Screen Grabs

Screen Grabs: A Japanese master of ‘The Human Condition’ gets his due

Tatsuya Nakadai in Masaki Kobayashi's 'The Human Condition'

SCREEN GRABS Considered by some one of the greatest Japanese filmmakers of a brilliant period (the Fifties and Sixties), the late Masaki Kobayashi nevertheless never achieved the international fame of many others, including Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse and Oshima. This despite the fact that he made one of the finest samurai movies, 1962’s Harakiri, as well as arguably the single best entry in the Japanese ghost story subgenre (1965’s color omnibus feature Kwaidan)—both great successes at home and abroad. But his subsequent films grew steadily less prominent, perhaps attesting to the fact that he was already an “old man” (turning 50 in 1966) amidst a new era increasingly fixated on young talent.

It doesn’t help, either, that his most towering work is of a nature that made exhibition difficult in the first place, and renders revival even more so: Based on a six-volume novel by Junpei Gomikawa, requiring four years’ production, The Human Condition consisted of three long features released between 1959 and 1961, totaling nearly ten hours altogether. (It is still occasionally shown in Japan in marathon screenings.) The Pacific Film Archive’s month-long Against Authority: The Cinema of Masaki Kobayashi retrospective, which starts this Saturday, offers a rare chance to see that trilogy on the big screen, as well as five other features from the director’s career peak of 1956-1967.

Not so unlike his pacifist intellectual protagonist in The Human Condition, Kobayashi himself was an art and philosophy student drafted into the Imperial Army during WW2, sent to Manchuria, and captured by the Chinese to spend time in a POW camp. Afterward he returned to Shochiku Studios to continue his apprenticeship, making his directorial debut in 1952. The first film in the PFA series is I Will Buy You, a caustic portrait of corruption in the world of Japanese pro baseball (a sport that had already been popular for nearly a century there). Indeed, criticizing institutionalized injustice would prove a running theme for him, whether demonstrated in society as a whole or something as outwardly rigid yet vulnerable as samurai codes of “honor.”

The hugely ambitious Human Condition pits the supposed “clumsy humanism” of proficiency expert Kaji (the director’s strikingly handsome go-to star Tatsuya Nakadai) against venality of every stripe. In the first film, No Greater Love, he and his wife are sent to a remote Manchurian labor camp where the cruel officials resist all his attempts at reform, no matter how effective they prove. In The Road to Eternity, Kaji is rewarded for his idealism by getting thrown into the army. Despite being branded a “red,” his natural leadership qualities inevitably push him ahead—yet again, his compassion and high principles continue to get him in hot water. “No good deed goes unpunished” remains the rule in 1961’s A Soldier’s Prayer, in which Kaji tries to rejoin his wife amidst the chaos of Japan’s final defeat by Allied forces. But his grueling journey through enemy terrain and a POW camp (now as a prisoner himself) again finds scant reward for endless self-sacrifice.

Never ponderous despite its extreme length, superbly crafted, The Human Condition was controversial at the time for showing Japan’s wartime struggles in a far-from-heroic light—slave labor, “comfort women,” executions, torture and sheer dumb meanness are all depicted as routine parts of Imperial Army life. (One of Kobayashi’s last films, not in this series, was Tokyo Trial, a 4 1/2 hour 1985 documentary about Japanese war crime proceedings.) Kaji is a great character, his virtues as credible as his vulnerabilities are vivid in Nakadai’s towering performance. While his saga may be almost unbearably bleak in the end, the trilogy’s visual beauty and stubborn insistence on individual nobility nonetheless provide a ray of hope in this brutal dramatic landscape.

After that vast endeavor, Kobayashi retreated into the small-scale domestic “battle” of 1962’s The Inheritance, an incisive, twisty morality tale of illegitimate children scrambling for the favor of a dying businessman father who hitherto hadn’t acknowledged them. After that detour, the director made his three most commercially successful features: The aforementioned Harakiri and Kwaidan, both acknowledged world classics, and 1967’s Samurai Rebellion, which stars Toshiro Mifune (who’d just had a permanent falling-out with Akira Kurosawa) as an 18th-century swordsman forced into fatal opposition towards his region’s clan lord. Playing a key support role is Nakadai, who would actually assume Mifune’s place as Kurosawa’s future principal star. It’s a handsome, ceremonial, slow-moving if ultimately bloody piece of classic samurai conflict.

Though he continued working through the mid-80s (dying a decade later in 1996 at age 80), Kobayashi’s later films met with decreasing interest outside Japan, even if they remained acclaimed at home. (Actor Tatsuya Nakadai still occasionally works today, at nearly 90.) While his work gradually fell out of international fashion, the Against Authority series suggests it holds up at least as well as many better-remembered films from the arthouse “golden age” of the 1960s. Against Authority: The Cinema of Masaki Kobayashi runs Sat/20-Sun/August 18 at Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Among major commercial openings this week, of note is The Farewell, if only because it’s the first obvious consequence of Crazy Rich Asians’ huge success last year—another sudsy, globetrotting mainstream comedy with an all-Asian cast (led by CRA’s breakout star Awkwafina). Sure to be even bigger news at the box-office is The Lion King, the latest entry in Disney’s weird new means of endlessly milking its back catalog. Does the world really need a live-action (well, with plenty of CGI) remake of every cherished Mouse House animated classic? Apparently so, given that The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin have already been giant hits. (However, earlier this year Dumbo actually managed to lose money, grossing a mere $350 million.)

A one-night event of special interest is San Francisco Cinematheque’s For A Winter: Remembering Jonathan Schwartz, a tribute to the filmmaker and teacher who passed away last year at age 45. The program, co-presented with Canyon Cinema, will feature nine of his 16mm and video shorts. They encompassed collage, global travel, poetical text, personal portraiture and aesthetic experiment in a meditative yet adventuresome body of work. It plays Thurs/25 at YBCA Screening Room. More info here

There’s also the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival, which returns to the Roxie this weekend for a 13th annual program of shorts from “independent filmmakers, youth, filmmakers of conscience, and artists from under-served communities.” Traversing a gamut from experimental, animated and narrative to local and international work, its whopping fifteen separate programs run from Fri/19 through Sun/21. (More info here.) The Roxie is also premiering Adam Sherman’s gonzo U.S./Japan crime fantasia She’s Just a Shadow, which opens Friday and was unavailable for preview. (More info here.)

Opening elsewhere (all on Fri/19 unless otherwise noted):

Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank
This documentary by Gerald Fox was completed in 2004 and broadcast on the U.K.’s “South Bank Show,” but blocked from wider exposure by its subject until now—famed photographer Frank, already 80 at the time, thought it too discomfitingly “personal.” Ironically, the same logic kept his infamous 1972 Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues out of public view for decade, as the subjects worried its portrait was too unflatteringly intimate (and possibly incriminating re: drug use).

Now 95, Frank has apparently relented. As a result we can finally see this impressionistic portrait, which shows him both in oft-cranky old age (resisting the yuppie invasion in his longtime NYC neighborhood, spatting affectionately with his sculptor spouse June Leaf) as well as reflecting on past career landmarks. They include his intensely controversial 1958 photography book The Americans, which discomfited people because it emphasized the less-flattering realities—racism, poverty, etc.—that our nation has always preferred to think are marginal problems. Soon considered groundbreaking, it was initially perceived by some as a deliberate insult by a foreigner (Frank was a Swiss emigre).

Then there were his variably accessible journeys into filmmaking, most famously providing the Beat Generation with its closest celluloid reflection in the Kerouac-narrated Pull My Daisy (1959). An admitted workaholic, Frank admits his failings as a husband and father, particularly given the tragic fate of troubled son Pablo. Those painful confessions are probably the reason Leaving Home remained unavailable for so long, but they help make this tribute to an important artist particularly insightful. Roxie. More info here

Sword of Trust
Improv-based comedies may look easy, but they are very hard to pull off—even king of the subgenre Christopher Guest found collective inspiration flagging in his efforts after the much-loved Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show. But this new film by indie veteran Lynn Shelton is a droll gem sparked by players who know exactly what they’re doing, and give the loose screenplay (by Shelton and Mike O’Brien) a loopy satirical snap.

Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) are a 40-ish lesbian couple who’ve inherited a Civil War relic from the former’s grandfather. They take it to caustic Alabama pawn-shop proprietor Mel (podcaster Marc Maron) in hopes of making a sale. He’s unimpressed, yet once his dim-witted but computer-savvy assistant Nathaniel (Jonathan Bass) uncovers some intel online, it looks like the item might be worth a small fortune after all. This leads the mismatched quartet down a rabbit hole of historical revisionists and white nationalists who think “the South really won.”

While it does slyly take the pulse of crazier political currents in Trump’s America, Sword of Trust is mostly just a delightful shaggy-dog tale sparked by inspired comic rapport amongst the principal players. It seldom goes for big laughs, but the cumulative effect of many small ones makes for a movie that hits a sweet spot—though white nationalists and historical revisionists probably won’t appreciate the joke. Opera Plaza. More info here.

Sea of Shadows
With species extinctions around the globe escalating alarmingly, this new documentary spotlights one such crisis you may not have known about. The vaquita is a small, dolphin-like whale that has the ill luck to claim as its habitat the Gulf of Mexico, which is shared by the totoaba—a fish whose bladder is thought by some Chinese to have medicinal value, and which can be worth up to $100,000 each as a result.

Thus between the underground Chinese market and Mexican cartels, one species is being fished into extinction, with the other facing a similar fate simply by being caught in the same nets. All this is illegal, but did that ever stop anyone when the monetary stakes are so high? This nature-slash-crime investigation ties the ongoing fight to climate change and other consequences of environmental degradation worldwide. Metreon, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Emma Mae
Also known as Black Sister’s Revenge, this great 1976 comedy-action pic by underrated blaxploitation maestro Jamaa Fanaka was produced just after his outrageous cult debut Soul Vengeance and before his popular, over-the-top Penitentiary movies. Jerri Hayes plays the titular “country cousin” from Mississippi who comes to live with her more sophisticated relatives in Southern California. She seems like a real hick at first, but they’re surprised by her ability to kick serious ass when riled. She falls for an amphetamine “fender bender” who gets in trouble beating up some abusive cops. When legit efforts at raising money for his bail fall short, she turns into a Black Power revolutionary, orchestrating an armed bank robbery.

Emma Mae is a refreshingly down-to-earth heroine, particularly compared to the era’s more cartoonish Pam Grier/Tamara Dobson type blaxploitation babes. The movie straddles conventions from those films and more naturalistic African-American dramas of the period, like Claudine. It’s got Fanaka’s usual zesty dialogue and performances, while also functioning as a great time-capsule of mid-70s soul slang and fashions. Wed/24, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here. 

Screen Grabs: A wave of women behind the camera

'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,' part of 'Haunted! Gothic Tales by Women'

SCREEN GRABS Though some aspects of filmmaking have been edging slowly towards gender equity for a while, there’s no question that the #MeToo movement has provided an energizing jolt in that direction. Oh well: If you can’t make people want to change out of the goodness of the hearts, then fear of shaming (or exposure) will have to do the trick. Hopefully the heightened opportunities for women behind the camera will create a long-term sea change, rather than allowing the industry to pay temporary lip service, wait till the storm blows over, then go back to business as usual.

Two major local series starting this week highlight the contributions of women behind the camera—one very literally so, the other in terms of providing source material. The first, View Finders: Women Cinematographers at the PFA, brings together ten features from around the globe to ponder the “female gaze,” as opposed to the male one that has dominated so much of cinematic history. Most of the films included are from the last decade, only one of them going back so far as 1989 (Jacques Rivette’s Gang of Four, shot by Caroline Champetier), testifying to the fact that Director of Photography was almost always considered a “man’s job” until fairly recently.

