Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: Now that’s Italian!

'The Traitor'

Most weeks of the year in the Bay Area there’s some film festival or other—sometimes several at once. Amidst such plenty, it’s easy to forget that some local festivals have actually left the building, like Women in Film or Fearless Tales. A more recent casualty was NICE (New Italian Cinema Events), though that annual showcase has more or less morphed under different auspices into the new form of Cinema Italian Style, whose official first edition takes place this weekend at the Vogue.

While dedicated to new Italian feature filmmaking, its opening selection nods to the past with the latest film from 80-year-old Marco Bellocchio, whose first feature Fists in the Pocket made an international splash way back in 1965. No one else of his generation and stature is remains alive and active, let alone still operating at the top of their game: The Traitor is even Italy’s chosen contender for the foreign-language Oscar this year. Indeed, it’s a major work, a fact-based 2 1/2 hour mafioso saga that’s arguably at least as good as Scorcese’s The Irishman, achieving the same narrative scale on a fraction the budget and in about 65 minutes’ less time.

It’s the story of Sicilian Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino), a longtime Cosa Nostra associate who was extradited from Brazil (not for the first time) in 1984. Having grown disillusioned with amidst murderous power struggles over the heroin trade, he decided to turn state’s witness, informing on numerous enraged fellow “men of honor” in lengthy, heavily guarded trials whose circus-like atmosphere is colorfully captured here. It’s a big, ambitious, impressive slice of recent Italian history from a filmmaker who’s had a significant place in that nation’s culture for over a half-century.

When Bellocchio was just starting out, Italy was still a major exporter of non-arthouse, highly commercial features worldwide, often grinding out en masse films in a particular exploitation flavor. Before the “spaghetti western,” the favored genre was peplum, or “sword and sandal,” those cheesy pseudo-epics of mythological antiquity that often starred American bodybuilders in togas. The form arguably reached its apex with future great spaghetti western director Sergio Corbucci’s 1961 Duel of the Titans, in which onetime Mr. Universe Steve Reeves and former screen Tarzan Gordon Scott played Romulus and Remus, the shepherding twins whom legend has it founded the city of Rome.

Matteo Rovere’s The First King: Birth of an Empire retells that tale, with Alessandro Borghi and Alessio Lapice now playing the Iron Age brothers. This isn’t an old-style peplum, but a fantasy-tinged action adventure in the mode of such recent, quasi-historical spectacles like 300, Gods of Egypt, and the Clash of the Titans remake. It’s a big, brutal, handsome popcorn epic, even if it does stumble pacing-wise after the midway point. Sorry, there’s no classic “muscle men” on display here. But if you want to see toned (if skinny, and very dirty) men in loincloths—including quite possibly the best-looking shepherds in movie history—this is the movie for you.

Other films in the three-day festival include Stefano Mordini’s murder mystery The Invisible Witness, Francesca Archibugi’s drama Vivere, Gabriele Salvatores’ musical road-trip tale Volare, Edoardo De Angelis’ human-trafficking expose The Vice of Hope, and Daniele Luchetti’s official closer Ordinary Happiness, a fantasy comedy about short-term reincarnation. There will also be some cuisine-related events tied to the festival. Fri/22-Sun/24, Vogue Theatre. More info here

For a large number of children (and princess aficionados of any age), there will be no film event worth thinking about this week—or probably for a few weeks to come—but Frozen 2, the animated-musical sequel that’s gotten some disappointed early reviews. However, critical consensus doesn’t mean a lot to its target demographic. Adults wanting to revisit a bit of their childhood might be heading instead to A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, in which Tom Hanks plays Fred Rogers aka Mr. Rogers, and Matthew Rhys the cynical journalist who becomes less so while getting to know him for an Esquire profile. That may sound treacly, but this latest by director Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Diary of a Teenage Girl) has been very well-received on the festival circuit.

Other films opening Friday that we weren’t able to screen in advance are Brian Kirk’s thriller 21 Bridges, with NYPD cop Chadwick Boseman hunting down two cop killers; Depeche Mode: Spirits in the Forest (at Embarcadero), a concert film for the veteran Brit synth band; and (at the Roxie) Minhal Baig’s directorial debut Hala, a drama about a 17-year-old Chicago teenager pulled between secular society and her family’s traditional Muslim values.

Also opening on Fri/22:

Gay Chorus Deep South
A couple of years ago in response to the “vitriolic” tenor of the last Presidential election, as well as the resurgence of legalized homophobia as alleged “religious freedom,” the San Francisco Gay Chorus decided to tour the mostly deep-red Deep South. The idea was to bring comfort to embattled communities, and hopefully change some minds along the way. People like the Chorus’ own artistic director Tim Seelig had southern roots themselves, which had in some cases been the source of sexual repression, still-damaged family relationships, and so forth.

This documentary by David Charles Rodrigues charts that trip, which turned out to be educational on both sides—not just for audiences and others on the tour, but for chorus members who often found open minds where they anticipated closed hearts. Still, not all divisions can be bridged, particularly when it comes to matters of religious belief. Though Gay Chorus Deep South may hit its “inspirational uplift” note a bit more shrilly than some viewers can stomach, it too seeks to find common ground between groups constantly pitted against each other in our current culture wars. Roxie Theater. More info here

Waves
One of the films stirring the most excitement on this fall’s film festival circuit was this third feature by Trey Edward Shults. This drama returns to the charged, almost manically tense domestic drama of his striking 2015 Krisha, although with a more ambitious narrative sprawl. The family here are an upper-middle class African-American quartet in South Florida, outwardly living “the good life,” but very much consumed by the discipline and achievement it took to get there in the first place.

Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a successful businessman who maintains the body of a pro athlete, and there’s nothing very playful about the arm-wrestling contests he has with teenage son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The latter has plenty of partying friends and a devoted girlfriend (Alexa Demie), but is under so much pressure to excel that the slightest hurdle can send him into a near-panic. The only upside to dad’s high expectations of Tyler is that younger sis Emily (Taylor Russell) gets left comparatively alone. Both kids are wary about accepting the emotional support they desperately need from stepmom Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry)—she’d love to provide it, but there is unresolved baggage in the way from their late biological mother.

Cinematically inventive, energetic, even nervous, Waves stacks causes for concern atop its central characters until inevitably it all crashes down on them in truly catastrophic fashion. Then the film in a sense begins anew, from a different character’s perspective than its long first section. Shults is a stylistically bold director, but not in a flashy, empty way. His dynamic presentation always serves psychological truth, even if sometimes it may feel like too much of a good thing.

That could also be said of Waves in general—it’s almost too rich in themes and conflicts for one narrative to bear. Still, it’s pretty rare these days you get to complain about an American movie having more serious ideas than it can fully handle. This is an imperfect film, but one well worth seeing, and even its flaws are ones of laudable overreaching. Embarcadero, California Theatre (Berkeley). More info here.

Light from Light
Waves’ opposite number is this independent feature, which is also a family drama of sorts but contrastingly quiet, meditative, ultimately balming in tenor. Sheila (Marin Ireland) is an ordinary Knoxville, TN single mom with a well-adjusted teenage son (Josh Wiggins) and a banal dayjob at an airport car rental desk.

But there is something extraordinary in her life, even if she’s rather ambivalent about it: For years she’s had sporadic paranormal experiences, and sometimes works with a volunteer group to offer her “gift” to others. As a result, she winds up visiting Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a fish-hatchery worker who’s experienced some poltergeist-y phenomena in the farmhouse his late wife’s family has lived in for generations. Is he being haunted, and if so, by spirits benevolent or malevolent?

This may sound like a setup for a horror film, but Paul Harill’s film doesn’t go in that direction at all. Instead, it’s a non-religious affirmation of things (spirits if you like) beyond our full understanding that is lovely, nuanced, and finally quite moving. Neither frightening or mawkish, Light From Light is an unusual drama of the supernatural that is very small in scale yet leaves an indelible impression. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Screen Grabs: Three of the year’s best dramas and more

'Honey Boy'

Many new films of interest opening this Friday—so many, in fact, that we had to write separately about the week’s revival highlights (see here) and new documentaries (see here). In particular, arriving all at once are three of the year’s best big-screen American dramas, Marriage Story, The Report and Honey Boy, all detailed below.

Several new films did not screen in time to be reviewed, among them

actor-turned-director Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels reboot, which is reputed to have a less jokey tenor than the ’70s TV show’s prior big-screen spinoffs. This version has Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska as the titular trio. The latest from Bill Condon (Kinsey, Chicago) is The Good Liar, a cat-and-mouse, tongue-in-cheek thriller with Ian McKellan as a senior con man preying on rich widows, and Helen Mirren as his not-so-helpless intended new victim. Early reviews have been a lot more complimentary towards the performers than their material, which is derived from a pulp novel by Nicholas Searle.

On the other hand, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari got a primarily favorable response on the festival trail over the last couple months. Christian Bale and Matt Damon star as key members of the real-life American team that was tasked with getting staid, practical Ford Motor Co. into the racing-car business—and hopefully showing up the smug Italians who perpetually won at glamorous Le Mans—in the mid-1960s. Also arriving with some critical admiration under its belt is another fact-based drama, The Warrior Queen of Jhansi. The U.K. costume piece from Swati Bhise chronicles an early (mid-1800s) mutiny in India against colonial British occupation. The director’s daughter Devika Bhise plays the titular rebellion leader, while Rupert Everett, Derek Jacobi and Jodhi May (as Queen Victoria) represent “the Crown’s interests.”

We did see The Day Shall Come (opening at Alamo Drafthouse), the new satire in which FBI agents including Anna Kendrick attempt to entrap a hapless, penniless group of Miami black nationalists (led by Marchant Davis) into behaving like terrorists. It’s got a sobering denouement that indicts our government’s over-eagerness to lure people of color into crimes they can be imprisoned for (while largely ignoring real threats, like white supremacists), but all the preceding comedy falls a bit flat. That’s disappointing, given that writer-director Christopher Morris’ prior Four Lion sactually did manage to make terrorism seem a viable topic for parody.

Unless otherwise noted, all films below are also opening at area theaters on Fri/15:

Marriage Story
Presumably Divorce Story would have been too much of a box-office repellant, but that’s a more apt title for this latest from writer-director Noah Baumbach, of The Squid and the Whale, Frances Ha and so forth. He’s an astringently clever, divisive talent whose films I’ve sometimes liked a lot (particularly the flop Margot at the Wedding), sometimes less so. But there’s no question this is his most smoothly accomplished and accessible work—even those who’ve hated prior Baumbach enterprises are encouraged to give it a go.

Scarlett Johanssen and Adam Driver play Nicole and Charlie, a couple who are in the process of ending their ten-year marriage, something she’s instigated and which he’s unhappy about. But they’ve agreed to the basic terms of an amicable parting, mostly for the sake of only child Henry (Azhy Robertson), whose life they want to disrupt as little as possible. They’re both in show business: He’s a successful, somewhat avant-garde stage director planning his Broadway debut, while she’s a former Hollywood starlet who happily changed her address and career after they met. But now she feels stifled by the marriage, as well as the theater company she’s raised the profile of, yet which he firmly controls. So she’s going back to Los Angeles to shoot a pilot for a TV series, with the understanding that she (and Henry) will soon be back in NYC for continued co-parenting.

