Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: The terror that is ‘Us’

Lupita Nyong'o in 'Us'

SCREEN GRABS For many, the movie of 2017 was Get Out, the first directorial feature for Jordan Peele of the comedy duo Key & Peele. Surely the timing had a lot to do with the popular sensation it caused: Arriving early in the reign of Twitler, its tale of a young black man lured into a picture-perfect white community’s insidious, slightly fantastical trap was the ideal pop-culture commentary for a moment when years of rising Black Lives Matter-related anger were suddenly buried by the “white is right” tidal wave of President Trump & co.

Had we really come half a century from the Civil Rights Movement just to experience widespread nostalgia for a “simpler” earlier time when racism a.) could be practiced freely but also b.) didn’t officially exist? Apparently so. Get Out’s juiced-up genre mix of horror, satire and black comedy seemed no less enjoyable for being so wildly, ingeniously relevant.

Peele’s eagerly awaited second feature is here, and Us does not disappoint. In service of not spoiling anything (though everyone else will), I’ll say only that it involves a little girl who experiences a mysterious trauma at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in 1986, then grows up to be Lupita Nyong’o, who with husband Winston Duke has two children played by Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex. When they return to the scene of mom’s formative fright, strange things rapidly start to happen…and do not stop, for most of a solid two hours. At risk of hyperbole, let’s say that if Get Out was Peele’s Psycho—a startling, subversive, macabrely amusing high concept—followup Us is sort-of his The Birds, in that it takes an outlandish, unexplained yet elemental fantasy premise and runs with it in a virtuoso demonstration of suspense direction. (Side note: Hitchcock’s SF-set Vertigo plays midnights this weekend in a 4K restoration at the Clay.)

From the title down, Us can definitely be interpreted as sociopolitical metaphor, though it’s much less obvious in that respect than Get Out—and it will be very interesting to see press and public parse its possible meanings in the coming weeks. (I’m particularly looking forward to hearing theories on a late twist that, for my money, does more to confuse than deepen whatever Peele is saying here.)

At the most basic level, however, the two films are alike in that they are well-crafted thrill rides that enjoy a bit of mindfuckery at your expense, though not enough to be punitive. (Some of the early action may vaguely recall Michael Haneke’s cold, cruel Funny Games, but Peele is too much of an entertainer to consider deliberately giving the audience a genuinely hard time.) What does Us’ uprising of a malevolent force that looks just like, well, us, say about America today? Enjoy, and please discuss.

Also opening at area theaters on Friday is The Hummingbird Project, an interesting drama with Jesse Eisenberg and Alexander Skarsgard as entrepreneurial cousins attempting to pull off a crazily ambitious cross-country fiber optic tunnel. Salma Hayek chews scenery entertainingly as the boss whose make they make this potentially-hugely-enriching deal behind, and whose subsequent campy rage knows no bounds. An odd parable about folly and striving in the e-commerce age, it’s distinguished primarily by the lead performances. Skarsgard is showily cast against type as a code-writing dweeb, but it’s Eisenberg who lends the film its emotional drive and eventual poignance.

Unpreviewed openings include The Aftermath, an intrigue set in just-post-WW2 Germany, with Skarsgard again and Keira Knightley; plus (at the 4 Star) Out of Blue, a cryptic mystery with Patricia Clarkson as a New Orleans cop on a crime trail. There’s also (at the Roxie) documentary Genesis 2.0, which looks at both the hunters of ancient buried treasure (mammoth tusks) in modern Siberia, and  scientists who may be able to resurrect the woolly mammoth and other extinct species with rapidly-evolving technology (more on that here).

‘Reach’ by Billy Boyd Cape is featured in the Tiny Dance Festival

Other worthwhile events include the two-day weekend Roxie residence of the Tiny Dance Film Festival, which brings two separate programs of dance-centric shorts from around the world (more info here); a fascinating-sounding Cinematheque bill of Taiwanese experimental shorts from the 1960s next Thursday (more info here); and this Saturday, an Other Cinema animation showcase primarily dedicated to ‘toonful women’s work (more info here).

If you’re in the mood to praise famous men, join the city-wide celebration of our legendary, still-kicking poet’s birth centenary with the Roxie’s Saturday screening of 2009 documentary portrait Ferlinghetti (more info here).

Some recommended additional Friday openings:

Transit
Christian Petzold is nearly sixty, but it’s just recently that he entered that shrinking list of arthouse directors whose latest works are pretty much guaranteed wide dissemination—even theatrical release in the U.S., something that gets harder for foreign films every year. This latest, his first feature since 2014’s Phoenix, is like it also a drama about mistaken (or assumed) identity in a time of extreme societal upheaval. Franz Rogowski plays a German refugee in France, who uses official papers to pass as a man who died as they were both fleeing persecution. Trying to escape Europe, he keeps running into a mystery woman (Paula Beer) who turns out to be the dead man’s oblivious widow.

Transit is based on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers that was explicitly about Jews and others desperately trying to escape the Nazis and their “final solution.” In translating the story to a more-or-less “present day” in which xenophobia and fascism is again on the rise, Petzold has created a subtle but powerful commentary on our current climate of simmering white nationalism and hostility towards immigrants, one that has a sort of timeless, Camus-like flavor.

A more poignant (not to mention credible) work than Phoenix, it’s a fine, serious-minded movie with a compelling leading man in the slightly off-kilter Rogowski. That Talking Heads song at the end is a bit of a mood-killer, though. Clay, Shattuck, Rafael Film Center. More info here

The Mustang
Another fine European actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, brings his particular gravity to another very good multinationally-produced drama. He plays Roman Coleman, a man in a Nevada prison for a violent crime. Just out of isolation, and admittedly “not good with people,” he’s assigned outdoor work duty that comes to include breaking wild mustangs for the facility’s annual charity auction.

This stripped-down feature directorial debut from French actress Laure de Clermont-Tonnere resists the usual “inspirational” obviousness in a man-and-horse tale like this, even as walking cloud-of-anger Roman duly gets tamed himself by devotion to the animal he’s tasked with domesticating. Though there are good supporting performances (notably by Bruce Dern, Jason Mitchell and Connie Britton), this is primarily a stark portrait of a loner, its aesthetics as spare as the protagonist’s terse verbiage. If you liked last year’s The Rider (and if you didn’t, what’s wrong with you?!?), you’ll probably also be moved by this thematically different yet tonally similar equine drama of the modern West. Embarcadero. More info here.

The Juniper Tree
Most viewers assumed idiosyncratic pop star Bjork’s memorable performance in Lars von Trier’s 2000 Dancer in the Dark—a director and filmmaking experience she later denounced as abusive—was her acting debut. But in fact she’d appeared a decade earlier in this B&W feature made in her native Iceland, an austere English-language feminist parable by late American filmmaker Nietzchka Keene. It played the Sundance Film Festival in 1990 (some years after its financially-hobbled original production), but otherwise was little-seen or noticed in the U.S. before this restoration re-release.

Based on a Brothers Grimm tale, it’s still less “fairy tale” in tenor than it is close to Ingmar Bergman’s medieval morality dramas The Virgin Spring and The Seventh Seal, at once mystical and harshly realistic. Bjork (who was just 21 when it was shot) plays Margit, who with older sister Katia (Bryndis Petra Bragadóttir) flee home after their mother is killed as a witch. They’re taken in by a farmer and his young son, but they too feel threatened by the magical powers the sisters have indeed inherited from her ma.

Its fantastical elements presented in very matter-of-fact terms, The Juniper Tree (named after a passage from a T.S. Eliot poem) is a slowly paced work of gentle faith in powers beyond the visible—it’s a bit like Robert Eggers’ rural period piece The Witch, albeit with the significant difference of there being no Devil’s handicraft at work. Roxie. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Brazilian classics, the Gospel of Eureka, a Silicon Valley scam….

'The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley'

SCREEN GRABS Though it doesn’t get the same international nostalgic attention these days accorded similar movements in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, one of the most inventive and important 1960s film movements was Brazil’s Cinema Novo. Breaking away from the purely escapist nature of that nation’s existing movie industry, its makers experimented both formally and thematically, introducing a neo-realist-type focus on an unsentimentalized working class, and political content that grew more radical as the “turbulent Sixties” rolled into the radical early ’70s.

Among the epoch’s most important talents was Nelson Pereira dos Santos, who died last year at age 89. The PFA has shown his films before, and now it offers a posthumous retrospective with Remembering Nelson Pereira dos Santos, a seven-week series starting this weekend.

The Sao Paulo native’s early films predated and inspired the accepted start of Cinema Novo: Rio, 100 Degrees (1956) and Rio, Zona Norte (1957), both showing at the PFA, are equal parts samba musical and gritty favela realism. Their harsh takes on life below the poverty line stirred some controversy at the time. The movement was officially underway by the time of 1963’s Barren Lives, a stark adaptation of Graciliano Ramos’ best-known novel, in which an impoverished rural family is exploited by employers and harassed by police at every turn.

From ‘Rio, 100 Degrees’

But as arthouse cinema around the globe began to leave “peasant suffering” themes behind for more complicated intellectual and aesthetic pursuits, so did Cinema Novo, and dos Santos with it. Hunger for Love (rakishly subtitled “Have You Ever Sunbathed Completely Nude?) is no mere nudie-cutie but a four-character psychodrama mixing Ingmar Bergman with elements of the “new permissiveness.” Transitioning to vivid color, the director’s 1970 A Very Crazy Asylum is a goofy dress-up period parable of the “Who’s really nuts, the lunatic or his society?” ilk, one almost overwhelmed by an intense dissonant musical score.

Dos Santos’ most famous film, the more artistically successful colonialist-era fiction How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971), is regrettably not included in the series. But he continued to explore race, power and history in films like the ambitious 1977 satire Tent of Miracles, as well as darker chapters in Brazilian politics via 1984’s Memories of Prison (another Ramos adaptation).

In later years he turned largely to the documentary form, with 2011’s Music According to Tom Jobim (about the late bossa nova genius) representing that output in the PFA program. Remembering NPsS runs Fri/15-Fri/May 3 at the Pacific Film Archive. More info here.

Commercial openings we didn’t get a chance to preview this week include two crime dramas at Landmark Cinemas: Yardie, a period piece set in Jamaica and London that’s the feature directorial debut for actor Idris Elba, and The Highwaymen, which has Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as Depression-era cops on the bloody trail of Bonnie & Clyde.

One film I did catch, more or less, was Chilean director Sebastian Lelio’s English-language remake his own 2013 Gloria as Gloria Bell, with the very glam Julianne Moore taking Paulina Garcia’s role as a very ordinary divorcee. If you feared a watered-down, prettied-up Hollywoodization of the exceptional original…well, let’s just say I left after 40 minutes, and leave it at that.

