FILM “Introducing Hollywood’s newest hunk-a-man!” crowed the ads for 1956’s Bus Stop, in which Don Murray made his film debut as the cowpoke besotted with Marilyn Monroe’s movie-mad hick — a plum role in a big hit opposite the reigning box-office queen. The actor even got an Oscar nomination for this start at the tippy-top. But he didn’t stay there long.
What happened? With “A Special Weekend With Don Murray … America’s Least-Remembered Movie Star,” the Roxie aims to provide an answer. The event is part of a larger project set to culminate by year’s end with the premiere of Don Malcolm’s feature Unsung Hero, a documentary tribute to “The Extraordinary Times and Exemplary Life” of the aforementioned. Both doc and retrospective feature an ad line, “He went from acclaim to obscurity in the blink of an eye,” that — like many of their subject’s performances — goes a bit hyperbolically overboard with the best intentions. Murray’s descent was gradual, owing mostly to some noble but commercially shaky vehicle choices. Even with better luck, would he have remained on Hollywood’s fickle casting A-list much longer? The “14 provocative performances” the Roxie revives this weekend suggest probably not.
Arriving post-Brando, pre-New Hollywood, he now looks like a transitional figure: Capable, earnest yet effortful, too often trying to overcome his classic leading-man looks via Actor’s Studio-style “intensity” that then passed as being more “real,” but now looks far from natural. The only child of stage veterans, Murray made his Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams’ 1951 The Rose Tattoo at age 21. After several years’ relief work as a Korean War conscientious objector, he’d barely resumed his career before Bus Stop put it in hyperdrive. After that smash, he could have done anything he liked. What he chose, however, was invariably heavier and less populist: Somber, “daring” issue-oriented dramas that required him to flex acting muscles as men torn between one thing (good) and another (bad). They were respectably received, but seldom attracted the rave reviews, awards or audiences hoped for.
Like Oscar-winning Marty (1955) before it, 1957’s The Bachelor Party was a big-screen version of a TV script by Paddy Chayefsky in his pathos-de-la-Average-Joe mode, with Murray as a young office worker panicked by his wife’s unexpected pregnancy. The same year’s A Hatful of Rain had him as a morphine-addicted Korean War vet sweating out another long dark night of the soul. Amid much theatrical hand-wringing, Tony Franciosa’s concerned brother is so hammy he required the balm of his own Oscar nomination. After a couple of ambitious Westerns and prestige TV plays, Murray portrayed an American medical student who winds up fighting for 1920s IRA leader James Cagney in Shake Hands With the Devil (1959). A good movie about another unpleasant subject, it was not a success.
So it was back to the Old West (in 1960’s One Foot in Hell, a title descriptive of all his roles then) before the actor realized a pet project he also produced and co-wrote. The Hoodlum Priest (1961) had him as a Jesuit rehabilitating ex-cons in St. Louis, including pre-2001 Keir Dullea’s surly delinquent. Melodramatic yet reasonably fresh thanks to future Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner’s vivid location shooting, it was nonetheless poorly received — not least by its real-life inspiration, who found this screen portrait objectionable enough to sue over.
Fortunately 1961 also brought the actor his biggest hit since Bus Stop. He was the idealistic junior Senator who ends up paying the ultimate price for dirty Beltway politics (committing suicide when blackmailed over a past gay fling) in Otto Preminger’s all-star Advise & Consent. Yet apart from 1965 Steve McQueen vehicle Baby the Rain Must Fall (from which much of his part was cut), he didn’t appear in another major release until 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes — in which his monkey-hating mayor provided a cartoonish metaphor for the actor’s passionate interest in racial equality.
Between routine B movie and television assignments, several projects reflected that personal crusade. Crudely made but interesting 1967 indie Sweet Love, Bitter had him as an alcoholic jazzbo slumming on the Skid Row “wild side” his musician idol (Dick Gregory) can’t escape. Short-lived ABC series The Outcasts paired his former slave owner with Otis Young’s ex-slave as reluctant bounty-hunting partners after the Civil War. The unreleased Call Me By My Rightful Name reunited them as two sides of an interracial triangle, vying for white chick Cathy Lee Crosby.
Murray donned the cloth again to shepherd more little urban toughs (including Erik Estrada) in 1970’s The Cross and the Switchblade, his camp-classic directorial debut. He acted as if his life depended on it — i.e., with a little too much desperation — as a self-destructive rodeo clown in Cotter (1973) and a proto-Bad Lieutenant in Deadly Hero (1975), but hardly anyone noticed. Through nearly all of this he wrangled with The Confessions of Tom Harris, another criminal-redeemed-by-Christ story that was primarily shot (very poorly) by future Bo Derek mentor John Derek in 1966, then reworked and retitled (Childish Things, Tale of the Cock) for years afterward. It, and the even more obscure Call Me, will get rare screenings at the Roxie this weekend, alongside TV episodes and clips as well as most of the above-mentioned features.
There will also be Murray himself, who’ll turn a very hale 85 at month’s end. While he stayed fairly busy with medium-profile roles mostly on TV through millennium’s turn, the latest piece in the Roxie program dates from 33 years ago, and is probably still the movie anyone under 70 would be likeliest to remember him for: The original Endless Love (1981), in which his mean rich dad is the major obstacle between Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt, eventually causing the latter to go pyro. *
FILM Gerald Santana is stoked about his new Vitamix. When we speak, he’s juicing up breakfast for himself and his kids as part of their raw-food diet. “Overall, it gives me better mental clarity, a stronger ability to focus, and all of the things that I really need to get my business together.”
His business includes movies. Lots of movies. The avid film collector is the founder of the Berkeley Underground Film Society, which has for the past two years hosted screenings showcasing gems from Santana’s stash. It’s held in a Gilman Street office space that transforms into a micro-cinema for BUFS gatherings.
Amateur film collecting is a hobby that’s almost as old as cinema itself. “Home viewers [could obtain] 16mm film prints for the first time in the 1930s,” he says. “In that era, people rented whatever was available, say, The Little Rascals from the New York public library, and then have a film party. There’d be, like, the neighborhood cinema guy. If you flash forward 90 years later, we have Craig Baldwin, [filmmaker and Other Cinema curator], who is pretty much that same guy.”
Santana and the Artists’ Television Access staple met years ago through an online forum for 16mm enthusiasts, when Santana contacted Baldwin about purchasing a film. Today, Santana considers Baldwin his mentor. “He’s passed on a lot of film history to me,” Santana says. “We meet several times a year, and he gives me a personal screening of films that are on the way out of his archive, and into mine. That’s one way I started collecting.”
Once Santana started acquiring films, he was hooked. “You start with buying one or two, and then suddenly you have 100. Then you have 1,000. And some people go much, much higher.” (Santana estimates he owns “probably 3,000.”)
He started a blog in late 2010, hoping to connect with other Bay Area collectors. “Lost and Out of Print,” the name of BUFS’ screening series, is an apt description of the works he favors. “These are obscure anomalies from eras gone by. Once I started building up my collection, I started realizing how many films are just not available. I need to preserve these, because sometimes I might have the only print in the state. Sometimes, I might have the only copy. So I went from hobbyist, to collector, to archivist, to preservationist.”
Santana, who grew up in Los Angeles, has a background in video media, but he was always drawn to celluloid — a fascination that flourished once he moved to the Bay Area. “When I came up here, I found Super 8 films at thrift stores, and I wanted to try to project them. And then I wanted to know everything about film history, film stocks, projectors, and all these other things that make movies go.”
The film club seemed a logical progression once his collection was ready for an audience. “When I started BUFS” — he pronounces it buffs, as in film buffs — “it was just me, seeing if anyone else was interested. And I had to wait until I had titles that were difficult to find, or that I thought were important, and that seemed to work if you grouped them together. That’s when I learned that programming is an art,” he recalls.
His collection includes silent films, home movies, B movies, made-for-TV movies, educational and industrial films, cartoons, and classic Hollywood films that aren’t available on DVD. There are also foreign films that never made it into US theaters — like 1972’s Godzilla vs. Gigan, which he’s showing in 16mm July 18 — in their original, uncut forms. (Other BUFS screenings this month are July 19 archival shorts program “Cartoon Carnival #5: Kids and Pets,” and a July 20 showing of Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 The Kid.)
One bump in the BUFS road: Earlier this year, a licensing agency contacted him after he screened some Woody Allen movies without first obtaining the rights to do so. Not wanting to have to pay any high fees — or, you know, break any laws — Santana will be steering his future programming toward works in the public domain.
“I had to backpedal a little bit. I didn’t think anyone even cared,” he admits. He put BUFS on hiatus in April to regroup. “I had to reduce the number of screenings I did, down to one weekend of programming a month. But that way I can just jam-pack that weekend with as much material as possible. And there’s a lot of great stuff coming up — it’s the best stuff I have. I don’t want to screen mainstream movies anymore.”
BUFS fans will also soon be able to experience Santana’s other passion: healthy, homemade food. “I’m going to offer incredible raw food, organic concessions, and cottage foods,” he says; it’s a small business venture he hopes to expand beyond his concession stand. “When we tested it, people responded very positively. During the [BUFS hiatus], I worked on my recipes, I got the Vitamix, and I’m ready to go. I’m excited for the July screenings.” *
FILM There’s a T-shirt that’s achieved must-have status in record time, even though as yet it may just be an idea for a T-shirt: A picture of Al Gore gesticulating at the podium, with the words “If you don’t believe in climate change just look at San Francisco … only a few years ago that city was still cool.” Haha. Sob. The temperature drift from cool to tepid (and expensive) registers in a thousand ways, big and small, with the shuttering of cultural venues now a predictable minor-key prelude to the ka-ching symphony of condo construction.
Not yet axed, but with head positioned above the bucket, is the Vortex Room — that SOMA venue so cool you need to know the address (there’s no sign), as if it were a Prohibition speakeasy or something. Spawn of the late, beloved Werepad, the Vortex was threatened with eviction last fall. After a few months of legal skirmishing the landlord backed down, but then served notice again not long afterward. “We are currently fighting it out in, I guess, a battle of resources. They appear to just want to wear us down. This new real estate marketing is just too tempting, I suppose,” says founder Scott Moffett.
Aptly, July’s Film Cult series at the Vortex takes as its theme “Bad Vibrations.” The bounty of five Thursdays this month allows plenty of room for programmer Joe Niem to mine a collection of largely 16mm exploitation obscurities in which “Summer is spelled with a ‘B’.” As in, you know, bummer! — but more about that film title later.
Things kick off with a double dose of female imperilment from the golden age of TV movies. A Vacation in Hell (1979) has one would-be playa (Michael Brandon) arranging a day trip from a Club Med-type resort with four women so he can hit on the dumb blonde (Priscilla Barnes). The others are Andrea Marcovicci as Embittered Neurotic Man-Hating Possible Lesbian, Get Smart!‘s Barbara Feldon as an insecure divorcee still looking for love, and erstwhile Marcia Brady Maureen McCormick as the teenage daughter she’s dragged along as security blanket.
Upon reaching an isolated beach, their inflatable boat gets a puncture. They attempt to dither their way back to civilization cross-country, and in pure idiot panic incur the wrath of a strapping native hunter (Ed Ka’ahea) whom Marcovicci dubs “you murderous savage.” Under the silly, talky circumstances, this ABC Movie of the Week has some surprisingly good acting. Which cannot be said, perhaps thankfully, for the prior year’s Summer of Fear, aka Stranger in Our House. Fully exorcised then-telepic queen Linda Blair plays a seriously bratty SoCal teen who grows suspicious of the freshly orphaned cousin (Lee Purcell) who comes to live with her family, and who in record time goes from twangy wallflower to usurping seductress. This (eventually) Satanic thriller was the first mainstream Hollywood project for a Wes Craven fresh from Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), and remains the tamest thing he ever directed — yes, tamer than Meryl Streep inspiring Harlem youth in 1999’s Music of the Heart.
Fear not, stronger meat is ahead. July 10 brings two theatrical horrors, 1980’s Blood Beach and 1976’s Who Can Kill a Child?, aka Island of the Damned. The first is a late entry in the cycle of Jaws (1975) rip-offs, which it winks at by having one character quip, “Just when you thought it as safe to get back in the water, you can’t get to it” — because something unseen is pulling Santa Monica beachgoers down screaming, right through the sand. It turns out to be an all-too-briefly seen monster in this lethargic chiller by the future director of Flowers in the Attic (1987 version, not the recent made-for-Lifetime version), with the highlight being a surprising political speech by John Saxon’s police chief about how taxpayers want the sun and the moon in city services … they just don’t want to pay for it.
Who Can Kill a Child? is something else: a beautifully atmospheric Spanish nightmare by underrated Uruguayan Narcisco Ibáñez Serrador, in which two English tourists row to a quaint village off the mainland. When they arrive, however, everyone appears to be gone save a few children — with whom something has gone very, very wrong. Quiet and slow-building, it’s a striking parable that really pays off once ominousness turns to terror at the completely irrational crisis these visitors have stumbled into. Equally memorable and shocking is 1978’s US Blue Sunshine, a tale of a government LSD experimentation that the Vortex (and the Werepad before it) has shown so many times it might as well be its filmic mascot.
The rest of the schedule is obscure even by Vortex standards. English-language 1972 Eurotrash hostage drama Summertime Killer stars Christopher Mitchum, one of two (with sibling Jim) Robert Mitchum offspring who experienced moderate movie fame — despite dad’s oddly dismissive public statements about their B-list careers. Aussie One Night Stand (1984) has New Wave youth in Sydney acting like mildly New Wave cut-ups in a John Hughes movie as they await nuclear holocaust. It’s less fun than it sounds. More fun than it sounds is 1990’s direct-to-video Punk Vacation, in which mildly “punk” miscreants slumming in the sticks wage war against local hicks.
Lastly there’s 1973’s Bummer!, a sobering film about the groupie lifestyle — even before the fat misogynist drummer no one will have sex with goes postal. Offering further proof the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle leads to Hades is Down Beat, a feature so obscure imdb.com doesn’t know it exists. Even the few to note Christian film “pioneer” Ken Anderson’s passing in 2006 made no mention of this 1967 warning against all that was then groovy and ungodly. If and when the Vortex goes away for keeps, who will unearth such treasures for us henceforth? That’s right: Nobody. *
FILM The joke’s been made elsewhere that Begin Again, the latest from writer-director John Carney (2007’s Once), should have been dubbed Twice. There are undeniable similarities. Though Begin Again takes place in New York City, not Dublin, it’s another musical tale of a romantically-challenged artist whose life is changed by a chance encounter. However, unlike Once, Begin Again has an A-list cast, with Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Catherine Keener, plus big-name musicians like Adam Levine and CeeLo Green.
Carney eases us into this tale of Big Apple heartbreak and redemption by playing its opening moments multiple times from different perspectives. Jolly busker Steve (scene-stealer James Corden) puts his bummed-out buddy Greta (Knightley) on the spot at an open-mic night, where she croons a song she’s just written about jumping in front of a subway train. (Knightley does her own singing, but careful camerawork ensures we never get a good look at her guitar skills.) Dan (Ruffalo), a down-on-his-luck music-biz professional whose career status is nearly as dismal as his personal life — he’s estranged from his music-journalist wife (Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) — happens to stumble into the joint as Greta takes the stage.
He’s enthralled by her performance, and the film does an “earlier that day” rewind to let us know why Dan is so drunk. Truth is, he woke up wasted, to the annoyance of his longtime business partner (Mos Def), who’s laser-focused on keeping their record label profitable (one idea: bands doing “audio commentary” on their own records…ugh). Dan, whose job is in serious danger, dreamily clings to the old-school “fostering talent” model. His ideals may be sky-high, but his dignity’s sloshing at the bottom of the flask he keeps stashed in his aging Jaguar — a status symbol of a lifestyle he hasn’t been able to afford for some time.
After he introduces himself to Greta, certain she’s his ticket to creative rebirth, he’s surprised to learn she’s packing a fully-operational bullshit detector. She also doesn’t take compliments well — “Music is about ears, not eyes,” she insists, when Dan says she has the looks to make it big. But there’s an easy chemistry between them, and once she Googles him and checks his bona fides (Harvard, Grammys), she softens. A little.
We see why Greta is so angry at the world in another rewind. She’s a recent arrival in NYC, tagging along with boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave (Levine). He’s a hotshot rising star who soon morphs into a lying, cheating, trendy facial hair-growing rock ‘n’ roll cliché. (If you have a built-in aversion to the “Moves Like Jagger” singer, this is, needless to say, perfect casting.) These scenes are so overdone — Rob Morrow cameos as a sleazy record-company exec — that Carney’s point of view is abundantly clear: tailoring one’s music to please the basic-bitch demographic and achieving overnight success is bad; while penning personally meaningful tunes and recording them on one’s own terms is good.
Fine. On principle, who doesn’t agree with that? Of course, it’s rad that Greta and Dan decide to take to the streets, NYPD be damned, and record an entire outdoor album with a rag-tag band that signs on thanks to Dan’s fading reputation and, it would seem, Greta’s talent, although for all its emphasis on musical integrity, Begin Again doesn’t bother fleshing out any of the other musician characters. Playing a former client of Dan’s, Green materializes to command a scene or two and undermine the film’s “it shouldn’t be about the money” message, since he sure makes living in a fancy mansion look like a good time.
Another point of contention: Greta never claims to be a great singer, but Knightley’s wispy pipes hardly suggest the glorious potential that perks Dan’s golden ears. Her tunes are forgettable folk-pop, and while some of the same songwriters worked on Begin Again, there’s nothing here that telegraphs the emotional weight of “Falling Slowly,” Once‘s Oscar winner. Begin Again‘s broader themes of music as a healing balm (the film’s original title, as subtle as an anvil to the skull: Can A Song Save Your Life?) are equally generic, illustrated by a scene that has Dan and Greta soothing their sadness by bopping all over the city with a headphone splitter listening to soul jams.
Begin Again strives, with obvious effort, to Make a Statement about an industry struggling to find its identity amid such troubling inventions as revenue-sapping free downloads, YouTube as a career launching pad, and shows like Levine’s own The Voice, which bring instant stardom to artists without the benefit of record-company nurturing. These are worthy issues, but they also make for some heavy-handed dialogue: “We need vision, not gimmicks!”