Once back in L.A., however, she doesn’t want to leave. And though they’d figured the “amicable” part of parting would stay that way if they kept lawyers out of it, Nicole lets her well-intentioned mother (Julie Hagerty) convince her to consult one. Alarmed, Charlie is soon lawyering up, too. The arrival of characters spectacularly played by Laura Dern and Alan Alda (plus Ray Liotta as yet a third legal rep) turns Marriage Story into a tale of mutually-agreed-upon divorce pushed into all-out war.

These power-suited figures are hilarious. Yet Baumbach and his actors never resort to farce, and always find room for real pain and tenderness. None of these people are monsters—though some may get paid to play the part. There are minor things to quibble about here (notably that Johansson’s character gets the short end of the sympathy stick), but this is a rare American drama with big stars that is incisive, human-scaled, witty and heartfelt without the least whiff of sentimental or melodramatic manipulation. At area theaters.

The Report
It’s been a great year for Adam Driver, who provides the most moving moments in Marriage Story and also has a little thing called Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker coming up. He’s just about the whole show in this excellent first directorial feature by producer (the Inconvenient Truth documentaries) and scenarist (several Steven Soderbergh films) Scott Z. Burns.

He plays Daniel J. Jones, the real-life Senate staffer who was asked to lead an investigation into so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (like waterboarding) used by the U.S. after 9/11 on accused terrorists—many of whom were arrested and held without charges, then turned out to have committed no crimes and possess no valuable intel at all. How did our government get sold on the idea that these torture methods would be successful, let alone were necessary? Was it all a colossal boondoggle that ultimately only stained America’s human rights reputation?

Needless to say, what Jones and his team uncover is unflattering enough to trigger angry resistance from the GOP, the CIA, and even his boss Dianne Feinstein (a terrific Annette Bening)—who’s not about to bury the truth, but also pragmatically weighs what it might cost the nation. Even the Obama White House is reluctant to encourage revelations that can only exacerbate partisan strife.

Driver plays a wonk work-obsessed and justice-minded enough to keep pushing when everyone else is pushing back. He’s supported by an excellent cast including Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Cory Stoll and Tim Blake Nelson. Serious yet ingratiating, talky yet with a thriller’s grip, The Report may not be quite on the level of All the President’s Men. Still, as a dramatization of a red-hot political scandal that’s barely cooled, it’s definitely in the same league, and is certainly one of the best such movies in years. At area theaters.

Honey Boy
Shia LaBeouf has gotten a lot of flak in recent years for being, well, bizarre—acting out in public, disorderly conduct, pretentious art projects (including one that got him accused of plagiarism), etc. Plus, I must admit, his acting never did much for me. So it was easy to pigeonhole him as a classic Hollywood ex-child-actor hot mess, minus the significant talent of some similar cases. But his latest performances demonstrated greater range. And Honey Boy is a personal game-changer in many ways, not just because LaBeouf is excellent in it, but because his own screenplay is a fairly brutal fictionalized recap of that child acting stint, with the star himself playing his manipulative, exploitative, immature father. Yet the film (directed by Alma Har’el) is nuanced and complex enough to offer some semblance of forgiveness even as it depicts a parental relationship that might well be termed abusive.

We first meet Otis Lort as an adult (Lucas Hedges), filming a big, dumb action fantasy that looks a whole lot like one of the Transformers films LaBeouf has made. But the majority of Honey Boy takes place some years earlier, when our protagonist is a 12-year-old boy (Noah Jupe) shooting sitcoms, commercials and TV movies under the supposed guardianship of father James (LaBeouf). The latter is himself a failed entertainer—one of those would-be comedy types who’s unfunny because you can smell the underlying hostility—who’s no longer with Otis’ mother. This paid-parental-chaperone gig is, in fact, a sort of favor to him: He needs the money, and in theory it’s a chance for dad and son to bond despite the broken marriage. But we immediately suss that James is a terrible caretaker who in fact requires more caretaking (as well as a paycheck) from his son than vice versa. He’s also quite blunt about resenting an offspring already more successful than he’ll ever be.

This is a pretty horrible dynamic, Honey Boy pulls no punches as it shows things degenerate even further, as dad goes off the rails and Otis seeks comfort in the questionably-suitable friendship of a teen (FKA Twigs) who lives in the same semi-skeevy motel complex—and who may already be a sex worker. Few things are more painful to witness than a child being irresponsibly exposed to the worst adult behavior. But that precisely describes a great deal of this movie, which is basically a dramatized record of personal trauma. It is greatly to Har’el and LaBeouf’s credit that their project emerges something other than a voyeuristic dirge, balancing its piercing moments with surprisingly playful and tender ones. It’s not a perfect film, yet it pulls off very tough subject matter in ways both honest and inventive. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Ága
Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North was roughly to documentaries what The Birth of a Nation was to narrative features—kicking wide open a door that had hitherto just been ajar. Even then, it portrayed a way of life (in the Canadian Arctic) that was beginning to die out. Nearly a century later, this Bulgarian-produced feature set in the Far Eastern Russian republic of Sakha finds a very similar existence in its apparent death throes, and names its lead character Nanook to draw the most deliberate possible parallel.

He (Mikhail Aprosimov) and wife Sedna (Feodosia Ivanova) are Yakuts, whose traditions look very much like that of the Inuits, in an equally frozen Far North that’s also Far East. But despite the seeming timelessness of their isolated lives, they are getting older, and the world is changing. Nanook was once a reindeer herder; now he seldom sights even a stray buck in the distance. The ice fishing they largely survive on has become scarce. A sole daughter apparently ran away some time ago, and now works in a distant mining operation.

Milko Lazarov’s feature is shot in a super-wide format, all the better to capture the strikingly spare vistas here. Without much plot (though it does eventually “go somewhere,” both in story and geographic terms), Aga is best experienced as a sort of visual poem commemorating a culture that may soon be reduced to a historical back-chapter. While the phrase “climate change” is never uttered here, it’s clear throughout that the world we see onscreen is one which that phenomenon has placed on the extinction list. Opens Sat/16, Roxie Theater. More info here

Screen Grabs: Two major docs on devastating scandals

From 'At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal'

Equal parts entertaining and discomfiting, the two major documentaries opening at local theaters this week are both likely to make you mad. Not at their craftsmanship or viewpoint, but at the blood-boiling events they scrutinize: An infamous recent scandal of long-term sexual abuse in high-profile women’s gymnastics; and the rise of the nation’s preeminent weekly tabloid, whose yellow journalism was recently capped by revelations that it actively, underhandedly helped put you-know-who in the White House.

Mark Landsman’s Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer is about the famed supermarket rag popularly associated with nonsense stories about “UFO babies” and Elvis sightings. The Enquirer was a minor New York broadsheet until it was acquired in 1952 by Generoso Pope Jr., the son of a mafia-affiliated, Italian-language NYC newspaper owner. Ruthlessly bent on expanding circulation, he first turned towards grisly crime-scene and accident photos no other publication would touch. Then he realized the biggest audience lay in the fast-growing suburbs: Housewives who wanted celebrity gossip, diet advice, believe-it-or-not type stories and so forth in which “facts weren’t important.” Paying its staff generously (and firing them even more liberally), the Enquirer landed salacious scoops like the only photo of Elvis in his coffin, often flaunting the journalistic no-no of paying sources.

Eventually, and under different owners following Pope’s death, these muckrakers would begin fancying themselves real reporters—albeit ones who did not draw the line at creating rather than breaking news. Thus such “ethically challenging” coups as destroying Gary Hart’s Presidential campaign by aggressively ferreting out an extramarital fling. But they also “buried” similar stories about people like Bill Cosby in exchange for cooperation on more favorable coverage. They let someone like rising real estate magnate Donald Trump use the publication to drive his own celebrity status. (We even hear one old phone convo where he unconvincingly poses as an “anonymous” tipster about himself, promising dish about how hot Madonna supposedly was for The Donald. Uh-huh.) When he turned out to be a popular subject, the tabloid eventually agreed to “catch and kill” scandalous stories about him (re: Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougall) so they wouldn’t hurt his political ambitions.

Not everything the Enquirer does is bad, but they’ve certainly helped lower the general discourse. And their lack of ethics has led directly to our situation today: Stuck with a celebrity POTUS who doesn’t understand why he can’t manipulate all media coverage, because he certainly could with his pal The Enquirer. The most infuriating thing about Scandalous is seeing that paper’s former staff in their lavish homes, smugly making excuses for themselves. They argue they were just “doing their job” when they used underhanded means to get (or suppress) a story, often blithely destroying a subject’s privacy, career or entire life. These people are so shameless they can actually make you feel offended on behalf of Amazon’s unimaginably rich Jeff Bezos, who recently accused the company of extortion and blackmail.

Erin Lee Carr’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal charts how as official doctor for female gymnastics on the U.S. Olympics team, as well as for Michigan State University and a local high school, Larry Nasser was able to molest young women and girls for years on end. He was a much-liked figure by parents, officials and most of the competitors themselves, for whom he often played sympathetic “good cop” versus more harshly demanding coaches.

Yet Nasser exploited precisely that innocuous image to take advantage of girls too young and innocent to even be sure they were being assaulted—especially since on rare occasions when they complained, he assured them his digital “vaginal treatments” were standard procedure. Other adults were so disbelieving this affable, “super-dorky” fella would do anything wrong, they assumed the victims “misunderstood.” He’d even surreptitiously insert his fingers when parents were present in the room—though his abuses (and visible erections) definitely increased when they weren’t.

Among the many appalling things about this case is the fact, duly laid out here, that authorities primarily invested in trophies either dismissed or actively covered up such allegations. Their intentions may not have been evil, but at the very least, they enabled continued molestation by not following protocols designed to protect the athletes. Even when new guidelines were drawn up to prevent inappropriate behavior from Nasser, no one actually bothered to make sure he was complying. Once the scandal finally broke big-time, it made everyone save the victims look utterly reprehensible.

While this documentary turns somewhat rotely inspirational in the end, and the trial itself (which was open to cameras) got rather theatrical, Nasser did finally “comply” by appearing every inch the villains. His courtroom displays of contrition convinced no one, and the judge’s reading aloud of his whining, manipulative notes to her made it clear he thought he was somehow “the victim.”

Proving once again that sociopathy is a dismaying “new normal.” Heart of Gold and Scandalous are both engrossing nonfiction features, but they won’t exactly uplift your faith in 21st-century humanity.

Scandalous opens Fri/15 at SF’s Opera Plaza and Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.  

