Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: I Am Not a Witch, Iranian Film Fest, Blaze …

'I Am Not a Witch'

SCREEN GRABS While you could say the annual fall sprawl of anticipatory “awards season” has already begun—with the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals that premiere many of the year’s contenders—it gets a little more serious this week, given the actual theatrical opening of two starry prestige movies based on very good novels. 

Richard Eyre’s The Children Act should find Emma Thompson perfectly cast as the protagonist of Atonement scribe Ian McEwan’s 2014 tome, a workaholic High Court judge who realizes her neglected husband (Stanley Tucci) may be leaving her, just as she’s deciding a particularly difficult, precedent-setting case involving religious belief versus life-saving medical treatment. 

The Sisters Brothers adapts Patrick deWitt’s 2011 literary western, its titular figures two fraternal ruffians whose oft-criminal fortunes travel a very rocky road along the West Coast of the early Gold Rush era. Joaquin Phoenix (who’s having an amazing year onscreen) and John C. Reilly play the brothers, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Rutger Hauer, Carol Kane and others supporting in this first English-language effort by French Rust and Bone director Jacques Audiard. 

Other notable openings include (at the Roxie) SF-born Ari Gold’s new indie seriocomedy The Song of Sway Lake, with Rory Culkin as a disgruntled prodigal son returned to the lakeside site of his estranged rich family’s former glory, and his father’s suicide. It’s an uneven gambit whose most engaging performances are by Robert Sheehan as a Russian emigre and Mary Beth Peil as a crusty grandma.

There’s also some good acting in Lizzie, the latest iteration of the Lizzie Borden legend—she who allegedly “took an axe and gave her parents 40 whacks,” but was acquitted by a court that simply couldn’t believe a proper young lady would do such a thing. Chloe Sevigny plays the unhappy daughter in a stifling 1892 Fall River, Mass. household, while Kristin Stewart plays an Irish houseservant who becomes her ally. It’s certainly an improvement on writer-director Craig Willam Macneill’s slug-slow debut feature, 2015 non-thriller The Boy, but you may still come away wondering that he could eke so little suspense from this lurid subject matter.

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

IRANIAN FILM FESTIVAL
What with the PFA’s ongoing Makhmalbaf Film House retrospective and the Roxie’s recent run of Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature, it’s already quite a month in the Bay Area for fans of Iranian cinema. Now comes the 11th edition of this annual showcase, being held this year at the San Francisco Art Institute. The two-day event features a substantial array of features, documentaries, shorts, animation and music videos. There will be a special focus on two women filmmakers, veteran Pouran Derakhshandeh (bringing her new Under the Smokey Roof) and multimedia artist Shirin Neshat (with Looking for Oum Kulthum). Sat/22-Sun/23, SFAI. More info here.  

I AM NOT A WITCH
This striking debut feature by Rungano Nyoni, a Zambian native though primarily raised in Wales, is a parable of superstition run amuck in her birth country. An orphan with no one to care for or defend her, 8-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is blamed for anything and everything by the unsophisticated people of her village—they excuse their own blunders by pinning them on the chid “witch.” 

They actually succeed in getting her exiled to a camp where other, grown-up accused witches are kept isolated (but also on display for tourists) in their own poor but benevolent society—all of them wearing long “ribbons” that supposedly keep them from flying away into the sky. But passive Shula attracts the interest of a fat-cat official (Henry B.J. Phiri) who uses this piece of juvenile “government property” to further his own ambitions, even getting them both a guest spot on a TV talk show. 

Beyond its critique of foolish occult believers, I Am Not a Witch touches on political corruption, child exploitation, and other issues within an offbeat general framework of pathos-tinged social satire. Roxie. More info here

CIAO, MARCELLO!
Marcello Mastroianni was one of the great screen actors, though he perhaps doesn’t get all the credit he deserves—no doubt in part he was most often a subtle and unshowy actor, despite also being an expert farceur. His underplaying (and frequent deference to splashier co-stars, notably Sophia Loren) means that you might have to see several Mastroianni films back-to-back to appreciate just how impressively versatile and depthed an actor he was. 

This day-long tribute from Cinema Italia SF affords just such an opportunity. It begins and ends with two of his most popular comedies: Vittorio DeSica’s episodic Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963), which afford he and Loren a trio of sexy-satirical miniatures, and Pietro Germi’s 1961 Divorce Italian Style, a sharp dissection of Catholic moral hypocrisy. There are also two fabled fantasias from Fellini, La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963), in both of which Mastroianni proves that director’s ideally bemused, meditative, appalled alter ego amidst a disillusioning carnival of modern-life excesses. 

Providing a grounding dramatic center in the program’s midsection is Ettore Scola’s 1977 A Special Day, in which a drabbed-down Loren and introspective Mastroianni play an odd couple—wrung-out housewife and despairing closeted gay journalist—drawn together on the 1938 when Hitler arrives to meet fellow fascist Mussolini in Rome. A man of impeccable taste and admirable adventurousness, Mastroianni worked with many more of the world’s great directors before passing away too soon in 1996, at age 72. Sat/22, Castro. More info here

LOVE, GILDA
An inherently endearing presence no matter what comic persona she adopted, Gilda Radner was arguably the most beloved of Saturday Night Live’s fabled first cast—even if others, notably Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and John Belushi, went on to bigger post-SNL careers. (Indeed Radner’s movie career never really got off the ground, beyond a couple poor co-starring vehicles with husband Gene Wilder.) This uninspired but serviceable documentary pays tribute to a life that ended all too soon, a victim of cancer in 1989 when she was just 42. 

It’s a predictable story as comedians go: The fat kid who became class clown to fit in, never losing that edge of insecurity despite a comet-like rise to fame. (At the height of her popularity she had severe eating disorder issues, for starters.) But there are some neat bits of trivia here—like her professional entree being casting in a company of Godspell despite a pretty dreadful singing voice—and there’s plenty of footage of Radner in her signature roles of Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Baba Wawa, Lisa Looper, Judy Miller and so forth. Opera Plaza. More info here

BLAZE
A different kind of showbiz legend—one practically unknown save within certain musicians’ circles—is dramatized in actor Ethan Hawke’s third directorial feature. This is sort of Bound for Inglory, with a similar sepia-tinted approach to that Woody Guthrie biopic in portraying the short life of country songwriter Blaze Foley. 

Played here by musician Ben Dickey, Foley was a talented and genial fellow appreciated in particular by the similarly party-hearty (but considerably more successful) fellow traveler Townes Van Zant (a good acting turn by musician Charlie Sexton). But he was also one of those people determined to screw up his opportunities with drinking and unprofessionalism. Ali Shawcat plays his wife Sybil Rosen, whose memoir this is based on. Littered with star cameos (from Sam Rockwell to Kris Kristofferson), this is a flavorful movie, but has the problem that attends most such stories: It’s not all that interesting to watch someone passively self-destruct in slow-motion. At area theaters

Screen Grabs: Yayoi Kusama, Latino Film Fest, Nosferatu …

Artist Yahoo Kusama is the subject of 'Kusama: Infinity'

SCREEN GRABS Last call for those interested in saving the Opera Plaza Cinemas, whose four arthouse screens are at high risk of being exterminated for whatever trendier, higher-rent-paying retail project San Francisco doesn’t need more of at present. The SF Planning Commission will have an open hearing on the matter this Thursday at City Hall, 1pm. So if you place some value on what remains of the city’s rapidly vanishing non-mainstream film culture, please attend and make yourself heard. 

As it happens, it’s a good week to appreciate those remaining alternatives to Avengers XIX & co. There’s not much new at the multiplex beyond yet another reboot of the Predator franchise—has anyone ever actually found those frequently-invisible Space Alien Rastamen scary?—and the potentially interesting White Boy Rick, a fact-based crime story whose screenplay was co-written by Bay Area twins Logan and Noah Miller.  

You may also wasn’t to check out the varied offerings of the Cine+Mas Latino Film Fest, happening around the Bay, including “Have You Seen Her, La Misión?” at the Roxie, a collection of films that “showcases the varied responses to the transformations experienced in the Mission District during the late 1990s dot.com boom.”

On the arthouse beat, there are three new documentaries: Inventing Tomorrow, Laura Nix’s look at look at teenage innovators working to salvage their own environmental future around the world; Heather Lenz’s Kusama: Infinity, a portrait of 88-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s long struggle toward her current, fabulously successful status; and American Chaos, in which filmmaker Jim Stern puzzles out the appeal of The Donald by interviewing heartland supporters during the Presidential campaign two years ago. (These are all opening Friday at Landmark Theaters, see www.landmarktheatres,com for details.)

The most interesting offerings this week, however, lie more in the realm of cinematheque retrospectives and one-off revivals or other events: 

LUCHINO VISCONTI: CINEMA OF STRUGGLE AND SPLENDOR It’s impossible now to imagine a filmmaker of equal extravagance and idiosyncrasy having the kind of major international career that aristocratically born Visconti managed over about three decades’ course, until his death in 1976. (Some might Luca Guadagnino as his artistic heir, but it’s way too early to tell if he merits the comparison beyond a shared interest in pretty, privileged people in luxurious settings.) 

