Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: The French Had a Name For It …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Grabs: Festival mania fills local cinemas!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Grabs: Suspiria, Boy Erased, The Wild Pussycat …

'Suspiria'

SCREEN GRABS It being Halloweek, it would be just plain wrong not to lead off with a horror film, and as it happens Friday brings one of the year’s most anticipated—for both good and ill—movies in that genre. Yes, it’s yet another milking of a familiar old title. But at least one thing is definitely praiseworthy about Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me By Your Name, I Am Love) film: It is very much a “re-imagining” rather than a remake of fellow countryman Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic. 

It jettisons nearly everything from the original beyond the basic premise—American girl (here played by Dakota Johnson) is the newbie at a German dance academy run by a coven of witches (led by Tilda Swinton)—and some character names. Argento’s film was a triumph of baroque style over substance, its threadbare plot rendered irrelevant by stunning gory setpieces and bold design choices. 

By contrast, Guadagnino goes for a deliberately dank look drained of color and light. David Kajganich’s screenplay has, if anything, too much plot even for the 2 1/2 hour running time—it packs in the kind of political, religious and historical themes this director’s prior films lacked (and could have used), yet they fail to mesh with the horror content in any coherent way. This film has its own intriguing textures (Radiohead’s Thom Yorke did the original score), and is always interesting. But it’s never enveloping, with an atmosphere that’s unsettling without actually being scary. 

Ultimately it’s hard to know just what they were aiming for here. Most viewers may leave in a “Huh?” state of mind, feeling anything from confused to furious. (Those expecting anything like a straightforward horror film’s usual payoffs will likely hate it.) Advance reactions have ranged from “masterpiece” to “mess.” Color me simply perplexed—but if this Suspiria is hard to love (or sometimes even defend), it’s still more intriguing than one might have feared. 

It also earns a few points simply for being one genre film involving “dance” where the dance elements aren’t (unlike in the original) a total joke. The relevant actors pass muster as dancers, and the work Belgian choreographer Damien Jalet has contributed render Swinton’s Mme. Blanc credible as a dancemaker who would have a longstanding international reputation. 

Other films opening on Friday of note include two social-justice documentaries: Alexandria Bombach’s On Her Shoulders (at the Opera Plaza), a portrait of Iraqi Yazidi genocide survivor turned human rights activist Nadia Murad; and (at the Roxie) The Long Shadow, Frances Causey’s sweeping big-picture analysis of American racism, both its complex history and disturbingly aggressive current revival. There are also politically urgent currents behind the otherwise intimate new drama Viper Club, with Susan Sarandon as a veteran American ER nurse trying to deal with unhelpful U.S. government authorities when her journalist son is held captive in Syria. She gives a strong performance, but Maryam Kesharvarz’s earnest film ought to pack more punch given its subject matter. 

Two more narrative features opening on just one SF screen each both cast their makers as actors in problematic family-reunion stories. Prolific local one-man-band J.P. Allen’s latest The Filmmaker (at the Presidio) has him as the titular figure, a San Francisco creative who suffers identity theft—from, it turns out, a woman (Ashley Rain Turner) who claims to be the daughter he never knew he had. He cautiously lets her into his life despite her continued hostility, inappropriate behavior and obfuscation. It’s a dramatic character puzzle box nicely shot in various Bay Area (and Las Vegas) locations. 

There’s also (at the 4-Star) Stella’s Last Weekend, in which actress turned writer-director Polly Draper’s real-life sons Nat (The Fault in Our Stars) and Alex (Hereditary) play her fictive ones—two fatherless Manhattan brats running amuck while reunited to visit the family dog one last time before it’s put down. Their hijinks are meant to be delightful, though you may find yourself thinking that entirely the wrong character has been designated for euthanasia here.

We were unable to catch by press-time either Bohemian Rhapsody, the much-embattled Queen biopic with Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury—a movie whose tortured production history may end up being more memorable than the film itself—or The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. The latter appears to illustrate two things: 1.) Christmas cash-ins get released earlier every year, and 2.) movie studios really will turn any recognizable “brand” into a standard CGI popcorn fantasy, even if it’s one primarily associated with Tchaikovsky. 

Elsewhere (opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

JEAN VIGO REGAINED
It’s hard to think of a less prolific filmmaker who is nonetheless considered one of “the greats” than Vigo—in his lamentably short career he experienced no commercial success, then was dead of tuberculosis in 1934 at age 29. An extraordinary upbringing (his parents were militant Spanish anarchists on the run) no doubt helped shape his liberated/liberating directorial style, which has an unpredictable, lyrical urgency not quite like anything else—certainly not anything that was being made in the early 30s. 

This PFA retrospective offers new 4K restorations of everything he committed to celluloid: Two adventurous documentary shorts, the not-quite-feature-length boarding school fantasia Zero for Conduct, and his only feature L’Atalante (1934), a simultaneously gritty and poetical romance set on a commercial barge of the Paris canals. Historian Bernard Eisenschitz provides voiceover narration of that last film’s rushes and outtakes, affording insight into Vigo’s forward-thinking directorial methods. Fri/2-Fri/23, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

MUSEO
One of the most bracing Mexican debut features in recent years was Alonso Ruizpalacios’ eccentric B&W slice of life Gueros. His sophomore effort is a much bigger endeavor, based on a true crime story. But once again, the director’s approach is idiosyncratically fresh, stylistically and otherwise. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the more unstable but also more resourceful half (Leonardo Ortizgris is his dim-wittedly loyal partner) of a duo who decide to steal priceless artifacts from the National Museum of Anthropology in 1985 Mexico City. They succeed (and the heist sequence here is quite riveting)—but a comedy of errors ensues when they try to fence the red-hot goods. 

Ruizpalacios layers in critiques of Mexican society, colonial history and more in a complex yet very entertaining film. Its willingness to include absurdism and fantasy in what’s still essentially a “real-life” story may recall another excellent, ambitiously daring movie Garcia Bernal recently starred in, Pablo Larrain’s 2016 Neruda. Roxie. More info here

SF INTERNATIONAL SOUTH ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL
3rd i Films is back with its 16th annual blowout of new movies from the South Asian Diaspora—not just India and Sri Lanka but also North American immigrant communities. The narrative features include Rima Das’ acclaimed indie Village Rockstars, about a northeast Indian village girl who years to start her own band, and Rohena Gera’s class-conflict romance Sir

There will be documentaries about middle-class marital match-making (A Suitable Girl), the lingering wounds of Sri Lankan civil war (Demons in Paradise), alternative comics (Drawn Together), religious fundamentalism (Azmaish) and the hidden prominence of Jewish women in classic Indian cinema (Shalom Bollywood). For pure escapism, there’s sexy musical romcom Befikre, and the humorous Gothic fantasy of India-Sweden co-production Tumbbad. Plus shorts, special guests, and more. Thurs/1-Sun/4, Castro & New People Cinema. (Also Sat/17, Palo Alto Art Center.) https://www.thirdi.org

BOY ERASED 
“But what I really want is to direct!” may be a creaky joke about Hollywood pretensions, yet in 2018 a whole lot of actors are proving they’re naturals behind the camera. Just last week brought Paul Dano’s Wildlife and Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, two of the year’s best American films. Joining them is yet Joel Edgerton’s debut directorial feature, based on Garrard Conley’s recent memoir. Current It Lad Lucas Hedges (who’s also in Mid90s) plays the son of Baptist evangelicals (Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe) who freak out when they suspect he might be “that way.” They send him to get “fixed” at a Bible-based “gay conversion therapy” program whose head “therapist” is played by Edgerton, and whose methods are…questionable. 

A similar story was told just earlier this year by arthouse success The Miseducation of Cameron Post. But that film ultimately felt too slight, while this slightly more conventional (not to mention starry) treatment entirely satisfies without sacrificing nuance or sympathy. Hedges’ low-key performance is faultless, while Kidman is terrific in a more flamboyant role. (Those of you who guilty-pleasure-loved her in The Paperboy will find this a warmer, fuzzier variation on that turn.) Boy Erased goes out of its way to be a movie that can speak without condescension or blame to both secular and Christian audiences—if the latter give it a chance. As such, it may be your ideal post-turkey multiplex outing with the folks if you must do the family thing this Thanksgiving. At area theaters. 

ANIMATION SHOW OF SHOWS
Since 1999 this annual traveling package has been bringing together a selection of the year’s prime shorts from around the world, in all animated media from collage to claymation to CGI. This latest selection encompasses fifteen miniatures including works from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina as well as the U.S. It’s a mixed bag, as such things usually are, with the surreal line-drawing humor of Guy Charnaux’s Brazilian Business Meeting and Trevor Jiminez’s ambitious closing Canadian narrative Weekends probably the two standouts. At area theaters.  