At the Heart of Gold opens Fri/15 at the Vogue Theatre in SF. More info here

Screen Grabs: French noir to vintage punk, a week of retro gems

Jane Fonda and Alain Delon in 'Les Felins,' playing at The French Had a Name For It 6

Considering all the odds against it—real estate/rent issues, changing audiences, ever-more home viewing options—it’s pretty amazing that San Francisco still has any arthouse scene at all, let alone a pretty substantial one. We even have several regular or sporadic venues for revivals and rep-house cinema. This week brings a particular wealth of old movies that will nonetheless be (mostly) new to you, ranging from French melodramas from over half a century ago to a vintage SF punk-scene memento, a previously suppressed documentary, and a cultish whatsit from 2009.

The French Had A Name For It 6

This is the sixth and final (for the time at least) being installment of Midcentury Productions’ occasional series showcasing variably obscure French commercial features from the 1930s through the 60s that more or less paralleled (and in some cases preceded) the American film noir vogue. Here we reach “the end of the line,” as radical changes in viewer, studio and artistic interests spelled pretty much the finish of a vaguely defined genre’s run in the “turbulent Sixties.” But the series is also taking a hiatus because its programmer Don Malcolm will soon be publishing the book he’s been working on all along, about precisely that genre.

This five-day installment provides no major revelations, but its selections chart a transitional moment, as figures of the old guard passed torch (not always happily) to talents of the Nouvelle Vague. That process is rarely as explicit as in Henry Verneuil’s 1963 Any Number Can Win, a brassy caper in which creaky old Jean Gabin attempts to pull a big heist on the Riviera with callow young Alain Delon. It’s an exercise in the kind of big-swinging-dick lifestyle fantasy cinema that would soon become ubiquitous thanks to James Bond.

The next year, Delon gave one of his liveliest performances in Rene Clement’s Joy House, as another handsome lout, a gigolo who finds shelter from a jealous husband’s thugs in the villa of a rich American window (Lola Albright) and her nymphet cousin (Jane Fonda). They seem easy marks, yet it’s our hero who discovers he’s being played. Both these films were splashy enough entertainments to warrant U.S. distribution at the time by MGM.

More specialized in appeal were the likes of Michel Drach’s 1960 debut feature One Does Not Bury Sunday, a then-daring if uneven indie interracial romance between an immigrant from Martinique (Philippe Mory) and a Swedish student (Christina Bendz) in Paris. Made the same year, Le petit soldat was Jean-Luc Godard’s intended followup to Breathless, as well as the debut appearance for his early muse Anna Karina. But it got shelved until 1963 due to government censors’ objections to the depiction of French authorities utilizing torture during the Algerian War. Somewhat similar in theme, though much more widely seen, was Alain Resnais’ fairly conventional (for him) drama 1966 The War is Over, with Yves Montand as an expat Spaniard working to overthrow Franco’s dictatorship at home while evading detection in Paris.

Other films in the series include the more straightforwardly noir-ish likes of Julien Duvivier’s The Burning Court (1962), an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery; and Lovers on a Tightrope (1960), with Annie Girardot scheming to get rid of the wealthy husband who suspects as much. Based on a true-crime story but no mainstream thriller is Les Abysses(1963), Nikos Papatakis’ hysterically pitched, fictive recap of the notorious case in which two sibling housemaids killed their mistress and her daughter—a tale of class struggle and madness that inspired many other artworks, including Jean Genet’s famous play The Maids. The French Had A Name For It 6 plays Thurs/14-Mon/14 at the Roxie Theater. More info here

Celebration
Also very French and at the Roxie is this new/old portrait of fashion legend Yves Saint-Laurent. Old because it was shot several years before his death in 2008; “new” because legal disputes kept it from being seen until recently. There’s a fairly extensive backlog of documentaries that were suppressed by the institutions or persons they portrayed, which felt the portrayal wasn’t flattering enough—from Frederick Wiseman’s debut feature Titicut Follies and the Rolling Stones’ Cocksucker Blues to recent The Queen of Versailles, whose time-share tycoon subject sued (unsuccessfully) because the filmmakers stopped filming before he’d bounced back from a serious market slump.

Celebration was withheld because Laurent’s estate feared it made the late Laurent look too dodderingly out-of-it as he prepared his final collection, while longtime business and (sometimes) private partner Pierre Berge appeared overmuch to be running the show. Indeed, that pretty much encapsulates the limited insight to be gained from this mix of color and B&W verite footage, which Olivier Meyrou shot between 1998 and 2001. There’s not much of interest here for those not already curious and knowledgable about the fashion industry. But if you are, this is like a real-life Phantom Thread, albeit minus the heterosexuality and poisoning. Opens Fri/15, Roxie Theater. More info here

Cops Vs. Aliens: An Evening of Rock ’n’ Roll Film
One of the first US punk bands (though they somewhat resisted being categorized as one), Crime mixed retro rockabilly-esque simplicity with abrasive noise at high volume, releasing an initial single in late 1976. Though they were gone by 1982 (only to reform for a longer spell in the new millennium), they had played a major, pioneering role in the BayArea’s punk/New Wave scene.

This one-off event at the Victoria is a DVD and soundtrack release party for Jon Bastian’s 35-minute documentary San Francisco’s First and Only Rock ’n’ Roll Movie: CRIME 1978. Its footage was shot on 16mm just over four decades ago, but has seldom been seen in any form until the current, new “final edit.” Playing at the Fab Mab in ersatz police uniforms, taking themselves verrrry seriously (though not speaking very articulately) in brief interview clips, Crime makes it clear they’re the coolest thing around—or at least they certainly thought so. There’s not much synch sound in this patchwork short. Still, the views of an already prodigiously punked-out crowd, Dirk Dirksen’s snarky comments as house MC, and random promo footage combine to capture a prime moment in a then-affordable San Francisco’s cultural history.

There’s little obvious logic to the rest of the evening’s bill, though we like every individual element: In addition to the Crime film, a live musical intro by surviving band member Ron “The Ripper” Greco, and some words from the filmmakers, there will be a performance by Texas psychobilly pioneer The Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Plus a screening of D.A. Pennebaker’s 1973 concert film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, with preceding Ziggy lookalike contest. What can we say? That’s a lot of entertainment for 15 bucks. Thurs/14, Victoria Theater. More info here

Far Out on Film at SFMOMA
As a sidebar to the gallery exhibition Far Out: Suits, Habs and Labs for Outer Space, SFMOMA is programming this series of six unique celluloid looks at the future—as imagined throughout the last half-century. Sci-fi in the 1970s got very spacey indeed with John Coney’s unclassifiable 1974 musical fantasy Space Is the Place, a vehicle for the inimitable jazz-rock visionary Sun Ra. The same year in the Soviet Union, Andrei Tarkovsky explored inner metaphysics in outer space with the original Solaris. Andrew Niccol’s 1997 Gattaca was a cool exploration of a genetically engineered society to come, with Ethan Hawke as a man whose imperfect “natural” birthright makes him ineligible for a voyage to Saturn.

Trapped in transit between worlds are the protagonists in two films from this year. Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche are among the not-entirely-willing crew on an endless interstellar trip in Claire Denis’ High Life. A much better movie, though it only played SF very briefly last March, is Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s Aniara, a fascinating tale in which a spacecraft thrown off-course en route to a Mars settlement sees its passengers virtually enacting the entire life cycle of a civilization in their no longer destination-bound eternal travel. It’s based on, of all things, a Swedish Nobel winner’s epic narrative poem. Last but not least comes the granddaddy of all thinky sci-fi cinema, Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sat/16-Sat/Dec. 21, Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA. More info here

Flesh Fantasy
On the other hand, last in this column and pretty much least overall is next week’s Alamo Drafthouse “Weird Wednesday” pick, a prank by Wonder Showzen creator and South Park producer Vernon Chatman. He wrote an absurdist script about two parents and a daughter who behave in no rational fashion whatsoever when an apparent thermonuclear disaster destroys the entire world outside their home. He then split it into four parts, and sent each to a different fetish-porn video companies for them to act out and film exactly as written.

The 2009-completed result is surrealist jape meets unconscious outsider-art mashup par excellence, as performers who (mostly) really don’t get the joke recite non sequiturs like “I’m raising money to help provide subtext for the poor” and “I refuse to say what I need! Just hurry!” In fact, when the final trio all dressed in hipster black seems to grasp this material as avant-garde theater, their knowingness makes for the dullest stretch—the worse the acting (I vote Part 3), the more hilarious the result.

Final Flesh is frequently just amateurish and infantile, with its scripted emphasis on regurgitation more overbearing than the anonymous “stars’” occasional, presumably-unscripted bouts of graphic exhibitionism. But as pranks go, this is a good one: At times its oil-and-water concept is helplessly funny. Wed/20, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Two movies for grown-ups at the multiplex

'The Irishman'

Last month 76-year-old Martin Scorcese ignited a firestorm—at least amongst fuming fanboy types—when he shrugged that he’d “tried” to grok superhero movies, “But that’s not cinema…it isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” In his estimation, they were closer in gist and appeal to theme parks.

He elaborated further in a New York Times op-ed earlier this week, making the point that what he defines as “cinema” is a personal artistic expression (as opposed to the more corporate DC/Marvel package), and that admittedly any such definition is a “matter of personal taste and temperament.” Of course that scarcely eased the harrumphing amongst many who consider themselves very sophisticated to even know that a little something called Taxi Driver came decades before the similar current Joker.

Argue with his logic as you will. But in any case, Scorese hit a nerve, not only for people who are perfectly fine with comic-book movies dominating the movie industry now, but also for those who lament that grownup entertainment on the big screen is basically a thing of the past.

Sure, there are foreign and independent films. And yes, adults do go to comic book movies. But it is true that in the days of Taxi Driver and before, separate movies were made for youth and adults—the majority of Hollywood product wasn’t aimed at a one-size-fits-all, 13-year-old fanboy’s mindset, whether it inhabits an actual 13-year-old body or a middle-aged one. And it is also true that while something like Joker may indeed be edgy and challenging by the standards of superhero movies…it’s still pretty much a dumbed-down version of Taxi Driver by any other standard.

Those who share Scorcese’s general perspective (if not his specific taste) tend to rarely go to the movies anymore, because they perceive most of what’s there is “for kids.” (They also hate people talking and constantly looking at their phones, but that’s another issue.) The one time they might venture into a theater is towards year’s end, when the industry tends to unleash all the “grownup” movies it’s stinted on in prior months, since that period is the start of “awards season,” and such films often need “awards buzz” to gain any commercial traction.

This Friday brings a relative rarity: Two big new Hollywood movies aimed at adults, each ambitious and intelligent in their way, arriving with the burden of high expectations. One is Scorcese’s own The Irishman. The other, perhaps less obvious “prestige” film (not that it’s likely to attract much awards interest—horror films never do) is Doctor Sleep, a sequel of sorts to The Shining. It’s by Mike Flanagan, an excellent director still in the early stages of what will hopefully be a long career. Both are worth serious attention, though you may be surprised which I found more satisfying. Or maybe you won’t.

Perhaps best known now for the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan has been making independent features for nearly a decade, starting with 2011’s low-budget Absentia—a horror story of unusual subtlety and psychological depth, and as such a fair proclamation of his skill set. The several features he’s made since have been variably “personal,” including one for-hire franchise entry (Ouija: Origin of Evil, the rare sequel much superior to its predecessor), but all were interesting, well-crafted, suspenseful and intelligent.

