Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: In the grip of hard truths—both political and personal

Mr. Jones

New releases of interest this Friday run a global gamut from Vegas to Australia and Japan, with France, Russia and South Korea in between. It’s an assortment that particularly highlights the (hopefully) temporary loss of off-line arthouse venues, as many of these films would surely have played theaters rather than going straight to streaming and other home formats under different circumstances.

Mr. Jones
One of the worst if also least-known catastrophes of modern history is the subject of this latest by globe-trotting veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, The Secret Garden). Gareth Jones (played here by James Norton) was a young Welsh journalist well-connected enough that in 1933 he’d already worked for former Prime Minister Lowell George and interviewed Adolf Hitler.

A Russophile with considerable foreign-relations expertise, he became suspicious about the improbably boastful economic claims coming out of the still-new Soviet Union. He managed to get there, and elude his minders long enough to grasp the horrific truth: That the unrealistic expectations of Stalin’s Five Year Plan for growth had resulted in a famine whose largely Ukrainian death toll is now estimated as being anywhere from three to twelve million.

This powerful depiction of that journey and its muddy political consequences spurs some of Holland’s best work ever, with Jones’ excursion into a countryside of frozen corpses assuming the tenor of a surreal nightmare. It’s a movie worthy of its terrible subject, with a particularly vivid supporting performance by Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times reporter whose famine denialism was subsequently exposed as a deliberate cover-up on Stalin’s behalf. Mr. Jones is available on digital and On Demand.

Disclosure
Not to be confused with the same-named recent Netflix documentary (about transgender screen representation), this Australian drama is a little firecracker in which a complex tangle of hot-button issues blow up in the characters’ faces. At first it seems unpromisingly stagy, entirely driven by long scenes of dialogue between the two 40-ish couples who pretty much comprise the entire character roster. But you soon forget about those limitations.

Neighbors as well as ostensible friends in the same leafy, upscalingly middle-class suburban neighborhood are the Bowmans and the Chalmers. But their differences in style—journalist Danny (Mark Leonard Winter) and filmmaker Emily B. (Matilda Ridgway) are on the granola side, politician Joel (Tom Wren) and housewife Bek (Geraldine Hakewell) rather yuppiefied—do not ease an escalating point of awkward contention. The Bowman’s four-year-old daughter has described abuse at the hands of one of the Chalmers’ older (but still preadolescent) sons. No charges are being pressed, but the couples have very different ideas on how to proceed, or whether indeed the incident even occurred.

Denial, past traumas, even blackmail eventually figure in writer-director Michael Bentham’s first feature, in which a series of initially civil sit-down meetings gradually degenerate into angry, accusatory chaos. One might accuse a lesser film of taking on too many ideas in too schematic and garrulous a fashion. But Bentham pulls it off, with the help of an expert cast and a willingness to let melodramatic hysteria become black comedy. Disclosure is a deviously entertaining tale in which every character viewpoint is understandable—yet at the same time, you totally get why these people want to throttle each other. It’s available On Demand and on DVD.

House of Hummingbird
Bora Kim’s debut feature is set in 1994 Seoul, where fourteen-year-old Eun-hee (Ji-hu Park) is a nice, shy but luckless student unpopular at school and beset by dysfunctionality at home, where her parents squabble and her brother bullies her. A secret boyfriend and a kind Chinese tutor provide some encouragement, but not for long—Eun-hee seems destined to be let down by everyone around her.

Slow-moving, low on incident (despite the incorporation of some major public events from that year), House builds impact almost imperceptibly, so that when our heroine finally lets her emotions out in a well-deserved tantrum, it’s like the sky is falling. Her resiliency provides some measure of hope in a gracefully handled narrative that suggests Kim might be at the start of a major career. More info here.

Family Romance, LLC
This might more credibly be a newcomer’s film than Hummingbird. Yet it’s the work of no less than Werner Herzog, who’s been at it for nearly 60 years now. A rare non-documentary from him these days, it’s not a disaster like his last two narrative features (Salt and Fire, Queen of the Desert). Still, it’s an oddly lukewarm exercise that should be more interesting given its subject: A Tokyo business that provides actors to play roles in “real life,” such as a child’s long-absent father, a relative too unreliable to attend a wedding, or an employee taking a verbal beating from a supervisor for a serious error.

There are actual such “rent-a-family” enterprises in Japan, but this pokey piece with nonprofessional performers (presumably playing versions of themselves) doesn’t do much with that reality’s inherent strangeness, or the individual situations’ drama. It does at least testify to the nearly 80-year-old filmmaker’s continuing productivity and curiosity. It’s available on streaming service MUBI (More info here), and will be available free for 24 hours on July 3.

The Truth
A more satisfying if also minor endeavor for a cinematic master is this first foreign-language feature by Hirokazu Kore-eda, probably our era’s most internationally esteemed Japanese director. Shot in France, it has Catherine Deneuve as a somewhat imperious veteran movie star whose newly-published memoir manages to offend a fair number of people including daughter Juliette Binoche, who arrives with her American husband (Ethan Hawke) and little daughter (Clementine Grenier). Meanwhile, the aging diva is making a new film in which her role and much younger co-star raise discomfiting memories she deliberately left out of the alleged tell-all.

Showing little sign of discomfort himself working abroad, Kore-eda is on familiar thematic terrain here. Despite the more glamorous lifestyles depicted, this really isn’t so far from his Still Walking, another drama in which rueful adult children confront the unrepentant failings of perpetually selfish parents. (Reminded of her past misdeeds for career’s sake, Deneuve’s Fabienne shrugs ““I prefer to have been a bad mother and a bad friend, but a good actress.”) That 2008 film was great; this lighter, ultimately pleasing if considerably less powerful one is just good. It’s available on Amazon Video and other streaming platforms.

Money Machine and other new documentaries
The deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. to date occurred less than three years ago, yet is already less-remembered than several other such tragedies. Ramsey Denison’s documentary argues that that is due to a systematic cover-up that began as soon as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock stopped firing rounds at music festival attendees from his 32nd-floor suite in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel on October 1, 2017. 58 people were killed, nearly 900 injured.

The official word was, and remains, that the perp’s motives were unknown and his actions inexplicable. But we hear from business associates and others who firmly believe otherwise: They say high roller Paddock had a specific grudge against MGM (owner of the Mandalay and any other hotel-casinos on the strip), and his massacre was spitefully intended as payback for company policy changes he took very personally. Which of course excuses nothing, but the speed with which Vegas authorities explained/obscured his actions to protect the gaming industry became part of an ugly overall erasure.

Local police, politicians (including, yes, that crazy COVID-oblivious Vegas mayor), MGM management, possibly even the FBI are all fingered here as participants in a cover-up that also encompassed investigative incompetence and seemingly fraudulent solicitation of donations “for survivors” (which they never saw).

This expose has a somewhat tabloid-TV feel, and many interviewees are the kinds of loudmouthed or oddball personalities that normally invite skepticism. Yet a credible overall picture emerges of institutionalized corruption that will stoop to any tactics to protect America’s most lucrative vacation-destination “brand.” Money Machine is available through various virtual cinema programs. More info here.

Other new documentaries of note this week include local director Dawn Porter’s John Lewis: Good Trouble (in Roxie, Rafael and Alamo Drafthouse virtual cinemas), a portrait of the veteran civil rights leader that we have separately previewed here; David France’s HBO Welcome to Chechnya, charting the horrific recent rise of homophobic violence and even murder in that former Soviet republic; Sue Williams’ Denise Ho: Becoming the Song (more info here), which surveys the career to date of Hong Kong’s out lesbian veteran pop star, film/TV actress and pro-democracy activist; the Canadian Ask No Questions (more info here), about an elaborate cover-up involving the Chinese government’s repression of the Falun Gong religious minority; Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth, a pictorially arresting global tour of large-scale mining sites in which geological damage is big business; and Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu’s Elliott Erwitt: Silence Sounds Good (More info here), about the legendary photographer, who’s still active in his nineties.

Screen Grabs: Cinema’s future in doubt, but these world classics endure

Movie theaters (drive-ins aside—who’d have imagined they’d get a comeback?) remain closed for the time being, their re-openings TBD in the Bay Area and many other parts of the country. Some delayed theatrical releases are creeping back onto the schedule, hoping that situation will change in coming weeks.

But even when things do get back to relative “normal,” no one expects the big-screen experience to make a full recovery. Some theaters (especially major chains) won’t have been able to withstand the long break, in which income died but some expenses remained constant. Then there’s the fact that many patrons will be far more reluctant to do their movie-watching in public, breathing the same air as others in a closed space. (And some owners aren’t exactly being reassuring about safety precautions.) We’ll just have to see how it all plays out.

Meanwhile, the increased dependency on home entertainment has made folk more aware of streaming releases than they might otherwise have been. (Even the creators of The Tiger King admit that show never would have become a cultural phenomenon without COVID.) While most of their options are new—it remains to be seen just when we’ll be hit by a dearth of fresh releases due to the quarantine-necessitated shutdown of much filming—distributors have also dug deep to meet the heightened demand with some worthy older titles.

Thus the several local venues that have “virtual cinema” programs in order to keep providing movies during shutdown have made available a few classics and rediscoveries as well as new releases. In addition titles we’ve previously mentioned like 1982’s Canadian The Grey Fox, Jules Dassin’s 1955 Euro crime caper Rififi, Godard’s 1964 Band of Outsiders, and Bela Tarr’s eight-hour 1994 epic Satantango, the BAMPFA in Berkeley has two mini-retrospectives on offer at present.