Other events of interest include the Albany Film Festival, which runs in that East Bay burg Sat/16-Sun/24 (More info here); and a two-day Castro Theatre run (Mon/18-Tues/19) of the hit biopic Stan and Ollie on a bill with the 1934 Sons of the Desert, probably Laurel & Hardy’s best feature.

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

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley
This latest from prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s (Enron, Going Clear, Steve Jobs, et al.) is essentially about snake-oil. Elizabeth Cohen managed to start a multibillion-dollar company with an irresistibly altruistic mission: Creating portable blood-testing “magic boxes” that would revolutionize the medical industry, drastically reducing cost and wait-time for consumers and patients. At just 29, Holmes was lauded as a female role model in a male-dominated industry, her firm given sky-high valuations, its 800 employees housed in a building she reportedly designed herself.

Protected by the combination of buzz and secrecy that often surrounds startups, Theranos nonetheless had a wee flaw at its center: The promised technology was little more than wishful thinking, particularly compared to what had been promised. There was almost no “there there” at all. “You can’t just bend the laws of physics [with] a great marketing campaign,” one eye-rolling former employee says, recalling the stonewalling of serious “box” development problems. Qualified biochemists and designers who actually worried about functionality issues were dismissed as “old-fashioned,” replaced by others with increasingly little relevant expertise.

Once accusations of fraud began to circulate, Theranos collapsed like a house of cards. This didn’t happen in ye olden, “naive” days of Silicon Valley—it was less than three years ago. Is Holmes a con artist, or delusional? Perhaps, like her idol Steve Jobs, she became so convinced of her genius that she could not recognize it was principally a genius for self-promotion. She managed along the line to win such allies as Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and a host of A-list CEOs, all of whom simply believed the hype she was selling because they believed in her.

We increasingly live in an era that rewards certain types of delusion, narcissism and grandiosity. The Inventor provides a striking case study: Holmes (who’s still just 35, and god knows what she’ll get up to yet) may or may not believe she’s actually some sort of entrepreneurial savior. But one suspects that on the deepest level, she believes the most important part is that she plays that role well. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

Ash is Purest White
A leading Chinese filmmaker whose early films were made independent of an industry heavily dependent on state approval, Zhangke Jia has managed to retain his edge of sociopolitical critique in the fifteen years since his projects began being embraced (however reluctantly) by the mainland government. This latest again stars his wife, Zhao Tao, as a woman pushed (not always willingly) along a narrative course of nearly 20 tumultuous years.

Pretty but no empty eye-candy, Qiao is the tough, loyal girlfriend to Bin (Liao Fan), a big-fish gangster in the small pond of a coal-mining burg. When she impulsively takes an action that quite possibly saves his life, she gets a five-year sentence, emerging from prison only to find that nothing—and nobody—is waiting to reward her for that sacrifice. Yet this is not the woman-scorned revenge tale you might expect, but something more complicated and bittersweet. Qiao’s story is one not just of personal resilience, but of a society undergoing drastic changes that are subtly backgrounded and commented upon here. It’s all held together by the lead actress’ contained, formidable performance. Opens Friday, Embarcadero & California Cinemas. More info here.

R.I.P. Albert Finney
Though he first rose to international notice as an archetypal “Angry Young Man” in 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Albert Finney proved one of the most enduring and endearing among British actors of his generation. This single-day Castro tribute to the beloved actor, who passed away at age 82 last month, isn’t exactly what we’d pick as career highlights—though it’s hard to argue against Oscar-winning Tom Jones (1963), in which he played the titular 18th-century rogue.

At least he was good in 1983’s The Dresser, an inevitably stagey film translation of that backstage-drama play, and did his best as Daddy Warbucks in John Huston’s elephantine 1980 movie of the Broadway musical Annie. You’ll have to host your own screening party to revisit such favorite Finney vehicles as Wolfen, Shoot the Moon, A Man of No Importance, Erin Brockovich, or even the 007 adventure Skyfall (2012), in which he gave his final performance. Sing-a-Long Annie/Tom Jones/The Dresser: Sun/17, Castro. More info here

Next of Kin
The Alamo Drafthouse continues to mine obscure veins of Australian horror with this 1982 weirdie. A young woman (Jackie Kerin) returns to her rural hometown after a long absence, having inherited the rambling retirement home her late mother owned. It takes her quite a while to realize that things here are mighty…strange, to say the least. Enough that one of the least strange things hereabouts is her old boyfriend being played by none other than John Jarrett, the future terror of Wolf Creek.

It’s creepy, then freaky, even if the resolution to the mystery doesn’t make a whole lotta sense. Considering the deft atmospherics here, it is strange that director Tony Williams never made another narrative feature (and didn’t even make his next documentary for another thirty-one years). Another point of interest is the original score by Klaus Schulze of German prog-rock legends Tangerine Dream. Tues/19, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Sorry Angel
Christophe Honore has made enough movies (13 features in just 16 years) to be considered a significant French filmmaker, but shouldn’t we know by now whether he’s a good one? It’s a bit late for that jury to still be out. It stays there with this drama set in the early ’90s, in which successful writer Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps from Stranger by the Lake) keeps his new relationship with a much younger man (Vincent Lacoste) at a wary distance while he deals with the likely death sentence of an AIDS diagnosis.

Our protagonist is cynical, self-doubting, not a particularly good friend (or father to his son by a prior relationship), intelligent and attractive yet primarily defined by petulance. “Go to ACT-UP and stop navel-gazing” a long-suffering older friend nags him, aptly enough. This is one of those French films where you’ll never stop asking yourself that fatal question “Uh, why should I care about these people?” It’s ultimately somewhat affecting, in addition to being well-acted ands well-crafted. But even in this above-average, fairly ambitious effort, Honore remains an acquired taste not necessarily worth the trouble of acquiring. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza & Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

The Gospel of Eureka
The supposedly sacred and the supposedly sinful are more than usually co-existent in the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Its 2000 or so residents support both a large, elaborate annual Passion Play in a 4,000 seat amphitheater, and a year-round calendar of LGBTQ events. Donal Mosher and Michael Palimieri’s documentary makes it appear that the two somewhat-overlapping communities mostly live together peaceably, though there are certainly flareups of political conflict.

Otherwise, it’s the kind of ultra-old-school middle-American burg where people diagnosed with cancer just keep on smokin’. This snapshot of idealogical opposites sharing space relies a bit over-much on repetitive compare-and-contrast, particularly between drag shows and the no-less-campy spectacle of the giant passion play. But it’s a colorful document, and proof that proximity does, for the most part, remove the sting of hostility between people who think they fundamentally can’t get along. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here. 

Screen Grabs: Berlin & Beyond, Woman at War, The Mystery of Picasso ….

'The Silent Revolution' plays at Berlin & Beyond.

SCREEN GRABS The recent passing of great screen actor Bruno Ganz reminded that he’d appeared in person before a screening of Downfall in 2005, his onstage modesty a contrast to his most famous role as, well, you-know-who. That was just one among many highlights logged to date by Berlin & Beyond, the festival of German-language cinema now entering its 23rd year. This week’s Castro Theatre festivities will, as usual, encompass films from Austria and Switzerland as well as Germany (plus a few multinational co-productions).

The opening night feature is Markus Goller’s 25km/h, about two estranged middle-aged brothers who reunite at their father’s funeral, and decide at last to realize their youthful dream of a cross-country trip on mopeds. The “Centerpiece” selection is Lars Kraume’s The Silent Revolution, depicting an act of mild protest that brings harsh consequences in 1956 “Red” East Germany. The closing film is by Veit Helmer, whose dedication to gently fantastical comedy in films like Tuvalu and Absurdistan makes him a sort of Teutonic Wes Anderson. His new The Bra sounds like a delight: A Cinderella-esque whimsy with a train-driver Prince Charming in the lead, and the titular piece of underwear replacing the glass slipper.

There will also be spotlights on new Swiss and youth cinema, in addition to the usual range of recent features spanning a range of genres. Among the more promising are two biopics, 3 Days in Quiberon and Gundermann, about celebrated film star Romy Schneider and a fabled East German singer-songwriter, respectively; and The Waldheim Waltz, a documentary chronicling the ugly public battle over what the late UN Secretary General did or didn’t do as a Nazi intelligence officer during WW2. There will also be a reprise screening of last year’s arthouse hit The Cakemaker, a very fine drama about a pastry chef who travels to Israel after his lover’s death—to meet that man’s wife, who had no clue about his “secret life.” Berlin & Beyond runs Fri/8-Sun/10 at the Castro Theatre, then Mon/11 at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas, then Tues/12-Thurs/14 at SF’s Goethe Institut. More info here.

Also of interest is the 15th International Ocean Film Festival, which will be held at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater Thurs/7-Sun/10. (There are also screenings Sat/9 at the Roxie and Fri/8-Sat/9 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.) The various programs of shorts and features spotlight pressing environmental issues around the globe, in and out of the water. There will also be panel discussions, a virtual reality program, a student film competition, and other educational events. Info: http://intloceanfilmfest.org

Among the numerous openings this week, there are a couple significant disappointments: Michael Winterbottom’s The Wedding Guest is a muddled quasi-thriller with Dev Patel as a British national involved in increasingly pointless intrigue in Pakistan and India. Acclaimed documentarian Ondi Timoner’s first narrative feature Mapplethorpe is a strangely by-numbers biopic of that envelope-pushing late photographer (played by Matt Smith). His controversial nudes and other graphic images are here, yet the film itself feels conventional and tepid.

Unavailable for preview by deadline was Captain Marvel, which has ignited one of those social media wars by fanboys who WILL NOT STAND!! for their lives being ruined by a superhero movie starring someone with lady parts (Brie Larson plays the title role). Actual grownups may be more interested in how a big-budget film directed by the very indie duo of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) turns out. There’s also J.K. Simmons starring in his wife (and former Oz co-star) Michelle Schumacher’s drama I’m Not Here, in which he plays a recluse recalling the events that put his younger self (Iain Armitage, then Sebastian Stan) on the road to alcoholic isolation. It opens at the Roxie on Friday.

Elsewhere:

Woman at War
One of the most original directorial debuts in recent years was Icelandic actor Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2013 Of Horses and Men, a bracing, darkly funny series of interlocking tales in which equine behavior came off considerably better than that of humans. His second, tonally similar feature isn’t as impressive, but it’s still worthwhile.

Middle-aged Haila (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a rural choirmaster with a big secret: She’s the “terrorist” going around sabotaging power lines to stop a proposed China-connected industrial development she believes will have disastrous environmental consequences. As the authorities close in on this manifesto-posting “Mountain Woman” and her alleged threat to national security, she faces an ill-timed second dilemma: After years on a waitlist, she’s finally eligible to adopt a foreign child.

