advertising Awards or “Arrows” honor the year’s best UK commercials, with categories that encompass outstanding performances (yes, including by animals), technical achievements, animation, and more. This latest best-of program offers 75 minutes of salesmanship as art. Sundays, Sun/3-Sun/17, YBCA Screening Room, SF. More info here

Irish animator Nora Twomey, who co-directed Gallic fairy tale The Secret of Kells eight years ago, is back with a more naturalistic drama in cartoon form. An already poor Afghan family’s fortunes get drastically worse when the Taliban gains control; the father is dragged off to prison for mouthing off to one young fanatic. The only male left behind is a toddler; his wife and daughters are prevented from working or even venturing outside for water and food, by oppressive Sharia law. Finally Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) begins posing as a boy to save them, a sacrifice that becomes an intoxicating taste of freedom. A straightforward, somewhat familiar tale adapted from Deborah Ellis’ YA novel, this is no Persepolis in artistic terms. Still, it’s an effective exploration of similar themes that would make a good spur for discussion with younger viewers over age 10 or so. Opera Plaza, SF. More info here

A number of older movies have seen their profile leap in the last year or so, as people grasped for screen precedents to the stranger-than-fiction reality of President Trump. Idiocracy aside, none have been more frequently cited than this cynically nasty 1957 update of Meet John Doe, in which a creepy but insinuatingly folksy hick (Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes) is promoted by media attention to a position of dangerous power and alleged moral superiority in complete conflict with his true nature. 

Written by Buzz Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan, this caustic classic demonstrates you can indeed fool most of the people most of the time. It’s got a dynamic cast including Patricia Neal, Tony Franciosa, Lee Remick and Walter Matthau. Griffith was so skin-crawlingly good as this petty huckster turned homily-spewing national con man, it’s a wonder that the public accepted him as the true-blue protagonist of sitcom The Andy Griffith Show for eight hugely popular seasons starting just three years later.  SF Examiner’s Broke-Ass Stuart hosts a discussion panel to accompany this one-night, 35mm revival screening, presented by the Jewish Film Institute. Thurs/7, Roxie, SF. More info here. 

In his lighter moments, Hitchcock was doing James Bond at the movies before James Bond did—getting dashing heroes into a mess of dangerous, somewhat deliberately outlandish derring-do in films like The 39 Steps and To Catch a Thief. Perhaps his greatest exercise in that vein is this beloved 1959 action-adventure in which an understandably harried Cary Grant is the advertising executive mistaken for a high-level CIA agent. His subsequent perils famously include being chased by crop-dusting plane and dangling from the profiles of Mount Rushmore. Variably helping or hindering him are characters played by Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau and Jessie Royce Landis. Definitely helping Hitch is Bernard Herrmann’s stirring score—which you’ll hear played live (conducted by Richard Kaufman) to accompany these special screenings, which kick off SF Symphony’s 2017-18 Film Series. Fri-Sat/1-2, Davies Symphony Hall, SF. More info here.  

Screen Grabs: Brewmaster, Franz Fanon, The Divine Order, Pan’s Labyrinth …

The Pale Man is one of the creepy delights of 'Pan's Labyrinth,' playing Wednesday at the Roxie.

SCREEN GRABS Thanksgiving is a big week for movies — much of America rolls downhill toward the multiplex after gorging themselves on the big day, or during the subsequent long weekend. Yet oddly there’s not a lot going on this week in terms of new arrivals. For families, there is some big noise in the form of Pixar’s Coco, an animated dive into Mexican culture (particularly Dia de los Muertes) whose below-the-line talent includes Octavio Solis, the Texas-born playwright who spent a couple recent decades in the Bay Area theater scene. You can also take the kids to a sing-a-long Beauty & the Beast, which plays the Castro on an irregular schedule Nov. 22 through Dec. 3

If you want to leap right past Turkey Day to the next holiday, there’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, a purportedly stale load of Xmas cheer with Dan Stevens as Young Dickens writing that story about Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Nor have advance reviews stirred great expectations for Roman J. Israel, Esq., which offers Denzel Washington a flashy Oscar-bait role but has been received as a letdown after writer-director Dan Gilroy’s striking 2014 Nightcrawler

