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Film Review

Out of the fog



FILM In movies, maybe more than in life, trouble awaits outsiders who poke into cults that don’t take kindly to outsiders. Sound of My Voice (2011) is a recent example, but The Wicker Man (1973) remains probably the gold standard of “Pardon me, but I’ll be infiltrating your society, passing judgment, and suffering the inevitable consequences” cinema. For every recruitment-happy group (step right up, young ladies, and throw your lot in with 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene), there are plenty more that would just as soon be left alone.

A new entry into this genre, Holy Ghost People, comes courtesy of Mitchell Altieri, half of the directing duo known as the Butcher Brothers (the other “brother,” Phil Flores, co-wrote and co-produced). You may remember the BBs from their 2006 breakout, The Hamiltons — about a family with a bloody secret. It’d make a perfectly nightmarish double-feature with another recent indie horror, Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are. Holy Ghost People, which borrows its title and some archival footage from the 1967 documentary about Pentecostal churchgoers in West Virginia (now in the public domain, it’s viewable on YouTube), aims more for dread than gore, and represents an artistic step forward for the San Francisco-bred pair.

If certain choices don’t entirely work (a bookending voice-over feels unnecessary, given the film’s vivid visuals; the score can feel intrusive at times), Holy Ghost People is bolstered by some blistering performances, chiefly from co-writer Joe Egender as Brother Billy, the boyish leader of a church compound tucked into the Southern wilderness. (The film was shot at a summer camp — a setting not used so creepily since the first few Friday the 13th flicks.) Stumbling not-so-innocently into Billy’s lair are unlikely friends Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) and Charlotte (Emma Greenwell), who pretend to be spiritual wanderers when really they’re searching for Charlotte’s long-lost sister, last seen spiraling into junkie oblivion.

Anyone — but particularly Billy, whose tidy pompadour and welcoming words can’t hide the fact that he’s as sinister as the serpents he handles during sermons — can see that Wayne, a haunted alcoholic, and Charlotte, who’s battling her own demons, aren’t who they claim to be. Still, they’re cautiously accepted by lower-ranking members, including Sister Sheila (Cameron Richardson), a soft-spoken blonde whose beauty is marred by prominent facial scars.

As events get freakier in God’s country (or is it?), Holy Ghost People doesn’t quite offer a grand payoff to all that suspense — though it does establish a new clause to that old cinematic rule about guns: If you see a poisonous snake in the first act, damn certain it’ll bite someone by the end.

Holy Ghost People kicks off the San Francisco Film Society’s fifth annual Cinema By the Bay Festival, which showcases movies made “in or about the Bay Area,” as well as works made by artists with Bay Area connections. This agreeably loose thematic structure allows the Tennessee-shot Holy Ghost People to share marquee space with SF-centric doc American Vagabond, by Finnish director Susanna Helke.

American Vagabond, about homeless LGBT youth, is particularly timely in light of the SF Board of Supervisors’ recent vote to close parks overnight. Golden Gate Park is home for James and Tyler, a young couple who’ve fled their close-minded families, dreaming of a better life in the rainbow capital of California. Guided by James’ poetic, confessional narration — as well as other voices that chime in to share their experiences — American Vagabond is a specific, deeply personal story that also offers a broader comment on how gay youths and the homeless are treated, even in a city as progressive as SF. And it does take some unexpected turns, as when James reunites with the family that rejected him — though the reasons for the reconciliation are not happy ones.

Elsewhere in the fest, take note of Berry Minott’s The Illness and the Odyssey, a medical whodunit of sorts that explores the history and controversy surrounding Lytico-Bodig, a neurological disease found almost exclusively in Guam. For years, scientists have believed that finding its cause would be like “a Rosetta stone,” according to Dr. Oliver Sacks, resulting in cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and related illnesses. But since nobody can settle on a hypothesis — is it infectious? Caused by plants? The result of a curse? — and nobody really wants to share research (what, and let that Nobel Prize slip away?), there’s been little progress other than clashing speculation, to the great annoyance of those in Guam whose families are affected by the disease. Ultimately, The Illness and the Odyssey is more about the scientific process than anything else, with plenty of prickly personalities (in both current and vintage footage) stepping up to share their views.

Also worth a mention: In Hak Jang’s The Other Side of the Mountain, a Korean War-era romance (with musical numbers) that happens to be the first-ever North Korea/US cinematic co-production. And don’t miss “Street Smarts: YAK Films’ Dance Then and Now,” an Oakland-born phenomenon that has spawned a international array of films showcasing so-called urban dance — staged on subway cars, in intersections, and other unexpected places — of the most limber, slinky, sassy, acrobatic, and awe-inspiring varieties. *


Fri/22-Sun/24, $10-$25

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St, SF



Eternal spring



Chris Marker did not seem to see a hard distinction between cities and their people. The cat-loving leftist documentarian, whose distinctly poetic outlook we sadly lost last year, is probably best known for his experimental sci-fi short La Jetée (1962) and his ethnography-cum fictionalized-travel-memoir Sans Soleil (1983), film-school favorites both available through the Criterion Collection.

But his filmography goes much deeper than that, and often focuses on the inner life of human and political organisms. Restored and screened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Le Joli Mai is a 1962 collaboration with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, which traipses geographically and temporally around Paris in May ’62. Much of the movie consists of man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews, with an assortment of more settled chats in people’s homes or workplaces. Framed by a chimera of English and French narration, by Simone Signoret and Yves Montand respectively, the film gives its “biggest roles” to “free people, those who are able to question, to refuse, to undertake, to think, or simply to love.”

Marker investigates these free people’s attitudes toward their professions, their social lives, their home city, the housing problems of Paris, the Algerian War, and numerous other subjects close to their hearts. Some are passionately political, while others think it’s best to keep silent or ignore certain crises — a cross-section of political approaches that echoes throughout modern society, whether in Europe or the United States. Indeed, seeing this movie now with its specificity of time and place, it’s possible to imagine a not-too-different portrait of, say, 2012 Paris, or Los Angeles, or London.

During the mostly casual interviews, Lhomme’s camera wanders, never too committed to its initial subject to notice something more interesting in the background, or even just elsewhere on the subject’s person. Marker and Lhomme’s approach is almost never without levity — people’s opinions on the issues of the day are not to be mocked necessarily, but neither are they to be taken at face value. They’re all just people, and the texture of the film repeatedly reinforces that truth. In one segment, a talkative inventor loses the spotlight to a spider crawling on his suit. In another, as two engineering consultants debate in complex Marxist terms the future of labor, the film cuts away over and over to close-ups on the faces of housecats, serving as both commentary and comic relief for the heated discussion.

Marker and Lhomme strive to represent the true diversity and cultural fabric of ’62 Paris. Their subjects include poets, a painter, an inventor of automotive technology, a pair of teenage stock market assistants, an introverted single theater seamstress and cat-lover, a worker from Algeria, a student from Dahomey, a poor family finally granted more spacious housing, an ex-clergyman turned union militant, and on and on.

In the film’s final act, a montage of city symphony-esque time lapse shots of the city and a litany of statistics about life, death, and resources in the month of May gives way to a glimpse at Paris’ not-so-free inhabitants. Finally, Marker offers a reflective monologue (via Signoret) in a style that will be familiar to anyone who has seen Sans Soleil, and which also prefigures Werner Herzog’s sci-fi-tinged epilogue to his Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010). Marker makes a literary text of the human face, offering his interpretations and looking for recurring themes among the wildly diverse denizens of Paris; he imagines how a “Martian just landed on the planet Earth” might read these human documents, and philosophizes about what plagues these haunted-looking faces.

His poetic extrapolation might frustrate some viewers, as it leaps beyond the boundaries of empirical detail to ponder the collective psyche of the people of Paris, but this is Marker’s true gift. He is an imaginative reader of the human face, mind, and heart as they operate in an urban environment, and his critique from 1962 is as valuable as ever today. *


LE JOLI MAI opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

The great pretender



If something appears too good to be true, the saying goes, it probably is. Take Lance Armstrong, who beat cancer to become a cycling superstar, winning the grueling Tour de France a record seven consecutive times. He vehemently denied using performance-enhancing drugs until January 2013, when he ‘fessed up during a tastefully choreographed sit-down with Oprah. By that point, the big reveal wasn’t that he’d doped his way to athletic glory — it was that he was finally admitting to it.

“This is a story about power, not doping,” a talking head points out in Alex Gibney’s latest doc, The Armstrong Lie. Gibney, an Oscar winner for 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side (he also made this year’s We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks), set out to make something more along the lines of The Armstrong Return, shadowing Armstrong as he prepped for his 2009 Tour de France comeback. He envisioned crafting a “feel-good movie,” especially when Armstrong notched an impressive third-place finish — a feat intended to silence the drug rumors once and for all. In the end, it only amplified the skepticism that loomed over his accomplishments. And as the evidence against Armstrong mounted, Gibney scrapped his original concept and went in a decidedly darker direction.

Gibney, who narrates in the first person, unwittingly became a character in his own film. Armstrong’s critics, interviewed for Lie, admit they spotted the acclaimed documentarian among Armstrong’s Tour de France entourage and feared he was “buying into the bullshit.” Among these voices are Armstrong’s former US Postal Service teammate, Frankie Andreu, and his wife, Betsy, who both testified during the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into Armstrong. Over the years, they’d been excoriated by their former good friend and his supporters for speaking out against him.

A feel-good movie, this is not. One need only read the film’s title to understand what motivated Gibney’s second attempt at making an Armstrong doc. “For this new film, doping was not the most important thing,” he writes in his director’s notes. Doping, he says, “was an essential part of the culture of professional cycling … and evidence of [Armstrong] doping had been hiding in plain sight since 1999.” Instead, “it was the lie that interested me” and “the abuse of power. Armstrong was so powerful in his sport that he could protect and defend his lie with the arrogance and cruelty that he showed his cycling rivals on the road.”

That arrogance extended to his participation in Gibney’s original film; unsurprisingly, he made for a control-freak documentary subject. But all bets were off once Armstrong came clean. He wasn’t Superman — he’d been pumping dope like everyone else. He was also revealed to be a bullying jerk who’d used his celebrity power to cover his tracks, according to his former teammates and associates. And once the curtain was lifted, he forfeited the luxury of being “the manager of his own storyline,” as Gibney puts it.

For someone like Armstrong, possessed of such carefully tended personal mythology, that was huge. His reputation suffered and sponsors cut ties. (In at least one San Francisco gym, an image of the Golden Gate Bridge was hastily tacked over an Armstrong photo mural.) His seven victories were stripped away, and — worst of all — cancer survivors who’d lifted him up as a hero were left feeling deeply deceived.

Ultimately, Gibney’s film probes deeper than Armstrong’s flaws; it’s careful to point out that drug use is widespread among professional cyclists (and in other pro sports, too — just ask Barry Bonds), who are surrounded by an insular, high-stakes culture that encourages it. The sports world lives and dies by the next world record or superhuman achievement. Is it any wonder that elite athletes seek out that extra competitive edge? And that Armstrong would believe he had the power to rearrange reality to keep his victories intact? *


THE ARMSTRONG LIE opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.

Keep it reel



FILM Central India’s Gulabi Gang, composed of rural women fighting violence and oppression, has become a popular media subject, and it’s not hard to see why: Not only does it offer an inspiring story, it’s visually compelling, since its members dress in matching, hot-pink saris. Pink Saris, in fact, was the title of documentarian Kim Longinotto’s portrait of the group; it played in the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. Now, there’s Gulabi Gang, Nishtha Jain’s doc, which screens as part of the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, presented by 3rd i. (A Bollywood narrative, Gulaab Gang, is reportedly in production as well.)