GARRY WINOGRAND: ALL THINGS ARE PHOTOGRAPHABLE
Winogrand was part of that leading edge of photographers (along with Diane Arbus and others) who in the 1960s began getting the medium taken seriously as an art form, attracting interest from galleries, museums and critics. Until then, it had been basically considered a commercial craft, reportage, or hobby for amateur “shutterbugs.” The Bronx native started as a photojournalist himself, gradually realizing that his eye was too idiosyncratic for magazines and newspapers’ standardized needs, despite the acute social observation of his urban “street photography.” 

Sasha Waters Freyer’s documentary provides a vivid appreciation of this long-gone but still vivid talent, one so driven to shoot that he left behind (after dying of cancer in 1984 at just 56) about half a million images in film rolls he never bothered to sort or develop. That in turn created a still-roiling controversy over whether those “posthumous works” should be evaluated as part of his canon, or politely ignored as detritus from a man whose best work was done years earlier. At area theaters.  

THE WILD PUSSYCAT
Good god! Enough with all this serious art already! You can get your trash fix and then some as Joel Shepard (recently axed longtime film programmer for a local cultural institution we no longer respect much) presents this wonderful obscurity. Greece was not exactly a hotbed of exportable exploitation fodder half a century ago. Still, in 1969 one Dimis Dadiris outside himself with this crazy tale of a beautiful woman who lures and imprisons a swinging bachelor—then torments him at length in revenge for what he did to her late sister. 

This movie does involve an actual housecat, and I speak not lightly when saying it has probably the greatest feline reaction shots in the history of cinema. A perverse “nudie cutie” seen by few, Wild Pussycat was nonetheless definitely seen by somebody. We know that because six years later, Italy’s prolific sleazemaster Joe D’Amato made an even wilder (if unacknowledged) remake called Emanuelle and Francoise. Both movies are so great, maybe the story should be recycled onscreen every few years, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wed/7, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: The War at Home, Wings of Desire, What They Had …

'The War at Home'

SCREEN GRABS There are no less than four solid, serious dramas opening at local theaters this week, signaling that the silly season (which these days occupies most of the year) is finally over and movies aimed at actual grownups can now be released, at least until the end of the awards-qualifying calendar year is over. 

Also of note is the re-release (at the Roxie) of a newly restored Wings of Desire, the 1987 Wim Wenders film that was something you rarely see these days: A foreign-language arthouse smash, one that continued playing rep houses for years and years, achieving almost Harold and Maude-level cult adoration. It’s also probably the closest thing to a popular movie about metaphysics that the medium has had yet to offer. 

The marvelously placid Bruno Ganz—really, who imagined this actor would become the ideal screen Hitler?—plays an angel invisibly tending to Berlin’s needy and dying, until he chooses to cast off immortality and join the urgent, fragile sphere of the living. It’s an uneven film—I’d say the second half is more-than-just-metaphorically Earthbound after that transcendent first half—but also a gorgeous, unique, hypnotic experience. The potential sentimentality of its romantic fantasy is reined in by the more distanced, intellectual instincts of Wenders and writing partner Peter Handke. 

Henri Alekan’s cinematography (first B&W, then color) was always stunning. But as Wenders claims Wings has only been seen in inferior prints since its festival debut, this restoration should be something to behold. Will the movie hold up after 30-plus years? Or will it now make more understandable the director’s dismaying subsequent path, in which (some fine documentaries aside) he increasingly seemed a jet-settling dilettante serving up vaguely New Age celluloid cuisine of half-baked sociopolitical hand-wringing? To observe the proximity between sublime and ridiculous, observe how Wenders went in a few years from Wings to the likes of Million Dollar Hotel, a starry nazel-gaze based on a “story idea” by the inimitable Bono. 

Another older film returning to theaters is The War at Home, an Oscar-nominated 1979 documentary about the long, eventful history of protest against the Vietnam War in college town Madison, Wisconsin—a microcosm of the activism that swept the entire nation over a decade’s course. (Seeing it now is instructive, as we live in an era when “the left” is equally discontented by the political status quo, yet seems helpless to organize a unified response.) It opens at SF’s Opera Plaza and Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. 

Other new arrivals of interest this week include (at Alamo Drafthouse) The Price of Everything, an acclaimed new documentary about the outrageous financial excesses of the high-end contemporary art world. At the Roxie, there’s also MFKZ, a dystopian-future anime mash-up of Ralph Bakshi, Grand Theft Auto and They Live based on co-director Guillaume Renard’s “Mutafukaz” comics. It’s visually impressive, but a high tolerance for random juvenile humor is required. Opening more widely is actor Jonah Hill’s debut feature as writer-director Mid90s, which sounds like familiar stuff (a misfit 13-year-old boy falls in with rebellious skateboarders), but won excellent reviews at its Toronto Film Festival premiere last month. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

WILDLIFE
Another impressive film by an actor-turned-director (in a year that seems to have a lot of them) is Paul Dano’s admirably controlled period drama. In mid-’60s smalltown Montana, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job at the local golf course over a trivial breach of protocol. His pride wounded, he won’t accept other employment that’s “beneath” him, despite the increasingly desperate straits this puts his young family in. Finally he impulsively signs up to go fight wildfires, leaving wife Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) alone and bewildered, with scant resources. 

Based on Richard Ford’s novel, this queasy domestic crisis tale doesn’t go where you might expect, with mother and child bravely pulling together to survive. Instead, Jeannette reacts to her perceived abandonment in self-destructive ways that horrify her offspring. The always interesting Mulligan does not soften her portrait of a woman in understandable distress whose actions nonetheless largely repel sympathy. This is not a pleasant movie, but it’s an exacting and skillful one, with fine performances and a credible, anti-nostalgic atmosphere. At area theaters. 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Another memorable depiction of accelerated adolescence and reckless parenting was Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Hartley’s SF-set 2015 feature. It earned the stellar reviews it got, but—perhaps because the material was so discomfiting—couldn’t find much of an audience. Hartley is back now with a second film that’s also a caustic 1970s snapshot based on a woman’s memoir. 

Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a misanthropic Manhattan writer who discovered in middle-age that publishers and readers no longer cared for the kind of meticulously researched biographical tomes she specialized in. Desperate, she stumbled into a different, rather-less-legal “writerly” pursuit: Forging letters and other memorabilia by famous late authors (Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, etc.) whose style she could convincingly mimic, then selling the results on the lucrative collectors’ market. A disreputable gay gadfly (played by an ideally cast Richard E. Grant) became her co-conspirator in this ingenious but risky con game. 

This real-life rise and fall is amusing, as well as deftly acted by its two leads. But it’s also a little smaller-than-life: A tale of marginal, moderately eccentric people who get away with something unusual but unimportant for a while, then don’t. It’s a low-stakes anecdote executed with Diary’s seriocomic concision, but without its greater emotional resonance. At area theaters.

LIFE AND NOTHING MORE
On the other hand, there’s something very universal about the even smaller-scaled story Antonio Mendez Esparza tells in his own second feature. Andrew (Andrew Bleechington) is a teen living barely above the poverty line with mother Regina (Regina Williams) and a 3-year-old sister; the father they’re estranged from is in prison. Laboring hard every day with little to show for it, Mom has made mistakes in life, and unfortunately her accumulated wisdom manifests itself in a humorless, “tough-loving” inability to allow Andrew any mistakes of his own. When she reluctantly lets herself get involved with a new man, the insinuating Robert (Robert Williams), the new family dynamic makes Andrew’s lot seem even more unfair. 

Roughly comparable to Moonlight in its examination of another African-American household poisoned by the odds society stacks against happiness (though without that film’s poetical bravado), this is a vivid slice-of-life drama in which “nothing happens” yet everything comes to matter. Esparza’s updated take on neo-realism encompasses striking use of nonprofessional actors whose work could hardly be improved upon. At area theaters.

WHAT THEY HAD
Last but not at all least amongst all these new dramas is actress Elizabeth Chomko’s debut as writer-director, a dextrous seriocomedy that’s a better movie about Alzheimer’s than Still Alice or Away From Her. Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon play siblings trying to make their stubborn father (Robert Forster) see the sense of putting their mother (Blythe Danner) in a rest home—she’s increasingly a danger to herself due to escalating dementia. (The movie opens with her going for a solo “walk” in the middle of a freezing Chicago winter night in her nightgown, a misadventure that could have been fatal.) 