The work represented otherwise runs a striking gamut, from lyrical fantasia (Manoel de Oliveira and d.p. Sabine Lancelin’s The Strange Case of Angelica) to documentary self-portrait (Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson), encompassing titles from Japan (Tokyo Sonata), Senegal (Today), Peru (The Milk of Sorrow), France (Eastern Boys) and more. The program runs at the Pacific Film Archive, Fri/12-Sat/August 31, PFA. More info here

The other series, comprising SFMOMA’s ninth “Modern Cinema” season, is Haunted! Gothic Tales by Women. This six-week series focuses on dark tales, supernatural or otherwise, drawn from the female imagination. In many cases these are films derived from novels by famous “lady writers,” including Mary Shelley (James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Daphne du Maurier (Don’t Look Now, Rebecca), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting), the Brontes (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights), Anne Rice (Interview with the Vampire), Angela Carter (The Company of Wolves), Toni Morrison (the criminally underrated film of Beloved), Carson McCullers (Reflections in a Golden Eye), and so forth.

There are also films conceived by women directors, like Jennifer Kent’s maternal nightmare The Babadook, Kathryn Bigelow’s cult vampire flick Near Dark, Ana Lily Amirpour’s similarly bloodsucking A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Tracey Moffatt’s Australian omnibus beDevil. Although some selections are popular or arthouse favorites, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock (derived from Joan Lindsay’s superb novel), Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, or Chan-wook Park’s recent The Handmaiden (a cultural transplant of a Sarah Waters story), there are some notable obscurities dug up here.

They include A Reflection of Fear, an intriguing, seldom-seen 1972 psycho chiller, as well as All About Eve director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1946 Dragonwyck, a full-on period Gothic melodrama complete with Vincent Price as a sinister cousin to Gene Tierney’s heroine. The series runs Thurs/18-Thurs/August 22, SFMOMA. More info here

Don’t worry, though: It’s still a mostly-manly cinematic world out there, as proven by the only two major commercial opening this week. One, Stuber, is a “buddy” action comedy with ex-wrestler Dave Bautista and comedian Kumail Nanjiani (of The Big Sick). The other, Crawl, is a thriller involving killer alligators.

Opening elsewhere (all on Friday July 12, unless otherwise noted) this week:

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
Unlike the active creative role taken by women in the above series, Marianne Ihlen was stuck playing a semi-thankless if time-tested role in someone else’s art-making: That of being a famous man’s “muse.” She was a Norwegian divorcee raising a son alone on a Greek isle of fellow expatriates in 1960 when she met Leonard Cohen, then a little-known Canadian poet. He wrote songs about her (notably “So Long, Marianne”), but his eventual musical fame not only separated them for increasingly long spells, it made him the kind of Lothario who keeps several women stringing along while he dallies with new ones.

This latest documentary by Nick Broomfield (who knew Ihlen) is meant to be a love story, and it sorta is. But it’s the kind of one-sided love story that you wouldn’t really wish on anyone. Marianne was very forgiving, remaining in touch with Cohen to the end of both their lives. But how much time did she waste waiting for him to “return” before he finally got up the nerve to say he wouldn’t? (About a decade, that’s how long.) His fickleness also had a damaging effect on her child. Cohen’s career triumphs are amply recalled in an entertaining flashback that, inevitably, provides less insight into the less-well-chronicled life of his ex-girlfriend (one among many). Even top-billed in a posthumous dual tribute, she somehow ends up still getting short shrift. Embarcadero, Shattuck, Regency 6 (San Rafael). More info here

Hong Kong Cinema
SFFILM’s 9th annual showcase for HK moviemaking offers a weekend of seven recent features from one of the world’s busiest and most influential film industries. The opening night selection at New People is Tracey, about a middle-aged man’s decision to come out as a transgender person, and the impact on his wife and children. Director Jun Li will attend its screenings, as will Lee Cheuk-pan, whose G Affairs also piled up nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards. It’s a fictive expose of corruption as a young musician gets ensnared in some gruesome doings amongst police, prostitutes, and others on both sides of the law.

After opening night, the series moves to the Roxie, where other selections include the ghost comedy Hotel Soul Good, bad-taste farce Missbehavior, sports-themed ensemble piece Men on the Dragon, low-key sexuality study The Lady Improper, and suspense drama The Attorney. Fri/12-Sun/14, New People and Roxie. More info here

The Reports on Sarah and Saleem
The titular characters in Muayad Alayan’s drama are two married people having an affair—Sarah (Sivan Kerchner) a comfortably situated West Jerusalem cafe owner whose husband is an Israeli Army colonel (Ishai Golan), while Saleem (Adeeb Safadi) is a Palestinian in East Jerusalem struggling to support himself and his pregnant wife (Hanan Hillo) by working at a bakery and in after-hours odd jobs. Lying to their spouses and coworkers, they meet for trysts whenever they can. But that sneaking about ends up attracting the attention of police on both sides, who misinterpret this simple infidelity as something more politically charged, perhaps even related to espionage.

Purportedly based on real events (though it seems to be more a fictive composite than a “true story”), this is forcefully handled tale somewhat compromised by the fact that there’s not a lot of rooting value. Temperamental and selfish, the two protagonists aren’t “in love,” just in lust, already endangering their families’ stability for the sake of furtive fun before the shit hits the fan. Yes, they’re victims of a volatile, racially charged political situation. But it’s hard to feel much sympathy for their plight, easier to feel sorry for the loved ones their actions haplessly pull into a mess of their own making. Still, Reports is ultimately moving. If there’s a lesson to be drawn here, it’s that when a government relies upon repression, even apolitical citizens are at risk of being sucked into peril. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here.

Tattoo Uprising and Before Stonewall
Two underground cultures gone mainstream are the subjects of these documentaries opening at the Roxie. The art of tattooing has become so over-ground that 2019 has already seen four major local exhibits dedicated to the field: The recently-closed “Lew the Jew and His Circle” at Contemporary Jewish Museum,

“Ed Hardy: Deeper Than Skin” at the de Young (which opens this weekend), “Tattoos in Japanese Prints” at the Asian Art Museum, and SF Art Institute’s likewise ongoing “In a Flash,” showcasing tattoo-related work by SFAI alumni including Hardy. The latter is also a major figure in Uprising, a new documentary by Alan Govenar that provides both an overview of American tattooing’s history and an appreciation of its current renaissance. More info here.

While the fight for LGBTQ rights goes on, many in the community today never knew a world in which being gay was itself against the law, and any public expression unthinkable. Greta Schiller and Robert Rosenberg’s newly restored 1984 Before Stonewall (which plays a handful of Roxie dates starting Thurs/18) provides an invaluable overview of that era before “gay pride,” or even “Gay Lib.”

They excavate the well-hidden pockets of gay life that existed a century ago or more, on through the covert outlets that all-male military life provided through two World Wars, the persecution of the McCarthy era, the emergence of early activist groups like the Mattachine Society, and more. Drawing on archival footage as well as interviews with people who’d seen much of the 20th century’s social evolutions first-hand, it’s a must-see for any gay youth you know who think RuPaul is about as historical a figure as they come. More info here.

In the Aisles
Franz Rogowski had a fascinatingly off-kilter presence that helped make Christian Petzold’s enigmatic Transit one of the best films of the year so far. He’s equally compelling as the protagonist of this new German feature, once again playing a somewhat mysterious newcomer—at once damaged and charismatic, a bit dense yet rather soulful.

His Christian gets hired as a night stocker at a Costco-like suburban warehouse store, working in the Beverages department under gruff but kindly Bruno (Peter Kurth). Mastering the challenges of the forklift, shyly flirting with coworker Marion (Sandra Huller from Toni Erdmann), Christian is a perpetually tongue-tied cipher whose backstory we learn very little about. (Though when we do learn a bit, we begin to understand why he’d rather not talk about it.) In the brief glimpses afforded of his lonely home life, there is one conspicuous clue to his troubled past: Hidden under a uniform during work hours, his body is covered with tattoos.

With his slightly cleft lip and modest speech impediment, Rogowski is an offbeat leading actor, but those “flaws” somehow only heighten his slightly edgy yet vulnerable appeal. Director/co-writer Thomas Stuber’s last film Herbert aka A Heavy Heart was was a considerably bleaker character portrait, sort of uplift-free Rocky Balboa with Kurth as an aging asshole of a boxer protagonist. It was impressive, if off-putting. In the Aisles, by contrast, is an insinuatingly low-key seriocomedy that shades darker as it goes on, yet retains a genuine, empathetic warmth at its core—it likes its characters, and we do, too. Vogue. More info here

The Cockettes
Programmed to mark the 50th anniversary of the titular radical SF performance group, David Weissman and Bill Weber’s 2002 documentary remains one of the best movies about Sixties-bred counterculture—gay or otherwise—ever. A polymorphously perverse ensemble of “gender rebels” (some female and/or heterosexual) who took drag into new realms, The Cockettes began staging their exuberantly amateur camp musical extravaganzas as accompaniment to midnight movies for adoring, stoned SF hippie audiences. That underground fame led to an ill-advised, critically panned Broadway debut that this crew shrugged off as one more giddy adventure.

Not even Woodstock captures the era’s sense of wide-open artistic and personal freedom like this indelible chronicle, complete with the sad coda of so many free spirits perishing in the subsequent AIDS epidemic. The directors will be on hand at each screening in this two-day Castro revival, shown in a new 4K restoration. It’s billed with John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch—one latterday musical definitely indebted to The Cockettes’ glitter-trash legacy. Tues/16-Wed/17, Castro. More info here. 

Screen Grabs: The perils of ‘Midsommar’

'Midsommar'

SCREEN GRABS The big noise commercially this week is Spider-Man: Far From Home, yet another entry in the most confusingly overpopulated movie franchise of the still-new century. Not counting TV series and/or animation, let alone videogames and other media, this is the seventh SM movie in just 17 years, with the third Spider-guy (Tom Holland, who followed Andrew Garfield, who followed Tobey Maguire) within that number. That all seems crazy redundant excess to me. But these movies make money—they must, since they cost a fortune to make.

For massive spectacle of a much more time-consuming but infinitely more rewarding sort, you can spend eight hours either Sat/6 or Sun/7 watching the 1966 Russian super-production War and Peace, which returns to the Castro after last month’s sold-out single show. (More info here.) You’ll be ready for Czarist Russia after 136 minutes in dusty outer space with David Lynch’s Dune, the infamous 1984 Christmas flop based on Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel. Poorly received by critics and fans alike at the time, it’s still highly problematic, with purportedly superior alternative edits floating around out there. (Painfully sandwiched between two of his greatest successes, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, Dune remains a personal disappointment that Lynch prefers not to discuss.) Nonetheless, it’s acquired some champions in the decades since, and will be screened by Midnites for Maniacs at the Roxie in a 35mm print of the original theatrical cut. Thu/4, Roxie. (More info here.)

Another newly-restored revival of note is the a new run (at Opera Plaza) of Jennie Livingston’s 1990 Paris Is Burning, the star documentary of the “New Queer Cinema” epoch. (Among the other talents it introduced were the subsequently Oscar-nominated likes of Far From Heaven’s Todd Haynes and The Kids Are Alright’s Lisa Cholodenko.) It chronicles the late 80s NYC underground of competitive voguing at “balls,” which provided a creative outlet for primarily African-American and Latino gays at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It’s a terrifically entertaining and insightful record of a singular scene. (More info here.)

Speaking of archival errata, next Thursday sees the Balboa hosting a 25th-anniversary celebration for Oddball Cinema, the singular SOMA stock-footage library whose extraordinary collection has been tapped for no end of movie, documentary and TV projects. It remains in operation despite the sudden death of founder Stephen Parr last November. This evening will feature live music from Ofir Uziel and representative archival clips, plus screenings of Joshua Moore’s Emmy-winning short institutional portrait Oddball and in-attendance director Russ Forster’s feature about 8-track-tape aficionados, So Wrong They’re Right. Thu/11, Balboa. More info here.

