Screen Grabs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dhalie Zhang’s ‘Summer’s Gone’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Screen Grabs: A French feast of film noir

Claude Chabrol's 'The Goodtime Girls,' aka 'Les Bonnes Femmes'

SCREEN GRABS Entertainment-industry legends seem to be dropping like flies these days, underlining the fact that luminaries of the 1960s and ’70s are well into their dotage, while survivors from the preceding Hollywood-and-beyond “golden age” are very few now. One of the latter, fabled French actress Danielle Darrieux, just passed away at age 100, having scarcely retired from a screen and stage career that occupied about eighty-five years of that century. Olivia de Havilland (101) is still around, if long-inactive. (Apart from suing over her representation in the cable series Feud, that is.) But otherwise, one can scarcely think of any prominent names from the deep B&W celluloid past who are still alive and kicking, however feebly.

There’s a certain memorial aspect to the fourth edition of “The French Had a Name For It,” which plays a packed long weekend at the Roxie Fri/3 through Mon/6. In part that’s because three films are specifically included as homage to the great Jeanne Moreau, a figure at least as important to the Nouvelle Vague as Darrieux was to earlier French cinema epochs, and who died this summer at 89. But then all of these programs from programmer Don Malcolm and his Midcentury Productions are largely a testament to a national film industry that is no more, in which genre films—good, bad, indifferent, sometimes inspired—could be cranked out in bulk for audiences that most often simply went to “the movies,” rather than needing to be sold on a particular title. 

The term “film noir” was duly invented in France to describe American crime movies of the 1940s and ’50s. But as these series have demonstrated, it could be applied equally to many French productions of that period, albeit with a broader brush that encompassed more diverse kinds of melodrama than are usually associated with American noirs. This fourth “Name” collection expands the category further to embrace films made as early as 1935 and as late as 1966, plus a couple made by foreign directors (England’s Tony Richardson, German-born Hollywood veteran Robert Siodmak). There are also movies by such internationally known Gallic talents as Robert Bresson, Marcel L’Herbier and Claude Chabrol, of whom only the latter is (in his idiosyncratic way) associated with noirish subject matter.

Well before Hollywood began eschewing old-school glamour for new types of movie stars (mold-breakers Brando and Dean aside), Moreau represented something edgily modern on screen: Complex, at times neurotic, communicating frank sexual appetites without being a stock “sexual object,” alluring sans conventional beauty, her evident intelligence a challenge to assumed male superiority. (She never made sense in suffering, passive heroine roles.) Though oddly she never worked with Chabrol, Moreau’s inherent air of moral ambiguity made her a natural for the noir-style narratives that drove many of her best-known vehicles, including Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons and Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black

Jeanne Moreau finds herself both drawn to and repulsed by an Italian family in ‘Mademoiselle’

In the 1966 Mademoiselle, the new Roxie program’s final film (and chronologically its last as well), she plays a figure of pure, almost cartoonish malevolence—an imperious rural schoolteacher and secret pyromaniac first glimpsed in little black dress and incongruous high heels, traipsing around the countryside to flood a village by releasing its dam out of sheer spite. The primary target of this hostility is an all-male Italian emigre family that draws both her racist loathing and suppressed erotic desire. 

Perhaps only Moreau could have played such a character without curdling into camp, though this astringent tale—one of several deliberately off-putting subjects handled by Brit director Tony Richardson after the crowdpleasing triumph of his Oscar-winning period romp Tom Jones—was loathed by critics and audiences alike at the time. What did they expect? This wasn’t Henry Fielding; it was Marguerite Duras adapting Jean Genet, a recipe for perverse discomfort if ever there was one. Two earlier features being screened offer episodes from Moreau’s pre-stardom screen apprenticeship: As an ingenue in Hi-Jack Highway (1955), and a gangster’s moll in The Strange Mr. Steve (1957). 

Another legendary French star, Jean Gabin, overlapped with Moreau—they appear together here in Hi-Jack Highway aka Gas-Oil —but was beginning to seem a relic by the time of her ascent. Gabin was at his greatest in the 1930s. By the ’50s, he too often seemed bored, his performances as stolid as his vehicles (popular as they remained) were uninspired. Still, some are solid films in their own right. 

One such is Crime and Punishment, a loose 1956 update of Dostoyevsky’s novel. The real star is fifth-billed Robert Hossein, the compelling, still-living (albeit retired) writer-director-actor whose work was showcased in prior editions of the Roxie series, as the Raskolnikov figure. Gabin shows up late as the police detective investigating this impoverished student’s crime of murder. The interesting cast also includes gorgeous Marina Vlady, future leading director Bernard Blier (as a bourgeoise pederast), and future international star Lino Ventura. Yet like too many French films of its period, it’s overly talky and square. 

Fellow prewar luminary Darrieux co-stars in a third Gabin feature, The Night Affair (1958), though here his gendarme’s attentions are directly mostly at starlet Nadja Tiller as a comely young drug addict. Both it and Hi-Jack were directed by Gilles Grangier, an underrated journeyman of the postwar, pre-Nouvelle Vague industry era. Affair has a bonus for jazz fans in the form of several numbers from Hazel Scott, the famed African-American singer, pianist, and activist who at that point had relocated to Paris, having been blacklisted for dubious ties to the Communist Party in the US. 

A third star spotlit here was of that odd species, the American actor who finds great fame abroad without ever getting much acknowledgement back home. An aspiring singer, Los Agneles-born Eddie Constantine ultimately found success not in that role but in its diametric opposite—as the tough, monosyllabic protagonist in umpteen Continental imitations of hard-boiled American thrillers. His signature character was Lemmy Caution, the glowering detective he played eleven times in vehicles variably loosely derived from British author Peter Cheyney’s pulp writings. Yet the only one that American audiences took much note of was a sort of parody: Godard’s futuristic 1965 Alphaville, which incorporated noir elements mostly to mock them. 

Constantine was so popular with European audiences, however, that a good share of his other movies simply cast him as “Eddie,” further blurring the line between performer and persona. Opening night on Friday, the Roxie offers a double bill showcase: First up is 1953’s This Man is Dangerous, his second outing as Caution, followed by 1964’s Lucky Joe, which expands his usual range by making him a hapless petty criminal shunned as bad luck by his own underground milieu.

Other notable titles within the 13 features “The French Had a Name For It” offers this go-around include early works by two great directors who had yet to fully realize their signature styles: A pair each from Robert Bresson (1958’s The Ladies of Boulogne Wood, 1961’s Gigolo) and Claude Chabrol (1958’s The Handsome Serge, 1960’s The Good-Time Girls)

From ‘Mollinard’

Also of particular interest are two proto-noirs from the 1930s. One, Happiness aka Le Bonheur (1935) was a highlight in the long but mostly undistinguished sound-era career of Marcel L’Herbier, whose often wildly ambitious silent films (L’argent, L’inhumanite) have found new appreciation in recent years. Le Bonheur (not to be confused with the same-named Agnes Varda feature two decades later) stars glamorous Gaby Morlay, a major figure of the silent and early sound era. Today, however, the main attraction in this offbeat romance between a silver screen diva and an anarchist is leading man Charles Boyer, who’d already tried Hollywood (without much success) but is seen here on the brink of international fame. 

The other, 1938’s Hatred aka Mollinard, showcased Harry Bauer—a great French star of the era who was tortured to death by the Nazis five years later—in one of a few Gallic films made by Robert Siodmak, who himself had fled his native Germany when Hitler came to power. Siodmak would soon move on to Hollywood, where he would make some of the greatest American noirs (The Killers, Criss Cross) in that genre’s peak era. One wonders what he would have thought if he’d known that nearly a half-century after his 1973 death, Nazis would again be on the rise… in the US, yet. Sometimes real life is blacker than even noir can imagine. 

