Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: Jewish Film Fest, Eighth Grade, Blindspotting …

Eighth Grade

SCREEN GRABS The big noise at multiplexes this weekend will be Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again—a title that could serve just as well for this entire summer of sequels and spinoffs. The second ABBA-songbook musical (this time with Cher diva-partnering Meryl Streep for the first time since the very different Silkwood 35 years ago) will be opening opposite two other followups, the Denzel Washington actioner Equalizer 2 and teen horror Unfriended: Dark Web. Yawn. 

Such heavily-promoted appearances are deceptive, however, as in fact it’s a very good week for movies everywhere but at the multiplex. Not only is the annual Jewish Film Festival opening (see below), but so are some of the year’s most acclaimed smaller releases, including another feature (coming close on the heels of Sorry to Bother You) looking at current U.S. race relations through the microcosm of our own Oakland, CA.

Now in its 38th year, the JFF is the Bay Area’s most geographically expansive festival: These days, its local “tour” begins with eleven days in SF at the Castro, overlapping six days at Palo Alto’s Cinearts. Then it moves to the East Bay for eight days at Berkeley’s Albany Twin, and another three at Oakland’s Piedmont. Finally, it plays three days at the Rafael Film Center in Marin. If you can’t make it to this festival somewhere, you are either very, very busy or just lazy.

The SF portion of the schedule is bookended by two crowdpleasing documentaries about late, beloved entertainers: Opening night brings Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda, a tribute to Gilda Radner, the cherished comedic talent from “Saturday Night Live’s” fabled first cast; while the official closer is Sam Pollard’s Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me, about the trailblazing African-American singer, dancer, actor and “Rat Pack” staple. (Yes, he was Jewish—he converted after the car accident in which he lost one eye.) 

Other highlights will include Tribeca Fest audience award winner To Dust, Shawn Snyder’s, a droll seriocomedy in which Matthew Broderick and Son of Saul’s Geza Rohrig play two extremely different men brought together by a bizarre, morbid quest for personal closure. Particularly special is the presentation (with SF Silent Film Festival) of The City Without Jews, a1924 Austrian feature in which Jews are arbitrarily blamed for all the woes of a fictive nation—but it’s when they’re deported to appease mob sentiment that the trouble really begins. Eerily prescient, not just towards Europe’s immediate Nazi future but towards political currents of the Trump era, this elaborate production is a fascinating find that was thought for many decades until its recent rediscovery. 

There’s a great deal else from around the world in this year’s JFF, which runs Thurs/19-Sun/Aug. 5 at various Bay Area venues. Full program and ticket info here

In an unfortunate booking miscalculation, one of the best Israeli movies in recent memory (even if it’s a German co-production) is opening commercially just when much of its likely local audience will be preoccupied with the JFF. Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) is a young Berlin loner, a quiet sort who nonetheless owns his own small cafe, where he makes pastries to die for—as duly noted by Oren (Roy Miller), whose frequent visits while in town on business lead to something considerably more than a baker/customer relationship. But when the latter suddenly stops communicating, a stricken Thomas finally takes the step of traveling to Jerusalem in order to find out the truth. There, he meets Oren’s wife Anat (Sarah Adler from the recent Foxtrot), who also runs a cafe, and without revealing their connection to her, he becomes involved in her life as well. 

This isn’t the “stalking” drama that synopsis might suggest, nor is it a trite feel-good “foodie” exercise like so many movies about cross-cultural connection via the taste buds. It is, in fact, a painfully lovely drama handled with very astute performances and superb directorial control—which is needed, because if Ofir Raul Graizer’s first feature handled his script with any less judicious restraint, a couple credulity-stretching plot points might have seemed far too contrived. Clay Theatre, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Another talented new writer-director, Bo Burnham’s first feature may surprise those anticipating something reflective of his past success as a comedian and musician. There’s a lot of music (as our heroine is perpetually hiding under iPod headphones), but not a lot of humor—in fact, this is sort of like Sixteen Candles with the laughs removed, leaving mostly the unalleviated anxiety and humiliations of being at an “awkward age.” 

Elsie Fisher from the Despicable Me movies plays Kayla, a motherless teen facing the end of middle school with no friends whatsoever, a desperate “advice” vlog nobody watches, and a well-meaning dad (Josh Hamilton) who negotiates her emotions like a minefield—whatever he does, they seem to explode in his face. Burnham nails the awfulness (only heightened by kids’ social-media addictions) of junior high life with a precision that will make you squirm, out of recognition, empathy or both. It’s almost too uncomfortable an experience to take your own child to—you might want to watch it separately, then discuss afterward when you’ve both stopped cringing. If you ever stop. 

This is a very good film, and not a gratuitously cruel one. Still, it is hard to enthusiastically recommend something that so accurately reproduces a kind of terminal mortification you may not have felt since you, too, were 14, and had probably hoped never to feel again. At area theaters. 

Also likely to be alarmingly relatable for many viewers is music video director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s first feature, written by stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Rapper and Tony-winning Hamilton star Diggs plays Collin, who’s just finished a jail stint for doing something stupid—something that also cost him his relationship with now-ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar). He’s still besties and moving-company coworkers with longtime friend Miles (Casal), a white guy who’s nonetheless the more stereotypically “street” among the two of them by far. Despite the theoretically calming influence of his wife (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Miles is also a perpetual loose cannon who’s the person most likely to drag Collin back into trouble. That possibility becomes all the more dangerous when, nearing the end of his probationary year, Collin witnesses a white cop (Ethan Embry) shooting to death a fleeing but seemingly unarmed black man. 

Wildly energetic, stylish, with an enormous bass-thumping soundtrack and a lot to say about everyday racial relations today, Blindspottingis going to be a lot of people’s favorite movie of the year. Especially hereabouts, as it flies the Oakland-pride flag high while musing on the heavy price of Bay Area gentrification. For me, it was a little too much of a good thing—the brash confidence with which Estrada treats this material can border on over-flashiness. But that’s a minority opinion. And anyway, my favorite movie this week is The Cakemaker (above), whose almost Bresson-like austerity of style is Blindspotting’s polar opposite. So take my qualified approval with as big a grain of salt as you like. At area theaters. 

Thirty-two years after making his feature debut with the boozy tone-poem Mala Noche, Gus Van Sant is back with another inebriated story from his Portland, OR hometown. Joaquin Phoenix plays the late John Callahan, who found fame with his mordantly funny New Yorker cartoons in a wobbly line-drawing hand. But that success only came well after his alcoholism led to a car accident that left him a paraplegic at 21. 

This seriocomedy is mostly a recovery saga, with Jonah Hill as Callahan’s gay guru-ish AA sponsor, and presences as disparate as Udo Kier and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as fellow aspirants to sobriety. But the film’s somewhat fragmentary (albeit easy to follow) narrative structure, its animation bits and generous humor (much of it the subject’s own) keep this from falling into any standard, maudlin “inspirational” traps. It’s a warm, funny, lively film that’s Van Sant’s best since Milk a decade ago. Phoenix’s expectedly fine performance is colorfully supported by a cast that includes Rooney Mara, Jack Black, Carrie Brownstein and former Bay Area stage actor John Balma. At area theaters. 

The folks who gave you the French Noir and other recent series at the Roxie are back with a one-night, double-feature tribute to the intriguing Clement, a talented actress whose screen career was regrettably short—just a decade’s length, before she died of complications from tuberculosis in 1954 at age 36. 

Midcentury Productions’ promo materials bill her as a proto-“Goth Girl,” with a photo in which her dark-haired intensity does indeed suggest a sexier Morticia Addams (or 60s Euro-horror queen Barbara Steele). But in fact, in the two vintage French films actually being shown, she’s styled as a pigtailed jeune fille. Both are very good, noirish melodramas. 

In Macadam aka Back Streets of Paris (1946), she’s the resentful daughter of a flophouse-slash-bordello proprietress (Francoise Rosay), pining for a more respectable life. When one of mom’s old criminal cronies (Paul Meurisse) shows up on the lam, things get tense—not helped by the further presence of his moll (Simone Signoret), or a jaunty street vendor (Jacques Daqmine) who catches our heroine’s eye. Clement plays a very different role in the same year’s Daughter of the Devil, where she’s the orphaned teenage terror of a village where another fleeing criminal (Pierre Fresnay) shows up posing as a long-absent native son. Thurs/26, Roxie. More info here

Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti
There’s more French misery in this new biographical drama, which focuses on the proto-modernist painter Paul Gauguin at a crucial point in his artistic development. Disgusted by the poverty and stasis of his Parisian life, in 1891 at age 43 he opted to travel to Polynesia in search of fresh inspiration and a simpler life—one made simpler still by the fact that his wife and children refused to accompany him. This first journey to Tahiti was not without its own considerable hardships, but during it he created some of his greatest works. Edouard Deluc’s feature has gotten a mixed response so far on both sides of the Atlantic, but few disagree that a gaunt, bedraggled Vincent Cassel is compellingly intense as the visionary artist. Opera Plaza. More info here. 

Screen Grabs: Yellow Submarine, Sleaze Apocalypse, Star Wars with the Symphony …

SCREEN GRABS Last year SF celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love. This year it’s unlikely there will be much celebration of 1968, a considerably thornier year (though an even better one for movies) in which the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., widespread riots, escalating Vietnam War opposition, a bitter Presidential election, and much more seemed to illustrate a nation tearing apart at the seams. 

In a way, so did the latest release by those hitherto reliable positivists, The Beatles: Whereas the prior year’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a Technicolor burst of harmonious invention (shadowed only by “A Day in the Life”), their new untitled double LP that would come to be known as The White Album was a comparatively dark expression of cynicism, sarcasm, experimentation and internal discord, despite a few moments of balming pop warmth. It closed out 1968 on a note so ominous—what hope was there even even the Fab Four could turn so sour?—that it was later speculated the album was semi-responsible for the Manson Family murders, as Beatles fanatic Charlie took its purported misanthropic “lessons” a little too much to heart. 