The Milanese theater, opera and film director worked as an assistant to Jean Renoir before making his own screen debut with 1943’s Ossessione, an unacknowledged adaptation of amour fou classic The Postman Always Rings Twice. It helped kickstart the Italian neo-realist school, which he stuck with until 1954’s Senso, another tale of romantic obsession—but this one a lavish period piece. Visconti’s films grew more and more ambitious, from the epic melodrama of classics Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard to such glacially paced costume extravaganzas as The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig

An “out” gay man with both Communist sympathies and a privileged aesthete’s sensibility, his was a unique and uncompromising creative vision even when it misjudged. (He was not, for instance, the right man to adapt Camus’ The Stranger.) This touring retrospective includes nearly all of his features, shown in imported 35mm prints. Fri/14-November 30, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

FREDERICK WISEMAN: ON DOCUMENTARY
The PFA is saluting another master with a much shorter retrospective beginning this week, and the contrast couldn’t be sharper: Wiseman is the ultimate invisible observer, training his camera on various institutional subjects in a seemingly passive, neutral way that nonetheless invariably adds up to tremendous insight. 

He began in 1967 with the notorious Titicut Follies—a look at a Massachusetts government mental institution that proved so shocking the state succeeded in having it legally banned from exhibition for decades. His next film was the equally controversial High School (1969), which underlined the “generation gap” in society at the height of Vietnam War protests. It will be included in this brief series, along with three more recent verite studies: Belfast, Maine (1999), examining everyday life in a small American seaside town; and two self-explanatory looks at major cultural institutions, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017). 

Now 88, Wiseman will not only appear at the PFA Thurs/27 to lecture on the documentary form, he also has a new documentary (Monrovia, Indiana, another small town pulse-taking, this time during the Trump era) premiering this month at the Toronto Film Festival. Thurs/13-Sun/30, PFA. More info here

GREATEST HITS OF THE SILENT ERA WITH CLUB FOOT ORCHESTRA
A beloved San Francisco club act that found its most popular forum when they started composing and playing live scores for silent films, Club Foot Orchestra is celebrating over three decades of that pursuit (and a 35-year overall history) with this marathon Castro Theater event. It will provide not just an orgy of musical invention, but a one-day encapsulation of some of the greatest silent cinema ever. 

Things kick off with a comedy program of Buster Keaton and Felix the Cat shorts. Then we’ll made into heady realms of German Expressionism and nightmarish fantasy with Robert Weine’s 1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian sci-fi epic Metropolis (shown in its restored 148-minute version), and F.W. Murnau’s 1922 vampire thriller Nosferatu. Sat/15, Castro Theater. More info here.

NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE 
Perhaps by coincidence, the Alamo Drafthouse is also offering a rare revival of Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the Murnau film, which it closely follows while adding considerable new beauty both visual and sonic (Popul Vuh created the original score). The inimitable Klaus Kinski was ideally cast as Count Dracula—this version was able to use character names from Bram Stoker’s novel, where the earlier one was sued for stealing his ideas without credit—with Isabelle Adjani and Bruno Ganz as the lovers he imperils. The slowly paced but haunting color re-imagining of a silent classic was not well received in English-dubbed form, but was successful in Europe, and gradually acquired a cult folllowing in the U.S. Tues/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL
Also making a rare screen appearance this week is Andy Warhol’s 1965 feature, one of several he made around that time starring his then-muse, young Manhattan socialite Edie Sedgwick. She’s first blurrily glimpsed in bed; her first words upon waking (among the few intelligible ones here) are “Fuck you.” For 66 minutes she lolls around her room in bra and panties, talking to offscreen friend/promoter Chuck Wein, listening to the Everly Brothers and then The Shirelles, trying on clothes and piling on makeup. 

Five years later she’d be dead of a barbiturate overdose, still under 30. As with many in the Warhol “Factory” scene, that premature end end only heightened her tragic glamour. Named after the 1936 Shirley Temple movie that was Andy’s childhood favorite, Poor Little Rich Girl is a real test of patience—not only does “nothing happen,” but technical problems involving a faulty lens resulted in the entire first reel being out-of-focus. (This prompted Warhol to shoot more, in-focus footage, but not to scrap the material already in the can.) 

Nonetheless, it affords a gander at Sedgwick’s vivacious personality, which endeared her to her gay Svengali until they had a falling out from which they (and her “career”) never recovered. It’s a weirdly prescient artifact: Expecting us to adore her simply for being on-camera, Edie is a sort of proto-Kardashian, aspiring towards “famous for being famous,” and this film is a B&W 16mm version of the selfie. Wed/19, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

GREASE 2
Last and probably least, the Alamo is offering a chance to wallow in the wonkiness of this 1982 flop, a belated quasi-sequel to the 1978 smash hit (in turn based on a Broadway musical). John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John couldn’t be induced to return to their original roles, so newcomers Maxwell Caulfield and Michelle Pfeiffer were drafted for equivalent roles. (Upon release, it seemed the film would be the death-knell for both their careers, but Pfeiffer soon rebounded with Scarface.) 

Choreographer Patricia Birch was hired to direct—for the first and last time—a decision that proved only marginally less wrong-headed than producer Allan Carr’s hiring of veteran comic Nancy Walker to direct the Village People musical Can’t Stop the Music two years earlier. Its cast stuffed with old-school celebrities like Connie Stevens, Tab Hunter, Sid Ceasar and Eve Arden, its soundtrack cluttered with clunky new songs, Grease 2 did not make lightning strike twice at the box-office. But somehow it has become a kind of cult favorite—weirdly, primarily among viewers raised on High School Musical and its sequels. Tues/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.   

Screen Grabs: The Last Movie, Perfect Blue, Pick of the Litter…

Dennis Hopper and wife Daria Halprin, The Jack Tar Hotel San Francisco, 'The Last Movie' 1972

SCREEN GRABS Whales, nuns, puppies, anime, 70s Italian crime-drama homage and one genuine, vintage 1971, no-longer-easy-riding “dirty hippie”—it’s a potluck kinda week at the movies, sans any major new commercial arrivals or exceptional arthouse ones. 

Don’t look for salvation from The Nun, as that demonic-possession tale is a spinoff from the Conjuring horror franchise. Apart from the continuance of the SF Green Film Festival’s programs (see last week’s column here for more details), the most interesting cinema on tap this week leans toward revivals of and tributes to vintage films. The former include a 20th-anniversary Roxie run of Perfect Blue, the surreal fantasia by late Japanese animation master Satoshi Kon (Paprika), in which a singer-actress falls down a rabbit hole of sinister memories and crazed fandom. 

One last (OK, next-to-last) reminder: If you want to save Opera Plaza Cinemas from extinction, show up at the Thurs/13 1 pm SF Planning Commission hearing at City Hall to make yourself heard. I’d recommend writing them if you can’t make it—although I sent an email on the matter to the commission a couple weeks ago, and got zero response. 

Elsewhere (all opening Fri/7):

THE LAST MOVIE 
Dennis Hopper’s directorial magnum opus really was made (well, completed) in 1971, and nothing could be more specific to that Hollywood moment. It provided the apex of a brief era in which the major studios, bowled over by the success of unconventional low-budget films like Hopper’s own Easy Rider, terrified by the sudden collapse of their own time-tested entertainment formulas, gave free reign to innumerable adventuresome young filmmakers. That impulse opened the door to future industry giants like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. It also green-lit a lot of interesting but commercially hopeless enterprises that soon made Hollywood shut that door, or at least start vetting entrants more rigorously again.

Chief among those flops was Hopper’s eagerly awaited second film as director, such that even Easy Rider’s massive, repeat-viewing audience completely shunned it, while critics pronounced it a self-indulgent mess. Which it certainly is. But it’s also arguably the most overtly avant-garde feature ever made under mainstream Hollywood auspices, and remains a fascinating experiment. 

Hopper himself (of course) plays a stunt coordinator on an American western being shot in a Peruvian mountain village. But the lines between movie, movie-within-the-movie, imitation and delusion begin to blur as the actual crew moves on, while our hero “Kansas” stays to witness the locals’ mysterious, eventually dangerous attempts to re-enact the moviemaking “ritual.” The film we’re watching itself begins to deconstruct, complete with “Scene Missing” cards, an erosion of narrative chronology, and other deliberately disorienting tactics. 

The Last Movie’s location shoot purportedly went smoothly enough. Once back in the U.S., however, Hopper spent over a year cloistered in Taos, New Mexico—ostensibly “editing,” but also doing a ton of alcohol and drugs. (That interlude was chronicled by a documentary, American Dreamer, which like Movie itself would be largely inaccessible for decades after its brief initial release.) The long-delayed result won a prize at Venice, but otherwise was dismissed as incoherent. As both actor and director, Hopper wouldn’t regain his footing until the 1980s, when he not-coincidentally also cleaned up his substance habits. 