The French Had a Name For It 4 plays Fri/3-Mon/6, Roxie Theater, SF. $12-14 ($65 for series pass), more info here.

New flicks!

Aubrey Plaza plays a social media addict whose obsession goes a bit far in 'Ingrid Goes West.'

SCREEN GRABS Late August, when the kids are nearly back in school and the summer blockbusters are gradually winding down at the box office, is a time when a lot of less overtly commercial, more idiosyncratic movies sneak into theaters. (So is January, after the major studios have finished unleashing all their big Xmas releases and year-end Oscar bait.) If you’re looking for yet another Marvel superhero standoff or something equally populist, you’ll probably have to make do with whatever recent titles you and several million teenagers have already seen two or three times already. However, if you’re in the market for something likely—even guaranteed—to fly under the radar of just such viewers, it’s actually a good time of the year to be scanning those listings for unfamiliar, under-promoted new films. 

This week offers a fine array of movies in that category. Among those opening Friday are a handful of major releases, notably two action-comedies—Ryan Reynolds/Samuel L. Jackson buddy caper The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which is reportedly like a live-action cartoon (for better or worse), and Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky (see below). But even those are considered fairly risky by current major-studio standards, neither being CGI-dominated fantasies with franchise potential directed largely at subadults. Other moderately high-profile arrivals include the Safdie Brothers’ acclaimed crime drama Good Time with Robert Pattinson, and The Trip to Spain, the latest exercise in repartee, scenery and culinary adventure for stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

But there’s plenty more that might well pass you by if you’re not paying attention (don’t expect most of them to stick around long), all opening at SF theaters August 18:

Ingrid Goes West 

Though she doesn’t seem to have a political thought in her head, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) shares something with our current POTUS—she can’t stay off social media, to the point where it severely inhibits her ability to recognize and interact with the tangible reality around her. After spectacularly burning a bridge to one object of online obsession, she promptly fixates on another: Perky, ever-Instagramming L.A. scenester Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Having just inherited some money, and having no impulse control whatsoever, Ingrid then simply moves to “La La Land” in order to commence infiltrating the life of her new BFF. 

This is not destined to end well—particularly once Ingrid is crowded out by the arrival of Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen), a nasty little prick quite happy to call out a stalker when he sees one. Starting out as a bright black comedy, then gradually shading into something more serious (but still caustic), writer-director Matt Spicer’s debut feature is a clever commentary on pressing millennial mental health issues. It’s also a fine showcase for the estimable Plaza, who gets to show more emotional range than usual via a character who has our sympathy even if she isn’t exactly likable…or sane.


Likewise chasing pathology for astringent laughs is Janicza Bravo, whose own striking debut feature has a bracing aesthetic rigor that reflects (among other things) her background as a costume designer. Mirthless protagonist Isaac (co-scenarist Brett Gelman) is a 40-ish L.A. acting teacher who takes his many professional and other frustrations out on students—though not on the fatuous class “star” (Michael Cera) he’s a little too fawning toward. At home, Isaac is on the verge of being left by a blind girlfriend (Judy Greer) who justifiably complains “I deserve to be with a man who wants me.” 

The roots of his furtive, needy, ungiving emotional life are fully exposed in a Passover visit to the family (led by bullying patriarch Fred Melamed and pincushion mum Rhea Perlman) who are themselves a minefield of passive-aggressive behaviors. Amidst his spiral of depression, anxiety and possible closet panic, Issac manages to start a tentative relationship with a grounded, giving woman (Nia Long’s Cleo)—though god knows what she sees in him. Lemon may for some recall Woody Allen’s acid takes on Jewish family ties, as well as Todd Solondz’s more overt cruel domestic comedies But it has its own, singular, absurdist, defiantly odd vision. Whether you’ll actually enjoy this sour fruit—I did—is TBD, but there’s no doubt that it’s one of the more original films of the year. It opens Friday at the Roxie in SF.

Dave Made a Maze

Also opening at the Roxie is Bill Watterson’s directorial debut, which has comedian Nick Thune in the title role. In his perpetual evasion of conventional responsibilities, Dave has indeed built a maze, out of cardboard, in his Manhattan apartment living room. When girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) arrives home, he’s in it—and he can’t get out. “It’s bigger on the inside” he calls, sounding inches away. But once Annie and all their friends crawl inside (despite Dave’s pleas), they discover he isn’t kidding. His homemade labyrinth is vast, magical, and potentially fatal, with perils including an actual Minotaur and a “giant growing lady part.” 

This unique whimsy utilizing a lot of established comedy talent purportedly deployed more than 30,000 square feet of donated scrap cardboard to create its DIY fantasy world. The concept and humor may stretch a little thin eventually, but the design elements—which also include puppetry and animation—are a resourceful delight.


Also conceptually waaaaay off the beaten track is the reliably idiosyncratic Michael Almereyda’s (Experimenter) latest, a feature-length Hollywood footnote in the form of verbal anecdotes accompanied by a visual collage. All tell the story of Hampton Fancher, an L.A. wild child who stumbled into a moderately successful acting career (starting out as a zombie in 1958’s sci-fi horror The Brain Eaters), dated umpteen starlets, and saw his career begin to peter out as his looks began to fade after a couple decades. But he’s best known for his first, subsequent behind-the-camera credit: As scenarist for 1982’s Blade Runner, adapting Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (He’s also one of the writers on its imminent sequel, Blade Runner 2049.)

Now nearly 80, Fancher is an entertaining storyteller, like so many people who’ve largely glided through life on looks and charm. But the joy of Escapes isn’t so much its autobiographical aspect as the ingeniousness with which Almereyda uses vintage movie and TV clips (many from the subject’s own filmography) to “illustrate” this breezy personal history. En route, he reveals the infinite interconnectivity of the popular entertainment world, like a “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon” game played out like complex mathematical theorems whose symbols are replaced by excerpted screen credits. 

Hare Krishna!: The Mantra, the Movement and the Swami Who Started It All

Let us turn the clock to that distant past in which our shores welcomed exotic religious practices whose goals were peace, love and tranquility—as opposed to the power-mongering, censorious legislation and outright terrorism that seems to lie behind so much highly public “faith” today. In 1965, 70-year-old Swami Prabhuapada arrived in NYC from Calcutta, seeking to “make everyone happy” through the rejection of materialistic society known as “Krishna consciousness.” He would soon gain boosters as influential as George Harrison and Allen Ginsberg, while seeing his movement become a worldwide phenomenon—as well as something of a joke, with yellow-robed devotees famously dogging travelers at airports the cliche of counterculture questing. 

That cultural imprint has greatly shrunk in decades since, and a more even-handed documentary than John Griesser and Lauren Ross’ hagiographic one might have provided greater insight into why. Instead, there’s no critical perspective here, no inclusion of unflattering moments associated with the Krishnas due to a few less-than-upstanding acolytes who arose in Prabhuapada’s wake. Everyone interviewed here is an admirer, if not an outright devotee. Still, the mountain of archival footage tapped provides a colorful nostalgic reminder that this singular offshoot of Hinduism was once a major presence on the global religious stage.

Logan Lucky

Last but not least is our sole wide release—but a goofy, endearing one, with Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as luckless working-class brothers who devise a scheme to rob a stadium’s concession cash during a NASCAR event. Their willing accomplices include sister Riley Keough, an inconveniently imprisoned explosives expert conveniently named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), and the latter’s own born-again dim-bulb siblings (Jack Quaid, Brian Gleeson). Unknowingly involved are a wide range of authorities, patsies and others played by Dwight Yoakum, Hilary Swank, Sebastian Stan, Seth McFarlane, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston. 