Yet it’s the sunny, “fun” side of the Beatles that people remember, and that too was personified by something that happened in 1968, just a few months before The White Album: The release of Yellow Submarine, a whimsical animated feature like none before it, both family-friendly and wildly psychedelic in the mode of then-popular artists like Peter Max. Though the Beatles didn’t voice their cartoon alter egos (professional actors mimicked them), they contributed the soundtrack, which comprised several new songs as well as others culled from Sgt. Pepper

This week the Castro Theater is having its own mini-Beatles On Film retrospective, the main attraction being a new 4K restoration of Yellow Submarine that plays Sun/15-Wed/18. As a prelude this Thursday June 12 it will also present a one-night double feature. The first half is 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, the low-budget, B&W lark (screened in another recent restoration) that proved a shocking worldwide smash at a time when Beatlemania was expected to be “over” any minute, and which also launched the career of director Richard Lester. 

Completing—you might say “finishing off”—the evening is a rare revival of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the 1978 debacle that tried to reinvent Submarine’s whimsy in live-action form for the Me Decade. It had Beatle songs sung onscreen by everyone from leads Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees to “guest stars” Alice Cooper, Steve Martin, Aerosmith, Earth Wind & Fire, and George Burns. Producer Robert Stigwood had had great success with such prior music-based movies (and their top-selling soundtracks) as Tommy, Saturday Night Fever and Grease, so he spared no expense with this musical fantasy. Alas, it all turned out like a tacky, terrible Beatles theme park populated by inappropriate impersonators, and was a resounding critical/box-office flop. Still, it’s a true curiosity you have to see once—if only to know you’ll never need to see it again.

If you want something a little less retro, there are not-particularly-inspiring-sounding new arrivals at the multiplex, notably the cartoon sequel Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation, and Skyscraper, an action spectacle with Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock—the man who seems to be singlehandedly bent on reviving the ’70s “disaster movie” genre. (This is his Towering Inferno; you’ll recall he already re-did Earthquake as San Andreas.) 

Arthouse openings include two caustic comedies. Veteran Canadian “bad boy” Bruce LaBruce’s new Germany-made The Misandrists is a satirical tale of lesbian revolutionists in an ersatz convent school. Snarky fun until it runs out of steam, it’s like a mashup of last year’s The Little Hours and Andy Warhol’s drag-camp Women in Revolt. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson’s Icelandic Under the Tree is an acidic tale of petty sniping between suburban neighbors (and one newly-separated married couple) that escalates into full-on guerrilla warfare. It, too, is fun to a point—until it just gets too mean-spirited. 

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

Helicopter parenting isn’t just a phenomenon of the liberal West, as demonstrated by Sadaf Foroughi’s debut feature. Purportedly based on her own formative experiences, it focuses on the titular Tehran high school student (Mahour Jabbari), only child to upper-tier-professional parents. Dad (Vahid Aghapoor) is easygoing, understanding, but often travels for work. That leaves Ava clashing with her mother (Bahar Noohian), a tightly wound doctor whose over-controlling nature exacerbates domestic tensions until she’s cornered her daughter into disciplinary “crises” mom largely created herself. 

Strikingly crafted, this concise drama is as pristine on the aesthetic surface as it is infuriating in the needless conflicts it astutely depicts. You may not especially want to revisit those adolescent moments when your parental treatment seemed so unjust you wished you—and/or the offending adult party—were dead. But credit Ava for capturing such emotions with vivid, relatable intensity. While the film can be taken to an extent as a critique of Iran’s strictly regimented societal norms, it’s even more a devastating dissection of parent-child dysfunctions that know no national borders. Roxie. More info here

In his first local show since being unceremoniously pink-slipped as film programmer at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts after twenty years, Joel Shepard presents a sampler of tawdry gems from his personal collection of grindhouse trailers. Spanning “the golden age of exploitation film” from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s, this packed compendium of some forty-odd previews promises the best of the worst in vintage horror, action, and smut. 

Among the delicacies on offer will be 1975’s drive-in drama of pimps and prostitutes Street Girls, whose Cybill Shepherd-looking heroine tells us “You’re the trick and we’re the treats!”  Those who always wanted a movie entirely about wet T-shirt contests will rejoice at the inclusion Hot T-Shirts (1980), whose disco-funky theme song flaunts the poetical lyrics “My body’s drippin’ wet/Wet, wet, wet, wet!” BYO paper towels to this dangerously moist program, which will also include such classics as Guyana: Crime of the Century and The Candy Snatchers and Slaughter in San Francisco. Wed/18, Roxie. More info here

We applaud commercial films when they approximate everyday life nimbly enough that we recognize ourselves. But amateur films have been doing as much almost since the dawn of cinema. This one-night program, a collaboration between SF’s Italian Cultural Institute and Bologna’s Italian Amateur Film Archive, will provide an assortment of vintage clips made by non-professionals in Italy. They’ll include excerpts from a 1931 color record of a folk-costume event in Naples, and 8mm artifacts from various family collections. SF-based photojournalist Lou DeMatteis will also contribute footage including rare glimpses of San Francisco before and after the 1908 earthquake. Free (but RSVP required), Tues/17, Italian Cultural Institute. More info here

Recently deceased after a long illness, Bay Area-based visual artist Frederic Hobbs was a classic free spirit of the ’60s-’70s counterculture, and like many such sojourned into film for a time—making four features between 1969 and 1973. Little-seen then, mired by Byzantine rights disputes since, they are (if you can manage to see them) crazily inventive larks of genre spoofing, surrealistic humor, and DIY whatnot. The last was this typically absurdist take on the horror film (and western), in which a giant mutant sheep terrorizes rural California into heightened eco-political-consciousness. It is arguably not as inspired as Hobbs’ even more obscure Alabama’s Ghost and Roseland, but it’s still an impressively bonkers hybrid conceit that dives into its own ridiculousness snout-first. Wed/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

When I go to SF Symphony—and I do—it’s for the likes of Stravinsky, Lou Harrison, and Charles Ives. But that’s just me. Appealing to a different demographic, SFS is performing John Williams’ scores to the original Star Wars trilogy over the next couple weeks, accompanying the films themselves. If seeing those movies for the 90th time with a live orchestra is worth $50+ a pop to you, knock yourself out. Thurs/19-Sat/3, Symphony Hall. More info here

Screen Grabs: Sorry To Bother You, Whitney, The King…

'Sorry To Bother You'

SCREEN GRABS Yours truly dutifully went (along with recently sacked YBCA film programmer Joel Shepard) to City Hall last week to speak at the SF Planning Commission’s hearing on the threatened closure of the Opera Plaza Cinemas—only to experience a bait-and-switch: It turning out the promised hearing had been postponed until September 13. Mark that date on your calendars, as it may provide your only chance to prevent or at least slow the loss of yet another four dedicated arthouse screens from the city’s already hard-hit film exhibition scene. 

With even fewer venues than we currently have left (remember the Bridge and Lumiere are recent casualties), it’s hard to imagine several of the newly arriving films detailed below would play the Bay Area at all. Admittedly, that is not the case for one title in a week unusually heavy on commercially released documentaries: Whitney, the second big-screen examination (following Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me) of the late pop superdiva in little over a year. While the more “authorized” of the two, this posthumous portrait by Kevin Mcdonald (of narrative features like The Last King of Scotland and nonfiction ones such as Touching the Void) promises at least one major new revelation as to why Houston’s life turned out so tragically troubled. (And no, it’s not the closeted-bisexual thing.) 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Two of the biggest sensations at Sundance this year both happened to be very timely meditations on race and class set across the Bay in Oakland. First up at theaters (Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Blindspotting arrives in a couple weeks) is rapper Boots Riley’s feature writing-directing debut, a satirical fantasy that could be considered this year’s Get Out. In an all-too-recognizable near future, nearly everyone is barely scraping along for the benefit of an economic elite, with an increasing percentage of the population agreeing to for outright slave labor in return for guaranteed food and shelter. 

Living in his uncle’s (Terry Crews) garage, Cassius Green (Lakefield Stanfield) is desperate to get ahead somehow, taking a job at a shady telemarketing firm where the wages aren’t exactly living ones. Nonetheless, he manages to excel by adopting a stereotypical “white voice” that works like a charm on people who’d hang up on him normally. This eventually gets him promoted to an even shadier top sales force, which in turn gets him in trouble with his politically conscious girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and resentful ex-coworkers. 

The hook on which Sorry has been sold is a limited gag, and that trite racial satire in fact isn’t nearly as potent as the film’s deeper critiques of a widening American class divide—you’d have to be blind not to have noticed how Trump’s administration is undermining whatever protections remain for worker pay, bargaining rights and safety. Those aspects make this an eerily credible imagining of a U.S. that could be just around the corner. Billed as a comedy, Sorry to Bother You isn’t particularly funny, but it’s consistently offbeat and original—roughly akin not just to Get Out, but also They Live and Soylent Green, salted with an hipster wit all its own. At area theaters. 

At a moment when filmmakers like Riley, Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogle, Ava DuVernay, Barry Jenkins, and others are desegregating Hollywood’s directorial “A list” at last, SFFilm and SFMOMA are providing the perfect retrospective companion piece: A three-week series that showcases those current talents as well as African-American celluloid trailblazers from the preceding century. Starting as far back as indie pioneer Oscar Micheaux’s 1925 Body and Soul (with Paul Robeson as a corrupt preacher), the program encompasses well-known later auteurs like Melvin Van Peebles, Charles Burnett, Gordon Parks, Bill Gunn, Spike Lee, Cheryl Dunye, Julie Dash, Carl Franklin and Robert Townsend, as well as popular hits such as Shaft and House Party

But you’ll also get numerous seldom-revived features that didn’t get the audience they deserved the first time around, including Kathleen Collins’ 1982 Losing Ground, Wendell B. Harris’ 1989 Chameleon Street, and Leslie Harris’ 1992 Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. This latest edition of the two local organizations’ “Modern Cinema” program will feature numerous guest speakers and filmmaker Q&A’s; check each film’s listing for details. Thurs/12-Sun/29, SFMOMA. More info here

It’s hard to think of another verite documentary that’s had such long-term popular impact as the Grey Gardens, in which elderly Edith and middle-aged “Little Edie” Beale—once wealthy socialites closely related to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis fallen into impoverished isolation—were photographed in the squalor of their East Hamptons home, behaving like nutters. First the 1975 film became a cult favorite, then an acclaimed TV movie, a Tony-nominated Broadway musical. 