Fortunately, there are still good movies lingering around, as well as one new arthouse arrival (see The Divine Order below) and a few one-shot events worth your notice this coming week: 

Julien was a major figure in the New Queer Cinema movement with his features Looking for Langston (1989) and Young Soul Rebels (1991). Since then he’s focused more on gallery and academic work, but remains a significant cultural presence in his native UK. He’ll visit the Pacific Film Archive to screen and discuss (with UC Berkeley professor Butler) his 1995 documentary about Fanon, the Afro-Carribbean intellectual, political activist, psychiatrist and author. Dead at just age 36 in 1961, he is still relevant (and controversial) for his insights on race, colonization and other issues he no doubt hoped we wouldn’t still be dealing with today. Admission to this event is free. Mon/27, BAM/PFA. More info here.

Almost incredibly, Switzerland didn’t grant all women the right to vote until 1971—one small region even kept them out of local elections for another two decades. Petra Volpe’s feature, that nation’s Oscar submission for this year, dramatizes that national struggle in microcosmic terms. A small-town housewife named Nora (Marie Leuenberger) — like Ibsen’s rebellious heroine in A Doll’s House — finds herself in the hot seat as the reluctant local standard-bearer for women’s liberation. 

She’s happy with husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek) and two sons, but still yearns for some life outside their needs. When she proposes getting a part-time job, however, Hans not only opposes it, he notes that by law she can’t accept the post without his permission. This conflict escalates into a village-wide women’s “strike,” as meanwhile bra-burning feminists take to the streets in Zurich. The Divine Order (its name taken from claims that “equality of the sexes is a sin against nature”) is a somewhat formulaic crowdpleaser whose plot beats seldom surprise. But it is pleasing, with solid performances, direction, and a message that unfortunately needs to be heard just as much today as it did nearly half a century ago. Now playing in SF, Berkeley, and San Rafael. 

A rare director able to straddle both pop mall-flick fantasies and serious adult-themed ones, Guillermo del Toro is said to have hit another career highpoint with The Shape of Water, which won the Golden Lion at Venice. It doesn’t open in SF for a couple weeks, but in the meantime you can refresh your knowledge of the Mexican auteur’s oeuvre with this double bill presented by Midnites for Maniacs. Both Spanish-language features will be shown in 35mm, and both are fantastical approaches to political indictment set in the early days of the oppressive Franco regime. 

In 2001’s Backbone, a rural orphanage becomes a supernaturally-tinged battleground between Republican loyalists and fascists at the end of the Spanish Civil War. The 2006 Labyrinth finds a little girl escaping into a sometimes-perilous mythical world while her mother succumbs to illness, and her new stepfather does Franco’s dirty work as a ruthless military commander. Wed/29, Roxie Theater. More info here.

Other Cinema provides a sure-to-be-lively evening of “communal Trump piñata pounding” with a program highlighting global issues at a particularly dire moment for U.S. international relations. Directly laying siege to the orange-utan himself is Maxim Pozdorovkin’s (Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer) archival-clip “biography” Our New President. Citizenfour director Laura Poitras’ Project Xexposes a secret NSA surveillance base smack in the middle of Manhattan, Elizabeth Lo’s Hotel 22 reveals the impoverished fiipside of Silicon Valley wealth, while works by Bochay Drum, Sky Hopinka and others spotlight inequities wrought by corrupt power throughout the Americas. Caitlin Manning will be present to introduce her Dispatches from Mexico, about the revolutionary leftist Zapatista Army of Liberation in Chiapas. Sat/25, Artists Television Access Gallery. More info here

Wondering what them younguns with their video-cameras and whatnot are getting up to these days? Check out this showcase for work from City College of SF’s Cinema and Broadcast Electronic Media Arts department, whose two separate programs tonight feature a wide range of documentary, narrative and experimental shorts crafted by both students and faculty. Thurs/30, Roxie Theater. More info here.