One is Three Films by Istvan Szabo (more info here), the still-active Hungarian director who was part of the Eastern European New Wave in the 1960s, then receded in international prominence for a few years before taking his national cinema to almost unprecedented heights of popularity abroad in the ’80s. The first film the PFA is presenting, 1980’s Confidence, is a claustrophobic drama in which two strangers married to others (Ildiko Bansagi, Peter Andorai) must pose as a couple in order to evade capture by the Nazis for their ties to the Resistance near WW2’s end. Sometimes awkward in its comingling of regular dialogue and inner thoughts on the soundtrack, spending a little too much time on or over the brink of hysteria, it’s nonetheless a potent piece that was an Oscar-nominated export success.

That was nothing, however, compared to the global impact made by 1981’s Mephisto, the Oscar-winning first of three larger-scaled, internationally funded period pieces starring hitherto little-known Austrian actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. He played a mediocre actor who suddenly gains great professional stature when he aligns himself with the authoritarian forces in Hitler’s Germany. In 1985’s Colonel Redl, another somewhat-fictionalized take on recent historical fact, he was a real-life military officer of the Austro-Hungarian empire who rises from obscurity to high rank. Yet Redl’s patriotism and loyalty (as well as his generally well-repressed homosexuality) ultimately make him an easily manipulated patsy for political schemers including Archduke Ferdinand (Armin Meiuller-Stahl), whose subsequent assassination triggered WWI. (The third film in this informal trilogy, 1988’s Hanussen, is not in the PFA series.)

Now 82, Szabo released a new film called Final Report earlier this year—starring 77-year-old Brandauer. While his films in the decades between have been unevenly received, he remains a fine craftsman and sharp observer of 20th century European history whose fascination with the moral ambiguities of power have been ideally channeled by his favorite performer, as well as such other accomplished actors like Stellan Skarsgard, Ralph Fiennes and Annette Bening.

The other PFA retrospective is Patrizio Guzman’s Chile Trilogy (more info here). Guzman is the Chilean documentarian who created the definitive portrait of that (or any) country’s revolutionary struggle and overthrow in The Battle of Chile, whose three feature-length parts each had to be smuggled abroad or risk destruction by Pinochet’s military junta. He himself fled that coup d’etat (subsequently assembling the films in France) in 1973, but Chile has remained his primary subject as an artist in exile during the nearly fifty years since. He’s remained a well-respected figure and film festival regular, but accessed wider new audiences with an extraordinary trilogy over the last decade.

All available currently through the PFA, these latest works are linked meditations on Chile’s geography, its big-picture history, the ambivalences stirred by its post-Pinochet but still somewhat politically repressive present, and inevitably the gross human rights abuses that scarred Guzman’s own generation. The personal and political are duly inseparable in these films. But so is a sort of philosophical questing too rare in cinema, as well as a rhapsodic visual interest in the physical world’s basic elements and their oft-spectacular incarnations in (and above) Chile.

2010’s Nostalgia for the Light frames the ongoing search for bodies of the “disappeared” with the science and mystique of astronomy. 2015’s The Pearl Button uses water as a unifying theme running through issues from indigenous peoples’ genocide to the disposing of tortured dictatorship captives by dropping them in the sea. The Cordillera of Dreams, released in the US just this year, focuses on geology, and the mountain ranges that separate Chile from “the world”—as well as those who, like cinematographer Pablo Salas, have spent their lives documenting the political atrocities that isolation has partly enabled. Individually or as a whole, as nonfiction filmmaking or just plain cinema, these are among the most beautiful and profound films of recent years.

Other acclaimed older titles being offered by local venues for streaming include two 1976 films by world masters, via the 4-Star’s Virtual Cinema program (more info here): Luchino Visconti’s final feature L’Innocente, a lush 19th-century aristocratic love triangle based on a novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio. When the director died during post-production, it had to be finished by star Giancarlo Giannini, whose very glamorous co-leads were Laura Antonelli, Jennifer O’Neill, and the tragic Marc Porel. It was the kind of lush period melodrama no longer appreciated at the time (before Merchant-Ivory made such things cool again), but it was a fine end to a fabled career.

Contrastingly up-to-the-moment in its sexiness was Bruno Barreto’s international hit Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands, from Jorge Amado’s novel. It made a major star of Sonia Braga as the gorgeous widow who remarries dull, respectable pharmacist, but misses the amorous acrobatics of her ne’er-do-well late first husband—whose ghost obligingly returns to satisfy that need. For years it was the most popular Brazilian movie ever, both at home and abroad. The 4-Star also has two films from the back catalog of South Korea’s drolly seriocomic writer-director Sang-soo Hong, 2005’s Woman on the Beach and 2014’s Hill of Freedom.

While new movies dominate the menu at the Roxie Virtual Cinema, they also have the previously-described Pioneers of Queer Cinema trilogy (more info here) of daring 1920s-30s German classics. Alamo On Demand (more info here) has a slew of vintage cult favorites on tap, including selections from their past “Terror Tuesday” and “Weird Wednesday” screenings. Tonight, Mon/29, the Rafael Film Center will host a free livestream conversation celebrating the work of old-school fantasy special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen (more info here). CGI is nice, I guess, but his “Dyna-Mation” creations for the likes of One Million Years B.C., The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and the original Clash of the Titans made dinosaurs and such a lot more fun.

Last but not least, those who really, really want to get out to see a movie will welcome the Michael B. Jordan-curated series A Night at the Drive-In. It brings together double features of recent and vintage entertainments with a minority-representation slant, from Do the Right Thing to Crazy Rich Asians. Running Wednesday nights this week through the end of August around the country, its Bay Area venue is Concord’s Solano Twin Drive-In. More info here.

Screen Grabs: ’90s UK rave scene springs back to life in ‘Beats’

'Beats'

The SF International Film Festival that wasn’t a couple months ago—one of COVID-19’s earliest cultural casualties—would have included a 20th-anniversary screening of Greg Harrison’s Groove. That SF-set ensemble piece is still possibly the best fictive movie about the erstwhile rave scene, something that no longer exists in its original form, or at least has largely morphed from an underground phenomenon into a massive commercial behemoth of global EDM festivals and other high-ticket events. Groove might even have been the only good non-documentary feature on that subject… at least until Brian Welsh’s new Beats, a B&W British indie I hadn’t even heard of last week, but which is now firmly lodged amongst my favorite 2020 releases. (It actually opened in some EU nations last year.)

Beats is set in 1994, when several years’ explosive growth of drug-saturated underground dance parties had led the authorities to pass legislation banning them outright. (It rendered illegal any large, permit-flaunting gathering whose amplified music was driven by “repetitive beats.”) This is grim news to a couple BFF teens living in a bleak Scottish housing project, who’ve dreamed of going to events that are now against the law. As if they don’t already have enough problems: Johnno (Cristian Ortega) is about to be moved against his will to a different house and school district, part of his mother (Laura Fraser) cementing her relationship with a cop (Brian Ferguson). Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) lives parent-free, but that’s no advantage when his flatmate is older brother Fido (Neil Leiper), a notorious local dealer and all-around violent psycho.

Thus it’s very good news—if only as an opportunity for a mutual last hurrah—when the boys discover a huge protest party is being planned for the weekend, location TBA. They score tickets, and Spanner (in an arguably suicidal move) helps himself to some of big bro’s drug cash. This “actual, proper rave” begins about an hour into Beats, and it is possibly the most ecstatic sequence you’ll see all year—a thing of beauty that in 14  minutes manages to encompass the best of not only Groove but (gulp) 2001. Then the plot kicks back in, which at first seems a terrible bummer. But Beats has a lot of layers and nuance; ultimately it’s about much more than two fanboys losing their cherries for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, or at least two out of three (and you’ll have to be liberal with the “rock” part).

Shot in B&W, this seriocomic flasbhack encompasses police violence, domestic violence, and other woes, yet it’s only one-part classic Brit Miserabilism—with several other parts are considerably more exhilarating than you might expect. Beats is cinematic as hell, despite being improbably based on a stage play; it is also comprehensible (thanks to subtitles), despite those impenetrable Scottish accents. I loved this movie, and I don’t even like electronic dance music as a general rule. It’s available for streaming through various outlets including Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.

The Audition
Another terrific new movie is this Ina Weisse’s German drama, starring Christian Petzold regular Nina Hoss’ somewhat OCD-afflicted violin teacher at a conservatory. Discerning great talent undetected by colleagues in an underprivileged new admission (Ilja Monti), she focuses on his development to a degree that not only alarms this protege, but threatens to alienate her own husband (Simon Abkarian) and son (Serafin Mishiev).

Reminiscent to a degree of another story involving classical music and repressed emotions in extremis, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, The Audition isn’t quite that chilly, or freaky. Nonetheless, it is a complicatedly surprising story with a considerable queasy punch, and a perfect showcase for the always-impressive Hoss. It begins streaming today as part of Alamo Drafthouse’s virtual programming. More info here.

Three Mixed Bags: Tree, Aviva, Feast
Three new features being added to local virtual-cinema programs (all are available through both the Roxie and the Rafael) earn major points for seriousness, ambition, and risk-taking, though in each case I wasn’t so sure about their ultimate success. However, these are the kinds of divisive films that will win passionate defenders, as well as leave a few others scratching their heads.

There are certainly worse things to imitate than the best movie of 2016, but Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree is conspicuously over-indebted to Moonlight in both theme and mannerisms, without attaining the depth of feeling or transcendent style that made Barry Jenkins’ film extraordinary. His protagonist is another wary, withdrawn black youth viewed over several years’ course.

When we first meet Femi (Tai Golding), he’s a happy, sociable child living contentedly with a white foster mum (Denise Black) in the countryside. When his African-emigre biological mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) decides she’s ready to take him back, however, he yanked out of that comfort zone and deposited in a very rough lower-class London environment. By high school (now played by Samuel Adewunmi), he’s developed a hard shell, complete with criminal contacts, with his still-sensitive soul buried deep.