Fortunately, Begin Again fares better with its explorations of complicated relationships. Nobody does rumpled and wounded better than Ruffalo, and his connections with Keener and Steinfeld feel lived-in and authentic. Knightley has the most obvious character arc, as well as the biggest burden in having to sing — easily the film’s primo curiosity factor, aside from the stunt casting of Levine — but she’s likable as a hipster scorned, determined to figure out her next move even as her world crumbles around her. (Carney does a good job keeping the breakup storyline from getting too maudlin; witness a musical fuck-you drunk dial to Dave’s voice mail, in which an outpouring of emotion is livened up by an impromptu kazoo solo.) It’s also a surprisingly relaxed performance, given her predilection for films like 2012’s overstuffed Anna Karenina. Bonus: despite those wistful song lyrics, she doesn’t end up jumping in front of a train in this one. *
The Case Against 8 (Ben Cotner and Ryan White, US) This documentary follows the successful fight to have Proposition 8 overturned as unconstitutional and restore legality to gay marriage in California. There’s way too much time spent on the couples chosen as plaintiffs, a Berkeley lesbian pair and two Los Angeles male partners — we get it, they’re nice people — and the decisions to disallow broadcast of the eventual court proceedings means we get laborious recitations of what people have already said on record. Frameline has shown so many documentaries about gay marriage already that festival regulars may find this one covers too much familiar ground at excessive length. (It also doesn’t bother giving much screentime to the anti-gay forces, which might have livened things up a bit.) Still, it’s a duly inspirational tale, with real entertainment value whenever the focus turns to the case’s very unlikely chief lawyers: mild-mannered Ted Olson and boisterous David Boies, the latter a longtime leading conservative attorney who’d argued the other side against Olson in the Bush v. Gore presidential election decision. Nonetheless, he’s all for marriage equality, and these otherwise widely separated figures are great fun to watch as they work, taking considerable pleasure in each other’s company. Thu/19, 7pm, Castro. (Dennis Harvey)
Bad Hair (Mariana Rondón, Venezuela, US) Living in a Caracas tenement, Marta (Samantha Castillo) has no husband, no romance in her life, and now no job after she’s fired from a security company. She turns her frustrations on the older of her two fatherless children, 10-year-old Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano), whose insistence on straightening his hair like the people he sees on TV strikes her as incipiently gay — and that is something she is not willing to tolerate. Mariana Rondón’s prize-winning feature is a small, subtle drama about the poisoning effects of economic pressure and homophobia within the family unit. It’s also quietly devastating about something you don’t often see in movies: The real-world truth that, sometimes, deep down, parents really don’t love their children. Sat/21, 1:30pm, Roxie. (Harvey)
Floating Skyscrapers (Tomasz Wasilewski, Poland, 2013) Competitive swimmer Kuba (Mateusz Banasiuk) has moved girlfriend Sylwia (Marta Nieradkiewicz) into the Warsaw apartment he shares with his possessive divorced mother (Katarzyna Herman), but the two women don’t get along and Kuba doesn’t seem very committed to the relationship anyway. So Sylwia immediately worries her days are numbered when Kuba — who already indulges in the occasional furtive public gay sex — shows unusual interest in out Michal (Bartosz Gelner). As the two young men grow closer, it becomes clear that this is something neither of the women in Kuba’s life will stand for. Tomasz Wasilewski’s Polish drama has a crisp widescreen look and a minimalist air, with little dialogue articulating emotions the characters are wrestling with. Though its protagonist isn’t particularly likable, the film’s simultaneous confidence and ambivalence lends its eventually depressing progress real punch. Sat/21, 9:30pm, Victoria; June 26, 9:30pm, Roxie. (Harvey)
I Am Happiness On Earth (Julián Hernández, Mexico, 2013) When young dancer Octavio is picked up by well-known filmmaker Emiliano, he’s instantly smitten — not realizing yet that the latter is the kind of serial seducer allergic to fidelity. Rich, famous, and gorgeous, he can have anyone he wants, and he does. That’s about it for story in Julián Hernández’s latest, which features some of his characteristically lush camerawork and poetical romanticism. But it’s one of his weaker efforts, basically turning into one sex scene after another with even less attention to character and plot development than usual. This sexy, aesthetically sensual eye candy sports the odd enchanting moment, as when two men after a quickie are suddenly transfixed by the TV and begin singing a pop ballad along with it, to each other. But Hernández (2006’s Broken Sky, 2003’s A Thousand Peace Clouds Encircle the Sky) is a highly talented filmmaker who here seems to be running out of ideas. Sat/21, 9:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
The Foxy Merkins (Madeleine Olnek, US, 2013) Writer-director Madeleine Olnek of Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011) hits a bit of a sophomore slump with this similarly loopy but less inspired absurdist comedy. Lisa Haas returns as Margaret, a sad-sack new arrival to Manhattan who — apparently like most holders of Women’s Studies degrees — ends up homeless and prostituting herself to a large available client base of better bankrolled lesbians. She gets schooled in the ways of the street and kink-for-pay by veteran Jo (Jackie Monahan), who’s a good business partner if also a somewhat unreliable ally. After a hilarious first half hour or so, the movie runs out of steam but keeps plodding on to diminishing returns, despite scattered moments when Olnek and cast hit the comedic bull’s-eye. She’s got a unique sensibility, at once deadpan and utterly nonsensical, but it’s fragile enough to need a stronger narrative structure to sustain than it gets here to sustain feature length. Sun/22, 9:15pm, Castro. (Harvey)
Winter Journey (Sergei Taramaev and Luba Lvova, Russia, 2013) This stylish Russian drama depicts the paths-crossing and eventual unlikely friendship of two extremely different young men in Moscow. Keanu-looking Eric (Aleksey Frandetti) is a bratty, lieder-singing voice student who escapes pressures at home and school by getting drunk and hanging out with a circle of older gay artistic types. Lyokha (Evgeniy Tkachuk) is homeless and unstable, inclined toward picking fights and stealing stuff. Their not-quite-romance — a bit like a below-zero My Own Private Idaho (1991) with lots of Schubert — isn’t particularly credible, but it’s directed with confident panache by Sergei Taramaev and Luba Lvova, to ultimately quite poignant effect. Mon/23, 9:15pm, Victoria. (Harvey)
Violette (Martin Provost, France, 2013) Taking on another “difficult” woman artist after the excellent 2008 Séraphine (about the folk-art painter), Martin Provost here portrays the unhappy life of Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos), whose fiction and autobiographical writings eventually made her a significant figure in postwar French literature. We first meet her waiting out the war with gay author Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), one of many unrequited loves, then surviving via the black market trade before she’s “discovered” by such groundbreaking, already-established talents as Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). It is the latter, a loyal supporter who nonetheless retains a chilly emotional distance, who becomes bisexual Violette’s principal obsession over the coming 20 years or so. Devos does her best to portray “a neurotic crazy washed-up old bag” with an “ugly mug” — hardly! — who is perpetually broke, depressed, and awkward, thanks no doubt in part to her mean witch of a mother (Catherine Hiegel). “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere,” Simone at one point tells her, and indeed Leduc is a bit of a pill. For the most part lacking the visual splendors of Séraphine (this character’s environs weren’t so pastoral), Violette is finely acted and crafted but, like its heroine, hard to love. Note: Frameline is also showing Violette Leduc: In Pursuit of Love, a documentary on the same subject. Mon/23, 9:15pm, Castro. (Harvey)
To Be Takei (Jennifer Kroot, US) The erstwhile and forever Mr. Sulu’s surprisingly high public profile these days no doubt sparked this documentary portrait by SF’s own Jennifer Kroot (2009’s It Came From Kuchar). But she gives it dramatic heft by highlighting the subject’s formative years in World War II Japanese-American internment camps, and finds plenty of verite humor in the everyday byplay between fairly recently “out” gay celebrity George and his longtime life and business partner Brad Altman — the detail-oriented, pessimistic worrywart to his eternally upbeat (if sometimes tactlessly critical) star personality. We get glimpses of them in the fan nerdsphere, on The Howard Stern Show, at Takei’s frequent speaking engagements (on internment and gay rights), and in his latter-day acting career both as perpetual TV guest and a performer in a hopefully Broadway-bound new musical (about internment). Then of course there’s the Star Trek universe, with all surviving major participants heard from, including ebullient Nichelle Nichols, sad-sack Walter Koenig, thoughtfully distanced Leonard Nimoy, and natch, the Shat (who acts like a total asshat, dismissing Takei as somebody he sorta kinda knew professionally 50 years ago.) We also hear from younger Asian American actors who view the subject as a role model, even if some of his actual roles weren’t so trailblazing (like a couple “funny Chinaman” parts in Jerry Lewis movies, and in John Wayne’s 1968 pro-Vietnam War film The Green Berets). Even if you’ve tired of Takei’s ubiquity online and onscreen, this campy but fond tribute is great fun. Tue/24, 6:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
Back on Board: Greg Louganis (Cheryl Furjanic, US) For most Americans, the words “famous diver” conjure up only one name: Greg Louganis, the charismatic, record-breaking Olympian who dominated the sport in the 1980s. But as Cheryl Furjanic’s doc reveals, athletic perfection did not spell easy livin’ for Louganis. Though he hid the fact that he was gay (and HIV positive) from the public for years, his sexuality was an open secret in the diving world, and likely cost him lucrative endorsement deals. Louganis’ tale is not being shared for the first time (see also: the best-selling autobiography, which became a made-for-TV biopic), but Furjanic goes in deep, revealing Louganis’ considerable financial woes even as he finally finds personal happiness — and recharges his sports career when he’s asked to mentor 2012 Olympians. He’s clearly a good-hearted guy, and it’s hard not to root for him, particularly when we’re treated to so much footage of “the consummate diver” in his prime. He made it look easy, when clearly (in so many ways) it was not. June 25, 4pm, Castro. (Cheryl Eddy)
Regarding Susan Sontag (Nancy Kates, US) This excellent documentary by Nancy D. Kates (2003’s Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin) places more emphasis on the subject’s life — particularly her lesbian relationships — than on the ideas expressed in her work as a novelist, essayist, filmmaker, and cultural theorist. But it’s still a fine overview of a fascinating, often divisive figure. Extremely precocious (she began college at 15), she abandoned an early marriage for freedom in late 1950s Paris, then became a charismatic cultural theorist at the center of all 60s avant-gardisms. Her lovers included playwright Maria Irene Fornes, painter Jasper Johns, choreographer Lucinda Childs, and finally photographer Annie Liebovitz. A terrific diversity of archival footage and contemporary interviewees contribute to this portrait of a very complicated, difficult (both personally and as an artist/intellect) woman perpetually “interested in everything.” June 25, 7pm, Victoria; June 26, 7pm, Elmwood. (Harvey)
Lady Valor: The Kristin Beck Story (Sandrine Orabona and Mark Herzog, US) “I don’t do anything halfway,” admits Kristin Beck, a 20-year, highly-decorated veteran of the Navy SEALs. During her time in the military, she was known as Christopher — and she admits now, as a trans woman “trying to be the real person that I always knew I was, and always wished I could be,” that her willingness to embrace danger was a coping mechanism as she struggled to realize her true identity. In this moving, well-crafted doc, we follow along as Kristin travels to visit with family (some more accepting than others, and some, like her aging dad, making a heartfelt effort even as they stumble over pronouns and still call her “Chris”) and former Navy colleagues and fellow veterans, many of whom have put aside their initial confusion and embrace Kristin as she is. And who is she? A badass who survived multiple tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, with a wry sense of humor and an easygoing, thoughtful personality, Beck is also an inspiration — an American hero on multiple levels. June 27, 1:30pm, Castro. (Eddy)
Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan, US) First seen packing her belongings under the malevolent eye of her newly ex–girlfriend, then walking unabashedly down the street with a harness and dildo in hand, Brooklyn-dwelling twentysomething Shirin (played by writer-director Desiree Akhavan) doesn’t seem like a person who has trouble owning her sexuality. And indeed, in the parts of her life that don’t require interacting with her close-knit Iranian American family, Shirin is an out, and outspoken, bisexual. Brash, witty, self-involved, and professionally unmoored, she has a streak of poor impulse control that leads her into situations variously hilarious, awkward, painful, and disastrous. Through a series of flashbacks, Akhavan walks us back through the medium highs and major lows of Shirin’s defunct relationship, while tracking her floundering present-day attempts to wobble back to standing. Akhavan’s first feature, Appropriate Behavior has a comic looseness that occasionally verges on shapelessness, but the stray bits are entertaining too. June 27, 7pm, Castro. (Lynn Rapoport)
Of Girls and Horses (Monika Treut, Germany) A semi-delinquent teenager named Alex (Ceci Chuh) is sent away to work on a horse farm as a sort of last-ditch effort to shift her onto a more salutary path. Under the care of thirtysomething Nina (Vanida Karun), who is taking time apart from urban life in Hamburg, where her girlfriend lives, Alex comes to fall under the quiet spell of the horses, and when another young girl, Kathy (Alissa Wilms), shows up to vacation at the farm with her horse, Alex falls for her as well. Director Monika Treut (1999’s Gendernauts) favors long, lyrical shots of horses grazing or gazing soulfully into the lens, of Nina and Kathy cantering over flat green expanses of countryside, and of Alex forking hay into the stalls. A few small dramas take place, but Of Girls and Horses is more of a sketch than a story, and whether it holds your interest may depend on how many Marguerite Henry horse stories you consumed in your youth. June 27, 9:15pm, Roxie. (Rapoport)
Futuro Beach (Karim Ainouz, Brazil) When two German men globe-trotting on their motorcycles go for a dip off the Brazilian coast, they’re pulled under by the current — only Konrad (Clemens Schick) is saved by local lifeguard Donato (Wagner Moura), his companion lost. The two men console one another with sex. Then in the first of several disorienting jumps forward in time here, suddenly Donato has moved to Europe in order to continue their relationship, leaving his old life (including a dependent mother and younger brother) behind. There are further narrative leaps ahead — director Karim Ainouz (2002’s Madame Satã) is all about bold gestures here, but his visual and sonic assertiveness don’t necessarily fill the blanks in narrative and character development. The resulting exercise in style will leave you either dazzled or emotionally untouched. June 27, 9:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
Cupcakes (Eytan Fox, Israel, 2013) After a run of politically tinged features, Eytan Fox (2002’s Yossi & Jagger, 2004’s Walk on Water) goes the Almodóvar-lite route with this flyweight comedy about a Eurovision-style song contest. Gay Ofer (Ofer Shechter) and various girlfriends who all live in the same Tel Aviv apartment building decide to enter the Universong competition, becoming Israel’s official entry with improbable ease despite never having performed publicly before. Their mild travails (fighting the creative inference of professional handlers, Ofer’s attempts to drag his boyfriend out of the closet) fill time pleasantly enough before the inevitable triumphant telecast climax. This candy-colored fluff, its mainstreamed camp sensibility predictably reflected in corny vintage hits (“Love Will Keep Us Together,” “You Light Up My Life”), is aptly named — it’s as colorful, easily digested, and about as nutritious as a tray of cupcakes. June 28, 8:30pm, Castro. (Harvey)
I Feel Like Disco (Axel Ranisch, Germany, 2013) When housewife Monika (Christina Grobe) suffers a stroke and falls into a coma she may never come out of, her chubby teenage son Flori (Frithjof Gawenda) and junior high swim coach husband Hanno (Heiko Pinkowski) are forced to depend on each other without mom as a buffer. Things tentatively look up when Flori develops an unlikely friendship — and possibly something more — with dad’s star diver, Romanian émigré Radu (Robert Alexander Baer). Axel Ranisch’s gentle seriocomedy doesn’t make much of an impression for a while, springing few surprises (despite occasional deadpan fantasy sequences) along its moderately amusing path. But as father and son struggle to rise to the occasion of their shared crisis, we grow to like them more — and likewise this ultimately quite disarming feature. June 29, 7pm, Castro. (Harvey) *
Frameline 38, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, runs June 19-29 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, SF; Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St, SF; and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College, Berk. For tickets (most shows $10-15) and schedule, visit www.frameline.org.For even more Frameline 38 short takes, visit www.sfbg.com.
FILM Clad in his signature cape and cowl, Batman has been taking to the streets in the darkness of night and fighting crime in the imaginations of comic-book fans for 75 years.
Thanks to the Christopher Nolan film trilogy, the public has gotten used to the idea of the character being dark and brooding and living in a gritty, more realistic world. But it was Tim Burton’s eye-popping Batman, starring Michael Keaton, that first ushered in a modern vision of the Dark Knight, 25 years ago this week on June 23, 1989. That summer, Batman unleashed in a wave of pop-culture Batmania. No matter where you turned, you’d see the Bat-Signal on a T-shirt, hear “Batdance” on the radio, or catch yourself muttering one of Jack Nicholson’s iconic Joker quips.
Sam Hamm, who wrote the story for Batman and co-wrote the script with the late Warren Skaaren, is a San Francisco resident.
“I grew up reading comic books — I was completely saturated with the stuff. A few years ago, I was cleaning out some old boxes, and I came across a picture of myself when I was probably five years old, wearing a cowboy hat and reading a copy of Batman. So in that photograph somebody had encapsulated my entire future. Obviously, it was my destiny,” laughs Hamm.
By the mid-1980s, an early script for a Batman film had been kicking around at Warner Bros. for several years. Hamm had started working for the company on some different projects around that time; one day, while waiting for a meeting, he saw the script on a shelf and started reading it.
“It was very much the same structural model as Superman,” he recalls. “I was reading it, and thinking, ‘No, this is not the way.’ It [was] explaining all this stuff you don’t have to explain. It’s basically just a guy who puts on a suit and goes out and kicks ass — but why would a rich guy go out and do that every night? That, it seemed to me, was the interesting part of the story. It wasn’t how this guy came to be, it was why this guy came to be — that’s the central mystery of the movie.”
After lobbying for about six months, he was asked by Tim Burton, who was attached to direct at the point, to share his ideas for a new story.
“I said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal — you don’t start with Batman. It’s the origin of the Joker that you start out with, and Batman is the mystery. I have this feeling that Batman is really depressed, and he has to keep on going out and doing this stuff because he’s reenacting this mess with his parents.'”
Hamm’s vision was a drastic departure from the campy 1960s television show that mainstream culture most closely identified the character with at the time, but the filmmakers quickly decided that it was the direction they wanted to take.