Despite (or because of) its “rarity,” as well as the legends around its making, The Last Movie gradually assumed a sort of cult stature accompanied by critical re-appraisal. That led to the current 4K restoration print getting a one-week run at the Drafthouse this week. Is it a great movie? Probably not. But it’s a challenging and singular one that goes so far out on various creative limbs it makes most other movies seem cowardly. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

PICK OF THE LITTER
This feel-good documentary follows a litter of Golden Labs as they undergo the rigorous training required to be guide dogs for the blind. Few will actually “graduate,” although each finds their own happy home and/or alternative “job.” Dana Nachman and Don Hardy’s feature writes no new chapter in the annals of cinema, but whattaya want? It’s 80 minutes of puppies learning things, something about which there is nothing not to like. Landmark Theaters. More info here

A WHALE OF A TALE 
This contrastingly feel-bad critter-centric doc returns to Taiji, Japan, which became a focus of loathing by animal rights activists when 2009’s widely seen, Oscar-winning The Cove pointed an accusing finger at the fishing village’s annual whale hunt. That film showed the hunt (which also snares a lot of our “almost human” pals, dolphins) in grisly detail, painting a portrait of a community callously carrying on a needless, bloody “tradition.” The outraged international reaction hasn’t ceased nearly a decade later.

Megumi Sasaki’s new film aims to offer a more even-handed, non-hyperbolic look at the same issue that humanizes the villagers while not necessarily flattering the environmentalists groups (notably extremists Sea Shepherd) that have reviled them publicly. Both sides get ample time to state their case here, resulting in a reconsideration of a controversial issue that, like most such, turns out to be less morally black-and-white the closer you look. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

LET THE CORPSES TAN
It’s been trendy for quite a while for filmmakers to pay homage to vintage exploitation genres and their stylistic tropes, Quentin Tarantino being the most prominent practitioner. But in terms of meticulous dedication to retro style, no one comes close to the Belgian duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who’ve carved an entire career out of pushing that pursuit to obsessive, fetishistic extremes. 

Their earlier features Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears were elaborate homages to the Italian giallos—a subgenre (flourishing from the late 60s to the early 80s) mixing horror and murder-mystery that was as frequently plot-senseless as it was stylistically heady. Now they’ve turned their attention to the violent crime thrillers that usurped the place of 1960s “spaghetti westerns” in the 1970s Italian film industry. These films were brutal, nihilistic, misogynist, and likewise less interested in narrative logic than sensational incident.

In the deliciously titled Let the Corpses Lie (which is actually based on a pulp novel from the era), criminals, rival criminals, police, and debatably-innocent bystanders converge on a dusty rural hideout in the aftermath of an armored-truck robbery. They basically spend 92 minutes double-crossing and shooting one another to death. 

Shot on grainy Super-16mm widescreen film for maximum period ambiance, the movie is a marvel of archaeological attention to detail: If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were watching some eccentric grade-C Eurotrash obscurity circa 1971. (It’s capped by a soundtrack drawn from various Ennio Morricone scores.) Still, a little of this goes a long way, and with a narrative spine so incidental to its purpose, the film ultimately exhausts as much as it delights. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

NO DATE, NO SIGNATURE
When government coroner Kaveh (Amir Aghaee) is sideswiped by a reckless driver at night in Tehran, his car accidentally careens into a man with a woman and two children on a motorcycle. They don’t appear hurt, but are oddly evasive about seeking medical help as a precaution. A few days later, Kaveh is horrified to see the boy who might have suffered a concussion in the mishap land in his morgue. Even though an autopsy determines the lad actually died of food poisoning, Kaveh can’t dismiss his own possible guilt, though his surreptitious investigation only seems to make matters worse for himself and the child’s grieving parents (Navid Mohammedzadeh, Zakiveh Behbahani). 

Shot in a cold, grey, almost B&W color palette, this second feature by Vahid Jalilvand is a sober, well-acted drama that examines class privilege as well as the torments of conscience. Worthy if a little dry, this is Iranian cinema not in its more poetical or allegorical mode but in the time-tested form of improving, chiding social morality play. Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: Soviet Hippies, Green Film Fest, John McEnroe

Soviet Hippies

SCREEN GRABS It’s a week unusually full of documentaries, including the Roxie’s single showing next Wed/5 of Soviet Hippies—a look at countercultural resistance behind the Iron Curtain—and the return next Thurs/6 of the SF Green Film Festival

Now in its eighth year, that leading showcase for environmentally focused cinema has expanded to nine days, and overlaps with the Paris Climate Agreement-supporting Global Climate Action Summit being held in the city Sept. 12-14. It encompasses some sixty films from twenty countries (shown at several different SF venues), their subjects including global wildlife preservation/extinction, indigenous peoples activism, pollution and its related health issues, “clean” industrial breakthroughs, innovations in the battle against hunger, and much more. 

Of particular local interest will be Wilder Than Wild, which looks at recent California wildfires, their causes, and possible cures to this escalating crisis; Patrimonio, focusing on residents’ fight against against a “mega hotel/condo complex” development in Big Sur; as well as Nail House, about how the conflict between gentrification and poverty in SF is a microcosm of similar trends worldwide. Many filmmakers (well over half of the directors represented this year are women, by the way) will be in attendance at their screenings. For more info on the SF Green Film Fest, which runs Thurs/6-Fri/14 at various SF venues, click here.

Elsewhere (all opening Fri/31):

THE LITTLE STRANGER
British novelist Sarah Waters writes genre fiction of a very high order, finely crafted suspense novels often ambiguously colored with elements of the supernatural and/or lesbian attraction in repressive period milieux. But despite all clever plotting, her key strengths of atmospheric and psychological nuance aren’t ones that necessarily transfer ideally to the screen. (Probably the best and most famous prior Waters adaptation is Chan-wook Park’s acclaimed The Handmaiden, though her connection via source novel Fingersmith isn’t widely noted—no doubt because that film transfers its story almost unrecognizably from Victorian England to 1930s colonial Korea.) 

However this latest from unpredictable Irish director Lenny Abrahamson (Room, Frank), adapted from Waters’ 2009 book, is the kind of happy surprise one hopes sticks around long enough to find its audience—i.e. those folk who probably rarely go to the movies anymore, and why should they, since Masterpiece Theater is still going strong? It’s a beautifully produced, well-cast, richly atmospheric wallow in refined Gothic melodrama that lands smack between Brideshead Revisited and The Others

Domhnall Gleeson plays Faraday, a young doctor returned to private practice just after WW2 in his home village, where since childhood he’s been obsessed with the magnificent estate of the local gentry—now fallen into disrepair, as the Ayres’ family fortune has shrunk. First called there to address a servant’s minor complaint, he volunteers to treat severely battle-scarred heir Roddy (Will Poulter), but insinuates himself enough with his wallflower sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) and their mother (Charlotte Rampling) to become a regular guest. But not just misery haunts these dilapidated halls—there’s fear that a third Ayres offspring, long dead, lingers as a malevolent ghost. And the signs of that disturbance are a little too blatant to be comfortably laughed off. 

The Little Stranger will likely bore and frustrate those expecting standard horror content, with its leisurely pace, lack of explicit violence, and refusal to definitely commit to any supernatural explanation for various tragedies that occur. Yet it’s satisfying on other levels we get too infrequently at the movies—basically the same ones a big, fat, juicy yet politely old-school literary mystery affords. At the very least, it’s a treat to look at, and not in the usual “sumptuous” Merchant-Ivory way, but in a mode of deteriorated splendor that’s equally attractive…even if it does seem rather unsanitary. At area theaters.

JOHN MCENROE: IN THE REALM OF PERFECTION
The retired enfant terrible of tennis is the subject of Julien Faraut’s documentary,  one of the most idiosyncratic and inventive sports docs since the 2006 Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Like that film, it’s not a career overview and eschews any talking-head interviews  to focus on the subject’s playing style in action. Here, that means intense scrutiny (and occasional manipulation) of archival 16mm match footage, particularly from the French Open in his climactic season of 1984. 

Faraut is interested as much in McEnroe’s personality as his technique—both being intimidating, humorless, driven, notoriously temperamental. You might have to be a tennis buff to fully appreciate this eccentric appreciation, but it compels a certain interest no matter how little you know about the sport. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE
Introduced into the U.S. from Argentina in the 1930s to be bred for fur—a cheaper alternative to mink—the nutria is a large rodent that served that purpose quite well. But once shifting fashion trends tanked the fur industry, there was no longer incentive to hunt nutria, and their populations exploded. Now there’s an estimated twenty-million-plus “big ol’ swamp rats” running around the South, eating everything in sight, destroying wetlands and heightening hurricane damage. (They are also an escalating problem elsewhere, including California.) Never mind that they’re cute—they’re an invasive species wreaking environmental havoc.

This documentary by Bay Areans Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer casts a bemused eye on different aspects of the nutria dilemma, from governmental strategies to “Righteous Fur” clothing designers and the critter’s viability as a pet. We even get a glimpse at the annual “Fur Queen Beauty Pageant.” Its episodic progress can feel a bit padded even at 70 slim minutes. But it all goes down easy, in part thanks to an original score by Grammy-winning Cajun band The Lost Bayou Ramblers. The filmmakers will be in person on opening night, Fri/31. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

CRIME + PUNISHMENT
One of those “officially denied yet universally known” truths is that police have quotas—that they issue a certain amount of tickets and make a certain number of arrests because they’re under administrative pressure to reach a particular “activity” number each month. This can lead to race and age profiling, or worse: Lives derailed or ruined outright due to allegations that prove baseless, and were arguably initiated solely so a cop could “hit quota.” 