Soderbergh’s first directorial feature in four years (I guess he isn’t retiring forever after all, becoming yet another filmmaker to make that announcement prematurely) is an old-school caper comedy that only aims to entertain. But it’s so offhandedly funny and light-on-its-feet that it easily outshines a lot of this year’s blockbuster behemoths. It’s a redneck movie with brains, one that doesn’t condescend to the characters whose very Southern idiosyncrasies it nonetheless revels in. This is pure fun that won’t actually lower your IQ, for a change.

Heated moments

'Sunday Beauty Queen' screens at YBCA's New Filipino Cinema festival

SCREEN GRABS Filmmaking in the Philippines hit a first “golden age” in the years after World War II. That was followed by a 1960s boom in which quantity if not quality exploded—mostly thanks to a slew of exploitation-genre co-productions aimed at international drive-in and grindhouse markets that stretched well into the 1970s. The emergence of a few higher-minded directors like Lino Brocka (of Macho Dancer) brought hitherto elusive critical acclaim to Filipino cinema. But by the century’s end even the industry’s most commercial big-screen endeavors were ebbing, crowded out by the greater extravagance and promotional power of Hollywood features. 

In the middle of this crisis, however, the affordability of digital technology began reviving Filipino movies—albeit largely thanks to independent and regional talents operating well outside what was left of the studio mainstream. Though their political context, style and content are very different, today’s Filipino cinema constitutes a sort of renaissance not unlike that which attracted widespread festival and arthouse interest to Iran and Romania in recent years. 

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has been showcasing this particular SE Asian “New Wave” annually since 2012 with its New Filipino Cinema festival, whose sixth edition opens this Thursday and runs through September 3. This showcase of independent films from the Philippines, co-curated by YBCA’s own Joel Shepard and Manila-based critic Philbert Dy, takes place at a heated moment. While we’re dealing with our own runaway POTUS here, Rodrigo Duterte’s flagrant violation of human rights in his “war on drugs” has resulted in what’s estimated as close to 10,000 “extrajudicial” killings so far, bringing global condemnation to his regime. (Naturally, Trump has applauded Duterte as doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem.”) 

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Because it would be very difficult (even dangerous) for a Filipino film to directly address that issue head-on at present, this year’s NFC program instead addresses it via an August 20 Sunday afternoon presentation by photojournalist Raffy Lerma. However, many among the dozen feature presentations included in the series this year touch on pressing sociopolitical concerns in other ways. 

Several of the most forthright such statements come in documentary form. Opening night selection Sunday Beauty Queen is Baby Ruth Villarama’s portrait of a few among the enormous number of natives laboring abroad to sustain families back home. Here the focus is on some of the nearly 200,000 Filipinas employed as domestic workers in Hong Kong; these particular women make an elaborate ritual of gussying up for beauty competitions on their only day off each week. The islands’ past is scrutinized in Gutierrez Mangansakan II’s Forbidden Memory, about a massacre that occurred in the town of Malisbong, on Duterte’s native island Mindanao. As many as 1500 primarily Muslim residents were killed by Army troops amidst Ferdinand Marcos’ martial-law rule. 

Horror of a more escapist, fictive variety can be found in Erik Matti’s Seklusyon, which nonetheless dares to break a taboo—in a still-heavily Roman Catholic country, it combines religion and supernatural terror as a group of deacons on a retreat are confronted by all-too-literal demons. Also bordering on horror are two complex, ambitious features that scramble reality, fantasy and chronology. Keith Deligero’s striking puzzle Lily mixes elements of folk myth, social issues, melodrama and conventional faith in a visually poetical multi-strand chronicle of abused and avenging women. Jerrold Tarog’s slicker but even more baroque Bliss has Iza Calzado as a celebrity actress sidelined by a serious on-set accident. But as her recovery is complicated by medications, hallucinations, a seemingly evil nurse, two men claiming to be her husband, and more, our heroine’s grip on reality becomes increasingly questionable.

Also female-driven (like so many Filipino film narratives, though male directors remain the overwhelming norm) are two contrastingly lighter-hearted features. Jason Paul Lexamana’s Mercury Is Mine has Pokwang as a Mt. Arayat restaurant cook whose irascible personality is unpredictably softened by an American teenager’s arrival. In Victor Viullaneuva’s road comedy Jesus Is Dead, Jaclyn Jose plays a woman shlepping her children to the funeral of the father they hardly knew. 

Two of the Philippines’ leading current auteurs will be represented by their newest features at NFC. Frequent controversy magnet Brilliante Mendoza, who won a hotly debated Best Director prize at Cannes for 2008’s notorious Kinatay, is back with the gritty corruption drama Ma’Rose. It stars the aforementioned Jose as titular matriarch to a slum family that finds itself blackmailed by local police. Then there’s the latest mountain of moviemaking by Lav Diaz, whose A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery is a typically epic meditation on no less than the entirety of the Philippines’ 400-year colonial history. This B&W fantasia of historical fact and diverse fiction runs over eight hours—yes, you read that right—and will be presented with a one-hour dinner break at midpoint.

If that’s a bit more than you’re prepared to handle, there’s Mario Cornejo’s normally proportioned Apocalypse Child, an acclaimed drama about a surfer youth adrift in a beachside town where Francis Ford Coppola famously shot some of Apocalypse Now. Also arriving with critical praise attached is Ralson G. Jover’s Haze, which is about youth as well—in this case dramatizing the real-life nationwide plight of homeless kids who survive by stealing yet adhere to their own rigid moral code. 

Finally, this festival of new work allows for one archival gem: A restoration of late, great Filipino director Ishmael Bernal’s 1971 commercial first-feature At the Top aka Pagdating Sa Dulo. It stars the equally fabled Rita Gomez as a stripper who becomes a screen luminary under the tutelage of a major director (Eddie Garcia, the still-active industry legend who also really was a major director as well as actor), only to discover…well, it’s not all glamour at the top. A caustic commentary on the sexploitation and other woes that then dominated Filipino cinema, Bernal’s debut has been called “one of the best films about filmmaking ever made.” 

New Filipino Cinema 2017 runs Thurs/17-Sun/Sept. 3 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF. $8-10 (ticket packages also available). Tickets and more info here.

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Star time

'Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story' plays at the 37th SF Jewish Film Festival

SCREEN GRABS There’s never been an un-interesting moment for the SF Jewish Film Festival (July 20 to August 6) to be going on, in political terms, since its inception 37 years ago. But let’s face it, this year provides a spectacular political backdrop: The most-loathed POTUS in modern history nonetheless features as one of his few plusses (to some folks at least) being “staunchly pro-Israel”…even though at the same time, he’s particularly popular amongst anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. Wee-hee! Exciting times. Try not to let your head explode.

No doubt those contradictions will fuel many a between-films discussion at what has long been one of the most politically engaged amongst the Bay Area’s many annual film festivals. And at risk of seriously belaboring an already-bad joke, it need be said that the 2017 JFF does have one thing in common with our Commander-in-Grief: It’s yuge.

The 18 days overall encompass programming in San Francisco (at the Castro), Albany (East Bay Albany Twin, plus one show at the Parkway), Palo Alto (Cinearts) and San Rafael (Rafael Film Center). Featured guests at various events will include Al Gore, veteran activist Heather Booth, leading US documentarian Joe Berlinger, and “golden era” Hollywood screen siren Hedy Lamarr’s son.