But before all that, the Beales had a near-brush with cinematic fame even before the Maysles brothers’ famous film. Three years earlier photographer Peter Beard and “Jackie O.’s” sister Lee Radziwill thought to make a movie about their friends and history in East Hampton, including the Beales. The project was never completed, and That Summer represents a salvage job—mining the four unedited original reels for their undeniable curiosity value, with a lot of additional filler and commentary to bring it all up to feature length. In addition to the infamously odd mother and daughter, we get glimpses of Andy Warhol and other luminaries in the fabulous jet-set circle Radziwill and Beard were a part of. Whether you’ll find this utterly fascinating or a glorified DVD extra depends entirely on just how obsessed with Grey Gardens you are. At area theaters. 

The Berlin/Milan video collective Flatform is interested in landscape—and how its depiction in the digital age “offers a meeting with nature, its plurality and differentiation, its intersection between natural and historic time, its expression of atmosphere and the atmospheric, as a place where living is not confined or constrained. We are fascinated by the transformation of nature through art.”  Among the sites explored in pieces showing during tonight’s program will be various European locales and the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu; filmmakers will be present at the screening. Fri/6, YBCA. More info here

Though Finland has a long cinematic history, few films enjoyed significant export exposure until the arrival of Kaurismaki, who with his brother and sometime collaborator Mika led a Finnish raid of festivals and arthouses worldwide starting in the 1980s. The more unconventional of the two, Aki was perhaps surprisingly also the one who achieved an ongoing international audience with his astringent, minimalist, bleakly funny, sometimes macabre works. From the stark hard-luck comedy of 1988’s Ariel and the grotesque revenge saga of 1990’s The Match Factory Girl through last year’s lovely The Other Side of Hope—which continues his recent trend towards treatments of immigrant themes and slightly warmer tenors—he’s managed to find considerable popularity without changing his singular minimalist style very much at all.

If you like Jim Jarmusch, you’ll probably grok Aki Kaurimaki. (However, I like most of Kaurismaki’s films very much while being perpetually underwhelmed by Jarmusch.) This PFA retrospective presents six features from four decades’ work to date. Though only 61, Kaurismaki has claimed Hope was his final directorial feature. Let’s hope that proves as hollow a threat as it did for Gaspar Noe, Lars von Trier and Steven Soderbergh, who’ve all been quite prolific since repeatedly announcing their imminent retirements. Fri/6-Sun/Aug. 6, Pacific Film Archive.äki-films-other-side-hope

This latest documentary by Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger, Why We Fight, The House I Live In) is a departure, a filmic essay of sorts that posits Elvis Presley as the encapsulation of the “American Dream”: Its mythology, its realization, its failure, and its increasing discordance with the reality we currently live in. Like the writing of Greil Marcus (a central voice here), the film aims to draw unlikely but stimulating connections between pop culture and general historical truths, digging for the heart of America itself. 

The result is an ambitious, sometimes maddening mosaic that’s part familiar archival biography, part present-day road trip, and part cavalcade of colorfully diverse talking heads. The latter range from surviving Elvis intimates, latterday musicians and plain old folks-on-the-street to a variably relevant lineup of celebrities that somehow embraces both Chuck D and Ashton Kutcher. At times the Trump Era social commentary Jarecki peddles here seems so broad and obvious you wonder if the film was made primarily for foreign audiences, and/or schoolkids. At others, it’s as poetical and meaningful as it intends to be. This is very much a matter-of-taste climb out on a long limb. Still, you have to give Jarecki credit for responding to our very strange national moment in such an unconventional way. At area theaters. 

One of those documentaries that probes deeper into a stranger-than-fiction news story, Tim Wardle’s feature has a whopper to chew on: In 1980, an accident of fate led three 19-year-old New York State boys to discover they were triplets, raised by separate adoptive families within 100 miles, with no prior knowledge of each other’s existence. 

What played then as a human-interest curio with a happy ending grows darker and darker here however, as the protagonists learned the disturbing circumstances in which they (and an unknown additional number of sibling multiples) were separated as part of a never-completed scientific study bent on answering the “nature vs. nurture” question one and for all. (For that purpose, the titular boys were deliberately placed in blue-collar, middle-class and affluent homes, their adopting parents completely unaware of the other siblings.) 

To what extent was this forced separation itself responsible for the psychological problems many of them later suffered? At first rather annoying in its heavy emphasis on reenactments, this movie ultimately proves fascinating, simply because the complicated, highly dramatic tale it tells still almost defies belief. At area theaters. 

Screen Grabs: Jaws, RGB, Leave No Trace …

SCREEN GRABS Important note: The Opera Plaza Cinemas, which comprise four among the ever-shrinking number of remaining arthouse screens in the Bay Area, is at risk of closing—the theater wanted to renovate in order to improve its screens/seating, and the space owner responded by demanding an unaffordable rent hike. There will be a hearing in City Hall Room 400 on Thursday June 28 sometime after 1 pm [depending on how the day’s agenda proceeds] for the Planning Commission to discuss this, with time allotted for brief statements by members of the public. Sufficient public support for the cinemas could prevent SF from hemorrhaging yet another important piece of what has long been considered “a great city for film lovers.” If you can’t make the meeting, contact the Planning Commission with your concerns at [email protected] or 415 558-6377.

Probably the most surprising box-office hit of the year so far—and not just in liberal enclaves like the Bay Area—has been RBG, about the sanest remaining voice on the U.S. Supreme Court. A week that brings little of new of major note to the multiplexes (it’s a rare summer pause in the onslaught of CGI-driven popcorn fantasies) nonetheless brings several fresh documentaries for those whose taste was whet by RBG, or the recent SF Docfest for that matter. 

Opening on Friday are Eating Animals, which will tell you probably more than you really wanted to know about why today’s factory farming is terrible for your health and the planet’s; Five Seasons, profiling innovative landscape designer Piet Oudolf’s decades of globe-spanning work; and The Most Unknown, whose nine diverse scientific experts set out on assigned quests to stray from their individual fields of expertise in pursuit of some basic yet elusive truths. All are opening at various venues in SF and the East Bay.

For nonfiction stimulus of a more vintage variety, check out the Roxie’s “Black Panthers in ’68” program this Thursday, June 28. Presented in collaboration with SF State’s Africana Studies Dept., the program will feature rare shorts by Agnes Varda, Amiri Baraka and California Newsreel depicting the leading Black Power movement organization’s activism a half-century ago. Back then, conservatives were all in favor of drastically limiting civilian “Second Amendment rights”—Governor Reagan did exactly that, albeit only when confronted with the reality of the Panthers arming up publicly. Alas, his banning of “open carry’ because black people were doing it has proven very difficult to replicate all these years later, despite our current wee societal problem with disgruntled white folk shooting strangers and schoolmates en masse. 

If all this is way too serious for your summertime taste, consider Sundown Cinema, a new, free monthly outdoor film series at various SF locations through late Sept. It starts this Thursday night, June 28, with the great idea of screening Little Shop of Horrors (the musical version) at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. Food trucks will be accessible; BYO blankets. 

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

BREATH There’s been no lack of good surfing documentaries over the last 50-odd years, but just try to think of a really good narrative feature on the subject. Most likely the best you can come up with is Point Break, or Big Wednesday, or even Gidget—and let’s face it, those are guilty pleasures, not good movies. Ergo actor Simon Baker’s directorial debut is particularly welcome, as it’s a fine drama by any standard. 

Based on leading Australian novelist Tim Winton’s novel, it chronicles the coming-of-age of two young teens (Samson Coulter, Ben Spence) who are just mucking around with styrofoam boards when their dedication gets the attention of somewhat mysterious Sando (Baker). Seemingly just another hippie “surfie” in their ’70s coastal environ, he’s well into mentoring the boys’ wave riding before they realize he’s one of the world’s more famous practitioners of the sport. 

Breath avoids nearly all standard inspirational notes; these characters (also including Elizabeth Debicki as Sando’s pretty but argumentative “old lady”) and their relationships are complicated, often discordantly so. Nor does the movie provide the footage of spectacular aquatic athleticism you might expect—it stays true to the fact that its protagonists are just talented beginners. But the film’s combined warmth, toughness, and subtlety provide other, deeper rewards. Not only does Baker do a fine, self-effacing job as director, his performance also centers the film in an unshowy but moving way. Roxie. 

Longtime festival favorites (including numerous appearances at SF International), Texas’ Zellner Brothers have slowly been working their way toward broader audiences, with their last feature Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter a modest arthouse success. This new enterprise is another oddball road-trip comedy, albeit set 150 years ago or so in the American West. Robert Pattinson plays a well-off frontier suitor to Mia Wasikowska, and David Zellner as the parson hired to marry them. Or so we assume—but then no one is quite as they initially seem in this insistently quirky tale. 

Handsomely shot on beautiful locations by Adam Stone, attractively scored by The Octopus Project, it’s got the Zellners’ off-kilter sensibility in spades, even if it ultimately earns more points for eccentricity than for entertainment value. If you liked Jarmusch’s equally odd and rambling Dead Man, you might find this your kind of revisionist Western, as well. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas.