This eco-warrior fable is a little too cute, especially in its incessant over-milking of a device in which an on-screen oompah band accompanies the action. Still, it’s scenically striking, and in the end a good combination of adventure, intrigue, and timely political messaging. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza. More info here

Styx
Another lone woman kicking against the pricks, if without initially intending to, is the heroine of Wolfgang Fischer’s stripped-down drama. Rieke (Susanne Wolff) is a German paramedic who escapes her grueling job for a solo sailing trip. After barely surviving a major storm, however, she discovers a disabled fishing trawler in her vicinity—full of panicked refugees screaming for her help. When she contacts the Coast Guard, they tell her not to intervene until they get there…if they ever do. But people are dying on that boat (and her own is too small to save more than a handful), so what is she to do?

More of a short story than a novel in terms of narrative complexity, Styx doesn’t ultimately pack quite as much punch as one might like. But still, it finds a unique way to make an interesting statement about our responsibility towards the kinds of people that “nobody wants”—those fleeing poverty, war, or injustice that the First World doesn’t view as valuable enough to rescue. By the way, don’t worry about that title: You won’t hear “Babe” here. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

Delphine Seyrig: Reluctant Muse
A classic beauty with a penchant for experimental theater, so connected to various elite intellectual scenes that her first screen credit was in the legendary Kerouac-penned “beat” film Pull My Daisy, Lebanese-born French actress Seyrig became perhaps the first movie star who could make you aware she was playing the idea of a movie star—her glamour was always ironical and complex.

An outspoken feminist, she was particularly supportive of women directors, esp. Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, and Ulrike Ottinger (who’s getting a simultaneous PFA retrospective). Rarely accepting purely commercial assignments, she also worked with such major figures as Losey, William Klein, Resnais (who gave her her breakthrough role in Last Year at Marienbad), Truffaut, Bunuel and Demy, while films she directed herself included a prescient 1977 documentary (called Be Pretty and Shut Up) about sexism in the film industry, and an adaptation of Warhol shooter Valerie Solanis’ notorious SCUM Manifesto.

It was an extraordinary, adventurous career cut short by lung cancer in 1990. This PFA series assembles ten of her most representative vehicles, including Akerman’s 1975 Jeanne Dielman, one of cinema’s ultimate “the personal is political” statements—three and a half hours of Seyrig’s housewife performing domestic chores, caught in an institutionalized gender trap from which she sees only one drastic exit. Fri/8-Sat/April 27, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Giant Little Ones
Writer-director Keith Behrman’s Canadian feature may tread very familiar ground as a seriocomic coming-out story (sorta) set amidst the usual stresses and sillinesses of middle-class high school life. But it refreshes that terrain with some good comic and stylistic ideas. Franky (Josh Wiggins) is a popular freshman with a girlfriend, though probably his primary social relationship is with BFF Ballas (Darren Mann), who also has a g.f.

It’s Ballas who initiates some drunken “experimentation” when the two boys land in one bed after a birthday celebration. But it’s also Ballas who experiences “homosexual panic” the next morning, running off to inform seemingly the entire school that his own bestie is “a gay” who “hit on him.” Franky becomes a pariah overnight, a situation not eased by the awkward fact that his own father (Kyle MacLachlan) left his embittered mother (Maria Bello) for another man.

Is Franky, in fact, gay? Even he doesn’t know, not yet. While there are some heavy-handed and overdone aspects to this lively tale, Behrman wisely emphasizes that it doesn’t really matter “what” Franky “is,” or will be—what matters is that he get the space and peace to figure it out for himself. This is a likable movie that would be a particularly good discussion spur for teens, as it addresses general issues of bullying and peer pressure as much as sexual identity. Opens Friday, Kabuki 8 and Shattuck Cinemas.

The Mystery of Picasso
In 1956, fresh from his suspense masterpieces The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques, French director Henri-Clouzot turned his camera to the non-fictive subject of painter Pablo Picasso—two famously “difficult” men alike enough in their single-mindedness to be friends, more or less.

The result was this famous documentary, which depicted the artist’s process in unique terms. Most notably, Clouzot deployed translucent “canvases” (i.e. glass plates) so the spectator could actually watch Picasso as he “painted the screen”—creating new works before, and for, our eyes (with some additional help from stop-motion animation). Winner of a special Cannes jury prize at the time, Mystery has ever since been considered one of the greatest of all films about art, and is being shown at the Roxie in a new 4K restoration. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

In Focus: Hirokazu Kore-eda
From the standpoint of international audiences at least, the leading Japanese director of the new millennium is Tokyo-born Kore-eda, whose edgier early films (Maborosi, After Life, Nobody Knows) have since given way largely to beautifully warm domestic dramas, often involving parent-child relationships: Still Walking, I Wish, Like Father Like Son, Our Little Sister, After the Storm, and the recent Shoplifters. He’s like a slightly more accessible, sometimes more sentimental Ozu for our era, a superb observer of human need and forgiveness at his frequent best. This PFA retrospective will present seven of his features (including atypical suspense mystery The Third Murder), each introduced and discussed by local film historian and teacher Marilyn Fabe. Wed/13-Wed/April 24, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Screen Grabs: Dynamation Celebration, African Film Fest, and even more cats!

Dynamation Celebration: special effects wiz Ray Harryhausen's model for the Kraken from 'Clash of the Titans'

SCREEN GRABS It’s a busy week for arthouse openings and other film events of interest, though we couldn’t see everything in advance. Among the titles we didn’t catch (or did, but decided to practice the “If you can’t say something nice…” rule) are Crying Game director Neil Jordan’s Greta, a Single White Female-type thriller with Chloe Grace Moretz living to regret her befriending of seemingly harmless spinster Isabelle Huppert (at area theaters); Michelle Monaghan as Saint Judy, a biopic about immigration attorney Judy Wood, who fought to change U.S. asylum laws (at Opera Plaza and Shattuck); and (at Embarcadero) actor Chiwetel Ejifor’s directorial debut The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, another fact-based story about a famine-plagued Malawi village saved by one resident’s technical ingenuity.

There are also special events of passing note. For the third week in a row there’s a program for pet lovers, this time the Cat Video Festival opening at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck (more info here). In addition to the Ulrike Ottinger retrospective and this year’s African Film Festival (see below for both), the Pacific Film Archive is also kicking off a two-month Painters Painting series whose subjects run a gamut from Giotto to Basquiat, as viewed by directors including Clouzot, Pasolini and Emile de Antonio (more info here). And down in the South Bay, March 5-17 brings the 29th edition of Cinequest, whose program in San Jose and Redwood City will include special guests Bill Nighy and Nandita Das (more info here).

Elsewhere:

Dynamation Celebration: The Films of Ray Harryhausen
Long before CGI rendered every fantastical sight possible—if also somewhat banal—onscreen, the apex of movie fantasy effects were often represented by Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation techniques. Rising amidst the drive-in monster movie craze of the 1950s, he began carving out his own unique niche with 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a delightful juvenile adventure. His subsequent work would similarly mix mythology and popcorn thrills, taking inspiration from Jonathan Swift (The 3 Worlds of Gulliver), Jules Verne (Mysterious Island), ancient Greece (Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans), depicting dinosaurs (One Million Years B.C., Valley of Gwangi) and space travel (First Men in the Moon) alike.

While his fabled “Dynamation” FX may look a little corny now, its hand-made qualities still have personality, which is more than one can say for the majority of computerized spectacle in today’s Marvel-dominated fantasy cinema. This three-day tribute will feature most of the late designer’s major films, appearances by his daughter Vanessa and Harryhausen Foundation representative Connor Heaney, and more. Fri/1-Sun/3, Balboa Theatre. More info here

African Film Festival
This year’s edition of the annual PFA showcase kicks off Sunday with a revival screening of Djibril Diop Mambety’s 1992 Hyenas, a Senegalese satire of social hypocrisy inspired by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt’s enduring The Visit. There will be new films from Burkina Faso, Tunisia and Niger, along with the striking recent theatrical release I Am Not a Witch, about a Zambian villager who’s mistaken for one. Extending the festival’s reach, two new restorations will celebrate the legacy of late writer-actor-director Bill Gunn, with screenings of his cult-favorite 1972 vampire saga Ganja and Hess as well as the hitherto little-seen 1980 Personal Problems, a complex three-hour “black soap opera” intended to launch a TV series. His collaborator on the latter, Ishmael Reed, will appear to introduce and discuss the project on March 21. Sat/2-Fri/May 10, PFA. More info here

Climax
Gaspar Noe’s work has often underlined the limited value of art driven primarily by shock value. But the most shocking thing about his latest may be that it is, of all things, a terrific dance movie—at least to a point. After some initial folderol encompassing a flash-forward and a flashback, the film proper begins with a long single shot that’s a knockout mini-epic of hiphop-dance and camera choreography. There’s some good dancing later on, too, and the professional dancers who play exactly that here are surprisingly decent actors, even if they’re not given particularly complex roles to play.

Otherwise, Climax’s teeny weeny script is basically just a premise: About two dozen dancers in a remote shuttered school are ready to party after three days’ hard work on a new routine (i.e. that opening shot). But someone spikes their sangria supply with LSD, and with nearly everyone getting dosed, eventually all hell breaks loose.

Surprisingly, that is the point at which the film gets a lot less interesting, despite getting more violent. Despite the number of FX personnel credited, there’s not much hallucinogenic stuff going on here, just people freaking out in not-particularly-compelling or surprising ways. Though the acrobatic camerawork often impresses, the film irritates by presenting the entire last ten minutes or so upside-down, and there are other typical bratty incongruities (like Noe interrupting his own flow with a mid-movie credits sequence). Overall, it’s one step forward, one step back for France’s aging enfant terrible: Initially Noe’s best since Irreversible, yet ultimately another shapeless, garish, pointless mess a la Into the Void. At area theaters.

Afterimage: Ulrike Ottinger
Before she turned her attention primarily to the documentary form thirty years ago, Ottinger was unique for the ambition and imagination of her narrative features, which now recall the later works of Matthew Barney—albeit in a gay, feminist, Berlin-underground mode—for their putting avant-garde spectacle on a grand celluloid scale. Her last such opus was the marvelous 1989 epic Joan of Arc of Mongolia, which regrettably is not in this PFA retrospective.