Those aren’t qualities typically found in horror cinema, so it was with considerable excitement that genre fans heard he was getting his major-studio big break with Doctor Sleep, based on Stephen King’s 2013 novel. Flanagan’s adaptation does double-duty in functioning as a sequel to The Shining in both its best-known forms: The original book and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, which King himself had very mixed feelings about.

Though popular, that movie was not particularly well-received at first, being considered a poor adaptation that perversely scuttled some of the novel’s seemingly sure-fire cinematic elements. To King’s massive reading audience, the film was too cold, too arch; Jack Nicholson was too Jack Nicholson (making his gradually-unraveling character seem crazy from the start), Shelley Duvall ludicrous, their marital dynamic laughable. Yes, individual sequences were striking, but so studied—and why couldn’t it all just be scarier?

It took a while for posterity to make its decision, as the book lost currency but the film found a permanent place in popular culture: Kubrick’s The Shining was a great film. Even more, it was a great Kubrick film, macabre, sardonic and masterful. If it wasn’t a very good version of Stephen King’s novel, so what?

Thus Doctor Sleep begins with scenes that purposely echo its screen predecessor (not counting the mediocre 1997 miniseries that was meant to be King’s improvement on it, and sure wasn’t), casting lookalike actors in scenes that resemble missing pieces from the 1980 film. Then we jump forward a few decades.

Little Danny Torrence is now an adult alcoholic (Ewan McGregor) whose very messed-up life stabilizes somewhat thanks to a Good Samaritan (Cliff Curtis) and AA. But as much as he’s buried the past, his ESP-like “shining” stirs at communications from an even more gifted little girl (Kyliegh Curran as Abra). Unfortunately, the latter also attracts attention from a roving clan of witchy folk led by an impressively cruel Rebecca Ferguson. They are near-immortal—and stay that way by devouring the souls of “special” people just like Abra and Danny. It takes a while (not that you’ll notice), but this story eventually heads exactly where you might expect: Back to the Overlook Hotel.

Unlike Kubrick, Flanagan is a competent craftsman rather than a visionary stylist. His strengths lie in the superficially “simpler” yet  invaluable realms of taut storytelling and character dimensionality. Doctor Sleep isn’t an auteurist objet d’art (and yes, it could be scarier), but it sucks you in right away and doesn’t let go over 152 minutes’ course. It delivers an expansively satisfying tale of supernatural suspense that makes most of the year’s other endeavors in that realm look simple-minded or silly. (The two other most eagerly awaited films of 2019 amongst discerning horror fans, Midsommar and The Lighthouse from the respective directors of Herediary and The Witch, were both mannered disappointments, while most new mainstream horror features were just formulaically dumb as usual.) It is no mean feat that Flanagan pulled off a tribute to both Kubrick’s movie and a (reasonably) faithful King adaptation that nonetheless feels sturdily its own beast.

Released exactly a decade after Kubrick’s The Shining, Scorcese’s Goodfellas never had to wait for reevaluation—a lot of people thought it was a “classic” upon arrival. Do you think Goodfellas is one of the greatest movies ever? Then you are probably going to have no trouble applying the term “masterpiece” to the same director’s The Irishman, a long-aborning project that’s pretty much 3 1/2 hours more of the same, and in which the only thing that doesn’t feel thoroughly movie-Italian-American is the title. (And that titular figure is played by Robert DeNiro, who’s about as Irish as fettuccini alfredo.)

It’s a magnum opus for sure, another fact-inspired, decades-spanning crime chronicle, this time tracking the career of Frank Sheeran from post-WW2 meat truck driver to an enforcer for NE Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), then a union official/strongarm under Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Those dual loyalties eventually conflict, once the belligerent Hoffa refuses to accept his diminished stature after a prison stint. (This film has very definite ideas about what happened re: Hoffa’s infamous 1975 “disappearance”—and also suggests mob involvement behind JFK’s election, his assassination, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other major national events.)

This is Scorcese country and then some, featuring actors he’s long worked with (Harvey Keitel also turns up), plus ones he might as well have (Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano). There’s the requisite soundtrack full of oldies, albeit this time tilted towards the kind of lounge shlock favored by people who think western civilization peaked with the Rat Pack. There is violence, though it’s seldom graphic, and indeed The Irishman is somewhat muted all around, with little of this director’s trademark, wildly cinematic bravado—it is paced and staged in a fashion appropriate to a movie that ultimately is largely about aging and mortality.

That focus lends it some eventual poignance. But only because the director insists on raising issues of forgiveness and remorse—frankly, his characters do not appear to regret having lived lives that were brutal, corrupt and predatory. I don’t really share Scorcese’s endless fascination with the mob; such people aren’t all that interesting, let alone sympathetic. (And as if six seasons The Sopranos had never happened, the women here are so marginalized, they scarcely get any dialogue at all.) What’s more, the principal actors here are all in their mid-to-late 70s, and despite extensive computer-generated “youthification,” they are clearly far too old for their parts until the later going.

Despite its extreme length, The Irishman is steadily involving. But is it a great movie simply because it’s a long film by a great director, reprising many of his usual themes (and actors)? People worried that this Big Kahuna of gangster flicks, being a Netflix joint, might be insufficiently accessible on the big screen. But actually it might be better seen at home, where you can watch it in comfortable segments, with bathroom and dinner breaks. It doesn’t have the kind of epic feel or spectacular scale that requires an auditorium to fully appreciate—in fact I have no idea why a film that takes place mostly in restaurants and living rooms had to cost $160 million.

Should you see it? Well, sure. It’s a good movie. But at that length and with that price-tag, maybe “good” isn’t enough. Of course, if you’re already pre-sold on the whole package, you’ll probably experience the film as being exactly as much a career-culmination for all concerned as you want it to be. For me, I embrace Scorcese’s point about the preciousness of “cinema” such that it’s a little dismaying to note that his latest feels rather like quality TV.

Doctor Sleep opens today at Bay Area theaters, The Irishman at Embarcadero Center Cinemas (expanding to other theaters next week).

Screen Grabs: South Asian cinema, transgender visions, amateur porn…

'Bangla' plays at the 3rd i Festival.

Woe betide the Bay Area movie lover equally enthused about South Asian cinema, transgender screen expressions, and amateur porn—because this week the signature local festivals for all those categories are happening at the same time.

It’s year seventeen for the SF International South Asian Film Festival, often known as 3rd i (the name of its producing organization), which plays the Castro and New People Thurs/7-Sun/10, then moves to Palo Alto on Sat/16. Highlights include Rima Das’ opening-night Indian coming-of-age tale Bulbul Can Sing, standup-comedy documentary American Hasi, gritty B&W drug drama Cat Sticks, outre romance-slash-body-horror opus Ravening, Prasanna Vithanage’s acclaimed colonial-era period piece Children of the Sun, multinational animated feature Bombay Rose, and more, including shorts and a master class with documentarian Nishtha Jain. More info here

On the same dates (not including the 16th), the Roxie will host the SF Transgender Film Festival, which began life as Tranny Fest 22 years ago and has been an annual event since 2005. (Read the 48 Hills interview with festival head Shawna Virago here.) Its six programs this year (the first two close-captioned, with live ASL interpretation) run a gamut from opening night’s sci-fi omnibus feature Transfinite to StormMiguel Florez’s full-length nonfiction The Whistle, plus numerous short-form documentaries, narratives, animations, experimental works, foreign films (like Popo Fan’s Chinese The Drum Tower), and ones of particular local interest (including Daryl Jones’ Tender, about three black trans women in the Tenderloin). Going beyond identity politics, subject matter here sprawls unexpectedly to encompass such diverse terrain as skateboarding, autism and electronic music-making. More info here

Meanwhile down the street at the Victoria, this weekend and the two weekends after it will be required to contain the 15th HUMP! Film Festival, which Savage Love advice columnist and activist Dan Savage started in Seattle in 2005. Though the internet certainly was already alive and well back then, at the time the notion that ordinary people might make and show porn movies in a raucous public setting seemed, er…unlikely? Yet HUMP! has proved so successful that it now operates annually in five West Coast cities, offering a pornucopia of variably serious films about every imaginable kink, preference, body type, story concept, and so forth—the glue being that there’s “creative sexual expression” under five minutes in length, made by “people who aren’t porn stars but want to be one for a weekend.” Running Fridays and Saturdays (plus one Sun/17 “industry night”) through Nov. 23, these shows are 21-and-over only. More info here.

Other openings this week run a gamut from the big ’n’ bombastic to the very small-scale. (We’ll review two of the most highly-anticipated, The Irishman and Doctor Sleep, separately later in the week.) On the noisy end, no doubt, is Midway, a WW2 combat action movie from generic-popcorn-blockbuster veteran Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, White House Down, etc.) that hopefully will at least be less dull than the 1976 Charlton Heston movie of that same name and subject. Also arriving on Friday is another large-canvas war movie, Kriv Stenders’ Danger Close. Though only playing locally at the 4-Star, its “boots-on-the-ground” portrait of the Battle of Long Tan (a 1966 Vietnam War confrontation between Viet Cong and Australian troops) has gotten some admiring early reviews. Likely to involve less artillery but not promising much inspiration are wide-released romcom Last Christmas and family comedy Playing with Fire.

On the low-budget and comparatively low-key end, the Roxie is opening Richard Levien’s modest but topical Collisions, in which two San Francisco children are thrown into the negligent care of their estranged uncle (Quinceanera’s Jesse Garcia) when their immigrant mother (Ana de la Reguera) is seized by ICE. The 4-Star is also premiering independent, B&W Chinese crime thriller The Amateur Killer.

Outside the realm of commercial cinema entirely, an event of special note is Other Cinema’s Sat/9 benefit for the Barbara Hammer Lesbian Experimental Filmmaking Grant at Artists Television Access. This event will see the late great SF-based film/video trailblazer’s legacy continuing in the form of posthumously completed collaborations with other significant artists including documentarian Lynne Sachs, who will also screen some of her own recent solo work. http://www.othercinema.com/calendar/index.html

‘My Grandmother’

SOVIETS AND SURREALISTS AT THE PFA
Two short but sweet series running this week only at the Pacific Film Archive underline how far the celluloid vocabulary was being stretched 40, even 90 years ago.

Limited to just three programs, Strange: Surrealist Tendencies in Cinema provides a complement to City Lights Books’ multimedia “Magnetic Fields: Surrealism at 100” celebration taking place at various area venues throughout November. Such a cineaste’s delight that it was distributed in the U.S. under Francis Ford Coppola’s aegis three years after premiering at the Berlin Festival in 1977, Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (Wed/6) is a Filipino phantasmagoria about a jeepney driver who dreams of space travel; its other fans included both Werner Herzog and Susan Sontag.