A more somber companion piece to Captain Fantastic a couple years ago, Debra Granik’s feature (based on a novel by Peter Rock) is about a family living even farther “off the grid,” trying to avoid nearly all contact with mainstream society. Will (Ben Foster) is a PTS-afflicted veteran who’s chosen to live in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, subsisting almost entirely and near-invisibly off the land itself. His sole companion is motherless teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie), who seems content with their industrious yet tranquil isolation. 

But the duo are at risk of discovery—legally, their residency here constitutes trespassing on public parklands—and sooner than later, their luck runs out. Adjusting to even the least contact with others, let alone dealing with forced conventional shelter, employment and “rules,” is very difficult for Will to bear. Yet such things grow attractive to Tom, leading to inevitable conflict between a father who’s rejected society and a child who’s never before been a part of it. A good fit for the director of Winter’s Bone, this handsomely shot tale would provide great discussion fodder for 12-and-up kids and their parents. At area theaters. 

It’s hard to remember a time when summer moviegoing wasn’t dominated by expensive, heavily advertised escapist blockbusters specifically targeting seasonal (i.e. out-of-school kids’) tastes. In fact, there’s no reason why anyone under 50 or so would remember such a time. But ’twas not always so. In fact the very concept of a “summer blockbuster” didn’t exist until Jaws more or less invented it 43 years ago. 

This first hit by young Steven Spielberg was a troubled production not expected to be particularly successful at all. (Two years later, his buddy George Lucas’ original Star Wars was likewise launched with very low expectations by its studio.) But the shark-attack thriller wasn’t just popular—it was popular on a level that the industry had literally never seen before, surpassing The Godfather in less than three months as the highest-grossing North American release ever. It soon lost that crown to Star Wars, and between them the two mega-hits would get blamed for Hollywood’s gradual abandonment of riskier, more adult subjects in favor of juvenile thrills—and in pursuit of equally sky-high profits. 

Still, you can’t hate Jaws. It’s good-humored, scary, warmly human, and jolting when it needs to be. This one-day Castro revival is nicely paired with the TV movie that got Spielberg promoted to the big screen: 1971’s Duel, a minimalist thriller in which an Average Joe motorist (Dennis Weaver) finds himself terrorized over many California backroad miles by an ominously unseen big-rig driver he’s managed to offend. This simple construct was executed with such virtuoso skill by the then 24-year-old director that Duel (made for broadcast as an “ABC Movie of the Week”) was released to theaters overseas. It’s an important historical footnote that’s still solidly entertaining. Tues/3, Castro. More info here 

Screen Grabs: Lair of the White Worm, Westwood, Mrs Hyde….

'Lair of the White Worm'

SCREEN GRABS It’s Pride Weekend, which for City dwellers means you’re either a.) not seeing any movies because there’s too much else to do, b.) taking in the last few days of the Frameline film fest, c.) wondering what movies you can see that are nowhere near the Pride congestion, or d.) staying at home to avoid the same. 

For those heading to the multiplex, the Big Kahuna is Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, which advance word says is a low ebb for that series so far. For the rest of us, fortunately, there are some excellent alternatives below (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted).

(Important note: The Opera Plaza Cinemas, which comprise four among the ever-shrinking number of remaining arthouse screens in the Bay Area, is at risk of closing—the theater wanted to renovate in order to improve its screens/seating, and the space owner responded by demanding an unaffordable rent hike. There will be a hearing in City Hall Room 400 on Thursday June 28 sometime after 1 pm [depending on how the day’s agenda proceeds] for the Planning Commission to discuss this, with time allotted for brief statements by members of the public. Sufficient public support for the cinemas could prevent SF from hemorrhaging yet another important piece of what has long been considered “a great city for film lovers.” If you can’t make the meeting, contact the Planning Commission with your concerns at [email protected] or 415 558-6377.) 

Starting with Girls Town in 1996, writer-director Jim McKay made several acclaimed indie features—then, like many such talents whose movies don’t make much money, he moved into TV work, directing numerous episodes of series like Law & Order, In Treatment and The Good Wife. This, his first theatrical film since 2004, returns to his familiar terrain of portraying underclass groups not typically given center stage onscreen. 

In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, nearly a dozen Mexican men share a crowded apartment, working various low-level jobs—street vendor, dishwasher, corner-store stocker—in order to send money back to the familia back home. The highlight of their few leisure hours is playing in an amateur soccer league, and their team has done well enough to make it to the league’s finals. But star player Jose (Fernando Cardona) gets some bad news: His yuppie restaurant boss insists he work that Sunday, just when the big game is scheduled. 

There’s no overt political case-pleading in this modest seriocomedy, which is the kind of movie so unshowy you barely notice that after a certain point it’s got you spellbound. But as ever, McKay brings deep, unforced insight to a community that hides in plain sight, illuminating a whole culture of immigrant workers (and the often exasperatingly self-absorbed white-collar workers they provide services for) we too often take for granted but couldn’t do without. Likely to prove one of the year’s best films, this humble crowdpleaser shouldn’t be missed. McKay will appear in person for a Q&A after the Tuesday, June 26 evening show. Roxie. More info here

The inexhaustible Isabelle Huppert—who had six films released last year alone—stars in actor turned writer-director Serge Bozon’s (La France) new film, a very loose spin on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic dual-personality tale. Mme. Gequil is a humorless physics teacher loathed by her students at Arthur Rimbaud High—though admittedly, they’re pretty loathsome themselves. After a lab accident during a lightning storm, she undergoes mysterious changes…though typically for Huppert, she’s not all THAT different playing either side of a now-split character. 

In addition to Huppert’s droll turn, there are good performances by Jose Garcia as cool Mrs. G.’s incongruously ardent husband, Adda Senani as the disabled student who goes from nemesis to protege, and a very funny Roman Duris as the school’s fusspot principal. This low-key farce with serious social-issue underpinnings is an oddity, but a pleasing one. Roxie. More info here

Two visual delights separated by a half-century appear this week in the Pacific Film Archive’s catch-all bracket of “Limited Engagements & Special Screenings.” Vera Chytilova’s 1966 Daisies is a marvel of slapstick surrealism in which two monstrously selfish young women cavort and con their way through a funhouse of Czech New Wave inventiveness. Alison McAlpine’s recent poetical documentary Cielo ponders the majesty of the universe from an awe-inspiring perspective: Chile’s Atacama Desert, where night-sky views are so clear they lure astronomers from around the globe. Different as they are, these two movies would both be worthy inclusions in anyone’s list of all-time favorites. PFA. Daisies: Sat/23 8:15 pm. Cielo: Sun/24 5 pm, Sat/30 8:30 pm. More info here.  

To the general public, the punk movement was a look perhaps even more than it was a sound—neither of which they approved of, at least until its once-shocking flamboyancies became absorbed into the mainstream. (Forty years later, it’s not uncommon even in small heartland towns to see otherwise conservative women “of a certain age” sporting garishly multi-colored dyed hair.) A guiding light behind punk as fashion was/is Vivienne Westwood, who with then-boyfriend Malcolm McLaren largely crafted the short, explosive phenomenon of The Sex Pistols, and their surrounding scene. They were both already “old” (in their 30s) when that cultural moment hit in the mid/late 70s. 

Westwood carried on as an innovative fashion designer and hard-nosed entrepreneur through ensuing decades, eventually getting honored as a Dame of the realm—another cheerful contradiction for the erstwhile patron of a milieu whose anthem was “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being.” Lorna Tucker’s documentary captures the past and present of its subject, warts and all: Westwood is no shrinking violet, but rather a shrieking one who makes her frequent displeasure towards employees and filmmaker alike very clear. Opera Plaza. More info here

Late British director Ken Russell was a singular, divisive talent whose penchant for tonal and stylistic excess could overpower his subjects. But he was ideally suited to this, one of his last and best theatrical features—a period mystery based on a supernatural tale by original Dracula novelist Bram Stoker. 

A young Hugh Grant and Dynasty’s Catherine Oxenburg are among the well-bred youth who find themselves in peril after a skull excavated from a convent’s ruins re-awakens rumors of an ancient worm-god cult. All of which seems very much related to the sudden appearance of one Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a slinky aristocrat whom people keep disappearing around. Hitting just the right mix of campy and witty (Russell purportedly thought of it as his “Oscar Wilde tribute”), this tongue-in-cheek horror opus is great fun. Sun/24, Roxie. More info here. 

Screen Grabs: Frameline Festival, Mi Vida Loca, Summer 1993 …

Matt Tyrnauer’s 'Studio 54' documentary, about the famous NYC club, plays at Frameline 42

SCREEN GRABS “The LGBT community is starting to like Donald Trump very, very much” said (who else but) Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2016, right after the Pulse nightclub massacre—provoking an epidemic of appalled eye-rolling and unkind laughter from said community.

Two years later, nobody is laughing: As POTUS, this professed “real friend” to gays is pandering to his far-right base by rolling back anti-discrimination and other laws directly impacting queers at a pace that must be making First Lady Pence absolutely giddy with Jesus-flavored excitement. As a result, this year’s Pride Month and all the events it contains—not least Frameline—may prove the most politically charged since the height of the AIDS crisis over a quarter-century ago. 

Not only are gays (once again) under siege by this administration, so is SF (as a “sanctuary city”), and California in general. Hell, this POTUS has even managed to alienate Canada. As That Petrol Emotion once sang, “What you’ve gotta do in this day and time/You gotta agitate, educate, organize,” and one way of doing that is in forums like the world’s first, biggest and oldest gay film festival. For more details on this year’s program, which starts Thursday, see below. 

If on the other hand you’re desperately seeking escapism, this week offers the usual summer array of debuting remakes (Superfly), sequels (Incredibles 2), and raunchy all-star comedy (Tag). A little further off the beaten path there’s Hearts Beat Loud, a dramedy with music from the writer-director of the tepidly heartwarming I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Hero; and at the Roxie, Maria Allred’s indie ensemble piece The Texture of Falling, a sort of erotic-thriller mosaic. The Roxie is also opening the much-praised Nossa Chape, a documentary about the tragic plane crash that befell a lesser-sung Brazilian soccer team in November 2016 (a terrible month on SO many levels), and the heroic if sometimes fractious effort to build Chapeco’s team anew. 