Front and center in Jain’s film is formidable leader Sampat Pal, who speaks loudly and carries a big stick she’s perfectly willing to use. Though the Gulabi Gang’s trademark acts of physical retaliation are only discussed anecdotally, we do get to see the activists sharply criticize corrupt village leaders and dismissive cops. We also tag along as the women circulate among communities recruiting new members. The main plot thread follows Pal as she investigates a woman’s suspicious death — likely a murder, and one that’s being shoddily covered up by her husband and his family. (Later, it’s revealed that the wife was just 15 or 16, having been married off at age 11.)

Pal, who founded the group in 2006, is a skilled agitator, speaking for the voiceless and cannily grabbing whatever platform is available. “The video camera is recording it all,” she declares after visiting a crime scene that’s clearly been tampered with. “Your artistry will be shoved up your asses.”

But though Pal is backed up by fellow activists (Gulabi Gang notes that the group has some 150,000 members), Jain is careful to show that a happy ending is impossible amid an epidemic of violence against women. “Only God knows what happened,” the teen bride’s own father remarks with case-closed dismissiveness. Still, the women press on, and there’s hope to be found in their determination, and in the fact that there’s a trend of women’s rights docs coming out of India lately. Another, Invoking Justice — about women in southern India who’ve formed their own “Jamaat” to handle disputes traditionally settled by men according to Islamic Sharia law — screened at the Center for Asian American Media’s 2013 CAAMfest.

There’s a bit of feminist subtext to be found in Beyond All Boundaries, about India’s obsession with the sport of cricket. Er, ‘scuse me: “It’s not a sport — it’s a religion!” according to a first-act interviewee, hyperbole that starts to feel like fact once Boundaries gets rolling. Sushrut Jain’s doc, shot during the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, follows three young people who’ve found their identities via cricket: homeless megafan Sudhir, who bicycles (sometimes for weeks) to every India match and coats himself with paint to become a living embodiment of team spirit; 12-year-old cricket prodigy Prithvi, whose skills are his golden ticket out of poverty, and (one hopes) a means to escape his sports-Svengali father; and Akshaya, an 18-year-old with a horrific home life who’s dropped out of school to pursue her dreams of playing professionally.

Reaching cricket’s elite level is no easy pursuit, even for a very talented boy — but for a girl, it’s nearly impossible. (Think of it this way: even in big-budget America, pro teams for women are pretty damn scarce.) And even if Akshaya makes it, whatever pay she earns will be laughably low; a coach interviewed in Boundaries is embarrassed to name the salary range on camera. But she has to try, since cricket is the only bright spot in what’s been a trying life. She seems so deserving that it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for stepping in and paying for medical care when an injury threatens an important try-out session.

Though Prithvi’s story contains some worrisome figures — the rich benefactor who’s funding the boy’s early career ominously notes, “If he doesn’t make it as a cricketer, that would be like a curse to me”; the youngster’s father, who jovially admits he “has to” hit his son from time to time — his future prospects seem brighter than Akshaya’s. Most uplifting is the tale of Sudhir, whose devotion to cricket makes him a misfit in his estranged family, but a hero to fellow supporters who admire his dedication.

Boundaries is more character piece than Cricket 101, but even if you don’t know its rules (seriously, why so many runs?), the language of sports fandom is universal. And in this case, it’s political: “Cricket was one way of showing the colonial rulers that we were your equal,” a sports journalist points out, and indeed the race to the World Cup finals, against long-standing rivals like Pakistan, makes for some highly charged matchups.

Elsewhere in the fest — which celebrates “100 Years of Indian Cinema” as well as offering a “Spotlight on Pakistan” — is a must-see for film history buffs: Celluloid Man, a nearly three-hour portrait of 80-year-old P.K. Nair, “the Henri Langolis of India” who founded the country’s National Film Archive. His is described as an “obsessive passion” (hey, for some it’s cricket, for some it’s film), and Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s doc is an appropriately thorough, affectionate tribute, jammed with clips from movies Nair helped rescue and preserve. *


Nov 6-16, $10-$125

Various venues, SF and Palo Alto



Life’s work



FILM Beware Canadians — they may walk softly, but they carry a big hockey stick. The country next door has always had a bigger influence on American life than generally thought, especially at the movies. Mary Pickford, the medium’s first superstar, was Canadian; so, a century later, are Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, Jim Carrey, Ellen Page, Rachel McAdams, and Seth Rogen. Canadians have directed a lot of seemingly very American films, from 1982’s Porky’s to this year’s Prisoners.

Now there’s Dallas Buyers Club, the first all-US feature (though not the first English-language one) from Jean-Marc Vallée. He first made a splash in 2005 with C.R.A.Z.Y., which seemed an archetype of the flashy, coming-of-age themed debut feature — even if, in fact, it took him 42 years and three prior features to get there.

Like fellow Quebecker Denis Villeneuve (of Prisoners and 2010’s Incendies), Vallée has evolved beyond flashiness, or maybe since C.R.A.Z.Y. he just hasn’t had a subject that seemed to call for it. Which is not to say Dallas is entirely sober — its characters partake from the gamut of altering substances, over-the-counter and otherwise. But this is a movie about AIDS, so the purely recreational good times must eventually crash to an end.

Which they do pretty quickly. We first meet Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) in 1986, when he’s living one kind of red-blooded American Dream: a Texas good ol’ boy working the rodeo circuit, chasing skirts, partying nonstop. Not feeling quite right, he visits a doctor, who informs him that he is HIV-positive and probably has no more than 30 days left on this mortal plane. His response is “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker” — and increased partying that he barely survives.

Afterward, he pulls himself together enough to visit somewhere you suspect he’s seldom been before — the public library — and research his options. It appears the only significant treatment drug is AZT, which isn’t even on the market yet; it’s just being tested on patient groups he’d be lucky to be a part of. Being a born hustler disinterested in such formal roadblocks, Ron simply bribes a hospital attendant into raiding its trial supply for him. But Ron discovers the hard way what many first-generation AIDS patients did — that AZT is itself toxic, and in the high doses originally administered could cause much more harm than good to embattled immune systems.

He ends up in a Mexican clinic run by a disgraced American physician (Griffin Dunne) who doesn’t have to bother with the more stringent drug regulations up north, and in any case recommends a regime consisting mostly of vitamins and herbal treatments. Reasonably hale again after three months, Woodroof realizes a commercial opportunity here: He can smuggle such variably legal supplies in bulk to those who’ll pay any price for some hope back home in Texas. Yes, they’re mostly fay-guts. But a buck is a buck.

Finding he’s viewed with high suspicion peddling his wares to a plague-embattled gay community, he acquires as liaison and business partner Rayon (Jared Leto), a willowy cross-dresser in the Candy Darling mode who won’t tolerate his homophobia, but requires considerable tolerance for his/her non medicinal drug usage. When the authorities keep cracking down on their trade, savvy Ron takes a cue from gay activists in Manhattan and creates a law-evading “buyers club,” in which members pay monthly dues rather than paying directly for pharmaceutical goods.

It’s a tale that the scenarists (Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack) and director steep in deep Texan atmospherics (even if they had to shoot in Louisiana, presumably for tax-break purposes), like 2011’s memorable McConaughey-featuring true story Bernie. Largely through his friendship of necessity with Rayon (and his own shunning by old friends who gay-bait the second his health news gets out), the actor’s character here develops a certain broader-minded tolerance — a softening of prejudice that is the film’s major emotional arc. (There’s also a developing quasi-romance with Jennifer Garner as a sympathetic doc, but that feels somewhat gratuitous, partly because Garner is the kind of not-bad actress who nevertheless seldom brings authenticity to the table.) Much has been made of the extreme weight loss McConaughey and Leto undertook to play their roles. In Leto’s case, the transformation is impressive all around; in the McConaughey’s, he isn’t doing anything he hasn’t done variations on before, though it’s admirable how he refuses to make this protagonist any more charming than needed to get business done. We’re meant to buy that Woodroof eventually redeems himself in heart as well as deeds. But the line that rings truest is when he snaps “We’re not running a goddamn charity!” in turning down desperate HIV-positive men short on their subscription fees. Only self-preservation forces him out of his manly-man’s world of unsafe sex with shady ladies, among other high-risk behaviors. The therapies that save his own skin are shared with others (at least at first) only for the sake of the bottom line.

But then, plenty of innovators and benefactors of mankind have been cutthroat profiteers — look at Edison, for instance. While it takes itself seriously when and where it ought, Dallas Buyers Club is a movie by a Canadian whose frequent, entertaining jauntiness is based in that most American value of get-rich-quick entrepreneurship. *


DALLAS BUYERS CLUB opens Fri/8 in San Francisco.

Hot and cool



FILM The stars say the director was brutal. The director says he wishes the film had never been released (but he might make a sequel). The graphic novelist is uncomfortable with the explicit 10-minute sex scene. And most of the state of Idaho will have to wait to see the film on Netflix.

The noise of recrimination, the lesser murmur of backpedaling, and a difficult-to-argue NC-17 rating could make it harder, as French director Abdellatif Kechiche has predicted, to find a calm, neutral zone in which to watch Blue is the Warmest Color, his Palme d’Or–winning adaptation (with co-writer Ghalya Lacroix) of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel Le Blue Est une Couleur Chaude.

And yet … this is not Gigli (2003), despite the slimmest of Venn diagram overlays (lesbians). In the states, at least, Blue stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux (2011’s Midnight in Paris, 2012’s Farewell, My Queen) don’t yet haunt the tabloids of the nation’s checkout lines. Once you’ve committed to the three-hour runtime, it’s not too difficult to tune out the static, the Daily Beast interview, the tearful press conferences, the threats of litigation, and focus on a film that trains its own mesmerized gaze on a young woman’s transforming experience of first love.

In the early scenes of Blue, which spans perhaps 10 years, Adèle (Exarchopoulos) is a quiet, reserved, slightly dreamy teenager living with her family in the suburbs of Lille, a city in northern France near the Belgian border. We see her making the long commute to the city center for school, reading and musing and writing in her journal, in class, with peers, silently turning over the mysterious events of her life. Pursued by a boy at school and goaded by her friends, she attempts to form an attachment to him and, when the experiment fails, is appalled, identifying something lacking inside herself.

We know what it is — and so does she, on some level. Earlier, in a French class, poring over a text by Marivaux, a teacher proposes the idea of a coup de foudre, love at first sight, a bolt from the blue, and we gather that one is coming for Adèle, something to jar her out of her silence and noncommittal posture, out of listening and reading and into life.

When the thunderclap comes, it’s a chance encounter in a crosswalk, the kind where time behaves oddly, and the rest of the world flattens out and goes achromatic. We hear Adèle’s breathing before we see Emma (Seydoux), a sexy, butch, blue-haired girl who comes strolling into focus with an arm slung over her girlfriend’s shoulder. The moment has a sensual weight to it, carried in Emma’s eyes as they lock with Adèle’s, as she manages to signal something vital to the younger girl, filling in a kind of outline of desire where before there was a dull, confusing nothingness — until time reasserts itself, leaving Adèle disoriented and caught in moving traffic.

When, months later, they meet again by chance; or predestination, as Emma flirtingly suggests; or because Adèle has wandered alone into a dyke bar in search of something she’s not ready to cop to, their conversation isn’t earth-shattering (except, because it’s even happening, to Adèle), but their connection, here and during successive encounters, is unsettling and electric.

Most of this comes across in the small, guarded expressions that flicker onto Adèle’s face, her eyes communicating, at different times, wonder, unease, submersive desire, or panic as she silently digests and wrestles with what is unfamiliar, exhilarating, and, eventually, heartbreaking and terrible.