The “Still Raining Still Dreaming” bill on Fri/8 encompasses shorts from Joseph Cornell’s classic pastiche Rose Hobart(1938) to Phil Solomon’s titular 2008 work. On Sun/10 there’s a program of works by Sidney Peterson, who taught San Francisco Art Institute’s first film courses. Four of his late 1940s avant-garde films will be shown—movies whose humor, lyricism and imagination remain remarkable, though he never attained the fame of many subsequent experimentalists he blazed the trail for. More info here

More expansive, but also running just Wed/6-Sun/10, is Soviet Silent Cinema: Peter Bagrov on Treasures from the BAMPFA Collection, in which the Russian archivist turned curator at the George Eastman Museum will lecture on and show seven features plus a few shorts from one of cinema’s greatest epochs. Of course any film buff who knows their stuff is familiar with the likes of Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Dziga Vertov. But this series demonstrates how much remains to be discovered from the USSR’s silent era by Western audiences.

Perhaps most surprising is the number of comedies—despite all humorless-Communist stereotyping, funny movies were being made here during Chaplin and Keaton’s heyday, too. Relatively well-known is Kote Mikaberidze’s 1929 farce My Grandmother (Wed/6). But you may not have seen the marvelous 1925 short Chess Fever (on the same program), or Nikolai Shpikovsky’s A Familiar Face (Sat/9), a surprisingly antic large-scale tale of wartime deprivation involving one endlessly black-market-hustling man and his camel in the southern Ukraine.

Other impressive finds (both playing Thurs/7) include Yuri Tarich’s 1926 Wings of a Serf (Thurs/7), in which a peasant inventor who yearns to fly lands in mad Ivan the Terrible’s court; and the same year’s seriocomedy Katka’s Reinette Apple, a sometimes documentary-like tale of city life in which a poor but honest couple are preyed upon by a second pair of incorrigible (and eventually criminal) bourgeoisie.  More info here

SYNONYMS
Every year at the major European film festivals, there’s at least one movie that wins a major prize, then has nearly everyone save a few critics rolling their eyes at how exasperating, pretentious and pointless it is. Nabbing the Golden Bear at Berlin last winter, Policeman and The Kindergarten Teacher director’s Nadav Lapid’s French-Israeli production is that movie for 2019. It begins with protagonist Yoav (Tom Mercier), a tourist in Paris just released from military service back home, running around in a state of very naked hysteria—having finished bathing to discover all his belongings stolen from the Airbnb rental he’s staying at.

This goes on so long, in a fashion so mannered and annoying, you may begin to wonder if the whole movie is going to be an excuse to show off Mercier’s body—which is indeed quite nice, esp. as he seems to be permanently (ahem) “standing at attention.” Will an actual plot ever arrive? How many scenes will we get of Yoav wandering the street, reciting obscure French words? (His extensive but archaic second-language vocabulary seems largely derived from literature.) He’s more a construct than a character, theatrically spinning stories (duly seen in flashback) of his life in Israel, refusing to speak Hebrew even with fellow expats, casting a seemingly unconscious spell of hypnotic sexual magnetism on his privileged local benefactors, an ostensibly heterosexual couple (Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevillotte).

For a while this seems like The Square of global Israeli identity politics, using absurdist comedy to probe how that nation sees itself and how it’s seen by others. Lapid’s movie is one murky metaphor, though after a while we get the gist: Israel may be in profound moral conflict with itself, but by contrast the concerns, stakes and values of citizens in a place like France seem trivial, mere affectation. Yoav is a Francophile and a refugee of sorts, having run away from his native land like a traumatized child fleeing an abusive parent. Yet it’s so hard for him to take his new country seriously.

While Synonyms can itself feel random and frustrating, there is nonetheless a certain charm to its flakiness, whether in the occasional witty line (“Boredom structures me,” Dolmaire’s frivolous aspiring writer opines), Yoav’s eruptions of impotent rage, or the sudden dance fever triggered at a party by an old Technotronic cut.

I’m not sure what exactly Lapid is going for here—though driving us a little crazy may be part of it—but his movie isn’t just a stunt, it is a work of art. Whether it’s a good or bad one is another question entirely, perhaps best asked a few years down the line. Opera Plaza. Shattuck Cinemas.

Screen Grabs: A feast of docs and dancing

Jook genius Lil Buck in 'Real Swan' at the SF Dance Film Fest

It’s a big week for non-fiction cinema, the main event being SFFilm’s fifth annual Doc Stories, which brings together several of the year’s most acclaimed documentary features and shorts. It opens at the Castro Fri/1 with Roger Ross Williams’ The Apollo, about the Harlem theater that remains the most fabled venue for African-American music and performance. Fantastic Negrito will be on hand for a live “musical introduction.” On Mon/4 Martin Scorcese appears to discuss his lesser-sung but extensive parallel career as a documentarian in an evening that will also feature his recent Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which may not be entirely documentary or narrative—but however you classify it, is definitely one of 2019’s best films.

In between, Doc Stories hosts two days of programs at the Vogue, including features about author/neurologist Oliver Sacks, modern dance legend Merce Cunningham, Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia (Shooting the Mafia) and Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker). There’s also a tribute to veteran director Julia Reichert (whose American Factory is expected to be a major awards contender at year’s end), and three programs of nonfiction shorts. More info here

Dance fans can put off seeing the 3-D Cunningham until its commercial opening in early January if they’re disinclined to miss anything at the overlapping San Francisco Dance Film Festival, which runs Sat/2 through Sun/10 at several SF venues. Among the international features and shorts showcased are performance films featuring the Joffrey Ballet (Ophee et Eurydice), Les Ballets de Monte Carlo (The Lavender Follies), the English National Ballet (Akram Khan’s Giselle), Paris Opera Ballet (Thierree/Shechter/Perez/Pite: Four Choreographers of Our Time), and Wifman Ballet (Tchaikovsky: Pro et Contra).

There are also feature documentaries about choreographer Sol Pico (From Knee to Heart), Maurice Bejart (the Queen-related benefit behind-the-scenes portrait Ballet for Life) and dancer/teacher Lil Buck (Real Swan). Narrative features are a fully adapted movie version of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, shot in Budapest with leads from the Royal Ballet, and Georgia Parris’ dance-themed drama Mari, starring former Batsheva Dance Co. company member turned choreographer/multimedia performer Bobbi Jene Smith. More info here

Far from the world of dance lie two worthy new documentary features opening regular commercial runs this Friday. Not to be confused with the similarly-themed recent For Sama, The Cave (from Feras Fayyad of the Oscar-dominated Last Men in Aleppo) chronicles female medical staff in a subterranean Syrian hospital defying cultural and professional sexism as they fight to save lives from the war being waged above. It opens at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Opening at the Roxie is Jacqueline Olive’s Always in Season, about a war so contrastingly quiet few even realize it’s going on. Her subject is the highly suspicious apparent “suicide” last year of Lennon Lee Lacey, an 18-year-old African-American high schooler in rural North Carolina found hanging from a swing set in a trailer park. As we realize there’s every reason to believe a murder and cover-up may have occurred, the question that emerges in this engrossing film in a very disturbing one: Does racially-targeted lynching still exist in the U.S.? Is it an actual trend we prefer not to recognize? More info here

In a busy week there were several major releases we weren’t able to watch by deadline, including actress turned director (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, an inspirational biopic of slave-freeing Underground Railroad trailblazer Tubman’s life that has gotten just lukewarm early reviews. Dividing critics in its festival appearances this fall was writer/director/producer/star Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, a passion project that’s been in the works since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published two decades ago. Among the radical changes this starry adaptation has wrought on its National Book Award-winning source material is changing the setting from late 1990s to the mid-1950s.

We did see Alexis Michalik’s Cyrano, My Love, a handsomely mounted, broadly aimed French backstage melodrama about the mechanizations behind the creation of playwright Edmond Rostand’s enduring 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s a Shakespeare in Love-type exercise, though Michalik ain’t Tom Stoppard. Also disappointing is Frankie by Ira Sachs, whose last three movies (Keep the Lights On, Love Is Strange, Little Men) were all among the best of the last decade. But all good things must come to an end, and as a studio executive reportedly once said to Peter Bogdanovich (upon watching his flop Daisy Miller, which followed the acclaimed hits The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon), “Well you hit three home runs in a row—now you’ve bunted.”

Isabelle Huppert at her most disinterested plays the titular character, a famous actress who’s gathered loved ones (not that she seems to actually love anyone) around for a vacation/farewell week in Portugal after a cancer relapse. It’s one of those movies in which talented people (including Brendan Gleeson, Maria Tomei, Greg Kinnear, Pascal Greggory, Vinette Robinson and Jeremie Renier) wander around attractive settings arguing about their relationships and whatnot in what’s presumably meant as a bittersweet celebration of life. But the characters are so unengaging and the situations so inert, all you can think is “It must have been nice for the crew, working in picturesque rural Portugal for a few weeks.”

Other openings and events of note this week are all over the map. In contrast to the enervated Rohmer-esque seriocomedy of Frankie (let alone Cyrano’s grandstanding fluff), actual French director Francois Ozon’s latest is all business: By the Grace of God is a dramatization of still-in-progress, real-life events wherein the grown survivors of a serially molesting priest in Lyon decided to make their grievances public in the face of the Catholic Church’s indifference. (Not only did church officials refuse to defrock the cleric in question, they allowed him to continue working with preadolescent children like those he’d abused.)

Taking a very Gallic, brisk, neutral tone to potentially melodramatic material, with the narrative covering a lot of ground as it gradually shifts focus from one former-victim protagonist (Melvil Poupaud) to another (Denis Menochet) and then another (Swann Arlaud), this is a strong portrait of cage-rattling by very different ordinary people forcing institutional change—sort of an Erin Brockovich for sexual abuse survivors. It opens at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. 

On the opposite end of the scale, surreal silliness is the main course in Greener Grass, the first feature from directors, writers and co-stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. The two Upright Citizens League comedy troupe members play housewives in a sunny suburban hamlet where everything is some loud pastel hue, all adults wear braces, golf carts are the preferred (in fact only) mode of transportation, and nobody blinks an eye when one character gives away her newborn to a friend—or when that friend stuffs an errant soccer ball under her dress and pronounces herself pregnant.

This spacey Georgia-shot satire may recall both Polyester and The Stepford Wives, but it has a definite vibe all its own. Whether you will find it funny, funny-weird, or just weird, depends on you—and possibly your mood of the day. I found it consistently almost-enchantingly almost-hilarious—which is to say, something singular that nonetheless doesn’t quite work as fully as I kept hoping it would. It opens at the Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Also at the Alamo is Aaron Schimburg’s even-less-classifiable Chained for Life, a wittily deconstructive fictive making-of-a-movie movie in which a mainstream film star (Jess Wexler) and a real-life “Elephant Man” (Adam Pearson) are acting in an arty yet exploitative quasi-horror opus featuring numerous “freaks” a la Tod Browning’s infamous Freaks. This commentary upon the cinema of disability (among other things) is adventuresome, puzzling, and over-schematic by turns, but it is always intriguingly original. More info here

Another idiosyncratic vision is Edo Bertoglio’s Downtown 81, which was shot nearly 40 years ago then shelved for a very long time due to financial/legal difficulties. (During that period the dialogue track was lost, ultimately necessitating all the performers be dubbed decades later.) A then-unknown Jean-Michel Basquiat plays a newly homeless painter (his actual status during production) who drifts though a long Manhattan day of art-scene-making that encompasses early rapping by Kool Kyle, an Edie Sedgwick-themed fashion show, and Debbie Harry as a bag lady whom a kiss transforms into a wish-granting fairy godmother.