In Stephen Maing’s potent documentary, a dozen NYPD officers disgusted by the pressure to file 25 summonses a month go public exposing policies that have the effect of ““killing communities of color…by lockin’ em up for no reason.” They claim that poor youths age 14 to 21 are primarily targeted, often on completely fabricated charges. Most of the latter are eventually dismissed, but damage is done nonetheless—one kid here spends months at Riker’s on an attempted murder charge despite numerous witnesses backing up his story, and the arresting cop having a history of false arrests. 

The “NYPD Twelve” are predictably punished internally for their “betrayal,” even as officials continue to deny these quotas exist at all. This is an important document for our era, when relations between law enforcement and minority communities continue to deteriorate, and police training seems to be gravitating away from defusing conflicts to escalating them with excessive force. Roxie. More info here

GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN 
At the beginning of Fellipe Gamarano Barbosa’s film, two tribal men in Malawi stumble upon a white man’s corpse at the foot of Mount Mulanje. Rewinding to six months earlier, we meet the living Gabriel Buchmann (Joao Pedro Zappa)—a Brazilian student touring Africa way off the tourist grid. He seems one of those marvelously open, unself-conscious people who can make himself feel at home and welcomed anywhere. 

When he begins demonstrating erratic behavior—sometimes sulky, volatile, unreasonable—on a Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, we chalk it up to the effects of high altitude. But after his girlfriend Cristina (Caroline Abras) arrives for a visit, it becomes clear Gabriel isn’t entirely the free spirit he’d appeared. In fact, as admirably avid in pursuit of new experiences as he is, it grows obvious that he can’t accept the validity of any perspective but his own. It’s that stubborn tunnel vision which proves his undoing. No lack of wiser, more experienced persons advise him against the decisions that ultimately seal his doom, and he ignores them all.

Apart from the two professional-actor leads, Mountain has the novelty of everyone the real Gabriel met on his final trip playing themselves, adding considerably to the film’s authenticity. Still, this international-edition parallel to Into the Wild actually gets less compelling as it goes on, largely because we care less about our protagonist. 

There is something less than tragic (or even sympathetic) about the person who knowingly shrugs off all precautions and puts themselves in a dangerous situation—just for fun, not even out of necessity—thinking themselves invincible, then discovering they’re not. The film 127 Hours soft-pedaled the extent to which its real-life “hero” was a reckless thrill junkie who’d frequently endangered himself (and sometimes others), as his own book made inadvertently plain. Gabriel and the Mountain is a warts-and-all equivalent, appealing in its scenic attractions but cautionary in its psychological ones. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

BETWEEN POLITICS AND POETRY: MAKHMALBAF FILM HOUSE
Mohsen Makhmalbaf was (and remains) a major figure in the Iranian New Wave, with films like 1996’s Gabbeh and 2001’s Kandahar being among the nation’s most widely disseminated around the world. (And in classic modern Iranian style, at least half a dozen of his twenty-plus features have been banned from home-turf viewing by the government, even as he continues to work.) 

This Pacific Film Archive retrospective celebrates not just his personal output, but that of family members (including daughter Samira, who famously directed The Apple at age 17) and others who’ve benefitted from his encouragement and backing of young filmmaking talents. The films that resulted often reflected Makhmalbaf’s own established penchant for mixing elements of documentary with fictional narratives, and exploring issues of social injustice (particularly women’s limited freedom) not just in Iran, but Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Tajikistan, and other struggling parts of the modern Islamic world. The films selected will be shown mostly in imported 35mm prints. Sat/1-Sat/Oct. 20, PFA. More info here

Screen Grabs: Support the Girls, Madeline’s Madeline, The Wife

'Support the Girls'

SCREEN GRABS The MeToo movement has heightened what was already an increasingly loud conversation about women’s representation in the film industry, particularly in the top creative role of director. There have been heartening signs of improvement, however far we’ve yet to go. While it may be largely a fluke of scheduling, the fact that this week’s notable openings are almost entirely dominated by women-driven features—whether focusing on female protagonists, directed by women, or both—is surely one such encouraging sign.

The week’s manly major exceptions are Papillon, a remake of the fact-based prison survival epic that’s quite good, if not as distinctive as the 1973 Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman version; and We the Animals, an adaptation of Justin Torres’ 2011 novel. It’s about three half-Puerto Rican brothers growing up like a wild tribe unto themselves as protection against the hostility of white neighbors and the volatility of their parents’ relationship. Jeremiah Zagar’s debut fiction feature is a frequently striking, feverish pre-adolescent snapshot, though without much narrative meat on its bones. 

Otherwise, it’s a big week for women onscreen, from the mainstream comedy of “controversial” Melissa McCarthy vehicle The Happytime Murders (Sesame Street’s current producers have taken legal exception to its blatant Muppet spoofery) to the Roxie premiere of Mind Game director Masake Yuasa’s latest surreal anime Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, in which a young woman drifts through a long night of bizarre adventures. There’s also the romantic comedy Juliet, Naked, in which Rose Byrne wavers between the equally flawed men in her life played by Chris O’Dowd and Ethan Hawke.

You could even make a case for Hitchcock’s 1958 Vertigo (revived in 70mm at the Castro this Friday through Sunday) being a riposte to the “male gaze,” whether Hitch saw it that way or not. It’s certainly a testament to masculine frailty, as police detective James Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak only causes her great harm—twice, even.

It’s worth noting that nearly all the films below would be at risk of not playing SF at all if we had fewer dedicated arthouse screens—and the four-screen Opera Plaza is currently at high risk of being shuttered in favor of some to-be-determined pricier retail tenant. If you don’t want yet another piece of the city’s non-mainstream film culture to disappear, please consider writing the city’s Planning Commission or attending its next public hearing on the issue, which is scheduled for Sept. at City Hall. 

WANDA
Wanda (writer-director Barbara Loden) is a pretty but vague, passive, none-too-bright young woman who’s practically a bystander in her own life—easy prey to any man who wants someone to push around for a while, then abandon. When we meet her she’s already seen a marriage and child custody slip from her grasp, leaving her rudderless. In a bleak Pennsylvania landscape of factories and mines, she sinks from one precarious situation to another, trusting the wrong strangers and getting no lucky breaks whatsoever.  

Not long after Midnight Cowboy—a more hyperbolic ode to male loserdom—won Best Picture and great popularity (despite its “X” rating), there was scarcely an audience to be found for this 1970 study of a woman likewise drifting haplessly along society’s margins. Yet as a then-rare American movie directed by a woman, Wanda was championed over ensuing years by feminists and critics (and feminist critics), all lamenting that Loden never got the chance to direct again. (In fact she died of cancer just a decade later, at age 48.) 

Newly restored after decades of relative inaccessibility, Wanda is a small masterpiece of verite-style naturalism, both in sympathy with its heroine and ruthlessly unsentimental about her plight. There were a lot of hipper American movies around the same time. But few capture the texture of American life at its most basic—working-class towns still barely affected by the supposedly titanic social-more changes of the 60s—like this simultaneously dreamy and gritty drama. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

SUPPORT THE GIRLS
Andrew Bujalski started out as a leading voice in the “mumblecore” indie epoch, making movies of medium interest that included a notable early role for Greta Gerwig (Hannah Takes the Stairs). His work got more interesting once he found a particular niche of making workplace seriocomedies, and this latest (following Computer Chess and Results) is the best one yet. Regina Hall gets a rare, welcome big-screen lead as Lisa, the reluctant but dedicated manager of Houston sports bar “Double Whammies”—a Hooters-like enclave whose main attraction is a lot of scantily clad waitresses kinda-sorta flirting with their customers. 

It’s Lisa’s job to make sure the customer is “always right” but never gets too grabbily wrong, and that her staff is friendly but not too friendly with them. It’s a sometimes exasperatingly fine line complicated by “Big Ass”-sized beers and men who don’t know where to draw the line on their own behavior. 

Taking place mostly over the course of one eventful day, Support the Girls drives Lisa’s ample resources to the brink. But as the title suggests, no amount of stress is enough to make her stop treating her “girls” right. The terrific support cast is led by Haley Lu Richardson in a stellar comic turn, but every performance here is a keeper. In its low-key, amiable way, Bujalski’s female ensemble piece has a lot to say about economic instability and the working poor, while finding redemption in the small kindnesses that can make unpleasant, under-paid jobs bearable. Opera Plaza. More info here

MADELINE’S MADELINE
Josephine Decker’s second feature (following 2014’s intriguing Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) again focuses on the roiling emotions of a young woman straining for freedom. Our protagonist is a 16-year-old mixed race Manhattanite (Helena Howardf) at odds with her single mother (Miranda July), apparently bullied at school, finding some emotional outlet participating in an experimental “immersive theater” project under the direction of Evangeline (Molly Parker), who takes a motherly interest—though also an arguably exploitative artistic one. Is the “process” she puts her performers though, mining their private thoughts and lives for material, too much for Madeline? Or is Madeline too much for the project, bringing pre-existing mental health problems to the table that she (and the film) refuses to spell out for us? 