There’s a lot of barbed humor in this affectionately dysfunctional family’s dynamics, punched across by the terrific cast. If it sticks around long enough, What They Had will be the perfect movie to take your reunited family to over Thanksgiving—it’s thorny but likable, relatable enough to provoke positive discussion regardless of individual political or other baggage. At area theaters. 

AFTERIMAGE: AGNIESZKA HOLLAND
While the emergence of talents like Chomko and Hartley illustrates some progress at last in gender equity behind the camera, that only renders more impressive the career of Oscar nominee Holland, who’s entering her fifth decade as a category-defying director of quality projects around the globe. 

In recent years that’s encompassed episodes of popular US TV series like House of Cards, Treme and The Wire. But she’s continued to make diverse, often distinguished big-screen features, from 2011’s acclaimed tale of WW2 Jewish survival In Darkness on back through starry biopics (Ed Harris as Beethoven, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud) and literary adaptations (Henry James, The Secret Garden). Europa, Europa and Angry Harvest are two of the greatest fictive screen wrestlings with the moral legacy of Nazism. 

This Pacific Film Archive mini-retrospective will encompass two of her early Polish features (1979’s comedy Provincial Actors and stark 1981 drama A Woman Alone, which fell afoul of the government censors) as well as 2013 Burning Bush, the three-part, four-hour miniseries about Czech resistance to Soviet occupation that some consider her masterwork. She’ll be present for most of the screenings, discussing her work with Polish film critic Karolina Pasternak. Thurs/25-Sun/28, PFA. More info here.

THE WASHING SOCIETY
An Other Cinema program dedicated to women’s labor has as its centerpiece formerly SF-based longtime experimental filmmaker Lynne Sach’s new impressionistic documentary. She and Lizzie Olesker train their camera on the diverse, sometimes skittish women who can be found toiling in NYC laundromats, often not employed by the facility itself but doing laundry for individual clients or outside businesses. 

It’s a marginal type of “hidden labor” that attracts illegal immigrants and others prepared to work awfully hard and ask no questions. But they have their own histories, and they may well know yours: As one notes of her often rude, dismissive customers, “You can tell someone’s story just from what they’ve worn and how it’s dirty.” 

The program will also include Sach’s portrait of three other inspirational filmmakers, Carolee, Barbara and Guvnor, plus name-checked Barbara Hammer’s Meredith Monk-scored 2011 Maya Deren’s Sink, a tribute to the pioneering female genius of American avant-garde cinema. Sat/27, Artists’ Television Access. www.othercinema.com

Screen Grabs: SF Shorts, Beautiful Boy, Filipino Cine Festival…

'Namibia' is part of SF Shorts at the Roxie, playing Sun/20

SCREEN GRABS While the SF Greek and Arab Film Festivals continue for their second, final weekends (see last week’s column for more details), it’s otherwise a pretty uneventful week at the movies. There are various Halloween-related one-offs at local theaters, plus of course the new Halloween, which reboots that now-40-year-old franchise for the 90th time, complete with a returned Jamie Lee Curtis.

There’s horror of a different type in An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn, which opens exclusively at the Alamo Drafthouse on Friday. Writer-director Jim Hosking made of a splash with his 2016 debut feature The Greasy Strangler, an awesomely annoying exercise in juvenile scatology that acquired a cult following among those it didn’t simply repel. This latest comedy of childish geek humor, over-the-top mugging and bad 70s clothes is a little easier to take, thanks in large part to a cast of slumming quality professionals (Aubrey Plaza, Emile Hirsch, Jermaine Clement, Craig Robinson). But if you hated Greasy, you won’t like this one, either. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

THE OATH
There have been and will be better movies this year, but there’s unlikely to be a mainstream film that more precisely taps the sociopolitical zeitgeist than former MadTV cast member Ike Barinholtz’s feature debut as writer-director. It’s that by now hoary conceit of “Holiday family reunion that goes dysfunctionally awry.” Except here interracial couple Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish) are reeling from a fictive near-future event quite plausible in Trumpish times: The POTUS has asked every American to sign an oath of loyalty specifically to him, promising no harm will come to those who refuse. 

That’s a promise already broken by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, and Chris’ brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) brings his rabidly right-wing, nationalist girlfriend Abby (Meredith Hagner) to the family celebration. Things don’t truly get out of hand, however, until two agents (John Cho, Billy Magnussen) of the “Citizens’ Protection Unit”—a suspiciously Gestapo-like civilian “division of Homeland Security” with murky legal/policing powers—show up. This farcical black comedy is uneven, its energy and invention sometimes flagging. But it works for the most part, and captures the tenor of an era when “divisive” politics have grown bad enough to break up friendships, families, and quite possibly our status as a democratic republic. At area theaters.

BEAUTIFUL BOY
This is one of two awards-bait movies this season about affluent families coping with a drug-addicted son, and much the better among them. (Ben Is Back, with Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, will hit theaters in a few weeks.) 

Based on Bay Area writer David Sheff’s same-titled memoir, it has Steve Carell as the Marin-based journalist horrified as his child by a first marriage, Nic (Timothee Chalamet), descends into a seemingly hopeless revolving door of expensive rehab treatments and bottom-hitting relapses. Nic will take anything, though crystal meth proves perhaps his particular downfall. When in the grip of it, he’ll do anything, including stealing from his own increasingly wary family. 

Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s home-turf hits The Broken Circle Breakdown and Belgica didn’t do much for me. But this English-language debut is very strong, handling the addiction issues sans excess melodrama or hand-wringing. Carrell is excellent, while Chalamet here truly earns the acclaim that was thrown a little too easily his way for last year’s overrated Call Me By Your Name. At area theaters. 

THE GUILTY
Asger (Jakob Cedergren) is a cocky beat cop who doesn’t take this night’s duty manning the 911 phone bank very seriously. Indeed, he seems a bit of a flippant jerk—until he gets a call from a woman who manages to communicate that she’s been abducted. She’s in a car driven by her apparently angry, possibly violent spouse. The situation only grows more grave the more details Asger manages to glean from her. Soon it becomes obvious that there’s a life-or-death crisis going on here, dependent on his ability to figure her whereabouts before it’s too late.

Danish writer-director Gustav Moller’s first feature never leaves the couple rooms where Asger works his shift—we don’t catch even a glimpse of the events he’s desperately trying to suss out long-distance. But that seeming recipe for stagey claustrophobia doesn’t stop this from being a gripping thriller. There are some startling yet credible twists, and Cedergren’s performance gradually reveals complex layers in a character who at first seems anything but complicated, or sympathetic. Opera Plaza. More info here

FACINE25: THE FILIPINO INTERNATIONAL CINE FESTIVAL
Though the Bay Area-originating Cinematografo fest is still a couple weeks off, fans of Filipino cinema can begin engorging now, thanks to the 25th edition of this traveling showcase. The nine acclaimed recent features on tap at the Roxie this weekend run a gamut from fact-inspired tales of indigenous ways ground under by military and environmental plunder (Tu Pug Imatuy) to romantic comedy (Meet Me in St. Gallen) to teen drama (2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten). Fri/19-Sun/21, Roxie. More info here

SF SHORTS
Meanwhile, the San Francisco International Festival of Short Films is marking its 13th year with an overlapping three days at the Roxie. Six distinct, thematically curated programs collect shorts from 25 countries, including Serbia, South Korea, Poland, New Zealand, Russia, Brazil, United Arab Emirates and of course the U.S. They’ll encompass documentary, animation, comedy, social commentary and much more, with each bill guaranteeing a diverse full meal of art and entertainment. Thurs/18-Sat/20, Roxie. More info here

PSYCHO-GEO3: MARGINS OF THE MAP
This week’s Other Cinema program features two brand-new films by longtime Mission-based SF filmmaker Greta Snider, plus a revival of her 1998 B&W personal documentary Portland, in which she and some friends go “riding the rails” retro-hobo style to that northern city—or at least try to. Continuing a geographic theme will be additional works by Lana Caplan, Brea Weinreb, Matt McCormick, while Alex Coppola DJ’s accompaniment for a selection of mid-20th century travelogue clips. Sat/20, Artists Television Access.

THE GRATEFUL DEAD MOVIE
You might think the San Francisco in which Deadheads were ubiquitous is long gone—unless you go to the Hardly Strictly Festival, which last month once again proved that Jerry-atrics of all ages aren’t gone, they (and their T-shirts) simply hibernate most of the year. Still, it used to be that this 1977 concert film was on every rep-house calendar ever (it probably paid a healthy section of the late Red Vic Movie House’s rent), yet the Balboa’s revival this week probably represents its biggest local exposure in aeons.