“We started with the idea that Batman is bat-shit crazy. He goes out and does this, but then meets a girl, and starts thinking, ‘What would it be like if I had a normal life? I’ve never thought of having a normal life.’ So the progress of the story is that he starts to go sane, and what does that do to the weird sort of lifestyle decision that he’s made?”
That approach clearly resonated with fans around the world. Looking back decades later, Hamm has fond memories of being part of the phenomenon.
“It was wild. There was a huge buzz around it,” he says. “I would be driving around San Francisco, and there was a house in Noe Valley where the guy had painted the logo on his garage. They put a Bat-signal on Zeitgeist! It was quite bizarre to feel you were a part of that.” *
FILM Sometimes a movie can only be called a gift — a gift intended for somebody other than the viewer. Clearly a film is a vanity project if its primary intent seems to flatter its maker. But what about when it’s a love letter from one rich, entitled celebrity to another? Then the vanity grows complicated, not least by the fact that we’re expected to pay for the privilege of watching one ass kiss another.
Anyone who blinked probably missed Super Duper Alice Cooper, which mostly did just one-night showings across the nation in April. That rockumentary was duly “authorized” but awfully entertaining, with the wit to tell its original shock-rocker’s tale entirely through archival footage plus a running oral history of latter-day interviews. Mike Myers’ directorial bow Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon tells the same story for its first half hour — Gordon being the “Jewish kid from Long Island” who stumbled into being Cooper’s manager, shepherding (har) him to fame with an uncanny knack for promotional stunts and image-shaping.
He eventually provided those services and more to a highly eccentric roster of talents including Wonder Bread pop thrush Anne Murray, R&B vibrator Teddy Pendergrass, and (an end-scroll informs) King Sunny Ade, Ben Vereen, Raquel Welch, Michelle Shocked, Rick James, and Frankie Valli. He co-founded Alive Films, which produced and distributed an innovative slate of indie and foreign features. Discovering that the world’s greatest chefs were “treated like shit” (?!), he had the foresight to create the whole “celebrity chef racket” in which they have reality TV shows and hawk their own supermarket products, for which we presumably must be grateful.
In a respite from bedding and occasionally marrying other “tens,” he kept Sharon Stone off the dating market for two years, for which we should probably also be grateful. She introduced him to the Dalai Lama, of whom he says, “Every time His Holiness walks into a room I feel like I’ve taken the greatest shower of my life.” (Apparently, he feels spiritually cleansed.) Dropping more names than a telephone book in a shredder, Gordon shares amusing anecdotes about Cary Grant and Steve Jobs alike. He is a wellspring of generosity who supported an ex-girlfriend’s orphaned grandchildren and secured financial stability for an elderly Groucho Marx. Meeting Myers via Cooper on the set of 1992’s Wayne’s World, he subsequently housed the famously difficult comedian turned (here) documentarian for two months at his Maui compound when the erstwhile Austin Powers was going through a rough stretch.
“He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met, hands down,” Myers gushes onscreen, while some other famous person (Michael Douglas? I forget) calls Gordon “the nexus for everybody who means anything in the entire world.”
Supermensch is a professional funny guy’s documentary, which means it can’t help manipulating things (wacky klezmer soundtrack; campy re-enactments; celebrity testimonials from Tom Arnold, Sammy Hagar, and Sylvester Stallone) in ways that beg for approval. Gordon is no doubt a great host, a good cook, a consummate cocksman, and a social and business genius. But watching this movie is like paying to see a $5,000-per-plate benefit dinner via closed circuit TV — as if it were a humbling honor to witness famous people pat each other on the back.
It’s a given here that the tragedy of Gordon’s life is his not being able to foster a biological family of his own — no matter that he’d out-bachelored many a former lover who might have realized it. “I felt really lonely for him,” says one loyal personal assistant re: the moment he woke up from near fatal surgery (cue Radiohead track “Everything In Its Right Place”) and was disappointed her less-than-gorgeous self was at his bedside. The by-association narcissism Supermensch exudes is exceeded only by the depressingly low self-esteem of she who pities a man who hasn’t yet found his impossible feminine ideal. *
SUPERMENSCH: THE LEGEND OF SHEP GORDON opens Fri/13 in San Francisco.
FILM Documentaries are often the best section of any given film festival. But even die-hard fans admit to occasional Social Issue Fatigue — that feeling you get when you’ve just seen too many all-too-convincing portraits of real life injustices, reasons why the planet is dying, etc. “It was great — I’ll just go kill myself now” is a reaction few want to experience, you know, three times in one day. Yet it’s a typical plaint heard on queue at events like Toronto’s Hot Docs, let alone the touring United Nations Association Film Festival (a virtual global wrist-slitting orgy).
You’d be hard-pressed to have such a hard time at our own SF DocFest, however. For 13 years it’s managed to emphasize the entertaining and eccentric over grim reportage. To be sure, the latest edition, opening Thu/5 (with programs primarily at the Roxie and Oakland School for the Arts) has its share of films on topically important subject themes. Centerpiece presentation The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz poignantly recalls the short history of the brilliant young programmer-activist whose fate is especially chilling given the potential imminent death of net neutrality. Of Kites and Borders examines the harsh lives of children in the Tijuana area; Goodbye Gauley Mountain has Bay Area “eco-sexuals” Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens uniquely protesting the mountaintop removal industry in the Appalachians. But among 2014 SF DocFest’s 40 or so features, only Ivory Tower — about the increasingly high cost of higher U.S. education — offers straight-up journalistic overview of an urgent social issue.
More typical of DocFest’s sensibility are its numerous portraits of peculiar individuals and even more peculiar obsessions. In the jobs-make-the-man department, there’s An Honest Liar, whose magician subject The Amazing Randi has made it his personal mission to expose those who’d use his profession’s tricks to defraud the vulnerable; The Engineer, profiling the sole criminologist working in gang crime-ridden El Salvador; Bronx Obama, in which one man’s uncanny resemblance to the POTUS sets him on a lucrative but discomfiting career of impersonation for (mostly) audiences of hooting conservatives; and Vessel, whose protagonist Dr. Rebecca Gomperts sails the world trying to make abortions available to women whose countries ban the procedure.
There are no less than three features about people trying to succeed among the professionally tough: Fake It So Real (the South’s independent pro wrestling circuit), Bending Steel (a Coney Island performing strongman) and Glena (struggling mother hopes to hit paydirt as a cage fighter).
On the obsessive side, Wicker Kittens examines the world of competitive jigsaw puzzling. Jingle Bell Rocks! examines the netherworld of serious Christmas-music aficionados; Vannin’ observes the 1970s customized-van culture still alive today. Magical Universe is Jeremy Workman’s very first-person account of his friendship with an elderly Maine widower who turns out to have secretly created epic quantities of bizarre Barbie-related art. Hairy Whoand the Imagists recalls the somewhat less “outsider”-ish achievements of Chicago’s ’60s avant-garde art scene, while Amos Poe’s 1976 The Blank Generation, DocFest 13’s sole archival feature, flashes back to punk’s birth throes at CBGB’s.
Another legendary moment is remembered in Led Zeppelin Played Here, about an extremely early, ill-received 1969 Zep show at a Maryland youth center that few attended, but many claim to have. Portraits of artists expanding their forms in the present tense include Trash Dance (a choreographer collaborates with truckers and their big rigs) and When My Sorrow Died (theremin!).
Exerting a somewhat wacked fascination is the cast of We Always Lie to Strangers, which is somewhat spotty and unfocused as an overall picture of tourist mecca Branson, Mo. — Vegas for people who don’t sin — but intriguing as a study of showboy/girl types stuck in a milieu where gays remain closeted and Broadway-style divas need to keep that bitching hole shut 24/7. Further insight into your entertainment options is provided by Doc of the Dead (on zombiemania) and self-explanatory Video Games: The Movie.
One pastime nearly everyone pursues — looking for love — gets sobering treatment in Love Me, one of several recent documentaries probing the boom in Internet “mail order brides” from former Soviet nations. Its various middle-aged sad sacks pursuing much younger Eastern bombshells mostly find themselves simply ripped off for their troubles. Those looking for quicker, cheaper gratification may identify with Back Issues: The Hustler Magazine Story.
Of particular local interest is the premiere of Rick Prelinger’s No More Road Trips, culled from his collection of nearly 10,000 vintage home movies. A preview screening of First Friday offers a first peek at this forthcoming documentary about tragic violence at the monthly arts festival in Oakland last year. True Son follows 22-year-old Michael Tubbs’ attempt to win a City Council seat and reverse the fortunes of his beleaguered native Stockton. The “Don’t Call It Frisco!” program encompasses shorts about the Bay Bridge troll, a Santa Rosa animal “retirement home,” and a salute to South Bay hardcore veterans Sad Boy Sinister.
DocFest ends June 19 with that rare thing, a documentary about downbeat, hard-to-encapsulate material that’s won considerable attention simply because it’s so beautifully crafted and affecting. Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’ Rich Hill focuses on three kids in worse-than-average circumstances in a generally depressed Missouri town of 1,400 souls. Harley is an alarmingly temperamental teen housed on thin ice with his grandmother while his mother sits in prison for reasons that explain a great deal about him. Potty-mouthed Appachey is a little hellion perpetually setting off his exasperated, multi-job-juggling single mother, living in near-squalor.
Still, both are at least superficially better off than Andrew, an almost painfully resilient and hopeful boy constantly uprooted by an obscurely damaged mother and a father who can’t hold a job to save his life. “We’re not trash, we’re good people,” he tells us early on, later rationalizing his continuing dire straits with “God must be busy with everyone else.” He’s the heartbreaking face of a hardworking, religious, white American underclass that is being betrayed into desperation by the politicians who claim to share its values.
FILM For film fans, there’s a delight that comes from charting a talented director’s progress from obscurity to cult fame to “next-big-thing” status. I remember settling in to watch Jim Mickle’s 2010 breakout Stake Land (his first feature was 2006’s micro-budget creature feature Mulberry Street, which played multiple festivals on the genre circuit). I knew it was a vampire movie, a weary subject thanks to Twilight mania, but it soon became clear that Stake Land was not a by-the-numbers affair: Within the first five minutes, a crusty fang-slinger devours a human infant. “This is not a film to be fucked with,” I scribbled in my review, and filed away the name “Jim Mickle” for future consideration.
Last year, he returned with We Are What We Are, a remake of a Mexican chiller about cannibals fighting to keep their secret traditions alive despite pesky interference from the modern world. It was his third film with writing partner Nick Damici — also the lead in Mickle’s first two films, though he moved to a supporting role in We Are, which focused mostly on the teen sisters at its core. Set in rural upstate New York, We Are had its share of gore, but it also went deeper, teasing out a macabre and surprisingly detailed history of its flesh-eating family.
“To me, it’s more of a dark story about faith and religion,” he told me in an interview at the time. “I was much more interested in the girls’ story, and the story of a family trying to hold together after a tragic event.”
Now comes Mickle’s most accomplished film to date, and it’s even less overtly horror (though it contains a multitude of terrifying moments): Cold in July, a thriller ranging across East Texas, circa 1989. The script by Team Mickle-Damici is adapted from the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, who — buckle up, cultists — also penned the short story which spawned 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep. That said, there are no supernatural elements afoot here; all darkness springs entirely from the coal-black hearts beating in its characters.
Well, some of its characters. Cold in July begins with a killing, but the trigger hand is attached to mild-mannered frame-store owner Richard Dane (Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall, rocking a splendid mullet). The masked man he shot was breaking into the Dane family home; Richard was just protecting his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and young son (Brogan Hall). That he accidentally, kinda, nailed the burglar — spraying brains everywhere, necessitating amusing later scenes of weary clean-up and furniture replacement — is breezed over by the police (including a cowboy-hatted Damici). “Sometimes, the good guy wins,” they assure him.
The good guy/bad guy dynamic is twisted, tested, and taken to extremes as Cold in July continues; it’s the sort of film best viewed without much knowledge of its plot twists, which are numerous and cleverly plotted. (Which is to say: You may read on, genre junkie, without fear of spoilers, because I don’t wanna ruin anyone’s viewing enjoyment.) The day after his run-in with vigilante justice, Richard realizes he’s the number one conversation topic in his small town, and his shiny local-hero status has attracted the attention of the dead robber’s father (Sam Shepard), just out of the clink and skilled in the art of Cape Fear-style menace.
What happens next is best left a surprise, though it does involve Don Johnson as a flamboyant, convertible-driving pig farmer; plenty more bloodshed; a meeting at a drive-in that just happens to be screening Night of the Living Dead (1968); and the line “You don’t wanna fuck with the Dixie Mafia.” Throughout, Cold in July expertly works its 1980s setting as both homage to and embodiment of the era’s gritty thrillers; its synth-heavy score and neo-noir lensing (by frequent Mickle collaborators Jeff Grace and Ryan Samul, respectively) and the casting of Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt; he was also in We Are What We Are) in a key role add to the feeling that Cold in July was crafted after much time spent in the church of St. John Carpenter. There’s humor, too, deployed with careful timing that doesn’t compromise the slow-burning tension that builds throughout — as when Richard celebrates some good news by headbanging to period-perfect power rock in his enormous, wood-paneled station wagon.
Most intriguingly, and for all its retro trappings, Cold in July offers a very modern exploration of masculinity via all of its leads, though Richard is obviously the embodiment of this theme. “I’ve been waiting for something big like this,” he says to his wife before slithering away on a secret road trip (she thinks he’s talking about landing an important new client). Unlike Viggo Mortensen’s secret gangster in 2005’s A History of Violence, which begins with a similar premise (family guy shoots someone in self-defense, opening a can of worms in the process), Richard has zero past aggression to draw on; dude’s got a history of mildness — with a heretoforth untapped curiosity about the wilder side of life awakened by a sudden bloody act. Once again, Mickle has delivered an unfuck-with-able film. Can’t wait to see what he does next. *
FILM As far as Hollywood is concerned, it’s already been summer for weeks, with superheroes (Captain America and Spider-Man have had their turns; X-Men: Days of Future Past opens Fri/23) and monsters (Godzilla) looking mighty comfortable atop the box office. But the season is just getting started, screen fiends, and there’s plenty more — maybe too many more, if you’re operating on a limited popcorn budget — ahead. Read on for a highly opinionated, by-no-means-comprehensive guide; as always, dates are subject to change. (And keep reading for a list of local film festivals, too, since the healthiest diet is always a balanced one.)
The first post-Memorial Day weekend unveils Angelina Jolie (dem cheekbones!) as Sleeping Beauty’s worst nightmare in Maleficent, probably the biggest Disney casting coup since Johnny Depp sailed to the Caribbean. First-time helmer Robert Stromberg has a pair of Oscars for his art-direction work on Avatar (2009) and Alice in Wonderland (2010); if this dark fantasy clicks with audiences, expect a raft of live-action films starring Disney’s ever-growing stable of villains (fingers crossed for Ursula the Sea Witch next).
If fairy tales aren’t your thing, add thriller Cold in July to your calendar (like Maleficent, it’s out May 30). It’s the latest from genre man Jim Mickle (2013’s We Are What We Are), with his highest-profile cast to date. Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall, rocking a mullet, plays a small-town Texan whose unremarkable life goes into pulpy overdrive after he kills a burglar, angering the man’s ex-con father (Sam Shepard). But nothing is what it seems in this twisty tale, which also features Don Johnson and a synth score — both stellar enhancements to the film’s late-1980s aesthetic.
Moving into June, sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrowhas Tom Cruise saving the world — just another day on the job for the suspiciously ageless star, though he apparently lives the same day over and over here. Look for director Doug Liman (multiple Bourne movies) and co-stars like Emily Blunt and Game of Thrones‘ Noah Taylor to add some depth — though, OK, this’ll probably still be a one-man show. Never change, Tom. Elsewhere June 6, erstwhile Divergent ass-kicker Shailene Woodley aims to prove she’s not just the poor man’s Jennifer Lawrence with young-adult weepie The Fault in Our Stars.
June 13, undercover cops Schmidt and Jenko — played by the likable team of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum — return for more jokes (and winks, because they’re in on the joke too, you guys!) in 22 Jump Street. Far less comedic, and far more brain-melting, is sci-fi drama The Signal, which starts off like a typical road-trip movie, then switches gears a few times before slam-banging into weirdness so out-there it’s almost (almost) a spoiler to note that Laurence “Morpheus” Fishburne plays a key role.
The following week (June 20), Aussie filmmaker David Michôd — whose gritty 2010 Animal Kingdom became an insta-classic of the crime genre, and launched the stateside careers of Jackie Weaver and Joel Edgerton — reunites with Kingdom star Guy Pearce for The Rover, the outback-set tale of a man seeking revenge on a gang of car thieves. In an intriguing casting choice, former vampire Robert Pattinson co-stars as a wounded baddie forced along for the ride.
Next up, June 27 unleashes Transformers: Age of Extinction. Memo to the world: Until we all agree to stop seeing these movies, Michael Bay and company will keep grinding ’em out. At least this one is LaBeouf-less.
Ahead of the long Fourth of July weekend, July 2 unleashes saucy comedy Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy (she also co-wrote the script) and Susan Sarandon as a road-tripping granddaughter and grandmother. Or, you could check out Eric Bana as an NYPD detective who teams up with a priest (Edgar “Carlos the Jackal” Ramírez, recently cast in the Swayze role in the highly unnecessary Point Break remake) in Deliver Us From Evil; despite sharing a title with Amy Berg’s harrowing 2006 doc about pedophiles in the Catholic Church, it’s about demonic possession — but is still probably less frightening than the Berg film, to be honest.
July 11, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has a gimmicky premise — filmed over 12 years, it charts the coming-of-age of a child, and his relationship with his parents (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — but also glowing reviews from its film festival stints. And, just when you thought it was safe to go back to the banana aisle, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes arrives, laying further waste to a San Francisco that already took a beating in the first film, not to mention losing most of its downtown to Godzilla and friends just a week ago. Andy Serkis returns as chimp king Caesar. Also: Roman Polanski’s latest, Venus in Fur — based on the David Ives play, and starring Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner — arrives on our shores after picking up a César award for the director in France.