Bastille Day
As part of an occasional series expanding on its successful programming of noir-ish vintage French films into other genres, especially comedy, the Roxie is showing this 1933 Rene Clair joint. Pugnacious taxi driver Jean (George Rigaud) and flower salesgirl Anna (Annabella) are a combative yet devoted couple living across the street from one another in a working-class Parisian neighborhood. Their romance is one of constant eyeblink stops and starts, tiffs and reconciliations in the film’s charming slice-of-life first section.

But then Jean’s bad-news old girlfriend (Pola Illery) turns up, causing all sorts of problems, and turning the movie from a slice-of-life comedy into something considerably more ambitious (and melodramatic). All the tonal changes work, however, finally bringing things charmingly full-circle. Annabella became one of France’s biggest stars of the decade, eventually being lured to Hollywood, where she married Tyrone Power. Regaud was at the very beginning here of a half-century screen career all over Europe. Clair would also travel well, making some equally delightful movies in America and England. This is one of those films that makes the history of cinema seem short, rather than long—it’s ambitious and sophisticated in ways that haven’t dated very much at all. Thu/11, Roxie. More info here

Maiden
One of those “gentleman’s sports” still almost absurdly governed by wealth and class for our era, yachting was verrrrrrry slow to integrate gender-wise. This excellent new documentary by Alex Holmes, one sure to end up on best lists and in awards consideration at year’s end, chronicles the efforts of the first all-female crew to compete in the Whitbread Around the World Race (since renamed simply The Ocean Race) thirty years ago. Their driving force Tracy Edwards wasn’t from a privileged background, even, being a teenage runaway who landed in a seaside town and started as an onboard cook simply to get onto boats.

Some time later, when she’d acquired sufficient sailing experience and recruited a multinational team, she found no one willing to bankroll a bunch of “girls” in this expensive endeavor until King Hussein of Jordan (an unlikely acquaintance) stepped in. Some initial blunders only heightened the horribly condescending attitude of the press towards the seagoing “ladies,” until they got their act together and began seeming real contenders in the 33,000-mile contest. With plenty of archival footage as well as participants’ latterday reminiscences to draw on, this is an exciting, suspenseful sports documentary with a potent dose of glass-ceiling-bfreaking inspiration. Embarcadero

The Chambermaid
The flipside of the warm, inclusive portrait of domestic help/domestic life in last year’s Roma is offered by this, another Mexico City-set drama about a professional housekeeper. Well, Eve (Gabriela Cartol) doesn’t exactly keep a house—she works in Housekeeping at a luxury hotel, where the attention to detail is exacting and her duties sometimes unpleasant, even inappropriate. In the opening scene of Lila Aviles’ minimalist tale, she seems to discover a elderly guest’s dead body on the floor of his room. It turns out he’s just fallen out of bed, but he’s not even nice about being woken after having given her the shock of her life.

At first Eve’s daily toil seems ordinary, between all the cleaning and the sometimes imperious demands of patrons. But eventually we glimpse that she’s got a curious streak, as well as a stand-offish nature towards coworkers that is somewhat tested by the aggressive overtures of friendship (and perhaps something else) by fellow maid Minatoy (Teresa Sanchez). It takes a long time before we begin to perceive that Eve might have a big secret or two of her own. And it’s not just that she’s never read a book. (A kindly GED-prep tutor on site gives her Jonathan Livingston Seagull.)

A study in repressed emotions whose cause is tantalizingly only semi-revealed at the ambiguous ending, this is a head-on look at an ordinary job most of us seldom think about, but also a cryptic character study whose mysteries run deeper than you originally expect. Roxie. More info here

Jaws vs. Rollercoaster
Heal your hangover and/or sunburn from the 4th with this next-day double dose of 1970s multiplex suspense. Jaws is, of course, the trouble-plagued production that became the highest-grossing film ever to that point, virtually coining the concept of “summer blockbuster” in 1975. Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough effort trimmed the trashier elements while boosting warmth and humor in adapting Peter Benchley’s pulp bestseller about shark attacks on a New England beach community. The result was a popular triumph on every level that still holds up very, very well.

Borrowing its “We’ve got to shut this thing down before more people get killed but the greedy businessmen won’t let us” hook is the much lesser-remembered Rollercoaster from 1977. This was a late entry in the “disaster film” cycle that had hit paydirt with Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. Here, a police detective (George Segal) races to stop a mad bomber (Timothy Bottoms) before he attacks again at a theme park. Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark and Susan Strasberg are also in there, as well as very early appearances by Helen Hunt and (in a bit part) Steve Guttenberg.

Despite being exhibited with the special rumbly-noise gimmick “Sensurround” (introduced by Earthquake), it was not a particular hit (something called Star Wars kinda buried it), nor did it seem a particularly good movie at the time. But it may well have aged like fine Me Decade cheese by now. Fri/5, Castro. More info here

Pasolini
Perhaps freed by the Oscar nomination Willem Dafoe deservedly got this spring as Vincent Van Gogh in the otherwise questionable At Eternity’s End, here’s the same actor playing another tortured artist in a movie that premiered at festivals five years ago. Incongruously not even bothering to attempt an accent, though otherwise acceptably cast, Dafoe is Pier Paolo Pasolini, the intensely controversial Italian poet, filmmaker, critic, journalist, homosexual, political contrarian, and all-around provoking public artist-intellectual. That was a particularly combustive combination in a nation still clinging to the Vatican and not long removed from Mussolini, and speculation still flies around the reasons for his violent death in 1975.

Fabled veteran American independent director Abel Ferrara’s film—duly shot on location in Italy—ends with a depiction of that beating death, minus any hint of political assassination or other subsequent conspiracy theories. Starting with Pasolini being interviewed as scenes from Salo (his infamous de Sade-based final film) are projected, Ferrera certainly doesn’t shy from the more sensational aspects of a somewhat lurid life: A few minutes later another character is delivering graphic blowjobs to random working-class lads in a field, and later there’s a fantastical orgy. But primarily this is something more poetically mournful, at times even abstract, with little attempt at cohesive biography but Dafoe playing the man over at least a 30-year stretch. There are also scenes involving Pasolini’s own ex-lover Ninetto Divoli, now a dapper old man, in a visualization of one of his more fanciful stories.

Handsome and plush, yet also with some daring aesthetic choices, iI’s an attempt at a kaleidoscopic death’s-bed summary and fantasia of a flamboyantly complex life. Something quite like Rupert Everett’s recent The Happy Prince about Oscar Wilde—an honorable but messier film that works less well. (If that film felt exhaustingly long, this one conversely feels a bit too short, as if funds ran out before some major scenes could be shot.)

Perhaps the reason Ferrera’s film took so long to get released here is that it may bewilder more than enlighten viewers not already at least fairly familiar with the subject’s life and works. For for those who are, it’s no failure—it’s an impressively layered act of both homage and analysis, however incomplete, even arbitrary at times its perspective. Roxie. More info here

Midsommar
Dani (Florence Pugh) is a very needy girlfriend, forever in emotional knots over her bipolar sister’s apparent suicidal urges, Boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is about to drop her over this when her worst familial fears come true. He can’t bring himself to dump her now, and in fact guilts himself into inviting her on a planned guys-only trip to Sweden, where he and three fellow Anthropology Dept. grad students were expecting to study a remote village’s customs.

Foreign visitors…isolated community…bizarre rituals…uh-oh.

This is the second feature from writer-director Ari Aster, whose first Hereditary was one of the more striking horror movies in recent years. It was a critically praised hit, though of course mainstream horror fans were mixed about it—they’ll deny this, but really they just want everything to be a straight-up slasher film, which it wasn’t.

Those fans will really hate Midsommar, and you can’t blame them. This is a work of willful eccentricity that takes a full hour before anything “happens,” and isn’t exactly in a rush from then on, either. At 140+ minutes, it is waaaaay too long for a film that’s not as original as it thinks (The Wicker Man is one obvious model), and does not have the ideas or even suspense sufficient to sustain its greatly attenuated, slowly paced length.

That said, this isn’t just a hotshot young director’s bloated sophomore egofest, but a genuine curiosity, a sun-blinded pagan nightmare that’s kind of like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 2000 Maniacs crossed with the disastrous 1970s musical Lost Horizon—without necessarily being as much fun as that sounds. I’d rather Aster made this kind of weirdo misfire than, say, taking the obvious next commercial step and rebooting Halloween yet again or something. Midsommar is ultimately a bad movie, but it’s not just any bad movie. It’s the kind of distinctive failure you remember, even if with a wince. Opens Tues/3 at Alamo Drafthouse, Wed/4 at other area theaters. More info here

Screen Grabs: Andy Warhol’s brilliant camp

"Blow Job"

SCREEN GRABS Andy Warhol was the man who sold the world on Pop Art in the 1960s, and much of that success lay in his art being inseparable from his genius for celebrity—despite the fact that he was nothing like celebrities were supposed to be back then. (I.e. Good-looking, heterosexual and charming.) He turned the blank reflection of undiscriminating different realities—from images of movie stars to those of public assassinations—into a new form of artistic commentary, one comingled with the also-new (to most people) concept of “camp.”

Another new-ish art form at the time was movies, which of course weren’t really new, but had grown stagnant, and which seemed newly revitalized by currents in foreign film, experimental cinema, and (eventually) Hollywood itself. Warhol’s own early movies were much more widely discussed than actually seen, but then that was perhaps the point: They were “conceptual” in the extreme, being notoriously an eight-hour shot of a building (1964’s Empire) and a six-hour shot of poet John Giorno sleeping (the same year’s Sleep).

But the “Factory” soon developed “stars”—socialites, hustlers, cross-dressers—who brought more performing entertainment value, and the beginnings of a faint interest in narrative that would solidify with the more commercial “Warhol” films Paul Morrissey made with Joe Dallesandro in the 1970s.

In conjunction with its major, three-floor exhibition Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, SFMOMA is providing several screenings of his 60s celluloid works, from Empire to Vinyl (a quasi-adaptation of A Clockwork Orange with five minutes of go-go-dancing bliss from Gerard Melanga) to the more “real moviemaking” efforts of My Hustler (a notably caustic look at Fire Island gay life) and Lonesome Cowboys (the 1968 color western whose purported pornographic content drew surveillance from bewildered FBI officials).

That year Warhol nearly died after being shot by aggrieved minor ex-Factory Star Valerie Solanis. As a result, he never finished editing San Diego Surf, another laconic melodrama that has only been seen in recent years. SFMOMA’s film series doesn’t have the most engaging (and commercially successful) ’60s Warhol movie, the dual-projection Chelsea Girls. But it does have his most beautiful: The silent 1964 Blow Job, in which a handsome, anonymous pickup receives the titular servicing from (reportedly) several different parties. But they’re left out of the shot, which focuses on this handsome stranger he goes through the gamut of human emotions, from uneasiness to pleasured abandon to final, acute shame at the camera’s remorseless gaze.

As a further sidelight to the exhibition is a shorter series of Hollywood films that inspired Warhol, and not just as a movie buff turned moviemaker: Each of them provided images that morphed into some of his most famous silkscreen “portraits.” The four features are 1953’s The Wild One, with Marlon Brando unintentionally providing a gay icon as motorcycle rebel in black leather; the same year’s color noir Niagra, Marilyn Monroe’s only femme fatale role; 1960 Elvis Presley western Flaming Star; and that year’s Butterfield 8, a big-screen soap opera that famously won Elizabeth Taylor a purported “sympathy Oscar.” (She had just barely survived a medical emergency.)  From Hollywood to Pop: Sun/30-Fri/August 9, SFMOMA (more info hereFilms By Andy Warhol: Thurs/27- Sun/Sept. 1, SFMOMA (more info here).