There’s also lots of music, particularly from the city’s then-dominant No Wave school. We get performances by DNA, Tuxedomoon, Japan’s The Plastics, James Chance and the Contortions, and the very non-No Wave Kid Creole & the Coconuts. With its barely-there narrative and cameos by tons of scenesters (from John Lurie to Fab 5 Freddy), Downtown 81 is the Pull My Daisy of its own now-fabled milieu—not much of a movie, but an invaluable snapshot of a moment that now looks like hipster heaven. Those lured in by the legend of Basquiat will be pleased that he’s onscreen throughout, and a natural, charismatic presence amidst a lot of snarky dress-up role-playing.

A different kind of city cultural celebration is on tap at SF Cinematheque’s Sun/3 program. It’s a double bill of sorts, the first half featuring two B&W 16mm works by Dominic Angerame from his massive, ongoing City Symphony project: 1980’s Freedom’s Skyway, a piece of skyline impressionism “featuring Chinatown pyrotechnics,” and the new Revelations, which takes note of drastic recent changes along SF’s Embarcadero and in Dogpatch.

The second half will be a live multimedia performance by local trio duo B. vs. vIDEO sAVant, presenting the result of their recent Ensemble-in-Residence stint at the Center for New Music, where the evening’s program will take place. More info here

Last, but certainly not least by any measuring method, the Roxie—which just last week gave you all fourteen hours of Mariano Llinas’ prankish La Flor—challenges your posterior again with two marathon screenings (Sat/2 and Sun/10) of Bela Tarr’s 1994 Satantango. This 7+ hour colossus of B&W cinematic minimalism charts a poor rural Hungarian village in its death throes, as some hope to get money to leave for a better life, while others hope a miracle might yet save the town itself. If you can slow your attention down to its rhythm of paint-drying near-stasis, you may find yourself agreeing with many that this beautifully bleak monolith is one of the great cinematic experiences, period. More info here

Screen Grabs: A 14-hour movie with a 40-minute ‘middle finger’

Mariano Llinas’ 14-hour 'La Flor' plays at the Roxie.

If you’re looking for some suitable Halloween screen entertainment, you’re in the right place—well, almost. Our separate guide to this season’s scary movies, including the Roxie’s Gialloween retrospective, exploitation marathon Dismember the Alamo at the Drafthouse, as well as special SF Jazz and SF Symphony live music-with-film events, is here.

Another special event is Reel Rock 14, a North Face-presented mini-festival of new rock-climbing documentaries, Thurs/24-Fri/24 at the Castro. A few days later on Tues/29, the same venue hosts SFFilm’s preview of major awards contender Marriage Story. We’ll write about that excellent divorce-themed seriocomedy at length when it opens later in the year, but if you want to see it early, with writer-director Noam Baumbach in person, here’s your chance.

Commercial openings this Friday that we were not able to preview by deadline include The Kill Team (at the Roxie),Dan Krauss’ dramatized revamp of his chilling 2013 documentary, with Nat Wolff as a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan who blows the whistle on his sadistic, bloodthirsty commanding officer (Alexander Skarsgard); and One Piece: Stampede, the latest anime chapter in a pirate-fantasy franchise that has been highly popular in Japan for two decades.

There’s also the special case of The Current War: Director’s Cut, a movie that premiered at festivals two years ago, then got shelved in the scandal-driven collapse of Weinstein Co. In an unusual belated happy ending, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) regained control of his film—what premiered in 2017 Toronto had been put through the editorial wringer by “Harvey Scissorhands” Weinstein, to his horror, and to poor reviews. He even raised funds to shoot some additional material, though the film is now ten minutes shorter overall. Anyway, hopefully the result is a improved historical semi-fiction about the battle to control the electricity that would modernize the world, with its dramatic personae including Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch), Tesla (Nicholas Hoult), Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), J.P. Morgan (Matthew Macfadyen) and Samuel Insull (Tom Holland).

Jojo Rabbit
The “Nazi comedy” everybody wanted to see at film festivals the last couple months, this latest by New Zealand-gone-international writer-director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, What We Do in the Shadows) is indeed an audacious conception. 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffith Davis) is a fervent little Hitler Youth who’s drunk deep at the draught of National Socialist propaganda, even if he’s not exactly the bravest or most physically fit li’l Aryan—and even if the Third Reich is already well on its way to defeat at this late point in the war. (Not that he’s registered that fact, as yet.)

With his father apparently MIA these last two years while fighting for the Third Reich in Italy, Jojo is the “man of the house,” albeit one who secretly relies on the counsel of an imaginary-friend father figure who’s none other than Der Fuehrer himself (Waititi). Imagine their mutual shock upon discovering that mom (Scarlett Johanssen) is betraying The Cause by hiding teenaged Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie from Leave No Trace) in an attic crawlspace—and worse, this fugitive is a “dirty Jew.”

With its kitschy exaggeration of Aryan Nation aesthetics and absurdist take on patriotic fervor (which encompasses Rebel Wilson as a loyal frau who’s birthed eighteen children for the Fatherland), Jojo Rabbit shows all signs of inspired outrageousness at the start. But then it settles for a mix of cuteness and sentimentality that seems way too soft for a comedy about Nazis made at a moment when far-right nationalist movements (including actual Nazism) are again on the rise around the world. Waititi is to be applauded for springing one harsh plot twist that lends the film real gravity. It paves the way for a finale that does have some earned poignancy. Still, given the riskiness of its premise, it’s disappointing the movie isn’t willing to go further out on the limb of its own making.

It’s worth seeing, however—particularly for San Mateo native and former SF resident Sam Rockwell, who adds to his gallery of great supporting performances with a turn as a disillusioned Axis army captain that nearly steals the film whole.

Jacques Tati: Comedy as Choreography
A singular perfectionist whose deadpan mastery of increasingly elaborate sight gags recalled Buster Keaton’s glory years, Tati was a French music hall performer who became one of the geniuses of cinema—though alas, his fully-realized works in that medium would be few in number. Such that this PFA retrospective can be billed as “near-complete,” even though it consists of just five features.

He made a splash with the gentle social satire of 1949 Jour de fete and 1953’s M. Hulot’s Holiday, starring in both as the titular, hapless, fussbudgety character. That signature figure returned but the auteurist ambition soared with Mon Oncle (1958), which parodies the postwar rush towards American-style hyper-efficiency in a “push-button home” whose gadgetry might seem welcoming only to 2001’s HAL.

Tati took almost a decade to paint his celluloid masterpiece in Playtime (1967), an even more remarkable Rube Goldbergian contraption of visual comedy that turns all Paris into an ultramodern advertisement for itself. Its brilliance requires almost no dialogue, yet went inexplicably underappreciated at the time—leaving Tati diminished resources for a final major work, 1973’s Traffic. It’s a pity he wasn’t more prolific, but we’ll take what we can get, and seeing these Tati films on the big screen is an opportunity not to be missed. Fri/25-Sun/Nov. 30, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

The Week in Documentaries
Three documentaries are opening at local theaters this Friday, two of them about creativity, one about destruction. The latter is Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vazquez’s Decade of Fire (at the Roxie), which investigates the highly suspicious way in which a series of devastating fires drove longtime minority communities from the South Bronx in the 1970s. While media and politicians played “blame the victim,” residents saw a pattern of institutionalized racism designed to withhold the resources that might have kept their neighborhoods safe, and/or rebuilt them after disaster struck. More info here

On a more upbeat note, Robin McKenna’s Gift (at Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas) adapts Lewis Hyde’s popular 1983 nonfiction tome The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World into a globe-trotting survey of the interplay between art and giving, including at Burning Man. More info here.  Prune Nourry’s Serendipity (at Opera Plaza) explores the French multidisciplinary artist’s own use of her breast-cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery as a medium for creative expression. More info here

La Flor
Billed by the Roxie as “an adventure in scale and duration,” Mariano Llinas’ 14-hour (yes, you read that right) movie is duly epic in duration—not just the time you’ll spend watching it, but the near-decade it took to make. Yet it is not epic in the War and Peace sense of narrative arc, let alone in terms of expense or spectacle. Instead, this is more in the realm of early 1970s Jacques Rivette projects like the beloved Celine and Julie Go Boating or the notorious Out 1 (which is almost as long as La Flor), wherein epic length without conventional epic scope was key to a general prankishness towards exploding expectations and rules. There’s also a dollop of late fellow Latin American auteur Raoul Ruiz’s penchant for witty labyrinths in this sprawling structure/non-structure, which the Argentine writer-director periodically explains himself onscreen via voiceover and line drawings.

There are six successive episodes here, which the Roxie will show in four chunks on different weekend days. All but one involving the same four talented actresses—Elisa Carricajo, Valerie Correa, Pilar Gamboa, Laura Paredes—in different roles. The first segment is a horror thriller triggered by an excavated mummy’s arrival at a research facility; the second, a melodrama involving both a broken love affair between two singing stars and a conspiracy around development of a secret scorpion-derived serum.

The third, longest episode is a convoluted, globe-trotting, multilingual espionage tale that encompasses flashbacks within flashbacks. In part 4, the lead actresses—wondering where the hell all this is headed after six years’ toil—rebel against their director, who seems to have forsaken them to obsess over filming trees. The fifth panel is a B&W silent comedy, the sixth a brief, blurry coda (also silent). All this is followed by what one critic  called the “forty-minute middle finger” of an endless final credits sequence that offers absolutely nothing to keep you in your seat.

Though aspects of La Flor could be called experimental or perverse, it’s hardly a dry abstraction. At various points the often camp-tinged narrative(s) involve a tse-tse fly, a hovercraft, Siberia, witches, Casanova, Canadian mounties, mental institution orgies, and other wild cards. There’s also room for some visual lyricism, a frequently Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Gabriel Chwojnik, excerpts from a historical text, and extended homage to Gallic director Jean Renoir.

The film often free-ranges between the mildly amusing and delightful. But at times it’s also seriously patience-testing—not least because there’s transparently no real point to any of the storylines, most of which simply halt mid-progress rather than having an “ending.” In the end, is this a massive achievement, a massive self-indulgence, or both? Are you best off watching it in a big gulp, or numerous bite-sized pieces? Am I even glad I saw it? It is part of La Flor’s intrigue, as well as its exasperation, that having just finished all fourteen hours, I can’t answer any of those questions…not yet, at least. Sat/26-Sun/27, Sat/Nov. 2-Sun/3, Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: A bounty of international film fests

Sci-fi adventure 'Alimuom' plays at FACINE: 26th Annual Filipino International Cine Festival

Mill Valley may be over, but the fall cavalcade of local film festivals continues. This week alone brings at least four (that we know of). The 16th SF Greek Film Fest opens this Sunday at the Castro with documentary Olympia, about the Oscar-winning actress—surname Dukakis, if you haven’t guessed (read our interview here)—also familiar to SF audiences for her numerous appearances at American Conservatory Theatre, not to mention as Anna Madrigal on Tales of the City. The rest of the program’s nightly features and shorts play through Sun/27 at Delancey Street Screening Room, with an official closing night selection the prior evening at Dolby Cinema of Mario Piperides’ seriocomedy Smuggling Hendrix, which has a timely theme involving Turkey’s international relations (with Greece, in this case). For full schedule and ticket info, go to www.grfilm.com.