The Castro kickoff on the 20th is Rachel Israel and Karlovy Vary’s prize-winning debut feature, Keep the Change, about two Manhattanites on the autism spectrum whose romance gets launched at a JCC support group meeting. (On a related note, this year’s Centerpiece Documentary Dina offers a non-fictive look at another couple whose relationship has likewise triumphed over individual “developmental differences.”) The East Bay opener on July 25 is Haitian I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck’s new The Young Karl Marx, a primarily German-language biographical drama about guess-who. The South Bay opening night selection (July 22) is Fanny’s Journey, Lola Doillon’s factually-inspired tale about Jewish children fleeing Nazi-occupied France.

Special programming sections of varying size will be devoted to women’s directorial debuts; a “next wave” of contemporary stories set around the globe; remembrance of the Six Day War half a century ago; “Exodus: A Sidebar on the Refugee Experience,” with five features devoted to that theme; and “Take Action Day” (July 24), whose activist documentaries will include Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s locally produced An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. The climate-change followup will indeed occasion an appearance both onscreen and off from former Vice President Gore.

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With more than 50 features and numerous shorts from around the world playing in overlapping schedules that embrace the East, North and South Bay as well as SF, SFJFF37 has a lot to offer—no matter what your ethnic, cultural or religious identification. Here’s just a few highlights:

San Francisco’s JFF closing night this year will present Alexandra Dean’s appreciation of a famous beauty: Hedvig Kiesler, a Viennese Jewess who became notorious for early nudity (in the 1933 Czech art film Ecstasy), then something of an empty-glamazon joke as carefully re-packaged by Hollywood studio MGM. That no one cared she had a lot more to offer (including a pioneering knack for technological invention) constitutes the primary refrain of this entertaining documentary. It case-pleads a bit simplistically, while nonetheless limning the many contradictions of the vain, restless, sometimes self-destructive personality beneath that ravishing face.

The festival’s “Centerpiece Narrative” selection (playing at all four of its main venues, as does Bombshell and several other titles) is an absorbingly spare yet fraught narrative that takes place over the course of a single day in a rural Hungarian hamlet. World War II has finally ended, but the unexpected arrival of two mysterious Jewish men sends ripples of panic through the local population—have they come to reclaim land and other things stolen from them by villagers who helped send their like to the concentration camps? If you want a latter-day, non-fiction companion piece to Ferenc Torok’s period drama, take a look at the recent Keep Quiet, which (though not in the JFF) chronicles the political downfall and questionable rehabilitation of a high-ranking young Hungarian leader of the anti-Semitic extreme right who found out a few years ago that his own family is, in fact, Jewish.

‘Bobbi Jene’

If you’re a fan of Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, saw the excellent recent documentary about him Mr. Gaga, and/or attended a performance by his Batsheva Dance Company at YBCA not long ago, you’ll want to check out this separate study of one of his star dancers. A cornfed Midwesterner picked to join the multinational Batsheva troupe at age 21, Bobbi Jene Smith decides to leave Tel Aviv, her boyfriend, and her career to date at 30. Elvira Lind’s feature follows her fledgling first steps at carving out a new path as choreographer and teacher. Smith will perform live at SF’s ODC/theater on August. For another, considerably more tormented nonfiction view of women’s commingled artistic and personal journey, check out Hope Litoff’s 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide, in which probing her late photographer sibling’s tragic death nearly drives the filmmaker itself over the brink.

The festival’s Freedom of Expression award goes to one of the world’s most prominent documentarians. First coming to the fore with two indelible true-crime investigations in the 1990s (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost), Berlinger has since cast his keen eye on everything from musicians (The Rolling Stones, Metallica) to Nazi medical experiments (Grey Matter), corporate environmental malfeasance (Crude), mobsters (Whitey), our prison and justice systems, and even Tony Robbins (I Am Not Your Guru). He’ll appear for an onstage interview at the Castro July 27, on a program that will also feature his new Intent to Destroy, about the Turkish government’s continuing denial of the Armenian Genocide which claimed approximately 1.5 million lives a century ago.

One of the most striking films in this year’s JFF is, like 1945, a B&W drama set in Europe around the close of World War II. It’s one of the strongest films yet over the nearly six-decade career of Russian/international director Andrei Konchalovsky (Runaway Train), who’s now 79. A mix of straightforward narrative and first-person “interviews” (which lead to a major twist) depict the circumstances that bring several characters together—most notably Russian aristocrat turned French Resistance member Olga (Yuliya Vysotskaya) and SS officer Helmut (Christian Clauss). Acquaintances in happier times, they meet again when she’s a prisoner in his concentration camp. At once straightforward and ingeniously tricky, this narrative leaves a startling impression that gauges the extremes of human behavior and morality. It won Konchalovsky a Silver Lion at the Venice Festival last year. San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs July 20-Aug. 6 at various locations throughout the Bay Area. For program, location, and ticket info, visit

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Jodorowsky’s zoom

Alejandro Jodorowsky's latest, 'Endless Poetry,' comes from a spurt of film-making activity in his late 80s.

SCREEN GRABS In perhaps the most surprising and vigorous artistic comeback since Thomas Pynchon suddenly started publishing again after a quarter-century pause, Alejandro Jodorowsky has become very busy again… in his late 80s. This wouldn’t be half so startling if he’d been more prolific in his physical prime. But the current spurt of filmmaking activity is probably his most concentrated (as well as most admirable) since the five-year period that saw the release of his first three features almost half a century ago. 

Not only is the now 88-year-old Chilean-born, Europe-based multimedia surrealist back on the big screen, he’s making some of the most accessible and lively work of his life—movies that have all the eccentricity and visual panache of his past cult favorites, along with a new playfulness that counters the nihilism of El Topo or Santa Sangre. The world may seem to be a darker place to many of us at present, yet Jodorowsky is lightening up. 

This new levity may be a benefit of hindsight, since his latest films are more explicitly autobiographical than ever. Endless Poetry, which opens in Bay Area theaters on July 21, is a direct sequel to The Dance of Reality (2013), which in Jodorowsky’s characteristically extravagant, magical-realist fashion chronicled his own Chilean upbringing under the thumb of an authoritarian father (AJ’s son Brontis Jodorowsky). 

Here, that familial conflict escalates until the teenaged Alejandro (grandson Jeremias Herskovits) runs away, landing in a communal household of avant-garde artists where he reaches adulthood (now played by the filmmaker’s youngest son Adan), and finally decides his creative path must lead to Paris. Before that fadeout, he gets romantically involved with one poet (Pamela Flores as Stella Diaz Varin), has a platonic relationship with another (Leandro Taub as Enrique Lihn), encounters a mystic (Oakland-born veteran dancer Carolyn Carlson), and clashes against the period’s military dictatorship. 

Jodorowsky’s maximalist sensibility makes room for everything from that ye olde surrealist staple, Nazi dwarfs, to the inevitable circus interlude and a climax involving flash mobs of Death and Devil figures. There’s even naked crowd-surfing—presumably an in-joke nod to the fact that this perpetually funding-challenged filmmaker is now back thanks to the miracle of crowdfunding. Goofy, uneven, alternately outrageous and charming (when not both at once), Endless Poetry is as good an introduction to his work as any, and it couldn’t have been made by anyone else. 

It’s getting a wider release than its immediate predecessor: The Dance of Life was, sadly, seen only by a fraction of the people who caught the concurrent documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which detailed his doomed struggle to film a fantastic-sounding version of Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic in the 1970s. (Eventually David Lynch got hired to direct a wholly separate version, which was duly completed and released in 1984—but proved equally doomed, in its own way.) Still, it was a marvelous return to form, even more so than 1989’s Santa Sangre, that suggested he had lost none of his energy or originality. 