Elsewhere in the Bay Area film world this week, there are movies we didn’t see (Wild Rose at the Embarcadero, a U.K. crowdpleaser about a Glasgow gal’s aspiring Nashville country-and-western stardom) and ones we saw but would just rather not talk about. (That would be the Roxie opening Endzeit: Ever After, a German movie purportedly about zombies that really turns out to be about two characters on a walking road trip, and which I didn’t see the point of. But others have praised it.)

Other openings of note, all opening Friday unless otherwise noted:

Too Late to Die Young
Dominga Sotomayor Castillo’s film is set on a rural artists’ commune of both permanent and part-time residents in 1990, when Chile was just beginning to emerge from the long shadow of Pinochet’s long, brutal dictatorship. But any political commentary is buried deep in the subtext of this Locarno Festival prize-winner, at least for foreign audiences.

Out of the initially undifferentiated tangle of characters we meet gradually emerges a protagonist: Slightly androgynous 16-year-old Sofia (Demian Hernandez), whose exploratory romantic interests drift from peer Lucas (Antar Machado) to older neighbor Ignacio (Matias Oviedo) as she’s planning a bigger change, moving from her taciturn instrument-maker father’s local household to the urban one of her famous singer mother. There are other, seemingly random plot elements, including a mysterious flurry of vandalizings, a lost dog, an ongoing water shortage problem. Yet they all culminates in a New Year’s Eve party (amidst balmy dry heat) where everyone is supposed to perform, and Sofia’s surprising choice of song reveals just how immature she remains.

On that eventful night and its aftermath, tensions we’d barely noticed before in the seemingly casual narrative come into sharper focus, to great consequence. It’s a movie that goes from near-aimless to maximally eventful without one even noticing the gradual transition, so subtly does Sotomayor manage it. A major plus is the unique fleshy-pink look of Inti Briones’ cinematography, as if aping slightly color-faded old Polaroids. Roxie. More info here. 

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Morrison is one of the great American novelists of the last 50 years, a stylist sometimes as poetically (and challengingly) dense as Faulkner. This documentary portrait by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders examines her life and works over a now 88-year course that has included one Nobel Prize as well as numerous other significant events.

Among the lesser-known biographical tidbits here (at least among those readers who found her post-Oprah embrace) are that Morrison spent long years working as a publishing-house editor and as a teacher, in both roles mentoring other young African-American writers to success—in the process shifting the racial makeup of U.S. literary fiction and academia. Russell Banks, Angela Davis, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz and others pay tribute in this Sundance-premiered tribute. Embarcadero. More info here.  

Do the Right Thing 30th Anniversary
Though some might pick The BlackKklansman or Malcolm X, DTRT remains probably Spike Lee’s best movie, the one in which his cinematic high style and focus on American racial relations were most dynamically in-synch. But it was considered pretty incendiary stuff in 1989—branded “racially inciting,” and similar terms that always seem to get used when black people have legitimate cause to be angry.

As a result, it was pretty well shortchanged by the skittish major awards bodies. This naturally infuriated the perpetually irked filmmaker and, well, he was right. (Adding insult to injury, Driving Miss Daisy won the Best Picture Oscar that year.) Now 30 years old—I originally saw it at one of the many SF theaters that don’t exist anymore—it plays the Castro with the recently deceased John Singelton’s breakout 1991 film Boyz in the Hood. Mon/1, Castro Theatre. More info here

Diamantino
There is something to be said for a comedy willing to go broke for surrealism, and that is precisely the thing to be said for this eccentric feature by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt. The titular figure is the world’s greatest soccer player (Carloto Cotta), a fabulously successful complete naif who is close to a complete idiot, but whose sheer magic on the field gets him adored. Little do the public realize that such prowess is due to the fact that, while playing, he is guided to victory by adorable giant long-haired puppies in a landscape of pink bubbles.

When this miracle suddenly ceases to function, he blows a World Cup final in a way spectacular enough to end his career. But somehow that catastrophe sets him on a new path involving far-right political manipulations, lesbian IRS investigators, evil relatives, scientific cloning plots, and other farcical nonsense. This amiable candy-colored fantasy is very silly, but the glue that holds it together is Cotta, who makes our almost imbecilic hero an endearingly pure soul. Opera Plaza. More info here

Jean Pierre Leaud at 75
Leaud was the 14 year-old who answered an ad and wound up playing Antoine Doinel in the movie that basically kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut’s 1959 The 400 Blows—as well as four other features in which he played the same character, a goofily idealized version of their writer-director. He seemed a fine example of inspired “amateur” talent, albeit one perhaps not so ideally suited to adult professional acting opportunities.

However, I’ve come around on that: Leaud has a knack for self-deprecating comedy that attracted other major international directors, from Bertolucci, Pasolini and Catherine Breillat to Olivier Assayas and Aki Kaurismaki. This PFA retrospective features some of his “greatest hits,” from Godard’s Masculine-Feminine to Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Albert Serra’s recent The Death of Louis XIV. Plus, of course, plenty of Truffaut and Godard. Thurs/4-Friday/August 4, Pacific Film Archive. More info here.

Ophelia
There is much innocent blood (as well as some of the guilty kind) spilt in Hamlet, none more poignant than that of the Prince’s kinda-sorta girlfriend, whom he drives over the brink of madness as he grows increasingly mistrustful of everyone around him. In movies alone, she has been portrayed by everyone from Jean Simmons and Marianne Faithfull to Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Winslet.

(As a sidenote, let us take the opportunity here to remind that the utterly distinct psych-pop-rock quartet The Ophelias were one of the greatest San Francisco bands of the 1980s, underappreciated then and nearly forgotten now.)

Naturally there have been some attempts in recent years at a “revisionist” Ophelia who’s more than just a passive victim of mechanizations beyond her understanding. Claire McCarthy’s new British film is an adaptation of a 2006 novel in that vein by Lisa Klein. Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley plays the titular figure, who here is (of course) a headstrong, tomboyish type who rebels against the limits of her gender, yet gets sucked into Danish court intrigue anyway—as well as the troubled arms of newly father-deprived Hamlet (George McKay).

This is a plush, handsome  costume piece with a solid-enough cast (also including Naomi Watts and Clive Owen) as well as further concessions to current mainstream audiences, like multicultural casting and modern-ish language. Not to mention that at one point Ophelia actually knees someone in the groin. It’s fine for what it is…but that’s more Girl Power-infused teen romance fantasy than anything Shakespeare might recognize. If you’re expecting fidelity of any sort, be prepared to wince (or howl) almost as much as you did at Demi Moore’s sexed-up wiccan “feminist” The Scarlet Letter. 4-Star.

Descent Into Darkness: My European Nightmare
Did you enjoy Borat but think it needed more (OK, any) brutal violence? Well, here ya go. This 2013 French film stars director Rafael Cherkaski as “Sorgoi Prakov,” a tourist from a fictitious Eastern European nation spending three months in pursuit of “my European dream.” Wearing goofy camera-and-mic headgear, he’s filming it all for an alleged documentary. But after various Parisian blunders that result in loss of funds and passport, he begins to unravel–though there are intimidations that perhaps he was rather loosely wound to begin with. We’re informed straight off that he eventually suffered a “psychotic break” and committed “horrific” acts.

Still, the creepier content takes a while coming, and when it arrives, it is rather more alarming than you might expect, providing a few new wrinkles in the found-footage horror subgenre. (Though some elements may ring bells, including ones familiar from everything from Man Bites Dog to Hannibal.) A film that has apparently existed in various edits, its scenes of credibly “real” depravity have purportedly led to some instances of online censorship and suspicion of actual criminality.

This single Roxie screening, presented by the Unnamed Footage Festival, is billed as “the world premiere of the final cut.” It promises a post-screening Skype interview with the director-star—assuming he is currently separating art from life enough to be capable. Sat/29, Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: A ‘sex raft’ run amuck

'The Raft'

SCREEN GRABS The big news in Bay Area moviegoing this week is the annual arrival of the Frameline LGBTQ film fest, which we previewed here. But that aside, there’s so much opening that we were only able to catch a few new titles. Among those we didn’t catch are The Quiet One (at the Clay), about lower-profile Rolling Stone Bill Wyman; another documentary, Ghost Fleet (Opera Plaza), which examines the phenomenon of modern slavery in the Far Eastern fishing industry; and a third, This One’s for the Ladies (theater TBA), about a primarily African-American “male exotic dance” scene in Baltimore and New Jersey, and their avid female fans.

Being Frank (Embarcadero) is a comedy with Jim Gaffigan as a closet polygamist whose two separate families find out about each other. Then there’s the big new animation feature of Toy Story 4 (at area theaters), and a small one in the form of critically acclaimed French feature Funan (at the Roxie), which is about the very non-Pixar subject of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

Elsewhere (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Remembering Barbara Hammer
After a very long battle with cancer, Bay Area favorite Hammer passed away three months ago, bringing to an end a prodigious and trailblazing body of screenwork that—despite the diversity of her subjects—was very much from a lesbian perspective. Indeed, early films like 1974’s Dyketactics, as well as later features such as Nitrate Kisses and History Lessons, often broke new ground in covering hitherto underrepresented communities and material, not least the graphically sexual. Program details on this co-presentation by SF Cinematheque and Canyon Cinema weren’t yet available at presstime, but you can expect the “special memorial screening” to offer a representative sampling of Hammer’s work over a nearly fifty-year course. Thurs/27, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. More info here

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blache
In its early days, filmmaking was considered a rather lowbrow pursuit, scorned even by many in working in the legitimate theater. This had the unintended effect of providing real opportunities for advancement for women, who might have found the door closed to them in other, more boys-clubby artistic pursuits.

Thus one of the leading directors of was Guy-Blache, an innovative and prolific figure who made films as early as 1896, and as late as 1920—but while she lived for another half-century, her career never revived in what was by then a “man’s business.” Pamela B. Green’s documentary excavates this under-appreciated pioneer’s path from France to the US and back again, en route building her own production company and studio. While many of her films are now lost, The Untold Story uses surviving excerpts and interviews with Guy-Blache herself (much later in life) to reconstruct an absorbing biogaphical appreciation. Starts Sat/22, Roxie. More info here

Fritz Lang’s America
Another filmmaker who successfully crossed the Atlantic was Lang, who fled Nazi Germany (his wife was Jewish) in the mid-30s. But the films he made in the US were not at all like the often epic and spectacular ones he’d done in Germany’s silent era—though 1931’s M did offer some hint of his future direction. Instead, he started out making hard-hitting social justice dramas (Fury, You Only Live Once), then gradually drifted towards cynical noir melodramas (The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, et al.) that remain among the best of their type. Fri/21-Sun/August 11, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

Cine Manifest: A Radical 1970s Film Collective
This shorter PFA series documents the output of seven Bay Area filmmakers who decided to pool efforts in order to put their politics onscreen in a non-didactic way. Their one breakout success was John Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s 1978 Northern Lights, a Cannes prize-winner about a movement against corporate exploitation of farmers in 1915 rural North Dakota. That B&W drama was a significant precursor of the “American independent” cinema that would explode in the next decade.

Much lesser-seen have been the same directors’ The Prairie Trilogy, a series of related documentary shorts, and Eugene Corr, Steve Wax and Peter Gessner’s 1977 Over-Under, Sideways-Down, about a working-class couple who find the deck stacked against them amidst hard times in East Bay. Lastly, there’s Judy Irola’s 2006 Cine Manifest, a fond, funny if not always flattering look back at the group’s heady run by its sole female member. Surviving filmmakers will be in attendance at all screenings. Thurs/20-Sun/30, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

The Raft
Of course, not everybody spent the 70s trying to solve economic inequality. Some people spent much of the Me Decade having sex, thinking about sex, or even traveling across the Atlantic on a “sex raft” designed as a social experiment by Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genoves. It was supposed to explore “aggression” amongst people in a cramped setting sans privacy—although given that the multi-national six female and five male participants were chosen partly for their photogenic youth and beauty, this seems more like an early version of Big Brother than, you know, science.