But we do get all three titles in her polymorphously perverse, visually inventive “Berlin trilogy,” 1979’s Ticket of No Return (featuring Nina Hagen), 1984’s The Image of Dorian Gray in the Yellow Press, and 1981’s Freak Orlando. The latter is a surreal semi-musical fantasia channeling human history through a deconstructive funhouse mirror, with toxic masculinity represented by a small army of self-flagellating leather men, and a gender-bent Jesus Christ on the cross singing a soprano aria. There will also be several of Ottinger’s nonfiction works, a documentary about her (Brigitte Kramer’s Ulrike Ottinger: Nomad from the Lake, which kicks off this series on Fri/1), and several appearances by the filmmaker-in-residence herself. Fri/1-Sun/April 7, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

To Dust
Shawn Snyder’s droll dark comedy has Geza Rohrig (of the Hungarian Son of Saul) as Schmuel, a 40-ish Orthodox cantor in upstate New York who cannot move on after his wife’s cancer death. More or less abandoning his sons’ care to their grandmother, he pursues relief from nightmares that suggest “her soul is suffering,” and he worries this has something to do with how her body is decomposing. To gain insight into that process, he consults an initially reluctant, very secular community college science teacher played by Matthew Broderick. The two men gradually bond over Schmuel’s bizarre, obsessive, but poignant quest for closure. Not for all tastes, this morbid, sometimes icky conceit nonetheless proves quite funny, even charming in execution, with first-rate performances from the two leads. Opens Friday, Vogue. More info here

Birds of Passage
One of the most striking films to become an arthouse hit in the last couple years was Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, a hallucinogenic Amazonian odyssey in search of an ancient civilization’s healing secret. His followup (co-directed with Cristina Gallego) is neither B&W or “timeless,” instead being specifically set in the first couple decades of Colombia’s modern drug trafficking trade, and shot in color.

Set among the Wayuu people of northernmost Colombia, it starts with Rapayet (Jose Acosta) selling weed to American Peace Corps hippies to pay his wedding dowry in the late 1960s. But the subsequent rapid escalation of money and power create some monsters, including the protagonist’s original partner Moises (Jhon Narvaez) and the obnoxious youth Leonidas (Greider Meza), not to mention steely matriarch Ursula (Carmina Martinez). Their actions soon endanger everyone else, ultimately bringing a blood-soaked war between families.

Birds has been compared to crime sagas like The Godfather and Scarface, as like them it sprawls over numerous years (and corpses) depicting inter-clan conflict over criminal business. Yet unlike them, it does not whip itself up to operatic cresendos of violence, maintaining Embrace’s even, almost ceremonial pace—in keeping with the time-tested values and traditions at stake. Opens Friday, Embarcadero. More info here

The Cannibal Club
Otavio (Tavinho Teixeira) and Gilda (Ana Luiza Rios) are a wealthy power couple with a unique way of spicing up their oft-quarrelsome marriage: Periodically Gilda takes their latest hunky lower-class caretaker to bed. Then after some carnal activity has passed, Octavio emerges from hiding to plant an axe in the unfortunate employee’s body, which they then consume for dinner. Octavio also belongs to an elite, men-only “club” with similar cannibalistic cuisine, presided over by Borges (Pedro Domingues), his boss at a high-end security company. But when Gilda witnesses the boss doing something scandalous—even by these people’s thoroughly corrupted standards—during a party, the power couple fear they might next become someone’s dinner themselves.

This Brazilian black comedy by writer-director Guto Parente is stylish, droll and occasionally outrageous, even if neither the social satire or grand guignol aspects ever quite kick into high gear. Given Brazil’s own recent turn towards right-wing extremism, having elected frothing fascist Jair Bolsonaro as President last fall, the movie’s critique of a smug elite literally eating the underclasses it exploits definitely earns extra points for audacity and relevance. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

Ruben Brandt, Collector
This first feature by 66-year-old Hungarian visual artist Milorad Krstic (whose only prior work in this medium was a prize-winning short a quarter century ago) is a dazzling treat for animation fans. Its story is a sort of surreal action thriller, in which the titular psychotherapist is plagued by nightmares and hallucinations involving famous works of art—he’s attacked by the likes of Botticelli’s Venus, for instance, or shot at by a diner patron from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. He deploys a band of notorious thieves to steal the works that torment him, creating a scandalous global crime wave while hoping to exorcise his artistic demons.

Full of film as well as art history allusions, with some Mission: Impossible-worthy action setpieces, this cubist comedy noir is equally reminiscent of The Triplets of Belleville and Yellow Submarine. It’s more ingenious than involving, with little real emotional or narrative weight. But even if its considerable invention lies strictly on the surface, that surface constitutes an impressively ambitious and imaginative leap. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza Cinema. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Never mind the Oscars, we’ve got screwballs and Pod People

Barbra Streisand in 'What's Up, Doc?'—playing at the Castro

SCREEN GRABS As if nothing mattered but the Oscars on Sunday (harrumph!), there are no major Hollywood releases this weekend, and few notable arthouse ones. However, there are a number of interesting stray openings and one-shot screenings around.

Among them are a new documentary at the Roxie, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With the Future, about the SF-born illustrator whose science-fiction art often anticipated actual developments in space exploration. Douglass M. Stewart Jr.’s feature is a pedestrian, TV-style tribute that nonetheless sustains interest thanks to its fascinating subject. (More info here.) The 4-Star is offering the area premiere of Cheng Wei-hao’s glossy, stylish if convoluted Taiwanese mystery-thriller Who Killed Cock Robin, in which a rather skeevy journalist (Kaiser Chuang) discovers the used car he just bought was involved in a cold-case hit-and-run years ago. His investigation uncovers no end of skullduggery that eventually involves kidnapping, murder, and much high-end corruption. (More info here.)

If you really don’t want to watch the Oscars, but can’t trust yourself if you stay at home, head to the Castro for a curious double bill on Sunday. All About Eve, the all-time great 1950 movie about awards hunger (albeit in the theater world), plays with Orson Welles’ posthumously completed final feature The Other Side of the Wind. The latter went straight to Netflix a few months ago, but you know Welles meant it to be seen on the big screen, and here’s your big chance. (More info here.)

Elsewhere:

Liliom
After he’d made the transition from a matchless German silent career to talkies with the extraordinary M, Fritz Lang was offered the newly installed government’s top film post by Goebbels. He declined (Leni Riefenstahl would take the position), for good measure fleeing the Nazi-fied country at his first opportunity. Before he landed in Hollywood, where he had a different but also successful career (mostly directing noir-ish melodramas), he spent a year in Paris.

The fruit of that interlude was this relatively seldom-revived but superior version of Hungarian author Ferenc Monar’s 1909 play, which had already been adapted to the screen at least twice. (The most recent was just four years earlier: An interesting Hollywood misfire directed by the underrated Frank Borzage, undermined by the miscasting of Charles Farrell in the title role.) The material now is primarily known as the basis for Rogers & Hammerstein’s classic musical Carousel. But this version doesn’t need songs—it’s got Charles Boyer, young and boisterous, strutting like a rooster in contrast to his elegant later image.

He plays the titular carny barker, a petty womanizer and grifter who falls in love with the adoring Julie (Madeleine Ozeray). But even she can’t reform him, leading to an unusual third act in which he’s judged in the afterlife, and must return to Earth as a spirit to right his wrongs or spend eternity in Hell. The director of Metropolis and the Mabuse films was easily equipped to handle this mix of the streetwise and fantastical.

While later versions of the story would struggle against sentimentality (and/or the ugliness of having a wife-beater as protagonist), Lang lends it cinematic zest, and Boyer a swagger that makes Liliom both appealing and ridiculous—his outsized machismo a poor cover for gaping insecurities. Along with Saturday’s screening of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, this rare screening ends the PFA’s “Fritz Lang & German Expressionism” series. Fri/22, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Hometown
Rotterdam-based Filmwerkplaats is an artists’ collective with their own film lab—all the better to create work that is itself largely a hymn to the distinctive textures of old-school celluloid. 2015’s Hometown is their feature-length, B&W 16mm experiment in which “longing, memories and identity punctuate the stories of the ghost characters” searching for that titular place of belonging. Thurs/28, YBCA. More info here.  

Screwballs and Pod People in Seventies SF
There are plenty of great San Francisco movies, but arguably the best two examples from the 1970s (sorry, Dirty Harry) are getting paired on an excellent Castro double bill this Friday. After the critical acclaim of The Last Picture Show, writer Peter Bogdanovich had a popular smash with What’s Up, Doc?, a wholly successful update of 1930s screwball comedy conventions. Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal inherited Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant’s roles, more or less, in a very funny farce indebted to Bringing Up Baby (among numerous other inspirations). Our hills have rarely been used to such good slapstick effect as in the chase climax, while the same could be said for an ace supporting cast including Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton and many more.

A more explicit remake was Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which had the genius idea of re-setting the 1956 Cold War sci-fi classic from a heartland smalltown to defiantly countercultural Me Decade SF—a place where rigid conformity brought on by a stealth alien invasion would have the most dramatic impact. Funny, exciting and bizarre, it’s a terrific movie that provided Jeff Goldblum with one of his first great shambling-weirdo characters, as well as good roles for Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Leonard Nimoy, and others. Fri/22, Castro Theater. More info here

Fighting With My Family
There’s enough celebrity fuss already at Sundance, but it was pretty weird to be there this year and attend a premiere that had Hollywood-level fandom and security (a woman sitting in my row twice got pulled out on suspicion of videotaping, to her bewilderment). Well, you don’t normally see stars there as mainstream as The Rock aka Dwayne Johnson, who produced and appears (as himself) in this movie based on the rise to fame of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. wrestling “diva” Paige.

Florence Pugh of Lady Macbeth plays her, a Goth-styled teen from working-class Norwich who improbably gets drafted for the glitzy arena “sport.” This delights nearly everyone in her wrestling-crazed family (including the delightful Nick Frost as dad), save the athletic older brother (an excellent Jack Lowden) who assumed he’d also make the cut. Vince Vaughn dishes out the snark as a drill sergeant for WWE wannabes. A very middle-of-the-road item by Sundance standards, this sometimes broad but amiable and occasionally witty comedy from writer-director Stephen Merchant (a frequent Ricky Gervais collaborator) is a formulaic underdog-triumphs story that’s quite enjoyable nonetheless. It’s probably the best movie ever made by the WWE (they’ve made over fifty!)—which isn’t saying much, but oh well. Opens Friday at area theaters.

NY Dog Film Festival
Cats are so-last-week. This weekend the Roxie brings you two separate programs of shorts dedicated to Man’s Best Friend. In fact, you can bring your own furry bestie (canine-only, please) to these shows, with proceeds from “each dog ticket sold” (service animals enter free) going to local senior rescue facility Muttville. After the screening, why not take a short walk down 16th Street to Alabama, where you can enjoy the antics of adoptable real-life hounds at not only Muttville, but also SF Animal Care and Control and the SPCA, all conveniently located within one half-block on “Rescue Row”? Sat/23, Roxie. More info here

FP2: Beats of Rage
First there was 2007’s short The FP. Then there was 2011’s feature expansion The FP. Now, with the arrival of this sequel, we have an entire film franchise devoted to the vision of a dystopian future dominated by deadly competitive music-video arcade dance games. If you think that sounds like a Funny or Die-style mashup of Mad Max meets Step Up—well, you’d be exactly right.