Meanwhile the Roxie is hosting the FACINE: 26th Annual Filipino International Cine Festival, whose three-day event (Fri/18-Sun/20) encompasses a diverse range of recent screen work from the Philippines, including social-issue drama (Jino to Mari), dystopian sci-fi (Alimuom), suspense (A Short History of a Few Bad Things), romance (Kung Paano Siya Nawala), documentary (Dapol Tan Payawar na Tayung, 1931) and more. More info here.

If those two festivities are too geographically specific to you, there’s always the United Nations Association Film Festival, which spans the globe to offer the best in recent documentary cinema on social justice, environmental and political issues. It runs Thurs/17 through Sun/27 at various Palo Alto locations (more info here.). Closer to home, there’s SF Shorts, a three-day festival of shorts from twenty-three countries and in all genres, from animation to comedy to nonfiction. Its six programs are at the Roxie (Thurs/17-Fri/18) and Counterpulse Theater (Sat/19), more info here.

Among commercial openings, several were unavailable for review by deadline. Among them: Zombieland: Double Tap, the gore-comedy sequel that re-teams Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin (plus, yes, Bill Murray as Bill Murray again) a decade after their first outing;  Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, the Disney live-action fairy tale sequel that begs the question “Is Angelina Jolie too popularly disliked now to play anything but beautiful villainesses?; and Mountaintop (playing just Tues/22 at Opera Plaza), a new Neil Young-directed documentary about the making of his first album with longtime occasional collaborating band Crazy Horse in seven years.

We admit to not viewing Where’s My Roy Cohn?, not because it wasn’t available for preview, but because after numerous prior exposures to that guy (including several versions of Angels in America), we couldn’t quite stomach another gander at possibly the most loathsome lawyer ever. (Admittedly, Giuliani is providing some serious competition these days.) But if you want to be horrified anew by the career of the late Joe McCarthy flunky turned mentor to little Donny Trump—shaping much of the latter’s ethics-free approach to life, wealth and power—Matt Tynauer’s documentary (opening at the Clay and Shattuck) is sure to deliver the queasy goods.

Elsewhere (all opening Fri/18 unless otherwise noted):

Parasite
That once-or-twice-a-year movie likely to unite genre fans, arthouse buffs, critics and (hopefully) mainstream audiences, this latest from South Korean writer-director Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Snowpiercer) is a considerable recovery after the—to me, at least—semi-stumble of his cute-critter eco-fable Okja.

When a better-advantaged friend leaves for a study-abroad year, he gifts Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) his enviable side gig as English tutor to the teenage daughter of a wealthy family. With help from his graphics-whiz sister Ki-Jung (Park So-dam), Ki-woo—who has repeatedly failed exams that might qualify him for scholarships he’d need to attend college—falsifies impressive credentials and duly gets the job. He so impresses the Parks that he’s able to get Ki-Jung hired (on an equally fanciful resume) as a bratty younger child’s art teacher/therapist. Finding the Parks incredibly generous as well as gullible, the sibs then set about getting rid of their chauffeur and housekeeper, so their own mom (Chang Hyae-jin) and dad (Song Kang-ho) can also climb aboard the gravy train.

This clever black comedy of savvy poor folk hoodwinking rich folk too blinded by their own naval-gazing dysfunctionality to notice initially plays like a bright spin on the classic “usurper” narrative, only here it’s an entire family rather than a psychotic nanny or boyfriend who infiltrates the vulnerable upper-class nuclear unit. But while I’m not going to spoil anything (and you are advised not to read any review that does), let’s just say that Parasite has some major surprises up its sleeve—ones that yank the story in a wholly unexpected new direction at about the two-thirds point.

Precisely controlled and drolly ironic in tone even as its events grow more and more berserk, Parasite is always entertaining, foremost. But it also turns out to be a quite penetrating metaphor not just for Korea’s complex sociopolitical situation (encompassing both South and North), but for the escalating global gap between have’s and have-nots, which points towards an eventual chaos and violence that this movie duly arrives at in just over two hours. At area theaters.

The Lighthouse
The directors of the two of the most acclaimed sleeper-hit indie horror movies in recent years both released their second features this year, and you can’t accuse either of selling out—though you might wish they had, just a bit. A couple months back, Hereditary’s Ari Aster unleashed Midsommar, which required 2 1/2 hours and way more interpretive dancing to rethink The Wicker Man. Now it’s the turn of Robert Eggars, of 2015’s The Witch. His new The Lighthouse is only two hours long, but feels longer. Where his prior film used very simple means to create almost unbearable suspense, this one (also a period piece) never quite develops much tension, and the story gradually falls apart rather than coming to a head.

Willem Dafoe plays a veteran lighthouse keeper and Robert Pattison his new assistant on a remote New England island outpost in the late 19th century. The former tends to lord it over his inexperienced young charge, insisting he do all the hard labor, while barring him entry from the top of the lighthouse. Does something secret happen (or something otherworldly live) up there? Are mermaids real? Are one or both of our protagonists insane? Is one driving the other mad?

Don’t expect clear answers to those questions in this cryptic narrative, which can’t help but compel interest at first. The two committed lead performances both start out withdrawn, largely silent, then gradually go impressively over-the-top in different ways. The B&W photography by Jarin Blaschke, with its extremely narrow aspect ratio, is arresting, as is Mark Korven’s original score. But The Lighthouse takes so long getting somewhere, and that destination is so murky, that you may well have stopped caring well before getting there. Ultimately it’s an effective stylistic exercise whose psychological and narrative content would have been at least as well-served by a 20-minute short. At area theaters.

The King
Pattison is also in this very different period drama by Australian director David Michod (Animal Kingdom, War Machine) about Henry V. But he doesn’t play Prince Hal–interesting as that casting might have been—which role goes instead to Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Beautiful Boy), an actor I’m still on the fence about.

This isn’t Shakespeare, exactly, though it interpolates material from all the relevant plays. It’s a handsome if sometimes plodding chronicle of the military prince from his days as the disfavored elder son of dying Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) through his succession, continuance of armed conflict with France (Pattinson plays the Dauphin as a sneering fuckwit) and on to eventual stabilization of his rule and England itself. Joel Edgerton is possibly the least humorous Falstaff on record. Others in the cast include Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp and Tara Fitzgerald.

There are some vivid details here (such as a portrayal of war waged by giant catapults), and the climactic Battle of Agincourt goes on for so long you really do get a sense of how exhausting combat must have been when it was largely hand-to-hand. The King is to be applauded as a rare expansive historical piece these days that is neither fancy-dress fluff nor brainless warrior action fantasy. But if it’s never less than respectable, it’s also never terribly compelling. And while he’s been effective in troubled-juvenile roles, Chalamet doesn’t as yet have the fire or authority to carry this epic, let alone to convince as the battle-hardened leader of an entire 15th-century nation. Opera Plaza, SF. More info here

The Sweet Requiem
Dramatizing a little-noticed side of Tibet’s political plight under the heel of mainland China, this drama by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam (Dreaming Lhasa) is set largely in a refugee community just over the border in India. Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker), who fled her homeland as a child, is now an adult whose involvement with expat activism crosses her path with a man (Jampa Kalsang) she recognizes as the guide who led her party’s disastrous trek across the Himalayas two decades earlier. His presence rouses old hostilities and new suspicions. But she soon learns that this dispirited man is himself being hounded by Chinese government spies.

The latter element—which deploys threats to exiles’ remaining family back home to blackmail refugees—is a seldom-noted aspect to suppression of pro-Tibetan independence proponents. With flashbacks shot at snowbound heights of 15,000 feet, The Sweet Requiem combines harrowing adventure with the intrigue of present-day borders-crossing espionage and harassment. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

A Night to Dismember: The Original Cut
Doris Wishman carved out a threadbare career on the bottom rungs of the 1960s grindhouse circuit, making “nudie cuties” notable for their command of a cinematic vocabulary so rudimentary it was almost abstract. (She would fill out scenes with random shots of ashtrays, wallpaper, and so forth.) Some were delightful (like sci-fi volleyball extravaganza Nude on the Moon), some memorably bizarre (like the early 70s duo she shot starring stuporous stripper Chesty Morgan, whose breasts were so large they constituted a form of cruel and unusual punishment), others just kinda torturous. The arrival of hardcore porn chased her out of the business by the end of the Me Decade.

Thus this 1989 “comeback” followed one twelve-year layoff from filmmaking, and preceded another, after which her rediscovery by shlock cinema fans led to three somewhat deliberately campy final features. (She died at age 90 in 2002, with two of them still in the can.) But in fact it had largely been shot much earlier, getting shelved after a vengeful lab technician destroyed most of the footage—or so Wishman claimed. Eventually porn star Samantha Fox offered a chunk of money for the director to further her “legitimate” career with a central role. Ergo much new material was filmed in order to insert Fox’s new heroine into whatever remained from the initial shoot, making an already messy project that much more so.

The recent rediscovery of this longer “original cut” restores at least some coherency—don’t worry, not too much—to a beleaguered film. A pregnant young woman named Mary Kent (Diane Cummins) is responsible for the bloody deaths of everyone who pisses her off, which soon encompasses nearly everyone she knows—a pattern repeated once her orphaned child “Crazy Vicki” (Fox) comes of age. Awkwardly glued together by Michael Egan’s Criswell-type narrator, with lots of amateurish gore, it’s an attempted slasher cash-in so klutzy it’s kinda perversely fascinating. Which combination makes it very much a Doris Wishman joint. Sun/20, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: News of the world at the Arab Film Fest

'Jebel Banat' plays in the Aswat Jadida (New Voices) series at the Arab Film festival

Who knows if we’ll ever see the day when the Arab Film Film Festival does not seem of urgent political relevance. But this year’s event opens amidst pure insanity at the top, with our POTUS in his self-described “great and unmatched wisdom” giving one Middle Eastern-adjacent ally free rein to attack allies who’ve fought ISIS at our behest, adding that if he ends up displeased by their actions, “I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy [sic] of Turkey.” Don’t we invade other countries over these kinds of crazy threats?

In any case, patrons at this 23rd edition of the nation’s oldest and largest Arab film showcase will certainly have a lot to talk about, even beyond the food-for-thought onscreen. AFF starts this Friday night at the Castro Theatre with an opening gala featuring Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven, a jury prize-winner at Cannes that is also Palestine’s official Oscar submission. The native Palestinian director travels the globe finding parallels with his homeland’s predicament in currents of nationalism, militarism, xenophobia, and absurdism, all captured in his trademark semi-fictive, semi-autobiographical, lightly surreal form of serious-minded comedy. There’s a pre-film VIP reception and post-film afterparty.