What was expected to be a bacchanal turned into something else, as the “cast members” (also interviewed here decades later) eventually turned against their dictatorial “director,” bonding with each other in opposition to Genoves. It’s an absorbing real-life tale of alleged research run amuck. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here

Asako I & II
One of the films that excited the most interest at Cannes last year (and SFFILM this year) was fast-rising Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest. It’s a cryptic, lightly comedic romance in which young Osaka resident Asako (Erika Karata) falls in love with Baku (Masahiro Higashide). But he simply vanishes one day, and the mystery deepens when two years later she meets his exact doppelganger, with another name, in another city. Don’t expect any clear narrative answers in this methodically paced whimsy. 4-Star. More info here

Screen Grabs: She’s the Official Coolest Person Ever

Barbara Rubin gets her due in new doc.

SCREEN GRABS Here’s something you don’t normally see mid-summer at the multiplex: Simultaneous openings of two movies with Emma Thompson. Neither are exactly Howard’s End, however, one being writer-costar Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, a Devil Wears Prada-type Boss From Hell comedy in which Emma plays an imperious TV talk show host. The other is Men In Black: International, the first film in that sci-fi comedy franchise without usual stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones; instead, we get Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson (no relation), with Emma returning as “Agent O” from MIB3. Elsewhere on the sequel circuit, we get Shaft, which is the second movie of that title starring Samuel L. Jackson—he also starred in the late John Singleton’s 2000 reboot of the 1971 “blaxploitation” hit. Those prior movies were fairly straight-faced, however, and word is that this one (from frequent Kevin Hart collaborator Tim Story) is more of a sendup.

Not a sequel but by all accounts waaaaaay too much like every other Jim Jarmusch movie is The Dead Don’t Die, in which a cast of the usual suspects (Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, etc.) stand around looking cool amidst a gory but comedic zombie epidemic. Jarmusch fans are very forgiving, but this won some of the worst reviews of his career in its Cannes debut last month. Not at all a flippant joke is the importantly named American Woman, an attempt to create a sort of epic of ordinariness, with Sienna Miller as a working-class Pennsylvania woman smiling through tears (if also yelling and drinking a lot) over the decades. But it ends up coming off more as a kind of heavy-handed soap opera, too often on the verge of working-class caricature.

Though SF Docfest comes to a close this Thursday (the 13th), the cosmos is compensating for that loss with a pileup of documentaries all opening this Friday for regular commercial runs. Two we didn’t catch in advance. One was Serengeti Rules, Nicolas Brown’s film about a particular scientific theory about ecosystems that is vividly illustrated in the titular African savannah. If you’ve been waiting for a movie about the wildebeest, your wait is over. The second is Dan Krauss and Crash helmer Paul Haggis’ 5B, about the San Francisco General Hospital ward that pioneered compassionate treatment of people with AIDS in the mid-1980s. The other new arrivals are detailed below. All open Fri/14 unless otherwise noted:

Hecho en Mexico
RoxCine’s second annual festival of new Mexican non-fiction cinema brings not just six diverse documentary features from south of the now-endlessly-politicized border, but also appearances by filmmakers and/or subjects from each at select screenings. Sounding particularly irresistible is Jose Pablo Estrada Torrescano’s Mamacita, in which his attempt to pay homage to a beloved 95-year-old grandmother uncovers generations of lurid upper-class scandal. Eva Villasenor’s M is another family self-portrait, this one training its eye on her famous rapper brother.

Nuria Ibanez’s A Wild Stream aka Una Corriente Salvje is a lyrical snapshot of two men united by their shared lives as fishermen on a remote beach. Likewise scrutinizing life at one with Nature is Yolanda Velasco’s Titixe, about the struggle to maintain a black-bean farm after its longtime patriarch’s demise, while Melissa Elizondo’s El Sembrador aka The Sower profiles a teacher’s instilling of humanistic values in her multigrade, rural Chiapas classroom. The most overtly political feature here is Jose Arteaga’s Recuperando el Paraiso aka Recovering Paradise, about indigenous communities’ struggle against the insidious influence of drug cartels. Fri/14-Sun/16, Roxie. More info here.

Asian Masters Double Feature Series
Because no San Francisco week should be completely without a film festival, or at least something like it, the 4 Star is stepping up to the plate with this two-week showcase for recent cinema from the Far East. There are two B&W features from South Korean director Sang-soo Hong, both released last year: Cafe-set B&W drama Grass, and the family reunion piece Hotel by the River. From Taiwan comes the epic 1992 Ming Dynasty action epic Dragon Inn, medieval 1973 swordplay saga The Fate of Lee Khan, and 1971’s similarly angled three-hour costume classic A Touch of Zen.

Reaching even further back are a pair from Japan. Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashomon almost single-handedly launched that nation’s starring role in the rich landscape of post-WW2 arthouse cinema. Taking a gentler but no less astute approach to drama was Ozu’s The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, released two years later. New currents in Japanese cinema will be represented by Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s acclaimed Asako I & II, which we’ll discuss next week (it opens Fri/21). Fri/14-Thurs/27, 4 Star. More info here

It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll
Well, it’s not only rock ’n’ roll: This PFA series also features reggae (1973 Jimmy Cliff classic The Harder They Come), soul (the same year’s concert documentary Wattstax) and hiphop (Dave Chapelle’s Block Party). But otherwise, yeah, it’s that crazy beat the kids just love, showcased in vehicles for everyone from Elvis (1958’s King Creole, arguably his best movie) to Bowie (Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars) and Talking Heads (Stop Making Sense). You can debate Beatles (A Hard Day’s Night) versus Stones (Gimme Shelter), or enjoy the sonic smorgasbords of Monterey Pop and The Last Waltz.

Some of these are free outdoor screenings, which is probably as close as you’re going to get these days to the once-ubiquitous summer youth experience of seeing movies at the drive-in. Although the latter venues surely never showed movies by rock-fueled experimental hedonist Kenneth Anger, or most likely the prickly 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. Illustrating the decline of western civilization that same year, Peter Watkins’ Privilege has Paul Jones as a pop star turned propaganda tool for fascists. Then there’s Penelope Spheeris’ actual 1981 The Decline of Western Civilization, the fabled snapshot of first-generation L.A. punk. Thurs/13-Sat/August 31. More info here

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground
Somewhere, somebody out there is probably even cooler than Barbara Rubin. But until further notice, the official Coolest Person Ever crown must go to Rubin, who merits the awe-inspiring description of “Experimental filmmaker who introduced Andy Warhol to The Velvet Underground.” As if that weren’t enough, this “middle-class Jewish teenager with a wild streak” also “did the visuals” for the legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable multimedia show, dated Bob Dylan, was mentored by Jonas Mekas, got into Kabbalah mysticism several decades before Madonna, and was practically Mrs. Allen Ginsberg despite the inconvenience of his homosexuality.

Though a muse and connector for many other, better-remembered artists in the 60s, her own innovative work as an avant-garde filmmaker looks as fascinating as it is frustrating—she made lamentably few films, some of which are lost. She also had compelling mental health issues probably not helped by prodigious drug use, and dropped out of the “scene” in an abrupt, surprising way that still shocks the surviving friends interviewed here, half a century later. Like Nico: Icon, Chuck Smith’s documentary about another Warhol Factory figure is itself styled as a piece of 60s experimentalism, with lots of superimposed images and miscellaneous psychedelia. It’s a fine movie about a sorely neglected artist. Roxie. More info here

Halston
An overlapping but very different strata of Manhattan creativity is recalled in Frederic Tcheng’s very entertaining documentary about the late fashion designer. Fleeing the midwest for NYC, he became a celebrity milliner for upscale department store Bergdorf Goodman—famously designing Jacqueline Kennedy’s pillbox hat for JFK’s inauguration—then broke out on his own at the end of the 1960s.

His success was stratospheric, yet never quite enough. This is one of those true stories in which talent, perfectionism, a mercurial temperament, drug use and reckless ambition created both a star and a spectacular flameout. Hitching his wagon to mass-market JC Penney, of all things, Halston was a control freak who unwisely obligated himself to corporate minders until he lost legal control of his own empire.

I generally find fashion-industry documentaries boring, but this one is juicy and colorful. From Warhol to Studio 54 (admittedly, that’s basically the same thing), Halston was always at the epicenter of where everyone else wanted to be. Among surviving pals interviewed here are Marisa Berenson and future movie director Joel Schumacher. Plus, of course, preeminent Halston customer/model Liza Minnelli, who still calls him “my best friend” and rather touchingly declines to discuss his substance abuse woes out of loyalty even decades after his demise.

Framing John DeLorean
Another, perhaps more disreputable figure of fabled success and excess was the former General Motors executive turned would-be independent automotive tycoon whose product was the most notorious bomb in that industry since the Edsel. John DeLorean was a handsome engineer duly born in Motor City. He’s already gone through half of his four wives when he left GM to launch his own car, named after himself—the impressive-looking if problematic DeLorean, which was immortalized in the Back to the Future movies. But by the time they were released, the company had already failed, and DeLorean himself arrested in an embarrassing FBI drug-deal sting.

That was a clear case of entrapment. But it’s less easy to excuse him from some subsequent chicanery, including a wee matter of a “missing $17 million dollars.” DeLorean appears to have been a talented, complicated individual undone by his own vanity and increasing financial desperation. The saddest part of this compelling documentary is the input from his now-grown children, who seem to have had their entire lives hobbled by this downfall. The weakest element is the filmmakers’ insistence on dramatic reenactments (with Alec Baldwin as DeLorean), and fourth-wall-breaking sequences with actors discussing playing real-life figures. That material is all very “meta” in a gratuitous way that makes a film about a fascinating subject more fussy and self-conscious than anybody needs.

The Decay of Fiction
The first and (so far) last time I attended the Berlin Film Festival, almost 30 years ago, it was utterly exhausting. I never got over jet-lag, the most memorable competition films were perceived as flops (notably Volker Schlondorff’s underrated first screen iteration of The Handmaid’s Tale), and the best movies were buried in the wide-open, non-competing marketplace—I saw Richard Linklater’s Slacker and John McNaughton’s (already long-shelved) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer in glorified classrooms with almost no other spectators.

One movie that did stand out in the major competition was Pat O’Neill’s Water and Power, an hour-long stunner that told the story of arid Southern California’s battle for “water power” in an extraordinary mesh of experimental technique and archival footage. It was like nothing else, quite. You could say the same for O’Neill’s subsequent, sole feature, an act of ghost archaeology that might appeal to fans of Twin Peaks and Kubrick’s The Shining. The Decay of Fiction has been so little-seen it’s practically a lost film. It’s a fascinating whatsit in which the director’s artful juxtapositions create a noirishly cinematic meta-fiction blur. This very rare 35mm screening may well be your only chance to see the 2002 feature on the big screen. Sat/15, Roxie. More info here

Screen Grabs: Last Black Man in San Francisco, Mexico’s Golden Age ….

'The Last Black Man in San Francisco"

SCREEN GRABS In addition to SF Cinematheque’s annual Crossroads showcase for experimental work at SFMOMA (see Jesse Hawthorne Ficks’ preview this week) and the continuation of SF DocFest (see our preview here), this week brings more new filmmaking of a comparatively commercial sort. Because no week is complete without at least some fresh superheroics, there’s the arrival of Dark Phoenix, the latest X-Men spinoff. And beyond the realm of DocFest, there’s notable non-fiction storytelling in The Spy Behind Home Plate (at Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas), which relates the bizarre real-life saga of Jewish pro baseball player turned WW2 intelligence agent Morris “Moe” Berg—a tale that was rather disappointingly dramatized last year in The Catcher Was a Spy, with our usual favorite Paul Rudd miscast as Berg. 