Andy and Lana Wachowski’s latest eye candy-laden epic action fantasy, Jupiter Ascending, is about an ordinary human (Mila Kunis) who turns out to be Neo the One, er, royalty from another planet. Based on production stills, this film also features Channing Tatum flying through the air shooting guns and stuff. July 18 also brings The Purge: Anarchy, sequel to last year’s sleeper hit about a near-future America that allows a crime spree free-for-all one night per year. The follow-up lacks Lena Heady — but it does have Michael K. “Omar” Williams, and the characters actually leave the house this time.
Then, on July 25, choose your hero: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson sporting a hat made out of a lion’s head (and, apparently, beard made out of yak hair) in Hercules, or those dancin’ kids of Las Vegas-set Step Up All In. (For those keeping score, this is the fifth Step Up film.) Plus, there’s Woody Allen’s 1920s-set Magic in the Moonlight, starring Emma Stone as a psychic and Colin Firth as the skeptic who falls for her. Sounds kinda twee, and Allen’s private life remains controversial, but that cast, which also includes Marcia Gay Harden and Jackie Weaver, is all kinds of dynamite.
August begins with a bang — Marvel’s hotly-anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy, which just about broke the Internet when its first trailer rolled out in February, is out on the first — before meandering a bit. Taking a break from her own Marvel duties, Scarlett Johansson (so great in Under the Skin) plays a different kind of superhuman in Luc Besson’s Lucy, while the live action-CG mash-up I’m not sure anyone was really begging for, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, also takes a bow (both Aug. 8).
As the summer winds down, Phillip Noyce (2002’s The Quiet American) strays onto YA turf with an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, with Jeff “The Dude” Bridges playing the title role, and Brenton Thwaits (who also stars in The Signal, above) as his protégé. Also out Aug. 15, The Expendables 3 adds Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, and Wesley Snipes (!!) to its cast o’ aging action hunks. Don’t you worry, Nic Cage — there’s still room for you in the inevitable part four. And don’t miss The Trip to Italy, which re-teams British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for a foodie road trip that will make you guffaw (at the impressions) and drool (over the plates of pasta).
Labor Day looms as Robert Rodriguez brings Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which looks to be as visually stunning as its 2005 predecessor, if not much friendlier to the female perspective; a sports drama inspired by Concord’s own De La Salle High School football team, When the Game Stands Tall; and yet another YA adaptation, If I Stay, starring Chloë Grace Moretz, who is one of the more dynamic teen actors of late, and may make this girlfriend-in-a-coma tale livelier than it sounds. *
ESCAPE THE MULTIPLEX: SUMMER FESTIVALS
San Francisco Green Film Festival (May 29-June 4; www.sfgreenfilmfest.org) Doc-heavy fest of films from 21 countries that explore environmental issues and themes.
San Francisco Silent Film Festival (May 29-June 1; www.silentfilm.org) Exquisitely curated and rock-concert-popular showcase of films from cinema’s earliest days, plus live accompaniment and special guests.
SF DocFest (June 5-19; www.sfindie.com) The San Francisco Independent Film Festival’s doc-tastic offshoot consistently offers a strong slate of true-life tales.
New Filipino Cinema (June 11-15; www.ybca.org) Documentaries, narratives, shorts, and experimental films direct from the Philippines’ burgeoning film scene.
Queer Women of Color Film Festival (June 14-16; www.qwocmap.org) Five shorts programs highlight 55 works, with a focus this year on queer culture in Southeast Asian, North African, Middle Eastern, and other Muslim communities.
Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema (June 14-Aug 23, bampfa.berkeley.edu) Rare and important works by Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Wojciech Has, and others — and since Uncle Marty’s in charge, expect glorious digital restorations across the board.
Frameline (June 19-29; www.frameline.org) The oldest and largest fest of its kind, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival has been programming the best in queer cinema for 38 years.
San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 24-Aug 10; www.sfjff.org) Also the oldest and largest fest of its kind, the SFJFF presents year-round programming, though this fest, now in its 34th year, is its centerpiece event.
FILM Prison should be the most natural setting for film noir, as that’s where most of the genre’s protagonists are headed (if they don’t get bumped off first), and where many of them have already been. But it’s had spotty representation onscreen, with time served either skipped over in the narrative (how many pulp fictions start with a hard-luck protagonist just getting out of long-term for what’s sure to be short-term freedom?), or dominating entirely.
This spring’s edition of “I Wake Up Dreaming,” the recurrent Roxie noir showcase programmed by Elliot Lavine, has a number of notable titles dealing with the claustrophobic consequences of crime-not-paying. What’s even more notable this time around is the cross-pollination with Lavine’s other Roxie perennial, the series of Hollywood “pre-Codes” made in an approximately five-year window between the advent of “talkies” and the 1934 arrival of more rigidly enforced, censorious industry standards toward potentially objectionable content. Their peaks separated by about 15 years, pre-Codes and noirs shared a taste for hard-boiled dialogue and seamy situations, so their programmatic overlapping here feels right.
Two of the strongest entries here were released at least a decade before the arrival of anything that might legitimately be labeled noir. Daintily titled Ladies They Talk About (1933) is a rip-roaring original Women in Prison exploiter, with the inimitable Barbara Stanwyck as a moll who sashays into the hoosegow after enabling a bank stick-up. Getting two-to-five in San Quentin’s women’s ward, which here is like the world’s saltiest sorority, she quickly identifies her allies and enemies while spurning the visits of a childhood pal turned crusading DA (Preston Foster) — when she’d ratted on herself to prove “I’m on the level now” to him, he had the noive to actually charge her with the crime. That bum!
Another enduring star who came in with the sound era, Edward G. Robinson, gets all of Two Seconds (1932) to recall what got him to the electric chair — though that translates into a still-trim 67 minutes’ screen time in Mervyn LeRoy’s drama. The first half is a gem of snappy patter as the headliner and a terrific Foster play construction-worker roommates — Robinson the penny-pinching plodder, Foster the one always ready to blow his paycheck on booze, broads, and the horses. Yet it’s the former who’s taken for a chump’s ride by dancehall girl Vivienne Osborne, whose personality goes from Jekyll to Hyde the moment she’s manipulated him into an unholy matrimony. You can guess what happens — she’s already murder just to live with. As a none-too-bright lug who can’t get a break, Robinson gets a serious acting workout here, even if the climactic pre-execution Big Speech smacks overmuch of writing for Oscar’s sake.
Several rarities that verge on horror come from before and after the semi-official, immediately post-World War II noir era. Miracles for Sale (1939) was the final feature for director Tod Browning of Lon Chaney Sr. and Freaks (1932) fame. It stars Robert Young as a professional “magic” debunker investigating murders connected to an alleged witchcraft circle. Even so, this slick comedy thriller provides scant outlet for Browning’s love of the macabre.
Even less frequently revived are three early 1960s chillers: Erstwhile Incredible Shrinking Man Grant Williams plays a psychiatric patient and serial killer in The Couch (1962), Robert Bloch’s first screenplay after Hitchcock adapted his novel Psycho. The Hypnotic Eye (1960) has tall, dark, and handsome Jacques Bergerac (who married Dorothy Malone and Ginger Rogers) as a hypnotist whose prettier subjects tend to grotesquely disfigure themselves. Two on a Guillotine (1965) is a sub-William Castle gothic with the punishingly perky duo of Connie Stevens and Dean Jones having to spend an inheritance-earning week in the inevitable haunted house. They’re all terrible, but have a certain creaky charm.
Holding up very well indeed is 1949’s The Window, a rare genuine independent production of the era to achieve major recognition. As opening on-screen text announces, it’s the story of the boy who cried wolf — updated to a modern NYC tenement, where little Bobby Driscoll is testing the patience of his parents and playmates with his constant fabrications. Thus nobody believes him, of course, when he witnesses a real murder. Once his homicidal neighbors catch wind of him, our grade-school protagonist becomes prey himself. Criminal child endangerment was far from a typical story element in those days, and with its still-tense chase finale amid crumbling condemned buildings, The Window presented such a novelty that it won a (rather generous) special Oscar for Driscoll, who was usually seen in the more wholesome environs of Disney films like Song of the South (1946) and Treasure Island (1950). Yet soon after, adolescent acne would kill his acting career. Ironically echoing this famous role, the by-then heroin-addicted ex-con was found dead in an abandoned 1968 NYC tenement at age 31, his body found by playing children.
Other “Dreaming” highlights include a glossy 1947 double bill showcasing talented Warner Brothers star Ann Sheridan, the better being The Unfaithful, though Nora Prentiss has the virtue of being partly shot in SF. As sleepers go, though, two vintage “Bs” may rep the series’ best discoveries. Perhaps the program’s least likely inclusion is Angels in Disguise (1948), a later entry among the Bowery Boys’ nearly 100 juvenile hijinks. This one is a spoof of tough urban crime dramas, and a surprisingly good one, complete with shadow-heavy noir imagery and hard-boiled voiceover narration. As ever, the scene stealer is rubber-faced beanpole Huntz Hall.
From 1957, Death in Small Doses (“The picture that crosses the forbidden territory … of THRILL PILLS!”) rips the lid off amphetamine abuse among long-distance truckers, with future Mission: Impossible and Airplane! (1980) star Peter Graves as an undercover federal investigator. What makes it unmissable, however, is the supporting turn by none other than Chuck Connors (1979’s Tourist Trap, 1973’s Soylent Green) as perpetually hopped-up boarding-house hepcat “Mink.” If scene-stealing were a crime, Hall might get life without parole, but Connors would merit the chair. *
FILM Jose Antonio Vargas’ grandparents — who raised him in Mountain View after he was smuggled into America at age 12 from the Philippines — expected him to grow up, blend in, and live a perfectly ordinary life in his new country. He’d work a “menial job,” as both of them had, and eventually legalize his immigration status by marrying an American woman.
Thing is, Vargas was a smart kid who grew into an exceptionally intelligent young adult. He pursued a journalism career that earned him coveted reporting gigs for the Washington Post and CNN, among other outlets, as well as a Pulitzer Prize. He’s also gay, and while marriage equality laws are thankfully evolving, that fact complicated his family’s hopes for a traditional wedding (and subsequent green card). In 2011, weary of guarding a secret he’d shared with only a few close friends, the 30-year-old Vargas penned a powerful essay for the New York Times Magazine, revealing “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”
Documented, his film with co-director Ann Lupo, chronicles the months before and after Vargas “outed” himself. It’s a highly personal story, especially when the film crew travels to Manila to interview Vargas’ mother. Their geographical separation (she can’t get a visa to see her son in the US, nor can he leave the country to visit her) has become an emotional estrangement so complex she weeps when he refuses to add her on Facebook. But Documented also taps Vargas’ Define American media campaign to broaden its message, interviewing undocumented youths affected by the DREAM Act and sharing in their joy when the bill — providing permanent residency to young, educated immigrants of “good moral character” — finally goes into effect.
Unfortunately for Vargas, who continues to push back in high-profile ways even after he’s declared his status (particularly poignant: scenes at a Mitt Romney rally, where a grandmotherly type asks him, “Why don’t you just become legal?”, as if it’s as simple as buying a car or getting a haircut), he’s too old to benefit from the DREAM legislation. He’s a “walking uncomfortable conversation,” as he calls himself in a lecture excerpted throughout the film; though he feels relief at having come clean, he’s still unable to make any traction in his citizenship quest. At one point, he phones INS (“Deportation. How can I help you?”) to see if anyone’s planning to clamp down, as if finally getting “caught” would be preferable to living in extended limbo. The only closure of sorts comes when Vargas reconnects with his mother via Skype, but there’s an undercurrent of helplessness to their computer-screen reunion that makes Documented‘s themes feel especially raw and urgent.
Back for its second year, the Himalayan Film Festival unspools over two days, starting Fri/16 in SF with Christoph Schwaiger’s Kamlahari. The rest of the fest, including Kesang Tseten’s Who Will Be a Gurkha, takes place Sat/17 as part of Berkeley’s weekend-long Himalayan Fair.
Kamlahari is a social-justice doc that would be right at home in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Filmmaker Schwaiger travels to Nepal’s Teraï region to investigate families that sell their daughters to work in wealthier households, an old tradition that persists despite the fact that child labor is now illegal. The girls are treated cruelly by their “landladies” and are deprived of education and medical care; if and when they’re allowed to return home, their home life may be no less abusive, and their relationships with the family members who pressed them into servitude are strained.
The film’s charismatic center is Urmila Chaudari, a kamlahari from ages six to 17. “My story is one of many stories,” she says, but she’s actually quite extraordinary: After pursuing her education, she became an advocate for girls in Nepal, rescuing them from bondage and working with NGOs to set up safe places for them to live and “find a way back to childhood.” Urmila’s dignified mien and mastery of English makes her an ideal spokesperson, and we follow her as she visits a human-rights conference in Norway and the UN in New York. “It is a first victory for us that everyone is hearing our story,” she says.
Boys in Nepal may be in less danger of becoming household slaves, but their options are also limited. Some dream of joining a special British Army unit, the Brigade of the Gurkhas, established in 1815 and praised for its heroism (and general badassery) in both World Wars. (These days, gurkhas fight in places like Afghanistan, for pay that well exceeds anything offered by the Indian or Nepalese armies.) If the title of Nepalese director Tseten’s film, Who Will be a Gurhka, reminds you of a reality-show competition, that’s not far off, since the film follows the grueling selection (lots of intense physical training, but brain power is also tested) as thousands of wannabes are winnowed to hundreds, then to just under 200.
Gurkha archives provide Tseten with black-and-white footage showing eerily identical selection camps held in decades past, but at just 75 minutes the director misses the chance to go deeper — more history and context, perhaps via interviews with current or retired gurkhas, would add some welcome perspective. Who Will be a Gurkha would also benefit from engaging with, rather than simply observing, its subjects. None of the boys are singled out enough for us to root for them; we learn about their motivations mostly via nervously-blurted answers during interviews with the selection committee, and their personal lives during random conversation snippets, leaving the viewer without focal points amid the film’s sea of hopeful young faces. *
DOCUMENTED opens Thu/15 at the Roxie and Fri/16 in Bay Area theaters.
FILM Foodie movies — a perennially popular genre, thanks to standard-bearers like 1996’s Big Night and 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman — are having a particularly heady moment. There’s Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s travelogue The Trip to Italy — as full of hilarious impressions as it is delectable pasta dishes — which screened to appreciative crowds at the San Francisco International Film Festival; and Jon Favreau’s food-truck comedy, Chef, poised to open locally May 16 after taking the audience award at Tribeca.
Beyond narrative films and documentaries (see: 2011’s hugely popular Jiro Dreams of Sushi), there’s intense interest in celebrity chef culture, which has crossed over into pop culture with the success of shows like Top Chef and Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, not to mention gossip sites’ breathless reporting on food trends (is the cronut craze over yet, or what?). In late April, Copenhagen’s Noma was named numero uno among the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, aka “the Oscars of fine dining,” per CNN. But no restaurant was more lauded in its lifespan than Ferran Adrià’s legendary El Bulli, which closed in 2011. Naturally, someone made a documentary about the joint — on Spain’s Costa Brava — and now there’s Tasting Menu, an ensemble Euro-comedy that takes place at “Chakula,” a 30-seat restaurant on Spain’s Costa Brava that’s about to serve its final meal.
Why is the apparently successful Chakula closing? Gorgeous chef Mar (Vicenta N’Dongo) isn’t saying, nor is she revealing the final menu — and neither is director and co-writer Roger Gual (2002’s Smoking Room). We catch glimpses of artfully plated dishes as they’re assembled in the kitchen and whisked around the seaside dining room (and get one descriptor: “Snail caviar”), but this ain’t Like Water for Chocolate-level cooking porn. Gual is mostly concerned with the diners themselves, all of whom are rich, well-connected, or lucky enough to have scored the most exclusive reservation on the planet. Alas, there’s not a truly compelling personality among them, though an impish widow (Fionnula Flanagan) who dines with an urn containing her husband’s ashes, and a mysteriously morose man (Stephen Rea) who may or may not be a food critic, come the closest. (The Spain-set movie was mostly filmed in Ireland, hence the presence of these Irish stars.)
Elsewhere, there’s estranged couple Rachel and Marc (Claudia Bassols and Jan Cornet, the latter last seen undergoing an epic transformation in 2011’s The Skin I Live In) whose passion is reignited in the presence of snail caviar; a nervous maître d’ (Andrew Tarbet) charged with overseeing the top-secret surprise dessert; a pair of grouchy Japanese businessmen who are competing to take over the restaurant after Mar steps aside; and assorted other stereotypes and rivals tossed in to bring tension to what’s essentially a pleasant-yet-woefully-unexciting dinner party, filled with guests who linger much longer than they should. Last-act excitement enters, kinda, when a boat sinks just offshore and the assembled company rushes to help, but by then there’s no saving Tasting Menu, whose blandness comes into face-slapping focus when Flanagan’s character counsels the romantically confused Rachel to “just follow your heart” and that “there’s nothing more precious than freedom.” Burrrrp. *
FILM A 1779 painting commissioned by the First Earl of Mansfield (and now owned by the present one) portrays two young women near a lake. One faces us formally, composedly, suggesting the posture held over hours of sitting in the (unknown) artist’s studio; but the other, whose arm she grasps, is tilted forward in motion, wears an exotic feathered turban and plunging neckline, with one hand rakishly cradling a cheek. The contrast is all the more striking because the former lady is white and the latter black, yet the image lacks any typical indicator that their relationship was a master-servant one. Indeed, they give every appearance of simply being friends.
Without that canvas, history might have entirely forgotten Dido Elizabeth Belle, who’d been born 18 years earlier in the West Indies to Sir John Lindsay, an admiral of the British Navy, and Maria Belle — who may have been an African slave captured from the Spanish in Havana. At some early point Dido was deposited in England, to the care of Lindsay’s childless aunt and uncle. Little is known about the decades she spent in their household, during which time her father passed away. But interestingly, the great-uncle she was primarily raised by was also Lord Chief Justice at a time when there was increasing public pressure for the Empire to end its participation in the lucrative global slave trade. He eventually made court decisions that at least began turning the English legal tide against that cruel institution.