J. Garcia aka “God” himself spent two years editing hundreds of hours of footage shot by his and co-director Leon Gast’s crew during a five-day 1974 run at SF’s Winterland. Those gigs were originally expected to be the band’s swan song, although of course things didn’t turn out that way. Instead, the film helped sustain and expand their audience, aided by the appeal of Gary Guiterrez’s psychedelic animations featuring their mascot “Uncle Sam skeleton.” The Movie also provides a gander at the unique fan culture they fostered, a decade before “Touch of Grey” incongruously brought fraternity bros and other squares (at least briefly) into the fold. Tues/16, Thurs/18, Fri/19, Balboa. More info here

Screen Grabs: Free Solo, Arab Film Fest, Studio 54…

'Free Solo'

SCREEN GRABS Two of the major releases are major disappointments from hitherto reliable directors. Scenarist Drew Goddard’s first directorial feature since ingenious horror deconstruction The Cabin in the Woods is Bad Times at the El Royale, another tricksy genre exercise—this time of the neo-noir ensemble piece, as a number of strangers with secrets check into the titular off-season Tahoe resort hotel circa 1969. 

The buildup is promising enough, giving us time to appreciate the garish period decor, an excellent Jeff Bridges as an ersatz priest with Alzheimer’s, and a few effective early surprises. But this overlong, overblown movie wastes far too much space on luxury distractions (Cynthia Erivo’s singing, Chris Hemsworth’s chiseled torso, both showcased at ridiculous length), then finally takes itself far too seriously for something so short on depth—let alone the wit and suspense it more urgently needs. 

That’s a failure of escapism; 22 July is a failure to achieve profundity. Paul Greenglass’ prior United 93 and Bloody Sunday were outstanding dramatizations of real-life emergencies, with a nerve-jangling, documentary-type immediacy. But this reenactment of the 2011 Norwegian terrorist attacks—in which a lone assailant with a far-right, anti-immigrant agenda claimed 77 lives (both via car bomb in Oslo and mass shooting at a youth summer camp)—and their aftermath proves unilluminating, even dull.

The problem isn’t so much that the attacks are over with after the first half hour; the drama of the survivors’ recovery and assailant’s trial should still have compelled interest. But a cast of Scandinavian actors speaking pat dialogue in stilted English only distance us from the real tragedy, and the film becomes more pedestrian and tedious as it goes on. Norwegians were unhappy this international production was being made while their national wounds still feel so fresh, and the final result simply isn’t good enough (despite Anders Danielsen Lie’s vivid performance as the remorseless killer) to obviate their fears of needless, “too soon” commercial exploitation. 

Unseen at deadline were two well-reviewed films portraying fatal injustices all too typical in our era. Call Her Ganda (at the Roxie) is PJ Raval’s documentary about a Filipina transwoman murdered by a U.S. Marine in 2014, a case that had significant repercussions for transgender rights there and U.S.-Philippines relations in general.  Wider release The Hate U Give is Barbershop director George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of Angie Thomas’ YA novel. It centers around a black teen at a mostly white prep school who’s spurred to activism after she witnesses an unarmed friend’s needless death at the hands of a white police officer. 

Elsewhere in this busy week (all opening on Friday unless otherwise noted):

PIONEERS: FIRST WOMEN FILMMAKERS
In its early years, cinema was considered a somewhat disreputable business—stage actors often adopted pseudonyms when making films in order to protect their “reputation” from being sullied by the celluloid connection. Yet lack of prestige perversely rendered moviemaking one professional field that was open to women in nearly all departments, at least for a while. This three-part Roxie series showcases notable silent films by female directors. Some, like Lois Weber and Alice Guy-Blache, are relatively well-known amongst fans of the era. Others, like Cleo Madison, Helen Holmes, Ida May Park and Lule Warrenton, have largely been forgotten. 

The first program on Friday “Her Defiance” showcases pre-1920 shorts ranging from social-issue drama (Park’s Bread) to thriller (Weber’s Suspense, which makes innovative early use of the split screen), western (Guy-Blache’s Two Little Rangers), cliffhanger action (Holmes’ The Hazards of Helen) and more. Saturday’s bill “Young Heroine” features glimpses of childhood both documentary (famed author Zora Neale Hurston’s late 1920s ethnographic films), and fictive (the racially themed When Little Lindy Sang, Guy-Blanche’s sentimental melodrama Falling Leaves, etc.). A third program on November 6 will focus on The Curse of Quon Gwon, a pioneering 1916 feature by Chinese-American Oakland resident Marion E. Wong that survives only in intriguing, partial form. Fri/12-Sat/13, also Tues/Nov. 6, Roxie. More info here

FREE SOLO
It’s been (yet another) excellent year for documentaries, particularly in terms of popular success. Possibly stealing the thunder from RBG in that regard is this latest from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, co-directors of 2015’s exceptional Meru. Free Solo is another portrait of “impossible” mountain climbing, rendered even more so by the fact that protagonist Alex Honnold climbs without ropes—just, you know, hands and feet. 

He’s a leading practitioner of the titular sport, one so dangerous that like-minded climbers almost always seem to fall to their deaths sooner or later. Several do during just the timespan of this feature, which chronicles the California native’s quest to climb Yosemite’s 3000-foot El Capitan wall, which no one has ever successfully conquered sans safety gear or bolt-drilling. Why attempt something so close to flat-out suicidal? Well, an MRI scan reveals that Honnold’s brain is simply much less susceptible to fear than the average yoink. 

Not quite as gripping as Meru, Free Solo spends perhaps too much time dwelling on his relationship with his girlfriend (and having to keep emotional attachments at a relative distance in order to do what he does), until you begin to wonder when we’ll get to the actual climb. But when we finally do, those 15 minutes or so of footage are as phenomenal as anything you’ll see this year. At area theaters. 

ARAB FILM FESTIVAL
The 22nd edition of this annual Bay Area festival opens this Friday at the Castro with a screening of Lucien Bourjelly’s Heaven Without People, a Lebanese take on that classic modern scenario—the holiday reunion dinner that turns into massive dysfunctional-family meltdown, with political and religious arguments definitely on the menu. There’s an afterparty at Slate featuring DJ Nile. As of Thursday the 18th the festival moves across the bay to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater. 

Highlights during the program include the documentary Wajd: Songs of Separation, about refugee Syrian musicians; Martyr, a homoerotic tale of leisure and loss amongst Beirut’s underemployed middle-class youth; and a revival of the 1947 Egyptian classic Fatma, starring legendary singer Umm Kulthum, which evening will also feature a live performance by local Arab-American band ASWAT. 

There will be numerous filmmakers and other special guests during the festival, as well as the launch of a new programming sidebar. “Palestine Days” will showcase four new movies about Palestinian sociopolitical issues and culture, including this year’s Oscar submission Ghost Hunting, which won a Silver Bear for Best Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival. Fri/12-Sun/21, various SF and Oakland venues. More info here

STUDIO 54
The center of the disco universe was Studio 54, the relatively short-lived but definitively glittering Manhattan nightclub where the famous rubbed booties with the merely beautiful and outrageous—while everyone else queued up outside, vainly hoping that they’d be allowed past the velvet ropes. 

The story of its heady rise and spectacular crash (amidst financial and drug scandals) has been told many times before, including in the fictionalized narrative feature 54. This latest by documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (whose Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood just exited local theaters) promises a lot of archival footage, as well as a rare interview with Ian Schrager, the surviving co-owner who ran the joint with the late, more infamous Steve Rubell. They were working-class entrepreneurs who rode a 1970s cultural moment to its zenith—and then right on down to jail, for tax evasion. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. 

FIRST MAN
There’s already been a whipped-up conservative “controversy” over Damien Chazelle’s feature, because in telling the story of the events leading up to Neil Armstrong’s becoming the first man to walk on the moon, it doesn’t depict him planting the US flag. But when you see the film, it’s obvious why that’s not here—the focus is not on such world-famous moments in the Apollo 11 mission, or even the awe and excitement of pioneering space travel in general. 

Instead, it’s on the specifics of Armstrong’s experience as a highly trained, disciplined government functionary (played by Ryan Gosling) who’s required to keep a cool head in order to perform a job so dangerous there’s a very good chance he (and his fellow astronauts) won’t survive it. The emotional detachment required takes a toll on his relationship with his wife (Claire Foy) and children, something that gets at least as much emphasis here as the NASA achievements he was involved in. 

It’s a deliberately narrow, nose-to-the-grindstone view that pays off in many respects, if not in the conventional “inspirational” way you might expect—or the film’s flag-waving critics (very few of whom have actually seen it) seem to demand. This is Chazelle’s best film to date, although take that as qualified praise, coming from someone who was not really a fan of his La La Land or Whiplash. At area theaters. 