But that just scratches the surface of a week that brings plenty of interesting movies, ranging from one of the year’s best (not to mention one of the all-time great cinematic odes to San Francisco) to a cherry-picking selection from Mexican celluloid’s “golden age” sixty to eighty years ago. All open on Friday June 7, unless otherwise noted:

‘Those Were the Days, Señor Don Simon’

Julio Bracho and Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age
Though ironically most Americans would very seldom see any Mexican movies until later, when dubbed exploitation movies began more frequently crossing the border, Mexico’s “golden era” for film production is usually defined as the 1940s and 50s. At that point, it attained its own Hollywood-esque star system and levels of studio gloss, the results dominating much of motion picture exhibition throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America. One of the leading directorial talents during this period was Bracho, a Durango native with some significant connections—among his relatives were Dolores del Rio and Ramon Navarro, Hollywood’s brightest Mexican stars—but quite enough talent to make his own way. 

This Pacific Film Archive series showcases six highlights in a writing-directing career that logged nearly fifty features over a 35-year span. It’s a diverse lot united by stylish professionalism and a flair for melodrama, even if Bracho reportedly sometimes felt the material he was given to adapt was beneath him. After starting out in theater, he got off to a successful silver-screen start with 1941’s Those Were the Days, Senor Don Simon!, which kicks off the PFA retrospective this Friday. This plush, fru-fru period romance centers on a not-particularly-grieving society widow (Mapy Cortes) who, pissed to discover her lover (Arturo de Cordova) is having an affair with a can-can dancer pretends to accept the attentions of a most unappealing local politician (Joaquin Pardave). Based on a zarzuela that was in turn based on a French operetta, this fluffy semi-musical ends (spoiler alert!) with a particularly outrageous denouement in which the two suitors decide not to kill each other, having discovered they’re father and son. 

That hit enabled Bracho to make some more serious films. His next film was Story of a Great Love, a nearly three-hour epic of mid-19th-century noble suffering. The enormously popular singer Jorge Negrete plays boy-turned-man who falls in love with the daughter (Gloria Marin) of a universally loathed moneylender who virtually drove his own father to his death, as a priest (Domingo Soler) hovers disapprovingly. Pious and ponderous, it’s a pueblo Wuthering Heights, with a “ceremonial dance of death” climax that would have made a great Carol Burnett skit. 

‘Another Dawn’

Dating better is Another Dawn (1943), which some have compared to the same year’s Casablanca as another triangle drama against a backdrop of political intrigue. Pedro Armendariz plays a union activist fleeing assassins who know the documents he’s carrying could bring down the governmental regime. He stumbles into a former paramour (Andrea Palma) who’s now unhappily married to another old chum (Alberto Galan). Flavorfully shot by leading Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (who’d later work with John Ford and Luis Bunuel), the film’s proto-noir aspects are a bit undercut by the soap-operatic emphasis on Palma—the director’s sister, and a more convincing argument for nepotism, since neither her looks or stilted acting suggest any likelier reason for stardom. 

Even more noirish is 1945’s Twilight, an amour fou melodrama in which a famous surgeon (Arturo de Cordova) loses his grip obsessing over a woman (Marin again) first glimpsed as a nude model in a sculpture studio, then fatefully encountered later—when she’s (surprise!) become his best mate’s wife. With its chiaroscuro lighting, inner monologues, purple dialogue and silly “psychology” (the same year as Hitchcock’s similarly angled Suspicion), it is very stylish nonsense. More naturalistic, if not necessarily plot-wise, was 1948’s rural romance Rosenda, an admired film that was not available for preview.

‘Twilight’

Brancho had mixed feelings about doing so many films whose content were like lurid pulp novels, however elevated by his treatment. So it was very fulfilling when a decade later he was able to make Shadow of the Tyrant, based on a 1929 roman a clef novel by Martin Luiz Guzman—a thinly veiled expose of the fat-cat mechanizations that unfortunately secured ongoing highest-level government corruption after the Mexican Revolution. This talky drama isn’t as adventurous stylistically as one might like (for one thing, it flat-out refuses to provide any period trappings despite being set in the 1920s), but it was potent enough to win a prize at the Karlovy Vary festival when it premiered there in 1960. 

Alas, despite all the changed names, it still struck too uncomfortably close to home for the present-day government’s censors, who banned it outright as “too controversial.” The original negative was destroyed, the film surviving only in a 16mm print that finally got released in 1990, well after both Bracho and Guzman had passed away. The PFA is showing this long-suppressed movie, which ends in a brutal massacre, in a recently restored version likely to be the best ever available. 

After that bitter disappointment, Bracho remained a busy commercial director for the rest of the 1960s, then sharply reduced his activity before dying in 1978 at age 68. (His same-named grandson has been a successful Mexican film and TV actor for the last quarter-century.) This PFA retrospective proves that, at least in the “golden age,” he was one of Mexico’s most reliable and versatile screen craftsmen. Fri/7-Thurs/July 18, Pacific Film Archive. More info here

The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Director Joe Talbot and coscenarist/star Jimmie Fails’ first feature was much-acclaimed in its Sundance debut earlier this year, and for once that hype proves fully justified. This beautifully lyrical and original piece is probably best compared to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight among relatively recent movies—not so much for its African-American characters or themes, really, as for the poetical, personal, largely non-verbal way it approaches socially relevant issues of profound loss and inequity. 

In a whimsically fictionalized version of his real-life background, Fails plays a native San Franciscan forced to crash with his best/only friend (Jonathan Majors as aspiring writer Montgomery) and the latter’s grandpa (Danny Glover) while pining for a home his family lost years ago—a magnificent Victorian in the Lower Fillmore. When its current owner is forced to move out amidst a legal squabble, Jimmie can’t resist “reclaiming” that past by illegally squatting.

Despite the specificity of that title, Last Black Man seldom pedantically spells out its underlying issues of gentrification, forced racial exodus, SF’s rapidly evaporating status as a safe haven for “alternative” types, et al. Yet it’s all here, from nostalgia for the onetime “Harlem of the West” and the hippie era (in fact, Talbot channels some of Harold & Maude’s countercultural melancholy) to dismay at a raft of political sea changes both slow-developing and recent. While the general air of lamentation will be particularly poignant for longtime Bay Areans, there’s much here that’s almost universally relatable. 

It’s rare these days to see an American (or any) movie so lyrical in tone and style, let alone so accomplished in pulling that off, or so emotionally powerful in ultimate effect. Even if it were only a fraction as good as it is, The Last Black Man in San Francisco would still be a major local culture event. But being this good, even if it weren’t about SF at all, Talbot and Fails’ sad valentine to their city would automatically be one of 2019’s best movies from anywhere. At area theaters. 

The Fall of the American Empire
Denys Arcand has been making features for almost sixty years, though he didn’t capture much attention outside Quebec until the late 1980s duo of The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal, two films that crystalized his qualities: Thematic if not imaginative ambition, a somewhat conventional stylistic polish, garrulous if facile treatment of life’s big issues, and no lack of a sometimes smug self-importance. I’m not particularly a fan, but he’s no hack, and as major a figure as any in the history of Canadian cinema. 

Despite its title, his latest is not a sequel to Decline. And despite the fact that it takes just three minutes for the word “Trump” to be mentioned (a few seconds after Pol Pot and Stalin), this is not one of Arcand’s more pontifical enterprises—which is all to the good, even if Fall isn’t getting the kind of fawning reviews that duly greeted his last real success, 2007’s pretentious The Barbarian Invasions. 

Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry) has a doctorate in philosophy, but is reduced to working as a Montreal courier. He’s making a package delivery when he witnesses the end of a robbery-slash-shootout, impulsively grabbing several gym bags of cash as gangsters kill one another around him. Though he immediately hires (and befriends) the most expensive prostitute in town, Aspasie (Maripier Morin), PP mostly wants to use the money to “do good”—if the police and mobsters don’t stop him first. Remy Girard plays the ex-con drafted to help disseminate the elicit funds in this Robin Hood fantasy. 

Arcand doesn’t have the knack for suspense or action needed to maximize the film’s potential as a caper flick. Still, the relatively escapist tenor makes his well-meaning if glib insights re: economic inequality, homelessness, etc. go down painlessly. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s still better than an overrated director’s most acclaimed past works. Embarcadero. (Also opens elsewhere in the Bay Area in coming weeks.)

Echo in the Canyon
It’s always annoying when someone appoints themselves the “star” of a documentary that’s not about them, a trend that’s become insufferably pervasive ever since Roger & Me. (Though it must be admitted, Michael Moore does it much better than 99.9% of his imitators.) Thus we get something like this very mixed bag, in which a valuable record of an artistic epoch has to fight for screentime with our latterday host reacting “Wow” or “Uh-huh” to the reminiscences of his elders. That host would be Jakob Dylan, celebrity son and a musician in his own right, though one seldom inspiring any great enthusiasm. Involved in a recording project covering some memorable songs that came out of LA’s bohemian Laurel Canyon culture over half a century ago, he and director Andrew Slater investigate that history. 

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to see surviving personnel from the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas and the Papas, and other “LA acts”—plus Jackson Browne, Brian Wilson, Tom Petty, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, John Sebastian, producer Lou Adler and more—discuss how the folk revival and Beatlemania led to the growth of a unique musical subculture. (Some folks you might expect to see interviewed or at least discussed here, like Joni Mitchell or Carole King, get left out because they didn’t arrive until just after the film’s 1965-67 focus.) They’re insightful, articulate and occasionally surprising, as when David Crosby flatly admits that the real reason he got fired from The Byrds is “Because I was an asshole.”

But their reminiscences and plentiful archival footage occupy maybe 60% of a movie otherwise pointlessly given over to Dylan Jr.’s fatuous reaction shots, and his pleasant but uninspired covers of the classic material. Played in the studio or in concert, these performances involve some idiosyncratic collaborators, including Fiona Apple, Beck, Cat Power and Regina Spektor. But they’re not all well-suited to these songs, and in any case the defining interpretive sensibility isn’t theirs, but Jakob Dylan’s blandly competent one. Nor do these latterday artists have anything interesting to say about their forebears, who practically come off as Rhodes Scholars by contrast. 

There’s enough of value here (including clips from Jacques Demy’s 1969 feature Model Shop, which captured some of the LA vibe of the era) to reward viewers. But with a slim running time of just over 80 minutes, it’s lamentable that at least half an hour is wasted on a de facto vanity-project-slash-album-promotion for a modestly talented artist whose main attribute is being related to a legendary one. Echo could have easily filled three in-depth hours without wearying us as much as five minutes of gratuitous Jakob Dylan does. Embarcadero. 

Screen Grabs: Going big, from Woodstock to Godzilla

From 'Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation"

SCREEN GRABS Bigger is presumably better this week, with Godzilla: King of the Monsters (the third Hollywood film about the critter who’s starred in 32 Japanese ones) and Rocketman (a glittery Elton John biopic from some of the folks who gave you Bohemian Rhapsody, which let’s hope it’s better than) duking it out at the multiplex. They’ll both be dwarfed, at least in ways other than box-office, by the restored eight-hour 1966 Soviet War and Peace, which played the Castro last Saturday (see our writeup here) and will play in its entirety (though not in single-sit marathon form) twice at the PFA between Fri/1 and Sun/8. Not to twist your arm or anything, but you’d be a fool to miss it.