Through all of this, the camera stays close, sometimes unnervingly so. In an early domestic scene, as the voracious Adèle wolfs down spaghetti Bolognese, we are treated to a detail-rich shot of her chewing, open mouth; at night we watch her sleeping and feel slightly creepy about it. And this is before her fantasies about the blue-haired girl begin, and before they manifest, in a series of lengthy, literal sex scenes that have inspired nervous laughter in darkened movie theaters, accusations of voyeurism, and that Idaho blackout, among other responses. Yet the camera’s relentless, intrusive intimacy brings us as close to the inside of Adèle’s head as she will allow anyone, including Emma, to get.

As for those scenes of grappling, slapping, tangled physicality — they’re uncomfortable, and insistent, and they feel very real. Also, like we shouldn’t be standing there watching for quite so long, though it’s certain to be an edifying experience for many in the room. And it may be that Kechiche is intent on an exercise of compare and contrast, offering up these extended interludes, in which two female lovers try their best, for hours, to crawl inside each other’s skin, as a sort of response to an early, abridged scene between Adèle and her boyfriend that ends unsatisfyingly for at least one of them.

There’s a certain heavy, explanatory neatness to that, of a piece with other devices that sometimes drag at the film. Must there be two separate conversations about the delights of oyster eating, to trace Adèle’s trajectory and palatal shift? Yes, Kechiche seems to feel, as if he’d just made a surprising discovery at a queer spoken word night in 1992. Gravely delivered classroom lectures, early in the film, likewise coincide miraculously, pointing always in the direction of Adèle’s life — the coup de foudre, a discussion of predestination, another on the perversions of the natural world, another still on ineluctable tragedy.

One or two of these moments would suffice. But little of the time spent in Adèle’s quiet company feels wasted. We sit with her for hours, quietly marking milestones in a relationship that blooms and deteriorates; standing nearby as Adèle falls apart, too; watching a heart expanding and breaking apart and reassembling, changed. *

BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

To hell and back



FILM Pop culture’s engagement with slavery has always been uneasy. Landmark 1977 miniseries Roots set ratings records, but the prestigious production capped off a decade that had seen more questionable endeavors, including 1971’s Goodbye Uncle Tom (from the Italian filmmakers who invented “mondo” films) and 1975 exploitation flick Mandingo (“the first true epic of the Old South,” according to its trailer). The latter is often cited by Quentin Tarantino as one of his favorite films; it was a clear influence on his 2012 revenge fantasy Django Unchained.

It’s fitting that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is being released almost exactly one year post-Django, though the two films share little beyond the slavery theme. Django (which won Oscars for Tarantino’s screenplay and Christoph Waltz’s dentist-cum-bounty hunter) is loud, lurid, and gleefully anachronistic, with proto-KKK members arguing about the placement of eyeholes on their hoods, and hip-hop on the soundtrack. It approached its subject matter in a manner that paid homage to the Westerns it riffed on: with guns blazing.

By contrast, 12 Years a Slave is nuanced and steeped in realism. Though it does contain scenes of violence (deliberately captured in long takes by regular McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, whose cinematography is one of the film’s many stylistic achievements), the film emphasizes the horrors of “the peculiar institution” by repeatedly showing how accepted and ingrained it was. Early on, a woman is sold and separated from her young son and daughter. Her new owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, urges her not to be upset, even as she screams in anguish, because “your children will soon be forgotten.” He has no awareness of the pain he’s inflicting — and he’s one of the more sympathetic white characters in the film.

12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, an African American man who was sold into slavery in 1841 and survived to pen a wrenching account of his experiences. An acclaimed violinist, Northup had a unique perspective on the South’s surreal status quo; he was born free and had lived a happy, cultured life until he was kidnapped and subjected to over a decade of mental and physical torture. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor (best-known for supporting roles in films like 2005’s Serenity and 2006’s Children of Men) delivers a powerful, star making performance.

As for McQueen, the director’s familiar moniker may still confuse mainstream filmgoers, but once 12 Years a Slave opens, the Brit should finally enjoy some stand-alone name recognition. A large ensemble cast (Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Michael K. Williams) populates a film that balances technical virtuosity with brutal subject matter, scripted from Northup’s book by John Ridley (in a huge step up from 2012’s overly sentimental Red Tails).

Increasingly ubiquitous actor Michael Fassbender has seen his biggest critical triumphs come when he’s worked with McQueen. The director, who started his career making art films, made his first feature, Hunger, in 2008; it starred a then-unknown Fassbender as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands. McQueen’s daring 2011 follow-up, NC-17 sex-addict tale Shame, earned Fassbender a raft of accolades. In 12 Years a Slave, he’s his best yet playing the film’s troubled villain, a plantation owner who exacerbates what’s clearly an unwell mind with copious amounts of booze. He’s tauntingly cruel to Northrup, but slave Patsey — played by talented newcomer Lupita Nyong’o — receives the bulk of his unwanted attentions, affectionate and otherwise.

There’s one false note in 12 Years a Slave, so glaring it deserves a mention. The film is full of recognizable faces; parts played by big stars like Giamatti and Alfre Woodard amount to little more than cameos. But the last-act appearance of Brad Pitt (as an enlightened, worldly builder) proves a jarring intrusion. Pragmatically, perhaps it was worth it; Ejiofor has said in interviews that the megastar’s involvement helped the film get made. But that doesn’t mean it’s not completely distracting. *


12 YEARS A SLAVE opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.



Along with closely-affiliated nonprofit San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, CinemaSF has stepped up to keep a pair of historic theaters located in non-trendy neighborhoods — the Vogue and the Balboa — alive and thriving, especially after a Kickstarter campaign earlier this year raised dough to ease the Balboa’s digital-upgrade costs. (The Vogue, thankfully, was already 21st century-ready.) It would be an easy moneymaker to simply screen the latest Hollywood releases, and while both theaters do show first-run stuff, they also offer exclusive and special-interest programming on the side, such as the Balboa’s “Popcorn Palace” kiddie series, and the Vogue’s hosting of San Francisco Film Society events like November’s “Taiwan Film Days.” Have we mentioned how awesome it is not to always watch a movie on your laptop alone in your tiny room, or be bombarded by sense-numbing multiplex gimmickry? Here’s to many more years of great indie flicks shared in great spaces with friendly film fans.


Exile on Main St. USA



FILM Escape From Tomorrow acquired cachet at Sundance this year as a movie you ought to see because it probably wouldn’t surface again — not because it was that bad, but because any regular release seemed sure to be legally blocked. The reason was its setting, which composites two of the most photographed (and “happiest”) places on Earth. They’re also among the most heavily guarded from any commercial usage not of their own choosing.

That would be Disney World and Disneyland, where Escape was surreptitiously shot — ingeniously so, since you would hardly expect any movie filmed on the sly like this to be so highly polished, or for its actors to get so little apparent attention from the unwitting background players around them. (Let alone from security personnel, since as anyone who’s ever tried to do anything “against the rules” at a Disney park can tell you, those folks are as omnipresently watchful as Big Brother.)

Disney does not have a history of taking perceived affronts to its brand lightly. One movie that never did never make it past its festival bow was 2002’s The Sweatbox, an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the animated feature that eventually emerged as 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove. That was a fun movie, but completely different from the far more ambitious narrative its first round of creators envisioned, only to have years of work curtly dismissed with a “start over from scratch” memo from top executives mid process. Though green-lit by the studio itself, its directors given full warts-and-all access, The Sweatbox turned out so heartbreakingly revealing (and so unflattering toward the aforementioned execs) that the studio shelved the finished product after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. It hasn’t been seen since … at least not legally.

So there seemed little hope for Escape, which is anything but “authorized.” You don’t have to be a Disney lawyer to imagine how it could be seen as copyright infringement, a slander of sorts, or outright theft. That nobody has pulled the fire alarm, however, suggests Disney realized this movie isn’t going to do it any real harm. And perhaps more importantly, that a lawsuit would provide a publicity gold mine for the naughty filmmakers while hardly keeping viewers away in the long run. (Todd Haynes’ infamous, Barbie-enacted 1988 biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story has been “banned” since 1990, thanks to unamused sibling Richard Carpenter. Surely by now he’s aware his actions helped make it perhaps the most widely seen “unseeable” movie in history; as of this writing, there are 10 copies on YouTube alone.)

Anyway, Escape From Tomorrow is here, in improved form even. Nearly 15 minutes cut since Sundance have made all the difference between a clever, albeit slightly overstuffed, stunt and something uncategorizable yet fully realized. While its illicit setting remains near-indispensable (another big family theme park probably would have worked, too), what writer-director Randy Moore has pulled off goes beyond great gimmickry. His movie’s commingled satire, nightmare Americana, cartooniness, pathos, and surrealism recalls a few cult-fabled others — Eraserhead (1977), Parents (1989), even Superstar — mostly alike only in going so far out on their very own twisted limb.

We’re introduced to average, 40-ish Jim (Roy Abramsohn) the morning of the last day of his family vacation. He’s on their hotel room balcony, taking a phone call from his boss — who cheerfully fires him sans explanation. As Jim sputters in disbelief, approximately seven-year-old son Elliot (Jack Dalton) mischievously — or malevolently — locks the sliding door from the inside, then crawls back into bed beside still-sleeping mommy Emily (Elena Schuber), leaving dad stuck outside in his skivvies. Thus the film’s two major paths for interpretation are introduced right away: What follows might either be hallucinated by shell-shocked Jim, or really be a grand, bizarre conspiracy (usurping son included).

This final day is to be spent doing, well, what you do with kids at places like this. Elliot wants to go on certain rides; little sister Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) often wants to do different things. Their parents, when separated by conflicting child demands, stay in touch via cellphone — or don’t, to Emily’s exasperation. Jim has a tendency to get distracted by … things, like whimsical park characters that suddenly grow menacing fangs (thanks to the wonders of digital post-production) only he notices, or the two barely-legal French girls frolicking in short shorts (Danielle Safady, Annet Mahendru) who seem to be deliberately exciting his lascivious interest at every turn.

Then there are the disquieting rumors of a “cat flu” epidemic; the wife’s rebuffing all physical affection; a very weird interlude with a fellow park guest (Alison Lee-Taylor) whom Jim abruptly finds atop his bound, naked self, barking “Fuck me! Feel my vagina!;” and assorted other occurrences either imaginary, or apocalyptic, or both. Emily’s irritated accusation “Did you black out again?” is as intriguing and baffling as the full-blown sci fi-horror plot Jim finds himself the center of — or at least thinks he does.

Lucas Lee Graham’s crisp B&W photography finds the natural noir-slash-Carnival of Souls (1962) grotesquerie lurking in the shadows of parkland imagery. Abel Korzeniowski’s amazing score apes and parodies vintage orchestral Muzak, cloying kiddie themes, and briefly even John Williams at his most Spielbergian. All the actors do fine work, slipping fluidly if not always explicably from grounded real-world behavior to strangeness — clearly they were given the explanatory motivational road map that the audience is denied. But then the real achievement of Escape From Tomorrow, more than its sheer novelty of concept and aesthetic, is that while this paranoid fantasy really makes no immediate sense, Moore’s cockeyed vision is so assured that we assume it must, on some level. He’s created a movie some people will hate but others will watch over and over again, trying to connect its almost subliminal dots. *


ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW opens Fri/11 at the Roxie.

Survival mode



FILM Eye of the tiger, baby. The fight for survival is a dominant theme this season at the movies, with astronaut Sandra Bullock grappling for her life in Gravity; lone sailor Robert Redford piloting a leaky boat in All Is Lost; and Tom Hanks battling Somali pirates in Captain Phillips. (More on that film — directed with trademark urgency by Paul Greengrass — in a moment.)