SF GREEK FILM FESTIVAL
Though its international exposure peaked in the 1960s, largely due to the films of Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek), Greece has always produced distinctive cinema, and notable auteurs like Theo Angelopoulos (Landscape in the Mist) and Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster). Now in its 15th year, SFGFF presents new features and shorts from Greek and Greek-heritage filmmakers around the world. Opening night brings Pantelis Vougaris’ The Last Note, about the real-life execution of 200 Greek political prisoners in 1944 as “payback” for partisans’ assassination of a Nazi general. Dora Masklavanou’s closing selection Polyxeni charts an orphan girl’s upbringing, both benefitting from and imperiled by the great wealth of her adoptive parents. 

In between, there are historical dramas, comedies, a documentary about legendary free-diver Jacques Mayol (Dolphin Man), a reprise showing of Manousos Manousakis’ 2015 romance Cloudy Sunday, and more. There will also be the first-ever bestowal of the Spyros P. Skouras Lifetime Achievement Award, to Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos. Fri/12-Sun/21, various SF venues. More info here

TEA WITH THE DAMES
There are precious few roles for older women in Hollywood—and even then they have to be “miraculously” unaged, like Diane Keaton or Jane Fonda—yet a whole sort of cottage industry has grown up around British thespians of advanced years. This documentary by Roger Michell (Le Week-End, Venus) looks at a golden four who’ve known each other for over half a century, and are still eminently employable at eightysomething: Dames Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright. (Actually the latter, who is now blind, retired in 2014.) 

The quartet discuss playing Cleopatra, stage fright, “natural” acting, becoming a Dame, reading reviews (or not), working with husbands (esp. Joan’s, the late Laurence Olivier, with whom they all acted), and more. There are some amusing gossipy moments, as when Smith admits she still hasn’t watched “the wretched thing” known as Downton Abbey, and a few tantalizing insights, such as Plowright noting that being married to Olivier  was “a great privilege as well as a nightmare.” There are also a lot of performance clips, including from seldom-seen vintage British TV films of plays. 

What there isn’t much (or any, really) of is discussion of the craft of acting—how these ladies differ in their approaches, how they were trained, how acting has changed in their lifetime, the technical demands of various great playwrights, and so forth. Without that intel, Tea is strictly lightweight, an opportunity to hang out with a few grande dames rather than any serious appreciation of their remarkable talents. It’s a PBS Pledge Week kinda tribute, pleasing but weightless. Clay Theatre, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

THE HAPPY PRINCE
A British thespian who perhaps hasn’t fully gotten his due is Rupert Everett, who’s been in the public eye nearly 40 years, weathered various ebbs and tides in popularity, but arguably suffered throughout from being an out gay actor—which limited the roles this natural-born star personality was cast in. His first feature as writer-director treads familiar ground, in a way: Everett has acted (quite brilliantly) in Oscar Wilde plays both on stage and screen, as well as playing Wilde in David Hare’s The Judas Kiss on the West End. 

Here, he portrays the great Irish writer at the tragic end, between his release from prison (for “gross indecency”) in 1897 and his death from meningitis in 1900. His health broken by two years’ hard labor, all his professional wealth seized, he spent this final stretch in a European exile of variable desperation, fleeing creditors and still-scornful Brits. Not much of Wilde’s fabled wit is present, or indeed relevant in this context. It’s a sad slide colored by occasional spasms of the old flamboyance. 

Padded, aged and almost unrecognizable, Everett is nonetheless thoroughly at home in the role, and this handsome production is admirably ambitious for a first directorial effort. But it’s also frustrating, in that the mosaic-of-memory structure he’s come up with keeps us at an emotional distance, with scenes perpetually cut off before they’ve developed any rhythm. There’s a strong support cast including Colin Firth and Emily Watson. Still, almost no one here beyond Everett is given enough screentime to define their character. (In some cases, we’re never quite sure what role the character they’re playing had in Wilde’s life.) It’s an impressive film in many ways, yet it often feels like a drastic, fragmentary condensation of a longer, more satisfying one. Embarcadero. More info here

INFRARED: IN CELEBRATION OF THE COMPTON TRANSGENDER DISTRICT
Last year San Francisco city government approved designating a portion of the Tenderloin as “Compton’s Transgender, Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual District,” commemorating the legendary 1966 protest by LGBTQ persons at Compton’s Cafeteria. Stonewall may be more famous, but this West Coast “riot” by primarily transgender folk against persistent police harassment happened first, making it a pioneering milestone in US gay rights history.

This four-part SF Cinematheque series, presented in association with CounterPulse (both organizations currently based in the same TL district), highlights a gamut of trans experience as expressed in narrative, documentary, and experimental works. Filmmakers featured will include Mykki Blanco, Sofia Moreno, Zackary Drucker, Stom Sogo, Sky Hopinka, The Wreck Family, Tourmaline Gossette, Bill Starnets, Jeff Preiss, and more. Tuesdays 8pm, Oct. 9, 16, 30 & Nov. 6, CounterPulse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Mill Valley, SF Dance, Drunken Film Fests ….

SF Dance Film Festival

SCREEN GRABS It’s a starry as well as busy week in Bay Area filmgoing, with major openings including the new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga A Star is Born remake—which yrs truly didn’t like much, but many will—and David Lowery’s The Old Man & The Gun, a fact-inspired tale with Robert Redford (in purportedly his final screen role) as an escaped con who goes on a new bank-robbing spree at age 70. 

But starrier still will be the next eleven days at the Mill Valley Film Festival, whose guests representing new films are expected to include Rosamund Pike (A Private War), Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Alfonso Cueron (Roma), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), Carey Mulligan (Wildlife), Timothy Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Joel Edgerton (Boy Erased), Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Kindergarten Teacher), and many more. Tributes will include one to Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, whose Ida was a well-deserved surprise arthouse smash two years ago, and whose upcoming Cold Warshould end up on many a top ten list. 

World premieres encompass a number of new features from Bay Area filmmakers, such as Richard Levien’s SF-set, ICE-themed drama Collisions, Spencer Wilkinson’s documentary One Voice about the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and more. 

As usual, there will be a wide range of panels, workshops, concerts, family activities and other events—beyond the 200+ films from nearly fifty nations being screened at various Marin County locations, Thurs/4-Sun/14. Read the full program here

Elsewhere (all opening on Friday Oct. 5 unless otherwise noted):

DANCING AND DRINKING: THE RELEVANT FILM FESTIVALS
But enough with all this respectable world cinema spectating. Sometimes you want a movie you can dance along with—or fall off a barstool while watching. If so, this is really your lucky week, as two much smaller, more specialized local film festivals arrive to meet those pressing needs. 

The SF Dance Film Festival presents its ninth annual program this Thursday through Oct. 14 at Brava Theater Center and other SF venues. The films themselves, culled from around the world, include portraits of dancemakers Alexander Ekman, Paul Taylor, Trey McIntyre, Kaori Ito and Maurice Bejart, as well as studies of stigmatization of “ballet boys,” the history of American tap dance, and dance as therapy for traumatized and differently-abled youth. There will also be straight performance films, and live performances by local talents including Dimensions Dance Theater. www.sfdancefilmfest.org

Plies and tour jetes are not recommended in the environ of the Drunken Film Fest, a showcase for independent documentaries, narratives, music videos and more that will also comprise a six-night pub crawl through some of Oakland’s finest watering holes. With emphasis on short works from around the globe, there will be plenty of variety each evening to hold your increasingly inebriated attention, as well as juried prizes given in categories such as Animation and Avant-Garde. What’s more, it’s all free—the movies, that is. The drinks are on you. Sun/7-Fri/12. www.drunkenfilmfest.com/oakland

SATJAJIT RAY: INTIMATE UNIVERSES
Indian cinema was scarcely a blip on the radar of even the most devoted world cinema buff before the arrival of Ray’s 1955 debut feature Panther Panchali. It and the two subsequent entries in the “Apu Trilogy” made him one of the most famous filmmakers working outside the English language, and opened Western eyes to the intricacies of Indian life, unmediated by a colonialist or other outsider’s sensibility. 