It’s the summer of 42 for Frameline, aka the SF International LGBTQ Film Festival. In tune with the progressive currents of the moment—much as they may be fighting upstream—over half of the 153 titles included this year are women-directed projects. The thirty-nine countries represented include ones as far-flung as Tonga, Qatar, Lebanon, Paraguay, and Kosovo. 

Of course, plenty will hit very close to home, like opening night selection Transmilitary. Fiona Dawson and Gabriel Silverman’s documentary looks at the issues facing an estimated 15,000 trans personnel actively serving in the U.S. armed forces at present, at a moment when their tentative gains under the Obama administration are being aggressively undone by a hostile new White House regime. The filmmakers and several of their subjects will be present at the screening. 

Ending the festival on Sunday the 24th (also at the Castro) will be a more frivolous nonfiction study, Matt Tyrnauer’s Studio 54, about the legendary NYC dance club that defined the high (in every sense) disco era. “Centerpiece” programs scattered throughout the eleven-day schedule include the delightful-sounding absurdist period piece Wild Nights with Emily, starring SNL’s Molly Shannon as 19th-century poet Dickinson, directed by Madeleine Olnek of Co-Dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. Plus Icelandic drama And Breathe Normally; When the Beat Drops, a Paris Is Burning-type documentary about bucking, an emerging underground gay dance performance idiom; and Bonding, a gay-man-and-straight-female-BFF comedy series that highlights the festival’s still-newish Episodic category. 

Other special events include a revival of late gay cinema pioneer Arthur Bresson’s newly restored 1985 Buddies, the first narrative feature about AIDS; and a tribute to influential local documentary maker Debra Chasnoff, who died of breast cancer last year at age 60. She’ll no doubt figure in Dykes, Camera, Action!, a survey of out lesbian cinema over the last half-century. The similarly scaled 50 Years of Fabulous, sketching the history of SF’s drag-centric charity org the Imperial Cousil, is also among numerous other titles by and about Bay Area residents. 

The above-mentioned just scratches the surface of the 2018 Frameline schedule, which will take place at various SF venues as well as the Elmwood in Berkeley and Piedmont in Oakland. Thurs/14-Sun/24. More info here

After both her parents die—it’s hinted they died scandalously of AIDS—6-year-old Frida (Laia Artigas) is taken in by her aunt and uncle (Bruna Cusi, David Verdaguer). They’re warm and accepting, with a three-year-old daughter (Paula Robles) of their own to offer as playmate; living in the country, their situation is as favorable as one could hope for under Friday’s circumstances. But, of course, she’s processing a trauma she’s too young to understand, and which would be destabilizing at any age. 

This seemingly casual, leisurely first feature by writer-director Carla Simon was Spain’s Oscar submission this year, and it’s won numerous awards elsewhere. No wonder—lyrical, naturalistic, low-key, it captures confused children’s emotions with a stealthy assurance you scarcely notice until the film knocks the wind out of you. Opens Friday, Clay. More info here

Just a few weeks ago the Italian Cultural Institute hosted a day-long, five-feature Antonioni marathon at the Castro, but that was nothing: This two-month “comprehensive retrospective” at the Pacific Film Archive provides a definitive wallow in cinema’s principal poet of postwar spiritual malaise. Starting this Friday with his 1960 international breakthrough L’Avventura, featuring his long-running muse Monica Vitti, it ranges both backwards to encompass his often impressive apprentice films (including shorts, documentaries, and dramas more closely aligned with the neo-realist vogue) and forward to his other early 60s masterpieces, his fascinating English-language trilogy (Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, The Passenger) and idiosyncratic later works The Mystery of Oberwald and Identification of a Woman. 

Along with Fellini, Bergman and Godard, Antonioni had perhaps the greatest influence among European directors on the medium’s radical upheavals of form and content in the Sixties. This touring series features primarily 35mm prints, many freshly struck for the occasion. Fri/15-Sun/Aug. 19, PFA. More info here

Locally based film historian and archivist Rick Prelinger has been delighting audiences here and elsewhere for years with his “lost landscape” evenings culling together retro celluloid views of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Detroit. Last year he put together his first program of vintage clips from the Big Apple throughout the 20th century—as seen in industrial films, home movies, and other “found footage”—winning favorable comment from the NY Times’ critic Manohla Dargis. The same bill makes its SF debut in a one-night benefit for the Internet Archive at its Richmond District headquarters. Fri/15. More info here

Though she hasn’t had the kind of breakout hit that makes for international stardom, in both leading and support roles English changeling Andrea Riseborough has made it clear over the last decade that she’s one of the most fascinating actresses on either side of the Atlantic. In writer-director Christina Choe’s intriguing debut film, she plays the titular lost soul, a thirtysomething oddball without job or social life in a colorless American suburb. Nancy escapes into fictitious online personas acted out with oblivious strangers, and no wonder—she’s stuck in a fairly miserable domestic situation with a sickly, nagging mother (the currently ubiquitous Ann Dowd). 

When that situation abruptly changes, however, Nancy becomes fixated on a TV report of an older couple (Steve Buscemi, J. Smith-Cameron) whose daughter was presumably kidnapped 30 years ago, never found or heard from again. Does Nancy really believe she might be this missing child, or is it just another role she’ll adopt in her desperate search for acceptance? Trembling on the line between character study and thriller—we’re never quite sure just how far Nancy will go—the film leaves a less-than-indelible impression in the end. But as usual, Riseborough is arresting,  original, and completely committed. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

As this year’s Frameline and films like Nancy suggest, women behind the camera are finally beginning to get their full due. Such was certainly not the case twenty or thirty years ago, when female directors were still considered a novelty, and even big hits like Wayne’s World (Penelope Spheeris), Clueless (Amy Heckerling), and Desperately Seeking Susan (Susan Seidelman) didn’t guarantee their makers the kind of major big-screen career that men almost certainly would have been granted. 

Another talent of that generation, Allison Anders, likewise inevitably wound up going primarily into TV work (including shows like Sex and the City and Orange is the New Black), but then and now, her feature work has stayed stubbornly “indie.” After the very New Wave-hipster 1987 debut Border Radio and 1992’s female-ensemble sleeper dramedy Gas Food Lodging, she made this acclaimed 1994 look at life among young women in a poor, gang-ridden Hispanic neighborhood of L.A.’s Echo Park. Anders herself will be at this rare revival screening—one so rare, indeed, that the best available print being shown will be imported from France, with French subtitles translating the original English and Spanish dialogue. Tues/19, Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Ocean’s 8, Hereditary, American Animals …

'Ocean's 8'

SCREEN GRABS As we enter that time of the year when every weekend will bring some new would-be summer blockbuster, this week is notable for introducing the only full-on female of the 2018 species. Let’s hope Ocean’s 8—which switches things up by replacing Clooney, Pitt, Damon & co. with the likes of Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway etc.—causes the usual kerfuffle amongst “men’s rights” types. Few things in our generally grim era are more reliably hilarious than seeing these he-men, supposed champions of trad male strength and responsibility, turn into hysterically “emotional” fanboys because some “sacred” popcorn franchise has been tainted by cooties. The poor dears, they suffer so. 

Other major openings this week are a mixed bag. Arriving with considerable festival-tour acclaim already under their belt are Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a documentary about children’s TV legend Fred “Mr.” Rogers; and A Kid Like Jake, with Claire Danes and Jim Parsons as a Brooklyn couple who face some unexpected challenges upon realizing their 4-year-old son shows signs of “gender nonconformity.” (This fictional plea for tolerance has evidently invited a different form of conservative protest: Apparently now aware that it’s a “pro-trans” statement, trolls who haven’t actually seen it have nonetheless piled on to give the critically applauded feature the lowest rating on sites like IMBD.) 

Not accruing much advance praise is Mary Shelley, yet another account of the fateful circumstances that produced the original novel Frankenstein, with Elle Fanning this time as the titular teenage authoress. Unavailable for preview was Hotel Artemis, some sort of futuristic action joint whose weird cast includes Oscar winner Jodie Foster, ex-wrestler Dave Bautista, comedienne Jenny Slate, Algerian dancer-turned-actress Sofia Boutella, and the always redemptive Jeff Goldblum. Ditto Hae-yeong Lee’s South Korean gang thriller Believer, a remake of Johnnie To’s Hong Kong Drug War from six years ago.

We did get to preview another crime caper, Bart Layton’s American Animals, which like his prior The Impostor mixes dramatic re-enactments with interview footage of the real-life protagonists. But this tale of an actual attempted theft of extremely valuable first editions (including Audubon and Darwin) from a university library by four clueless, thrill-seeking young Kentucky men makes a critical error: Both in the older/wiser flesh and as portrayed by actors, the “heroes” here are such dumbasses that their heist-gone-wrong should have been played as a comedy of errors. Instead, Layton lays on the derivative hipster high style, trying to turn these brats into brash rebels, and their bungling into tragedy. They merit no such sympathy—and really, they didn’t merit a movie, period.