His life is much better chronicled than that of illegitimate ward Dido, so in focusing on her experience, the new costume drama Belle is by necessity largely an imaginative fiction. This handsome piece directed by former actress Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay offers all the conventional satisfactions of Masterpiece Theatre-type cinema, involving as it does well-dressed aristocratic intrigue in fabulous settings. But while Belle is just a thoroughly satisfying rather than truly inspired example of the genre, it benefits from having more on its mind than romance and royalty: Taking place in an almost absurdly rarefied, privileged circumstance, particularly as compared to the institutionalized brutality shown in something like 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, it nonetheless also makes us confront the injustice of rating one class of person beneath another.
Entrusted with all naive good intentions by dashing, kind Lindsay (Matthew Goode) to previously unmet relatives after her mother’s death, young Dido (Lauren Julien-Box) suffers the inevitable culture shock. But she’s not half as shocked as her new minders, who sputter “But … she’s black!” before dad promptly sails off again. Nonetheless, Lord Mansfield (Tom Willkinson), Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) and live-in spinster sibling Lady Murray (Penelope Wilton) endeavor to raise this child as they would any other — like Elizabeth (Cara Jenkins), another illegitimate family offspring they’ve been stuck with. The two girls become inseparable, and so long as they stay within the enormous estate’s bounds, they are equals.
But once they reach marriageable age, their differently disabled social statuses become hard to ignore. Both are beautiful and well-bred, yes. But quiet, intelligent Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is heiress to a fortune, one that might tempt suitors even as her skin color makes her very existence a sordid scandal for some. Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is blonde, vivacious, and penniless, which makes her pretty well useless in this milieu where blue blood is prized, yet in reality held less valuable than cash money. Undesirable to their alleged peers, and barred by propriety from marrying “beneath” them, they seemingly cannot marry at all — and what other role is left them in this era, besides the unhappy spinster-housekeeper one Lady Murray endures? Among those dangling possible solutions — albeit sometimes treacherously — are two bachelor sons (James Norton, Harry Potter villain Tom Felton) of the icy Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson), and a more humbly born legal apprentice (Sam Reid) who hopes to sway Judge Mansfield toward the abolitionist cause.
Belle does indeed sometimes commit the sin of forcing post-Civil Rights morality and other very modern mindsets on characters who would hardly be so advanced in the late 1700s. But that seems forgivable in this context, given that a movie that fully internalized Dido’s perceived racial inferiority would be too bleak to provide any of this one’s Jane Austen-esque pleasures. (Besides, there is some admittedly sketchy evidence that the real Dido was educated and otherwise treated as an equal within her immediate family circle, not to mention unthinkingly obeyed by their servants.)
There’s a fairy-tale appeal to the lovely, deft leads, a familiar satisfying dastardliness to their foes, and of course no end of scene-stealing from the support-cast veterans. Unlike a movie such as 1999’s Mansfield Park or the awful Reese Witherspoon Vanity Fair (2004), the weightier external historical issues aren’t clumsily shoehorned into existing texts. Belle gets to address both fancy-dress love stuff and the grotesque injustice of a “civilized” world built on slavery because, in this stranger-than-fiction instance, the two are more or less evenly relevant. Which makes this a guilt-free teacake of its type, one you can have and eat, too. *
FILM It’s no wonder John Turturro’s Fading Gigolo is already shaping up as one of the year’s few indie hits so far — like many such before it, it offers a titillating surface premise belied by the reassuring confirmation of a staid moral outlook beneath. The writer-director plays Fioravante, a middle aged native Brooklynite whose working hours as a florist are shrinking; meanwhile older friend Murray (Woody Allen) faces closing the bookstore his family has operated for three generations. The latter hits upon an unlikely moneymaking scheme when his female dermatologist mentions she and her best friend would pay for the first-time novelty of a three-way. Murray proposes Fioravante provide the meat in their sandwich, and despite all initial resistance, he consents to a trial one-on-one with the client — played by Sharon Stone, so it’s not exactly a huge sacrifice. This goes well, as do appointments with her BFF Sofia Vergara, another socialite bombshell in unlikely need of professional erotic assistance.
It’s with the addition of a third customer that things get complicated: Fioravante gets referred to Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), whose status as widow of an older Hasidic rabbi requires a suffocating level of propriety. Starved for affection, she lets Fioravante (passing himself off as a Sephardic Jew) touch her ostensibly aching back, which is just as bad as a five-alarm coital orgasm so far as her community elders are concerned. Their clandestine meetings do not escape the vigilant notice of an officious neighborhood patroller (Liev Schreiber) already smitten with Avigal, and whose suspicions of criminal activity are enflamed by jealousy.
It’s ironic that while most screen depictions of heterosexual prostitution feature nothing but young, beautiful women servicing men of more realistically variable attractiveness, this ostensible role-reversal keeps the gender inequity just so. Fioravante is a not-so-young, not-particularly handsome man (albeit one made attractive by Turturro’s air of gentlemanly gravity here) who gets only hot numbers as Janes — it’s still a male fantasy, only now the guy is getting paid. Fading Gigolo‘s general affability lets it get away with a boatload of cultural and casting stereotypes, not least Vergara as a fiery Latina who might as well have muy caliente tattooed on her voluptuous flesh. For “plain,” virtuous contrast we get a glammed-down Paradis, the model-singer-actor who’s been France’s leading pop pinup for about a quarter-century. Then there’s Sharon Stone, playing Sharon Stone, which is to say archly channeling two things: a) Aren’t I hotter than ever? and b) I am smarter than the rest of you combined (and hotter too).
There are no unattractive women here — in fact Brooklyn itself seems to have been airbrushed free of clutter, human and otherwise. Even Allen, doing his usual dithery standup shtick, gets a spouse (Tunisian singer M’Barka Ben Taleb) half his age, and who further extends the film’s gloss of multiculturalism as harmless exotica. (It wasn’t clear to me whether the dark-skinned kids running around were their kids, or grandkids — while Avigal’s six children are kept conveniently off screen, lest they spoil the mood of desire.)
Fading Gigolo goes down very easily, even if on his fifth feature behind the camera Turturro remains a sometimes stilted director and careless scenarist. Taking a leaf from Allen’s notebook, this romantic fantasy is shot in warm, soft tones, draped in cool jazz, and takes place in an idealized New York City that’s part nostalgia, part pure imagination. The scented-bath atmosphere allows you to overlook the clumsier, poorly developed bits. And the film’s sometimes naive good nature almost lets it get away with being an entirely narcissistic male daydream of what women really want: an average (but secretly exceptional) guy whom beauties throw themselves at because he alone understands they want to be wooed.
Another guy performing a sort of perfected masculinity for the benefit of needy others is Tom Hardy’s titular character in Steven Knight’s Locke. This virtual solo show has the actor as Ivan Locke, a 40-ish construction manager driving to London on the eve of “the biggest cement pour” ever attempted in Europe. But he’s driving away from that, to the shrill indignation of superiors who expect his reliable on-site supervision, and the increasingly drunken panic of the flunky (voice of Andrew Scott) he’s deputized to take his place. The reason for this unprecedented dereliction of responsibility is that Ivan is committed to another responsibility, to “take care of my fuckup.”
As we gradually realize during his 85-minute drive, that means showing up for the premature birth of the baby he’s sired by a fragile, rather hysterical-sounding woman (Olivia Colman) in the brief sole detour from marital infidelity he’s ever taken. Doing so may well end his career, as well as his long-standing marriage to the mother of his sons. But our protagonist is determined at any cost not to become his own late father (with whom he has imaginary conversations), a wastrel who never made good on his obligations to family or anyone else.
Shot repeatedly in real time with multiple cameras over 12 nights (the actors voicing Bluetooth callers also performed “live” in conference-call fashion), then assembled from 16 full-length takes, Locke is a striking experiment that never quite escapes an air of theatrical stunt. In retrospect you realize most of its tension derives not from the core emotional crises, but from narrative red herrings — primarily our terror that anyone multitasking this recklessly behind the wheel is an accident waiting to happen. But the chameleonic Hardy, playing a rather square, middle-class, essentially humorless type unlike any he’s done before, makes this effortfully “decent” man so compelling you can’t look away. If there’s anything this actor can’t do, he hasn’t tried it yet. *
FILM Almost 10 years ago, a sprawling music doc entitled Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey kick-started the careers of Canadian filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen. Since 2005, the duo has worked on films about Rush, Iron Maiden, and Motorhead; they’ve also collaborated on a doc about Satan and will soon take on a project about “a very important heavy metal band who shall temporarily remain nameless.” Their current feature adds a third co-director, Reginald Harkema, for the colorful story of Alice Cooper, née Vincent Furnier, who’s as famous for songs like 1972’s “School’s Out” as he is for his horror-meets-vaudeville stage shtick.
Though Super Duper Alice Cooper retraces tales that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Cooper’s autobiographies or seen his Behind the Music episode, the directors tried to make the film as visually dynamic as possible, tapping old footage and animation and avoiding any talking heads. On the eve of the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and just ahead of its local screenings, I spoke to them about their approach.
SF Bay Guardian You’ve made a number of rock docs. What’s different about Super Duper Alice Cooper?
Scot McFadyen We’d finished doing Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage (2010), and we were at an awards ceremony in London, where we were approached by Shep [Gordon, Alice Cooper’s longtime manager] about doing a doc on Alice. We decided that we’d be into it if we could do it in this sort of “doc opera,” highly visual way without talking heads. We thought that would be a really fun challenge. He’s such a cultural icon — I think it’s important for people to realize how much effect he’s had since the early 1970s, and how much an influence he’s been as a pioneering shock rocker.
SFBG Can you elaborate on “doc opera”?
Reginald Harkema The idea came because Sam and Scot have cut their teeth on documentaries, whereas I come in from a feature-drama side. I said, why don’t we take the approach of mythologizing our character? Why don’t we take the usual documentary material — TV appearances and magazine spreads, concerts and photos — and marry it with a rock opera concept? And Alice’s music is perfect for that because he’s very self-referential. His music became the soundtrack to his own rock opera.
SFBG Cooper has been open about his past and this film doesn’t contain any shocking new revelations. How did you strategize around that?
SM Alice is such a showman. He does a lot of interviews, and we hear the same stories over and over. We did, like, 40 hours of interviews with him just trying to get him to go beyond the surface. And it was great to talk with [original Alice Cooper band bassist and Cooper childhood friend] Dennis Dunaway, because he was a big part of creating that character and bringing the band to life.
RH Also, when we were talking to Bernie Taupin, he wanted to tell the real story of his experiences with Alice, which involved cocaine and freebasing, which he felt a little bit guilty about bringing Alice into. And Alice has been very protective of that part of his past being revealed until now.
SFBG How did you choose your interview subjects?
RH We didn’t want to have any journalistic voices in the film, or anyone observing Alice from an analytical point of view. We treated it more like a drama, in the sense that people enter the story as Alice moves through his life. So obviously, Dennis at the outset, meeting Shep Gordon, and eventually we hear from Elton John, who was really blown away by his concert at the Hollywood Bowl. We really wanted to talk to the pivotal characters in terms of Alice’s development as an artist.
SFBG Coincidentally, the doc Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is also about to hit theaters. Have you seen it?
SM Yes! It’s funny, because you’ll see there are a couple of stories in there that are similar to our film — and what’s great is that they’re completely different in his doc than in Alice’s doc. It really shows you how everyone’s memories are affected from that period. By the end, [Supermensch] is much more about Shep and his life than about him and Alice, but there are some moments of crossover for sure.
SFBG Supermensch is directed by Mike Myers, which leads to the obvious question: why no Wayne’s World (1992) clips in your movie?
SM We’d seen the docs about Alice in the past, but it seemed like the most Shakespearean, dramatic moment of his life was when he stepped onstage sober. And that was in 1986. That was the point where this Jekyll and Hyde character was able to overcome his demons. Yeah, he went on and did “Poison” and had a number one hit with that, and then did Wayne’s World, but that was after the endpoint of our story.
SFBG Ending the movie in the 1980s also allows you to avoid going into Alice’s conservative political views.
RH He’s pretty apolitical, really — he’s a rich guy who lives in Arizona. He’s no Ted Nugent. But the goal of the story was to talk about how this kid, Vincent Furnier, transformed into the character of Alice Cooper. If you ask any performer, especially vocalists, they’ll tell you they go through some sort of transition before they go onstage. I think what makes Alice unique is that he becomes this character. And so while we didn’t necessarily want to touch on the political side of his life, we did want to show that this was a nice Christian kid from suburban Phoenix who became the godfather of shock rock. It was important to us to paint that picture. *
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit festival.sffs.org.
Harmony Lessons (Emir Baigazin, Kazakhstan/Germany/France, 2013) Darwinian natural selection seems to be the guiding principle at the rural Kazakh school where bright farm boy Aslan (Timur Aidarbekov) is sent to further his education. What he learns there is mostly about survival, as he soon discovers the institution is dominated by an elaborate system of bullying and extortion in which a few older students terrorize the younger and weaker. Emir Baigazin’s striking debut feature applies a rigor both aesthetic and intellectual to a familiar theme here, his script as methodical as his minimalist compositions in dissecting the havoc wreaked by (and eventual unraveling of) a corrupt system that’s a microcosm of a societal whole. Fri/25, 3:30pm, Kabuki; May 4, 12:45pm, Kabuki; May 5, 6:15pm, Kabuki. (Dennis Harvey)
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania/France, 2013) Romanian moviemaker Corneliu Porumboiu (2009’s Police, Adjective) turns his lens around, toward the casting couch and the oh-so-delicate damage done, in his third feature film. An everyday kind of corruption, sex, lies, and video — zipless, tapeless, and forging way beyond the limits of film — is the name of the game when a director (Bogdan Dumitrache) nonchalantly drops a nude scene on his actress (Diana Avramut) and the two try out a few ideas, on-camera for the screen and off-camera in the bedroom. The hardly working relationship plays both ways, as the moviemaker bends in turn to his producer, in this minimalist albeit layered glimpse into the unlovely guts of the last sacred cow: the so-called creative process. Fri/25, 3:45pm, New People; Sat/26, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 8:30pm, PFA. (Kimberly Chun)
Hellion (Kat Candler, US) Beer drinking and metal tees, shit-talking and shit-kicking, boys and their toys and their broken dreams — the signatures of director-writer Kat Candler are familiar even to those unversed in her 2006 Jumping Off Bridges and the short that this extended-play feature is based on. Yet somehow the motocross-fixated Jacob (Josh Wiggins) is finding his own fresh hell amid this testosterone-scape: with the death of his mother, his faded baseball star of a father (Aaron Paul) is struggling to hold the family together and kick his tendency to take refuge at the bottom of a beer can. Meanwhile younger brother Wes (Deke Garner) has been taken away and placed with the boys’ Aunt Pam (Juliette Lewis). Candler makes this hell of hurts fresh with her close attention to detail, relishing the whipped cream sandwiches and sofa bounce-offs of home-alone kids as well as the throttled rage of the Metallica and Slayer soundtrack, and charged performances from all, in particular Paul, also an executive producer here, and Lewis, two small-town castaways just a hair less lost than the kids. Fri/25, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 4pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Blind Dates (Levan Koguashvili, Georgia, 2013) This rather wonderful deadpan comedy from Georgia (the former Soviet territory, not Jimmy Carter’s home) revolves around two best friends, male schoolteachers looking for love on the mutual brink of 40. Doleful-looking history prof Sandro (Andro Sakhvarelidze) and robust soccer coach Iva (Archil Kikodze) seem hapless and thwarted at every turn, yet simultaneously oblivious to scads of available women around them. The gentle, rueful tenor sneaks up on you, delivering some big laughs and narrative surprises as well as a very soulful sum impact. One of this year’s SFIFF sleepers (with no US distribution in sight), this droll yet bighearted gem is not to be missed. Fri/25, 9pm, Kabuki; Sun/27, 8:15pm, PFA; Tue/29, 6:30pm, New People. (Harvey)
Child of God (James Franco, US, 2013) You may not know that SFIFF It Guy James Franco has directed nearly two dozen shorts, documentaries, and features since 2005, in addition to his acting and miscellaneous multimedia dabblings. Don’t worry: You haven’t missed much. But this adaptation of a 1973 Cormac McCarthy novel is a great leap forward from his prior efforts, most of which felt like pretentious grad school thesis films. Scott Haze is startlingly good as Lester Ballard, a Tennessee hillbilly whose lack of conventional home, family, social instincts, or behavioral restraint gets him perpetually in trouble with the law — trouble that takes a macabre turn when he finds a dead woman’s body. The story’s shock value might easily have played as exploitative or ludicrous, but Franco hits the right tenor of mad intensity to reflect Lester’s near-feral state, in which acts that might appall any “civilized” mindset make perfect sense to him. Fri/25, 9:30pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 3:45pm, New People. (Harvey)
The Double (Richard Ayoade, UK, 2013) Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a lowly clerk who gets nothing but indifference and scorn both at work and in his pitiful private life. Things slip even more insidiously beyond his control with the arrival of James (Eisenberg again), his exact doppelgänger — though no one else seems to notice that — and a climber as ruthlessly efficient as Simon is hapless. Not only does he steal his look-alike’s ideas in a rapid rise to the top, he seems to take great pleasure in kicking Simon further downward. Applying a Kafkaesque gloss to Dostoyevsky’s novella, with stylistic hat-tips to the Coens and Terry Gilliam, Richard Ayoade’s second feature is very different from his prior Submarine (2010) in all ways but one: It, too, is both overwhelmed and rendered fascinating by an excess of high directorial “style” whose self-consciousness infuses every frame and puts quote marks around every emotion. As a result, The Double is a striking objet d’art you’ll either love or hate — or enjoy aesthetically while being annoyed by its sacrifice of depth for a showoff surface. Sat/26, 1pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 9:15pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Tangerines (Zaza Urushadze, Estonia/Georgia, 2013) It’s 1992, and carpenter Ivo (Lemit Ulfsak) and farmer Marcus (Elmo Nuganen) are old neighbors who are practically the only residents left in their rural Abkhazia village — everyone else has fled the approaching war between Georgian and Russia-backed North Caucasian forces that erupted over this disputed land after the USSR’s dissolution. The 60-something men have stayed behind out of habit, and to harvest Marcus’ latest (perhaps last) tangerine crop. When a shootout on Ivo’s doorstep leaves him stuck with one wounded soldier from each side, these uninvited guests must be kept from outside discovery — and from one another’s throats — as they recover. Wry and poignant, Georgian writer-director Zaza Urushadze’s antiwar microcosm is beautifully crafted, particularly in Rein Kotov’s gorgeous photography of the verdant countryside. Sat/26, 9pm, Kabuki; Sun/27, 6:15pm, Kabuki; May 6, 8:30pm, PFA. (Harvey)