The very first SF International Film Fest in 1957 included Panther Panchali, the beginning of a long association between festival and director. So it’s natural that SFFilm’s 7th “Modern Cinema” season at SFMOMA should be a tribute to this great screen humanist. The program will include fifteen recently restored Ray features (not excluding an “Apu” marathon), plus a smattering of films by directors who inspired him, and were inspired by him—a roster that ranges from Renoir and De Sica to Kiarostami, Scorcese, Kiewlowski, James Ivory, Mira Nair and Wes Anderson. Thurs/4-Sun/21, SFMOMA. More info here

ANTONIO LOPEZ, QUEERCORE, M.I.A.
Three new documentaries opening this Friday look at distinctive artists and artistic scenes that shook up the creative landscape. James Crump’s Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco charts the high-flying, too-brief career of a star fashion illustrator as influential as many of the designers he enshrined, and models (including Jane Forth, Patti D’Urbanville, Jessica Lange, Grace Jones and Jerry Hall) he discovered. A magnetic personality and sexual omnivore, Lopez personified the joyous freedoms of the 60s and 70s—and like many of them, he expired during the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Yony Leyser’s Queercore: How to Punk A Revolution trains focus on LGBTQ artists in every genre who used punk aesthetics and strategies to rebel—not just against mainstream society, but against perceived conformism in gay culture. While there’s much attention given to the Toronto scene spearheaded by filmmaker Bruce La Bruce and artist G.B. Jones, there are numerous other voices heard from here, including such San Francisco-bred acts as Lynn Breedlove of Tribe 8, Pansy Division’s Jon Ginoli, and Justin Vivian Bond. Roxie. More info here

Also at the Roxie is Steve Loveridge’s Sundance award winner Matangi/Maya/M.I.A., which profiles the hugely successful international rapper-singer with a Sri Lankan Tamil heritage—something her art has often addressed, as her family are refugees from that country’s civil war. Asked why she’s a “problematic pop star” who can’t just “shut up and get a hit,” branded in some quarters (notably the New York Times) as a dilettante and tool for combining confrontative political messaging with that stardom, she says it’s just her nature—given a podium, she can’t ignore genocide simply because it might discomfort a mass audience. This may not be a particularly even-handed portrait, but it’s still a complex one that will be welcomed by fans, and has substance enough to intrigue even those oblivious to or indifferent towards M.I.A.’s musical career. Roxie. More info here

FU: FILMMAKERS UNITE
Local luminaries Jay Rosenblatt and Ellen Bruno “put out a call to over 200 of their fellow artists,” asking for short films responding to any aspect of life and politics in the Trump era. This resulting program of 13 works, totaling about 80 minutes, runs a gamut both stylistically (it encompasses documentary, narrative, animation, collage and more) and in themes. Nonfiction pieces include a sketch of editorial cartoonist Mr. Fish, a tour of ruins once intended to be the gracious HQ of American Nazis in Los Angeles, and a portrait of two adult brothers whose broken relationship has come to define the “divisiveness” of our political climate. 

Repurposing old footage is Rosenblatt’s Scared Very Scared, which deploys vintage instructional clips and more to comment on anxiety under human weather-cock Trump, and Little Donnie: The Ten-Inch Terror, a fresh spin on Karen Black’s standoff with the deadly “Zuni fetish doll” in Trilogy of Terror. Other shorts use diverse means to meditate on immigration issues, Islamophobia, and what to do when your kid wants a Trump pinata for his birthday. Roxie. More info here

JACK PARSONS + EARTHLINGS
We live in cultish times, so it’s apt to scrutinize the life and influences of this Other Cinema double-documentary evening’s principal subjects. Jack Whiteside Parsons was a rocket engineer on the ground floor of what would eventually become NASA. But by the time it did, he’d developed serious side interests in occultist Aleister Crowley, crossing paths with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (who took his wife and life savings). He dabbled in Communism, yet became a notable shaper of libertarian philosophy. 

Religion scholar Erik Davis’ Babalon Rising: Jack Parsons Blasts Off scrutinizes this bizarre and fascinating life, as well as its many representations in popular media (including Ridley Scott’s Strange Angel and OC founder Craig Baldwin’s own Mock Up on Mu). The bill will also feature Jonathan Berman introducing his Calling All Earthlings, about another So Cal. aeronautics weirdo—George Van Tassel, a flight inspector turned (never-finished) time machine inventor who claimed he’d ridden on a space ship with Venusians. Sat/6, Artists Television Access. More info here

MARLINA THE MURDERER IN FOUR ACTS
This arresting “Indonesian feminist outlaw western” has the titular widow (Marsha Timothy) confronted by bandits in her isolated country house—they mean to steal all her livestock and rape her, simply because they’ve realized she’s alone. She is not, however, defenseless. After doing what she can to protect herself, an effort that leaves most of her attackers dead, she takes the severed head of one of them on the road in order to tell police what happened. But the police’s response turns out to be one more representation of the male boorishness she (and a heavily pregnant neighbor) encounters at every juncture. This handsomely shot feature starts out as a minimalist thriller, turns into a laconic black comedy, then gains dramatic heft again. 4-Star Theater. More info here

Screen Grabs: Joan Jett, Hola Mexico, Hong Kong Cinema …

'Bad Reputatio'

SCREEN GRABS This week brings a whole lot of mini-festivals to various Bay Area screens. The Roxie has the Hola Mexico, a three-day touring edition of the annual LA festival showcasing the best in new Mexican cinema. (More info here.) Doing the same for the land of the rising sun, albeit for a considerably more expansive 10 days, is the 6th Japan Film Festival of SF at New People Cinema. Ranging from historical dramas to anime to J-pop documentaries, it will feature several filmmakers in person (More info here.). Fans of Asian cinema in general will face a scheduling quandary, as SFFilm’s latest Hong Kong Cinema series also occupies this immediate weekend. (More info here.) The program encompasses four first features, as well as the horror-action-comedy Vampire Cleanup Department and boy band biopic House of the Rising Sons

Placing emphasis on genre rather than geography is Alamo Drafthouse’s hosting this weekend of some highlights from Austin’s latest Fantastic Fest. They will include the new movie An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn from the director of divisive recent cult item The Greasy Strangler, plus horror movies and miscellaneous weirdness from Brazil, Norway, Belgium, Denmark and Oakland (via a revival of Sarah Jacobsen’s twenty-year old indie Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore). More info here.

Finally, a flashback of a different kind launches this Friday at the Pacific Film Archive, as choreographer Mark Morris presents a film series inspired by his Beatles-tribute dance Pepperland, which is being performed this weekend at Zellerbach Hall, via Cal Performances. In the Age of Pepperland highlights particularly influential titles from the exciting cinematic culture of half a century ago, including Antonioni’s Blow-Up, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Kubrick’s 2001, Frederick Wiseman’s High School, and of course the Fab Four in A Hard Day’s Night. (More info here.)

Noted in brief: Bisbee ’17, an interesting if too trickily schematic meditation on a century-old US labor dispute eerily relevant to our current “immigrant” debate (at the Alamo Drafthouse); and Science Fair, a likable documentary following nine students from the US (as well as Germany and Brazil) as they prepare to compete against some 1700 other teens in the world’s most prestigious annual international high school science competition. Unavailable for preview was Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, which has garnered admiring reviews so far, particularly for Keira Knightley as the titular great French author. 

Elsewhere:

BAD REPUTATION 
This excellent documentary celebrates the career of Joan Jett, a trailblazing female rocker who’s still keeping that fire going at an eternally youthful 60. Veteran music video director Kevin Kerslake chronicles the turbulent ’70s teenage “all-girl” outfit The Runaways, which was widely ridiculed at the time but has proved hugely influential since; and Jett’s dogged quest for the respect she deserved fronting her band The Blackhearts. 

The latter’s wavering commercial fortunes, her close affiliations with original punk bands (notably Germs) and the Riot Grrl movement (esp. via Bikini Kill), her political activism and surprising history of performing for military personnel (despite a pacifist stance) are all entertainingly detailed here. But perhaps most unexpected is the portrait of her longtime “odd couple” kinship with producer-manager Kenny Laguna, an erstwhile writer of numerous 1960s bubblegum hits turned unlikely ally for the leather-jacketed rock queen. It’s a very weird “marriage without the sex” that has nonetheless kept these seeming opposites going in tandem for nearly four decades now. The film is playing short runs (including two days at the Roxie, Wed/26-Thrus/27) at theaters nationwide. More info here

HAL
Another product of the ’70s—though without the staying power—was Hal Ashby, who graduated from being a celebrated editor to one of the greatest directors of the Me Decade. His first feature The Landlord was in 1970, his last great one Being There in 1979. Afterward it was a steep downward slide both cinematically and health-wise, ending in a premature death from cancer in 1988. But during that short run, he managed one classic after another: Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home

Ashby defined the shaggy, adult, more “personal” tenor of Hollywood filmmaking in that era, not just in his films but in his off-screen excesses (including five marriages). Amy Scott’s documentary charts all the highs and lows in a singular career, with input from such collaborators as Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Bruce Dern and Lee Grant (four among the many actors he directed to Oscar nominations), as well as filmmakers he influenced from Judd Apatow to Lisa Cholodenko. If there’s someone you know who can’t answer the question “What was so special about movies in the 70s?,” this film is a great place to start their education. Opera Plaza. More info here

OTTOMATICAKE AND JADED
Two special one-night events at the Roxie: Punk rocker, cheesecake maestro, occasional “Hedvig” performer, Honolulu neighborhood activist, rollercoaster and rollerskating enthusiast Otto—would you ask Cher or Charo for a last name?—is the subject of Ottomaticake. This hour-long documentary by SF filmmaker Gemma Cubero del Barrio screens with director and subject in person. Will there be cheesecake? We don’t know, but we will be bitterly disappointed if there isn’t. 