The Last Tree is often pretentiously stylized, with way too much slo-mo (plus a couple too-obvious Spike Lee “homages”). Character development is spotty, and the narrative takes an arbitrary late leap that is interesting but doesn’t really make a problematic film any better or worse overall. It feels like Amoo is trying too hard to prove himself here—perhaps the subject is so close to home he felt called upon to make a personal-statement “masterpiece,” resulting in something that’s more affected than affecting. Still, it’s a worthwhile attempt. In addition to the Roxie and Rafael, it’s also available for streaming through Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

Straining for distinction in an entirely different way is Aviva, the latest from Boaz Yakin, who as writer and director has been involved in a bewildering range of projects, from gritty indies to mainstream popcorn fluff. Yet another departure, this dance drama is about a Parisian woman and NYC man’s stormy romance, with each of them played by both a man and a woman, all dancers—one also the film’s choreographer, Bobbi Jene Smith. Sometimes their relationship is expressed in conventional dialogue, sometimes in pure movement, sometimes both.

There’s lots of theatricality, fourth-wall-breaking, nudity and sex, which combined with the heavy emphasis on dance will probably strike many viewers as very fresh. To me, Aviva was oddly reminiscent of Blue Is The Warmest Color, another overlong movie that felt extremely “intimate” by virtue of baring much actors’ skin, yet didn’t bother making the characters they played particularly detailed or interesting. Still, it’s probably a must for anyone devoted to contemporary dance. Several sequences that are very good on that plane alone, particularly an anguished duet between Smith and her fellow former Batsheva Dance Company member/co-choreographer/offscreen partner Or Schraiber.

Even more conceptually out-there is Feast of the Epiphany, probably the most experimental feature to get (some kind of) regular release in a while. Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, and Farihah Zaman directed this odd duplex of a feature, whose first half has actors portraying guests at a dinner party thrown by Brooklynite Abby (Nikki Bolluyt), one both occasioned and made awkward by the presence of a recently deceased friend’s ex (Jessie Shelton). Then after 40 minutes or so, the film abruptly becomes a documentary about an upstate organic farm operation marking its 25th anniversary.

There’s a thin connective thread here involving different relations between food and community-building, but as deliberate as Feast seems in its well-crafted idiosyncrasy, I found little truly engaging in either the initial section’s annoyingly self-absorbed fictive “types,” or the handsomely shot nonfiction footage later on. On the other hand, some have found profundity as well as novelty in the film’s resistance to (any) formula. Please feel free to give it a watch, then if so moved, explain it to me.

Ella, Education, Activism and More—this week’s documentaries
Marking director Leslie Woodhead’s 50th year as a feature documentary filmmaker, the new Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is nothing if not workmanlike in its look at the celebrated late jazz vocalist. There’s a richness to the early going, which sketches her turbulent beginnings as an orphaned child of the Harlem Renaissance, hoping to become a dancer but stumbling into singing instead (or so legend has it) at a 1934 Apollo Theater amateur night, aged just 16. We follow her ascendance from a gig with Chick Webb’s band to pop success (wartime novelty hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”) to bop, on to pop again (via her sumptuous 1950s Decca “songbook” albums), then finally as the tirelessly touring grande dame of concert-hall jazz.

The plentiful archival footage here, performance-oriented and otherwise, is hard to resist. Still, Just One of Those Things probably won’t do much for serious Ella fans, as it’s a pretty basic 90-minute overview of a long and amply chronicled career. Underwhelming new interviews from a handful of surviving acquaintances and latterday admirers eat up screentime to increasingly pedestrian effect. Still, for many, an uninspired tribute to Ella Fitzgerald beats an inspired tribute to any lesser talent, hands down. It’s available through both the Roxie (more info here) and the Rafael’s (more info here) virtual cinema programs.

The Rafael is also adding several other new musical documentaries this Friday: Take Me to the River, about Memphis’ storied role in American music-making; All I Can Say, a sort of posthumous autobiography by Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon, assembled from the copious video-diary footage he left behind; and My Darling Vivian, the portrait of Johnny Cash’s forgotten first wife that we previously reviewed here (link).

Additional newly arriving documentaries focus on the pursuit of zero-waste policies (Racing to Zero, available through the Roxie Mon/29-Wed/1 only), economic-justice activism in desperately poor Madagascar (Madagasikara, on Amazon Prime), the importance of pre-K early childhood education (No Small Matter, now available On Demand); and challenges facing LGBTQ refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. (the S.F.-set Unsettled, available on WorldChannel.org). There’s also the Windrider Film Festival, whose all-online 11th edition offers a Virtual Film Forum of three short documentaries Sat/27, followed by a seven consecutive Sunday nights of more award-winning shorts, all free with advance registration. Info: windriderbayrea.org

Screen Grabs: Frameline’s Pride Showcase cruises onto your laptop

'Ema'

Frameline without the audience is a funny prospect—imagine the dismay among those patrons whom COVID has denied their annual chance to conspicuously stand near the front of the auditorium “looking for my friends” while making sure every other gym bunny at the Castro Theater gets those twenty minutes before the movie to check them out. It’s normally a “see and be seen” affair for sure. But this June you’ll only be seeing movies, not fellow moviegoers, and isn’t that really the point, anyway? (Don’t argue.)

Ergo, the Frameline44 Pride Showcase (6/25-28) shrinks the usual two-week, multi-venue affair down to a four-day “virtual event” that can fit in your living room, on your laptop, or wherever else you choose to watch. The online screenings, taking place this extended weekend (which happens to encompass the 50th anniversary of SF Pride itself), offer special introductions, Q&As, and other festival-like “enhancements.” You can watch a particular program at a particular time to participate in those elements “live,” or watch later (anytime before the Showcase’s end Sunday at midnight), when those elements will be archived for your enjoyment.

The world’s largest/oldest LGBTQ+ film festival does plan on holding a belated but more or less business-as-usual fest live at conventional venues this fall…sometime. Whenever things get back to normal, which at this point is anyone’s guess. So if you want to celebrate Pride with the usual gay-movie orgy, your current Frameline options are of the online variety. A factsheet on ticket purchasing and polices is here.

After a Wed/24 panel discussion of Disclosure, the new Netflix documentary about screen transgender representation which we reviewed here, the Showcase gets started in earnest Thurs/25 with three evening programs. First up is a free screening of the recently rediscovered short Parade, which captures the city’s first officially sanctioned Gay Pride Parade in 1971. Then there’s Mike Mossellam’s new feature Breaking Fast, with Haaz Sleiman as a gay Muslim doctor in West Hollywood who’s heartbroken when his closeted boyfriend caves to family/cultural pressure and marries. Things look up, however, when he meets an actor (Michael Cassidy) who’s handsome, available, and speaks Arabic to boot. Though there’s a familiar, sometimes sitcom-ish feel to the seriocomic complications here, the movie does juggle a lot of disparate culture-clash baggage in entertainingly amiable ways.

Things take a more international turn with Ema by the unpredictable, adventurous Chilean director Pablo Larrain (No, Neruda, Tony Manero, Jackie). With a shock of white hair like Andy Warhol, Mariana Di Girolamo plays the title figure, a bisexual performer in a modern dance troupe. She’s married to its choreographer (Gael Garcia Bernal), and tormented by the memory of the child they adopted, then “gave back” after some serious behavioral issues. Full of astringent relationships, mannered dialogue, raggaeton gyrating, striking imagery, polyamorous sex scenes, and one ludicrous whopper of a late plot twist, this is the kind of over-the-top Betty Blue-ish exercise that will have some viewers crying “masterpiece!” and others calling BS. Dull, it’s not.

Considerably less in-ya-face are several other globetrotting dramas premiering later in the program. Summerland is a first feature for playwright-director Jessica Swale, starring Gemma Arterton as a withdrawn writer in the wartime British countryside forced to take in a boy (Lucas Bond) evacuated from the London Blitz while still mourning the loss of her true love (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca stars the writer-director herself as a trans Filipina hoping to get a green card while working as caretaker for a senile Brighton Beach native (Lynn Cohen), whose household expands with the arrival of her shakily just-out-of-rehab grandson (Eamon Farreri). It’s a delicate, impressive if sometimes narratively overly-ambiguous treatment of various complex issues.

Similarly low-key in a good way is Ray Yeung’s Suk Suk aka Twilight’s Kiss, in which two closeted Hong Hong men (Ben Yuen, Tai-Bo)—one divorced, one still married, both with grown children—try to find space amidst their familial and other obligations to love one another after meeting in their 60s. It’s a fine drama that situates its characters at a generational, political, and private crossroads without preachiness or contrivance. Probably not on their cultural radar, but a major figure amongst younger HK residents, is the titular star of Denise Ho: Becoming the Song. A Cantopop luminary and successful actress, Ho made waves eight years ago by coming out of the closet. She’s also earned the ire of mainland China with her pro-democracy stance and human rights activism. Sue Williams’ documentary looks at a remarkable career that’s still just at its mid-point.

Also fighting the good fight are the real-life protagonists in David France’s Welcome to Chechnya, which sees undercover Russian gay activists struggling to save victims of virulent, violent homophobia in the titular republic. By contrast, celebrating their own hard-won freedom are the recent generations of lesbians found Ahead of the Curve. Jen Rainin’s documentary chronicles the heady history of founder Franco Stevens’ magazine first called Deneuve (until a certain French actress took litigious offense), then Curve. Defining “lesbian chic” and a whole lot more in the 1990s, it’s been a sophisticated, glossy and envelope-pushing voice of a community for three decades now. In addition to its online availability, Ahead will also have the Showcase’s only “in person” screening—the night of Sat/27 at Concord’s West Wind Solano Drive-In, of all places.

Also geographically closer to home are Olivia Peace’s comedy Tahara—a Sapphic teen romance set at a Rochester, NY Hebrew school—as well as a special sneak-preview episode from the next season of African-American Showtime series The Chi. Spanning the globe will be those perennial Frameline favorites, the shorts programs Fun in Boys’ Shorts, Fun in Girls’ Shorts, and Transtastic.