No movie stars appear in The Summit, a documentary from Irish filmmaker Nick Ryan, but that doesn’t lessen its power. In fact, this tale of a staggeringly tragic mountaineering accident — in which 11 people perished in a 48-hour period atop K2, the second-highest peak in the world — might be the most terrifying of the bunch. Along with the expected historical context, talking heads, and some stunning aerial footage, The Summit crafts its tale using a seamless blend of re-enactments and archival footage shot during the deadly 2008 expedition. Editor Ben Stark picked up two awards at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and you can see why — it’s difficult at times to pick out what’s real and what’s not.

“Only 18 percent of the footage is reconstructed. I actually did the calculation, because it was coming up a lot,” Ryan explained on a recent visit to San Francisco. In this era of obsessive self-documentation, it’s not surprising that many of the climbers happened to be carrying cameras. “I was always aware, though, that perhaps once things started to go bad, there wasn’t going to be much footage there. People were going to be too busy surviving, and filming was probably the last thing on their minds. As a director, the reconstructions were a very conscious choice — I knew how complex the story was. The best method would be to tie [its fragments] together with a strong narrative structure.”

Accompanying Ryan to SF was Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, a professional climber who was a hero amid the chaos in 2008. Though K2 claimed the life of his teammate and close friend, charismatic Irishman Ger McDonnell, he didn’t hesitate when Ryan asked him to participate in the film.

“The documentary allowed us to show the public what happened on the mountain,” Sherpa explained. “But the reconstructions did bring up some difficult feelings.”

The Summit has been compared to Kevin Macdonald’s 2003 Touching the Void — a documentary enhanced by re-enactments that’s also about a controversial climb. Ryan said he saw the movie when it came out, but he’s avoided other obvious touchstones, like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. “You don’t want to be influenced. But though they’re substantially different, I was always envious of the simplicity of Touching the Void as a story. The Summit was the polar opposite of that, because of its complexity.”

The Summit also delves into the more metaphysical aspects of climbing, including “summit fever” — sharing the startling statistic that for every four people who attempt K2, one will die. “As a non-climber, I was fascinated by that,” Ryan said. “Why would anyone take worse odds than Russian roulette?”

Those who do must understand the sport’s unwritten rule of self-preservation. “Morality is skewed when you get above the [high-altitude] death zone. The morally right thing to do isn’t necessarily the actual right thing to do,” Ryan said. “If you climb these mountains, I think you have to realize that when things go wrong you can only rely on yourself. You can’t expect anyone to help you — when you’re stuck there, you might as well be stuck on the moon. Nobody is coming to help you.”

Fortunately for cargo ship captain Richard Phillips, the Gulf of Aden is neither K2 nor the moon. In 2009, Phillips was taken hostage by pirates who’d hijacked the Kenya-bound Maersk Alabama. His subsequent rescue by Navy SEALs came after a standoff that ended in the death of three pirates; a fourth, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, surrendered and is serving a hefty term in federal prison.

A year later, Phillips penned a book about his ordeal, and Hollywood pounced. Hanks is perfectly cast as Phillips, an everyman who runs a tight ship but displays an admirable ability to improvise under pressure.

“He was essentially trying anything to shake them off his path. [The pirates] let him hold onto his radio, and he was able to communicate with everybody else on the ship that way,” Hanks said, in town to promote the film with Greengrass and co-star Barkhad Abdi. “[Phillips] had so much knowledge as a merchant mariner. Prior in his career, he’d been in a hurricane in the middle of the Pacific, in which he was helpless — so he’d experienced a different type of terror at sea. With [the pirates], he had somebody he could interact with. It was a different type of fear and anxiety.”

Abdi, cast from an open call among Minneapolis’ large Somali community, plays pirate leader Muse. Captain Phillips focuses mostly on Hanks’ character, but it takes the time to emphasize that piracy is one of few grim career options for Somali youths. The first-time actor, who left Somalia at a young age, brings nuance to what could’ve been a one-note villain.

“I relate to that character, because that could have been me,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have parents that took me to another country, where I could be a better person. But what if my parents had been killed? I don’t excuse [Muse’s] actions, but I understand his motives.”

With a résumé full of intelligent, doc-inspired thrillers (2006’s United 93, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum), director Greengrass has mastered the art of fast-paced action filmmaking. He’s especially known for his use of handheld cameras, and Captain Phillips is no exception.

“Ships rock around. How do you shoot on a lifeboat and keep it steady? It’s impossible. You want the images that you’re capturing to authentically arise out of the environment that you’re shooting in,” Greengrass explained, with a caveat. “The faster-moving your sequence, and the more intensely complicated your action is, it [becomes] imperative to render detail. Detail is what gives you acceleration and focus. You’ve got to be inside the action, and your filmmaking must unlock the inner dynamics in a way that’s clear. With this film, you’ve got a very simple, unbelievably dramatic, stark story. If we render it as authentically as we can, we’ll find out what it means — which you couldn’t have found from the news, because you’re looking at it from the outside. You can only find out by being in it.” *


THE SUMMIT and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS open Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.

Eat your meat



FILM The title of Jim Mickle’s latest film sums up the attitude of the Parker family: We Are What We Are. We eat people. Our human-flesh cravings go back generations. Our dietary habits have become our religion. And that’s just the way it is — until teen sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) start to have some doubts.

As We Are (a remake of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 film) begins, the girls’ mother has suddenly died amid a punishing rainstorm — and their grief-stricken Dad (Bill Sage) has become awfully twitchy. As the local police, a suspicious doctor (Michael Parks), and a curious neighbor (Kelly McGillis) begin to poke into their business, the Parkers prep for “Lambs Day,” a feast that most definitely involves whoever is chained up in the basement.

Next up for Mickle and his co-writer Nick Damici — they’re best-known for 2010’s Stake Land, which starred Damici — is Cold in July, an actual non-horror film (though it is based on a novel by Bubba Ho-Tep author Joe R. Lansdale). But first: who’s hungry?


SF Bay Guardian How did the success of Stake Land affect your career?

Jim Mickle We Are What We Are is really more non-horror than it is horror, and I think Stake Land gave us the confidence to do that — to explore within the genre and try new things.

SFBG Can you expand on why you think We Are is more “non-horror”?

JM To me, it’s more of a dark story about faith and religion, even though the word “cannibal” is a horror idea, and there are obviously scenes that hit that. Stake Land is a vampire-apocalypse story with action scenes, but the heart of it was the orphaned [lead character] coming of age in a destroyed world. The horror elements are just kind of the sprinkles on the ice cream.

It was the same thing here. I was much more interested in the girls’ story, and the story of a family trying to hold together after a tragic event.

SFBG This film is a remake, but it seems you were pretty intent on putting your own stamp on the story.

JM Yeah, definitely. I’m one of the biggest haters of remakes. It’s funny, because I’ll see people online going, “Why did they redo this?” And usually, that’s me complaining. I’m a fan of so many of the horror movies that then get butchered by Hollywood. So when I was first [asked to do] an American version of this, I kind of rolled my eyes a little bit. And when [Damici] and I first watched the movie, we were like, “Why redo this? It’s a good movie!”

But then, over a couple of days, we started to sort of brainstorm ideas. The first thing was taking it out of a Mexican city and putting it into rural upstate New York. Instantly it’s very different, but it’s also something that I know very well and can talk about personally and uniquely.

Still, we wanted to hang onto [certain things] about the original. I loved what [Grau] did with the tone, and its restraint and simplicity.

SFBG Kelly McGillis was so memorable in Stake Land, and it’s great to see her back for We Are. What’s your relationship with her like?

JM I think she had a great time on Stake Land — she hadn’t done a movie in years before that. I like shoots that are fun, and I try to remember that getting to make movies is a privilege and that we should enjoy it as we go, and I think she has the same sense. We clicked instantly.

[Damici] wrote this character specifically for her. She’s very goofy in real life, and we wanted to play that up. It’s the perfect role for her, the wise-but-also-nosy neighbor. We called her about it, and before we had even said anything she said “I’ll do it! I can’t wait!” *


WE ARE WHAT WE ARE opens Fri/4 in San Francisco.

Go north, film fan


If you’re gonna make the journey across the Golden Gate Bridge, the movie better be worth it, right? Fortunately, the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival boasts a stellar schedule. Read on for our top picks.

Run & Jump (Steph Green, Ireland/Germany) San Francisco-born director Steph Green’s first feature is a likable seriocomedy about an Irish family trying to adjust to some drastic, unforeseen changes. After suffering a stroke and coming out of a coma, Conor Casey (Edward MacLiam) is a changed man — uncommunicative, sometimes volatile, seldom at all like the beloved husband and father he was. As wife Venetia (Maxine Peake) and their two kids tiptoe around him, they get a houseguest in the form of American neurologist Ted (Will Forte), who’s here to study Conor’s recovery (or lack thereof) with clinical detachment. The reserved, emotionally withdrawn Yank finds himself drawn into the Caseys’ shared warmth, particularly in its current need for a fill-in adult male — opening up to the children and, more riskily, striking romantic sparks with the Mrs. A bit formulaic but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless, the film is perhaps most notable for its winning dramatic turn by Saturday Night Live alum Forte, also at MVFF in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Fri/4, 9:15pm, and Sun/6, 1pm, Sequoia. (Dennis Harvey)

Imagine (Andrzej Jakimowski, Poland) Andrzej Jakimowski’s quiet yet sometimes exhilaratingly original film manages to make blindness relatable as perhaps never before in a primarily visual medium. Ian (Edward Hogg) is an enigmatic Englishman who shakes up a Lisbon facility for his fellow sightless with radical ideas and an insistence that residents push their limits — throwing away their canes, moving about more boldly in the world via developing almost superhuman attentiveness to sound reverberation as their guide. There are a couple astounding (and hair-raising) sequences where the viewer’s own sensory intake is focused in unfamiliar ways. Mysterious, peculiar, and wistful, Imagine is uneven but often arrestingly memorable, its biggest minus being a musical score that mistakenly thinks this is an antic comedy. Sat/5, 6:15pm, and Sun/6, 6:30pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey)

Desert Runners (Jennifer Steinman, US) It’s appropriate that Mill Valley, starting point of the legendary Dipsea Race, hosts the US premiere of this doc about a group of runners who attempt to complete the 4 Deserts Race Series, which stages ultramarathons across unforgiving terrain in Chile, China, Egypt, and Antarctica. Each athlete has his or her own stirring backstory, and each shows incredible grit in the face of injuries and intense dehydration. Darker moments come courtesy of petite Aussie Samantha’s mid-race encounter with a would-be rapist, and the news that a competitor (not featured in the film) has died along the trail. But Desert Runners is ultimately an admiring portrait of its charismatic subjects (all white, all presumably able to afford the $20,000-plus total cost of entering all four races) who willingly subject themselves to extreme bodily harm. It’s up to the viewer to decide if they’re inspirational, or kinda nuts. Or both. Sun/6, 2:15pm, Sequoia; Oct 12, 5:45pm, 142 Throckmorton. (Cheryl Eddy)

Le Week-End (Roger Michell, UK) Director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi first collaborated two decades ago on The Buddha of Suburbia, when the latter was still in the business of being Britain’s brashest multiculti hipster voice. But in the last 10 years they’ve made a habit of slowing down to sketching portraits of older lives — and providing great roles for the nation’s bottomless well of remarkable veteran actors. Here Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent play a pair of English academics trying to re-create their long-ago honeymoon’s magic on an anniversary weekend in Paris. They love each other, but their relationship is thorny and complicated in ways that time has done nothing to smooth over. This beautifully observed duet goes way beyond the usual adorable-old-coot terrain of such stories on screen; it has charm and humor, but these are unpredictable, fully rounded characters, not comforting caricatures. Briefly turning this into a seriocomedy three-way is Most Valuable Berserker Jeff Goldblum as an old friend encountered by chance. It’s not his story, but damned if he doesn’t just about steal the movie anyway. Mon/7, 6:30pm, and Oct 11, 5:15pm, Sequoia. (Harvey)

Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan) A yuppie Tokyo couple are raising their only child in workaholic dad’s image, applying the pressure to excel at an early age. Imagine their distress when the hospital phones with some unpleasant news: It has only just been learned that a nurse mixed up their baby with another baby, with the result that both families have been raising the “wrong” children these six years. Polite, forced interaction with the other clan — a larger nuclear unit as warm, disorganized, and financially hapless as the first is formal, regimented, and upwardly mobile — reveals that both sides have something to learn about parenting. This latest from Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda (1998’s After Life, 2004’s Nobody Knows, 2008’s Still Walking) is, as usual, low-key, beautifully observed, and in the end deeply moving. Oct 9, 2:30pm, Smith Rafael; Oct 12, 8pm, Lark. (Harvey)

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, US) Jared Leto appears in person for this screening of Jean-Marc Vallée’s well-crafted, based-on-true events drama about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, specifically focusing on the struggles patients faced in getting safe, effective medication. Leto, who has lately been focusing on his music career, has a standout supporting turn as Rayon, a transgender woman who loves Marc Bolan, gowns, and sparring with business partner Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey). Look for Leto and McConaughey — the best he’s ever been, as a good ol’ boy and confirmed homophobe who becomes an activist and agitator after contracting HIV — to earn plenty of notice come awards season. Oct 10, 6:30pm, Smith Rafael. (Eddy)

At Middleton (Adam Rodgers, US) Star and co-producer Andy Garcia will be on hand for the local premiere of this romantic comedy co-starring Vera Farmiga. They play strangers paying introductory visits to the titular (fictive) college with offspring on the brink of leaving home and starting independent adult lives. Everyone is temperamentally ill-matched — jokester mom with humorless daughter, persnickety dad with laid-back son — but during the course of the day strolling around campus, frissons of romance and new self knowledge occur on both sides of the generation gap. Adam Rodgers’ feature is pleasant but a little too pat, relying overmuch on the appeal of lead actors who’ve been better served elsewhere. Oct 12, 5pm, and Oct 13, 11:15am, Sequoia. (Harvey)

All is Lost (J.C. Chandor, US) As other reviewers have pointed out, All is Lost‘s nearly dialogue-free script (OK, there is one really, really well-placed “Fuuuuuck!”) is about as far from J.C. Chandor’s Oscar-nominated script for 2011’s Margin Call as possible. Props to the filmmaker, then, for crafting as much pulse-pounding magic out of austerity as he did with that multi-character gabfest. Here, Robert Redford plays “Our Man,” a solo sailor whose race to survive begins along with the film, as his boat collides with a hunk of Indian Ocean detritus. Before long, he’s completely adrift, yet determined to outwit the forces of nature that seem intent on bringing him down. The 77-year-old Redford turns in a surprisingly physical performance that’s sure to be remembered as a late-career highlight. Oct 12, 3:30pm, Smith Rafael; Oct 13, 8:15pm, Sequoia. (Eddy)

The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Cambodia/France) Rithy Panh’s latest film about the homeland he fled as a teenager is atypically, directly autobiographical, and most unusually crafted. He re-creates his once comfortable Phnom Penh family’s grim fate after Pol Pot and company seized control of Cambodia in 1975 — as all fell prey to the starvation, forced labor, and other privations suffered by perceived “enemies” of the new regime — not by any conventional means but via elaborate dioramas of handmade clay figures depicted in prison camp life (and death). There’s also ample surviving propagandic footage of the Khmer Rouge trumpeting its “model society” that was in reality little more than an experiment in mass execution and torture. The result is a unique and powerful take on one of the 20th century’s worst crimes against humanity. Oct 12, 4:45pm, Lark; Oct 13, 5:30pm, Smith Rafael. (Harvey) *

The 36th Mill Valley Film Festival runs Oct. 3-13 (most shows $12.50-$14). Major venues are the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael; Cinéarts@Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley; Lark Theater, 549 Magnolia, Larkspur; and 142 Throckmorton Theater, 142 Throckmorton, Mill Valley. Complete schedule at www.mvff.com.

Hit the lights



FILM The 3D IMAX concert film may be lurching toward cliché status, but at least Metallica: Through the Never has more bite to it than, say, this summer’s One Direction: This is Us.

Director Nimród Antal (2010’s Predators) weaves live footage of the Bay Area thrash veterans ripping through hits (“Enter Sandman,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” etc.) into a narrative (kinda) about one of the band’s roadies (The Place Beyond the Pines‘ Dane DeHaan). Sent on an errand, the hoodie-wearing hesher finds himself caught in a nightmarish landscape of violence, fire, hanging bodies, masked horsemen, crumbling buildings — more or less, the dude’s trapped in a heavy metal video, and not one blessed with particularly original imagery. Yet despite Never‘s deliberately baffling storyline, it’s also often very literal: a fight scene set to “Battery,” for example.

Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett — other members: singer-guitarist James Hetfield, bassist Robert Trujillo, and drummer Lars Ulrich — is the band’s resident movie fanatic; for proof, see Too Much Horror Business, the 2012 book chronicling his memorabilia collection. (Through the Never offers a larger-than-life chance to ogle his Boris Karloff guitar.) Though it contains unsettling elements, Hammett admits that Through the Never isn’t really a horror film.

“We needed to find a concept that fit all four of us as people, as well as Metallica as a band,” he says, holding forth a day after the movie’s Metreon premiere. “There were a lot of different concepts thrown at us. Most of them were science fiction — and while I’m a big sci-fi fan, I just don’t see Metallica making a sci-fi movie. But Nimród’s concept was loose enough that we were able put our own ideas and personalities, and the band personality, into it. Sure, it would’ve been great to have a scary, 60-foot troll tromping around with a Metallica shirt on. It would have been fun for me. But I don’t know if it would have been as much fun for the other guys!”

About that “loose concept” — though Hammett says the decision not to give DeHaan’s character any dialogue was so “anyone could understand [the film] anywhere in the world,” he admits that some viewers have been confused by the story.

However, “the great thing about this movie is that it’s open to interpretation,” he says. “It’s being told in a metaphoric fashion, which means that depending on who you are, and where you are in your life, you’re going to have a different interpretation of this movie. And that’s the beauty of it — it’s like Metallica lyrics. It acts almost as a mirror to what your own life perspective is. That is something that we wholeheartedly chase in all our creative endeavors — we want something that is not, ‘This is a square and that’s it.’ That’s boring! We want something like, ‘Is this a rectangle in a different dimension that has capabilities that we don’t even know about?’ It’s much more of an interesting approach, and I think it was the right one to take with this movie.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time Metallica has been the focus of a feature film — prior to Through the Never came searing, deeply personal 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

“Two different animals altogether,” Hammett says of the films. “Monster was a documentary about four people and their real struggles against adversity. This is more along the lines of pure entertainment, being able to put forth a concert scenario and tell a story at the same time. That was really unique and cool for us.” *


METALLICA: THROUGH THE NEVER opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.

The great divide



FILM Whatever the wisdom of Obama’s strategy for Syria, public response has made it clear that most Americans no longer want the US to meddle in foreign affairs — at least not if it costs money and might embroil our troops in another endless, winless imbroglio. This is a little flummoxing, since not so long ago we gave another president a free pass to invade countries for far more dubious reasons, and are still paying the price for those rubber stamps in many, many ways a decade later.

So why the turnabout? It’s pretty simple. Not only is 9/11 an increasingly distant memory rather than a recent open wound inviting retaliatory action (no matter how reckless or misguided), but the economic downturn has shifted Americans’ attitude toward (an even bigger than usual case of) “The hell with other people’s problems, what about me?” For good or ill, there is no injustice we feel more keenly, or care about more deeply, than that we suffer ourselves.

Yet the explanations proffered as to what happened to make us so enraged (and broke) are utterly contradictory. We’re still the richest country on Earth — richer than ever, in fact — so why do so few citizens feel that fact even remotely relates to their everyday reality?

Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All is the latest and certainly not the last documentary to explore why the American Dream is increasingly out of touch with everyday reality, and how the definition of “middle class” somehow morphed from “comfortable” to “struggling, endangered, and hanging by a thread.” This lively overview has an ace up its sleeve in the form of the director’s friend, collaborator, and principal interviewee Robert Reich — the former Clinton-era secretary of labor, prolific author, political pundit, and UC Berkeley professor of Public Policy. Whether he’s holding forth on TV, going one-on-one with Kornbluth’s camera, talking to disgruntled working class laborers, or engaging students in his Wealth and Poverty class, Inequality is basically a resourcefully illustrated Reich lecture — as the press notes put it, “an Inconvenient Truth for the economy.”

Fortunately, the diminutive Reich is a natural comedian (he’s spent a life honing self-deprecatory height jokes) as well as a superbly cogent communicator, turning yet another summary of how the system has fucked almost everybody (excluding the one percent) into the one you might most want to recommend to the bewildered folks back home. He’s sugar on the pill, making it easier to swallow so much horrible news.

Reich takes us through the gamut of horrible figures: how the US now has the most unequal distribution of wealth among all developed nations (by far); how as adjusted for inflation the average male makes less than he did in 1978 while the average “person at the top” makes two-and-a-half times more (over $1 million annually as opposed to just under $400,000); how general productivity, profits, and costs of living have continued to rise since then, while 99-percenter wages flatlined; how eerily the stats on 1928 and 2007 mirror each other, in terms of peak wealth concentration and unregulated financial-sector speculation. (We all know what happened in 1929 and 2008: ka-boom, or rather, ka-bust.)

Contradicting the “trickle-down theory,” Reich stresses that the very, very wealthy can’t spend enough to uphold their share of a US whose well-being is now 70 percent dependent on consumer purchases — it behooves everyone for that money to be spread around more evenly, because “What makes an economy stable is a strong middle class.” (He also makes the point that contrary to even common liberal wisdom, globalization hasn’t significantly reduced the number of American jobs — only the amount that they pay.)

There are man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews — not just with those on the losing end of this equation, but with one company-owning Richie Rich who freely admits current tax rates, loopholes, and so on mean people like him pull far less than their fair weight society, job creators or no. (On the other hand there’s Mitt Romney, who shifts the silver spoon to the side of his mouth long enough to decry the “envy” and “class warfare” behind all income-inequality debate.)

We also hear from the usual chorus of reactionary hysterics, like the Fox yobbo who swears Reich surely must “secretly worship Karl Marx” to hold the opinions he does. Doesn’t he realize that all government is bad, and all things free market inherently good? Never mind that the “Great Prosperity” — America’s economic golden age from 1947 to 1977 — was precisely the time that unions were strongest, the middle-class flourished, the rich were taxed up the wazoo (and seldom complained about it, at least publicly), and the government kept close watch on Wall Street and corporate hijinks. That so many have come to accept an economic logic blatantly opposing everything that made that period prosperous for almost everyone testifies to decades of brilliant conservative propaganda.

Now we live in an era where duly employed (even doubly employed) people see their homes foreclosed upon, and higher education is a crippling financial burden many can afford only at the price of possibly lifelong debt. Yet we’re told that minimum wage laws are for crybabies and upward mobility remains a matter of, y’know, really wanting it.

Having seen all this coming a long way off (he admits by the end of his post under old college buddy Clinton, “I became a true pain in the ass” to anyone who’d listen), Reich prefers not to say “I told you so” but “Here’s what you can do” — despite Citizens United and other developments that have drastically reduced citizens’ influence on public policy. Depressing as much of what he says is, he’s such a mensch that hearing him say it here is still pretty enjoyable. *


INEQUALITY FOR ALL opens Fri/27 in San Francisco.