Also, JD Scalzo and Brian Emerick will be present with cast and crew to present the first two episodes of Jaded, an original Vimeo series about the state of gay dating in San Francisco, A.D. 2018. It promises a perspective “though the eyes of a man lost inside the hookup culture, while on a relentless pursuit for a way out.” There will be an “exclusive after party” at the Amory Club, at which you can perhaps relentlessly pursue a hookup or two yourself. Ottomaticake: Sat/29, 5pm. More info here. Jaded: Wed/3, 6 pm. More info here

KAL SPELLETICH BENEFIT
It’s ironic that the Bay Area tech bubble is forcing out technologically forward artists like Spelletich, who makes audience-interactive robots and other machines in his Dogpatch studio—well, he did, until that hitherto inexpensive SF neighborhood’s fall to the development craze got him evicted. This Other Cinema program will benefit his moving and storage costs. There will be documentaries about his work, as well as a raft of excerpts from vintage sci-fi films, J. Reiss’ 1988 Survival Research Labs short A Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief, and more. Sat/29, Artists Television Access. www.othercinema.com

THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Patrick DeWitt’s 2011 novel is faithfully adapted in this first English-language feature by French director Jacques Audiard (Dheepan, Rust and Bone, A Prophet). John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix play the titular siblings, hired gunmen who travel from Oregon to San Francisco and beyond during the mid-1800s in search of a chemist (Riz Ahmed) whose apparent breakthrough in locating gold deposits is of great interest to their wealthy employer. Jake Gyllenhaal is cast as another emissary of that rich man, albeit one who switches allegiances mid-journey. 

Full of amusing period details (our protagonists are gobsmacked by their first encounters with such modern wonders as a “toothbrush” and “flush toilet”), this seriocomic adventure retains the book’s leisurely, anecdotal air. A different director might’ve lent it more narrative momentum and excitement. Though there’s quite enough gunplay here, the film seems rather disinterested in action or suspense, emphasizing idiosyncratic character instead. While one suspects this good movie narrowly missed being a great one, it does draw on strong performances that ultimately prove more poignant than one might expect from the often waggish tenor. At area theaters.

Screen Grabs: I Am Not a Witch, Iranian Film Fest, Blaze …

'I Am Not a Witch'

SCREEN GRABS While you could say the annual fall sprawl of anticipatory “awards season” has already begun—with the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals that premiere many of the year’s contenders—it gets a little more serious this week, given the actual theatrical opening of two starry prestige movies based on very good novels. 

Richard Eyre’s The Children Act should find Emma Thompson perfectly cast as the protagonist of Atonement scribe Ian McEwan’s 2014 tome, a workaholic High Court judge who realizes her neglected husband (Stanley Tucci) may be leaving her, just as she’s deciding a particularly difficult, precedent-setting case involving religious belief versus life-saving medical treatment. 

The Sisters Brothers adapts Patrick deWitt’s 2011 literary western, its titular figures two fraternal ruffians whose oft-criminal fortunes travel a very rocky road along the West Coast of the early Gold Rush era. Joaquin Phoenix (who’s having an amazing year onscreen) and John C. Reilly play the brothers, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane and others supporting in this first English-language effort by French Rust and Bone director Jacques Audiard. 

Other notable openings include (at the Roxie) SF-born Ari Gold’s new indie seriocomedy The Song of Sway Lake, with Rory Culkin as a disgruntled prodigal son returned to the lakeside site of his estranged rich family’s former glory, and his father’s suicide. It’s an uneven gambit whose most engaging performances are by Robert Sheehan as a Russian emigre and Mary Beth Peil as a crusty grandma.

There’s also some good acting in Lizzie, the latest iteration of the Lizzie Borden legend—she who allegedly “took an axe and gave her parents 40 whacks,” but was acquitted by a court that simply couldn’t believe a proper young lady would do such a thing. Chloe Sevigny plays the unhappy daughter in a stifling 1892 Fall River, Mass. household, while Kristin Stewart plays an Irish houseservant who becomes her ally. It’s certainly an improvement on writer-director Craig Willam Macneill’s slug-slow debut feature, 2015 non-thriller The Boy, but you may still come away wondering that he could eke so little suspense from this lurid subject matter.

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

IRANIAN FILM FESTIVAL
What with the PFA’s ongoing Makhmalbaf Film House retrospective and the Roxie’s recent run of Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature, it’s already quite a month in the Bay Area for fans of Iranian cinema. Now comes the 11th edition of this annual showcase, being held this year at the San Francisco Art Institute. The two-day event features a substantial array of features, documentaries, shorts, animation and music videos. There will be a special focus on two women filmmakers, veteran Pouran Derakhshandeh (bringing her new Under the Smokey Roof) and multimedia artist Shirin Neshat (with Looking for Oum Kulthum). Sat/22-Sun/23, SFAI. More info here.  

I AM NOT A WITCH
This striking debut feature by Rungano Nyoni, a Zambian native though primarily raised in Wales, is a parable of superstition run amuck in her birth country. An orphan with no one to care for or defend her, 8-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is blamed for anything and everything by the unsophisticated people of her village—they excuse their own blunders by pinning them on the chid “witch.” 

They actually succeed in getting her exiled to a camp where other, grown-up accused witches are kept isolated (but also on display for tourists) in their own poor but benevolent society—all of them wearing long “ribbons” that supposedly keep them from flying away into the sky. But passive Shula attracts the interest of a fat-cat official (Henry B.J. Phiri) who uses this piece of juvenile “government property” to further his own ambitions, even getting them both a guest spot on a TV talk show. 

Beyond its critique of foolish occult believers, I Am Not a Witch touches on political corruption, child exploitation, and other issues within an offbeat general framework of pathos-tinged social satire. Roxie. More info here

CIAO, MARCELLO!
Marcello Mastroianni was one of the great screen actors, though he perhaps doesn’t get all the credit he deserves—no doubt in part he was most often a subtle and unshowy actor, despite also being an expert farceur. His underplaying (and frequent deference to splashier co-stars, notably Sophia Loren) means that you might have to see several Mastroianni films back-to-back to appreciate just how impressively versatile and depthed an actor he was. 

This day-long tribute from Cinema Italia SF affords just such an opportunity. It begins and ends with two of his most popular comedies: Vittorio DeSica’s episodic Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), which afford he and Loren a trio of sexy-satirical miniatures, and Pietro Germi’s 1961 Divorce Italian Style, a sharp dissection of Catholic moral hypocrisy. There are also two fabled fantasias from Fellini, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), in both of which Mastroianni proves that director’s ideally bemused, meditative, appalled alter ego amidst a disillusioning carnival of modern-life excesses. 

Providing a grounding dramatic center in the program’s midsection is Ettore Scola’s 1977 A Special Day, in which a drabbed-down Loren and introspective Mastroianni play an odd couple—wrung-out housewife and despairing closeted gay journalist—drawn together on the 1938 when Hitler arrives to meet fellow fascist Mussolini in Rome. A man of impeccable taste and admirable adventurousness, Mastroianni worked with many more of the world’s great directors before passing away too soon in 1996, at age 72. Sat/22, Castro. More info here

LOVE, GILDA
An inherently endearing presence no matter what comic persona she adopted, Gilda Radner was arguably the most beloved of Saturday Night Live’s fabled first cast—even if others, notably Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and John Belushi, went on to bigger post-SNL careers. (Indeed Radner’s movie career never really got off the ground, beyond a couple poor co-starring vehicles with husband Gene Wilder.) This uninspired but serviceable documentary pays tribute to a life that ended all too soon, a victim of cancer in 1989 when she was just 42. 

It’s a predictable story as comedians go: The fat kid who became class clown to fit in, never losing that edge of insecurity despite a comet-like rise to fame. (At the height of her popularity she had severe eating disorder issues, for starters.) But there are some neat bits of trivia here—like her professional entree being casting in a company of Godspell despite a pretty dreadful singing voice—and there’s plenty of footage of Radner in her signature roles of Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Baba Wawa, Lisa Looper, Judy Miller and so forth. Opera Plaza. More info here

BLAZE
A different kind of showbiz legend—one practically unknown save within certain musicians’ circles—is dramatized in actor Ethan Hawke’s third directorial feature. This is sort of Bound for Inglory, with a similar sepia-tinted approach to that Woody Guthrie biopic in portraying the short life of country songwriter Blaze Foley. 