The Pride Showcase officially ends Sunday night with Hanging Garden director Thom Fitzgerald’s Stage Mother. It has Jacki Weaver as a small-town Texas church lady who comes to San Francisco to bury her estranged gay son—and winds up taking over the drag bar he left behind. Never mind that there hasn’t been a drag-performance venue of the ilk depicted here for years (even Finocchio’s closed 20+ years ago), or that this Canadian production was primarily filmed in Nova Scotia. If you’re looking for a combination of glitter, tearjerking, lip-synching, Lucy Liu, and “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” this shameless crowdpleaser may be just the ticket. It would have gone over big at the Castro Theater…but oh well.

The Frameline44 Pride Showcase runs Thurs/25-Sun/28 online, with one live East Bay drive-in event Sat/27 (see above). For schedule, program guide, tickets and other info, go to www.frameline.org/festival

Screen Grabs: Trans films to the front for Pride

Laverne Cox in 'Disclosure'

Normally, the Frameline International LGBTQ Film Festival would already be open, though this year COVID-19 has pushed the festival into a smaller online edition running this coming Thursday through Sunday that we will preview early next week. Meanwhile, however, there’s no lack of LGBTQ content being released during Gay Pride Month via other platforms. There is a particular wealth of new features focused on transgender issues, including three documentaries that are are available now. (And here are some more films recommended by the Transgender Film Festival.)

The starry one is Netflix’s Disclosure, which is partly a Celluloid Closet-type overview of past film and TV trans depictions, and part measure-taking of the great recent strides made both in front of and behind the camera. Like blackface, cross-dressing imagery traces back to the very beginnings of cinema, often used for comic effect (particularly to ridicule femininity itself), then eventually as something sinister in thrillers like Psycho, Dressed to Kill, and Silence of the Lambs. Even when sympathetically portrayed, trans persons are often solely seen as victims—prostitutes, corpses, prostitute-corpses in myriad cop or hospital-centric TV shows—or as wacky, frequently doomed sidekicks to the heterosexual protagonist. “I’ve died so many times I can’t even count on camera,” actress Candis Cayne says here.

It’s not until the last third of Sam Feder’s nearly two-hour documentary that we get to some positive representations, nearly all within the last few years. These are important, because as a GLAAD poll revealed, 80% of Americans don’t actually know anyone transgender. So their opinions are shaped by popular media, even as trans rights have been turned into “a front and center issue in the culture wars” by fear-mongering conservatives. Hopefully soon we’ll see less “stunt casting” of cis actors in trans roles (for which they often win awards), and fewer talk shows whose hosts can’t think of anything but “So what happened to your private parts?”-type questions.

Things have evolved quickly of late, but they still have some distance to go. With Susan Stryker, Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Chaz Bono. Yance Ford and others offering commentary here, Disclosure offers valuable insight into how trans communities see themselves being seen onscreen—and how those images impact offscreen lives.

Far from the glitter of the entertainment industry, the titular figures in Jennifer Bagley and Mary Hewey’s Jack & Yaya are just trying to live ordinary working-class existences in a society that insists on viewing them as special cases. In a quirk of fate, Jack and Yaya met at their shared New Jersey backyard fence as toddlers—not only clicking right away as BFFs, but somehow immediately grasping that each was meant for the other’s gender.

Three decades or so later, they’re at differing points along the “transitioning” line. We don’t find out much about their external lives (jobs, any romantic relationships), but we do get a big dose of their colorful, largely supportive, perpetually beer-hoisting families. This isn’t RuPaul’s Drag Race—it’s the kind of milieu in which an anecdote might begin “So I’m sitting in the Best Buy parking lot, eating these buffalo wings, and crying…” Jack & Yaya is available On Demand.

Several thousand miles and many worlds apart are the central figures in Theodore Collatos and Carolina Monnerat’s Queen of Lapa. The title refers to Luana Muniz, a rather famous Brazilian trans activist and performer who presides over a live/work hostel for transvestite prostitutes she founded two decades ago in Rio de Janeiro. She is larger-than-life, and so are her residents—perhaps partly as armor against unpredictable clients and incidents of street violence recounted in some harrowing personal stories.

Like the recently-rereleased 1968 U.S. documentary The Queen, this lushly colored documentary depicts a microcosm of flamboyantly proud societal outliers who’ve created their own support network in reaction to frequent hostility from the outside world. At present it’s available for streaming by arrangement with individual theaters and LGBTQ organizations, including CinemaSF.

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Other films new to streaming this week include South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s 2016 Yourself and Yours, a spin on Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire with the late Ju-hyuk Kim as a young man whose insecurities are compounded by the fear that his girlfriend (Lee Yoo-young) may be lying to him—either that, or there are multiple women in Seoul who look just like her. It’s available via Roxie Virtual Cinema, as is the Australian documentary It My Blood It Runs (more info here), whose bright 10-year-old protagonist’s struggles with mainstream schooling in the Northern Territories crystallize the long-running conflicts between assimilation, government control, cultural tradition and identity in Aboriginal communities.

Also available as of Friday June 19th:

Miss Juneteenth
Arriving just in time to mark the holiday that our President’s race-baiting just made more famous is this first feature from Channing Godfrey Peoples, which premiered at Sundance in January. Turquoise (Nicole Beharie) is the former local beauty queen still stuck in the small native Texas town she’d hoped that crown would lift her out of. Plan A having failed, she’s transferred her hopes to a much-less-driven teenage daughter (Alexis Chikaeze) who doesn’t want to pursue mom’s old dreams, and really doesn’t want to run for Miss Juneteenth.

This leisurely, flavorful drama also encompasses Turquoise’s conflicted relationships with her sanctimonious yet boozy mother (Lori Hayes), funeral-home boss-slash-suitor (Akron Watson), and the father of her child whom she’s still kinda-sorta “seeing” (Kendrick Sampson). The clash between our hard-driving heroine’s ambitions and the limits of her segregated, podunk town underline what one character here notes: That even though it’s been over 150 years since Texas belatedly abolished slavery (an occasion marked by Juneteenth), here there “Ain’t no American Dream for black folks,” still. Some patience is required for this laid-back narrative, but it provides a finely detailed glimpse at black lives seldom portrayed onscreen. It’s another Roxie Virtual Cinema presentation (more info here).

Runner
By contrast, track and field star Guor Marial would appear to be a triumphant illustration of the American Dream. Among an estimated four million global refugees from Sudan’s civil wars, eight of his nine siblings among its two million or so casualties, he successfully escaped a refugee camp and abusive captivity as a child, eventually landing in the U.S. as a teenager. In high school his hitherto unknown athletic prowess was groomed, leading to All-American status at Iowa State and participation in the 2012 Summer Olympics.

The latter was a source of great pride for the newly brokered nation of South Sudan, which did not as yet have an Olympic Committee (so he was granted a special status to compete). Still, the burden of that figurehead responsibility, and the psychological wear of past traumas (some dramatized here in animated sequences), is often hard for Marial to endure. This documentary portrait is inspirational, as one might expect. But it’s also grueling at times, because of the unexpected political, financial and physical hurdles that complicate his path. It is available for streaming though various venues and organizations including Alamo Drafthouse (more info here).

Babyteeth
Director Shannon Murphy and writer Rita Kalnejais’ first feature is familiar stuff of a not particularly welcome sort, when reduced to a narrative nutshell: It’s another movie about a fatally ill young woman whose final stretch brings everyone around her together. But Babyteeth isn’t a tearjerker romance like Love Story or A Walk to Remember, or even a tearjerker-romance-cum-formulaic-indie-quirkfest like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Instead it takes its tenor largely from Moses (Toby Wallace), the hugely inappropriate new friend of 16-year-old suburbanite Milla (Eliza Scanlen, who also recently died as Beth in Little Women).

He is 23, homeless, and makes a rather feral first impression with his awful mullet-mohawk and prison-y facial tattoos. An apparent drug user and sometime dealer, his whole affect practically screams “free clinic.” But Milla has cancer, and has decided he is just what she needs, so her horrified parents reluctantly allow this…er, relationship-or-whatever to proceed. Besides, mum (Essie Davis from The Babadook) and dad (Ben Mendelsohn) have their own issues. They are not coping with their only child’s mortal illness at all well, to the point where sometimes Milla seems the mature adult of the lot by default.

Babyteeth’s character dysfunctionalia is at first so savagely comedic it recalls Jane Campion’s debut Sweetie. Yet this is ultimately a less bilious family portrait, even as it’s not a particularly conventional or sentimental first-love tale. Propelled by dynamic tonal (and soundtrack-music) changes, the film is anarchic but also sweet at the core, just like Wallace’s memorable performance. It’s certainly one of the more boldly accomplished directorial bows of the year to date.

7500
Though you might question the taste of utilizing a fictive 9/11-type incident as fodder for a thriller, but this claustrophobic tale told in “realtime” works well as a reasonably realistic crisis drama, closer to United 93 than, well, Airport 1975. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt plays Tobias, a Berlin-based American pilot flying a routine commercial run to Paris. But shortly after takeoff, several men on board rush the cockpit, badly wounding his captain. Putting up a fight, Tobias is temporarily able to shut them out and regain control of the plane—but then the hijackers begin threatening to kill passengers if he doesn’t cooperate.

7500 is usefully narrow in both thematic and physical focus, refusing to dwell much on the terrorists’ political purpose, and never (beyond a prelude of airport surveillance footage) letting its action leave the cockpit, where our protagonist has very limited options to save his own and eighty-odd other lives. This first feature for German writer-director Patrick Vollrath is available on Amazon Prime Video.

Screen Grabs: Two movies so bad they’re (almost) good

'Horrors of Spider Island'

This last Sunday marked our POTUS’ birthday—he’s now 74, never mind that he frequently plays the “too old” card on people just a couple years older and less dithering than he. It’s an occasion that should be cause for national mourning on more grounds than one can enumerate in one sitting at this point. In the spirit of laughing in the face of disaster, we’ll highlight a couple “so bad it’s good” films recently unleashed on the public, both revived from archival deep-freeze.