Jason Trost returns (minus cinematographer brother Brandon, his co-writer/director on the first film) as JTRO, one-eyed Beat-Beat Revelation (a la Dance Dance Revelotion) champion, the fate of a miserable future world once again resting on his agile feet. If you howled at the first one, you probably find this entry hilarious as well. On the other hand, if you found the original funny for about ten minutes, then a joke stretched waaaaaaay too thin, you’ll probably have pretty much the same reaction this time. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks hosts, compete with a post-screening interview with the director on Friday and Saturday.   Opens Friday, Alamo Drafthouse. 

Humanoids from the Deep
Fabled B-movie producer Roger Corman was notable in his field for encouraging women directors, including this film’s Barbara Peeters—even if she wasn’t happy with the result after he’d re-edited and partly re-shot it to include more sexploitative material. Nonetheless, this rapey Jaws copy/monster mash-up remains a major guilty pleasure from the last days of drive-in cinema.

Shot in Mendocino and Fort Bragg, it has the reliably wooden Doug McClure (inspiration for Troy) among residents of a coastal fishing town unhappy to discover mutant salmon-men (!) are on the loose. Looking like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Ninja Turtles, they’re on the hunt for humans to kill or mate with. Its hysterical county-fair climax topped by the then-almost-inevitable Alien ripoff of a chest-bursting fadeout, this is energetically tasteless trash like they don’t make ‘em anymore. Tue/26, Alamo Drafthouse, more info here

Screen Grabs: British Film Fest, Holiday, Tongues Untied….

Victoria Carmen Sonne in 'Holiday. Photo by Jonas Lodahl.

SCREEN GRABS As we mourn the abrupt loss of the AMC Van Ness 14—it closed on short notice last week—and hope the same fate doesn’t await the Opera Plaza Cinemas, the good news is a returning festival at one of the city’s few remaining single-screen theaters. Starting this Valentine’s Day, the Vogue will be hosting the annual Mostly British Film Festival, whose programming encompasses not just the U.K. itself but Ireland, Australia, South Africa and India—(nearly) all the former colonies. It opens with The White Crow, a glimpse of legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s early years, written by the great David Hare and directed by Ralph Fiennes, who’s unquestionably one of the finest actor-turned-directors of our era.

Other highlights include two new films (Celeste, Flammable Children) with Australian actress Radha Mitchell, who will appear in person; My Generation, in which Michael Caine leads us on a nostalgic tour of his formative “Swinging London;” the Full Monty-like comedy Swimming With Men; Maxime Peake (also a festival guest) as a lone female comedian braving the rough world of early 1970s stand-up in Funny Cow; period Irish famine epic Black ’47; and a series of films depicting the English royals, from Olivier as Richard III to Blanchett as Elizabeth I. The closing night selection on Feb. 21 is no less than Mike Leigh’s latest, Peterloo, about an early 19th-century massacre of protesting workers that helped shame the British government into a (very) gradual shift towards less-imperial, more-democratic policies. Thurs/14-Thurs/21, Vogue. More info here: www.mostlybritish.org

Also opening this week is the last and absolutely least of the five foreign language feature Oscar nominees. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, by the director of 2006’s much better (but still overrated) The Lives of Others, an attempt to encapsulate 20th century German (particularly Nazi and Communist East German) injustice in a somberly melodramatic story.

It’s loosely based on the life of famed modern artist Gerhard Richter, sticking fairly close to biographical facts in some ways but sentimental and manipulative in every fictive liberty. Von Donnersmarck is too square to make a movie about a modernist visionary, or perhaps any artist at all. He can only second-guess artistic inspiration as, well, art therapy—purging one’s inner psychological wounds, like a child told to “draw where it hurts.”

It’s a big, long (3+ hours), conventionally well-crafted, “sweeping” and puddle-deep piece o’ crap in the same general realm as Forrest Gump, another movie that trash-compacted times-a-changin’ in a form digestible for dummies. (Yeah, I guess I didn’t like it.) This is such a bogusly impressive “statement,” it might just pull off an Oscar upset over Roma and Cold War. Stranger things have happened—let is not forget Life Is Beautiful, much as we may want to. Opens Friday, Clay Theater. More info here.

Elsewhere:

Jewish Film Institute Winterfest
Those impatient for the big event of the SF Jewish Film Festival in the summer will get some emergency relief in the form of this, its smaller winter-time showcase. Among the films to be shown are two documentaries about movie-making themselves: James L. Freedman’s Carl Laemmle profiles the German-Jewish emigre who played a huge formative role in the early days of the motion picture industry, eventually co-founding what would become Universal Studios. He also used his considerable clout to help rescue numerous Jewish families from likely doom in Nazi Germany. The other such title is The Ghost of Peter Sellers, in which Hungarian-born British director Peter Medak (The Ruling Class, The Krays) relates his disastrous experience making an unreleased 1973 pirate farce starring the mentally unstable comic genius Sellers—who became so impossible that at one point he faked a heart attack simply to take a break from production. It’s the mother of all “Film shoot goes catastrophically wrong” stories.

There will also be documentaries about freedom-of-the-press champion Joseph Pulitzer (Voice of the People), transgender issues (Family in Transition), and a screening of the 20-year-old Home Page, a flashback to the internet when it was just starting to take over the world. Narrative features being shown include A Fortunate Man, a period drama by veteran Danish director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror); Redemption, an Israeli seriocomedy about an Ultra-Orthodox man’s reluctant reuniting of his erstwhile rock band to pay for a daughter’s cancer treatments; Emma Forrest’s L.A. ensemble piece Untogether; and Michal Aviad’s Working Woman, a quietly harrowing tale of a bigtime Jerusalem developer’s personal assistant caught between her family’s economic needs and his increasingly inappropriate workplace attentions. Sat/16-Sun/17, Alamo Drafthouse and Roxie Theater. More info here

Holiday
A stealth success last year, at least in SF, was Ali Abbasi’s unique character study Border, about peculiar Swedish female customs officer who finds out she’s not just a little “different”—she is, in fact, a member of another species entirely. This first directorial feature by one of its screenwriters, Isabella Ekolof, is similar only in its envelope-pushing nature, with no fantastical element involved. Sascha (Lindsay Lohan-looking Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the much younger lover of Danish drug dealer Michael (Lai Yde), who takes her with his entourage on a luxury vacation on the “Turkish Riviera.”

Though she dresses the part of a mistress, Sascha hasn’t quite registered that she is property, to be used and abused of however her owner sees fit. (Less than ten minutes in, she’s nonchalantly slapped by one of his flunkies for a minor infraction.) Whether out of obliviousness or rebellion, she befriends a couple Dutch men also taking a holiday here, seemingly unaware that any such straying outside his approved circle will be taken by Michael as faithlessness. Its cold, cruel narrative reminiscent of works by Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, this very discomfiting tale of misogyny and violence will make you squirm, even if it ultimately doesn’t go in the direction you might expect. Opens Friday, Roxie. More info here

Everybody Knows
This latest from Asghar Farhadi of A Separation, The Past and The Salesman is, like Never Look Away, another disappointment from an Oscar-winning director. Penelope Cruz plays a woman who flies in from Buenos Aires with her children to attend a younger sister’s wedding in their native Spanish town. During the boisterous celebration, a family member goes missing, and shortly thereafter a message is received from kidnappers.

With its big cast of major Spanish-language actors (also including Javier Bardem and Ricardo Darin), not to mention the writer-director’s track record, this can hardly help but be a cut above average commercial product. Farhadi is no hyperbolic stylist, and his script is more dialogue- than action-driven. Still, Everybody Knows is a thinly disguised pulp thriller that just flirts with larger issues (such as anti-immigrant prejudice), while laying on too many melodramatic conflicts and soap-operatic revelations. The emotional displays are so out of proportion to viewer emotions earned that the film might as well be titled Everybody Cries, with Cruz swimming in tears for most of two hours. This isn’t a bad movie, yet given the talent involved, it should have been much better. Opens Friday at area theaters.

Tongue/War/Cat—A Roxie Conundrum
We can’t highlight everything that happens at the Roxie every week, but three one-shot events this week are worth special note. There’s a 30th-anniversary revival on Wednesday of Tongues Untied, the poetical ode to black gay male identity that pushed late, great Oakland auteur Marlon T. Riggs into an unasked-for national spotlight—its broadcast on PBS ignited a firestorm of conservative outrage. A panel discussion with special guests TBA is promised after the 55-minute film’s screening. Wed/20, more info here

Riggs died of AIDS at age 37 in 1994—a year before another Bay Area resident, composer Erling Wold, premiered his first chamber opera A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil at Intersection for the Arts. Since then, he’s had a significant international career including last year’s bow of a new chamber opera inspired by the sinking of the Austro-Hungarian Navy vessel SMS St. Stephen in the last days of World War I. Rattensturm: A War Opera is a concert film of the work in its debut performance, as commissioned by the Klagenfurter Ensemble; Wold himself will introduce the screening. Mon/18, more info here

Finally, it’s all about the pussy as the Roxie hosts two separate programs of the NY Cat Film Festival, featuring your favorite furry friend in everything from short documentaries to comedies to one “puppet mockumentary.” There’s also a nonfiction feature, Markie Hancock’s Feral Love, about a seeming “crazy cat lady” who’s also been a violinist with the New York Philharmonic for forty years. If the prospect of so much feline entertainment is triggering your allergies, fear not: Next weekend brings the NY Dog Film Festival. Sat/16, more info here

Don’t Look Now
Though he hadn’t made a feature in over 10 years (or a good one for at least 20), the death of Nicolas Roeg a couple months ago meant the loss of one of his generation’s most original film talents. Roeg went from being among the finest cinematographers of the 1960s to a directorial career as striking as any in the adventuresome 1970s. From 1970’s scandalous Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell) to 1980’s equally disturbing Bad Timing, with classic Walkabout and mother-of-all-cult-films The Man Who Fell To Earth between, his work was arresting, challenging, maddening and refreshing.

All of his movies are messily “imperfect,” but arguably none (certainly during that peak Me Decade run) came so close to perfection as Don’t Look Now, a fascinatingly elliptical quasi-horror mystery based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca). Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie play a couple who travel to Venice in the wake of their only child’s tragic accidental death. But the labyrinthine old city holds its own terrors, and refuses to let their mourning end.

The film’s initial infamy centered around an unusually graphic (yet tender, even sad) sex scene between the leads that triggered censorship in many countries. But it’s endured as an unusually “haunting” movie in both the psychological and supernatural sense, its hypnotic atmosphere of mingled grief, decay and marital love transcending the horror genre’s usual sensationalism. Tues/19, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Fighting for survival in ‘Arctic’ and courting death in Norwegian black metal

Mads Mikkelsen stars as Overgårdin in 'Arctic', a Bleecker Street release. Photo by Helen Sloan SMPSP/Bleecker Street.