What’s better than being able to drink beer at the movies? Drinking beer while watching a movie about beer-making, of course. This new documentary from Douglas Tirola (who made Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon) focuses on the world of craft beer brewing, and one New York lawyer tempted to abandon his suit-and-tie day job for that rapidly growing industry. En route, he meets a number of its leading personalities. Some of their local representatives will be on hand for a Q and A and after-party during this one-night, over-21-only event at the duly alcohol-licensed Alamo Drafthouse. Wed/29, New Mission Alamo. More info here.

Screen Grabs: LA 92, My Friend Dahmer, Chinese American Film Festival…

Ann Reinking in 'All That Jazz' from 1979, playing at YBCA

2SCREEN GRABS With as little ado as possible, let’s launch this newcolumn highlighting the week’s film picks — an attempt to provide an easy checklist of highlights for people who might miss the kind of one-stop-entertainment-list service something like the late SF Bay Guardian provided for decades. 

This is not intended to be all-encompassing, even within the realms of arthouse, rep-calendar, and other non-mainstream film openings and events we’ll be highlighting. It will be selective — and I’m doing the selecting, so you’re stuck with my taste. We’ll have room for the occasional wide release of special interest, particularly as we’re now entering in the “awards season” of year-end prestige films. But you can rely on not getting much if any intel on movies like this week’s big guns Justice League (more superheroics), Wonder (Julia Roberts + Owen Wilson = inspirational tearjerker), or animated feature The Star (“A small but brave donkey and his animal friends become the unsung heroes of the first Christmas”) because… er, life is too short. Anyhow, if you’re primarily interested in the latest mall flicks, surely you got here by mistake. That burly man in a tutu will escort you to the exit. 

Hopefully this column will be of some use not just to readers, but also to the many Bay Area film institutions (BAM/PFA, SF Cinematheque, Artists Television Access, the Roxie, et al.) that are still hanging on, but have been hard-hit on myriad fronts—not least the ever-shrinking number of local media outlets that promote or even list their programs. 

Unless otherwise noted, individual films included here are opening regular commercial runs of a week or more on Friday of or immediately following the column’s posting date. Click on the link provided for showtimes, ticket prices etc. If a link is not provided, the film is at multiple theaters in the area, so check Fandango, SFGate, or whatever you normally do. 

Once relatively rare onscreen, black comedies are pretty common these days, as the collective sense of humor has grown more cynical and (you might argue) mean-spirited. But a genuinely creepy comedy is hard to find, a niche amply filled by Marc Meyer’s feature, which in turn is based on the graphic novel memoir by Derf Backderf, an actual former classmate of the titular, late notorious serial killer. It sketches the late 1970s Ohio high school career of teenaged Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch), who’s perceived as a minor weirdo but nothing more — not even by his parents (an excellent Dallas Roberts and somewhat caricaturing Anne Heche), who are too busy fighting their way toward divorce to notice their eldest son’s increasingly strange behavior, including an obsession with dead animal anatomy. When some boys decide Jeff’s odd “spaz” behavior is “hilarious,” they use him to perform pranks — and for a while he’s gratified by the attention, even if on some level he realizes he’s the joke. Meyer gets the midwestern Me Decade vibe just right, and ekes sly humor out of a potentially bad-taste conceit. Nevertheless, the film’s portrait of acute mental illness hiding in plain site eventually arrives at a truly disturbing (but not at all graphic) endpoint. Fri/17-Wed/22, Roxie Theater, SF. More info here

Dhalie Zhang’s ‘Summer’s Gone’

The 4 Star Theatre is hosting a week-long program of recent features from mainland China. Among the half-dozen on tap (some of which will play more than once) are Dalei Zhang’s drama The Summer’s Gone, set in early 1990s Inner Mongolia; The Blood Hound, a tale of blood vengeance between two forest rangers stationed on Western China’s Tianshan Mountain; plus patriotic spectacles The Founding of an Army, Battle of Xiangjian River and A Preacher’s Long March. Fri/17-Thu/23, 4-Star Theater, SF. More info here

