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, a1924 Austrian feature in which Jews are arbitrarily blamed for all the woes of a fictive nation—but it’s when they’re deported to appease mob sentiment that the trouble really begins. Eerily prescient, not just towards Europe’s immediate Nazi future but towards political currents of the Trump era, this elaborate production is a fascinating find that was thought for many decades until its recent rediscovery.
There’s a great deal else from around the world in this year’s JFF, which runs Thurs/19-Sun/Aug. 5 at various Bay Area venues. Full program and ticket info here.
In an unfortunate booking miscalculation, one of the best Israeli movies in recent memory (even if it’s a German co-production) is opening commercially just when much of its likely local audience will be preoccupied with the JFF. Thomas (Tim Kalkhof) is a young Berlin loner, a quiet sort who nonetheless owns his own small cafe, where he makes pastries to die for—as duly noted by Oren (Roy Miller), whose frequent visits while in town on business lead to something considerably more than a baker/customer relationship. But when the latter suddenly stops communicating, a stricken Thomas finally takes the step of traveling to Jerusalem in order to find out the truth. There, he meets Oren’s wife Anat (Sarah Adler from the recent Foxtrot), who also runs a cafe, and without revealing their connection to her, he becomes involved in her life as well.
This isn’t the “stalking” drama that synopsis might suggest, nor is it a trite feel-good “foodie” exercise like so many movies about cross-cultural connection via the taste buds. It is, in fact, a painfully lovely drama handled with very astute performances and superb directorial control—which is needed, because if Ofir Raul Graizer’s first feature handled his script with any less judicious restraint, a couple credulity-stretching plot points might have seemed far too contrived. Clay Theatre, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.
Another talented new writer-director, Bo Burnham’s first feature may surprise those anticipating something reflective of his past success as a comedian and musician. There’s a lot of music (as our heroine is perpetually hiding under iPod headphones), but not a lot of humor—in fact, this is sort of like Sixteen Candles with the laughs removed, leaving mostly the unalleviated anxiety and humiliations of being at an “awkward age.”
Elsie Fisher from the Despicable Me movies plays Kayla, a motherless teen facing the end of middle school with no friends whatsoever, a desperate “advice” vlog nobody watches, and a well-meaning dad (Josh Hamilton) who negotiates her emotions like a minefield—whatever he does, they seem to explode in his face. Burnham nails the awfulness (only heightened by kids’ social-media addictions) of junior high life with a precision that will make you squirm, out of recognition, empathy or both. It’s almost too uncomfortable an experience to take your own child to—you might want to watch it separately, then discuss afterward when you’ve both stopped cringing. If you ever stop.
This is a very good film, and not a gratuitously cruel one. Still, it is hard to enthusiastically recommend something that so accurately reproduces a kind of terminal mortification you may not have felt since you, too, were 14, and had probably hoped never to feel again. At area theaters.
Also likely to be alarmingly relatable for many viewers is music video director Carlos Lopez Estrada’s first feature, written by stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Rapper and Tony-winning Hamilton star Diggs plays Collin, who’s just finished a jail stint for doing something stupid—something that also cost him his relationship with now-ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar). He’s still besties and moving-company coworkers with longtime friend Miles (Casal), a white guy who’s nonetheless the more stereotypically “street” among the two of them by far. Despite the theoretically calming influence of his wife (Jasmine Cephas Jones), Miles is also a perpetual loose cannon who’s the person most likely to drag Collin back into trouble. That possibility becomes all the more dangerous when, nearing the end of his probationary year, Collin witnesses a white cop (Ethan Embry) shooting to death a fleeing but seemingly unarmed black man.
Wildly energetic, stylish, with an enormous bass-thumping soundtrack and a lot to say about everyday racial relations today, Blindspottingis going to be a lot of people’s favorite movie of the year. Especially hereabouts, as it flies the Oakland-pride flag high while musing on the heavy price of Bay Area gentrification. For me, it was a little too much of a good thing—the brash confidence with which Estrada treats this material can border on over-flashiness. But that’s a minority opinion. And anyway, my favorite movie this week is The Cakemaker (above), whose almost Bresson-like austerity of style is Blindspotting’s polar opposite. So take my qualified approval with as big a grain of salt as you like. At area theaters.
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.