If you want to brush up on your Jodorowsky before Endless Poetry, this weekend the Roxie is programming a retrospective of his four major prior features. His first was Fando y Lis (1968), a stark, symbolical B&W psychodrama based on a play by Spanish surrealist Fernando Arrabal, providing a link between Bunuel and ’60s experimental theater. Its premiere at the Acapulco Film Festival actually triggered a riot amongst offended patrons; the film was then banned outright in Mexico, where it had been shot (and where Jodorowsky had then resettled). Yet despite such notoriety, it was relatively little-seen.

That could hardly be said of his second feature, El Topo, in which the filmmaker himself plays the titular lone gunfighter traversing a desert with his young son (Brontis J. again). This “acid Western’s” mix of trippiness, extreme violence, and messianic religious content struck a chord with counterculture audiences. It almost singlehandedly started the “midnight movie” phenomenon, years of late-night showings (as well as endorsement from tastemakers like John Lennon) adding to its mystique. 

That runaway success got Jodorowsky a bigger budget and carte blanche to make The Holy Mountain (1973), a pilgrim’s progress through Earthly degradation to enlightenment that is one of the most visually stunning (not to mention psychedelic) films ever made. But it never got a wide release, its distribution hindered and eventually barred entirely by producer Allan Klein, who after a dispute with the artist held it legally hostage for decades. (When a now-defunct SF repertory house tried to show it in the early 1990s, the collector’s private print being used was seized by a legal representative before it could be projected.) 

There followed the long years of Jodorowsky trying to get his Dune made. Apart from Tusk, an incongruous (and dull) 1980 children’s film about an Indian elephant, he made no films for over 15 years, turning instead to prolific work writing comics, and as a practitioner of therapeutic “psychomagic.” That celluloid drought ended temporarily with Santa Sangre, a garish and macabre recombination of prior themes casting sons Axel and Aden as a protagonist whose dysfunctional upbringing is a literal circus of horrors. It awakened interest in a filmmaker many assumed had gone into hibernation for good, although the only immediate result was the next year’s Rainbow Thief—another for-hire directing job (and like Tusk, one the Roxie isn’t showing) that felt uncharacteristic, though this whimsical fable reuniting Lawrence of Arabia stars Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif had its good points. (Jodorowsky loathed the experience, however, claiming O’Toole was inebriated and impossible to handle during most of the shoot.) 

No one would have been surprised if Santa Sangre had proved the last significant Jodorowsky film. Yet nearly three decades later, he’s enjoying a renaissance—one that old and new fans are very much enjoying, too. The Dance of Life and Endless Poetry feel like two-thirds of a trilogy; let’s hope he’s still got a final panel in him. And as long as he’s at it, why not that eternally-promised sequel to El Topo? Just last year, in fact, he announced The Son of El Topo is ready to roll at last… pending funding, of course. 

“Alejandro Jodorowsky Retro” — a retrospective of the director’s films, begins July 14 at the Roxie. More info here

Endless Poetry opens at Opera Plaza Cinema, SF and Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley on Fri/21.

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Look out

'The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson' screens at the Frameline Festival.

SCREEN GRABS After the long-fought but still remarkable gains of recent years under the most gay-friendly POTUS in American history, the LGBTQ community has already seen its worst fears realized under President Trump. Despite his repeated claims that “the gays love me,” he’s predictably caved to far-right conservatives in advocating the rollback of discrimination laws, the advancement of discrimination-enabling “religious freedom” laws, drastically cutting funding for programs related to AIDS and other relevant issues, etc., etc. Not to mention his choice of VP, a man who not only has an extensive history of vehement anti-gay activism, but is so apparently intoxicated by heterosexuality he refuses to be alone with any woman not his wife. (Excuse us if this suggests not so much strong religious beliefs as pitiful self-control.) 

In this political climate, where the damage done toward gays and other communities escalates every day that impeachment isn’t happening, it seems a particularly good moment to get the kind of collective reassurance that Frameline offers every June. Now in its 41st year, Frameline (June 15-25) — otherwise known as the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival — provides not just affirmation but a pulse-taking of gay life around the globe—at a moment when gay rights are increasingly taken as a basic tenet of society in many countries, but also while there’s news of concentration camps specifically purposed for torturing and executing gay men in Chechnya. 

To that end, Frameline’s wide scope this year offers variably narrative and nonfiction features from Armenia (Apricot Groves), Puerto Rico (Extra Terrestrials), the Philippines (Jesus Is Dead and Maybe Tomorrow), Argentina (Nobody’s Watching), Colombia (Santa y Andres), Finland (Screwed), Austria (Seventeen), New Zealand (100 Men), Mexico (No Dress Code Required), Taiwan (Small Talk) and Cuba (Transit Havana). Also marking progress on the diversity front is “Barriers & Breakthroughs: Illuminating Filmmakers of Color Before & Beyond Moonlight,” a two-day forum of free panel discussions and other events occasioned by the deserved yet still-startling Oscar triumph of former San Franciscan Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary drama this February.

'Girl Unbound'
‘Girl Unbound’

 On the purely celebratory side, Frameline opens this Thursday with The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, the latest documentary by SF’s own Jennifer Kroot, who previously made fine portraits of George Takei and the late George Kuchar. It features a starry host of friends and collaborators paying tribute to the Tales of the City author. The closing night selection is another tribute of sorts: This year’s Frameline Award will be presented to Scottish multitalent Alan Cumming, who stars in Vincent Gagliostro’s After Louie as a longtime AIDS widower brought out of his shell by a much younger man played by Zachary Booth (of Ira Sachs’ memorable Keep the Lights On). 

In between there are three “centerpiece” and 10 “showcase” titles at the Castro (some also playing the Piedmont in Oakland); a handful of films reprised from previous editions (including Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston and Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts); a new “Episodic” section of online and broadcast series; plus a ton of additional features and shorts. Amidst their wide thematic gamut, you’ll find a considerable number dealing with trans issues (like “showcase” documentary The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson), and several portraying gays in the Muslim world (Girl Unbound, Signature Move and more). 

If it’s star power you’re seeking, Trudie Styler’s comedy of teenage fabulousness Freak Show features no less than Bette Midler as “Mom.” Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: “Can I Be Me?” provides a bleak doc recap of the purportedly bisexual singer’s long slide into eventually fatal addictions. The making of extravagantly talented YouTube showman Todrick Hall’s ambitious “Straight Outta Oz” stage show is chronicled in another documentary, Behind the Curtain

'Queercore: How to Punk a Revlution'
‘Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution’

The glitter also lies thick on The Fabulous Allan Carr, about the “flamboyant” Hollywood producer (of megahit Grease and several megaflops, including infamous Village People musical Can’t Stop the Music) whose life and work alike were a study in celebrity excess. Perhaps the weirdest showbiz chronicle on tap is Mansfield 66/67, a hybrid documentary/essay/performance piece probing the murky intersection between doomed 50s sexpot Jayne Mansfield and SF-based Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. 

Other films of Bay Area particular interest include a revival of Harriet Dodge and Silas Howard’s 2001 SF lesbian comedy By Hook Or By Crook; locally-based director Travis Matthews’ best feature to date, unpredictable Texas-set seriocomedy Discreet; and Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, which encompasses the envelope-pushing cultural contributions of influential SF bands Tribe 8 and Pansy Division (the June 17 screening is sponsored by 48 Hills).