Like We the Animals (see above), this is a tunnel-vision view of an atypical youth that’s alternately rapturous and discordant—like our heroine’s sometimes frightening mood swings. Decker’s style is impressionistic to the point of near-abstraction. This may cause some frustration in narrative terms, but also provides considerable poetical, atmospheric potency. Lunging, woozy, mercurial, the film’s highly stylized viewpoint is Madeline’s own—what we at first assume to be a heightened version of normal adolescent emotions, but which gradually start looking like something more deeply problematic. Don’t expect to get an explanatory diagnosis, though. Roxie. More info here

MEMOIR OF WAR
Also running a gamut of increasingly unstable emotions is Melanie Thierry in Emanuel Finkiel’s French feature. She plays Marguerite Duras, the subsequently famed author of experimental fiction and director of austere, challenging films. (She’s best known as the scenarist of Alain Resnais’ classic Hiroshima mon Amour.) But here Duras is just a fledgling Parisian author near the end of WW2, desperate to discover what’s happened to her husband after he’s arrested for the Resistance work they were both involved in. As the Nazis edge closer towards defeat, his fate seems even more doubtful—he might well die in a work camp, or be executed as an “example.” 

Frantic with worry, she’s approached by a French Gestapo agent (Benoit Magimel) who claims to be a fan (she’s already published one book). He offers possible news of and help for her husband. But is he simply practicing emotional blackmail, trying to infiltrate the Resistance through her? Adapted from Duras’ novel La Douleur, which in turn drew from her actual occupation-period diaries, this intimate drama apes the pared-down, astringent style of her mature writing, complete with lots of inner thoughts in voiceover narration. It’s a strong film addressing a common yet seldom dramatized wartime experience: The endless, debilitating waiting of civilians for loved ones who may or may not already be dead, the passing time a torment as they fear and assume the worst. Vogue Theatre. More info here

The Wife
Popular U.S. novelist Meg Wolitzer’s 2003 tome is adapted by scenarist Jane Anderson and director Bjorn Runge in this dramatically satisfying if arguably too-neat critique of traditional gender roles—both in the domestic and artistic arenas. 

Joan  (Glenn Close) is longtime spouse to celebrated author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). She’s put up with his infidelities, raised his children (notably Max Irons as resentful son David), provided the stable support for his “genius”—which is now getting career-capping recognition from the Nobel committee. As they travel to Stockholm to receive that literary prize, she should be basking in a glory he’s eager to share with her. But instead, this crowning honor becomes a chisel that exposes all the fractures in their marriage—and the fraudulence in his fabled “craft.”

You go to a movie like this to see veteran performers (there’s also an expert one by Christian Slater as a snooping journalist) chew on meaty roles. They do not disappoint here. The film is handsomely produced. and delivers the requisite scorching confrontations as payoff for its long, flashback-laden buildup. Still, it’s all a little pat: The big twist can be spotted a mile off, and as portrayed here it’s not entirely convincing that Joan would have sacrificed her own promising talent as a writer to serve her husband’s career. Even so, if Close and Pryce wind up Oscar nominees, it won’t be unjust. At area theaters. 

Screen Grabs: Crazy Rich Asians, young skaters, Personal Problems

Internet star Awkwafina stars in 'Crazy Rich Asians'

SCREEN GRABS Though calls rightly continue for more diversity of representation, there has in fact been a noticeable boost in the prominence of African-Americans onscreen. Stars like Dwayne Johnson and Will Smith transcend any “color line” in terms of popularity, as have films like Get Out and BlacKkKlansman, which once would have been expected to appeal primarily to black audiences. But there haven’t been equal gains for Latinos and Asians, not counting foreign films released to specialty markets in the US. 

So the arrival of Crazy Rich Asians, from the first novel in Kevin Kwan’s hugely popular series, is sort of a big deal, being the first fairly big-budget, major-studio U.S. production with a primarily all-Asian cast since Memoirs of a Geisha thirteen years ago—and that was an “exotic” costumed period piece set in another country. This is a straight-up jet-setting romcom, glossy, glam, very mainstream in style and tenor. 

Being somewhat allergic to such things (there are giant chunks in the screen ouevres of Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson I will never see), I admit to fleeing after 25 minutes or so. But if you like such things, you will probably like this thing. And it’s an important step forward for Hollywood that will hopefully trigger more of the same, i.e. American movies starring Asians…ones not driven by martial arts, either.

This weekend another sort of history will be made at Bay Area theaters. It’s rare enough that one skateboarding movie opens, but surely unprecedented that two should do so, simultaneously. And this is no Lambada vs. Forbidden Dance-type duel between cheesy commercial enterprises, but a pair of serious, Sundance-approved indie features of variably verite origin. 

After an injury that requires stitches, Long Island teen Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) joins a Manhattan all-woman skate crew, and gets a exhilarating taste of real urban life in Skate Kitchen. The principal performers (apart from Jaden Smith as a romantic interest) are all playing variations on their real-life selves; this film has its roots in Instagram posts of their unscripted skating exploits. 

There’s not a lot of plot going on in this first narrative feature by Crystal Moselle of the documentary The Wolfpack, and it’s got a problem in that the lead is the least expressive actor here. Still, it’s ingratiating, and a fine Girl Power statement. (Be warned: Bring your impressionable daughter to this film, and she will want a skateboard for Christmas.) 

There’s less fun but more heft in Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap, which chronicles the entry into young adulthood for three Rockford, IL boys (himself included) who bonded as skateboarders as teens. All were escaping from one form of home-life stress or another, and we see how those problems—including domestic violence—get overcome or not as the protagonists deal with the reality of shit jobs, broken relationships, parenting they’re not ready for, and so forth. 

“Lately I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about not feeling like a grownup” says one of them, a statement that comes to hang like a noose over his later progress. It’s a potent verite portrait of some not-too-unusual young lives in a nation whose future is downscaling for the majority. Both films have some great skating footage, although Gap is ultimately about considerably more, and carries the bigger punch. Both open Friday. Kitchen: Embarcadero Cinemas, more info hereMinding: Roxie, more info here.

Because there’s a lot going of note going on this week (see below), we’ll just make passing note of the Roxie’s three-day Panorama Colombia,” which offers four features (including the animated Virus Tropical) and a program of shorts from that South American nation; its two-day 48 Hour Film Festival, an annual contest among filmmakers to complete a short in that two-day span; and on Tues/21 a Canyon Cinema-presented program honoring recently deceased local experimentalist and curator Paul Clipson. At the Pacific Film Archive, there’s a reprise this Fri/17 of two recent audience favorites: The End of the Ottoman Empire, a French TV documentary about the epic historical tangle that resulted in our ongoing Middle East political mess; and My Journey Through French Cinema, a three-hour mix of archival clips and commentary by one Gallic film great Bernard Tavernier. 

And let us not forget Midnites for Maniacs’ 35mm Alamo Drafthouse screening on Wed/22 of Heartbeeps, the 1981 sci fi comedy Xmas present to moviegoers that nobody wanted to open. Since then, this near-last theatrical film by Rock ’n’ Roll High School director Allan Arkush (who’s still active in TV) has acquired a certain cult allure, in large part because it was the last big-screen appearance for Andy Kaufman, who stars alongside Bernadette Peters. They play domestic-servant robots in love. It’s not a good movie, but it’s the kind you need to see once…just to grok that somebody, somehow actually thought it would be. 

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

ARABY
A teenager finds the journal of a young loner who’d worked at the local factory with his aunt, until he suddenly collapsed and died. This first feature by Brazilian co-writer/directors Joao Dumans and Affonso Uchoa then shows us the fairly short, unremarkable life of Cristiano (Aristides de Souza) as he’d written about it: An orphan without family or long-running friends, blundering into a prison stint, then living a largely transient existence doing nearly every kind of manual labor, agricultural to industrial. He’s both handsome and nondescript; uneducated, but not dumb; open to love, but it fails him the one time he gets it. 

Cristiano is the kind of marginal person—forever expendable, always having to start over again at the bottom of the pay-grade—that almost never dominates a movie. Certainly never one as resistant to melodrama as this one, whose only extreme twist of fate is so ambiguously staged we can’t quite be sure what’s happened. An austerely beautiful, minimalist film like this either works for you or it doesn’t. Initially just mildly intrigued, I eventually found Araby something of a revelation: A latterday mix of neo-realism and Bresson, with a fine-boned simplicity that feels both culturally specific and universally resonant. 4 Star. More info here.

PERSONAL PROBLEMS 
The late playwright, actor and novelist Bill Gunn directed just three feature films (he also scripted others), all plagued by severe distribution problems. He’s best known today for 1973’s Ganga and Hess, a mix of vampire conventions and Afrocentric identity politics that became a major cult film—such that Spike Lee remade it four years ago as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. Gunn’s first feature Stop (1970) was never released at all after initial screenings gave Warner Brothers cold feet, and remains tantalizingly unavailable. 

Almost as impossible to see for decades was this 1980 “black soap opera” conceived by the great Ishmael Reed, written in collaboration with the frequently-improvising director and actors. Nurse Johnnie Mae’s (Verta Mae Grosvenor) already strained live-in relationship with her husband (Walter Cotton) is stretched to the breaking point by their separate infidelities—not to mention their having to take in (even more) freeloading relatives. 