Yors truly is just back from the Sundance Film Festival, and the only thing you really need to know about that is that quite possibly the best film of the entire festival (though the prizes it won did not include Best Dramatic Feature) was none other than Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails’ The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

All hometown chauvinism aside, this is a great movie — although admittedly, it will have special resonance for anyone who’s lived here long enough to share the film’s particular sense of loss about this city. Anyway, we’ll no doubt have more occasion to write about it in the future.

Fortunately for those of you not privileged to wade through snowdrifts on your way to movies once a year, there’s a heady year-round diet of classic and recent international cinema being served up at the Pacific Film Archive. Patronage there has only increased since it (and the University Art Museum) moved into new digs a block from downtown Berkeley BART a few years back. This week alone features a new feature by Godard (see below), contemporary Chinese documentaries, vintage films by Fritz Lang, Jia Zhangke in person with his acclaimed new gangster epic Ash is Purest White, and Minding the Gap — probably the best of the five current Best Documentary Oscar nominees.

There are also three programs particularly notable for their rarity. You can’t see the films of veteran experimentalist Nathaniel Dorsky in any format save 16mm projection, his preferred format for at least 55 years now. So hie thee down to the PFA Saturday night to see him present four of his typically poetical, primarily silent recent works. Sat/9 8pm, $13, $8 BAMPFA member. More info here.

Another silent slice of poetry is Joe May’s 1929 German feature Asphalt, screening Sunday afternoon. It’s a simple, even crudely melodramatic tale of a “bad” woman (Betty Amann, a flapper beauty in the Louise Brooks mode) gradually redeemed by the love of and for the cop (Albert Steinruck) who arrests her for shoplifting jewels. It’s a tale considerably elevated by the expressive technique of May, who was one of the major European directors of the era. Both he and Amann eventually fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood, never attaining the same career heights again. She soon left acting entirely, while he was seldom given any assignments worthy of his talent, ending making grade-B comedies with aging juveniles the Dead End Kids (with whom he didn’t even get along). Sun/10 4pm, $13, $8 BAMPFA member. More info here

Earlier that afternoon, the PFA will present probably the first Bay Area screening in decades of Bo Widerberg’s 1969 Adalen 31, a Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar nominee that has fallen into obscurity — though not in Sweden, where it (and the incidents portrayed) continues to influence modern politics and policy. It’s an often lyrical, low-key dramatization of the notorious 1931 Adalen shootings, in which military troops opened fire on protesting laborers on strike for better pay from the rural area’s lumber industry.

Widerberg, who took his role seriously as part of a Swedish cinematic new wave, had had a great worldwide hit with 1967’s Elvira Madigan. It was also based on a historical incident, but became the kind of movie that is successful primarily because it depicts very pretty people in pretty settings, in gauzy color photography. Perhaps chagrined by its reception as a glorified shampoo commercial, his next projects were ambitious and overtly political, the other being biopic Joe Hill, about the Swedish-American folksinger/activist. Adalen is being shown (in an archival 35mm print) within the series “Life Goes On: The Films of Mia Hansen-Love,” as one of the movies that artist-in-resident considers a major personal influence. Sun/10 1:30pm, $13, $8 BAMPFA members. More info here.

Also this week, there’s the opening of ecological documentary Sharkwater Extinction; Liam Neeson revenge thriller Cold Pursuit, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own black-comedy-tinged 2014 In Order of Disappearance; and at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas, two separate programs of the current Oscar nominees for Best Live Action and Animation Shorts. There’s also the final week of SF Indiefest, which continues through Thu/14 at the Roxie.

ELSEWHERE

Arctic

Though he’s still primarily known in the U.S. for villainous roles (most famously as TV’s Hannibal, and literally breaking 007’s balls in Casino Royale), Mads Mikkelsen’s movies in his native Denmark make it clear he’s an actor of great range — in fact, one of the great movie actors of our time. Ergo he’s the perfect performer for this kind of one man show, in which his character is plane-wrecked in a remote polar region.

While we know almost nothing about him (including how long he’s been stuck here), Mikkelsen’s “Overgard” has superb survival skills, knowing how to ice-fish and otherwise maximize his minimal resources. He’s even able to medically tend another person once a second crash lands a badly wounded young woman (Maria Thelma Smaradottir) with whom he shares no common language in his care. But this environment is hostile to nearly all life, and the scant land life it does sustain (i.e. polar bears) is deadly, too.

This Iceland-shot first feature by Brazilian director Joe Penna is a stripped-down survival drama that is as often grueling as it is exciting. But it’s always involving, in large part due to Mikkelsen, who doesn’t even need dialogue to create an intensely

Lords of Chaos

In another frozen northland, the protagonists of Spun director Jonas Akerlund’s new film aren’t trying to avoid death, but basing their (frequently short) lives around it. This is a dramatization of the infamous chain of events within the Norwegian black metal scene in the early 1990s, when competition and infighting between principal figures led to a series of historic church burnings, not to mention the odd suicide and murder.

See, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in the Scandinavian paradise of high living standards and generous social welfare. Admittedly, the Nordic nations had high rates for alcoholism and depression. But the real-life protagonists here worked really, really hard at achieving a state of self-destructive quasi-Satanic nihilism, to the degree that their nastier hijinks became a so-“dark”-it’s-ridick joke heard ‘round the world.

Swede Akerlund, who’s directed music videos for everyone from Madonna to Metallica to Beyonce over the last three decades (and was the drummer for “Viking metal” progenitor Bathory), takes an initially somewhat sneering approach to what he clearly considers a bunch of minimally talented assclown poseurs. But the snark dims as things grow more and more grotesque, starting with Mayhem singer Dead’s (Jack Kilmer) very bloody suicide, then proceeding through the subsequent battle of ill wills between allies turned enemies Euroymous (Rory Culkin) and Varg (Emory Cohen).

Sometimes the tone is a little too close to caricature, the two leads’ psychological journeys aren’t all that convincing, and the film suffers from being denied permission to use any of the original music involved. Still, this well-crafted recap of stranger-than-fiction events has an undeniable entertainment value, one located at the intersection of horror, black comedy and docudrama. Opens Fri/8, 8 & 10:30pm, $16.75. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Screen Grabs: IndieFest, Godard’s latest, and a Jeff Goldblum smorgasbord

'Miss Bala', starring Anthony Mackie and Gina Rodríguez hits movie screens Fri/1.

Last week we mentioned the beginning of SF Indiefest, whose 21st edition starts Wed/30 with the new indie comedy The Unicorn and a “live re-score” of Disney animation classic Fantasia. But the bulk of the festival is yet to come, encompassing the next two weeks — on Valentine’s Day, when it will end fittingly with the already beloved institution of the “Power Ballad Sing-a-Long.”

The official closing night (Feb. 14) film is Waterlily Jaguar, actress Melora Water’s feature debut as writer-director. It stars one of our favorite actors, James Le Gros, who’s been a familiar face since Drugstore Cowboy 30 years ago. Despite a prolific and diverse career since, he is seldom seen in the kind of movie-dominating lead role he gets here.

Le Gros plays a wealthy misanthrope, a famous author who disdains his best-selling success and becomes fixated on a bizarre subject for what would likely be a decidedly non-commercial next book: The “La Brea Woman,” a prehistoric female whose remains were preserved by the tar pits for thousands of years until their discovery in 1914. As this obsession seems to undermine his mental health, his already-rocky professional and other relationships come unglued, including that with his latest long-suffering wife (Mira Sorvino). It’s an odd, interesting concept that doesn’t feel fully fleshed out by the screenplay. But Le Gros is excellent as this prickly but not (it turns out) irredeemable curmudgeon — a role he inhabits just as fully and comfortably as the dirt-poor alcoholic rural deer hunter he plays in Buck Shot, another new indie feature.

Other highlighted SF Indiefest titles include the Roxie opening nighter (Thu/31) The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot, with Sam Elliott as that man in a fantastical yet surprisingly poker-faced (and very literal-minded) adventure; and Fri/8 “Centerpiece” film Little Woods, Nia DaCosta’s drama about women driven to desperate measures in a North Dakota oil “boomtown” in which precious little of that wealth is actually trickling down to local residents.

Among works of particular local interest and/or origin are two world premieres, Daniel Kremer’s B&W murder mystery Overwhelm the Sky and Adam Zbar’s absurdist Silicon Valley tale Mermaids and Manatees. There’s several documentaries with Bay Area roots, like Stuart Swezey’s Desolation Center, documenting a pre-Burning Man cultural experiment in the 1980s California desert; Laura VanZee Taylor’s yoga-themed I Am Maris; Bernardo Rjiuz’s Harvest Season, about the Napa Valley wine industry; Courtney Quirin’s Guardians, which focuses on some superior longtime Canadian environmental policies; and Cameron Bargerstock’s Exit Music, a portrait of creativity, cystic fibrosis, and facing death.

Though heavy on U.S. indie cinema as usual, the program also has room for foreign works like the British black comedy Degenerates and Chilean animated feature The Wolf House. Other intriguing-looking features include Amanda Kramer’s Ladyworld, a Lord of the Flies amongst teenage girls earthquake-trapped in a house. Its opposite number is Danishka Esterhazy’s Canadian Level 16, in which more teenage girls undergo a Handmaid’s Tale-like training in “perfect femininity.” Surely worth a glance for their titles alone are cult sendup Seven Stages to Achieve Eternal Bliss By Passing Through the Gateway Chosen by the Holy Storsh and non-fictive This Taco Truck Kills Fascists. Many features will be accompanied by shorts, but there are also six unique programs devoted solely to shorts. SF Indiefest runs Wed/30-Thu/14 primarily at the Roxie and Victoria. More info here.

Unavailable for preview by deadline was this week’s most notable new wide opening Miss Bala, the latest from Catherine Hardwicke, whose career went unevenly mainstream (the first Twilight movie, Red Riding Hood) and then on to television after the exceptional start of Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. A remake of the same-titled 2011 Mexican thriller, it stars Gina Rodriguez as a woman forced into the world of smuggling and money laundering across the U.S.-Mexico border, and could be a return to the grittier terrain of Hardwicke’s acclaimed early work.

Other screen attractions include the second half (through Sun/3) of Noir City at the Castro; an opportunity at the Pacific Film Archive to see both parts of Fritz Lang’s mammoth, five-hour 1924 Norse mythology blowout Die Nieberlungen; and They Shall Not Grow Old, which finally opens a regular run after several single-day showings across the country.