Played here by musician Ben Dickey, Foley was a talented and genial fellow appreciated in particular by the similarly party-hearty (but considerably more successful) fellow traveler Townes Van Zant (a good acting turn by musician Charlie Sexton). But he was also one of those people determined to screw up his opportunities with drinking and unprofessionalism. Ali Shawcat plays his wife Sybil Rosen, whose memoir this is based on. Littered with star cameos (from Sam Rockwell to Kris Kristofferson), this is a flavorful movie, but has the problem that attends most such stories: It’s not all that interesting to watch someone passively self-destruct in slow-motion. At area theaters

Screen Grabs: Yayoi Kusama, Latino Film Fest, Nosferatu …

Artist Yahoo Kusama is the subject of 'Kusama: Infinity'

SCREEN GRABS Last call for those interested in saving the Opera Plaza Cinemas, whose four arthouse screens are at high risk of being exterminated for whatever trendier, higher-rent-paying retail project San Francisco doesn’t need more of at present. The SF Planning Commission will have an open hearing on the matter this Thursday at City Hall, 1pm. So if you place some value on what remains of the city’s rapidly vanishing non-mainstream film culture, please attend and make yourself heard. 

As it happens, it’s a good week to appreciate those remaining alternatives to Avengers XIX & co. There’s not much new at the multiplex beyond yet another reboot of the Predator franchise—has anyone ever actually found those frequently-invisible Space Alien Rastamen scary?—and the potentially interesting White Boy Rick, a fact-based crime story whose screenplay was co-written by Bay Area twins Logan and Noah Miller.  

You may also wasn’t to check out the varied offerings of the Cine+Mas Latino Film Fest, happening around the Bay, including “Have You Seen Her, La Misión?” at the Roxie, a collection of films that “showcases the varied responses to the transformations experienced in the Mission District during the late 1990s dot.com boom.”

On the arthouse beat, there are three new documentaries: Inventing Tomorrow, Laura Nix’s look at look at teenage innovators working to salvage their own environmental future around the world; Heather Lenz’s Kusama: Infinity, a portrait of 88-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s long struggle toward her current, fabulously successful status; and American Chaos, in which filmmaker Jim Stern puzzles out the appeal of The Donald by interviewing heartland supporters during the Presidential campaign two years ago. (These are all opening Friday at Landmark Theaters, see www.landmarktheatres,com for details.)

The most interesting offerings this week, however, lie more in the realm of cinematheque retrospectives and one-off revivals or other events: 

LUCHINO VISCONTI: CINEMA OF STRUGGLE AND SPLENDOR It’s impossible now to imagine a filmmaker of equal extravagance and idiosyncrasy having the kind of major international career that aristocratically born Visconti managed over about three decades’ course, until his death in 1976. (Some might Luca Guadagnino as his artistic heir, but it’s way too early to tell if he merits the comparison beyond a shared interest in pretty, privileged people in luxurious settings.) 

The Milanese theater, opera and film director worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir before making his own screen debut with 1943’s Ossessione, an unacknowledged adaptation of amour fou classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. It helped kickstart the Italian neo-realist school, which he stuck with until 1954’s Senso, another tale of romantic obsession—but this one a lavish period piece. Visconti’s films grew more and more ambitious, from the epic melodrama of classics Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard to such glacially paced costume extravaganzas as The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig

An “out” gay man with both Communist sympathies and a privileged aesthete’s sensibility, his was a unique and uncompromising creative vision even when it misjudged. (He was not, for instance, the right man to adapt Camus’ The Stranger.) This touring retrospective includes nearly all of his features, shown in imported 35mm prints. Fri/14-November 30, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

FREDERICK WISEMAN: ON DOCUMENTARY
The PFA is saluting another master with a much shorter retrospective beginning this week, and the contrast couldn’t be sharper: Wiseman is the ultimate invisible observer, training his camera on various institutional subjects in a seemingly passive, neutral way that nonetheless invariably adds up to tremendous insight. 

He began in 1967 with the notorious Titicut Follies—a look at a Massachusetts government mental institution that proved so shocking the state succeeded in having it legally banned from exhibition for decades. His next film was the equally controversial High School (1969), which underlined the “generation gap” in society at the height of Vietnam War protests. It will be included in this brief series, along with three more recent verite studies: Belfast, Maine (1999), examining everyday life in a small American seaside town; and two self-explanatory looks at major cultural institutions, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017). 

Now 88, Wiseman will not only appear at the PFA Thurs/27 to lecture on the documentary form, he also has a new documentary (Monrovia, Indiana, another small town pulse-taking, this time during the Trump era) premiering this month at the Toronto Film Festival. Thurs/13-Sun/30, PFA. More info here

GREATEST HITS OF THE SILENT ERA WITH CLUB FOOT ORCHESTRA
A beloved San Francisco club act that found its most popular forum when they started composing and playing live scores for silent films, Club Foot Orchestra is celebrating over three decades of that pursuit (and a 35-year overall history) with this marathon Castro Theater event. It will provide not just an orgy of musical invention, but a one-day encapsulation of some of the greatest silent cinema ever. 

Things kick off with a comedy program of Buster Keaton and Felix the Cat shorts. Then we’ll made into heady realms of German Expressionism and nightmarish fantasy with Robert Weine’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian sci-fi epic Metropolis (shown in its restored 148-minute version), and F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire thriller Nosferatu. Sat/15, Castro Theater. More info here.

NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE 
Perhaps by coincidence, the Alamo Drafthouse is also offering a rare revival of Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the Murnau film, which it closely follows while adding considerable new beauty both visual and sonic (Popul Vuh created the original score). The inimitable Klaus Kinski was ideally cast as Count Dracula—this version was able to use character names from Bram Stoker’s novel, where the earlier one was sued for stealing his ideas without credit—with Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz as the lovers he imperils. The slowly paced but haunting color re-imagining of a silent classic was not well received in English-dubbed form, but was successful in Europe, and gradually acquired a cult folllowing in the U.S. Tues/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL
Also making a rare screen appearance this week is Andy Warhol’s 1965 feature, one of several he made around that time starring his then-muse, young Manhattan socialite Edie Sedgwick. She’s first blurrily glimpsed in bed; her first words upon waking (among the few intelligible ones here) are “Fuck you.” For 66 minutes she lolls around her room in bra and panties, talking to offscreen friend/promoter Chuck Wein, listening to the Everly Brothers and then The Shirelles, trying on clothes and piling on makeup. 

Five years later she’d be dead of a barbiturate overdose, still under 30. As with many in the Warhol “Factory” scene, that premature end end only heightened her tragic glamour. Named after the 1936 Shirley Temple movie that was Andy’s childhood favorite, Poor Little Rich Girl is a real test of patience—not only does “nothing happen,” but technical problems involving a faulty lens resulted in the entire first reel being out-of-focus. (This prompted Warhol to shoot more, in-focus footage, but not to scrap the material already in the can.) 

Nonetheless, it affords a gander at Sedgwick’s vivacious personality, which endeared her to her gay Svengali until they had a falling out from which they (and her “career”) never recovered. It’s a weirdly prescient artifact: Expecting us to adore her simply for being on-camera, Edie is a sort of proto-Kardashian, aspiring towards “famous for being famous,” and this film is a B&W 16mm version of the selfie. Wed/19, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

GREASE 2
Last and probably least, the Alamo is offering a chance to wallow in the wonkiness of this 1982 flop, a belated quasi-sequel to the 1978 smash hit (in turn based on a Broadway musical). John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John couldn’t be induced to return to their original roles, so newcomers Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer were drafted for equivalent roles. (Upon release, it seemed the film would be the death-knell for both their careers, but Pfeiffer soon rebounded with Scarface.) 

Choreographer Patricia Birch was hired to direct—for the first and last time—a decision that proved only marginally less wrong-headed than producer Allan Carr’s hiring of veteran comic Nancy Walker to direct the Village People musical Can’t Stop the Music two years earlier. Its cast stuffed with old-school celebrities like Connie Stevens, Tab Hunter, Sid Ceasar and Eve Arden, its soundtrack cluttered with clunky new songs, Grease 2 did not make lightning strike twice at the box-office. But somehow it has become a kind of cult favorite—weirdly, primarily among viewers raised on High School Musical and its sequels. Tues/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.