Blah lust



FILM Despite its intensely collaborative, top-heavy, organizationally complex nature, commercial filmmaking can still be primarily instinctual rather than thoughtful, let alone intellectual. This is not necessarily a good thing. We’re accustomed to displays of corporate group-thinking or sheer willful, proud stupidity (hiya, Michael Bay!) in mainstream movies today. But those are exercises of market conformism, whether the makers recognize them as such or not. What about populist filmmakers who go their own way yet grow increasingly dumb and dumber? Should we applaud their auteurist individuality even as all artfulness, taste, and entertainment value rushes toward the drain?

Of course we’re talking about Brian De Palma, who at age 73 should deserve more respect — if he hadn’t spent decades scuttling it so completely. His new movie is called Passion, and one doubts he thinks its lame third-generation lez-ploitation is any less of a passion project than he’s made in the past. That is so, so sad.

It’s important to remember that this guy once looked like a prince, as promising as Scorsese, through at least the mid-1970s: clever shorts, avant garde flirtations, exceptionally edgy, and inventive indie comedies (1968’s Greetings and 1970’s Hi, Mom!), guaranteed future cult classics (1974 rock musical Phantom of the Paradise), and tentative major-studio efforts that misfired yet were stylistically compelling (1972 absurdist Get to Know Your Rabbit, 1976 mystery thriller Obsession). Sisters (1973) — his first explicit Hitchcock homage — was a black-comedy horror knockout undervalued at the time because it was distributed by a minor studio (American International) that didn’t know how to sell it up-market.

Then came Carrie (1976), a brilliantly cast, shot, and scored improvement on Stephen King’s wobbly debut novel. It’s a succubus movie: no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you can’t watch the opening scenes without getting sucked into the whole thing. Its misanthropy could be excused as cunning satire, undercut by the empathy Sissy Spacek’s titular figure evoked. (De Palma never gave a leading female actor such sympathetic free rein before or since.) A commercial success nonetheless considered disappointing due to cheesy publicity better suited to a drive-in horror flick, Carrie boosted De Palma to the A list … where he wanked.

The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Body Double (1984), and Raising Cain (1992) reprised elements of Carrie and Hitchcock to guiltily-pleasurable but increasingly inane, sexist, baldly derivative ends. He was still capable of pulling off the odd big, splashy action picture — notably 1983’s Scarface and 1987’s The Untouchables, with Carlito’s Way (1993) and Mission: Impossible (1996) enjoyable if distant second-placers — while 1989’s Casualties of War was a decent stab at serious-issue cinema, dealing with Vietnam War atrocities.

But, argh: Bonfire of the Vanities (1990) turned Tom Wolfe’s easily-sussed satirical novel into a full-on embarrassment of overt Hollywood stupidity toward anything faintly literary or complex. After the brief, barely redeeming pause for OK style-over-substance exercise Snake Eyes (1998), De Palma delivered the monumentally dull Mission to Mars (2000), shuddersome old-man-salivating Femme Fatale (2002), starry-dreadful noir mystery The Black Dahlia (2006), and 2007’s Redacted — a fictionalized “found footage” reenactment of actual American war crimes that was one of the most inept and offensive movies ever made by a once-important US director. While similarly themed Casualties communicated just-enough horror at its similarly fact derived misdeeds, here De Palma appeared to take far too much pleasure in the loutishness of our soldiers abroad — not to mention their graphically depicted rape-murder of a teenage Iraqi girl.

I’ve left little space left to discuss Passion because it is so depressingly unworthy of discussion. Even at this late, dire point, the notion of DePalma directing a remake of Alain Corneau’s 2010 hit Love Crime suggested camp guilty pleasure at the very least. The original film was a clever if implausible psychological thriller in which a corporate boss (Kristin Scott Thomas) and junior-executive protegee (Ludivine Sagnier) come to fatal comeuppance blows over a particularly cruel abuse of power in the name of love (or heterosexual lust). It was a stereotypical girlfight par excellance, dressed up via reasonably smart treatment.

You’d expect De Palma to ramp up the lurid and tawdry-violent aspects to delightfully tasteless degrees. (Remember, this is the director whose refined sensibility once showcased a killer’s floor-perforating electrical drill thrusting phallically into Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho substitute Deborah Shelton in Body Double.)

But perhaps what’s most depressing about Passion is that the life has gone out even from his love of violence and sexploitation. It’s a tepid movie, and not even a stylish one. In contrast to Scott Thomas’ formidible strength through-negativity (amplified in the recent Only God Forgives), Rachel McAdams’ villain is just another yuppie princess with a snit fit in store. Sagnier might well be the Gallic answer to Chloe Sevigny, yet her waxy inexpressiveness is still better than another horribly awkward English language performance (see: last year’s Prometheus) by Swedish star Noomi Rapace.

Hilariously, De Palma has opined that Passion lacks his trademark excesses because he targeted it primarily toward female viewers who (market research says) dislike graphic sex or violence. As if most women would enjoy his use of primary female characters as bimbos, prostitutes, bitches, rape victims, backstabbers, and climbers … if toned down a bit.

Passion (which notably took a full year to secure any US release after a festival debut) commits a sin he’s seldom attained previously: it is just dull. It promises titillation. Yet real people and real sex are so plastic and cartooned here they seem the last call of an old-school playboy horndog who can’t get it up anymore. *


Wed/4-Fri/5, 2:45 and 7pm, $8.50-$11

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF


Scenes from a marriage


FILM At least since Grey Gardens in 1975 provided a peek at mother-and daughter eccentrics living in squalor — distinguished from your average crazy cat ladies by being closely related to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — there’s been a documentary subgenre devoted to, well, weirdos. Errol Morris and Werner Herzog have devoted a sizable chunk of their output to them, those people who might make you nervous or annoyed if they lived next door but are fascinating to gawk at for 90 minutes or so. Like Cate Blanchett’s fictional wack job in Blue Jasmine, their dysfunctionality is entertaining at a safe distance.

The protagonists in Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer aren’t nuts, but they’ve been together over four decades without their problems really changing or getting any better. Ushio “Gyu-Chan” Shinohara was a somewhat notorious artist in Japan’s fertile avant-garde scene of the 1960s — we see footage of him sporting a Mohawk early in that decade, non-conformity already in full flower. His “neo-Dadaist” work already consisted largely of grotesque pop-art sculptures made out of found junk and large-scale canvases that, in a variation on Pollock’s action painting, he executed by battering paint onto them with boxing gloves. (When he finishes one, he raises his aims in triumph, like Rocky Balboa.)

In 1969 this wild man decided he needed a bigger stage, so he moved to New York. An early 1970s TV documentary excerpted here calls him perhaps “the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in the city,” noting that while his often outsized work gets a lot of attention, people seldom actually want to buy it. This is a situation that, we soon learn, hasn’t altered much since.

Gyu-Chan was 41 when he met wife Noriko, a 19-year-old art student also from Japan. She was swept up in the “purity” of his art and lifestyle; within six months she was pregnant with their only child, Alex (also a talented visual artist). In hindsight, she flatly tells us “I should have married a guy who made a secure living and took responsibility for what he did.”

We first meet the duo on his 80th birthday. It’s hardly a conventionally comfortable old age — in a tone so weary it can hardly be classified as nagging, Noriko reminds him that they’re late with the rent on their fairly large yet cluttered Brooklyn apartment-studio, and the utilities are about to be cut off for lack of payment. You get the feeling all this is business-as usual, and that the cheerful, oblivious, still-energetic Ushio would’ve been out on the street years ago if not for her insistence that he actually make some money once in a while.

It’s a classic dysfunctional-yet-still maintaining marital dynamic: the easygoing, charming, eternal bad boy herded about as successfully as a cat on a leash by the long-suffering wife. He no longer drinks — having stopped on doctor’s orders just a few years ago — but he’s still a manboy making junk-art mock motorcycles and pounding large canvases … and not making much money. His reputation remains incongruously far greater than his means, even if we see a Guggenheim representative ponder making a purchase of one of his “historical” pieces.

Meanwhile Noriko, who one senses has long resented living under the shadow of this larger-than-life figure, feels she’s finally escaped his influence in her own work. (It doesn’t help that, when acknowledging that she’s his occasional, reluctant assistant, Gyu-Chan confides “The average one has to support the genius.”) She’s working on a series of narrative, cartoon-like drawings depicting the titular “Cutie” and “Bullie” — blatant stand-ins for herself and Ushio, chronicling her long saga of disillusionment as a classic “good girl” who married a bad boy, to the detriment of her own art and the child she had to raise with “drunk adults hanging around him all the time.” (It is one of the film’s frustrations that we never really get Alex’s perspective on this, though he’s clearly a wary veteran of his parents’ misbehaviors and judgments.)

If her husband is discomfited by this exposure of their private life — even when the “Cutie” series (which is turned into simple animation throughout the documentary) is exhibited in conjunction with his own latest gallery show — he doesn’t show it. But then, she does the fretting for both of them.

A quiet, almost meditative portrait of messy lives, Cutie and the Boxer doesn’t really answer the question of why these two remained together despite all (her) dissatisfaction. When he accepts an invitation to go to Japan — cramming a couple of small sculptures carelessly in his suitcase to sell while there — she says “suddenly the air clears” whenever he’s gone, and we see her lighten up considerably while showing a fellow Japanese expat friend her latest work. But you get the feeling Noriko, while hardly an emotional open book, loves her burdensome, unruly spouse more than she’d admit. Or at least she’s accepted the “struggle” of life with him as her own goading raison d’être. You know the saying: life is short, art is long. *


CUTIE AND THE BOXER opens Fri/23 in San Francisco.

Midsummer mayhem



FILM It’s been a zzz summer at the multiplex. The number one movie of the year is Iron Man 3, a highly unmemorable blockbuster. (Quick: Who played the villain? Had to think about it for a second, didn’t you?) With the exception of The Heat and The Conjuring, most everything that’s grossed a crap-ton of dollars recently is either a sequel or based on some well-worn property.

Fear not, genre fans. This weekend, a quartet of films lurks just below the surface, lacking big-budget hype yet worthy of your attention. Among them are a chilly sci-fi epic, a high-octane cop thriller, a classic slab of Italian sleaze, and an eerily relatable (um, if you’re me) documentary about VHS fanatics.

Directed by Ecuador’s Sebastián Cordero (2004’s Crónicas), deep-space tale Europa Report benefits from its interesting international cast, including Michael Nyqvist (Mikael Blomkvist in the Swedish Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series); Romanian Anamaria Marinca (2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days); Bay Area-born Daniel Wu, who’s a megastar in Hong Kong; and South African Sharlto Copley, also in concurrent sci-fi release Elysium. Together, they comprise the bulk of a crew crammed into an elegant ship bound for Europa, a moon of Jupiter that may have water — and therefore, life — beneath its icy surface.

These journeys never end well, do they? As we’re told by grim-faced Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), what we’re watching has been pieced together from “recently declassified footage” — and yes, that makes Europa Report yet another “found-footage” movie. By now, it’s a stale way to tell a story, though it’s mostly plausible in this case; time-stamped scenes are cut together from cameras mounted aboard the spacecraft. From the start, we know the mission is doomed. But even if its conclusion is a little abrupt and dissatisfying, at least Europa Report heaps on the claustrophobic atmosphere while rocketing toward the inevitable.