Though it struck many as being somewhat old-fashioned even upon release in 1965, The Sound of Music was such an unprecedented global phenomenon (unseating Gone With the Wind from its quarter-century status as all-time box office champion) that it sparked a mad rush of imitations. For the next few years Hollywood tried to duplicate that success with other musical-theater adaptations (and occasional original screen musicals) that for the most part proved ruinously expensive and indifferently received.

Near the end of that cycle, and dredging the bottom of the Broadway barrel, came 1970’s Song of Norway, based on a 1944 operetta that had been a surprise (though seldom-revived) stage hit. It pasted lyrics onto the music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, purporting to tell the tale of his struggle to get native music taken seriously by his nation’s snobby classical taste-makers. It was hokum, but somehow not as hokey as what Oakland-born writer/director Andrew L. Stone (hitherto best known as a maker of lean, taut thrillers) managed to make of it years later.

Designed to look as much like The Sound of Music as possible, with much leaping about fjords and mountaintops in Super-Panavision, plus The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson as Mrs. Grieg, it was indeed scenic—but also so cornball it made TSOM look like Blow-Up. Despite scathing reviews, it actually turned a profit (due mostly to the extremely thrifty director’s low production budget), which prompted Stone to do the same damage to Johann Strauss in 1972’s The Great Waltz, an equally bad film no one went to see.

Song of Norway has been hard to find for years, so Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray/DVD release offers the first chance in aeons to see it uncut, in its proper widescreen aspect ratio. Those who have fond and/or appalled memories of its uber-kitschiness will not be disappointed; it is still camp heaven, full of almost hysterical high spirits, outbreaks of simple choreography like fever, and random cutaways to livestock. The early “Freddy and His Fiddle” number may be the most inspirationally ludicrous production number ever devised. Admittedly, even the unintentional laughs begin to pall as the running time plods towards 138 minutes. But fans of truly bad cinema will find some jaw-dropping moments to treasure here.

Another chunk of fool’s gold dug up from the celluloid cellar is 1960’s Horrors of Spider Island, a moderately notorious stinker of West German origin in which a planeload of showgirls headed to a gig in Singapore crash-land on an uninhabited tropical island. Unfortunately, their lone male minder is bitten by a spider, and of course begins turning into a murderous spider-man (not the heroic comic book kind) because why not.

The horror angle is not just ridiculous but more than a little desultory, because director Fritz Bottger’s main emphasis is on getting the cast of statuesque bombshells undressed as much and as often as possible. Yes, it’s humid, but you’d think they were lingerie models, when they’re not simply tearing the clothes off one another in impromptu catfights. It’s the kind of movie in which characters terrified to discover evidence of a bloodthirsty predator one minute exclaim “Who’s up for a swim? I’m gonna walk to the beach by myself as if nothing happened!” the next.

Horrors was originally released to “adult only” theaters with more skin bared as It’s Hot in Paradise, and endured no end of retitlings and editorial meddling in subsequent editions. The collapse of movie censorship a decade later would render such “nudie cutie”-type enterprises antique, but this curio endures as a particularly, enjoyably silly example of the type. Severin Films/CAV’s new Blu-ray/DVD release includes both major versions (“sexy” German and “scary” American releases), as well as extras including “Alternate Clothed Scenes” and an interview with he-man hero Alexander D’Arcy, whose career stretched from “Golden Age” Hollywood to the schlock epics of Al Adamson and Russ Meyer. His comely co-star Barbara Valentin also had an interesting professional arc, going from “the German Jayne Mansfield” in movies like this, Der Partyphotograph and The Amorous Adventures of a Young Postman to several roles for Fassbinder.

If you’d rather not spend your viewing time picking through gourmet trash, however, there are some actual good movies new to streaming:

For They Know Not What They Do
Last week the White House announced abolishment of Obama-era protections against healthcare discrimination for transgender people on the anniversary of the Pulse nightclub massacre—just the kind of maximally offensive “coincidence” they’ve served up in bulk lately, no doubt thanks to the fertile mind of resident white supremacist Stephen Miller. Meanwhile, recent polls have suggested only 40% even among evangelicals (his supposed support stronghold) believe Trump is actually “religious,” despite all his posturing in that direction.

Shedding a little constructive light in this charged political environment of using “religious freedom” to institutionalize bigotry is the new documentary by Daniel G. Karslake, whose 2007 For the Bible Tells Me So provided an overview of the long-running conflict between the US religious right and LGBTQ populations. This followup focuses on four diverse families all nearly torn apart by related issues. One told their son “We love you but this is a deal-breaker for God” when he came out as gay; dutifully trudging back into the closet of denial, his guilt and self-loathing led to very sad consequences. Two other families with transgender kids dealt with it considerably better, while a Puerto Rican clan whose son later survived the Pulse shooting in Orlando proved far more accepting than he’d expected.

As these stories unfold, we also get insights into debunked, often harmful “conversion therapies,” the high incidences of suicide and self-harm amongst youths in these protagonists’ situations, escalating hate crimes in the current political climate, the vicious rhetoric issuing from many pulpits, and how Biblical passages typically cited to justify anti-gay stances are misinterpreted. For They Know… will probably reach few among those who really should see it—evangelical Christians—but it’s worthwhile even for gay and other “previously converted” viewers. It’s available on various streaming platforms including Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.

The Surrogate
Also dealing with LGBTQ issues, among many others, is this very good new indie drama by New York playwright turned writer-director Jeremy Hersh, whose cast also draws on considerable NYC stage talent. Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) is a single young Black woman in Brooklyn who’s made the decision to carry a child for her best friends, an interracial gay couple (Chris Perfetti, former Bay Arean Sullivan Jones). But early in the pregnancy, they get the news that the fetus tests positive for Down’s Syndrome. This unleashes a slew of ethical and logistical problems that ultimately places Jess at odds with nearly everyone in her life.

Driven by pin-sharp, argumentative dialogue and complexly drawn characters, The Surrogate does have virtues more common to a stage play, but manages not to be “stagy.” It also escapes preachiness, raising a host of thorny moral conundrums, identity-politics conflicts, and so forth that are sympathetically presented from all sides. With excellent performances to punch that content across, this is a provocative as well as entertaining drama whose hot-button narrative agenda never feels overly schematic. At present it’s available for streaming through various “virtual theaters” in different communities, see details here.

The Pollinators
If you know that the global bee population’s shrinkage is a huge element in our escalating ecological crises, but aren’t really clear on the specifics of why, this latest documentary on the subject is a good educational one-stop. Peter Nelson’s film focuses largely on the undersung phenomenon of “migratory beekeepers,” who transport bee colonies around the country to pollinate fields. That’s a necessity today—not just because so many fruit, nut and vegetable crops require pollination, but because farming practices have eradicated local pollinators in so many areas. Yet even these mobile “managed honeybees” are imperiled, largely because it’s almost impossible to keep them from being poisoned by the pesticides used to ensure “perfect”-looking, year-round produce.

Director Peter Nelson’s handsome film (which includes some amazing super-slow-motion shots of bees in flight) interviews  beekeepers, growers, scientists and others about the extent of this problem. Artificially “migrating” bee colonies are not a sustainable long-term solution; nor indeed is our whole modern agricultural model promoting soil-depletive productivity at the cost of self-sustaining biodiversity. The good news is that regenerative farming techniques are gaining traction. The bad news is that the current Environmental Protection Agency (which some now dub the CPA, for “Chemical Protection Agency”) has become so corrupted by lobbyist influence that “the regulated control the regulators.” The Pollinators is available On Demand as of June 16 (more info here).

Screen Grabs: For Pride, where to find SF’s queer film fests online

'Summerland' plays Frameline Film Fest

Normally at this time of year many Bay Areans (and a few visitors arriving just for this reason) would be about to suspend nearly all other activity in order to spend eleven days or so soaking up international LGBTQ cinema via Frameline’s annual big event. Of course, that festival like many others is suspending its usual public-screening operations due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, there will be a limited virtual Frameline44 Pride Showcase June 25-28, which we’ll preview closer to those dates, but meanwhile you can get program and advance-ticket details here.

That’s not the only Pride Month-related film/video activity which will be happening online this annum. The Queer Women of Color Film Festival takes place this weekend, Fri/12-Sun/14, with nightly 7 pm programs live-streamed (including interactive filmmaker Q&A’s) that are accessible for free, though registration is required. The full schedule is available here. The San Francisco Transgender Film Festival won’t be taking place until mid-November at the Roxie, but meanwhile has provided a guide to five films from its past programs that can be watched for free.

The Roxie itself is also celebrating some Pride with several additions this Friday to its Virtual Cinema streaming rentals, including For They Know Not What They Do, a new documentary from the maker of For The Bible Tells Me So that continues his exploration of the frequent clash between American gays and Christians. This time director Daniel Karslake’s focus is on four devout real-life families for whom children’s coming out as gay and/or trans provokes crises of faith and acceptance. More info here.

The other new Roxie arrival is a “Pioneers of Queer Cinema” trilogy uniting restorations of envelope-pushing German classics from nearly a century ago. The most famous one is early 1931 early talkie Madchen in Uniform, Leontine Sagan’s famous tale of illicit love at a girls’ boarding school. It became a world classic despite being immediately banned by the Nazis, who also tried to destroy all copies of the film. Basically forgotten until its revival by gay film historians decades later was Danish maestro Carl Dreyer’s (Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr) German-language early work Michael, a daring “triangle” drama in which a beautiful female aristocrat comes between a tacitly gay artist and his young model-artist. Despite being released in a more liberal pre-Nazi climate, it too was little-seen due to averse reaction to the controversial themes. By contrast, getting away with considerable gender-role mayhem as a result of its farcical tenor was Reinhold Schunzel’s 1933 Victor and Victoria, the first incarnation of a much-remade tale that eventually turned into the 1982 Julie Andrews film and subsequent Broadway musical. It was a last “blast of Weimer decadence,” in which an unemployed music hall songstress finds success—but also awkward personal-life complications—assuming male drag. More info here.