The Bay Area’s single biggest annual dose of experimental cinema, this four-day blowout presented by SF Cinematheque, SF Museum of Modern Art and Canyon Cinema Foundation is now in its 9th year. Curated by the Cinematheque’s Steve Polta, it encompasses some 84 works by 72 artists from twenty nations—many of whom will be present in-person. This year is specially dedicated to the recently deceased Paul Clipson, a stalwart of local film and music scenes who’ll be paid further tribute by three of his screen works being reprised. There will be numerous world premieres, as well as multi-projector and live “performance cinema” pieces. Read Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ detailed guide here

The 10 individual programs (all at SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theatre, excluding two additional ones at the same institution’s White Box Gallery) offer different mixes of loose thematic, technical and stylistic focus. Political resistance, environmental issues, personal narrative, philosophical inquiry and pure abstraction all have a place here, with diverse and innovative audiovisual stimulus a reliable constant in each bill. Participating artists this year include Susan DeLeo, Jodie Mack, Kelly Sears, Jon Behrens, Collectiveo Los Ingravidos, Simon Liu, Takahiro Suzuki, James Benning, and many more. Thurs/7-Sun/10, SFMOMA. More info here

The pedestrian and formulaic nature of most horror movies really becomes obvious when you see something as distinctive as writer-director Ari Aster’s debut feature, which is sort of what The Amityville Horror would be like if Paul Thomas Anderson remade it—something strikingly authoritative, odd, and unsettled/unsettling. Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne play the parents in a comfortably situated small-town family that’s already got some tense dynamics before their children (Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro) suffer a terrible accident. In the traumatized aftermath of that event, the line between madness and supernatural manifestation grows blurry, with Ann Dowd providing a fifth significant figure as a kindly older lady interested in communicating with the dead.

The plot basics here aren’t all that original, landing in the same general ballpark as the likes of Pet Sematary and other haunted-nuclear-family tales. But Aster is in possession of a rigorous talent that makes very astute use of visual and sonic elements here. He also gets terrific work from a fine cast, with Collette giving a performance of possessed intensity (interpret that adjective however you like), while Byrne and particularly Wolff (also fine in the concurrent House of Tomorrow) are excellent. 

Saddled with “scariest movie ever” hype since Sundance, Hereditary is likely to suffer the usual backlash against festival-acclaimed horror: That it’s too slow, boring, uneventful (translation: there isn’t a gory death every ten minutes), arty, etc. Indeed, as with The Witch and similar items, its strengths are exactly the things that try the patience of short-attention-spanned mainstream horror fans. But if you keep your expectations within reasonable control, you’ll be rewarded with a tense and atmospheric—if not all that terrifying—experience. Opens Friday at area theaters.

Handsome young British actor Leon Vitali’s career was already going along nicely when he got a plum part: The memorable role of the bitter stepson who shoots Ryan O’Neal in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 period epic Barry Lyndon. Already a huge fan, Vitali was so fascinated by the director’s process that he subsequently abandoned acting and became Kubrick’s all-around “assistant”: At various points performing every task from casting and location scouting to editor, still photographer, foley artist, driver, go-fer, even janitor, not to mention being largely charged with all the tortuous detail-checking Kubrick required in any issue (to home video, revival houses, etc.) of each film in his back catalog. “He was a slave to Stanley Kubrick,” as Full Metal Jacket star Matthew Modine puts it. 

Full of fascinating behind-the-scenes insights toward that film as well as The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, and of course Kubrick himself, Tony Zierra’s fascinating documentary is ultimately more than a posthumous appreciation of a genius and his surviving right-hand-man. Through the example of poignantly self-sacrificing, still endlessly dedicated (though no longer salaried) Vitali, we are asked to give thanks to all those who labor “below the line” on movies, making possible the creative flair of marquee talents who ultimately get all the credit. A maddening perfectionist like Kubrick couldn’t have existed, let alone flourished, without a selfless “jack of all trades” acolyte like Vitali on hand to realize his every whim. Opens Friday, Landmark Theatres. More info here

There have been other movie stars more popular and beloved, but none has ever approached the level of divinity accorded one Greta Lovisa Gustaffson, otherwise known as “Garbo.” The Stockholm actress of impoverished background rose to tentative European prominence under the mentorship of director Mauritz Stiller, who cast her in her first two significant films. But no one (including the initially-unimpressed studio MGM) could have guessed the phenomenon she’d become after moving to Hollywood in the mid-1920s. 

The 15 years spent there before she left the screen for good are showcased in this Pacific Film Archive retrospective. It encompasses nine features from her 1927 greatest silent hit Flesh and the Devil (whose love scenes with John Gilbert raised temperatures worldwide) to 1941’s Two-Faced Woman. In between are such acknowledged classics as Camille, Ninotchka, Grand Hotel, Anna Karenina and Queen Christina. But in truth even those were considered at best worthy frames for her singular mystique, which transcended conventional beauty, glamour, and sex appeal to offer a hypnotic, self-mythologizing otherness—a goddess briefly condescending to walk on Earth, imbuing romantic cliches with celestial melancholy. Thurs/7-Fri/July 13, PFA. More info here

Offering a lighter (and cheaper) programming alternative to the heavy allure of Garbo, the PFA is offering this gratis, al fresco series of five musical matinees. It starts this Sunday afternoon with the ultimate Hollywood pep pill 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, followed each month by another favorite exercise in cinematic song and/or dance: 1948 British ballet classic The Red Shoes (July 8), recent urban movement celebration Step (Aug. 12), no-introduction-necessary West Side Story (Sept. 9), and Jacques Demy’s gorgeous 1967 The Young Girls of Rochefort, whose original score by Michel Legrand is as delightful as any written for the screen. Sun/10-Sun/Oct. 14, PFA (outdoor screen on Addison between Oxford and Shattuck). More info here

In conjunction with AIGA and SF Design Week for the fourth year, Center for the Arts presents a wide-ranging program of films focusing on creativity in the applied arts. Included are documentaries about architects Kevin Roche, Didi Contractor, Glenn Murcutt, Mies van der Rohe, Bjarke Ingels, Oscar Niemeyer, Louis Sullivan and Lutah Marie Riggs; fashion innovator Dries Von Noton; modern Chinese topography; consumer product designer Konstantin Gricic; fabled makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin; landscape gardener Piet Oudolf; and Dream Empire, a look at the impact of a real-estate boom on Chinese “rural ghost towns.” 

There are also two narrative features on tap: Recent indie sleeper Columbus, a quiet two-character drama set against the backdrop of that Indiana city’s many notable modernist buildings; and contrastingly flamboyant The Fountainhead, a 1949 adaptation of deathless right-wing ideologue Ayn Rand’s novel about an uncompromising architect (played by Gary Cooper) trying to thrust his bold vision on a society of puling, petty conformists. Sat/9-Sun/July 1, YBCA. More info here

Screen Grabs: Hot docs, silent classics, Bergman at 100 …

'The Man Who Laughs' plays at the Silent Film Festival

SCREEN GRABS Summer may have (let’s hope) arrived at last, but don’t let that stop you from staying indoors—particularly as two of the city’s most idiosyncratic and enjoyable film festivals commence their annual runs this weekend. At the Castro for a big five days is the SF Silent Film Fest, which seems to get larger as its art form recedes further into time. Running for over two weeks as of Thursday is SF Docfest, bringing its customary smorgasbord of screen nonfiction. Further intel on both is below.

Beyond those events and individual films detailed here, the week brings a few additional openings we’ll skim over, notably some particularly dreck-y-looking mallflicks. (Johnny Knoxville in a theme-park-set comedy with “real” stoopid stunts a la Jackass? Thanks but we’ll pass on that, in this lifetime at least.) 

Two of the more interesting new arrivals also happen to be nonfiction features. There’s Kat Novack’s The Gospel According to Andre about Andre Leon Talley, the sharecropper’s grandson who rose to become one of the most influential fashion journalists ever, particularly in a long run at Vogue. And Jennifer Peedom’s Mountain is a spectacularly shot if somewhat pretentious ode to the titular natural phenom that might turn out to be what you’ve always wanted in a movie, if the idea of a mashup between extreme-sports documentary and Koyaanisqatsi or Samsara floats your boat. (It kinda sinks ours.) 

Never your sober, issue-oriented showcase for documentaries of the conventionally “worthy” PBS ilk, the 17th go-round for SF Indiefest’s spinoff stays true to its fun-seeking spirit this year by opening and closing with movies about booze. The kickoff Brewmaster is Douglas Tirola’s overview of the explosively growing U.S. craft-beer industry, while the finale two Thursdays later is Nick Kovacic’s Agave: The Spirit of a Nation, exploring the Mexican roots of the titular plant and the ever-more-popular spirits (notably tequila and mezcal) it figures in the manufacture of. The festival’s Vanguard Award this year goes to Penny Lane, who on June 2 will screen her new The Pain of Others—about a particularly distressing disease—and a couple earlier shorts, with an onstage Q&A. 

Work by local filmmakers includes “centerpiece” selection Rodents of Unusual Size, about an invasion of 20-pound “monstrous swamp rats” who’ve arrived in Louisiana from South America. Also Laurie Coyle’s Adios Amor, which excavates the forgotten legacy of the first female migrant farmworker hired as a U.S. labor union representative; and Nick Taylor’s The Organizer, chronicling the short but hugely influential history of ACORN, for a time the largest community advocacy organization in the nation. 

The over fifty features and shorts on tap will include as usual a number about environmental and social-justice topics, music, athletics, and much more. Among the most intriguing titles include world premiere Cubby, about a quest to discover what happened to the chimpanzee star of a 1960s Australian TV kidshow; Hillbilly, an analysis of a long-lasting American cultural stereotype; Sickies Making Films, which chronicles the history of U.S. movie censorship; This One’s For the Ladies, profiling African-American men and women working in the exotic-dance field; and Roller Dreams, about the rise and fall of skate-dancing as a signature expression on the Venice Beach boardwalk. 

Plus, as ever, there will be Docfest-hosted parties and special programs, not all of them particularly connected to nonfiction cinema (but who cares), such as the “Yacht Rock Sing-Along Party,” “‘Clueless’ Bingo” and returning “Bad Art Gallery.” Thurs/31-Thurs/14, Roxie & other SF venues. More info here.

‘Mare Nostrum’

In its 22nd year, SFSFF—which started out as a single-day event—has expanded to five days, making for one very long “weekend” of cinematic silence (with live musical accompaniment, of course). 