The rest of the fest’s SF segment then moves to the Roxie for another five days, though Wed/16. There will be several shorts bills, a special sidebar of “Palestine Days” (comprising no less than 12 relevant titles), a first-ever “Queer Lens: LGBTQ+ Showcase” on Sat/12, and much more. In addition to documentaries and narrative works from Arab-American filmmakers, Western films/videos about Arab subjects, and so forth, there will be new movies from Morocco, Mauritania, Qatar, Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Jordan, and elsewhere.

Much of the program repeats Oct. 17-20 at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, whose selections will include a revival of Atef Salem’s 1959 Egyptian noir Encounter With the Unknown—a murder mystery starring none other than 27-year-old Omar Sharif, still some years short of the fame that Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago would bring him. For AFF2019’s full schedule and ticket info, click here.

There are also a couple de facto mini-festivals happening in SF this week, also both at the Roxie. The latest edition of the touring Hola Mexico Film Festival brings four cream-of-the-crop new Mexican features Fri/11-Sun/13. They encompass Alejandra Marquez Abella’s barbed portrait of wealthy 1980s privilege gone sour, The Good Girls (with the director in person); Xavi Sala’s Guie’Dani’s Navel, a flipside look at life for indigenous servants in an upper-class Mexico City household; Alejandro Lubezki’s fantasy comedy If I Were You, in which a squabbling married couple find out the hard way what it’s like to walk in each other’s shoes; and Sergio Umansky’s Eight Out of Ten, about grief-consumed parents seeking revenge for their children’s fates amidst rampant criminal corruption. More info here

The Berlin & Beyond Autumn Showcase provides a Roxie double bill on Tues/15 with Gundermann, a biopic about an East German singer-songwriter whose director Andreas Dresden will be present to receive a Career Achievement award; and Markus Geller’s moped road comedy 25 km/h. The showcase continues with additional features Wed/16-Thurs/17 at the Goethe-Institut. More info here. Finally, SF Shorts’ 14 annual festival provides films in all genres from 23 countries in six programs at the Roxie Thurs/17 through Sat/19. More info here.

Unavailable for preview by deadline were some major new releases including Gemini Man, a sci-fi action drama with Will Smith that is not said to be one of director Ang Lee’s better efforts; and Cotton Club Encore (at Opera Plaza), a new edit of Francis Ford Coppola’s flop 1984 Jazz Age gangster extravaganza, whose original cut he was unhappy with. Then there’s the wild card of Fantastic Funghi, a Brie Larson-narrated documentary by Louie Schwartzberg that uses purportedly spectacular time-lapse photography to convey the role of fungus in that delicately complex global ecosystem we are now busy destroying. Schwartzberg and famed mycologist Paul Stamets will speak after the film’s Castro Theatre screening on Thurs/10. More info here.

Elsewhere (all opening Fri/11 unless otherwise noted):

Pain & Glory
It might be exasperating in a different filmmaker, but there’s something lovable about the fact that Pedro Almodovar has been making features for four full decades now, and his movies are still erratic as hell. He may be an established “master”—no question that sometimes he directs like one—but he can be uninspirationally silly (I’m So Excited!), pretentiously weird without depth (The Skin I Live In), or lay on the sentimentality with a trowel (though those movies tend to get acclaimed as masterpieces). Then he’ll make something that’s just breathtakingly good, and you can’t be sure he recognizes it’s any different from the rest.

Others may disagree, but I’d say Pain and Glory is his best since Bad Education 15 years ago. Antonio Banderas is lovely as Salvador, a famous film director sidelined by physical ailments, tossed by fate back across the path of two old acquaintances (Leonardo Sbaraglia, Asier Etxeandia) who trigger memories of his career heyday, as well as his impoverished upbringing with a strong-willed mother (Penelope Cruz). This intricately structured piece has elements of autobiography, romance, Spanish political commentary, autumnal melancholy, and pure homosexiness. It is a “mature work” in all the best ways, being wise, reflective and full of self-deprecating humor. Embarcadero. More info here

Jodie Mack at SF Cinematheque
London-born, U.S.-based experimental filmmaker Mack specializes in unique stop-motion animations that repurpose everydaymaterials into complexly textured works on the continuum between abstraction and narrative. She’ll be in person for two Cinematheque-hosted shows this week, with last year’s playful hour-long documentary The Grand Bizarre(about her fascination with textiles) at SFMOMA on Sat/19, and Something Between Us (a program of several shorts spanning the last decade) at YBCA on Thurs/24. More info here.

The Ground Beneath My Feet
From all outward appearances, Lola (Valerie Pachner) seems to have her act together, to an almost intimidating degree: She’s a workaholic team manager at a company that comes up with profit-maximizing (i.e. employee-cutting) strategies for other companies; she’s having a serious secret affair with her female boss (Mavie Hobinger); she exercises as if training for the Olympics; and handles all these various forms of stress as if they were no big deal.

But Lola has a secret, in the form of older sister Conny (Pia Hierzegger), who was once her legal guardian after their parents died. But now that role is reversed, Conny having been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic at age 22. So instead she is in and out of institutions, constantly calling her sibling with threats of suicide and claims of abuse, creating a semi-hapless, semi-manipulative havoc that constantly threatens to derail Lola’s defensively micro-managed life.

This coolly handled yet emotionally charged drama by Austrian writer-director Maria Kreutzer adds another layer of tension when Lola begins to fear that perhaps she, too, has significant mental health issues just beginning to manifest themselves. The Ground Beneath My Feet is a strong piece of work that will be particularly compelling (if perhaps painfully so) to anyone who’s similarly had a friend or relative whose stability is unreliable, and whose neediness is infinite. Opera Plaza, Albany. More info here

Yet More At the Roxie
Just stop already, Roxie Cinema! Nonetheless, we feel called upon to note that this week the city’s busiest rep house (as well as, admittedly, perhaps its last remaining one) is also playing the following:

Billy Senese’s The Dead Center begins when a seemingly dead man (Jeremy Childs) gets up and walks out of a morgue. That flummoxing development sets in motion a sinister chain of events on a hospital’s psychiatric ward and beyond in this unusually restrained, creepy and intelligent horror thriller. More info here. 

Midcentury Productions’ occasional “Other Side of the Lost Continent” series, celebrating pre-Nouvelle Vague french cinema, returns with a Sun/13 double bill of post-WW2 melodramas that both happen to involve classical pianists. Henri Decoin’s 1948 Monelle stars Louis Jouvet as an established composer whose mentorship of a pretty young piano prodigy (Dany Robin) stirs malicious rumors that soon endanger his reputation and his happy marriage. In Henri Calef’s 1951 Shadows and Light, Simone Signoret is a famous soloist whose recovery after a breakdown is aided when she finds love, unaware that her equally smitten beau (Jacques Berthier) just dumped the half-sister (Maria Casares from Children of Paradise and Orpheus) she already has an uneasy relationship with. More info here

Brainiac: Transmissions After Zero
Dayton, Ohio has spawned a surprising number of significant rock acts, including Guided by Voices and The Breeders. But few stirred quite so much excitement, then lamentation, as short-lived Brainiac. Formed in 1992, they recorded three indie albums of adventuresome, distinctive post-punk melodic noise and were being aggressively courted by major labels as a possible “next Nirvana” when tragedy struck in 1997. Band leader Tim Taylor died in a solo car crash—he’d been unaware his vehicle had a slow carbon monoxide leak, which caused him to pass out at the wheel. Eric Mahoney’s documentary chronicles the lifespan of an act snuffed out before it had gotten widespread recognition, but whose influence on subsequent bands has had long-term impact. This single San Francisco screening at Alamo Drafthouse on Tues/19 is presented by Noise Pop Industries. More info here

Dolemite Is My Name
Shrek movies aside, the last time Eddie Murphy probably made a major public impression was twelve years ago, with Dreamgirls—and then by stomping out on the Oscars when he didn’t win Best Supporting Actor. That was embarrassingly petulant star behavior, but at the same time, it was somewhat understandable: He was robbed. (I love Alan Arkin as much as the next person, but he could have played that Little Miss Sunshine role in his sleep, and practically did.) Murphy’s next movie was the abhorrent Norbit, a summation of his worst instincts as a great talent usually wasted on crap material of his own choosing, and he’s kept a relatively low profile since. This latest, however, is the rare Murphy vehicle that actually applies his skill set to something at least semi-worthwhile.

He plays Rudy Ray Moore, who’d had little success in showbiz (and was pushing 50) when he adopted a new stage persona as “Dolemite,” reworking raunchy folkloric raps about a sort of pimp superman as a comedy routine. This act was recorded for X-rated “party records” sold under the counter (and out of his car trunk), so successfully that he decided to make a Dolemite movie in 1975—even though by then the “blaxploitation” vogue was already flagging. This biopic directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, the Footloose remake) charts the evolution of Moore’s signature character and the making of Dolemite, a largely self-financed venture that wound up being a big hit despite its makers’ inexperience.

That film and its immediate followups are still outrageous delights. While this Disaster Artist-like depiction suggests many of the laughs were unintentional, Moore was very much aware he was providing a deliberately ridiculous exaggeration of Shaft and Superfly-type heroics. There are other liberties taken in service of what’s a fairly conventional inspirational underdog saga, one that might have been paced a little more briskly than the leisurely two hours it gets here.

Still, it’s good to see Murphy playing an actual person rather than a stretched-out sketch character for a change, and the rest of the cast (also including Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Wesley Snipes, Chris Rock and Snoop Dogg) is as comfortably colorful as the funky Me Decade trappings. It’s a good movie, and if it re-ignites interest in original Moore films like Petey Wheatstraw or Disco Godfather (don’t bother with the later ones), all the better. At area theaters. 

Something Weird
If you want to start your Halloween off with something really, really not-scary, you can enjoy this 1967 supernatural hodgepodge from late Southern drive-in exploitation maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis. A man hideously facially scarred after an accidental electrocution (Tony McCabe) emerges with strange psychic abilities, but isn’t happy till his looks are restored by a witch (Elizabeth Lee). In return, she demands he be her lover—though only he can see that she’s not a youthful beauty but a blue-skinned crone (Mudite Arums).

Lewis’ primitive filmmaking and the highly variable acting do nothing to elevate James F. Hurley’s clumsy script, which throws together ill-matched elements of karate, LSD, Federal investigators, a serial killer, psych-rock, and more—though not, notably, the over-the-top gore this director is usually associated with. The low-level “special effects” include a man in bed being attacked by his own blanket, and other things requiring no resources beyond mime. Even the “trip sequence” is about as prosaic as they come. The arbitrariness of its ideas (many of which Hurley recycled the next year in his sole directorial effort, The Psychic) actually makes this one of Lewis’ less repetitious movies, but its entertainment value is primarily of the inadvertant kind. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here