Among previewed features, here’s a few recommended highlights:

'God's Own Country'
‘God’s Own Country’

God’s Own Country

Quite possibly the best gay male romance since Brokeback Mountain, this debut by writer-director Francis Lee happens to also be a movie about gay shepherds. Rude, alcoholic Yorkshire lad Johnny (Josh O’Connor) gets pissed in a different way upon discovering his grandpa has hired a transient Romanian laborer to help out on the farm. His resentment increases when it becomes clear that quiet, personable Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is by far the more competent worker. Needless to say, their antagonism eventually changes into something else. But this gritty, closely observed tale (which has nothing like Brokeback’s decades-spanning narrative sweep) winds up surprising and deeply moving nonetheless.



SF native Lena Hall, a Tony-winning Broadway regular with her own rock band, plays the title character in Daniel Powell and Elizabeth Rohrbaugh’s indie feature. A planned L.A. career move derailed by discovering her bandmate-girlfriend already cheating on her, Becks slinks back to the house of her born-again mother (Christine Lahti) to recoup. Being a jaded big-city lesbian in this staid mid-sized town looks mighty dull until she starts getting a surprisingly warm reception gigging at an old friend’s bar for tips—and begins developing a warmer-still friendship with guitar-lesson student Elyse (Mena Suvari), who happens to be the wife of Becks’ former high school tormenter. Among its other virtues, this smart little drama offers the major one of Hall singing several strong original songs.

'The Wound'
‘The Wound’

The Wound 

Because his father thinks he’s “too soft,” Johannesburg teen Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) is packed off to a two-week rite-of-passage “initiation” in the bush, with older Xolani (Nakhane Toure) his appointed guide. Other youths quickly target the city boy for his effeminacy and snobbery; that only makes him more obstinate, particularly once he realizes Xolani is in a secret gay relationship with another, married guide (Bongile Mantsai). John Trengove’s stripped-down, charged South African drama raises expectations of one kind, then delivers something else—because Kwanda is as much victimizer as victim here. He’s old enough to know exactly who he is, but not yet mature enough to realize others might not be willing or able to live the “out” life he’s already planned for himself. His particular brand of self-righteous intolerance has disastrous consequences. 



Costa Rican Chavela Vargas, “the woman who sings like a man,” began her career in Mexico as a ranchera singer “dressed as a woman.” But in later interview footage she admits “It didn’t work. I looked like a transvestite.” So in the 1950s she began wearing pants, shirts and ponchos, pulling her hair back, and singing from the “masculine” viewpoint of the pining, rejected lover. It won her the adoration of major composers (notably Jose Alfredo Jiminez), an ever-expanding following, and eventual international stardom that included Pedro Almodovar’s patronage. Though she didn’t officially come out until she was in her 80s, the news surprised fans about as much as Barry Manilow’s recent announcement. Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi’s documentary pays apt tribute to an influential career and a fascinating personality.

'Remembering the Man'
‘Remembering the Man’

Remembering the Man

Meeting in 1975 as teens at a Melbourne Catholic boys’ school, over-the-top aspiring actor Tim Conigrave and quiet football team captain John Caleo fell in love—and remained so for the rest of their lives, despite occasional geographic and commitment hiccups. Conigrave’s posthumously published memoir Holding the Man became an international best-seller, then a stage play, then a starry film (which played Frameline last year). Nicholas Bird and Eleanor Sharpe’s documentary retells the same tragic-romantic story, to perhaps even greater impact than the well-crafted prior movie. With plenty of archival footage available here, the real-life protagonists prove even more complex and engaging than their dramatized versions. 

Frameline41 runs Thurs/15-Sun/25 at various venues in San Francisco and the East Bay. Select free and higher-price events aside, most tickets are $12-14.

Silent is golden

Charles 'Buddy' Rogers and Clara Bow in 'Get Your Man,' directed by Dorothy Arzner screens at the SF Silent Film Festival. Photo by Margaret Chute/Getty Images

SCREEN GRABS Particularly these days, a one-story building designated for commercial usage in space-hungry San Francisco is an unusual sight, so you may at some point have noticed a scattering of such structures in the Tenderloin. But unless told, you probably wouldn’t realize what these distinctive, old-looking constructions were originally built for—they were busy storage facilities for the city’s movie houses a century ago. At that time, the celluloid films were printed on was so perishable (and in particular, flammable) that between showtimes it made sense for any unused reel to be stowed off-site in thickly cement-walled facilities that minimized the danger of combustion.

That fragile physicality is one reason among many that the vast majority of films made during the silent era are now lost. (Other reasons include the fact that the filmmakers and studios themselves considered their product disposable, and did not yet imagine future revenue sources like television or home video—so there seemed no financial logic to preserving titles after their initial commercial run.) As a result, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (June 1-4) affords a view of an art form from an era that is even more enjoyable and valuable to us because so little of it remains.

Now in its 22nd year, SFSFF’s biggest annual weekend (since inception it has grown to encompass several events during the year) offers as usual a few popular titles that will be familiar to most dedicated cinephiles. This time they include Thursday’s opening nighter The Freshman, the 1925 comedy that was bespectacled comedian Harold Lloyd’s single biggest hit. (Trivia note: The college football climax, in which our nebbishy hero improbably wins the “big game,” was filmed on UC Berkeley’s playing field.)

From groundbreaking claymation masterpiece 'The Lost World.'
From groundbreaking claymation masterpiece ‘The Lost World.’

From the same year, there’s also Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet propagandic drama The Battleship Potemkin, whose dynamic montage techniques made it one of the single most influential films ever made. Sunday brings two popular action blockbusters of the 1920s: The athletically ebullient Douglas Fairbanks’ lavish 1921 version of The Three Muskateers, and Arthur Conan Doyle-derived fantasy adventure The Lost World. The latter astonished 1925 audiences with its stop-motion model animation of prehistoric creatures, providing the blueprint for King Kong (and eventually Jurassic Park). Seen only in severely truncated versions for decades, it’s being screened in a marvelous reconstruction very near what viewers saw 90-odd years ago.

But, also as usual, the bulk of SFSFF’s current program consists of titles from around the world that few have seen in any form since their original release. Several will be shown in brand-new restorations orchestrated by various organizations, including SF Silent Fest itself. (Those really interested in the subject of film preservation can attend free annual “Amazing Tales from the Archives”  Saturday morning, which will have preservationists from the Library of Congress and elsewhere presenting clips highlighting their latest rescue efforts.)

From 1916's  'The Dumb Girl of Portico' directed by Lois Weber.
From 1916’s ‘The Dumb Girl of Portico’ directed by Lois Weber and starring Anna Pavlova.

Among the most exciting such finds this year are two features from Hollywood’s leading (as well as near-only) women directors of the period: Lois Weber’s 1916 The Dumb Girl of Portici, an elaborate period epic starring ballet legend Anna Pavlova; and Dorothy Arzner’s 1927 Get Your Man, a vehicle for the irrepressible “It Girl” Clara Bow. (The latter will be accompanied by a newly restored 23-minute fragment from the same year’s Now We’re in the Air!, starring Bow’s equally irresistable flapper-icon rival Louise Brooks.)

Other rediscoveries of note include Arthur Robison’s 1929 U.K. The Informer, which tale of a luckless snitch amidst the Irish “Troubles” was remade as a highly acclaimed, Oscar winning (but now rather creaky) Hollywood film by John Ford six years later; that year’s Polish psychological suspense exercise A Strong Man; Filibus, a fanciful Italian criminal mystery from 1915 that contains a cross-dressing element; Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 German farce The Doll; a long-lost 1926 U.S. drama produced by Cecil B. DeMille, Silence; the prior year’s Ukraine-set Russian intrigue Two Days; and Victor Sjostrom’s A Man There Was, an adaptation of an Ibsen poem. That last would launch Swedish cinema in earnest, and set its director/star on a career that would culminate decades later in his famous acting turn for Ingmar Bergman in Wild Strawberries.