This Friday brings two of the bigger movies so far this year to bypass theaters, Judd Apatow’s new comedy The King of Staten Island with SNL’s Pete Davidson (via VOD), and Spike Lee’s Vietnam veteran-themed drama Da 5 Bloods (on Netflix), neither of which were available for preview. But it’s a very busy weekend for less-mainstream streaming releases as well, just a few of which we’ve highlighted below:

MARONA’S FANTASTIC TALE
Fantastic is indeed a fair word to describe this gorgeous French animated feature from Romanian director Anca Damian. Marona is a B&W Parisian mutt with a bit of a Betty Boop-era Fleischer Brothers look, who recalls her short but eventful life as it’s about to end in the wake of a Parisian traffic mishap. She’s passed from one owner to another, including an acrobat, a construction worker, his sickly old mother, his shallow wife, and a little girl. None are perfect fits, and Tale suffers a bit from a somewhat rotely chiding tenor in which our protagonist is a font of patient wisdom from puppydom, victimized by the callous world of humankind.

But if this episodic film isn’t always appealing in story content, it’s always inviting and often spectacular in visual terms. Like recent Chilean The Wolf House (which also played Roxie Virtual Cinema), it’s a deluxe compendium of animation techniques and styles, combined to often aesthetically remarkable effect. And like that film, it’s not really a ‘toon for kids, being somewhat dark in theme (though not so dark as Wolf), insufficiently story-driven and a bit too abstract in imagery. Fans of the form over 12 or so will have a field day, however, and the film ultimately transcends its objet d’art status by arriving at a very moving, even somewhat cosmic last lap. More info here.

ZANA
This quietly arresting Albanian-language film from Kosovo filmmaker Antoneta Kastrati, a documentarian making her first dramatic narrative, is one of the more memorable foreign films to arrive here so far in 2020. Lume (Adriana Matoshi) is a childless woman living with husband Ilir (Astrit Kabashi) in a rural community where everyone is into everyone else’s business. Actually, the couple did have a child, but she was killed in the war a decade earlier. (The movie apparently takes place in 2009.) Lume’s failure to conceive since is a cause of great concern to everyone but her, particularly her pushy if well-intended mother-in-law (Fatmire Sahiti), who insists she go to a local fortune-teller, then to a famous (and expensive) faith healer.

Under all this pressure, Lume grows more obstinate and distant, eventually stirring the hysterical fear that she is possessed by a jinn (i.e. demon spirit). Is she simply in protracted, even permanent mourning, or is something otherworldly really going on here? At once lyrical and ominous, troubled by disturbing visions that plague its heroine both dreaming and awake, Zana refuses to explain away its unsettling progress. It’s a movie that may or may not be about a haunting, in supernatural terms—but it is unquestionably a haunting experience in its eerie, lingering impact. More info here.

MR. TOPAZE
If recent documentary The Ghost of Peter Sellers whetted your appetite for some of that late great British comedian’s work, you might be intrigued by this long-forgotten, recently restored 1961 feature, his only directorial feature. It was not well-received back then (even after crassly retitled I Like Money for the US market), and once it had flopped the embittered star—not a very stable personality even at this relatively early stage in his career—purportedly tried to have every existing print destroyed. It probably wasn’t a particularly good idea for him to choose a vintage play by Marcel Pagnol for his material, with a very British cast failing to seem very French at all. Still, it’s not a disaster but a simple misfire, and a slickly produced one.

Sellers plays the Mr. Chips-like title figure, a fusty but devoted teacher of preadolescent boys at a somewhat run-down school. When he’s unceremoniously fired for an excess of scruples (i.e. he refuses to give good marks to a poor student from a rich family), he lands some rich benefactors of his own (Nadia Gray, Sellers’ future Pink Panther co-star Herbert Lom). He is slow to realize his naivety is just providing them a cover for genteel bilking of civic funds.

At first too-mildly comic, then too-mildly serious, Mr. Topaze probably seemed rather old-fashioned even six decades ago, and it proves surprisingly bland for a movie by an actor notorious for his eccentricity onscreen and off. It does, however, reveal his vanity, in that our hero goes from holy innocent to debonair master-of-the-world—a transition Sellers manages like the comic actor he is, through clever external mannerisms without any sense of internal psychological evolution. Like many artists of genius, Sellers doubtless overestimated his own: He needed a good director to be at his best, and that director was not Peter Sellers. More info here.

Screen Grabs: Black history and protest films to stream now

Angela Davis in 'Black Power Mixtape'

As public outrage towards police violence against the Black community (like the gun control movement) has too often seemed to wane in the Trump era, drowned out by his constant scandals and distractions, it’s a welcome turn that this issue looks like it just might be the one that orchestrates this administration’s downfall. Numerous institutions and high-profile individuals are coming out with statements of general Black Lives Matter-esque support—some of a rote brand-protective nature, but still better than silence. One useful aspect of the reaction has been many media outlets highlighting films relevant to African-American struggle, protest in general, and/or by black artists, often making them free of access.

Among local organizations, SF Indiefest is recommending its 2017 selection documentary Working in Protest by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, which assembles footage shot at some fifteen US demonstrations (including some right-wing actions) over a thirty-year course beginning in 1987. It’s available here for viewing on Vimeo for a nominal fee. Similarly, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Whose Streets? from the same year uses material shot by on-the-ground activists to chronicle the responses from both the community and heavy-handed authorities to teenager Michael Brown’s death by a police officer’s gun in Ferguson, Missouri six years ago.

If people are stunned by the fact of uniformed force being used against peaceful protestors and even apolitical local residents now, they’ve evidently got a short memory. It’s available through Roxie Virtual Cinema, with the theater’s share of proceeds going to minority activist and leadership training organization Know Your Rights Camp. Rafael Film Center in Marin is also offering several relevant recent features, including the campus-set drama 1 Angry Black Man, hiphop documentary 16 Bars, and (as of this coming Friday) acclaimed features about literary lions James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. More info here.

For a deeper historical perspective, Goran Olsson’s archival compilation Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 is being offered free by IFC Films on Amazon Prime and Apple TV through June. The Criterion Collection, prestigious distributor of much certifiably “classic” world cinema, is also lifting the streaming paywall for many films in their collection about black issues and by African-American filmmakers, including ones by Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), silent pioneer Oscar Micheaux (Body and Soul with Paul Robeson), Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman), Charles Burnett (My Brother’s Wedding),  Maya Angelou (Down in the Delta) and more. Film School Rejects has assembled a handy guide to 25 such films currently being made free by Criterion and other platforms, a list that also encompasses such more recent mainstream features as Monsters and Men (which we reviewed here), Selma and Just Mercy.

This Friday brings a brand new Spike Lee joint, Da 5 Bloods, a drama about black Vietnam War veterans that premieres on Netflix. In the meantime, three new streaming arrivals don’t particularly focus on racial issues, but have plenty to say about struggle and inequality from disparate female perspectives:

Judy & Punch
One of the more adventurous big-screen feminist statements in recent years is this Australian whatsit from Mirrah Foulkes, an actress (Top of the Lake, Animal Kingdom) making a very accomplished feature debut as writer-director. Unfortunately, having waited to make a year and a half since its Sundance premiere to get a general US release, it’s only going to be seen on a small screen near you—but nevermind, it’s still worth it.

A considerably toughened-up Mia Wasikowska, no longer the wispy ingenue of yore, plays the heroine in this seriocomic fable set in a non-specific, “storybook” past of superstition and hardship. Judy is mother to a baby and wife to Punch (Damon Herriman), “the greatest puppeteer of his generation.” But he’s also a drunkard whose popular act is largely the result of her own artistry and skill. When his sodden negligence leads to a catastrophe, then extreme spousal abuse, Judy goes underground—but only to plot her elaborate revenge.

A sort of medieval fairy tale with some brutally un-whimsical aspects and no lack of playful anachronisms, Judy & Punch isn’t a complete success, but it’s a bracingly imaginative leap that largely works. If you thought the dreadful 2006 remake of cult classic The Wicker Man failed because it turned a black-comedy genre tale into a witchy revenge on patriarchy, think again—this movie does much the same thing, but well.

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own
The often monumental sculptures in wood of this celebrated artist have a fanciful yet organic, overpowering yet inviting feel that would not have been out of place in Judy & Punch’s grungy-magical alternative universe. She was born in 1942 Germany to foreign-laborer parents forced to work for the Nazis; then largely raised in refugee camps until the large family moved to the U.S. in 1950. They established themselves successfully enough there, though the shadow of a perpetually abusive, insecure father would hang over her life and that of her siblings. Fleeing marriage to a schizophrenic in 1975, she moved from Oakland to NYC in 1975, commencing her artistic career in earnest at that city’s lowest point of blight and crime.

Daniel Traub’s hour-long documentary portrait isn’t so much about her personal life or history, however, as her process—which is often very labor-intensive, and by necessity involves many people. Still as driven as ever on the cusp of her eighties, she now sometimes works in copper or bronze, although typically still working from models in her preferred medium of cedar. Her works can be seen locally at SFMOMA and SF International Airport; we also see archival footage of her readying a large piece at Capp Street Project thirty years ago. Whether you’re already familiar with her art or require an introduction, Into Her Own offers an absorbing look at an artist whose methods are highly tactile, and who unlike most sculptors welcomes her audience to have a tactile experience with their striking end results. It’s available for streaming through Roxie Virtual Cinema, Rafael@Home , and BAMPFA’s Watch From Home.

Also currently available through the Roxie is the Cineola Film Festival, a “platform for Latin American stories” whose two programs of diverse documentary shorts can be streamed through Fri/12. More info here.