Made on a $40,000 shoestring, it was envisaged as a broadcast series. Only two video-shot “volumes” were completed, however, comprising a nearly three-hour feature film by default that was shown in 1981 on KQED and in some other forums. Wider broadcast or any other release was never realized, the original tapes sitting neglected until their recent restoration. 

Uneven, sometimes disjointed, its narrative threads nowhere near resolved at the end, Personal Problems is nonetheless something rare and valuable, particularly for its era: A look at modern, urban African-American lives neither defined by criminal intrigue or milked for sitcom laughs. It’s “rough around the edges,” to say the least. (The video quality will really make you appreciate subsequent improvements in technology.) Yet there are searing confrontations here that encapsulate those moments when long-simmering domestic frustrations finally boil over, scalding everybody. Reed himself will appear to take audience questions after the Thurs/16 show. (Further Alamo showings are planned to follow, but hadn’t yet been confirmed by this writing.) Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

THE CAPTAIN
In what would turn out to be the final two weeks before the Nazis’ surrender to Allied forces, German soldier Willi Herold (Max Hubacher) faces possible execution as a deserter when he manages to flee his captors. Later, nearly starved and frozen to death, he stumbles upon a high-ranking officer’s abandoned vehicle, which contains the latter’s clothing and identification. Donning that uniform, he suddenly inspires fearful obedience—and in the extreme environ of a devastating war’s desperate last days, such power corrupts very, very quickly.

A nightmarish B&W cross between Schindler’s List and Lacombe, Lucien, with a splash of The Damned, this liberally dramatized version of a real-life case depicts human behavior already brought low, then gleefully sinking lower—a picture rendered even more disturbing by current political trends towards seductive crypto-fascism. 

Just when the story seems to go over-the-top, reaching a point where cruelty ceases to be instructive and risks exploitative sensationalism (though in fact the events depicted did occur), writer-director Robert Schwentke’s latest—his return to home turf after fifteen years of Hollywood blockbusters—takes a more surreal, grotesque, parabolic turn. This is a striking, potent film, though as with the recent (if otherwise very different) Son of Saul, some may find its assertive style almost overpowers the deadly-sober subject of Nazi war crimes. Opera Plaza. More info here

TRISTAN AND ISOLDE
Claude Heater is one Bay Area celebrity you may not have heard of before (I hadn’t), and will now wonder why. Not only did the born-and-raised Oakland resident have a celebrated operatic career—in which he switched midstream from baritone to tenor with great success—he also played Jesus Christ (albeit without lines, credit or close-ups) in the classic 1959 Charlton Heston version of Ben-Hur

Now 90, he is getting some overdue new local appreciation with this rare screening of a 1968 Belgian film version of Wagner’s opera, with Heater in his frequent, celebrated role of Tristan, and Jacqueline van Quaille as Isolde. It’s not a photographed stage production, but was shot with “period” costumes on locations including a 12th-century castle. 

Act 1 will screen Sat/18 at SF’s Legion of Honor, Acts 2 & 3 Fri/24 at the Berkeley City Club. In conjunction with these events, the newly formed Claude Heater Foundation is also sponsoring a live recital performance of the entire opera, a short pre-film lecture, and an art exhibition. For more information, click here

HARD TICKET TO HAWAII
Drive-ins may have been dying out en masse in the 1980s, but video and late-night cable rode to the rescue to ensure a continued market for B-grade cheese. A specialist in combining the requisite marketable amounts of T&A and violent action was Andy Sidaris (no relation to David or Amy), who cranked out a dozen bloody and breasty “B” movies, most within a tight 1979-1993 span. 

A particular fan favorite turned minor camp classic is this 1987 bonanza of schlock featuring no less than four erstwhile Playmates of the Month, acting just as well as you’d expect. (You know no one is taking this joint entirely seriously when one of them intones “Terry, we need to figure out what just happened! Let’s unload and hit the jacuzzi. I do my best thinking there.”)

Hard Ticket is a movie about many things—drug lords, diamond smuggling, big hair, Uzi-wielding skateboarders (again!) using blow-up sex dolls as their “shield,” people who take Frisbee throwing very seriously, a giant killer-snake puppet, a cross-dressing restaurant hostess-slash-spy, etc. But mostly, it is about boobs. No doubt many a beered-up late-night cable viewer got something hard that wasn’t a ticket, just as intended. Want some variably-intentional laughs with that eye candy? You’ll get it. 

This “Weird Wednesday” revival screening of a rare 35mm print will feature Andy’s widow Arlene Sidaris in person to answer all your questions about his onetime celluloid “stock company” and their prodigious 80s output. Wed/15, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: BlacKkKlansman, Atomic Cafe, Nico 1988…

'Blackkklansman'

SCREEN GRABS The most eagerly awaited movie of the week—for many, of the year—is Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, based on Ron Stallworth’s real-life account of infiltrating the Klan in late 1970s Colorado.

The first African-American officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department, Stallworth (played onscreen by John David Washington) noticed a local newspaper ad soliciting new members for the KKK, and on the phone acted the part of an eager racist recruit so well that he was invited to join up. Of course this required the participation of a white undercover cop (Adam Driver’s Flip Zimmerman) to play the role in person. The two got in deeper and deeper, driven by the suspicion that this Klan chapter was planning a violent attack on black activists. 

Though it delivers many of the same damning points about institutionalized racism, BlacKkKlansman is largely the feel-good opposite to last summer’s feel-bad flashback Detroit. It’s got the giddy spirit of a caper flick, one that’s sometimes a little more farcical in tone than feels apt for the subject. 

It’s Lee’s most urgently relevant major project in a while—possibly since Do the Right Thing nearly 30 years ago—and he knows it. At two and a quarter hours, Lee’s film is overstuffed not just with stylistic indulgences and some overly caricatured elements, but every cultural reference point and social issue that crosses his mind. This story’s obvious corrolaries to our current political climate are sometimes drawn with all the subtlety of a hammer blow. 

Still, it’s very much a movie we need right now, and it’s very nearly just as good as you want it to be. Even two short years ago, who  guessed the extent to which popular racism and white supremacy might make a “comeback,” crawling out from various rocks to bask in the sunshine of our current POTUS’ tacit approval? 

However, leave it to Spike Lee to complicate even this triumphant personal moment. The night before seeing BlacKkKlansman, I walked to the Alamo Drafthouse to see Melvin Van Peebles’ newly restored Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, the 1971 proto-“blaxploitation” classic that Lee references (among other films of that era) in his latest. Just short of the theater on Mission, there was a wall of advertising posters—trumpeting Lee’s other current project, a series of promotional shorts shilling for Uber. Yes, Uber, the e-commerce giant with a consummate rep for killing one industry, replacing it with a sub-living-wage one, regulation-evasion, and having a creepy-sexist corporate environment. 

Really, Spike? Say what you will about Spike Lee, for better or worse—but there’s no denying that while he demands admiration, he really doesn’t care if he’s liked

Elsewhere, all opening this Friday (Aug. 10) at area theaters unless otherwise noted. 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST
Caught going hot and heavy with her best girlfriend in a backseat after prom in 1993, the titular heartland teen (Chloe Grace Moretz) is hustled off by her religious adoptive parents to a Bible-based “gay conversion” camp. There, she joins a motley crew of other teens variably earnest and just-pretending in acquiescence to the general “pray the gay away” program. 

Based on a YA novel by Emily M. Danforth, this second feature by director Desiree Akhavan (Appropriate Behavior) is like But I’m a Cheerleader! with all the comedy leached out. (A major exception: The recurrent clips from something called Blessercize, an actual late-80s Christian workout tape you can find in its campy entirely on YouTube here.) Anxious to caricature no one, not even the camp staff who often seem barely convinced by their own nutty rhetoric, this is a poignant and involving drama to a point. But it’s also low-key to a fault, ending without much sense of resolution, or even that very much has happened. (A pet peeve: Movies in which characters triumphantly “ride off into the sunset” at the fadeout, with no thought given to where they’re headed, or how they’ll survive once they get there.) 

It’s a good little movie, but did it have to be quite so “little”? Perhaps the starrier Boy Erased, which arrives later this year, will eke more potent drama from the same subject matter. Embaradero & Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

THE ATOMIC CAFE 
A surprise arthouse hit in 1982 and repertory/midnight-movie staple for years afterward, this compilation of Cold War cautionary kitsch—instructing schoolchildren to “duck and cover” during nuclear attack, and other ways to thwart the dastardly Commies—was the rare documentary to achieve a popular cult following. It’s been newly restored; co-director Jayne Loader will appear for a Q&A session after the Mon/13 7 pm screening. Roxie. More info here

JEANETTE: THE CHILDHOOD OF JOAN OF ARC
Bruno Dumont began his career with three of the worst, most pretentiously empty movies ever to get someone a leg-up as “auteur”: The Life of Jesus (1997), Humanite (1999) and Twentynine Palms (2003). But he has improved—even if many of those who called him a genius back then hardly notice what he’s up to now. 

This eccentric latest project is (take a breath now) an original rock musical about the Maid of Orleans when she was a farmer’s daughter (not the naughty kind!) receiving messages from God about personally ending France’s Hundred Years’ War with England, but hadn’t yet acted on them. Lise Peplat Prudhomme plays the future freedom martyr as a child, Jeanne Voisin as a teenager. 