Paul Robeson plays a dual role in Osca Micheaux's melodrama 'Body and Soul.'
Paul Robeson plays a dual role in Osca Micheaux’s melodrama ‘Body and Soul.’

If it’s more familiar star names you’re after, there are a few of those as well. An early collaboration between “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney and his favored director Tod Browning, 1920’s Outside the Law casts the former in dual roles as a San Francisco crime kingpin and a Chinatown Confucian master’s loyal servant. Then there’s Body and Soul, a 1925 feature that’s one of relatively few surviving efforts by pioneering African-American filmmaker/entrepreneur Oscar Micheaux. It’s a somewhat clumsy melodrama (despite then-daring perspectives on religious hypocrisy) of special interest due to another star in a dual role—no less than a young Paul Robeson, the future luminary of stage and concert hall whose career in his native U.S. would later be severely curtailed by hostility towards his leftist politics. He was a magnetic presence who simply came along a few decades too early to attain the screen stardom that should have been his in the pre-Civil Rights Movement era.

There’s another good reason to see Body and Soul: While every Silent Festival program will have live musical accompaniment (by local and visiting talents including ensembles like Alloy Orchestra and several soloists on the “Mighty Wurlitzer”), this one brings the Festival debut of fabled experimental turntablist DJ Spooky, who should loosen up the stiff joints of this nearly 100-year-old film considerably.

SF Silent Film Festival, Thurs/1-Sun/4, Castro Theatre, SF. Free-$22 (most shows $14-16),


Surfing the docs

'Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton' opens SF DocFest.

SCREEN GRABS This is a moment when the notion of watching documentaries sounds like mandatory homework: The world is falling apart, many parties would like you to not be paying attention (or pay attention to the wrong things, like golden oldie “her emails”), and simply being informed feels like a form of resistance. With serious mainstream journalism under assault from many directions, independent documentary features are one of the few remaining areas where in-depth public scrutiny of important issues is happening, let alone reaching a significant audience. Still, too much of what’s good for you can be bad for you. At the recent Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, an entire special section of eight movies was devoted to the crisis in Syria. Important stuff, yes, but Jesus H. Christ — a person might slit their wrists absorbing that much sobering intel.

There’s not much threat of such feel-bad informational overload at SF DocFest (May 31-June 15), which opens its 16th annual program this Wednesday—and runs for 16 days, too, ending June 15. Oh, you can definitely find serious films about hot-button issues here, including combat PTSD (Almost Sunrise), climate change (Sea Tomorrow), gender re-assignment (Finding Kim), United Nations crisis-intervention (The Peacekeeper), therapy in prison (The Work), narco-trafficking (Olancho), Native American activism (On a Knife Edge), disabled activism (Uhuru, Swim Team, Motxilla21 Live) and the history of modern American activism itself (Working in Protest). There is also, yes, one movie about Syria—Resistance Is Life, about a little girl whose family fled their village’s ISIS takeover for a border refugee camp.

But as DocFest founder Jeff Ross puts it, “With recent political events, some film festivals are seeing it as their responsibility to get more serious. We don’t think that approach always leads to showcasing the best or most interesting films, so in the punk rock spirit that birthed this fest we have decided to double-down on the fun.”

'Turn It Around' courtesy SF DocFest
‘Turn It Around The Story of East Bay Punk’ courtesy SF DocFest

And on the punk rock. The opening night selection at Alamo Drafthouse is a very big deal as far as that goes: The debut of Corbett Redford’s Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, an epic 2 1/2-hour overview of the Gilman Street collective/scene that gave us Green Day, The Offspring, Rancid, The Mr. T Experience and more. Narrated by Iggy Pop no less, its premiere will be followed by a party with “Gilman-style live music showcase” at SOMA’s DNA Lounge. The festival closes on the 15th at the Roxie with another world premiere, Timothy Crandle’s Buried in the Mix—a look at the earlier, first-wave San Francisco punk bands that included Dead Kennedys, The Mutants, Avengers and Frightwig. 

Striking different notes are two additional venues’ separate festival opening nights. On Thursday June 1 at the Roxie, we get Rory Kennedy’s Sundance hit Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, an all-access profile of the famed big-wave surfing innovator. On Friday June 9, the Vogue will kick off its shorter Docfest schedule with Tania Libre, a filmed exchange between dissident Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and trauma-specializing psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg. It’s the latest from veteran local multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose just-closed gallery retrospective of over five decades’ work at YBCA you hopefully did not miss.

Elsewhere, there’s a wide gamut of subjects, styles, formats (including five all-shorts programs), and a few variably live events (including Ferris Bueller Bingo, an interactive screening of the all-time teen flick classic, and a Smiths Sing-a-Long Party). Here are a few individual picks in a program full of alluring titles:

From Jamie Meltzer's 'True Conviction'
From Jamie Meltzer’s ‘True Conviction’ courtesy SF DocFest

Jamie Meltzer 

The recipient of this year’s Non-Fiction Vanguard Award, Meltzer has made documentaries about a fascinatingly diverse range of topics, from Nigeria’s lively no-budget movie industry (Welcome to Nollywood) to a far-left U.S. activist turned FBI informer and Tea Party hero (the disturbing Informant). DocFest will reprise his first feature, the delightful 2003 Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, about an obscure American alley of musical folk-art, as well as his latest True Conviction, which profiles the Dallas detective agency that fights on behalf of wrongfully convicted prisoners—and is staffed by three such exonerated men.

'Tokyo Idols'
‘Tokyo Idols’ courtesy of SF DocFest

Tokyo Idols  

Japanese teen pop-idol culture is a vaguely familiar phenomenon to most. But odds are you don’t know about the “idol bars” in which an estimated 10,000 young women and girls — some pre-adolescent — maintain a bizarre, lucrative industry of fantasy obsession and regimented interaction for (mostly) lonely adult men. These “living dolls” provide a cheerful, supportive, virginal image for fans sometimes several times their age to fixate on in lieu of the real-world relationships they’re either afraid of or simply don’t want. This documentary affords an experience equal parts perky and creepy.

'Hotel Coolgardie.' Courtesy SF Docfest
‘Hotel Coolgardie’ courtesy SF DocFest

Hotel Coolgardie

Two young Scandinavians who’ve run short of cash partway through their global backpacking journey take a three-month gig as barmaids in a dusty outback mining hamlet considered “Australia’s most isolated city.” But being served up as fresh blonde meat to an overwhelmingly male (and entirely roughneck) populace proves a bit more than even these game tourists can deal with. Pete Gleeson’s fish-out-of-water black comedy is like a real-world version of the vintage Aussie hick-horror movie Outback aka Wake in Fright (which happens to play the Roxie June 28). 

Other DocFest exercises in variably hairy armchair travel include Bangalogia (charting African high-style influence around the planet), End of the Road (a British Columbia hamlet that U.S. draft evaders turned into a hippie paradise), and Spettacolo (about a village in Tuscany that stages an original play about its pressing offstage issues each year).

'Everybody Has an Andy Dick Story'
‘Everybody Has an Andy Dick Story’ courtesy of SF DocFest

Everybody Has an Andy Dick Story

A man everyone agrees has boatloads of talent, but also “the attention span of a ferret on meth” (according to one colleague), Andy Dick has managed to offend seemingly almost everyone in show biz, torpedoing his once-high-flying career in the process. But those whom he’s blessed and burned alike seem to wear their experiences as a badge of pride, telling all in Cathy Carlson’s documentary. There’s disappointingly little performance footage, but practically every major-league comedy star you could name contributes a memorable anecdote or two here — and we get to see Dick watching them on playback. 