Far more unpredictable is the sleek, gloomy Drug War, the latest from Hong Kong’s Johnnie To — a director who needs no introduction for fans of his prolific output (2001’s Fulltime Killer, 2005’s Election, 2006’s Exiled, 2009’s Vengeance). Unlike To’s previous crime dramas, Drug War was shot in mainland China, where heavy-handed censors rule. According to the film’s press notes, To decided “nobody will disagree with the idea of arresting drug dealers,” particularly in a country fond of imposing death sentences for drug-related offenses. The tactic appears to have worked, since this thing’s dripping with vicious shootouts — even as it subtly points out China’s surveillance-state abundance of CCTV cameras, and examines how just far criminals will go to avoid those draconian punishments.

Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), for one, is terrified of execution. Busted for manufacturing meth after his factory explodes, Timmy runs up against Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), a no-nonsense drug cop who reluctantly takes on a new informant with the goal of busting a kingpin higher up the cartel’s chain of command. Timmy’s a slippery character whose motivations remain murky right up until the last act; it’s all Zhang can do to keep up, which he does for the most part.

In one incredible sequence, the cop pretends to be Chang, a taciturn junkie with important connections, accompanying Timmy for a meeting with the flashy “Haha,” named for his booming, staccato laugh. With a quick wardrobe change and seconds to spare, Zhang then morphs into Haha to meet with the real Chang. In the process, tiny cameras are deployed, drugs are snorted, and loyalties are stretched razor-thin. It’s a tour de force — yet remarkably unforced — moment for both actor and director.

Back to censors for a minute, since their kind used notoriously brutal shears on the works of Italian horror legend Dario Argento during his late 1970s-early 80s heyday. With the advent of special-edition DVDs and the like, films like 1982’s Tenebre have finally been seen in all their glory. But how often do you get a chance to see Tenebre on 35mm? Thanks to Los Angeles’ Cinefamily, the film — more erotic-thriller giallo than standard spook show — will unfurl for one night only at the Roxie.

The movie follows the nightmarish exploits of American author Peter Neal (Tony Franciosa), who visits Rome to promote Tenebre, his latest murder mystery. It’s not long before a Neal-obsessed maniac starts dropping bodies (weapon of choice: straight razor; victims of choice: scantily clad women). Along the way, there’s a pulse-pounding Goblin soundtrack; a sultry supporting turn by Veronica Lario (as Peter Neal’s ex-wife — in real life, she’s in the process of divorcing Silvio Berlusconi); B-movie sensation John Saxon (as Neal’s agent) looking natty in a fedora; and all the spurting gore and bad dubbing Argento fans demand.

Argento isn’t explicitly mentioned by the subjects of Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector, opening Friday at the Balboa Theatre, but it’s a sure bet they appreciate his work. Dan M. Kinem and Levi Peretic’s documentary peeks into the tidy lairs of borderline hoarders (all horror and genre fans) who oversee their massive VHS collections with a mixture of pride, good-natured defensiveness, and culty spirit.

A few celebrities drop by (Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman admits he prefers DVDs “because of the extras”), but this is mostly regular-dude turf, with a home-video history lesson (“Blockbuster ruined it for everybody”) mixed into the nostalgia. High points include extended discussions of “VHS covers that lie to you,” as in, when box artwork promises wonders that aren’t actually in the film; and of Tales from the Quadead Zone, a (terrible) film so exquisitely rare it sparked an eBay bidding war and inspired at least one tattoo. *


Catch a falling star



FILM Now that “train wreck” is an official celebrity category popular media ignores at its peril, certain people and projects are deemed doomed automatically. Lindsay Lohan can’t redeem herself — she’d lose her entertainment value by regaining any respect. Ergo, The Canyons — the first theatrical feature she’s starred in since 2007, the year of triple A-bombs Georgia Rule, Chapter 27, and I Know Who Killed Me — was earmarked as a disaster from the outset.

How could it be otherwise, with the now-disgraced former Disney luminary co-starring opposite porn superstar James Deen in an envelope-pushing screenplay from literary bad boy Bret Eaton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho)? Its apparent rejection from the Sundance and SXSW festivals, plus Lohan’s widely reported difficulty on set — not to mention Ellis’ dissatisfaction with the “langorous” final results — only heightened a sense that The Canyons would be a pretentious, full-frontal crapfest. Even US distributor IFC has been highly reluctant to let anyone see the film more than a week in advance of its opening dates, as if assuming any reviews would be damning ones.

We live in a reality-TV-dominated world of sharply divided winners and losers now. Now that she’s typecast as an off screen fuckup, Lohan’s professional endeavors must follow suit. They have to be bad, because we enjoy her failing so much.

But The Canyons isn’t exactly bad, despite the gloatingly negative publicity rained on it. (And despite the fact that we do, eventually, catch a glimpse of Deen’s famous johnson.) Instead, it’s a middling exercise in upscale erotic-thrillerdom, beautifully crafted (on a Kickstarter dime), clever yet superficial in terms of psychological depth. Its indictment of jaded LA life centers on glamorous couple Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen). The latter is a producer slash trust-fund brat who’s pushed an “open relationship” credo onto his trophy spouse, yet turns pathologically jealous once it’s clear she’s cheating with wannabe actor Ryan (Nolan Funk), the boyfriend of his former assistant Gina (Amanda Brooks).

This isn’t headed anywhere pleasant. Ellis trades on his usual themes of corrosive privilege, sex, and violence to deliver a rather simplistic if sardonic lesson in Hollywood amorality that director Paul Schrader angles toward credibility. His sleek feature is the latest for an important American filmmaker who wrote the scripts for Scorsese milestones Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), as well as writing-directing such less generally heralded yet admired titles as Blue Collar (1978), Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), and Affliction (1997).

No one would call the serious-minded Schrader a sexploitationist. Yet many of his films cast sexuality in a queasy, predatory light — the runaway daughter sucked into porn in Hardcore, TV star Bob Crane’s sex addiction in Auto Focus (2002), those murderous-when-aroused Cat People (1982), and the decadent wealthy couples preying on younger specimens in both The Comfort of Strangers (1990) and The Canyons. Schrader turns the latter into a stern, chilly, minimalist exercise in psychological suspense. A little underwhelming at first (in part because Lohan’s performance is little wobbly, Deen’s a tad one-note), it actually improves with repeat viewings.

I caught up with Schrader in a recent phone interview. He said the project came about because funding for another Ellis screenplay he was going to direct fell through. “I said, ‘What you do, Bret, writing about beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms, is something we can do for much less money.'”

So they funded it themselves (with Kickstarter donors). Originally contacted to make a cameo appearance, Lohan wanted in as both lead and co-producer once she’d read the script. Deen was Ellis’ idea, prevailing despite Schrader’s initial skepticism. “These two boldfaced names from porn and celebrity culture — it just became irresistible. You’ve got to find a way to make some noise on a microbudget film like this,” he says, and that casting turned out to be a publicity godsend.

Asked if it was a difficult shoot, he says, “Every shoot is difficult. Sometimes you run out of money, sometimes the weather turns against you. And sometimes you have high-strung performers. Lindsay needs to live in a world of crisis. It’s unnecessary — but that’s what she needs.”

When it’s suggested that The Canyons is like American Gigolo with women now the primary sexual commercial properties, Schrader corrects: “It’s with smart phones as the primary sexual commercial property.” The characters’ obsessive use of social media — they spend dinners barely maintaining conversation as they stare at their phones, and use Grindr-like apps for casual hookups — is one aspect of their alienated state.

Another is that they work in a film business when “the whole notion of theatrical cinema is changing. That was the concept from the beginning: making cinema for the post-theatrical era.” (The Canyons, already available in streaming formats, opens with a montage of shuttered Los Angeles movie houses.) “This was designed to be distributed through the Internet and cable. I saw these kids as not really caring about movies. I told the cast this was about some twentysomething Angelenos who went to see a movie, but the theater closed. And they stayed in line because they had nowhere else to go.” 

THE CANYONS opens Fri/9 at the Roxie.

The killer inside me



FILM What does Anwar Congo — a man who has brutally strangled hundreds of people with piano wire — dream about?

As Joshua Oppenheimer’s Indonesia-set documentary The Act of Killing discovers, there’s a thin line between a guilty conscience and a haunted psyche, especially for an admitted killer who’s never been held accountable for anything. In fact, Congo has lived as a hero in North Sumatra for decades — along with hundreds of others who participated in the country’s ruthless anti-communist purge in the mid-1960s.

In order to capture this surreal state of affairs, Oppenheimer zeroes in on a few subjects — like the cheerful Congo, fond of flashy clothes, and the theatrical Herman Koto — and a method, spelled out by The Act of Killing‘s title card: “The killers proudly told us stories about what they did. To understand why, we asked them to create scenes in whatever ways they wished.” Because Congo and company are huge movie buffs, they chose to re-create their crimes with silver-screen flourish.

There are garish costumes and gory makeup. Koto cross-dresses as a Wild West damsel in distress. There are props: a stuffed tiger, a dummy torso with a detachable head. There are dancing girls. And there are mental consequences, primarily for Congo, whose emotional fragility escalates as the filming continues.

The Act of Killing is, to be succinct, mind-blowing. It’s overwhelming and shocking. The unseen Oppenheimer — who openly converses with his subjects from behind the camera — is the film’s main director, with assists from co-directors Christine Cynn and “Anonymous;” given the subject matter, it’s not surprising that many Indonesian crew members are credited that way.

To understand how The Act of Killing came to be, I tracked down Oppenheimer, who’s been giving a steady stream of interviews with the film’s release. Initially, he says, he went with Cynn to Indonesia to interview plantation workers who were being poisoned by herbicides. Though the workers were in desperate need of a union, it soon became apparent that “the biggest problem they had in organizing was fear. Their parents or grandparents had been in a strong plantation workers’ union until 1965 — when they were put in concentration camps by the army because they were accused of being communist sympathizers. Many were [eventually] killed by local death squads. So the workers were afraid this could happen again.”

Oppenheimer and Cynn soon returned to make “a film about what had happened in 1965 — the horrors that this community had lived through, and also the regime of fear and corruption that was based on what had happened.” But the task proved more difficult than they’d planned.

“It turned out that survivors had been officially designated ‘unclean’ by the military and by the government, and were under surveillance. They weren’t allowed access to decent jobs. They even had to get special permission to get married,” Oppenheimer says. “So when we filmed the survivors, we would invariably be stopped by the police. They would take our tapes and our cameras, and detain us. It was very difficult to get anything done. And it was frightening, especially for the survivors.”

Along the way, Oppenheimer began visiting neighbors — “initially, quite cautiously” — whom survivors suspected of being involved in the disappearances of their loved ones. “The perpetrators would invite me in, and I would ask them about their pasts, and what they did for a living,” he recalls. “Immediately they would start talking about their role in the killings. Horrible stories, told in a boastful register, often in front of their children, grandchildren, or wives. Then they would invite me to the places where they killed and show me how they went about it. They’d launch into these spontaneous demonstrations. I was horrified.”

He was also intrigued. Before going any further, he went to Jakarta to speak with human rights organizations — making sure it wouldn’t be “too dangerous or too sensitive” to make the documentary he envisioned. “The human rights advocates said, ‘You must continue. You’re on to something terribly important. Nobody has talked to the perpetrators before,'” he says. “And the survivors told us to continue, because [a film like this] will point out something that everybody knows is true, but has been too afraid to say.”

So Oppenheimer returned to North Sumatra, filming every perpetrator he could find. (They were all boastful, he says.) “My questions started to shift from what happened in 1965 — to what on earth is going on now? Are they trying to keep everybody afraid by telling these terrible stories? Are they trying to convince themselves that what they did was justified? Or is it both at once?”

Because the men where so open with Oppenheimer, he felt comfortable asking more pointed questions about their actions. The method of the film, he says, evolved organically as a result. “I said, ‘You participated in one of the biggest killings in human history. Your whole society’s based on it. Your life has been shaped by it. I want to understand what it means, so show me what you’ve done, however you want. I will film the process and the reenactments. I will put this together and try and understand what this means, and how you want to be seen, and how you see yourself.'”