The latter is Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson’s restoration and editing of documentary footage from World War I into an overview of the common soldier’s life in that unprecedented conflict a century ago. Some have applauded great “you-are-there” immediacy in his using modern technology to present these B&W clips in color and 3-D, while others found that approach alienating and artificial. (The limits of technique are exposed in the way some long-gone, hundred-year-old faces turn into creepy blurs.) Still, given that many students today apparently aren’t even aware the Holocaust happened, anything that teaches history to a wide audience is welcome.

The Image Book

Jean-Luc Godard seemed so integrally a part of the 1960s, and he’s seldom shown much interest since in regaining the commercial audience he willfully alienated after that decade’s close. Yet here he is with a new movie at age 88, having survived nearly all his contemporaries. The Image Book is, like most of his recent work, a sort of found-footage collage — its clips drawn from throughout the history of moviemaking (and movie-taking), including excerpts as diverse as the humungous 1966 Russian War & Peace, Pasolini’s notorious Salo, plus Hollywood sweet (Young Mr. Lincoln), sour (Johnny Guitar) and WTF (Freaks). There’s quite a bit of actual combat and atrocity footage, both historic and up-to-the-moment-terroristic.

Many of these elements are altered (in terms of color intensity, speed, et al.) at his keyboard. As ever, his choices often seem willfully perverse, even arbitrary, from the frequent dropout of sound to the erratic English subtitling of his own cornhusk-dry voiceover narration. It wouldn’t be Godard if the precise meaning weren’t somewhat obscure and the intent at least partly prankish, even though this time he does appear to be thematically focused on our era as one of collapse: This “book”’s images are largely of violence, war, rape, murder.

If only for the rich color, variety, and frequent familiarity of those images, this is a more palatable Godard film than many he’s made in recent decades. Still, some experience is recommended in approaching its puzzle box. If you’re introducing someone (or yourself) to Godard, backtrack to Breathless and Weekend, then very gradually work your way forward towards latterday abstracts such as this. Fri/1, Sat/9, Pacific Film Archive, SF. More info here.

Tito and the Birds

This Brazilian animated feature applies an adult artistic sensibility to a parable nonetheless somewhat hemmed in by the pretense of being a “children’s” entertainment. Its rich, lovely, impressionistic visuals — redolent of oil paintings — outclass a somewhat awkward story about a little boy who leads the fight against an epidemic that seizes upon people’s fear of the “other” until they’re paralyzed, fully withdrawn from society.

There’s no question this is about the way that reactionary politics are alienating individuals and whole communities in Brazil, the U.S., and beyond. But the script is literal-minded enough to let the oft-silly foreground action get in the way of the deeper, evocative metaphorical backdrop (both visual and thematic). The result is slightly too abstract for kids yet a bit too dumbed-down for grownups. It’s still worth it if you can turn your brain off to an extent and just soak in the high-art beauty of the frequently dominating backgrounds, which are unusually sophisticated for a “cartoon” — certainly far more so than the story and characters they ostensibly support here. Opens Fri/1, Opera Plaza, SF. More info here.

The Goldblum Standard: A Jeff Goldblum Mystery Marathon

Independence Day remains one of the most popular and influential movies of the last quarter-century, but the only truly great thing about it is that it had the inspiration to place the fate of Earth and all humankind in the hands of supreme goofball Jeff Goldblum. (And he comes through!) That stroke of genius was equalled two years ago when Thor: Ragnarok had the notion of making Goldblum the goofball who just might destroy all existence, just cuz. Both scenarios were equally (im-)plausible and delightful.

Somewhere along the line, those roles and the goodwill accumulated by 45 years onscreen (well, maybe not his very first role as murdering rapist “Freak #1” in Death Wish) got Goldblum officially ordained as a sort of cultural treasure. Not just by the kinds of mega-fans who similarly adore Bruce Campbell or Brad Dourif, but by everybody.

Thus it makes perfect sense that the Alamo Drafthouse should be holding this entire day of worship to the ‘Blum that is 100% gold, a man so beloved that we don’t know or care what films are actually going to be shown. That’s the “mystery,” although based on the photos on the Drafthouse website, one might guess there’s a fair chance the program will include such memorable Jeff G. joints as The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai and Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, the movie in which he arguably most made masculine dithering sexy. The four TBA features will be screened in 35mm, with “surprises” and “special theme menus” promised. Jesse Hawthorne Ficks of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS hosts! Sun/3, New Mission Alamo Drafthouse, SF. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Our critic’s picks from Noir City and SF Indiefest

Stanley Kubrick films his 1955 film Killer Kiss, which screens at SF Noir Tue/29.

A fair share of the Bay Area film community will be spending the next couple weeks looking (and flying) eastward towards the Sundance Film Festival. But for those not braving the Park City winter, there are ample compensations: Staying in SF means you get two of the year’s most fun and idiosyncratic local film festivals. 

First up is the 17th edition of Noir City, whose ten days at the Castro this annum are themed “Film Noir in the 1950s.” With each day marching one year forward through that decade (well, actually from 1949 to 1961), the program aims to entertainingly deface the popular notion that that “Eisenhower era” was all prosperity and wholesomeness à la Happy Days. The mix includes established classics as familiar as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Hitchcock’s Psycho (a noir that drives off a cliff into horror), and Godard’s nouvelle vague gangster homage Breathless

There will be films by such star directors of the genre as Otto Preminger (Angel Face), Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall), and Sam Fuller (Underworld U.S.A., Pickup on South Street). The previously taboo terrain of racial prejudice is explored in Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (both from 1959), and Oscar-nominated 1951 indie The Well. There are a few treasured cult films, like Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly and the outre low-budget 1961 Blast of Silence

But as usual, the real gold for many will lie in a number of obscure and seldom-revived titles, among them Stanley Kubrick’s first commercial feature Killer’s Kiss, the arresting 1958 hitman portrait Murder by Contract, glossy MGM color melodrama A Kiss Before Dying (with Robert Wagner as a handsome Tom Ripley-like sociopath), and Casablanca director Michael Curtiz’s late-career rarity The Scarlet Hour. All programs are double bill; period attire is optional. Fri/25-Sun/3, ticket prices vary. Castro Theatre, SF. More info here.

The other big local event, which starts next Wednesday and continues well into post-Sundance February, is the venerable SF Indiefest, whose 21st edition kicks off at the Victoria with a fantastical double bill. First up is indie rock band Rooney leader Robert Schwartzman’s new comedy The Unicorn, a likable millennial snarkfest in which an uptight young couple (sketch comedians Lauren Lapkus and Nicholas Rutherford) decide what their relationship needs is a walk on the wild side in the form of a threesome. Then local electronica ensemble The Firmament perform a “live re-score” to Disney’s 1940 animation omnibus Fantasia, whose segments were created to illustrate various classical music pieces—but here the often trippy images (which were embraced more fully by audiences as of the 1960s) will be accompanied by an all-new soundtrack of beats, blips, and aural psychedelia. [We’ll preview the remainder of SF Indiefest in next week’s column.] Wed/30-Feb 14, Roxie and Victoria, with parties and other events at additional locations. More info here.

Other notable arrivals this week:

Serenity

An intriguing commercial thriller from esteemed scenarist turned director Steven Knight. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway play ex-spouses drawn back together by her dangerous new domestic circumstances. Fri/25, various locations. 

The Mother and the Whore

Relationships are viewed through an entirely different prism in Jean Eustache’s 1973 film, possibly the most thoroughly French movie ever made, and considered by many as one of the best. Truffaut’s early muse Jean-Pierre Leaud plays a garrulous, self-absorbed citizen of Parisian cafe society who spends most of 3 1/2 hours’ screen time talking in bed with the two women (Bernadette Lafont and Francoise Lebrun) he’s currently involved with. This B&W 16mm epic of aesthetic minimalism and intellectual gum-flapping is being shown in the Pacific Film Archive’s own 35mm print. Fri/25 7pm, $13. More info here.

The Films of Frank Stauffacher

Also at the PFA is this tribute to an important if largely forgotten figure in the Bay Area’s formative experimental film scene. Stauffacher was a native San Franciscan commercial artist who started the “Art in Cinema” series at SFMOMA in 1946, which itself was a wellspring of inspiration for local filmmakers. Perhaps most prominent among the latter was James Broughton—later a gay cultural icon, but then involved with future film critic Pauline Kael, with whom he had a daughter. Stauffacher shot Broughton’s typically antic Mother’s Day and Adventures of Jimmy, but also made several shorts of his own before succumbing to a brain tumor in 1955, at just 38 years of age. 

This program (which will be introduced by his widow Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, herself a noted artist and designer) will feature Mother’s Day as well as rare screenings of Frank’s likewise playful and poetical but more documentary-tilted own celluloid works. Most ambitious among them is 1951’s Notes on the Port of St. Francis, a lovely city-symphony-type glimpse of an SF both familiar and strange, with kids riding go-carts down Russian Hill and cable car routes seemingly everywhere. Its narration, from a text by 1882 visitor Robert Louis Stevenson, is read by none other than Vincent Price. Sun/27 2pm, $13. PFA. More info here.

The Wrecking Crew

From the mid ’60s onward, rock music became taken far more seriously than just something that “has a good beat and you can dance to it”. “Authenticity” began to matter — it could ruin a performer’s credibility if it was discovered that they didn’t do all (or any) of the playing or singing on their own recordings. Yet, many rock acts were young and inexperienced; the record companies saw little reason not to employ “real” musicians in the studio to create a more polished pop product. 

The hidden superstars among these so-called “session artists” in 1960s Los Angeles were a loose group that became known as The Wrecking Crew that played on hits by everyone from The Beach Boys and The Monkees to Nancy Sinatra and The Righteous Brothers. This documentary by Danny Tedesco (whose father Tommy was also a studio-musician regular) peels back the vinyl to reveal who really came up with signature riffs on classic tracks. More often than not, it was jaded jazz-trained instrumentalists paying the bills by playing on pop discs they found simple-minded. (One of them eventually became a headliner in his own right, late country-pop star Glen Campbell.)  

The Wrecking Crew played the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2008, but was hard to see for years afterward because it took nearly a decade for the filmmakers to raise the money to purchase the necessary music rights for a commercial release. The Balboa is bringing it back for one showing. Thu/14 7:30pm, $12.50. Balboa Theatre, SF. More info here.

Pledge

A late booking at the 4-Star is this effectively nasty little horror film from director Daniel Robbins. Three particularly geeky freshmen (including scenarist Zack Weiner) can’t believe their luck when, after humiliating rejections from all the campus fraternities during Rush Week, they get invited to a decadent blowout at a plush if far-flung student “club house.” Babes, booze and brotherly good vibes beyond their wildest dreams are theirs, for one night. But that luck turns when they return the next evening, and find a very different kind of “initiation” is planned for them and two other unfortunate “pledges.” 