It starts Wednesday night with Paul Leni’s 1928 The Man Who Laughs, starring fellow German import Conrad Veidt—in a role originally intended for Lon Chaney—as Victor Hugo’s grotesquely mutilated hero, who seeks vengeance against the aristocrats who ruined his life for political gain in 17th-century England. It was one of the last truly lavish Hollywood productions of the silent era, released when the “talkies” were already rendering such efforts obsolete. 

The closer on Sunday night is (what else but) a Buster Keaton comedy, albeit a lesser-remembered one from his peak period. Battling Butler, in which he plays a pampered rich lad forced to take on his prizefighting namesake’s identity to “get the girl,” was released just a couple months before The General, the 1926 Civil War slapstick epic widely acknowledged as Keaton’s masterpiece. Yet at the time, it was perceived as an expensive critical and popular disappointment, while the modest Butler was a big hit. Go figure.

Elsewhere there’s the usual rich Silent Fest array of pre-sound features from around the globe, including several just recently rediscovered and/or restored. Among them are peeks at such once-huge but now little-remembered luminaries as original cowboy hero Tom Mix (No Man’s Gold), glamorous Constance Talmadge (Good References), Alice Terry (as a Mata Hari-like spy in Mare Nostrum) and Harry Carey (another Western star, enduring fish-out-of-water hijinks as a prairie sheriff traveling to San Francisco in Soft Shoes). You’ll see early work by famous directors, notably Dane Carl Dreyer (Master of the House) and Japan’s Ozu (An Inn in Tokyo). 

Garbo fans can experience her first significant screen role in The Saga of Gosta Berling, Mauritz Stiller’s 1924 adaptation of the Swedish literary classic, while “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford is seen in an unfamiliar light in Ernst Lubitch’s 1923 Rosita, where she breaks from her then-standard juvenile roles to play an adult (but still impish) Spanish peasant songstress. Those seeking less-artificial exotica might prefer films from Soviet Russia (Fragment of an Empire), India (A Throw of Dice) and Italy (Trappola, a boisterous vehicle for that nation’s leading silent comedienne, Leda Gys). There will, of course, be live musical accompaniment in different forms for each program. Wed/30-Sun/3, Castro. More info here.

His brand of brainy, angsty, grownup cinema might have gone out of popular fashion (though don’t tell that to Paul Schrader, whose acclaimed current First Reformed is a rare modern arthouse hit about a crisis of faith), but the late Ingmar Bergman remains one of the giants of cinema. The Swedish master’s birth centennial is being celebrated at the Pacific Film Archive with a substantial retrospective that pays particular attention to his first decade or so as a director. 

Included will be such acknowledged world classics as Wild Strawberries and Smiles of a Summer Night, but also much lesser-known but impressive titles like Prison, Dreams, Port of Call, To Joy, A Lesson in Love and All These Women—the latter his first color feature, and a rare comedy in what was becoming (by its release in 1964) an ever-increasingly weighty ouevre taken very seriously by weekend intellectuals around the globe. Thurs/1-Sun/July 15, PFA. More into here. 

In conjunction with the biennial Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, a world-renowned celebration of music from the Medieval to the Baroque eras, the PFA is offering this sidebar of seven features whose subjects extend from those periods into the high Classical Music epoch. Among them are operas on film (Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Handel’s Facing Agrippina, the above-noted Bergman’s beloved take on The Magic Flute); the recently-deceased Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning version of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, the popular biographical fiction about Mozart; and two visually intoxicating period pieces. The more famous one is Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon, a mid-18th-century costume drama drenched in contemporary music, shown in a recent restoration. But equally arresting in its way is Sergei Paradjanov’s 1968 pageant of Armenian history, The Color of Pomegranates, a heavily mythologized biography of the poet-monk Sayat Nova. Sat/2-Wed/13, PFA. More info here.

This quasi-musical fantasy is based on a story by Neil Gaiman, which explains a lot. In 1977 London, most eyes are turned to the Royal Jubilee—but not those of Enn (Alex Sharp) and his friends Vic (A.J. Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence), young punk-scene aspirants whose only interest in “God Save the Queen” is as a Sex Pistols record. They stumble into a party that is avant-garde beyond their wildest dreams, not quite grasping that it is in fact a gathering for interplanetary tourists soaking up a little local color on Earth. Enn picques the curiosity of one such visitor, Zan (Elle Fanning), and she “goes native” to the distress of her fellow travelers. 

A grittier, artier Earth Girls Are Easy of sorts, this also hybridizes elements from each of John Cameron Mitchell’s prior directorial features: Camp extravagance from Hedvig and the Angry Inch, sexual utopianism (minus the graphic stuff) from Shortbus, and Nicole Kidman (here as a Vivienne Westwood-type punk impresaria) from Rabbit Hole. Nothing if not eccentric, this singular whimsy is the kind of joint that at first encounter elicits a response somewhere between delight and “Huh?” If you see it now, you can claim discovery rights when it becomes a cult favorite in years to come. At area theaters. 

When two 12-year-old schoolgirls are taken to a provincial motel by an older man who apparently rapes them, only teenaged front-desk clerk Mia (Vicky Chen) can identify the perp. But since he seems to be a well-connected local politician, various forces conspire to discredit the testimony of both Mia and the girls themselves. Vivian Qu’s award-winning Chinese feature is a quiet, unsettling drama that eschews any explicit lurid content in favor of underlining the aftermath of abuse—not just its impact on victims, but the way in which the power that corrupts also protects those inclined to illegal acts. Sexual assault and institutional cover-up: It’s an equation that crosses all borders, as Americans ought to be well aware these days. Opens Friday, 4-Star Theatre. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Gimme Shelter, Solo, A Fistful of Dollars….

SCREEN GRABS We’re already lamented in this space Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ inexplicable decision to cut loose Film Curator Joel Shepard after over two decades, with YBCA’s film program itself put into deep freeze for an unknown period after the end of June. 

A good illustration of why this is a very bad idea comes this weekend, with a particularly savvy and characteristic piece of original Shepard programming—“Please help me I am drownding: San Francisco’s Dark Decade.” Its title taken from a letter famed SF attorney Melvin Belli received from the then at-large (and still never-caught) Zodiac Killer in 1969, this four-day series highlights vintage expressions and latterday reflections of a Bay Area era that had already shed its “Summer of Love” innocence by then. Upsetting signs of societal turmoil piled up from Zodiac’s spree and the tragic “anti-Woodstock” concert at Altamont Speedway to the City Hall assassination of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in 1978. 

It kicks off Thursday night with the Maysles Brothers’ 1970 Gimme Shelter, which chronicles that notorious Rolling Stones/Jefferson Airplane rock show at which members of Hell’s Angels, hired as “security,” contributed to a disturbingly violent atmosphere that resulted in several variably-accidental deaths. Friday brings Paul Schrader’s (see First Reformed, below) underrated 1988 Patty Hearst, with the late Natasha Richardson as the local heiress kidnapped by revolutionist cult the Symbionese Liberation Army. It’s a portrayal both sympathetic and grotesquely funny at times. 

As with the Manson “Family” slayings down south, Hearst’s ordeal spawned several cheap exploitation movie cash-ins before more serious cinematic treatments arrived. Similarly, the “Zodiac” slayings that terrorized the region at the end of the ’60s (with some possibly attributable to the same unknown perp happening both earlier and later) was subject to dramatizations alternately high-minded and very lowbrow. On the latter front, there’s 1971’s highly fictionalized cheapie The Zodiac Killer, a notably tasteless and cynical exercise with not just one but two misanthropic working-class male suspects as lead characters. Strangely, actual SF Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (who covered the real case) was an active consultant on this often unintentionally funny cheesefest. 

It’s double-billed on Saturday with a much more recent genre spin on real-life tragedy: Horror specialist Ti West’s 2013 The Sacrament, which fictionalizes the mass suicide of People’s Temple members after that hitherto SF-based religious cult moved to rural Guyana. The series ends with David Fincher’s harrowing 2007 Zodiac, which makes its own dramatic and speculative leaps but is unlikely to be surpassed as a screen depiction of that never-solved series of homicides. More info here

At the multiplex, of course the big noise this week is Solo: A Star Wars Story, the film that asks the question “Is a new Star Wars movie still a major event if the last one came out just five months ago?” The good news: Alden Ehrenreich, who was the best thing in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! a couple years ago, plays a younger iteration of Harrison Ford’s Han. The maybe-less-good-news: Ron Howard directs. 

The most conspicuous arthouse opening is On Chesil Beach, stage director Dominic Cooke’s respectable but somewhat overblown adaptation of Ian MacEwan’s slender, effective novel. It’s about two clueless virgins (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, concurrently also teamed in The Seagull) making a royal mess of their wedding night in 1962—a last moment of darkness before the dawn of the Sexual Revolution. For nonfiction fans, there’s also the arrival of Love & Bananas, a well-reviewed documentary from actor (The Last Exorcism) turned director Ashley Bell, in which she follows elephant conversationist Lek Chailert’s attempt to rescue an imperiled 70-year-old blind Thai pachyderm. 

Elsewhere (all opening Fri/25 unless otherwise noted):

One of the more unlikely cultural objects to resurface amidst the #MeToo cultural moment is actress Asia Argento’s 2000 first directorial feature—she’s since directed two more, all of them dealing in various ways with sexual harassment and child abuse. This semi-autobiographical fantasia is a headlong tabloid paparrazi lunge toward the glamorous and sensational, with Argento pretty much playing herself as bisexual movie star “Anna Battista.” Its globe-trotting slice of high life shows Anna’s snorting Special K, untying her best friend from the bed an abusive bf has left her bound to, sleeping with a rock star, nearly drowning during a fashion shoot, experiencing unhappy childhood flashbacks, hallucinating, burning herself with a cigarette, getting smacked around, slam-dancing while pregnant, and otherwise exuding maximum drama 24/7. When she wakes up naked and paranoid after a threesome, one of her partners tells the other “She’s freakin’ out, man”—which would have been a great ad line for this movie. 