Jeannette is goofy, for sure, although really no more so than Jesus Christ Superstar, whose 1973 film version you might recall was also shot on basically the same locations the historical events purportedly occurred. The actors speak (or rather struggle with) archaic language, wearing period-accurate clothes, and nearly everything here occurs on the grassy sand dunes where our heroine grazes her sheep. 

Yet the songs (composed by IGORRR) are primarily in a prog-metal mode, with elements of rap, electronica and whatnot; the “choreography” largely consists of pogoing and headbanging. There’s some surprisingly good music and singing here, yet at the same time the movie often feels as awkward and amateurish as a community-theater pageant. Alternately delightful and dull, it nonetheless will ultimately win over most viewers simply for being such an out-there curio. Roxie. More info here. 

NICO, 1988
Danish actress Trine Dyrholm plays Nico nee Christa Paffgen, the German war survivor turned model, actress, singer and songwriter best known for her mid-60s stint in the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol’s general “Factory” scene. By the 1980s she’d buried her fabled blonde beauty under added pounds and a black dyejob, not to mention a long-term heroin habit. Italian director Susanna Nicchiarelli’s film recreates this trainwreck’s last two or three years (the title is a slight misnomer) before she died in a bicycle accident on Ibiza at age 49. 

We don’t expect glamour from this point in the subject’s life. Still, Dyrholm’s performance at first seems awfully close to parody—dull, dense, humorless, rude, damaged, this Nico acts (and looks) like a Teutonic Debbie Downer as played by Rosanne Barr. As she tours Europe with a ragtag group sufficiently low-end-professional to put up with her antics, the film is for a long time as dirge-like as one of her songs. (While she does a fair impersonation, it’s arguable that Dyrholm is a better singer than the one she portrays—faint praise indeed.) 

Nonetheless, the film does eventually summon up some admiration for its surly, frumpy anti-heroine, in the last lap warming up enough to even render her rather likable. It’s not recommended for those allergic to art that’s “depressing,” although if you felt that way, why would you be interested in Nico to begin with? Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD
Sometime after the turn of the millennium, longtime industry rumors finally leaked into the public sphere, resulting in interviews and a book (Full Service) wherein one Scotty Bowers admitted he’d spent many years as a hustler and procurer to innumerable big Hollywood stars—his polysexual hookup business based out of a gas station the strapping ex-Marine ran on Hollywood Boulevard. 

This proved controversial, not so much because people thought 

Bowers was lying (his long list of prominent showbiz friends suggested otherwise), but because they took offense at his “speaking ill of the dead” who obviously couldn’t defend themselves. Bower’s own defense was that he was never ashamed of anything he did (and he did everything, as well as everyone), so why should un-closeting the deceased matter in our more liberal era?

Matt Tynauer’s documentary provides the still-spry 95-year-old another forum, as he retells racy, starry anecdotes from Full Service as well as revealing more about his own life. (He’s been married—yes, to a woman—for decades now, a conventional partnership complicated by his escalating problem with hoarding.) He’s an entertaining old coot, and needless to say it’s fun to hear about the hidden sexual proclivities of late luminaries both predictable (Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, etc.) and surprising (prepare to have your illusions about Tracy & Hepburn shattered). 

The lightweight film errs only in trying to make out Bowers as some kind of noble trailblazer. Not a deep or articulate thinker, he’s simply a lifelong hedonist who enjoyed helping others get their rocks off too—attempts to posit him as something more come off as pretentious bosh that even he refuses to take seriously. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Screen Grabs: Alice Cooper, Cecil Beaton, Rahsaan Roland Kirk….

Alice Cooper in "Welcome to My Nightmare"

SCREEN GRABS Let’s hope the weather is nice this weekend, because you should go out and play. In other words, there’s not a lot hugely worth going out of your way to see at the movies this week, unless you’re catching up on something worthy that’s been around for a while already. 

The major new releases are not exactly major events. There’s director Marc Forster draping what looks like the same warm-and-fuzziness on A.A. Milne (Christopher Robin) that he already did for James Barrie (Finding Neverland); a new hopeful YA fantasy franchise kickoff (The Darkest Minds—once again, only angsty teens can save the future); a purportedly middling spoof with a great title (The Spy Who Dumped Me); and for real comedy value, recently POTUS-pardoned felon Dinesh D’Souza’s new “documentary” Death of a Nation, which compares the terribly similar, mutually inspiring Presidencies of Lincoln and Trump because…well, up is down and nothing is too ridiculous to be taken seriously by somebody anymore, right? 

Of course, that last-named film may not be opening in the Bay Area, us being godless heathen Socialists and all. (Surely you’ve heard the cries of frustrated would-be patrons outside local multiplexes, sobbing “Who do I have to fuck to get some faith-based entertainment around here?!?” because God’s Not Dead 3 cannot be found closer than Fresno.) 

However, we have dug up a few things worthier of your attention than the above, all opening this Friday unless otherwise noted:

GOOD MANNERS
Broke, behind on her rent, Clara (Isabel Zuaa) is a woman in desperate need of a employment, so she doesn’t ask many questions when offered the post of nanny—despite her inexperience in that role—by Ana (Marjorie Estiano), a flighty Sao Paolo socialite type living alone in a luxury apartment. Actually the baby she’s supposed to care for hasn’t arrived yet (and the father is nowhere to be seen), so for the time being Clara is more of a housekeeper, companion, and go-fer for a “boss” who appears to have been dropped by all her family and friends for reasons unknown. 

Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ verrrrry slow-burning (but never dull) drama might be termed “A Brazilian Let the Right One In for werewolves.” But that would be somewhat misleading—it takes a full hour for any horror/fantasy element to get introduced at all here, and another 40 minutes before there’s conventional horror violence. If you adjust your expectations (and patience) accordingly, this is an intriguing tale that’s a well-acted, unpredictable mix of genre content and social commentary. Roxie. 

LOVE, CECIL
Most often described in personal terms as a “dandy,” Cecil Beaton wore many hats professionally: He was a famous fashion and celebrity-portrait photographer; wrote many books of a diaristic, high-end-dilettantish nature; and did the visual design (often encompassing both costumes and sets) for various Broadway shows and movies, including both original stage and screen incarnations of My Fair Lady. His career—and busy, well-connected social climbing—extended from the “bright young things” era of post-World War I England to the brighter, newer things of the Swinging ’60s and Me Decade, where he proved adaptable enough to praise such next-generation artistic scenesters as Warhol and David Hockney. 

This documentary tribute is colorful if somewhat frustrating, though that may be the inevitable consequence of expecting depth from a movie about a man dedicated to surface beauty. There’s far too little about Beaton’s stage career, though he won four Tonys for it, and not much penetrating insight into a personality that seems, frankly, pretty insufferable—his diehard snobbery and anti-Semitism are noted but barely explored. Then again, a movie produced in association with auction house Sotheby’s, directed by the granddaughter-in-law of style maven Diana Vreeland (seen here singing Beaton’s praises with a somewhat less enthusiastic Truman Capote), probably isn’t the place to look for critical analysis. 

Its subject’s writings read as voiceover narration by Rupert Everett, Love, Cecil does offer interesting archival footage, gossip (was the mostly-gay Beaton an actual lover of Garbo’s?), and latterday reminiscences from such figures as Penelope Tree, David Bailey and Leslie Caron. Opera Plaza. 

THE CASE OF THE THREE-SIDED DREAM 
Adam Kahan’s highly praised 2014 documentary looks at the life and career of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, whom neither being blinded in infancy or suffering a paralyzing stroke much later prevented from his development as a woodwind player of unique technical and experimental abilities. (His trademark “stunt” was playing three saxes at once.) Utilizing animation, home movies, performance footage and other elements, Kahan provides a fittingly distinctive tribute to an artist whose too-short times nonetheless provided room for adventurous expressions both musical and political. Taking place 83 years after his birth (and half as long after his death at age 42), this Balboa “Birthday Bash” will also feature live jazz performances before and after the film by a band including local players Hugh Shick and Danny Brown. Tues/7, Balboa. 

MIRACLE MILE
Though it was barely a blip on the box-office radar in 1988, writer-director Steve De Jarnatt’s second (and last) feature before he permanently moved into television work has built a loyal cult following over time. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham play strangers who meet and fall in love, only to have circumstances get in the way—namely, the apparent imminent beginning of full-on nuclear war. 

Unlike the era’s “post-apocalyptic thrillers,” or the earnest TV movies (The Day After, Threads) about potential global destruction also being made at the time, Miracle Mile is primarily a romance—albeit an existential doomsday one. With its Tangerine Dream soundtrack, eccentric support cast, and ambitiously offbeat narrative, it remains an unusually interesting major-studio release from a period when Hollywood was at its most artistically conservative. This 30th-anniversary screening will feature De Jarnatt onstage in conversation with Noir City’s Eddie Muller, along with an opportunity for audience questions. Thurs/9, Castro Theatre

A CELEBRATION OF ALICE COOPER’S 70TH BIRTHDAY
School is, indeed, out for summer—at least for those under 18, and they were exactly the demographic that made Alice Cooper’s best-known song an international hit in 1972. (While it only reached #7 in the US, it performed the invaluable service in the UK of knocking Donny Osmond’s mawkish “Puppy Love” out of the #1 slot.) The still-active veteran rocker, who recently appeared as King Herod in the live TV broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar, entered his eighth decade earlier this year. 