Pledge isn’t terribly surprising or sophisticated, but it’s a lean, mean shocker that works nicely within its unambitious narrative limits. Opens Fri/25, $12.50. 4-Star Theater, SF. More info here

Screen Grabs: The world’s most popular comedy duo shows its seams in ‘Stan & Ollie’

From 'Stan & Ollie'

Laurel & Hardy may be the most popular comedy duo ever — their fame was international, easily surviving the transition from silents to talkies in large part because their “universal” physical humor depended so little on dialogue. They were particularly beloved by children (many of whom knew them by the local equivalent of “Skinny and Fatty”), getting another lease on life when their films became standard fare on TV in the 1950s. 

Yet unlike most comedy stars of their calibre, they did not exactly enjoy the high life. This has usually been blamed on the skinflint ways of Hal Roach, whose studio was their professional home for many years. But in fact they were quite well-paid. The problem lay more in the fact that neither performer was very business-savvy, and both had small armies of ex-wives requiring alimony. Those plus other factors (medical expenses, gambling losses, etc.) further conspired to keep them working out of necessity well past the point when they should have retired — not least because while Hardy’s ever-growing weight kept him ageless in a way, diabetic Laurel began looking like an old man, lending a queasy touch to his perpetually childish screen persona. 

Thrown together more or less by accident—each was considered a leading player for comedy shorts specialist Roach before they gradually became a “team” — they had an amiable partnership despite very different personalities and work ethics. However effectively he played a simpleton, Britisher Laurel was in fact the “brains” of the operation, compulsively hatching and polishing their material, while Georgia-born Hardy was content to punch the clock as an actor. 

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly do not immediately leap to mind as likely candidates to play L&H, but being good actors, they prove capable of disappearing into the roles with surprising aplomb. Nor does Jon S. Baird, the director of aptly named Irving Welsh adaptation Filth, seem an obvious choice to direct Stan & Ollie. But this biopic nonetheless proves a solid piece of work on all counts. It’s much in the vein of two other fairly recent British features, My Week With Marilyn and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which likewise mixed nostalgia, humor, and pathos to limn scenes from a fading real-life Hollywood glory. 

After a prelude in 1937 (just before they jumped ship from Roach to MGM), we greet the duo again nearly 20 years later, when the prospect of securing one last film deal ropes them into an arduous European stage tour. Neither are in the best of health, physically or financially; the arrival of their quarreling current wives, played by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson, does nothing to relieve the general stress. Things grow increasingly downbeat as the veterans’ fortunes fail. 

Nicely if conventionally written by Jeff Pope, this bittersweet tale is unlikely to convince any newbie of the team’s greatness — taken from their original celluloid context, the routines recreated are just kinda cute — but will be enjoyable for anyone who has formative memories of watching Laurel & Hardy. It’s a nicely depthed tribute to the men behind mirth, without being quite warts-and-all enough to sour the legacy of that humor. 

Elsewhere this week, there’s not a whole lot of new-film activity, with the sole major commercial arrival being M. Night Shyamalan’s greatest-hits thriller (it reprises characters from his Unbreakable and SplitGlass. The Roxie, which has had great success of late as SF’s de facto center for anime, should have another hit with Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the latest installment in the giant multimedia franchise that’s been a Japanese cultural behemoth since 1984. It’s the twentieth feature film in that sci-fi fantasy series, and has been acclaimed as the best to date among all its big-screen incarnations. 

Slipping into town with no fanfare is a Henry James adaptation with Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson. That certainly sounds promising, yet when you see it, you’ll understand why The Aspern Papers has sidestepped early reviews—it’s a hamfisted travesty that completely misses the ironic wit of James’ novella, and is full of cheesy anachronisms. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is dreadful as the 1880s American (wait till you hear his honking accent) who schemes his way into a majestic but cash-poor Venetian home for two expatriate spinsters, hoping to get his hands on love letters once written by a long-dead poet. Even Redgrave is underwhelming amidst the kind of posey, smirking costume-party tosh that reflects first-time director Julien Landias’ background—he’s worked primarily in commercials and the fashion industry. This is exactly the movie you might expect from an ex-model, more heavy-breathing perfume ad than Henry James.

However, one of the year’s best movies (be it 2018 or 2019) is also opening on Friday, and there are a few flavorsome one-shot screenings around town this week:

Cold War

Damn that Alfonso Cuaron: If Roma hadn’t become the first foreign film in aeons to sweep all the early critics’ prizes that don’t explicitly omit non-English-language titles, this latest by Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski would be getting all that attention, or nearly as much. A late bloomer who didn’t make his first dramatic feature until he’d past 40, the writer-director made diverse documentaries and a couple relatively high-profile films in English (My Summer of LoveThe Woman in the Fifth) before having a most unexpected international hit five years ago. Ida was an improbable success story — a somber little B&W drama about a young nun, set in the less-than-swinging Sixties of Poland behind the Iron Curtain — but the rare such movie to prosper simply because it was so profoundly conceived and beautifully made. 

Cold War is also a remarkable piece of work, more ambitiously scaled yet still rigorously controlled. In a late 1940s Poland still reeling from the devastation of WW2, beautiful young Zula (Joanna Kulig) determinedly gains berth in a state-funded folk arts ensemble being assembled by pragmatic manager Irena (Agata Kulesza) and exacting music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Their project soon becomes one of those acts that defines a nation’s cultural heritage (and current propagandic mission) both at home and on tour abroad, while Wiktor and Zula (to Irena’s vague annoyance) become a secret romance. But he’s dissatisfied with the artistic limitations thrust upon him by government minders, yearning for escape. So their love, frequently discordant yet inescapable, has to weather the trials of separation and expatriation over the long haul of Cold War’s episodic, decades-spanning story. 

Expertly mixing the political and the personal without ever growing too obvious about either — this is a movie whose narrative lives largely in unexplained gaps we must fill in with our imaginations — Pawlikowski’s very complicated love story is like La La Land with a brain. It’s a musical in everything but the “bursting into song” sense, with song and dance integral throughout, albeit never presented in classic movie-fantasy terms. There are dazzling individual sequences gorgeously shot (again in B&W) by Ida’s Lukasz Zal. Still, the emotional effect is stripped-down, reflecting the deprivation and compromise these characters must live with in their endless political straits. It’s a great movie that is sure to reward repeat viewings. At area theaters. 

Julius Eastman/Gay Guerrilla

Adventuresome NYC pianist, singer and composer Julius Eastman died just short of age 50 in 1990. Since then, there’s been a steady effort at reconstructing a body of work rendered elusive by his erratic notation of scores, failure to be embraced by mainstream institutions, and troubled non-artistic life. (His later years plagued by drug use and homelessness, his death wasn’t even publicly noted until months later.) As a gay African-American mixing elements of minimalism, jazz, pop, improvisation, and multimedia along with sometimes outre political statements (one piece was called Evil Nigger), he was perhaps too far ahead of his time for his own good. During his life, he was best known for participating in other people’s work—notably as a member of the great Meredith Monk’s vocal/dance ensemble.

This weekend SF Cinematheque is co-hosting a two-part tribute to Eastman’s legacy. Sun/13 will bring a concert of his works at Old First Church. The prior night at YBCA is film-focused, with U.K. collective The Otolith Group’s recent The Third Part of the Third Measure providing a meditation on and amplification of Eastman’s “aesthetics of black radicalism.” There will also be the Group’s prior Be Silent, For the Ears of God Are Everywhere, and Cauleen Smith’s Entitled, a tribute to pioneering African American still-life painter Charles Ethan Porter. Sat/12, YBCA Screening Room. More info here.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Largely dismissed at the time as yet another of director Terry Gilliam’s expensive commercial failures, this 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 roman à clef now seems one of his most fully realized works. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro play the greatly drug-and-alcohol-addled duo whose trip to Vegas on a journalistic assignment turns into a monumental dive into hallucinatory comedy and paranoia. 

Gilliam’s fantastical imagination here drinks deep from not just Thompson, but Ralph Steadman’s famous drawings, making this arguably the most expensive ever approximation of an LSD wig out. That was way too much for critics and audiences at the time; they were more appalled than amused. But it’s a hilariously discomfiting film whose achievement the almost perpetually thwarted director hasn’t come near equalling since. This 20th-anniversary 35mm screening is presented by Spoke Arts and Midnights for Maniacs. Sat/12, Roxie. More info here.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

The sleeper success of Wes Craven’s original Nightmare in 1984 made sequels inevitable, and for once, welcome: The surreal-dream-peril conceit was one horror hook that could be expanded upon endlessly without losing its mojo. Still, this first followup, rushed into release less than a year later, was a bit more than most moviegoers were prepared for. It’s being offered up by the Alamo Drafthouse on Terror Tuesday as “the single most powerful cinematic depiction of a young man coming to terms with his latent homosexuality.” They’re not kidding, exactly — even at the time, Freddy’s Revenge was regarded as having a whole lotta, er, “subtext.” 

From its spectacular schoolbus-in-hellscape opening onward, teenage protagonist Jesse (Mark Patton) is the persecuted odd man out — a “new kid in town” whose house turns out to be cursed by the spirit of guess-who. Freddy wants Jesse to “kill for me,” possessing the perpetually sweat-drenched, writhing-in-bed adolescent’s body to slay the men in his life. 

Whether it’s a strapping jock pantsing him on the baseball diamond, discovering his coach is a leatherman (who’ll die a bondage death), everything around our hero is loaded with homophobic/homoerotic innuendo at Jesse’s expense. (And at the expense of the franchise’s fundamental “rule” — here, sleep isn’t required for those being menaced by the supervillain.) His basement incinerator now a metaphor, Robert Englund’s Freddy Kreuger is positioned as the flaming little secret Jesse didn’t ask for, and doesn’t want to “come out.” Good luck with that. 

The only fire that doesn’t start around here is the one Jesse’s wannabe-girlfriend (Kim Myers) keeps trying to light in his libido. (Actor Patton, who really was closeted at the time, later blamed the filmmakers for ending his career by surreptitiously “outing” him onscreen.) Jesse’s plight had a queasy quality — hitting a note at once sympathetic and exploitative — arriving at a moment when the AIDS crisis was stirring maximum public paranoia. The film was adopted as a guilty pleasure by some ‘mo’s, yet one wonders just how “gay-positive” the makers were being when after all their dude-on-dude teasing, they suggest at-risk Jesse can finally only be saved by “real love” — a woman, natch. 

This festival of shirtless locker-room jailbait directed by Jack Sholder (whose career peaked with sci-fi cult fave The Hidden two years later) isn’t the best Nightmare movie, but it is definitely the weirdest. This 35mm screening benefits the American Genre Film Archive’s preservation efforts. Tue/15, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.