Shot on video (when that still looked like crap), Scarlet Diva is an ambulance-chasing hot mess that will still register with viewers as shocking, ridiculous, or both. What can you say about a movie whose cast includes Schooly-D, porn star Selen, and the writer-director’s own mother Daria Nicolodi as a monster matriarch? But it’s being revived at the Roxie for reasons of alarming relevancy: Though few realized it at the time, Argento explicitly based scenes in which she interacts with a gross Hollywood producer (played by performance artist Joe Coleman) on her experiences with Harvey Weinstein, whom she’s since claimed sexually assaulted her. The sequence in which he lures “Anna” to his hotel room—only to suddenly appear in a bathrobe, demanding a “massage”—is bizarrely funny, yet also discomfitingly close to the stories many women have told about the disgraced Weinstein. Roxie. More info here

It’s been 40 years since Taxi Driver scenarist Paul Schrader directed his first feature, and this new drama proves he’s no less capable of surprise or adventure in his 70s. Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Toller, a former army chaplain who since a family tragedy has become the lone pastor at an upstate NY “tourist church”—a historic building about to celebrate its 250th anniversary, but which has very few remaining congregation members. 

Among them are a young couple (Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger) who ask him for help, because the husband’s despair over political/environmental issues is arresting his ability to participate in everyday life, let alone imagine a viable future. But while he’s reluctant to admit it, Toller needs help, too: His health is failing, and this couple’s plight makes him question his own faith. Though Schrader’s narrative may ultimately alienate or bewilder some viewers, this strikingly austere film is a rare movie to meaningfully wrestle with theological concerns—and their application in our ever-more-problematic worldly reality—so you are guaranteed ample discussion fodder afterward. At area theaters.

Back for a commercial run after premiering at the SF International last year, Peter Livolsi’s adaptation of Peter Bognanni’s novel is a neat twist on the kind of indie growing-pains seriocomedy familiar from movies like Lady Bird. Asa Butterfield plays a teen raised in unique circumstances by his grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), a diehard acolyte of the late architect, inventor, and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller—in fact, they live in (and off) one of his signature geodesic-dome homes. Encountering Alex Wolff and Maude Apatow as two rebellious offspring of a hapless divorced nice-guy (Nick Offerman) on a guided tour of that abode ends up opening our protagonist’s horizons to more beyond “Bucky’s” retrofuturism. A bit formulaic but well-acted and charming nonetheless, this is a good movie with a great soundtrack—Wolff’s drug of choice being vintage punk tracks he’d like to match someday with his own garage band. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

No one expected the 1964 Fistful to be a big deal: Its director Sergio Leone certainly wasn’t one, nor its star Clint Eastwood, then just a U.S. TV star whose first leading film role earned him only a $15,000 salary. It wasn’t even really the first “spaghetti western”—the term later applied to such European-made enterprises once they became ubiquitous. But something clicked with this relatively low-budget ($200,000) Italian-German-Spanish coproduction: Its cynical, violent content and starkly maxi-minimalist visual style pumped new blood into a genre whose trad, John Wayne-type forms were slowly dying out. 

An unacknowledged remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (over which Leone was sued), Fistful wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1967, at which point Leone and Eastwood had already finished their ‘Dollars trilogy’ with For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly—and a bazillion imitations were beginning to flood theaters worldwide. The ‘spaghetti’ vogue died out by the early 70s, but it remains a clear influence amongst filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, not to mention Eastwood himself. Fistful is being shown in a new 4K digital restoration, billed with the other movie that defined its star’s big-screen persona: Don Siegel’s 1971 Dirty Harry, in which Clint’s terse San Francisco cop makes short work of those dirty, dirty hippies. Tues/29, Castro. More info here

Screen Grabs: Kim Novak live, Jim Carrey gets scary …

Kim Novak

SCREEN GRABS This weekend brings local impresario Marc Heustis’ first Castro Theater event in some time, and it’s one he’s been chasing for considerably longer: A tribute to Kim Novak, one of very few stars from “golden age” Hollywood who is still with us. Her rare in-person appearance will be even more special because she is, of course, the star of perhaps the single most celebrated San Francisco-set movie ever: Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which she played the woman—or women—with whom James Stewart’s former police detective is obsessed. 

An Oregon native who broke into the movies after being a model (she was crowned “Miss Deep Freeze” by a refrigerator company for whom she worked at trade shows), Novak was one of the last great star creations of the old Hollywood studio system, promoted as a successor to Rita Hayworth and rival to Marilyn Monroe. Fighting that kind of sex-kitten promotion—and the control of Columbia Pictures’ bullying chief executive Harry Cohn—she nonetheless had some popular and critical triumphs, notably including the film versions of stage hits Picnic and Bell, Book and Candle. (Vertigo itself was neither popular or praised in its initial release, its stature instead slowly rising over the ensuing decades until a 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll named it the best film of all time, knocking Citizen Kane out of that slot.)

The collapse of that “classic” studio system left her career somewhat rudderless amidst the drastic changes in audience taste and film content of the 1960s. In the 1970s she began taking on the occasional TV project, and in 1986 had a successful stint playing a character not unlike her Vertigo heroine in the prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest.

Though she hasn’t acted in over a quarter-century, Novak will have plenty to talk about: She’s worked not only with Hitchcock but such other directorial luminaries as Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and Robert Aldrich. Her costars have included Frank Sinatra, Jack Lemmon, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Kirk Douglas, Zero Mostel, Dean Martin, Angela Lansbury, Charles Bronson, even David Bowie. 

The 7pm Sunday Castro event—featuring clips, an onstage interview, live performances, and Vertigo—may well be sold out by showtime. However, never underestimate how far money and determination can get you. If you’re short on either, there’s still a free noon showing of Picnic.  

Also a suspense tale involving forbidden love and mysterious death, but offering no competition to Vertigo, is the oddest opening of the week. That would be Dark Crimes, a 2016 English-language movie by a Greek director (Alexandros Avranas) that was shot in Poland, with a mirthless Jim Carrey oddly cast as a Krakow police detective investigating a murder tied to an underground S&M sex club. You might wonder why Carrey signed on for this particular project…but then it’s a bit of a puzzle why anyone did. The gloomy thriller manages to be mildly distasteful without even having the energy to cash in on its lurid subject. However, if you catch its run at the Roxie, be sure afterwards to read this article about the real murder case it’s (quite loosely) “inspired by.”

Other specialty openings this week include Boom for Real, Sara Driver’s documentary about the pre-fame years of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Argentinian drama The Desert Bride, with Chilean star Paulina Garcia (Gloria) as a longtime domestic servant shaken when her post evaporates; Timothy McNeil’s indie Anything, in which John Carroll Lynch is a widowed newcomer to L.A. whose horizons are widened by Matt Bomer’s transgender neighbor; and Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a tribute to/message from the progressive pontif. If nothing else, the latter is certain to be the most popular movie Wim Wenders has directed since Wings of Desire three decades ago, if not ever. 

An important note: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s newly rediscovered five-part 1972 German TV series Eight Days Don’t Make a Day (written about in last week’s column) is playing the Drafthouse in its entirety each day this weekend, Friday through Sunday. If you missed it at the Pacific Film Archive the week prior, here’s your chance to see one of RWF’s least-known but arguably best (and certainly most accessible) works. Fri/18-Sun/20, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Elsewhere (all opening Friday): 

Personally I’d rank Kubrick 1968 masterpiece higher than Vertigo, but then designations like “best movie of all time” are kind of inherently ridiculous, eh? Still, there’s nothing ridiculous about this sci-fi mindtrip, which has dated remarkably little in fifty years. If you’re thinking, “Didn’t this play the Castro in 70mm not all that long ago?,” you would be right. The occasion (beyond that half-century anniversary) for this 11-day revival run—which is interrupted by Novak’s event and a few other programs—is that a new print was struck from original-camera-negative elements, resulting in an “unrestored” experience closer to the one audiences had in ’68 than has been possible since. This “un-restoration” was overseen by none other than Christopher Nolan, a latterday sci-fi screen specialist who no doubt sees it as a standard to aspire to—and well he should. Fri/18-Mon/28, Castro. More info here.  

The list of good films based on Chekhov is very short—the last major addition was Dover Koshashvili’s 2010 The Duel, drawn from a novella rather than a play. But it gets a little longer with the arrival of this adaptation by playwright Stephen Karam and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot). (Read our interview with Mayer here.)

Annette Bening plays the insufferably vain veteran actress Irina, whose summer trip to her family’s country estate underlines her neglect of them (including Brian Dennehy as ailing brother Sorin)—and her terror of aging, which is reinforced by writer lover Boris’ (Corey Stoll) attraction towards the jeune fille (Saoirse Ronan’s Nina) her angst-ridden son Konstantin (Billy Howle) loves. Others in the fine cast include Corey Stoll, Mare Winningham, Jon Tenney, and Elisabeth Moss in a scene-stealing turn as Masha, the original Debbie Downer. Prettily mounted but bruisingly concise in capturing Chekhov’s tragicomedic breadth, this is a very good film—which is to say, something more than just good theater transposed to film. At area theaters.

An English oceanside village is more like a prison for Moll (Jessie Buckley), a young woman who’s regarded as unstable because of one ugly incident years ago—though these days it’s the suffocating control of her mother (Geraldine James) that’s impacting her mental health, if anything. Unsurprisingly, Moll falls hard after a chance encounter with Pascal (Johnny Flynn), a handsome, somehwat mysterious man whose rebellious, confrontative nature suggests the person she’d like to be. 

But even as their romance rapidly heats up, there are reasons to worry: The main one being that Pascal is a prime suspect in a rash of young women’s murders in the area. This compelling first feature by writer-director Michael Pearce is a true psychological thriller, in that the psychology takes precedence over the thriller mechanics—although there’s quite enough of the latter to satisfy. It’s a complexly disturbing tale that never feels routinely exploitative or contrived. At area theaters.