As tribute, Midnites for Maniacs presents a double bill at the Roxie. There’s no Monster Dog (the 1984 Italian werewolf movie in which “Alice” aka Vincent Furnier starred), but there is his most famous big-screen appearance, as himself in 1992’s SNL spinoff comedy Wayne’s World. Also in that film’s cast is Meat Loaf, another theatrical rocker who probably never would’ve existed if not for Cooper’s precedent.

Much rarer is the accompanying screening of Welcome to My Nightmare, a glorified 1976 “concert film” that immortalized its star’s most elaborate touring stage show. It expands on the concert’s tongue-in-cheek “horror” theme by including sequences with genre superstar Vincent Price, and writing input from no less than future arthouse director Alan Rudolph (Afterglow, Choose Me).

It was directed by David Winters, a British juvenile actor turned choreographer, director and producer whose projects from ran an insane gamut from vehicles for Elvis, Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch to exploitation movies like Linda Lovelace for President, Killer Workout, Space Mutiny and Welcome 2 Ibiza. Once a staple on the midnight-movie circuit, Welcome is seldom seen these days, so bring a Bic to flick and head to the Roxie for a dose of vintage pop metal from the pre-hair band era. Thurs/9, Roxie.  

Screen Grabs: Dark Money, Generation Wealth, Everything Else

'Generation Wealth'

SCREEN GRABS This week’s movies seem unified by the theme of money—not least the big new popcorn movie Mission: Impossible 6, because no one makes a sixth entry in a franchise for any reason beyond profit. That said, it pains me to confess that this M:I has gotten the best reviews of the series so far. Why is that painful? Well, speaking as someone who could hit “Delete” on pretty much Tom Cruise’s entire screen ouevre without a qualm, I am particularly happy on the rare occasions when he makes something that’s actually worth seeing. But word has it this is an outstanding chunk of big-budget action escapism, and it would be remiss to avoid plugging an apparent not-too-guilty pleasure just because its perpetually effortful star gives me no pleasure. 

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

DARK MONEY
As we grow nearer to a midterm election we’re already told will be interfered with by Russia—and as the GOP continues its merry gerrymandering and voter-suppression ways—the timing couldn’t be more apt for this engrossing new documentary. Kimberly Reed, whose prior Prodigal Son was a much more personal look at her own family and gender-transition issues, turns towards more traditional reportage to examine the escalating, catastrophic effect that Citizen’s United has had on our democracy. 

She particularly focuses on her home state of Montana, which had some of the “cleanest” election laws in the nation—due to a history of corporate political corruption during peak mining days as long as a century ago. But now that’s been undone by a flood of dishonest smear campaigns, shadowy Super-PAC funding, phony new “grassroots” organizations, dubious trickle-up legislation, and more—all of it legal since the Supreme Court’s “Citizens” decision, natch. And of course these tactics invariably further a far-right agenda, with the Machiavellian Koch Brothers often to be found at the end of each “follow the money” inquiry. As involving as it is infuriating, Dark Money should be a must-see for voters of any party affiliation. Reed will appear for Q&A’s at some opening-weekend shows (at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas). At area theaters. More info here. 

GENERATION WEALTH
A different inquiry into our current United States of Avarice is made here by Lauren Greenfield, whose prior The Queen of Versailles looked at a Florida real estate billionaire and his wife as they built a garish new home—one that would be the largest “single family residence” in US history. Realizing that her entire career has been spent photographing, studying and promoting people of (or aspiring towards) fabulous wealth, Greenfield decided next to explore the general subject of conspicuous consumption. That encompasses everything from high-end financial crimes to plastic surgery, empty Kardashian-type “celebrity,” commodity fetishism (like people who “collect” $20,000+ handbags), and much more. 

Perhaps this terrain is a little too close to the director’s heart, since her movie winds up spending way too much time dwelling on her own personal issues around workaholism, status, and navel-gazing. The result is something of an indulgent, catch-all mess. Still, you can’t look away when Greenfield trains her camera on such up-to-the-moment “lifestyle” excesses as stripper-pole workout classes, or showcases personalities like one “Limo Bob,” who proclaims his love of “old-world elegance” while wearing thirty-two ridiculous pounds of solid-gold bling around his neck. Clay Theatre. More info here

MCQUEEN 
Yet another documentary about the perils of too much dough-ray-me, this acclaimed feature profiles the life and legacy of famed British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The humbly born Londoner rocketed to success at an early age, his daring, theatrical designs attracting such patrons as David Bowie, Bjork, and stage multimedia maestro Robert Lepage. 

Sometimes macabre, always arresting, his diverse work reached beyond mere “clothes” such that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art chose to build an entire 2011 exhibition around him. But by the time it opened, he’d already committed suicide, done in by myriad psychological and substance-abusive demons at age 40. Co-directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettdgui, this is said to be a handsome and insightful feature homage to a striking if eventually tragic talent. Embarcadero. More info here. 

EVERYTHING ELSE
Dona Flor (Adriana Barraza from Babel and Amores Perros) is the impassive face of impenetrable bureaucracy in a featureless Mexico City government office, turning away ID-card applicants who’ve waited hours because of some trivial technical error in their filling out the required forms. It’s a numbing daily routine she can only enliven by petty cruelty. Nor is there much comfort at home, where the sole being interested in Dona Flor is her cat—and he may just be in it for the free food. 

This is a first narrative feature for director Natalia Almada, and she has a documentarian’s eye for how truth revels itself in seemingly nondescript details. The tedious repetitions of our protagonist’s days and nights are faithfully recorded in precise compositions that seem to trap her in the frame, like a museum specimen pinned to a diorama of “typical urban life for the modern spinster.” She’s the cheerless inhabitant of a dreary life from which all exits have vanished, save the final one. 

This is reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman…. That 1975 woman seemed in desperate need of some, any role other than “housewife.” Almost half a century later, this heroine is not at all liberated by the white-collar job that gets her out of the domestic cage. You don’t go to a movie like this for “fun,” but for a gradual accumulation of details that adds up to a provocative larger picture—one not just of an individual character, but of the surrounding sociopolitical environ that inevitably turns her story a sort of hopeless, commonplace tragedy. It’s a “difficult” viewing experience, albeit one with rewards and resonance for the patient. Roxie. More info here

JACQUES BECKER
Though not particularly prolific—he only made a baker’s dozen features before dying in 1960 at 53—Becker has come to be seen as one of the masters of French cinema before the Nouvelle Vague. Indeed, like Renoir (whom he began his career working under), he’s among the few “old-school” directors who were admired by upstarts such as Truffaut and Godard, who otherwise derided the veterans their “wave” displaced. 

This already-in-progress PFA retrospective is particularly unmissable this weekend, as it brings two showings (Friday and Saturday night) of Becker’s acknowledged masterpiece Casque d’or. The 1952 drama stars Simone Signoret as a turn-of-the-century gangster’s moll who tempts fate when she falls for an ordinary working man (Serge Reggiani). Despite its period trappings, romantic melodrama is often considered a direct precursor to Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player a decade later. On Sunday there’s also Becker’s 1951 Edouard et Caroline, a modern-day light seriocomedy about an artistic couple braving the eddies of Paris’ cultural and class snobberies. The series continues through August 31 at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. More info here

MILFORD GRAVES: FULL MANTIS
A major force in free jazz since the early 60s, Queens-raised percussionist Graves has worked with everyone from Pharaoh Sanders, New York Art Quartet and Paul Bley to Miriam Makeba, John Zorn and Sun Ra. Seemingly ageless though approaching 80, he’s a lively subject in director Jake Meginsky’s dynamic, playful documentary, which takes its stylistic cues from his free-ranging musical imagination. Even as an interviewee, Graves is all over the place, in a good way: Interests key to his art encompass martial arts, West African culture, plant life, and the finer functioning points of the human heart, just for starters. Full Mantis is a distinctive portrait of a unique talent and eccentric personality. Roxie. More info here

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

Eighth Grade

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

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

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

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

Other highlights will include Tribeca Fest audience award winner To Dust, Shawn Snyder’s, a droll seriocomedy in which Matthew Broderick and Son of Saul’s Geza Rohrig play two extremely different men brought together by a bizarre, morbid quest for personal closure. Particularly special is the presentation (with SF Silent Film Festival) of The City Without Jews, a 1924 Austrian feature in which Jews are arbitrarily blamed for all the woes of a fictive nation—but it’s when they’re deported to appease mob sentiment that the trouble really begins. Eerily prescient, not just towards Europe’s immediate Nazi future but towards political currents of the Trump era, this elaborate production is a fascinating find that was thought lost for many decades until its recent rediscovery. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT
Thirty-two years after making his feature debut with the boozy tone-poem Mala Noche, Gus Van Sant is back with another inebriated story from his Portland, OR hometown. Joaquin Phoenix plays the late John Callahan, who found fame with his mordantly funny New Yorker cartoons in a wobbly line-drawing hand. But that success only came well after his alcoholism led to a car accident that left him a paraplegic at 21. 

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

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

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

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

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