This Teacher
This third feature from writer-director Mark Jackson (not to be confused with the veteran Bay Area stage writer-director-actor of the same name) is one unsettling watch. Parisian native Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi) arrives in NYC to visit her childhood friend Zahra aka Sarah (Sarah Kazemy), now an aspiring actress with a yuppie husband (Gabe Fazio) for whom she’s a kind of trophy wife. Alternately berated and ignored by a BFF she no longer feels much commonality with, Hafsia eventually decamps to an upstate rural cabin where her vacation goes from weird to more-than-a-bit freaky.

Divided into three chaptered sections, This Teacher is never fully explicable, least of all in its protagonist, whose variably sullen, bored, furious, ecstatic and panicked moods are rendered no more intelligible to others by her limited command of English. She clearly has issues, and being a religious French Arab in an Islamophobic US only adds to her personal baggage—particularly in a climactic sequence where the combination of alcohol and discovery of her Muslim faith by an argumentative, presumptuous young all-American couple (Lucy Walters, Kevin Kane) does not go down well.

With the main actress playing a character who shares her real name in a movie written for her, it’s hard to tell just how much of Hafsia’s erratic onscreen behavior is meant as fictionalized self-portrait or as sociopolitical metaphor. In any case, nary a scene here doesn’t cause acute discomfort, as interpersonal dynamics and jarring events (some of them red herrings) stir a hornet’s next of complex viewer responses while seldom offering the relief of narrative resolution or explanation. It’s a film that always seems to know exactly what it’s doing, even if Jackson’s intent is often baffling to the viewer.

Hardly a pleasant experience, This Teacher nonetheless impresses as that rare work which truly earns the overused term “provocative”—and not for the usual reasons of gratuitous sexual or violent content, neither of which are much apparent here. It’s available On Demand and on DVD as of Tues/9.

Screen Grabs: Revisit the glitzy disaster of ‘Showgirls’

Showgirls (1995) Directed by Paul Verhoeven Shown: Elizabeth Berkley (as Nomi Malone)

During a week in which a nation-shaking epidemic shutdown has managed to become a concern secondary to curfews, social chaos, and military-dictatorship-type responses to protests against police violence…which public wildfires continue to have gas poured on them by He Who Shall Not Be Named…well, there’s not much this column can do but recommend some industrial-grade escapism.

At least a couple hours’ disengagement from pressing political realities may be necessary for your mental health at present. Although if you simply want to dig in further, let it be noted that new releases this week also include a documentary about gun reform activism (Parkland Rising) and a semi-fictive feature about immigrant advocates managing to permeate a real-life Florida detention center for the undocumented (The Infiltrators). Also a little more than we felt like dealing with at present is a bestseller-derived courtroom/revenge thriller (The Collini Case) about the systemic downplaying of citizens’ Nazi pasts in postwar Germany. [Editor’s Note: There’s also a great list of essential Black films from the past 30 years here.] 

But onward with some movies that in one way or another offer some escape from the press of, er, current affairs. All are available on streaming platforms as of Friday June 5:

YOU DON’T NOMI
The go-to celluloid guilty pleasure for many, and many San Franciscans in particular, is the 1995 WTF known as Showgirls, in which director Paul Verhoeven and scenarist Joe Eszterhas (following the popular success of their SF-shot and SF-picketed Basic Instinct) managed to convince a major Hollywood studio to spend $40 million on an NC-17 Las Vegas softcore musical…of sorts. Jaws have not stopped dropping since. Generally reviled upon release, Showgirls was just too flabbergasting to be forgotten like any ordinary flop. It was soon back in midnight showings, drag homages, a successful musical-theater spoof, and more.

This is not the time or place to debate whether Showgirls is just bad, monumentally bad, beyond good and bad, or a “misunderstood masterpiece” as some will actually tell you with a straight face. And it’s unnecessary anyway, since now Jeffrey McHale’s documentary is here to do those things for us. You Don’t Nomi approaches its subject from myriad angles, but mostly that of serious admirers (including our own Peaches Christ, who pioneered Showgirls’ late-night theatrical revival), film scholars, and critics (like Barbara Shulgasser, who originally reviewed it for the San Francisco Examiner). Showgirls’ genesis, production, publicity, public immolation, eventual re-evaluation, its placement within the pantheons of Verhoeven movies (it’s noted he went from making films too shocking for Holland to ones that bit the Hollywood hand which fed him) and general camp cinema (from Cobra Woman and Plan 9 to Valley of the Dolls and Mommy Dearest) are all given serious but by no means stuffy consideration.

Who we don’t hear from, outside archival interviews, are the people who actually made it. And no wonder: Not only do they still not seem to fully grasp what they wrought, their story keeps changing to accommodate shifting perceptions. Kinda like Tommy Wiseau started calling The Room an intentional “comedy” when he realized people were never going to stop laughing at it.

We can still dream that one day a tell-all book might reveal the real story behind what one observer muses might be a moviemaking story “about two men who maybe did a lot of cocaine and found themselves drunk with power in Hollywood after making a shitty movie about a lesbian icepick killer.” But meanwhile Showgirls goes on, needing no introduction and no explanations. Or perhaps it remains so inexplicable in its shrill, misogynist, racially weird, “unapologetically tacky” valley of ultra-slickness that to an extent we don’t even want to know how it happened.

You Don’t Nomi is one of those rare movies about a movie that (like Room 237 or The Disaster Artist) goes beyond simple “making-of” or glorified fan rave to encompass something larger—just as the film it discusses transcends 131 minutes of prurient dreck by being exactly that, albeit more vehemently than you’d ever thought possible.

TOMMASO
Abel Ferrera’s first narrative feature since 2014’s Pasolini (though that movie didn’t reach the US until last year) seems to be an autobiographical fiction reflecting his own status as an expat American artist now living and working in Rome. As the titular alter ego, his frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe sports other real-life overlaps: Tomasso is an ex-addict, has a much younger wife (Cristina Chiriac as Nikki) and little daughter (played by actual daughter Anna Ferrara), with a past including a broken prior marriage and two adopted children he’s estranged from.

A looser, lower-key personal 8 1/2 with fewer (and less flamboyant) fantasy elements, the long film drifts along from day to day, following Tommaso as he attends AA meetings, takes Italian lessons, teaches an acting class, works on a screenplay, goes shopping, and so forth. Dafoe has aged like a fine wine; so watching him perform these simple tasks in an often ebullient, perhaps semi-improvisational mode is a pleasure. But the film also feels like a directorial indulgence that is at once egotistical and less revealing than it thinks.

Tommaso’s primary source of angst is that he sometimes feels shut out by his wife, a Moldovan emigre herself who needs to assert her own independence. OK, sometimes she is distant and thoughtless, but he’s also frequently petulant and demanding. Besides, he’s in the classic Rich Famous Old Dude predicament, which earns little sympathy: If he wanted a mature soulmate, why did he marry a model-looking woman half his age? You choose a shiny package, don’t whine that it lacks content. Eventually this conflict leads the film to drive off one of several narrative cliffs, with the viewer uncertain whether they’re meant to be taken literally or not.

Given Ferrara’s own turbulent history, it’s welcome (as well as somewhat surprising) that he’s still alive and creating. But despite Dafoe and the confident craftsmanship on display, I’m not sure this tortured artist self-portrait does anything but make its creator look like another perpetual manchild, still whining that he can’t “have it all” while pushing 70. A few extraneous scenes of unidentified-female nudity don’t help dispel the notion that even this late in life, Ferrara still prefers his “muses” young, nekkid, and blank. Does a bongo come with that old-school beatnik-artiste crap, daddy-o?

Even hoarier: This is the kind of movie in which the director’s stand-in figure actually, truly does assume an eventual “Christ on the cross” pose…and I’m pretty sure it’s not meant as a parody of the stereotypical Pretentious Artist. Nope: That Abel Ferrera, he’s the real thing. Streaming rentals through Roxie Virtual Cinema (here) and Rafael Film Center (here) benefit those local venues.

SHIRLEY
A much better portrait of madness as artistic method is this latest from Josephine Decker, whose prior features (notably Madeline’s Madeline two years ago) had a poetical wooziness that was distinctive but also bit exasperating. It turns out, however, that her sensibility is exactly right for what is anything but a straight biopic of Shirley Jackson, self-destructive late author of such classic contemporary Gothic tales as The Haunting of Hill House and short story The Lottery.

Elisabeth Moss, fresh off her smashing turn in The Invisible Man, is back in nettlesome Her Smell terrain as this alcoholic, misanthropic New England recluse, who’s bullied by her professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Hyman) but also dishes it out in return. It’s a fine, showy performance, yet this isn’t the star vehicle you might expect. Instead, it’s a gleefully perverse psychodrama that utilizes the real-life couple’s mutually abusive dynamic as fictionalized fodder for a four-way in which they draw a young couple (Logan Lerman’s teaching assistant, Odessa Young’s equally bright newlywed wife) into their domestic purgatory, then toy with them as cats do mice.

It’s sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? mixed with the ambiguous menace and unsettling laughs of early Harold Pinter, as filtered through Decker’s dreamlike visual imagination. Shirley isn’t perfect, but it’s arresting and frequently inspired—a movie that, not unlike You Don’t Nomi, ultimately has more to say than simply addressing the real-life thing that it’s ostensibly about. It’s also available through Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.

THRILLERS: BECKY AND HAMMER
If you’re looking for something more in a less complicated mode of genre chills and thrills, these two new indie features are each a cut above average. Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott’s Becky stars Lulu Wilson as a 13-year-old only child whose fury at her cancer-robbed motherlessness and dad’s (Joel McHale) moving on with girlfriend Amanda Brugel gets a whole new outlet when their lakeside vacation home is raided by four dangerous escaped convicts—the worst of them played by comedian Kevin James, no less.