Elsewhere on the laugh-till-or-because-it-hurts scale is Double Digits, whose subject R.G. Miller makes one-man movie genre epics. They have titles like “Garden of Heathens” and “Murderer III: The Return of the Murderer,” not to mention dialogue like “As you know, the fate of the human race depends on how well we enact Operation Magic!” And Joan Kron’s Take My Nose Please! examines the pressure on female comedians to “fix” their looks, surgically or otherwise—and still joke about it.

'Bogalusa Charm' courtesy of SF Docfest
‘Bogalusa Charm’ courtesy of SF DocFest

Bogalusa Charm 

Though politics are little-discussed here, you might get a good sense of where Trump voters’ heads are at from this flavorsome look at a once-booming milltown in easternmost Louisiana where time seems to have frozen in the 1950s — particularly when it comes to the advice “Miss Dixie” gives young female charges in her week-long annual Smokey Creek Charm School course. It’s a slice of ethnography as tangy as key lime pie, and quirky as vintage Errol Morris. 

'The Road Movie' courtesy SF DocFest
‘The Road Movie’ courtesy SF DocFest

The Road Movie

For sheer WTF-ness, you can’t beat this compilation of Russian dashcam footage that captures awe-inspiring moments of freak traffic mishaps, dangerous behavior, and sheer surrealism. Also offering some stranger-than-fiction truths are The Gateway Bug (about the “edible insect industry”), The Lure (in which thousands search for a fortune an “eccentric millionaire” hid in the Rockies for whoever could find it), and Charged, whose subject Eduardo Garcia got a whole new outlook on life after being jolted by 2400 volts of electricity in rural Montana.

SF Docfest runs Wed. May 31 through Thurs. June 15 at the Alamo Drafthouse, Roxie and Vogue Theaters in SF. Regular tickets $12-14, excepting some special events; festival passes and discount vouchers also available. Tickets and more info here




From Cristiana Miranda's 'About something that concerns us all,' playing May 21 at noon at Cinematheque's CROSSROADS festival.

SCREEN GRABS The San Francisco Cinematheque’s eighth annual experimental film festival, CROSSROADS 2017, has some genuine medicine for the overabundance of melancholy fogging up the world these days.

CROSSROADS 2017 will present 59 films, videos, and performance works by 58 filmmakers from around the world, screened over 9 programs, running from Friday, May 19 through Sunday, May 21 and being presented for the first time in SFMOMA’s newly renovated state-of-the-art movie theater. Here is a mini-guide of my favorite films and some major highlights from easily, the strongest lineup of the festival’s past three years! Get more info and buy tickets here


Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun? (US, 2017) was a downright showstopper at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this 70-minute documentary hauntingly explores a post WWII murder mystery of the filmmaker’s own grandfather within a small Alabama town. Do not walk, but run to this Bay Area Premiere for what is easily one of the most moving documentaries of the year! With Live-on stage narration by the director in person! Screens Program 2 on Friday, May 19 at 9:30pm


Robert Todd’s Restless (2016), an eight-minute digital meditation steadied my breathing and relaxed my ankles while presenting flowing trees and grass to near perfection. Screens in Program 1, called “sea to shining sea (we are stuck on this rock),” on Friday May 19 at 7:00pm


Paul Clipson has delivered yet another priceless little ditty, Feeler (2016), a 7-minute 16mm film utilizing the remarkable Canadian musician Sarah Davachi and following a young woman through B&W and color collages. The constant superimpositions capture a wonderful feeling of being alive and my only complaint is that it didn’t go on for an entire hour. Director in person! Screens in Program 3, called “a great unknown called trust” on Saturday, May 20 at 1:45pm

mclean-see-a-dogThe above program also includes the 18-minute elegy See a Dog, Hear a Dog (2016) by Jesse McLean, who is easily one of my new favorite filmmakers. Her eerie sense of humor, creating her own filmed “found footage” and combining it with intelligent musings and a dog playing the piano, has been stuck in my mind since its most recent Bay Area premiere at the SF International Film Festival. Must see! Screens in Program 3 on Saturday, May 20 at 1:45pm.


Peter Burr’s Pattern Language (2016) is perhaps my favorite film in the entire CROSSROADS 2017. This consistently fascinating 11-minute B&W film sports some of the most fascinating observational, digitized layering of patterned life that I have ever witnessed. DO NOT MiSS THiS IN A THEATER! (WARNiNG: Strobe effect is used to maximum achievement.) Screens in Program 4, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad,” Saturday, May 20, at 4:30pm.  


While all of the programs have wonderful films in them, my favorite and highest recommendation is program 6: “at the foot of a great monument (this ain’t no storybook)” screening on Sunday, May 21 at noon. This profound program remarkably questions the boundaries of the rigid beauty of ethnography cinema. Beginning with the 12-minute 16mm film Kindah (2016), director with Ephraim Asili nonchalantly involves the viewer in vibrant daily dancing — complete with drumming and whistling soundtrack — and other activities in Accompong, Jamaica, a town established by rebel slaves in the early 16th Century. I wanted the film to be screened twice in a row.

Luckily, Cristiana Miranda’s duel-projected nine-minute 16mm film About something that concerns us all (2016) similarly wanders its way through Portuguese streets, gloriously superimposing hand-processed images atop spirits of old slaves, statues and straw-covered dancers. But nothing prepared me Rajee Samarasinghe’s 14-minute hand-processed, 16mm silent work, The Spectre Watches Over Her (2016). This high contrast re-staging of an exorcism once performed on his mother in the early 1960s left me utterly speechless both times I watched it. Its silence only adds to the blitzed out beauty.

Miko Revereza’s 8-minute Droga! (2014) lovingly rewinds and fast forwards through B&W video footage of life in Manila while contemplating love, life and other existential questions. Rounding out the program is Sky Hopinka’s I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become (2016), a 13-minute elegy to the indigenous poet Diane Burns. Showcasing footage of actual poetry reading, I was most struck by the melding of Hopinka’s beautiful digital blurring and re-designed visual texts. Leaving a theater after these eight effervescent and stimulating explorations is an experience you truly do not want miss.


A Rendering (2016) is a stunning 15-minute digital color film, narrated with a Laurie Anderson-esque voice combined with long, languid shots by LIMITS, a Seattle-based performance/film hybrid formed by dancer Corrie Befort and sound artist Jason E Anderson in 2014. Screens in Program 7, “a thought comes into your head (like an object)” on Sunday, May 21 at 2:30pm


Mónica Savirón’s Answer Print (2016) 5-minute 16mm film plays out like a methodical found-footage horror film that had me covering my eyes and peeking through my fingers. Tick, tick, tick. Truly creepy! Screens in Program 8, “the photon doesn’t give a damn,” on Sunday, May 21 at 5:30pm.


Greta Snider’s Rendition (2015) is an 8-minute quiet exploration of “sensory deprivation” that completely relaxed my stomach, knees and toes. Screens in Program 9, “a few (lost) reflections,” Sunday, May 21 at 8pm.


Playing in the same program Peter Hutton’s epic In Titan’s Goblet (1991), each shot seemingly able to somehow lasso the moon away from the haunting clouds protecting it.  Screens in Program 9, “a few (lost) reflections” on Sunday, May 21 at 8pm.

CROSSROADS runs May 19-21. Tickets and more info here.

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches as the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series in the Bay Area. He is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.