The Sacrament (Ti West, US, 2013) This very disappointing latest by Ti West, of flavorful indie horrors The House of the Devil (2009) and The Innkeepers (2011), basically puts a piece of tracing paper over the climactic events at Jonestown, changing the names but otherwise refusing to do anything different — or really anything at all — with that historical model of mass religious cult freak out. Joe Swanberg, A.J. Bowen, and Kentucker Audley play filmmakers who visit a secretive jungle compound in order to figure out if somebody’s sister (Amy Seimetz) is staying there of her own free will or not. She seems to be doing OK, and in fact appears to be the favored apostle of enigmatic leader “Father” (Gene Jones). But once the strangers get a glimpse behind the facade of their carefully stage-managed visit, they glean that not everyone is happy here — indeed, some may be desperate to escape. Despite some good performance moments, there’s little psychological insight or real suspense to this fictionalized take on the 1978 catastrophe at Rev. Jim Jones’ Guyana settlement, and its quasi-“found footage” aesthetic feels very tired. Sat/26, 11:45pm, Kabuki; Mon/28, 9pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, US, 1979) Stage and screen choreographer and director Bob Fosse’s autobiographical phantasmagoria modeled itself on Fellini’s very Italian 1963 8 1/2 (which also inspired the stage/film musical Nine), but its heart is pure, cold American show-biz brass. Roy Scheider is terrific as Fosse alter ego Joe Gideon, a driven workaholic whose decades of numerous excesses (pills, smoking, women, etc.) have put him at serious risk of a fatal heart attack just as he’s simultaneously starting rehearsals for a Broadway musical and finishing up editing on a Hollywood feature. The external pressure is exceeded only by his own compulsive perfectionism. He reviews his life of professional triumphs and failed relationships as it very possibly sputters toward an end. Like Joe’s character (and creator), Jazz is egomaniacal, charming, over-the-top, sexy, sexist, indulgent, and overbearing — a glitzy portrait of a brilliant heel, with dazzling musical numbers. Seldom revived in recent years, it’s being shown in a newly restored print. Sun/27, 12:30pm, Kabuki; May 2, 8:30pm, PFA. (Harvey)
Belle (Amma Asante, UK, 2013) The child of a British naval officer and a Caribbean slave, Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is deposited on the doorstep — well, the estate grounds — of her father’s relatives in 1769 England after her mother dies. Soon she’s entirely orphaned, which makes her a wealthy heiress and aristocratic title holder at the same time that she is something less than human in the eyes of her adopted society. For Belle is black (or more properly, mixed-race), and thus a useless curiosity at best as a well-bred noblewoman of the “wrong” racial makeup. Based on a murky actual historical chapter, Amma Asante’s film is that rare sumptuous costume drama which actually has something on its mind beyond romance and royalty. Not least among its pleasures is a fine supporting cast including Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, and Emily Watson. Sun/27, 6:30pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 3:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2013) The fate of those left behind — the homeless, the stray dogs — amid the go-go aggression of tiger markets is ostensibly Tsai Ming-liang’s first concern in what he’s said is his last film. But the “Second Wave” Taiwanese director can’t help but leave a mark — those amazing performances, those achingly long, meditative shots — that makes you hungry for more. Ever so loosely knitting together a series of lengthy, gorgeously composed images that resemble still lifes of a metamorphosing Taipei that’s rapidly leaving its cultural core, the family, in the dust, Stray Dogs wanders, hangs, then drifts once more, much like the homeless father (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) and two children at its rootless center. Dad holds an advertising sign at an intersection — necessitating what might be the longest urination shot in cinema and a singular burst into poetry and song — while the kids feed themselves with supermarket samples and wash up in public restrooms. Will they be brought together by the missing matriarch, in the form of a grocery store manager, or just a random instance of art or beauty in a crumbling building? Beauty, it seems, is everywhere, Tsai seems to signal, and time — here, spent and bent to new ends — might or might not tell, while this mesmerizing, testing, and ultimately rewarding digital farewell to the movies keeps you hanging on. Mon/28, 6pm, Kabuki; Tue/29, 3:15pm, New People; April 30, 6:30pm, PFA. (Chun)
The Overnighters (Jesse Moss, US) If you’re looking for a movie to affirm the resilient generosity of the American spirit (or economy), this isn’t it. But Bay Area filmmaker Jesse Moss’ new documentary is as engrossing as it is dismaying. When a fracking-related job boom hits low-population North Dakota, close-knit Williston — which had a population of just 12,000 at the millennium’s turn — suddenly becomes a magnet for the unemployed and desperate. That includes a diverse racial mix of men, including some transients, a few felons and ex-cons, plus others whom many locals are willing to skittishly term “trash.” There’s scant housing available to accommodate them; Pastor Jay Reinke of Concordia Lutheran tries to help out by letting some new arrivals sleep on the church (and even his family home’s) floor. But his congregation is increasingly unhappy about that, as is the community in general. The Overnighters grows more complicated, however, than a simple portrait of small-town closed-mindedness and a clergyman acting like Jesus would. Not every charity case is grateful, or honest, or manageable. Meanwhile, Rev. Reinke’s own psychological baggage starts looking pretty dang heavy well before a game changing late revelation that is painful on about 20 different levels. Mon/28, 6:30pm, Kabuki; May 3, 1pm, New People. (Harvey)
The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir (Mike Fleiss, US) Bob Weir gets a little of his share of the critical limelight in this doc by Mike Fleiss, which focuses on Weir’s personal life and gives Grateful Dead chronology a light scramble. It kicks off with a cruise across the Golden Gate Bridge with the SF-born musician, who was taught to drive by Neal Cassady and gleans admiration from both expected quarters (Sammy Hagar) and less so (The National, which tries a brief jam with Weir) and drops tidbits about his dyslexia, early hangouts with Palo Alto banjo player Jerry Garcia, his chronic shoulder pain, and songwriting approaches (“There’s no logic to it. It comes through the window when it wants to come though the window”), along with a visit to the famed Dead house at 710 Ashbury with his wife and daughters. Couched amid a bevy of performance snippets, none very long, the road-weathered rhythm guitarist comes off as a bit of tough nut to crack and almost too humdrum in his current downplayed presentation to ever really lead us on a truly “long, strange trip.” Still, this document serves as a decent primer for the rock generalist on the man (though not of his bands apart from the Dead) and goes a little way toward generating gratitude for the man oft dubbed an unsung hero. Tue/29, 8:50pm, PFA; May 2, 9:30pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, France, 2013) We first meet well-off, middle-aged single gay man Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) as he’s cruising a Paris train station for rough trade in writer-director Robin Campillo’s bravura opening sequence. He settles on impish Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), negotiates an assignation, and goes home. But later on it’s not Marek who turns up on Daniel’s doorstep, but a couple dozen young former-Soviet-bloc illegal émigrés who take over his luxury apartment for an epic party as they cart his possessions out the door. (This unpleasant passage is the most difficult to swallow, as there’s no explanation why our protagonist is so passive about being robbed.) Yet Marek does eventually turn up, and despite all, a relationship develops — always at risk of incurring anger from “Boss” (Danill Vorobyev), the thuggish leader of the immigrant community Marek has aligned himself with. Like the Laurent Cantet films (1999’s Human Resources, 2001’s Time Out, 2008’s The Class) Campillo has edited, Eastern Boys doesn’t fill in all its narrative blanks, but is grounded in recognizable characters we can empathize with as the scenario takes unexpected turns. It’s a provoking movie that’s ultimately well worthwhile. April 30, 9:10pm, PFA; May 2, 6pm, Kabuki; May 4, 8:45pm, New People. (Harvey)
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David Zellner, US) Fargo (1996), now also an FX series, is having a moment — and as bracingly sweet, tragicomic, and strange as its inspiration, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter sets course from where the Coen Brothers left off. Essential ingredients include another moviemaking team of brothers, David and Nathan Zeller, and a waterlogged VHS tape of the North Dakota micro-epic, the latter leading one woman into white-out lunacy beyond the grinding conformity of Tokyo office work or small-town Minnesota mundanities. Shy, odd, and obsessive Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) is the nail that must be pounded down, as the Japanese saying goes; as she trudges through her job at a large, alienating company, her fantasy world is fueled by a video of Fargo she finds buried in a sea cave. Those grainy images set her on a quest among the determinedly kawaii in Japan and the hilariously humane in the States, which she compares to that of the conquistadors’. Even when accompanied by the Octopus Project’s vivid electronic score, which spells out the horror of this journey, Kumiko’s no Aguirre — though, like Fargo, her adventure’s end is based on a true case. A wonderfully weird — and ultimately compassionate — vamp on the power of fantasy and obsession that crosses international datelines. May 1, 8:45pm, Kabuki; May 3, 2:30pm, Kabuki; May 4, 12:30pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Difret (Zeresenay Berhane Mehari, Ethiopia) Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s film dramatizes a shocking human rights issue in Ethiopia: the continuing acceptance in rural areas of forcibly abducting young women for marriage. Fourteen-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is walking home from school one day when she’s surrounded by seven armed men, dragged off to a hut, then raped by the suitor whose marriage proposal she’d already rejected. When later she kills him in an escape attempt, tribal law decrees she be executed (and buried alongside him as “wife”). But a city lawyer for a women’s rights organization (Meron Getnet) takes up her cause. This is powerful material, but Difret would be a better film, and even better advocacy, if it didn’t handle its fictive events in such heavy-handed, pedestrian, everything spelled-out-for-you fashion. May 1, 6:30pm, Pacific Film Archive; May 3, 3:15pm, Kabuki; May 7, 3:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, France/Belgium/Germany, 2013) Those who last saw Isabelle Huppert as a dutiful daughter in 2012’s Amour will be both thrilled and piqued to see the tables turned so remarkably in Catherine Breillat’s Abuse of Weakness. Huppert gives an unapologetic, stunning tour de force performance in what appears to be a story torn from the filmmaker’s own life, when Breillat suffered a series of strokes in the ’00s and ended up entangled in a loving and predatory friendship with con man Christophe Rocancourt. Here, moviemaker and writer Maud (Huppert) is particularly vulnerable when she meets celebrity criminal and best-selling writer Vilko (Kool Shen). She is determined to have him star in her next film, despite the protestations of friends and family, and he helps her in return — by simply helping her get around and giving her focus when half her body seems beyond her control, while his constant machinations continue to compel her. Crafting a layered, resonant response to what seems like an otherwise clear-cut case of abuse, Breillat seems to have gotten something close to one of her best films out of the sorry situation, while Huppert reminds us — with the painful precision of this intensely physical role — why she’s one of France’s finest. May 1, 9pm, Kabuki. (Chun)
Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland/Germany, 2013) Benedikt Erlingsson’s astonishing directorial debut weaves together a half dozen disparate stories involving beautiful horses and mostly unlucky humans in and near a modern Icelandic small town. It’s a horsey movie like no other, each surprising tale marked to various degrees by black comedy, cruel fate, very earthy humor, and hints of the fantastical. Nature being a harsh mistress, some events here are rather shocking or tragic — those who automatically despise any film in which animals come to harm (only in dramatic terms, of course) had best stay clear. But less delicate souls may well find this unique equine-themed mix of folk art and fable exhilaratingly original. May 2, 4:30pm, Kabuki; May 3, 8:45pm, Kabuki; May 5, 6pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Salvation Army (Abdellah Taïa, Morocco, 2013) Paris-based Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa adapts his presumably autobiographical 2006 novel in this accomplished feature. Teenaged Abdellah (Said Mrini) is stuck in the middle of a large, rambunctious family where his parents continually fight, sometimes violently, and he has to keep his feelings hidden — not least because they largely revolve around an infatuation with older brother Slimane (Amine Ennaji). While that attraction remains forbidden, Abdellah does find ways to access love or at least sex with other older men, though these sometimes exploitative interludes leave him dissatisfied. Salvation Army would be an effective if unmemorable portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-queer if it didn’t take an abrupt, unexpected jump forward 10 years, to chart the rough early days of a now-adult protagonist (Karim Ait M’Hand) in supposedly more gay-friendly (but not necessarily immigrant-friendly) France. It’s these later scenes that lend this directorial debut by (so far) the only out gay Arab Moroccan scribe its lingering gravity. May 2, 9pm, Kabuki; May 4, 8:30pm, PFA; May 6, 6:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Intruders (Noh Young-seok, South Korea, 2013) Noh Young-seok’s insidiously clever black comedy-thriller takes its time getting to the nasty stuff — although things start getting weird for our protagonist right away, when his bus ride to a remote resort region is interrupted by an overly-friendly local who will figure in his troubles later on. Sang-jin (Jun Kuk-ho) is here to spend some alone time finishing a screenplay. But he’s unlikely to get much work done, given various pesterings from the hitherto mentioned ex-con New Best Friend (Oh Tae-kyung), an obnoxious quartet of skiers, some hostile poachers, and … well, you’ll have to wait until the very end to get the complete list of unwanted guests. As misunderstandings and bodies pile up, Intruders cleverly finds ways to make the worst possible scenario even worse. May 2, 9:45pm, Kabuki; May 7, 9:30pm, Kabuki; May 8, 5:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola, US) Adapted from the 2010 short story collection by James Franco, first-time director Gia Coppola’s depressive, aimless tale of disaffected youth tracks the ennuis and misadventures of a handful of Palo Alto teenagers: shy, inexperienced April (Emma Roberts), teetering on the edge of an affair with her soccer coach (Franco); naively promiscuous Emily (Zoe Levin); budding head case Fred (Nat Wolff); and his friend Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who plays April’s out-to-lunch stepfather), who ambivalently participates in Fred’s mayhem while pining after April. Adult supervision is nearly Peanuts-level sparse — in other Peninsula households, helicopter parents may be fine-tuning the lives of their children down to the last extracurricular; here, the stoned, distracted elders who occasionally wander in front of the camera are more like flaky, absentee roommates. Meanwhile, their young charges fill the empty hours with copious amounts of alcohol consumption, random property destruction, and a round or two of social crucifixion. May 3, 7:30pm, Kabuki. (Lynn Rapoport)
The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, US, 1941) Superficially the most conventional of Preston Sturges’ classics — being a romantic comedy vehicle for two major stars — this 1941 gem is no less great for it. Barbara Stanwyck plays Jean, the feminine lure in a team of wily con artists who spy easy prey in Henry Fonda, a fabulously wealthy “bumble-puppy” more interested in studying Amazonian snakes than inheriting the family brewery fortune. They relieve him of considerable cash at the card table, but when Jean decides she really does love the big dope and comes clean, he thinks she’s still lying. Now a woman scorned — and whatta woman! — Jean hatches a spectacular revenge scheme to teach him the lesson he deserves. As is Sturges’ wont, the film goes over the top a bit toward the end. But who cares, when Eve is so brilliantly written and performed, not to mention consistently hilarious. Film critic David Thomson and journalist-novelist Geoff Dyer will be present for this screening in conjunction with Thomson’s acceptance of the Mel Novikoff Award. May 4, 3pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Ping Pong Summer (Michael Tully, US) Eighties teen flicks of the My Bodyguard (1980), smart-dweebs-beat-the-bullies ilk are paid homage in Michael Tully’s deadpan satire, which is closer in spirit to the Comedy of Lameness school whose patron saint is Napoleon Dynamite. Radley (Marcello Conte) is an average teen so excited to be spending the summer of 1985 in Ocean City, Md., with his family that he renames himself “Rad Miracle.” He acquires a New Best Friend in Teddy (Myles Massey), who as the whitest black kid imaginable might make even Rad look cool by comparison. However, they are both dismayed to discover the local center for video gaming and everything else they like is ruled by bigger, older, cuter, and snottier douchebag Lyle Ace (Joseph McCaughtry) and his sidekick. Only kicking Lyle’s ass at ping pong — with some help from a local weirdo (a miscast Susan Sarandon, apparently here because she’s an offscreen ping pong enthusiast) — can save Rad’s wounded dignity, and the summer in general. A big step up from Tully’s odd but pointless prior Septien (2011), this has all the right stuff (including a soundtrack packed with the likes of Mr. Mister, the Fat Boys, Mary Jane Girls, New Edition, Whodini, and Night Ranger) to hilariously parody the era’s inanities. But it’s just mildly amusing — a droll attitude with lots of period detail but not much bite. May 4, 6:30pm, Kabuki; May 7, 8:45pm, New People. (Harvey)
The One I Love (Charlie McDowell, US) Sophie (Elisabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) have hit a speed bump in their relationship — they don’t have fun together like they used to, and even direct attempts to replicate that past magic fall completely flat. Ergo they take the advice of a couples counselor (Ted Danson) and book a weekend at a country getaway he swears has done “wonders” for all his previous clients in relationship trouble. Things get off to a pleasant enough start, but the duo’s delight at recapturing their old mojo becomes complicated when they realize … well, it’s best to know as little as possible going into The One I Love, a first feature for director Charlie McDowell and scenarist Justin Lader that approaches a fantastical narrative idea with a poker face and considerable ingenuity. Duplass and (especially) Moss are terrific in roles that eventually require some very complicated (and subtle) nuances. May 6, 9:15pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US, 2013) Not to be confused with Arthur Penn’s same-named 1975 Gene Hackman thriller, Kelly Reichardt’s latest film nonetheless is also a memorably quiet, unsettling tale of conspiracy and paranoia. It takes us some time to understand what makes temporary allies of jittery Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), Portland, Ore.-style alterna-chick Dena (Dakota Fanning) and genial rural recluse Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), beyond it being a mission of considerable danger and secrecy. When things don’t go exactly as planned, however, the three react very differently to the resulting fallout, becoming possibly greater threats to one another than the police or FBI personnel pursuing them. While still spare by mainstream standard, this is easily Reichardt’s most accessible work, carrying the observational strengths of 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, and 2006’s Old Joy over to a genuinely tense story that actually goes somewhere. May 7, 9pm, Kabuki; May 8, 7:30pm, Kabuki. (Harvey)
SFIFF “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous,” Elliott Smith admits in Heaven Adores You, Nickolas Rossi’s moving portrait of the late indie musician, who went from regional star to superstar after his Oscar nomination for 1997’s Good Will Hunting. “It was fun … for a day,” Smith reflects — and anyone who saw Smith’s hushed Academy Awards performance, on a night that also included Celine Dion’s chest-thumping rendition of “My Heart Will Go On,” has likely never forgotten it.