They are bad, violent people. But surprise!: Becky is a girl aching for an excuse to wreak major mayhem, which these villains all too soon provide her with. Not quite a black comedy, though it certainly requires a certain suspension of disbelief, this vigorous little number does not spare the gore, yet one must admit its revenge fantasy is quite appetizing nonetheless.

Likewise raising some plausibility issues, although within a more serious action-suspense context, is Christian Sparkes’ Canadian Hammer. Here, a hijacked drug deal leads prodigal son Mark O’Brien straight to the doorstep of Will Patton, the father who’d distanced himself from junior’s considerable substance and criminality problems. Once the shit hits the fan, however, they reach together for those Handy Wipes.

Over the course of a few very hectic hours, the two men, O’Brien’s very angry ex-friend (Ben Cotton), a not-so-innocent little brother (Connor Price), and others are pulled into an ever-escalating crisis from which there will surely be a body count. The screenplay may be a bit overloaded with incident, but the strong performances and execution keep Hammer’s 81 minutes strung taut.

Screen Grabs: Into ‘The Vast of Night’—and beyond

'The Vast of Night'

A couple restored minor classics, plus new features about recording-industry sexism, Islamic fundamentalism and UFO invasion, make this another wide-ranging week in the streaming world.

THE GREY FOX
Released into the brand-new century of 1901 after serving thirty-three years on and off for stagecoach robberies, Bill Miner couldn’t stay on the right side of the law for very long. In this 1982 depiction of his later career, he (played by Richard Farnsworth, who’d just begun acting in earnest after decades as a stuntman) is roused by a trip to the nickelodeon. There, he sees The Great Train Robbery—a twelve-minute silent western credited with greatly advancing the new medium’s technical and narrative sophistication. But it’s not the film’s artistry that excites him. With stagecoaches now history, it’s the depiction of a successful locomotive heist that gets his attention. Crossing the border into Canada, he soon sets about turning celluloid fiction into reality, even as he flirts with the respectable life by romancing a lady photographer (the eccentric actress Jackie Burroughs).

En route Miner became something of a folk hero, dubbed “the Gentleman Bandit.” This bemused chronicle of one brief stint between his serial jailings was the rare Canadian film about a Canadian subject to be a significant critical and commercial success abroad. It remains a very handsome affair, taking full advantage of spectacular scenic locations, with much music by Ireland’s beloved The Chieftans on the soundtrack. If you didn’t see it in the ’80s, or have wanted to see it again, Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration (now available in various arthouse “virtual theaters,” including BAMPFA’s) is definitely worth a look. Beyond its other pleasures, it’s also a testament to the talent of first-time feature director Philip Borsos, who sadly would only make a handful more before dying of leukemia in 1995, aged just 41. More info here.

ON THE RECORD
Last week brought two major new documentaries about high-profile, high-powered sexual predators. Lisa Bryant’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich on Netflix devoted four hours to the misdeeds of the late financier pedophile and Trump party pal who conveniently committed a much-disputed jailcell suicide last August, just before his testimony might’ve incriminated other well-connected panderers. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s latest is a feature-length examination of a still-living tycoon trailing a slew of assault and harassment accusations. All of which Russell Simmons vehemently denies—while at the same time he’s moved to Bali, a nation with which the U.S. has no criminal-extradition deal.

On the Record begins with numerous African-American women discussing how they’ve felt the MeToo movement was mostly for “the beautiful, the wealthy, the popular”—and white. Whereas people like themselves often feel obligated to “race loyalty” above all, because “America destroys our men,” so complaining about their behavior only adds to negative stereotyping. Also, when black women have levied assault accusations against the likes of Clarence Thomas or Mike Tyson, it’s the woman who’s disbelieved, and whose reputation gets dragged through the mud.

“Godfather of hip-hop” Simmons was a dream boss and mentor for many women who sought entree into the music industry. But at least twenty of them have recently come forward to accuse him of inappropriate behavior, up to and including rape. Among them are aspiring rappers, filmmakers, even his own erstwhile chief A&R executive. The latter, Drew Dixon, eventually fled his Def Jam for Arista. There, artists she signed scored more hits and Grammys. Yet she says she found herself all too soon facing exactly the same “put out or get out” demands from new CEO L.A. Reid—a “last straw” that drove her out of the business entirely.

Pressure from those men presumably led to executive producer Oprah Winfrey severing her association with the film before its Sundance premiere, which resulted in it also losing its original distribution deal. On the Record isn’t quite as powerful as the filmmakers’ prior documentaries The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, which detailed respective systemic sexual abuses and cover-ups in the US military and on college campuses—if only because those indicted entire institutions, while this is ultimately about power-corrupted individuals insulated by celebrity and wealth. Still, it’s a forceful expose that raises important issues about entertainment, privilege, gender, race and silence. It’s now on HBO Max.

PAPICHA
Sexism in an entirely different context is the focus of this first feature by Russia-born, France-based Mounia Meddour, the daughter of late Algerian director Azzeddine Meddour. “Inspired by true events,” it’s a fictional narrative set in 1997 Algiers, where political and terroristic pressure is being exerted to force strict interpretations of Islamic religious law on all of society. That’s anathema to Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), a carefree university student aspiring towards a career in fashion design. She’s introduced sneaking out of the dorm with bestie Wassila (Shrine Boutella) to grab a cab, blast Technotronic, and give themselves a glam makeover en route to an underground dance club.

While many of her peers and their families are seeking to flee abroad, escaping an increasingly repressive culture, Nedjma intends to stay put—lent perhaps a false sense of confidence by her own reckless, borderline-bratty youthful high spirits.

That light is dimmed a little when a member of her own family is assassinated, apparently for exhibiting overly “Western” values. Nedjma turns grief into the determination to stage a fashion show, even if that sends a red flag to fundamentalists who’d readily kill for far less of a blatant provocation.

It’s hard not to share the film’s sense of outrage at institutionalized misogyny and violence in the name of religion. But Meddour overstacks the deck, piling on too much melodrama, forced lyricism, a breathless tone, and too many scenes in which Jessica Alba-looking lead Khoudri is encouraged to stay near or over the brink of hysteria. A quieter film might have made its points more powerfully; Papicha has a worthy message, but almost no dramatic restraint in delivering it. It’s currently part of the Roxie Virtual Cinema programming. More info here.

SECRET CEREMONY
1968 was such a stupendous year in film—with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Yellow Submarine, Planet of the Apes, Faces, Teorema, Stolen Kisses and Shame, just for starters—that movies which might’ve stood out at any other time have been largely overshadowed. A good example is this starry oddity from Joseph Losey, a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist who moved to England, where he re-established himself to the point of becoming one of that nation’s leading directors in the talent-clogged Sixties. After exploring scenarist Harold Pinter’s provocative psychodramas in The Servant and Accident, he plunged into even more bizarre “psychological thriller” territory with this script by an expat Hungarian (George Tabori) adapting an Argentine novel (by Marco Denevi).

Elizabeth Taylor, then at the apex of her stardom, plays Leonora, who’s become an apparent prostitute after a failed marriage and the death of her only child. Visiting the latter’s grave, she is accosted by Cenci (Mia Farrow, fresh off the same year’s Rosemary’s Baby), a weird, somewhat infantile young woman who mistakes her for her own mother. She drags the bewildered Leonora to her sprawling, palazzo-like London home (Debenham House, a location used in several films), where Leonora realizes from photos that she does indeed strongly resemble the parent whose cancer death Cenci refuses to acknowledge.

Made vulnerable by her own maternal instincts and material poverty, Leonora accepts this role-playing relationship. But a snake turns up even in this false Eden: Cenci’s stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum), an American professor who blandly admits  lusting after the child-woman since he first saw her “sliding down a bannister” at age 11. A manipulative changeling, Cenci pits the two “adults” against each other, even going so far as to fake her own rape by “daddy” before she actually gives herself to him.

In a way Secret Ceremony is just one of the more pretentious children of Psycho—not that it’s a horror film, really, but one of many ’60s films indulging the celluloid fetish for baroque, deadly behaviors excused under the broad umbrella of twisted “psychology.” This kind of theatrical hysteria tied to taboos (incest, et al.) can easily curdle into camp, as it nearly does here in Taylor’s performance. She’s too literal-minded an actress to attack this borderline-preposterous material any way but head-on, to occasionally strident, coarse effect. But Farrow dives right into her character’s creepiness, a doe-eyed victim one minute and malevolent sprite the next, while Mitchum’s middle-aged predator is an insouciant master class in banality-of-evil. This very stylized, rarified cabinet of celluloid curiosities isn’t exactly a “good” movie, but it’s a rather fascinating one. It’s now out in a new HD master on DVD and Blu-ray.

THE VAST OF NIGHT
Andrew Patterson’s debut feature starts out feeling like American Graffiti meets The Last Picture Show, as elaborate tracking shots capture everyday life in a small New Mexico burg on the night of a high school basketball game circa 1960 or so. Among the few not headed there for the evening are garrulous teens Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz)—she’s doing a shift on the town telephone switchboard, while he’s doing the same at the local radio station. It’s while both are at these solitary tasks that they become aware of something odd occurring, with callers suddenly cut off and a strange interference noise in the area. Investigating, the duo eventually get pointed towards mysterious “people in the sky.” Is some sort of Roswell/alien abduction scenario unfolding in this sleepy backwater?

It takes nearly all of this film’s 90 minutes for that question to get answered, making The Vast of Night one of those films in which showy directorial style and cranked-up performances cover for the fact that not much actually happens for a long time. It would be one thing if the extended buildup led to some real surprise, but in fact it leads to something very familiar. Patterson’s choice to frame all this as a sort of mock vintage Twilight Zone-type TV show seems like another level of filigree that disguises without actually adding to the slim narrative content. Still, Vast is earnest and resourceful; I can see why some are considering it a major find, even if I can’t quite share their enthusiasm. It’s now on Amazon Prime.