Other openings include the guilty-pleasure-sounding Ma, which sounds like a sweet-revenge answer to Get Out, with Octavia Spencer as a seemingly nice lady whose opening her house to a bunch of white teens turns out to be a trap they’re be lucky to escape alive. Mature adults may be more attracted by The Tomorrow Man, in which John Lithgow and Blythe Danner play two lonely seniors who find each other—though this offbeat seriocomedy isn’t as sweet or simple as that sounds. It’s not a total success, but worth a look, particularly for fans of the actors.

There’s also (at the Balboa) Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe, an SF-set romcom co-written by stars Randall Park and Ali Wong (read our interview here); and (at the 4 Star) Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife. The latter is Vietnamese period piece in which a 14-year-old girl (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) becomes the latest, youngest bride of a rural landowner. Its delicate prettiness and sensuality may remind you of another striking debut feature from Vietnam, Anh Hung Tran’s 1993 The Scent of Green Papaya—even if those qualities aren’t ultimately well-suited to draw much impact from the plot’s melodramatic intrigue.

One-off events include this Thursday’s (May 30) Rafael Film Center presentation of “Ramblin’ Jack: Beyond the Music,” a mix of live and film elements celebrating the famed folkie, hosted by Peter Coyote. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott himself will be on hand, at age 88—no doubt with his persona in full force, since he was already (hilariously) acting the part of “doddering old man” when I saw him sing a few songs and mutter a whole lot of surreal nonsense thirty-five years ago. There are also starry premiere events Wed/29 (at the Castro) and Thurs/30 (Grand Lake) for The Last Black Man in San Francisco—but we’ll have plenty more to say about that exceptional new home-grown film next week, when it opens its regular run at area theaters. Don’t forget that SF Docfest is still running at the Roxie through Wed/13; see our preview here.

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined A Generation
Fifty years ago the ultimate rock festival took place—and it’s rather shaming to think how crassly commercial latterday equivalents like Coachella are by comparison. Of course, the Woodstock “music and art fair” was famously afflicted by speed bumps that were mostly omitted from the next year’s classic three-hour Michael Wadleigh documentary packaging its concert highlights. They are, however, much more fully detailed in this fairly straightforward new “making of”-type doc, in which filmmaker Barak Goodman mixes plentiful archival footage and interviews with surviving participants (including Joan Baez and Stephen Stills) to tell how it all came together—and almost didn’t.

We see how an event initially planned for 20,000 attendees mushroomed (heh) into one nearly overwhelmed by almost half a million. The producers famously lost a fortune (subsequently earned back by the Wadleigh film) because the few duly ticket-buying patrons were overwhelmed by “gate crashers.” Largely forgotten, however, is the intel that this only happened because the original site fell through at the last minute, giving organizers no time to construct the fencing and gates needed to bar non-paying attendees from the new location. So they shrugged, and cheerfully pronounced it a “free festival” by act of fate. Other fun facts given play here include Bay Area fave Wavy Gravy’s key role as leader of collective The Hog Farm’s ersatz “security” staff; the 45 US Army doctors flown in to help badly strapped medical personnel; the bulk donations from surprisingly supportive local farmers when food supplies hit a major snag; and the necessity of “Freak Out Tents.”

Cynical latterday wisdom has it that Woodstock was a muddy mess of logistical woes. But this account emphasizes the extent to which those problems were surmounted by sheer force of good vibes—not to mention the fact that, unlike many other similar events of the era (most notoriously Altamont), the upstate New York hippie hoedown attracted no violence or tragedy. If you’re looking for musical performances, Wadleigh’s epic compendium remains the single greatest encapsulation of 1969’s rock spectrum. But for a flashback of what it was like offstage, this behind-the-scenes chronicle is its definitive cinematic companion piece. It captures a spirit of idealism that seemed so pervasive then, and which now may make you feel complicatedly nostalgic—in a bittersweet “How did we get from there to this shitty point?” way. Opens Friday, Opera Plaza, California Theatre (Berkeley). More info here

Greaser’s Palace
It’s well-known that Robert Downey Jr. seemed likelier for a while to end up a famous Hollywood drug casualty than the fabulously well-rewarded king of superhero cinema he’s become. However, it’s unlikely many of his current fans know he was raised amongst high (ahem) Hollywood counterculture society, or that his father was once the industry’s Next Big Thing. Though it hasn’t aged particularly well, in 1969 nothing was hipper than Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, an advertising satire that seemed hilarious at the time. (Probably Swope would look better now if TV sketch comedy hadn’t borrowed its ideas for half a century ever since.)

It was the writer-director’s first and last commercial success. Nonetheless, some of his later efforts acquired a certain cult following particularly this 1972 “acid western”—a very shortlived subgenre (other examples being Jodorowsky’s El Topo, rock musical Zachariah, and the French A Girl Is a Gun) that subjected that most American of narrative forms to the vagaries of hippie absurdism.

Allan Arkush plays an Afro’d Christ figure (and aspiring song & dance man) passing through a corrupt Old West town run by the ruthless Seaweedhead Greaser (Albert Henderson). It’s like Blazing Saddles, only two years earlier; and if that movie was a little drunk, this one is stoned almost to the point of immobility. What can you say about a film that features Toni Basil (yes, of “Mickey” fame) as an Indian maiden who speaks in pantomine, and pre-Fantasy Island Herve Villachaize as a diminutive desert dweller who is a little too “hot for Jesus”? Only that this surreal comedy is deeply baked, and the ideal viewer probably ought to be, too. Wed/5, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here. (Note: The prior night, the Alamo is also showing another highly offbeat “western”—Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 Near Dark, a modern vampire tale set in the southwest of truckstops and hick bars. More info here.)

Domino
[Note: We were under the impression that this film was opening in the Bay Area, only to find out late that it wasn’t—not yet, at least. But the curious can check it out On Demand as of Friday.]
Love him, hate him or both, the film geek within wants each new movie from Brian De Palma—though of course they aren’t coming so often these days—to be good, no matter that they haven’t been for at least two decades. This thriller endured a problematic production (budget woes, cast defections, etc.), one bad enough that even he’s complained about it publicly, lowering expectations for his first feature in seven years. Nonetheless, the end result doesn’t look cheap, and it gets off to a decent enough start with with a chase on slippery Copenhagen rooftops involving Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Eriq Ebouaney, and Soren Malling as one of those characters you know is going to get killed off in the first reel.

What ensues, however, is cheesy exploitation of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism for a pulp thriller, one that takes place across Europe yet feels like a cliche-riddled American cop movie. There’s a certain positive familiarity to longtime collaborator Pino Donaggio’s score, and to Almodovar regular Jose Luis Alcaine’s cinematography—they help make this feel like a De Palma movie without being a parody of one, two separate things that have eluded the director a while. Still, the big climax recalls that of Blow Out, Snake Eyes etc., albeit only as a pale echo. And predictably for a director who’s gotten steadily worse with actors, the cast (also including Guy Pearce, Carice van Houten and Paprika Steen) seems wasted on weak material. This certainly isn’t De Palma’s worst, but even the most devoted fans are unlikely to consider it any bona fide “return to form.”

I want my SF DocFest: Our critic’s top picks

'I Want My MTV', Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop’s lively survey of the channel's influential first years, plays June 13 as part of DocFest's closing night festivities. Photo courtesy SF DocFest

Truth is reliably stranger than fiction at SF DocFest, whose 18th annual edition takes over the Roxie Theater for eleven days starting May 30, with an opening night Wed/29 at Brava Theater. This is definitely not, nor has it ever been, your standard, stodgy showcase for “worthy” documentaries of the political expose, travelogue or verite peasant-suffering types—though you can indeed find stray titles that can fit those descriptions in its expansive program.

Instead, the San Francisco Documentary Festival’s preference for fun and novelty is revealed in that Brava opener, Marie Losier’s Cassandro the Exotico!, about the “Liberace of lucha libre.” Cassandro a.k.a. Saul Armendariz is a veteran Mexican-American wrestler whose flamboyantly “out” gay persona has transcended caricature to provide both personal and professional empowerment in an otherwise typically macho, homophobic sports milieu. There will be an after-party at The Make Out Room following the screening.

‘Cassandro the Exótico’ tracks the impact of Mexico’s influential gay lucha libre wrestler. Photo courtesy of SF DocFest

The closing night selection on Thursday June 13 is another dive into pop culture excess: I Want My MTV, Tyler Measom and Patrick Waldrop’s lively survey of the channel’s hugely influential first few years. Initially dismissed as a “stupid idea” sure to bomb, MTV instead wound up being the biggest thing to happen to music in the 1980s, as music videos changed the very nature of how acts were promoted, packaged, and popularized.

The film covers its scrappy beginnings, when practically any weird clip could get played (before the major labels realized those clips were a new necessity for their artists’ survival), through the “racism” controversies (MTV was eventually “desegregated” by Michael Jackson and Yo! MTV Raps), accusations of sexism (gratuitous T&A sold a lot of videos, whether offered by heavy metal babes, Madonna or Heart), and so forth. A corporate acquisition by Viacom in 1985 signaled the beginning of the end for “pure” music television—though it soon heralded the rise of something even bigger, as shows like The Real World and The Osbournes opened up the Pandora’s Box of “reality TV.”

In between are close to 50 features from around the world, including Aleksei Vakhrushev’s “Centerpiece” selection (on Thurs/6) The Book of the Sea, a semi-animated portrait of modern-day Inuit and Chukchi life in the Bering Strait that also illustrates key legends in their traditional (albeit now endangered) culture dependent on whale, seal, and walrus hunting. Other international titles of note include A Growing Thing (South Africa), Anbessa (Ethiopia), The Land of High Mountains (Haiti), When the Storm Fades (Philippines), I Am the People: Venezuela Under PopulismPariah Dog (India), Spears from All Sides (Ecuador), and more.

Bay Area thrash metal history, anyone? ‘Murder in the Front’ photo courtesy of SF DocFest

There’s plenty that’s a lot closer to home, notably Adam Dubin’s Murder in the Front Row, which traces the arc of the SF/Bay Area’s hugely influential thrash metal scene—not just famous acts like Metallica, Exodus, Possessed and Death Angel, but lesser-remembered bands, as well as long-gone venues like the Mab, Keystone and Ruthie’s Inn. A very different local scene is captured in Mat Hames’ Waiting for the Punchline, about the SF stand-up comedy world’s fabled past and somewhat embattled present. Yet another realm of artistic expression is explored in Sheona McDonald’s Candice, whose late subject rose to considerable popularity as “Candida Royalle” in SF’s burgeoning late 1970s porn industry. She then took what she’d learned, both good and bad, and started her own successful production company to create “intelligent” adult films that “do not degrade women.”

Other locally-focused features include gay adoption story The F Word, Oakland youth counseling study Circles, and Uberland, about the Silicon Valley e-commerce boom and the ridesharing apps that have enormously profited a few while providing a threadbare living for many.

While there’s plenty of fun to be had at SF Docfest. there’s no lack of political engagement. One likely must-see is Jakob Gottschau’s Factory of Lies, which digs into the hidden industry of Russian “troll armies” designed to plant online disinformation in order to sow dissent in the EU as well as the U.S. Hans Pool’s Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World offers a flipside, examining the “open source” journalistic website intent on global whistle-blowing. Jan Haaken’s equally timely Our Bodies Our Doctors profiles medical professionals fighting to provide reproductive care in rural areas across the country, in a climate of ever-rising conservative hostility. Chelsea Hernandez’s Building the American Dream probes shocking, often dangerous safety lapses in the Texas construction industry. Peter Nelson’s The Pollinators looks at one key aspect of the escalating global environmental crisis: The imperiled status of bees who are an irreplaceable part of the grand food chain that is life.