Italian suspense master Dario Argento’s masterpiece is this 1977 international horror hit in which an American student (Jessica Harper of fellow cult favorites Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment) at a European ballet school discovers something very sinister—even Satanic—behind the tutus and plies. So out-there that Udo Kier plays the most “normal” character, this surreal nightmare was ideal for its director’s indifference towards niceties of plot logic, while giving full rein to a flamboyant visual imagination that would never be so eye-poppingly well deployed again. The innovative rock score by Gobin has proven influential enough to keep that Italian instrumental band touring on its reputation 40 years later. A new digital restoration of the gory classic’s “uncut, extended version” plays midnights this weekend only at the Clay. (Note: In addition, former Bay Guardian editor Cheryl Eddy will introduce one of Argento’s best later films — 1985’s Phenomena, starring future Oscar winner Jennifer Connolly as a teen with a supernatural link to insects — at the Alamo Drafthouse next Tuesday) Fri/17, Sat/18. Clay Theater, SF. More info here

LA 92 
Hot on the heels of John Ridley’s epic Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 comes another impressive documentary probing events of a quarter-century ago, when the acquittal of four LAPD who’d beaten unarmed, non-resistant speeding driver Rodney King senseless—on videotape, unbeknownst to them—exploded protests against systematic police brutality into the massively destructive, six-day “LA riots.” Though it begins with a flashback to the Watts riots nearly 30 years earlier, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s film otherwise maintains a tight focus on the ’91-92 timeline, with no narration or latterday interviews as outside commentary. The result is a powerful you-are-there chronicle of justified anger boiling over in a way that ultimately was used to simply justify more injustice. Unspoken but unavoidable here is the thought that relations between police and minority (esp. African-American) communities have only grown worse since. Fri/17-Wed/22. Roxie, SF. More info here.  

The PBS educator has turned on generations of kids to science via his 1990s Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Now he uses that celebrity-ambassador status to plea for continued scientific education, research and popularization in an era when climate change has created a global emergency—and its deniers are pouring gas on the fire. This pleasing documentary by David Alverado and Jason Sussberg shows the 60-ish bachelor (he has intimacy issues) interacting with fans, today’s youth, famous allies like Neil deGrasse Tyson, and a few notable foes—such as when he confronts personnel and visitors at a Creationist “museum” spreading the anti-science “gospel” to gullible young minds. Opens Fri/17 at Opera Plaza Cinema, SF. More info here

1979 ended a fascinating cinematic decade with a bang, although now it may seem bizarre to us that the Oscars were swept by nice little drama Kramer vs. Kramer rather than Apocalypse Now—or Bob Fosse’s equally ambitious autobiographical fantasia, which is seldom revived these days yet remains one of the major creative leaps of that Hollywood era. Roy Schneider (a surprising but brilliant choice, cast after Richard Dreyfuss dropped out) plays the womanizing, chain-smoking, perfectionist director-choreographer of stage and screen standing in for Fosse (of Broadway and film triumphs like Cabaret, Chicago and Lenny) himself. This flashy jazz-dance 8 1/2 remains uneven but exhilarating. Its two screenings this weekend conclude YBCA’s Fosse retrospective. Sat/18 and Sun/19. YBCA, SF. More info here

The combination of Michelangelo Antonioni’s arty existentialist mystique, an actual murder-mystery plot, brief nudity and the “Swinging London” setting made his first English-language feature also his first (and last) true popular success. David Hemmings plays the fashion photographer who inadvertently snaps a possible crime scene, getting drawn into a potentially dangerous puzzle involving elusive Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles. In 1966 Blow Up seemed the height of daring, as well as tantalizing insider’s peek at a rarefied scene (complete with actual scenesters like The Yardbirds and supermodel Veruschka) that Antonioni viewed with more skepticism than most audiences recognized. What did it all mean? Today it may be a tad clearer that it doesn’t mean all that much — but it’s still a fabulous objet d’art. The PFA is screening a new digital-restoration print three times through Dec. 1. More info here

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