But Heaven isn’t overly concerned with Smith’s sudden celebrity and mysterious end (in 2003, he was found with two apparently self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest, but his death was ruled “undetermined,” rather than a suicide). Instead, it’s an artfully crafted study of a unique talent, avoiding music doc clichés in favor of more creative choices, like illustrating college-radio interviews — far more revealing than anything Smith would share with journos seeking Oscar sound bites — with gorgeously composed shots of Smith’s beloved Portland, Ore. Heaven widens to contextualize Smith’s importance within the 1990s Portland scene, with former members of his pre-solo band, Heatmiser, and fellow musician and longtime girlfriend Joanna Bolme among the interviewees. (Unfortunately absent: Hunting director Gus Van Sant.) But Smith’s soulful, eerily timeless songs (described here as “little pictures made of words”) remain Heaven‘s focus — appropriate, since they were always Smith’s focus, too.
A less-tragic tale of reluctant fame unfolds in Jody Shapiro’s Burt’s Buzz, which opens as its subject, Burt’s Bees co-founder Burt Shavitz, arrives in Taiwan to what can only be described as a hero’s welcome. Given the fact that Burt’s Bees products crowd drugstore shelves as ubiquitously as Neutrogena and Cover Girl, you’d be forgiven for assuming THE Burt lives the lavish life of a lip-balm magnate. Which is not the case, since the aging Shavitz prefers an exceedingly spartan life in rural Maine, with a woodstove providing heat and a begrudging acceptance of running water. “A good day is when no one shows up, and you don’t have to go anywhere,” Shavitz opines.
Not that he has any choice. When Burt’s Bees went from homespun to corporate, all the dough went to Shavitz’s former business (and romantic) partner Roxanne Quimby, who’d bought him out when their relationship went sour; most of Shavitz’s income seems to stem from making personal appearances for a company he no longer has much else to do with. (Quimby’s upbeat son is interviewed in her stead, though we do glimpse her in excerpts from a TV program entitled How I Made My Millions.) Still, Shavitz — knowing that Burt’s Bees is stuck with him forever, since his name and bearded visage decorate the brand’s folksy packaging — remains remarkably blasé about his financial situation. He’s not into material possessions, though he’s comfortable enough to have a “majordomo” help him with his affairs, and is enough of a diva to demand rice milk rather than the soy milk proffered by his eager-to-please Taiwanese hosts.
Shapiro’s documentary is a bit overlong (do we really need to see ol’ Burt Skyping with his dog?), but it wisely highlights the most interesting element of Shavitz’s story, which is not “Did he get ripped off?” or “Look at this crazy hippie!” but “Is this guy more self-aware than he’s letting on?” Though his assistant insists “He’s like Colonel Sanders, and he simply does not understand that,” it’s never entirely clear — though Shavitz’s own assertion that “No one has ever accused me of being ambitious” certainly has the ring of truth, rather than bitterness, to it.
Elsewhere in SFIFF’s documentary programming, two films take contrasting approaches to the artistic process. Of local interest, Jeremy Ambers’ Impossible Light, a close-up look at the Bay Lights — the high-tech art installation that illuminates the western span of the Bay Bridge — smartly runs a lean 71 minutes. First, we meet project founder Ben Davis, who had a brain wave one sunny day while idly staring at the bridge, which he’d always appreciated despite its ugly-stepsister status next to the glamorous Golden Gate. After artist and LED wizard Leo Villareal joins up, the ball really gets rolling, and Light tags along as a dedicated group of big thinkers form alliances with Caltrans engineers and other hands-on types who believe in Davis’ “impossible idea.” Nobody who sees this film about what became a truly collaborative process — Bridge workers scale the towers, tinkering with laptops! Creative types scramble to raise eight million bucks from private donors! — will ever take the intricately twinkling end result for granted.
The opposite of straightforward: The Seventh Walk, inspired by the nature-themed art of Indian painter Paramjit Singh. Director Amit Dutta brings Singh’s work to life with his questing camera, floating through the Kangra Valley’s leafy forests and across streams as water rushes, birds squawk, and insects hiss on the soundtrack. We also see Singh himself, dabbing his textured, abstract work onto canvases as the movie around him becomes more surreal. Occasional poetry fragments appear on screen to make the waking-dream vibe even more immersive: “Deep in the forest, the musk deer frantically pursues its own fragrance: laughter!”
Despite its title, it takes awhile for laughter to enter Happiness, Thomas Balmès’ tale of Peyangki, a restless nine-year-old monk living in remote Bhutan — the last pocket of the country, which prizes its “gross national happiness,” to get electricity. Stunningly composed shots (those mountains!) showcase a simple, deeply traditional lifestyle that’s about to completely change, for better and probably worse — ominously, everyone’s conversations already revolve around television. When Peyangki gets the chance to travel to the capital city, he’s fascinated by everything: mannequins, crutches, packaged snacks, aquarium fish, and, at last, TV, where the first thing he glimpses is Wrestlemania (and he’s on to it immediately: “Is it real?”), and you can practically see the innocence melting away.
A more conventionally-structured doc comes from Stanley Nelson, no stranger to powerful material with previous films like 2011’s Freedom Riders, 2006’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple, and 2003’s The Murder of Emmett Till. Nelson returns to the civil rights movement for Freedom Summer, which mixes archival material and contemporary interviews to detail the youth-propelled African American voter drive amid menacing intolerance in 1964 Mississippi.
News reports about the disappearances of workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — “Mickey” to wife Rita, as eloquent and composed today as she is in 1964 footage — weave throughout the film, with the discovery of their bodies recalled by folk legend Pete Seeger, who learned about it while performing on a Mississippi stage. While the events detailed in Freedom Summer have been covered by numerous other documentaries, Nelson’s impressive array of talking heads (not identified by name, though many are recognizable) brings a personal, eyewitness touch to this history lesson. *
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8. Screening venues include the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; New People Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk; and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF. For tickets (most shows $15) and complete schedule, visit festival.sffs.org.
FILM It’s difficult to think of an American filmmaker who has so consistently conveyed a sense of cool more than Jim Jarmusch. Since his cinematic emergence — minimalistic, black-and-white early efforts Stranger than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986) helped launch the era’s culture-changing indie film movement — he’s never been pretentious or tempted by a big paycheck to direct something that doesn’t adhere to his unique artistic vision. This vision tends to include characters who are highly intelligent loners; scenes of driving, especially at night; unexpected yet perfect soundtrack choices (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins!); and casting international actors (Roberto Benigni) in their first notable stateside roles, as well as musicians (Tom Waits, the RZA).
Jarmusch has subverted genre films before — you don’t have to dig deep to find fierce defenders of 1995 Western Dead Man or 1999 gangster tale Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai — but his latest, Only Lovers Left Alive, is poised to be his biggest commercial hit to date. That’s not merely because it’s a vampire film, though this concession to trendiness will certainly work in its favor, as will the casting of high-profile Avengers (2012) star Tom Hiddleston. But this is still a Jarmusch vampire movie, and though it may be more accessible than some of the director’s more existential entries, it’s still wonderfully weird, witty, and — natch — drenched in cool.
The opening credits deploy a gothic, blood red font across a night sky — a winking nod to the aesthetics of Hammer classics like Horror of Dracula (1958). Then, the camera begins to rotate, filming a record as it plays, and symbolizing the eternal life of the two figures who’ve entered the frame: gloomy Adam (Hiddleston, rocking a bedhead version of Loki’s dark ‘do), who lurks not in a crumbling Transylvanian castle, but a crumbling Detroit mansion, and exuberant Eve (Tilda Swinton, so pale she seems to glow), who dwells amid piles of books in Tangier.
These two — are they the first couple in history, or just named for them? — live apart, partially due to the hassle of traveling when one can’t be in the sun (red-eye flights are a must). Yet they remain entangled in spirit, a phenomenon referenced amid much talk of what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Adam spends his nights stroking his rare-instrument collection and composing dirges he’s reluctantly been sharing, despite his distrust of the “rock ‘n’ roll kids” who like to ring his doorbell. In centuries past, he hung out with Byron and Shelley, but believes today’s humans are “zombies” who live in fear of their own imaginations. (Never before has anyone pronounced “YouTube” with such sneering disdain.) Basically, he’s over it — going so far as to enlist Ian (Anton Yelchin), the one Detroit scenester he trusts, to track down a very special type of bullet. Made of wood. You know where this is going.
Over the phone from Morocco (she uses an iPhone; he uses electronics wizardry to rig calls through his old-school TV), Eve senses something’s not right, so she mobilizes for a long-overdue visit. Their reunion is glorious, complete with cruises around Detroit’s decaying landscape, with an in-jokey pause outside the childhood home of Jack White, who appeared in Jarmusch’s 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes and no doubt inspired Adam’s character.
Since, lest we forget, these romantic, sunglass-clad hipsters are also ancient vampires, the acquisition of blood untainted by modern illnesses is shown to be a continuous concern. Murder is not ideal, especially when one is highly invested in keeping an extremely low profile, so Adam has a deal worked out with a nervous local doctor, hilariously played by Jeffrey Wright; Eve gets “the good stuff” from her Tangier hook-up, fellow undead-ite Christopher Marlowe (Jarmusch regular John Hurt). The drug-addiction metaphor, a frequent vampire-tale device, is made overtly obvious; sips of blood inspire ecstatic swoons, and a dwindling supply is seen as justification for reckless behavior.
Unlike those old Hammer films, there’s no stake-wielding Van Helsing type pursuing these creatures of the night. Unlike the Twilight films, there’s no rival supernatural faction, either. If there’s a villain, it’s actual and emotional vampire Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s bad-penny sibling, who swoops in during a full moon for a most unwelcome visit. She’s been bumming around LA (“Ugh, zombie central,” groans Adam), but misses her sister — and as exaggeratedly obnoxious as this character is, living forever while everyone else ages and dies around you would get lonely. Plus, it’s Jarmusch’s way of making sure things don’t get too serious. Sure, some vampires are soulful, existentially tortured musical geniuses — but some of ’em are shallow, impulsive brats who just wanna have fun. It takes all kinds.
Only Lovers Left Alive‘s biggest antagonist is simply the outside world, with its epidemics of dull minds and blood-borne diseases. “The vampire is a resonant metaphor,” Jarmusch writes in the film’s press notes. “Adam and Eve are metaphors for the present state of human life.” But the takeaway isn’t dour in the slightest, for this is also a gorgeously filmed (by frequent François Ozon collaborator Yorick Le Saux), sharply realized dark comedy. The delight Jarmusch takes in tweaking the vampire mythos — sunlight most certainly kills, but garlic is “a superstition” — is just as enjoyable as his interest in exploring the agony, ecstasy, and uneventful lulls of immortality. *
ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE opens Fri/18 in San Francisco.
FILM It’s taken nearly three years for Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faust to get to the Bay Area. That seems apt for what was surely, in 2011, the least popular recipient of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in decades. Jury chief Darren Aronofsky (whose own epic about God and man’s purpose and such, Noah, is stone sober by contrast) called it the kind of movie that “changes you forever after you see it.” Others — especially those who expect some resemblance to the “tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe” the film claims to be based on, perhaps its first insidious joke — registered reactions in the general realm of “WTF?”
But mostly, this Faust simply hasn’t been seen very much, an odd fate for a fairly expensive art movie that purportedly Putin himself hoped would demonstrate the glory of modern Russian culture to the world. (Even if it is a German-language period piece shot in the Czech Republic.)
One can only imagine Vladimir’s subsequent dismay, and possible avowals to never again back auteurs without the surnames Bondarchuk or Mikhalkov — men who can be counted on to grunt out macho, patriotic cine-blintzes that in proud testament to national nepotism invariably get chosen as Russia’s official Oscar contenders. (Nikita Mikhalkov’s massive 2011 bust Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel nudged out Faust for that honor, prompting international hilarity.)
What can Sokurov be counted on for? He is a weirdo. Even his popular triumphs — 1997’s rhapsodic Mother and Son; 2002’s extraordinary 300-years-of-history-in-one-traveling-shot Russian Ark — are very rarefied stuff, disinterested in conventional narrative or making their meanings too clear. In production scale, Faust is Sokurov’s biggest project, which hardly stops it also being possibly his most perverse. Whose idea was it to give this guy millions of euros in anticipation of something beautiful, accessible, or at least non-maddening? Surely a few heads rolled at the Russian Cinema Fund, Golden Lion or no.
But whatever bureaucrats’ loss is our gain … finally. Faust is compellingly, often hypnotically dreamlike and grotesque, a film not quite like any other. It rings bells redolent of certain classic 1970s Herzog features, and of course Sokurov’s own prior ones (as well as those by his late mentor Tarkovsky). But it has a stoned strangeness all its own. It’s not 140 minutes you should enter lightly, because you are going to exit it headily, drunk off the kind of questionable homebrew elixir that has a worm floating in it.
Bruno Delbonnel’s camera dives headlong from celestial clouds into a clammy mittle-Yurropeon town in which the thin margin between pissy bourgeoisie and dirty swine is none too subtly delineated when a funeral march collides with a cartful of porkers. Starving — for love, for lunch, for any sign that God isn’t just a nagging personal delusion — is Professor Faust (the marvelously plastic Johannes Zeiler), whom we meet dissecting a corpse in his filthy studio. Asked by bonkers assistant Wagner (Georg Friedrich) where the soul dwells, he shrugs “There’s only rubbish in here,” yanking out the most gratuitous onscreen innards since Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973). Impoverished and hungry, the questionably good doctor is an easy mark for Mephistophelean moneylender Mauricius Muller (physical theater specialist Anton Adasinsky), an insinuating snake who claims the soul is “no heavier than a coin,” and will happily relieve Faust of his in return for some slippery satisfactions.
Their endless day together encompasses a rowdy inn, the vaguely unsavory pursuit of dewy Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), and finally a sort of death in a volcanic landscape that’s like the setting for a creation myth — one encompassing both the religion Faust resists and the science he practices merely as “something to do to fill the void,” comparing it to his inamorata’s knitting.
There’s also the revelation of a naked Muller at the baths as some sort of a-human, asexual fleshy lump, with useless penis-tail on his backside; the unrecognizable fleeting specter of Hanna Schygulla as Frau Muller; a monkey on the moon glimpsed through telescope; poor Wagner revealing the “homunculus” he’s bred from “oils of asparagus and dandelion mixed with hyena’s liver,” a pathetic tiny monster as doomed as the Eraserhead (1977) baby.
Faust completes Sokurov’s tetralogy on power and corruption, which otherwise consisted of druggy fantasias about real historical leaders: 1999’s Moloch about Hitler, which showed once at the San Francisco International Film Festival; 2001’s Taurus (Stalin), which hardly played anywhere; and 2005’s stilted The Sun (Emperor Hirohito), which rather inexplicably played everywhere. Coming complete with the director’s trademark distortion effects (in both color tinting and image aspect), Faust has a soft, queasy, pickled feel, like a disquieting dream too fascinating to wake yourself from. Andrey Sigle’s orchestral score rolls beneath dislocating visuals, a constant wave assuring no one aboard gains their sea legs.
For all actual mention of the soul in a script devised with prior collaborators Yuri Arabov and Marina Koreneva, this is a less “spiritual” film than many Sokurov has managed before. God (or whomever) knows you are likelier to sense his very Russian mysticism as a redemptive force in Mother and Son, not to mention 2007’s Alexandra or such Soviet-era cries in the dark as Days of Eclipse (1988) or The Second Circle (1990). Faust is beautiful in its distinctive aesthetics, even if its view of human existence is philosophically, ornately ugly. It’s also antic in the semi-subterranean way you might expect from a once frequently-banned artist raised in Siberia. Nearly a decade ago he said this project would be “a very colorful, elegant picture with a lot of Strauss music and a smell of chocolate.” Always with the jokes, that Sokurov. *
FILM At the moment, Scarlett Johansson is playing a superhero in the world’s top blockbuster. Her concurrent role in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin — the gorgeously crafted tale of an alien who comes to earth to capture men, but goes rogue once her curiosity about the human world gets the better of her — could not be more different in story or scope. There’s also the matter of its edgy presentation of its usually glamorous star.
“My first instinct was to cast an unknown. Somebody who nobody was familiar with,” Glazer (2000’s Sexy Beast) admits on a recent visit to San Francisco. But once he decided to film the alien’s “pick-up” scenes — in which Johansson’s unnamed character cruises around Glasgow in a nondescript van, prowling for prey — using hidden cameras and real people off the street, he changed his mind. Casting a famous face became a subversive choice that perfectly serves Under the Skin‘s disconcerting tone. “With that methodology of shooting, the surveillance with [Johansson in] disguise, and filming in the world as it was — the idea of Scarlett at the center of that, like an insect on the wrong continent, was a perfect storm of ingredients. We were well aware of how striking that would be.”
Her camouflage, which includes a dark wig, thickly-applied lipstick, and a fur jacket that immediately feels iconic, was carefully calibrated. “We didn’t want her to be too conspicuous. She needed to be just the right kind of conspicuous. It couldn’t be too overt,” Glazer explains. “The costume designer came up with what I thought was a very clever idea, which was [to clothe Johansson] like someone who’s immigrated recently to a new country and hasn’t quite learned the nuances of the way people dress. So everything was just very slightly off. And obviously we were trying to de-familiarize Scarlett. Very simply, the hair color was something that was very un-Scarlett. The makeup was very film noir-ish. It was a kind of a uniform.”
Johansson was so unfamiliar-looking that she was rarely recognized. Glazer and his crew kept their distance whenever she interacted with strangers, but they had to act fast once the “scene” ended. “Let’s say for instance she was going to go talk to that girl in the purple hoodie,” Glazer says, gesturing toward a woman nearby. “And we were filming it, covertly, and then Scarlett leaves. We’d have to then go up to the girl and say, ‘We’ve just been filming you. Can we get your permission [to use it]?’ She might already be outside and getting into a taxi, so you’d have production assistants running after people sometimes.”