Fear not, however, the news isn’t all bad. On the goofy side, there’s JR “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius, Sandy K. Boone’s look at the satirical “religion” that became an influential hipster magnet in the 1980s. Red Dog finds songwriter Luke Dick wondering about his early childhood, when mom worked at an infamous 1970s strip club. He gets a lot more lurid intel on that interlude from her than he expected, or possibly wanted. Red, White & Wasted showcases Florida’s defiantly brain-dead monster truck “mudding” subculture. The Artist & the Pervert chronicles a most unconventional domestic relationship.

A world-class mess: ‘Dons of Disco’. Photo courtesy of SF DocFest

Last but hardly least, Jonathan Sutak’s Dons of Disco looks back at “Den Harrow,” a supposedly American singer who had several cheesy Eurodisco hits in the late 1980s. Only he wasn’t really American (he was Stefano Zandri, a Milanese model), and he couldn’t sing—the real vocalist was actual Yank Tom Hooker, who also wrote many of the act’s songs. The fascinating conflict of this absurdly entertaining feature lies in the fact that even decades later, the irredeemably vain Zandri still insists HE was the true talent of Den Harrow, saying things like “You don’t fall in love with a voice, but with a face.”

Plentiful old performance and video clips show him pouting, lip-synching and kinda-sorta dancing, exuding the kitschy “New Wave” magnetism that he claims “would have had the same success all over Europe” even if he’d “just stood there on stage.” Uh-huh. All this happened before Milli Vanilli. The defensive Zandri says he’s too much of a “gentleman” to name the “hundred [other] singers who couldn’t sing” but didn’t suffer the slings and arrows suffered by him, let alone Fab Morvan or Rob Pilatus. It’s a jaw-dropping portrait, even if in the end you even feel a bit sorry for this professional poser—Hooker appears to have done much better for himself in the long-term, and his derision towards Den Harrow’s “face” gets a bit mean-spirited after a while. Nevertheless, if you love a good showbiz trainwreck, Dons of Disco offers world-class mess.

SF DOCFEST
Wed/29-Thu/13
Various times, prices, and SF venues
Tickets and more info here

Screen Grabs: ‘War and Peace’ thrills in its gargantuan spectacle

At the time, Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 'War and Peace' was purportedly the most expensive motion picture ever made. See it Sat/25 at the Castro. Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

The movies suffered an approximately 15 year case of elephantiasis starting in the early 1950s, when television began to seriously impact box-office returns. Hollywood’s idea was to give audiences more of what they couldn’t get on their—then-tiny—home screens: Bigness. Cast-of-thousands epics in widescreen formats, plus Technicolor and (for the year or two of the trend’s initial run) 3-D.

Of course, not everyone had the money to imitate this level of spectacle. It took the comparatively cash-strapped Soviets about a decade to catch up. But when they did, they more or less won the contest. Arriving a decade after Hollywood’s drastically simplified 3 1/2 hour version (with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn as Pierre and Natasha), Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 War and Peace was purportedly the most expensive motion picture ever made. It was certainly the longest (excluding anomalies like Andy Warhol’s Empire), at over eight hours. Among the publicity claims were that battle scenes had required up to 100,000 real USSR military personnel—which, if true, would have actually compromised Russia’s combat readiness at the height of the Cold War. In fact about one-tenth that number were used, just as the real budget was said to be about one-tenth the alleged $100 million.

Still, ten thousand is a lot of extras, and $10 million bought a lot of spectacle given that the film’s resources were undoubtedly greatly enhanced by full governmental cooperation. This celebration of Russian culture (with a slight edge of modern propaganda, though Tolstoy had already been judged ideologically sound by the Communists) was duly received as a big event around the globe. While not a massive export success in commercial terms (and criticized here for intrusive English dubbing), it did get around, winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar amongst numerous other kudos. Then it more or less disappeared.

For years, the only way you could see Bondarchuk’s grandiose epic was in home-video versions of frequently appalling, third-generation-TV-dupe quality. Even a 1999 DVD restoration was unable to find workable materials in the original 70mm format, forcing a reduced aspect ratio. However, a new restoration being shown at the Castro this Saturday in a single marathon screening (starting at 1 pm, with breaks between the four sections) somehow overcame those  obstacles, so all 422 minutes will be in gloriously wide ’Scope. (If you can’t handle that long a sit, Criterion Collection will be releasing it in Blu-ray and DVD box sets next month.)

This movie probably hasn’t been seen in any comparable form hereabouts in half a century. What is it like now? Well, over its lengthy span, War and Peace has time to be a lot of things. (Except dull, surprisingly, except perhaps in bits of the final and weakest section.) At times it’s clunky, theatrical, a jumble of strategies that feels like a semi-random compendium of four decades’ Soviet filmmaking techniques. The performances are highly variable, with too-old Bondarchuk’s own Pierre a bore, then-highly-praised Lyudmila Saveleva now hard to take as a wide-eyed ninny of a Natasha, while Vyacheslav Tikhonov is perfect as Prince Andrei.

Yet despite all uneven aspects, the whole is an overwhelming achievement. There are passages of startling grandeur—not just the exciting spectacle of huge choreographed balls or colossal, chaotic battle sequences, but some abstractions such as Andrei’s visions at death’s door. Though at times Bondarchuk barely seems in control of his own vision, the gigantic enterprise’s combination of sheer scale, relentless cinematic virtuosity (the tracking/crane shots remain extraordinary) and thematic breadth do manage to convey a real grasp of Tolstoy’s titanic work, not excluding its philosophical dimensions.

Like Berlin AlexanderplatzOur HitlerOut: 1Satantango or whatever other cinematic totem to excess you’d care to name, War and Peace is an experience whose sheer ambition ultimately transcends individual flaws, datedness, even your gradually numbing posterior. A la Mount Everest, it compels climbing simply because it is there. Sat/25 only at Castro Theatre. Tickets and more info here.

By contrast, this week’s commercial openings inevitably end up looking pretty trivial. There’s Disney’s latest live-action reboot, Aladdin, with Will Smith stepping into Robin Williams’ harem pants; a horror movie, Brightburn, which at least has the plus of being the first movie in several years starring Elizabeth Banks; and two comedies, one of which I walked out on (but I’m not saying which). Another actress-turned-director, Olivia Wilde, has gotten some high praise for her feature debut behind the camera Booksmart, which is more or less Superbad for 18-year-old girls. There’s also been advance praise for Michael J. Gallagher’s Funny Story (at the 4-Star), about a self-absorbed actor’s none-too-successful attempts to repair relations with his daughter on her wedding day.

New documentaries this week are led by Nureyev (at the Roxie), a hagiographic look at perhaps the greatest dancer of the 20th century. Can you go wrong with that subject? This often maddeningly pretentious film comes close, yet there’s enough buoyant performance footage here to bail out an even leakier ship. There’s also (at Opera Plaza) Walking on Water, about the latest site-specific sculptural mega-project by Christo—the visual artist who’s probably had his work more extensively documented by filmmakers than any contemporary. It is not to be confused with Once Was Water, the new environmental documentary by Christopher Beaver and Diana Fuller that’s being screened as a sneak preview at the Roxie (Wed/29) in a benefit for the SF Green Film Festival.

Elsewhere (all opening this Friday):

Non-Fiction

Olivier Assayas emerged in the late 80s and early 90s as an unpinnably independent new French talent, and he’s retained that unpredictable edge despite being accepted into the relative mainstream. There’s something to be said for a director in his mid-60s still capable of creating films as sharply divisive as Personal Shopper, while making others that are almost universally liked—a turbulent non-pattern that hasn’t smoothed out in over three decades.

His latest is one of those that is hard to dislike, and in fact I’d probably dislike anyone who disliked it. Guillaume Canet plays Alain, the chief editor at a fabled Paris publishing house that is struggling like every “old-school” cultural institution in an era of digitalization and free “content.” His wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), a successful if dissatisfied actress, is even more of a Luddite; ditto Leonard (Vincent Macaigne), an author whose novels are very thinly disguised exploitations of his own rather messy private life. (His character may be partly a satire of confessional literary celebrity Karl Ove Knausgard, whose art so often consists of bemoaning the loss of privacy he continues to bring upon himself and his loved ones.)

These bright, prickly, demanding people are all cheating on each other, of course. And when they’re not, they’re having erudite conversations about blogs, free speech, the eroding value of truth and expertise, print vs. e-readers, whether the internet is a democratizing utopia or simply a new way of selling ads for content without paying the content-providers … and other topics that should be dry as sawdust, yet here are terribly entertaining.

Non-Fiction is a “typical French movie” (arthouse division, that is), in that it revolves around a lot of interesting problematic, self-absorbed adults in variably discordant relationships, yakking it up. Unlike most such French films, however, it also has some surprising big laughs, which make it even more of a delight. Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas, Rafael Film Center. More info here.

Rafiki

This polished and colorful Kenyan drama debuted at Cannes but caused a bigger stir at home, where it was banned by censors for “promoting lesbianism … contrary to the law.” (Gay sex in Kenya can bring a prison sentence of 14 years.) Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is butch enough to be accepted as “one of the boys” by the local lads in her Nairobi ‘hood, but not so much so as to invite the homophobia they freely direct at others. In truth, they simply don’t get who or “what” she is until she falls a little too conspicuously in mutual love with pink-cornrowed Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), a rich girl.

Both these young women are the daughters of politicians—Kena’s shopkeeper dad is in fact running against Ziki’s fat-cat office holder—which adds yet more conflict to a relationship doomed to condemnation from nearly everyone around them once it’s found out. Wanuri Kahiu’s feature does not shrink from depicting the darker consequences that await them, but it stops short of tragedy, preferring to let love win. Given the odds against such happy endings for LGBTQ people in Kenya, that seems less a cop-out than a hard-won demonstration of hope. Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.

The Souvenir

Not long ago a friend learned that a sibling had a big secret: He’d had another spouse and child for years, entirely hidden from his even longer-term wife and children, whom he unceremoniously abandoned as soon as the jig was up. This wasn’t “having an affair” or some such, but a whole, separate, “double life.” Apparently this is a more common phenomenon than you’d expect. The new film by Joanna Hogg also revolves around a character with a (different) big secret, one I won’t spoil here—but be warned, probably every other review you read will give away that big reveal, which doesn’t arrive until well into the movie.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda) is a child of privilege in Britain circa 1980. She wants to be a filmmaker less for reasons of evident talent or passion than because she seeks authenticity—her ideas all feel like ones arrived at because she thinks they’re what people want to hear. She’s the sort others are attracted to, if only because she’s generous with the perks of privilege they lack. (Schoolmates end up sharing her spacious flat, and she’s “too nice” to insist they pay rent.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she seeks a sort of ballast for her hidden insecurities in Anthony (Tom Burke), a much less apologetic toff who might as easily inhabit the era of Downton Abbey. Instead, he’s soon inhabiting Julie’s bed, requiring one “loan” after another, and so forth. If he weren’t so self-confident and privileged himself, one might think he was using her. Then at a dinner party one night when he’s out of the room, an observant guest makes an educated guess about him. It’s shockingly inflammatory—and, Julie soon realizes, quite accurate.

The Souvenir is about the kind of catastrophic abuser-and-enabler relationship that normally would be played for suspense or high melodrama. Yet Hogg’s approach is as neutral as Julie’s personality (or lack thereof), while her film’s aesthetic is grainy and basic in a way you might expect from a working-class Ken Loach drama. It’s a curious but interesting movie I’m not sure I liked. Nor am I sure Hogg views her alter-ego heroine as critically as she’s described above.

But very much in a “write what you know” vein of artistic inspiration (the story is drawn from the writer-director’s own collegiate experiences), The Souvenir does have its own particular integrity. On the other hand, like the three features Hogg has made previously, this first U.S.-released one is an exercise in navel-gazing “rich people’s problems” she observes from the very limited perspective of the bird inside that gilded cage. Embarcadero. More info here.