Only a few of Johansson’s targets declined to participate once the setup was revealed. And though it’s easy to tell which men were pre-cast (hint: the naked ones), the scripted and improvised scenes flow together seamlessly. “We worked very hard to get the unity of those ingredients right and make the texture feel like the real world,” Glazer says.
Johansson’s character also gets naked, in scenes that will likely be among the film’s most talked-about moments. (“Seeing Scarlett Johansson Naked Got Under My Skin,” worried a blogger for Elle — a glossy mag that’s featured the star in uber-primped mode in its pages. The reason? Johansson’s unclothed body is remarkably, well, normal-looking.) “We certainly talked about the nudity in the film, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it,” Glazer insists. “What was important was that nothing in the film could be coy. We couldn’t be shy of anything. [Johansson’s] bravery as an actress needed to match the bravery of the character. It was all in the service of that — and she’s very fearless in it. The camera doesn’t get excited by her physicality, her sensuality. It’s very anatomical. In a way, I think she reclaims her image in this film.”
Under the Skin is very loosely based on the novel by Michel Farber. The film’s “feeding” scenes, in particular, are far more abstract than as written in the book. After the alien seduces a victim, he’s lured into what looks like a run-down house. The setting changes into a dark room that seems to represent an otherworldly void, with composer Mica Levi’s spine-tingling score — one of the film’s most potent takeaways — exponentially enhancing the dread.
“The book and the film are really unrelated. They’re very, very different,” Glazer says. “The idea of this film was to make something alien to tell a story about an alien. At the end of the film, I wanted her to remain as inscrutable at the end as she was at the beginning. Part of that is not to feel like you are looking at the tropes of science fiction when you go into these alien realm scenes — alien technology and engineering, and all of the stuff that you see in sci-fi films. Here, it just didn’t feel relevant to the way we were telling the story.”
So instead of a spaceship, the alien’s lair is a black screen which is actually part of the alien itself. “The alien is the absence of light, the absence of form. It’s a force, nothing more,” Glazer says.
But as the alien spends more time among humans — ducking through a night club, witnessing a tragedy on a beach, meeting a man with a deformed face, meeting another man who’s kind to her when she needs help — she begins to mistakenly believe that her fleshy, temporary form is her own.
“She’s deluded into thinking this identity is real,” Glazer says. “It’s like an ‘it’ becoming ‘she.’ It sees what’s reflected and it believes ‘That must be what I am now,’ and she goes and indulges that.”
Her confusion inspires her to abandon her mission and ditch the mysterious, motorcycle-riding figure who tracks her movements and, if needed, cleans up her messes. She leaves her kidnapper van by the side of the road and trudges into the Scottish countryside.
“Her main targets are men — so [initially] it’s important to be in a city and be around human beings. And then she flies away from that. It’s an escape, really,” Glazer says. “She ends up in the wilderness and we end up there with her. It’s important to tell the story alongside her, so we experience things with her. We’re in step with her.”
Eventually, the alien comes to understand the most human trait of all — vulnerability — in a chilling, visceral climax that evokes the body horror of early Cronenberg, a visual reference that dovetails well with the film’s clinical, Kubrickian opening scenes. That said, Glazer had neither filmmaker in mind while he was working.
“You’re trying to make an alien film that should stand apart from everything else,” he says. “It should stand alone. So for that reason, the last thing you want to do is reference other films or make it feel like it’s familiar. It’s familiar right at the beginning [of the film], before we see the shot of [Johansson’s eye]. Once we realize it’s an eye, then it becomes intentionally unfamiliar.” *
FILM There are action films. And then there’s The Raid 2. One need not have seen 2011’s The Raid: Redemption to appreciate this latest collaboration between Welsh director Gareth Evans and Indonesian actor, martial artist, and fight choreographer Iko Uwais — it’s recommended, of course, but the sequel stands alone on its own merits.
Overstuffed with gloriously brutal, cleverly staged fight scenes, The Raid 2 — sometimes written with the subtitle “Berendal,” which means “thugs” — picks up immediately after the events of the first film. Quick recap of part one: a special-forces team invades an apartment tower controlled by gangsters. Among the cops is idealistic Rama (Uwais). Seemingly bulletproof and fleet of fists and feet, Rama battles his way floor-by-floor, encountering machete-toting heavies and a wild-eyed maniac appropriately named Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), as well as his own older brother, who’s a high-up in the organized crime world. Rama also realizes he’s been unwittingly working for a corrupt police lieutenant, who’s got a personal beef with the bad guys. The Raid‘s gritty, unadorned approach (streamlined location and cast, gasp-inducing fights) resonated with thrill seeking audiences weary of CG overload.
“Before we’d screened the first movie anywhere, we watched it to do a tech check on it. After we finished, we thought, ‘Ok. We have … something,'” Evans recalled on a recent visit to San Francisco with Uwais. “But we just kept kind of focusing on, ‘There’s pixellation here, the picture’s not great there.’ We were looking at all the problems that you do when you’re deep into production on something. Then, when [the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival] happened, it was like, ‘Holy shit!’ We had no idea it was going to get received like that. And it kept growing! For us, it was this weird experience where something that we’d made within our own little creative vacuum was suddenly being accepted by people.”
A second Raid film was inevitable, especially since Evans — who became interested in Indonesian martial arts, or pencak silat, while working on 2007 doc The Mystic Art of Indonesia — already had its story in mind: Rama goes undercover in the underworld, a ploy that necessitates he do a prison stint to gain the trust of a local kingpin. Naturally, not much goes according to plan, and blood is shed along the way, as multiple power-crazed villains set their sinister plans into motion. Evans originally wanted to film it after making 2009’s Merantau, his first action film with Uwais, but it proved too costly for the then-unproven team.
“For two years, we were looking for financing, but were not able to get it. So we did the first Raid because it was lower budget. It was like a plan B,” Evans said. “After that, our investor was willing to help finance the second one. It bought us better equipment, more time to shoot, better sets. All of that stuff that we spent extra money on went up on the screen.”
With a fan base established by the first film, Evans — himself a lifelong action movie lover — knew expectations were high. Somehow, he’d have to top The Raid. “It couldn’t be The Raid 2, except now it’s a bigger building,” he joked. “So, what can we do differently? Expand the universe, and expand the characters. Explore different territory and be able to try different action beats: Car chase! Prison riot! And using weapons that we hadn’t introduced before, like the curved blades. It’s one of the weapons in silat. So it’s like, ‘Ok, this thing exists. Why haven’t we used it yet?’ We kind of hinted at it in Merantau — but we never really used it. Indonesian fans of that movie complained, but I was like, ‘Hold tight. We will use it.’ It’s such a violent, aggressive weapon that it wouldn’t have felt right in Merantau. But in The Raid 2, it felt right.”
Evans was also concerned that the “element of surprise” would be lost for audiences who had seen the first film. When asked to elaborate — because Uwais’ character is a mild-mannered nice guy who, surprise, is also an explosive killing machine? — he broke it down.
“[In the first film, audiences] got a taste for our choreography. We try to differentiate ourselves from other martial artists and filmmakers that do this type of stuff. Not in a way of like, ‘What we do is better.’ It’s more a case of, everyone packages their films differently,” he said. “We’re big fans of what Tony Jaa has done, and Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, and Jackie Chan. But we have certain rules that we just don’t break. We never do a replay of anything when it comes to a stunt or an action sequence. It’s all one flow, and it never breaks rhythm — it keeps going until the thing is finished. In terms of slo-mo, we only ever use it to tell something dramatically within a fight sequence. We never use it to show off a movement. Which segues into, no acrobatics. Because as soon as you do that, you’ve got a stunt guy waiting to get hit. And that takes you out of the scene straightaway.”
Presenting the fight scenes as realistically benefits more than just the audience. “On TV in Indonesia, silat is represented in the most bullshit way possible: people jump into the sky and fly, and turn into jaguars, and shoot fireballs out of their eyes. I’m not exaggerating! When we first went to gather money for Merantau, we’d say, ‘We’re gonna make a silat film!’ and people would be like, ‘Aw, silat? That’s that stupid thing on TV,'” Evans recalled. “But I’d met Iko, and his gurus and teachers, and silat is such an integral part of their lives. [It was important to me that] if we made films about this martial art, we had to do it in a way that reclaims it from what had been done before. We wanted it to be real, and true to what they study.”
Though the actual fighting is realistic, the settings were carefully chosen for cinematic impact. Both of those ante-upping “action beats” Evans mentioned — the car chase, in which Uwais’ character batters his opponents inside of a moving vehicle, and the prison riot, which is muddy, bloody mayhem — are standouts.
“A lot of people responded to the idea of claustrophobia in the first one, because of all the enclosed spaces,” Evans said. “I wanted to find a way to still have these tight moments in the second one, even though the scope was much wider. Even within a car chase, we could dive right inside and have this super claustrophobic fight in the back seat.”
Uwais estimated that each fight scene required three or four months of practice — and even more for the car stunt. “Standing and fighting is very different than sitting and fighting,” he pointed out.
The collaborators, who have an easygoing rapport, have conflicting memories when it comes to filming the sloppy prison brawl — though they agree it was far and away the least fun scene to shoot. (Evans: “We shot that for eight days straight.” Uwais: “Eight days? It was 10 days.” Evans: “The guys were caked in mud all day.” Uwais: “From 6am to 5pm.” Evans: “More like, 4pm.” Uwais: “5pm!” Evans: “Ok, 5pm!”)
As The Raid 2 prepares to open wide, Evans is ramping up plans for the third film in the trilogy. “Whereas The Raid 2 starts like two hours after The Raid finishes, The Raid 3 starts three hours before The Raid 2 finishes,” he revealed. “So there’s a scene toward the end where a certain group makes a decision on something, and part three’s gonna follow the consequences of those actions. The Raid 3 is going to be way more streamlined than part two [which runs 148 minutes], and it’s going to be an homage to certain styles of cinema that I love that I really want to try and play with.”
And yes, there’s an American Raid remake in the works. When asked “Whyyyy?”, Evans was ready with an answer. “I’ve been a huge fan of Asian cinema ever since I was a kid, and I used to have that same feeling: ‘Oh my god, they can’t remake that!’ But in this case, nothing takes the original away. If anything, people who see the remake might get introduced to the original now, because they didn’t know it existed before.”
FILM The 1960s were a liberating period for movies almost everywhere, not least behind the Iron Curtain and particularly in Czechoslovakia, a country created (from the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in the wake of world war and dissolved (into two nations) by the official end of the Cold War. The “Czechoslovak New Wave” was a moment of considerable international interest at the time — notably winning Best Foreign Language Film Oscars for 1965’s The Shop on Main Street and Closely Watched Trains two years later, along with umpteen festival awards — that attained immediate poignancy by being so short-lived. When Soviet tanks rolled in to aggressively squelch the liberal reforms of “Prague Spring” in August 1968, the reassertion of censorious state control put a chokehold on filmmakers as much as any other “subversive” group.
Some talent fled to the West, achieving variable success, most notably future double Oscar winner Milos Forman (1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1984’s Amadeus), and Ivan Passer of cult faves Cutter’s Way (1981) and Creator (1985). Some, unwilling or unable to get out, were prevented from working again in the government-controlled film industry for so long that by the time such blacklists no longer existed, they’d lost interest or died. Others, like the recently deceased Vera Chytilová (1966’s Daisies), Jirí Menzel (the aforementioned Trains), Jaromil Jires (1970’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), and animator Jan Svankmajer (1988’s Alice), stayed and managed to build substantial bodies of work despite occasionally finding themselves on the wrong end of the political stick.
What virtually all these directors have in common is that some of their films were banned, whether before or after the Soviet invasion: Jires and Menzel had exceptional features (respectively 1969’s The Joke and 1990’s Larks on a String) no one saw until decades later. Chytilová had to direct commercials under her husband’s name before falling back into official favor, while in 1972 Svankmajer was barred from working at all for several years. What would they and myriad lesser-known artists have created if Prague Spring had never ended?
That question looms particularly large over the career of Jan Nemec, alleged enfant terrible of the Czech New Wave. He’s nearing 80 now, and still active — back in the Czech Republic, which he returned to some years ago after a couple fugitive decades abroad — yet his original output from 1964 to 1968 still overshadows the sporadic projects he’s been allowed to realize since. That period’s burst of youthful energy and inspiration remains somewhat dazzling, all the more so because in many ways we never got to see his talent fully mature. The traveling retrospective stopping at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive over the next two weeks offers a necessarily spotty portrait of an artist whose expressions have been more than usually subject to cruel fate.
His 1960 graduation short A Loaf of Bread — a terse miniature in which starving concentration camp prisoners toward the end of World War II try to steal sustenance from Nazi guards — could serve as a prelude to his first feature four years later. Diamonds of the Night (1964) begins with frantic handheld camera as two young men stagger uphill from gunfire into the countryside, having fled a prison train probably headed to the camps. The woods are a strange and forbidding landscape, its danger heightened by these city boys’ extreme hunger and exhaustion. Occasionally flashing back to their lives before capture, the film’s woozy disorientation prevents our being sure if the pursued, panicky protagonists are witnessing grotesque sights and committing violence, or simply hallucinating it all.
Barely over an hour, this black-and-white jolt of mixed realism and surrealism (drawn, like Bread, from a story by Czech camp survivor Arnost Lustig) announced a major new talent. While its historical indictment of a persecuting foreign power kept it safe from official criticism, the 28-year-old Nemec wasted little time before pushing the envelope much further. A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966) is an absurdist allegory with unmistakable political overtones. Its protagonists are a group of drunken bourgeoisie picnickers who fall in with other, larger, vaguely sinister parties in the woods, culminating in a vast al fresco banquet in which a good time is had by all — so long as they adhere to the increasingly arbitrary rules of conformity. If not, the fade out suggests, they will be — like Diamonds’ Jewish lads — hunted down with rifles and dogs, like game.
This blunt provocation did not go unnoticed by the right wrongdoing people: It was immediately “banned forever” by the Czech government. Fortunately, Nemec had already begun his next film. Martyrs of Love (1967) is a three-part homage to silent comedy in which there’s almost no dialogue, plenty of slapstick, and a brief cameo by Daisies‘ anarchic female duo. Also tipping hat to Jacques Tati, it was a delight whose elements of social satire could offend no one. Yet it did very little to balm the rancor that Party stirred. After his short documentary about the Soviet occupation, 1968’s Oratorio for Prague was banned — yet footage from it used by news services around the world — he was persona non grata at home, eventually given the choice of exile or prison.
His work over the next couple decades is scant and elusive; it’s represented at the PFA only by a 1975 German TV adaptation of Metamorphosis by Nemec’s hero, Kafka. When he resurfaced with a couple post-perestroika features (notably 1990’s In the Light of Love, from Czech literary avant-gardist Ladislav Klima’s absurdist 1928 novel), they were poorly received and remain hard to find. More recently he’s turned toward collage-style video essays like 2001’s autobiographical Late Night Talks with Mother and 2005’s Toyen (about the Czech surrealist painter). They’re complex intellectual and aesthetic explorations — but they still leave you wondering about the filmmaker he might have become if 1968 hadn’t come in like a lamb and gone out like a sacrificial one. *
FILM It’s Crossroads time again — the annual San Francisco Cinematheque festival of experimental, avant-garde, abstract, and otherwise difficult-to-easily-categorize works carefully curated for adventurous, open-minded filmgoers.
In other words, if you’re counting down to the next Transformers flick, this may not be your jam. But there’s an eager Bay Area audience for the other end of the cinematic spectrum, as evidenced by the fact that Crossroads’ “Nathaniel Dorsky: Three Premieres” program, which is being presented twice at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is already sold out.
Fortunately, there are eight other programs, two of which focus on Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which makes its Bay Area premiere after receiving much buzz on the international festival circuit. Robert A.A. Lowe (also known as Lichens, he’s a solo musician who performs with local doom droners Om on occasion) plays the film’s central character, a nameless wanderer who drifts through its three segments in pursuit of some mysterious ideal. First, he’s a commune dweller — no context is given, but its residents are clearly international, with varying accents and languages, and the directors have said it’s set on an Estonian island.
It’s an idyllic place: leafy, creative, and harmonious, populated by a group that’s more back-to-the-land intellectual than hippie. There are newborn babies, towheaded children with painted faces, adults-only group saunas, and a geodesic dome. “This whole process is unpredictable. It’s important to keep in mind, the visions and ideas are just guidelines,” one man reflects; he’s referring to the group’s pursuit of what one woman calls “utopian architecture,” but he could also be giving viewing instructions for this film.
It’s useful advice, especially when Spell shifts settings. Lowe’s quiet observer is now a man roaming solo through the Finnish woods; the camera gazes into the landscape from afar as he climbs up and down trails, up and down through the frame. Occasionally, he stops by a small house, seemingly abandoned but still containing certain odd objects (needlepoint pictures, stacks of tabloids, floral curtains). Nature fascinates the camera — including, yes, multiple long shots of lichens — but so does Lowe, specifically his eyes, which are held in close-up after he’s shown dabbing white makeup on his face. Suddenly, we see the house engulfed in flames, there’s a cut to black, and then we hear the exact right music to show after an inferno: black metal, that most deliberately lo-fi and ear-shredding of heavy musical subgenres.
For metal fans, this sequence could prove the most controversial — there aren’t any Scandinavians in the mix, and one of the dudes is from Liturgy. (Like, do they even burn churches in Brooklyn, man?) But even music snobs will have a hard time resisting Spell‘s spell, or giving kudos for the film’s title treatment — a slightly more readable interpretation of the spidery font favored by extreme musicians, encasing words that echo the film’s surprisingly optimistic undercurrent.
Co-director Rivers appears in person at the film’s Fri/4 screening; Sat/5, he’ll give an artist’s talk, moderated by SF Cinematheque’s Steve Polta, at the Kadist Art Foundation, where the film will be exhibited as a “three-part spatialized architectural video installation.”
The rest of Crossroads is given over to shorts programs, assembled with characteristic creativity (Program 3 “is focused on abstract animation-graphic cinema, environmentalism, and crack pot exploration,” according to Polta), with co-producing credits given to Cinema Arts at the Exploratorium and the San Francisco Dance Film Festival on selected nights. There will also be a “live cinema” program (with live experimental music), and works by notable locals, including recent Guardian GOLDIE award winners Malic Amalya and Paul Clipson. *