He met Anwar Congo during the course of these interviews. “He was the 41st perpetrator I filmed,” Oppenheimer remembers. “I think I lingered on him because somehow his pain was close to the surface. The past was present for him. That really upset me. And when he danced on the roof [where he’d committed multiple murders], I realized that this was at once a grotesque and horrific allegory for their impunity.”

Congo, whose gangster career began as a movie-ticket scalper, proved a fascinating and troubling main subject. “Anwar would watch the reenactments [of the killings he participated in] and suggest these embellishments. He would feel something was wrong with them,” Oppenheimer says. “But what he felt was wrong with them, but he couldn’t voice consciously, was that what he did was wrong. He didn’t dare say that, because he’s never been forced to admit what he did was wrong. As [another perpetrator says], ‘Killing is the worst thing you can do. But if you’re paid well enough, go ahead and do it, but make up a good excuse so you can live with yourself.’ Well, the government provided a good excuse in the form of propaganda, and Anwar has clung to that ever since. It’s not a surprise that at the end of the film, the reenactments become the prism through which he sees the horror of what he’s done.”

He continues. “People ask me, does Anwar feel remorse at the end of the film? I would say no, because remorse implies a kind of conscious, resolved awareness. Does he regret what he’s done? I would say, categorically, yes. He has nightmares. He is tormented.”

Though The Act of Killing, which is executive-produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, is opening across America, its target audience in Indonesia will have more limited access. Still, Oppenheimer maintains, there’s hope; human-rights organizations have been screening the film for locals, including survivors and journalists. Those who have seen it, he says, have embraced it.

“The film has allowed Indonesians to say, ‘We have to address gangsterism and corruption in the government, and we have to address the fact that this whole system has been built on mass graves.’ It has enabled people to talk, without fear, about what they know to be true about their country. But there is a long way to go.” 

THE ACT OF KILLING opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.

Downwardly mobile



FILM The good news about Blue Jasmine isn’t that it’s set in San Francisco — more on that later — but that it’s Woody Allen’s best movie in years. Although some familiar characteristics are duly present, it’s not quite like anything he’s done before, and carries its essentially dramatic weight more effectively than he’s managed in at least a couple decades. Yes, Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007) were “serious” too, but they were basically thrillers (one pretty good, one awful) that, whatever their other qualities, demonstrated that he doesn’t have much feel for suspense.

Blue Jasmine is, in a very different way, full of tension — because its protagonist is uncomfortable in almost any situation, often teetering on the edge of a full-on anxiety attack. Yet these are recent developments. Not long ago Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) was the quintessential Manhattan society hostess, with homes hither and thither (including the Hamptons, naturally), ever-so-busy planning dinner parties, sitting on charity boards, and going to Pilates class. Her immaculately put-together elegance isn’t Brahmin-bred: a natural upscaler, she remade herself from humble roots to suit the role of picture-perfect wife to Hal (Alec Baldwin), a master of the universe type whose questionably legal investment schemes and not-particularly-discreet infidelities she turns a willful blind eye toward. (It helps that he’s a really, really good liar.)

But at the start here, that glittering bubble of money and privilege has burst — exactly how revealed in flashbacks that spring surprises up to the script’s end — with the result that marriage and material comfort are now gone. Penniless, fleeing her husband’s public disgrace (he seems Allen’s belated commentary on the bankster-induced crash of ’08), Jasmine has crawled to the West Coast to “start over” in the sole place available where she won’t be mortified by the pity of erstwhile society friends. That would be the SF apartment of Ginger (Sally Hawkins), a fellow adoptive sister who was always looked down on by comparison to pretty, popular, clever Jasmine.

Theirs is an uneasy alliance — arguably the most discomfiting flashback is to Ginger’s Manhattan visit with now ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), a mini-festival of thinly veiled class snobbery. Ginger has good reason to resent her big sis, whose attempted financial assistance via slippery Hal actually wound up destroying the visitors’ marriage. (Allen’s casting can sometimes seem stunt-like and overdependent on “who’s hot now.” Yet its top to-bottom brilliance here is personified by comedian Clay’s excellence in a small but important role.) Still, she’s too big-hearted to say no.

Ergo, Jasmine arrives at the flat Ginger shares with her two young sons — nose immediately curling at its IKEA/thrift-shop modesty and the boys’ noisy energy — with no clear idea what she’ll do, or how she’ll support herself. She has no marketable skills, and god forbid she’d take something as lowly as Ginger’s supermarket-cashier job. Yet she continues to judge everything by standards she can no longer afford, notably sis’s new beau Chili (a terrific Bobby Cannavale), another working-class stiff who justifiably worries Jasmine will convince her she can “do better.”

Surfacing later in the SF portion of the narrative are three men who might actually fulfill that “bettering” function: Dr. Flicker (Boardwalk Empire‘s Michael Stuhlbarg), a grab-handy dentist from whom she reluctantly accepts a receptionist gig. Then at a party she drags Ginger to in order to blatantly find men of the “quality” they both “deserve,” the latter duly meets seemingly good catch Al (Louis C.K.), while the former reels in a much bigger fish in Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a dreamboat diplomat who’s just the ticket for a woman who’s never paid her own way in anything but trophy-wife good taste.

It’s somewhat disappointing that Blue Jasmine doesn’t really do much with San Francisco. Ginger lives in a nondescript neighborhood (near the start of South Van Ness). There are no gay characters, racial diversity is limited to background players, and good as they are, Cannavale and Clay have the kinds of personalities that yell “Jersey!” and “Brooklyn!,” respectively. There are a few shots nodding at the colorful, pretty, touristy side of the city, but that’s not the world Ginger lives or that Jasmine lands in. Really, the film could take place anywhere — although setting it in a non-picture-postcard SF (despite the warm tones of Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography) does bolster the film’s unsettled, unpredictable air.

Without being an outright villain, Jasmine is one of the least likable characters to carry a major US film since Noah Baumbach’s underrated Margot at the Wedding (2007), whose central dynamics (Nicole Kidman as neurotic older sister who destroyed Jennifer Jason Leigh’s prior marriage, and might now destroy her imminent second one) bear an eerie similarity. The general plot shell, moreover, is strongly redolent of A Streetcar Named Desire.

But whatever inspiration Allen took from prior works, Blue Jasmine is still distinctively his own invention. It’s frequently funny in throwaway performance bits, yet disturbing, even devastating in cumulative impact. Like Streetcar (and Margot for that matter), this is a movie as much about undiagnosed mental illness as it is about family (dis-)loyalties and class conflicts.

One of those actors who can do just about anything, Blanchett is fearless here — it’s a great role she burrows into so deeply it’s a wonder she ever came back out. Her Jasmine is cringe-inducing, terrified, superficial, unconsciously cruel. Yet she’s simultaneously so helpless that we can’t help but hope she’ll find her feet again, a rooting interest answered by the most haunting Woody Allen fadeout since 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo

BLUE JASMINE opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

The death aquatic



FILM The 911 call placed from SeaWorld Orlando on February 24, 2010 imparted a uniquely horrific emergency: “A whale has eaten one of the trainers.” That revelation opens Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, a powerful doc that puts forth a compelling argument against keeping orcas in captivity, much less making them do choreographed tricks in front of tourists at Shamu Stadium.

Whale experts, former SeaWorld employees, and civilian eyewitnesses step forward to illuminate an industry that seemingly places a higher value on profits than on safety — skewed priorities that made headlines after veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, a massive bull who’d been involved in two prior deaths. (Though SeaWorld refused to speak with Cowperthwaite on camera, they recently released a statement calling Blackfish “shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate;” read the filmmaker’s response to SeaWorld’s criticisms at film blog Indiewire.) Blackfish, which premiered locally at the San Francisco International Film Festival, opens theatrically this week. I spoke with Cowperthwaite ahead of its release.

SF Bay Guardian Blackfish uses home-movie footage to illustrate training accidents, whale misbehavior, and so forth. I’m guessing a company as image-conscious as SeaWorld would strive to keep that kind of material out of the public eye. How did you get ahold of it?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite It came from every source imaginable: personal archives, historical archives, people who happened to be filming shows when they were visitors at the park. We had to vet every piece of footage, figure out the original owner, and go from there. It was the most time-consuming process imaginable — but we really needed to be inside the park to tell the story, so we had no choice but to really do the detective work to find out where every little bit came from.

SFBG Did you do any of your own clandestine filming at SeaWorld?

GC We kind of had to. I had to “meet” Tilikum, you know? Whatever we could do to get footage that could truthfully represent the story, we did.

SFBG The film interviews several former SeaWorld trainers who seem eager to speak out against the park. How did you find them?

GC When they heard how SeaWorld responded to Dawn Brancheau’s death in the news, they knew something was amiss and they began speaking out. In terms of them being comfortable [with being in] the film, they had spoken to author Tim Zimmerman [for the] Outside magazine article “Killer in the Pool,” and had felt a level of comfort with him. His article was one of the best articles I read about the Brancheau case. So from that, I was able to contact them. Their only caveat was that the film [would have to] be truthful, and I told them I planned to do a fact-based narrative that wasn’t sensationalized or gratuitous. Because we saw eye to eye on that approach, they agreed to be interviewed.

SFBG Blackfish highlights the disconnect between SeaWorld’s version of Brancheau’s death and what the trainers suspect actually happened. Their analysis of the video shot in the moments leading up to the attack is very effective.

GC It’s exactly what you want to know because you can’t understand what’s happening. The lay viewer sees a whale circling a pool; there’s nothing other than, “Isn’t this a cute trick?” Audience members at these shows are trained just as much as the whales are, to respond and laugh and clap on cue. And yet, to have a trainer say, “Oh no, this session is going badly” — that was so eye opening for me, and I could only learn that from these former trainers.

SFBG What do you think would be the best-case scenario for whales in captivity, going forward?

GC If SeaWorld were to stop its breeding program, that would be hugely important. And one of the best alternatives [for whales in the park] is instituting a sea pen, which is essentially cordoning off part of an ocean cove with a big net. You can’t just dump [the whales] into the ocean because they don’t know how to eat live fish, and a lot of them are hopped up on antibiotics. But you could soft-release them and keep them in a place where you could monitor their health, and yet allow them to be in an ocean environment. That would be an amazing thing that SeaWorld could do.

SFBG You mentioned that you had gone to see Tilikum in person. What was that like?

GC I was terrified of Tilikum when I first started making the documentary — I think because I’d read [Brancheau’s] autopsy report early on, and it was the stuff of nightmares. But when I started unpacking his life to try and understand [him], I started feeling this empathy. It culminated with me seeing him and truly feeling sorry for this tremendous, impossible animal — relegated to doing this silly lap around the pool and splashing everybody, and then going right back into his little pool.

SFBG And SeaWorld doesn’t acknowledge that it’s the whale that killed the trainer, of course.

GC Oh no. Absolutely not. They just don’t talk about it. And remember, they call everything Shamu. That’s the easiest way not to have to deal with the Tilikum factor.

BLACKFISH opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters.

Hysterical blindness



FILM Mads Mikkelsen has the kind of face that is at once strikingly handsome and unconventional enough to get him typecast in villain roles. (A good Hollywood parallel would be Jack Palance in his prime — they’ve got the same vaguely Slavic features, with sharp cheekbones and narrow eyes.)

He’s certainly known best, if not exclusively, as a villain in countries where Danish cinema has a non-existent or minor presence. (Which is to say, most of the world.) Like so many great foreign-accented actors, he got his big international break playing a bad guy in a James Bond or other blockbuster action series — in his case an actual Bond, as groin-torturing gambler Le Chiffre in 2006 franchise reviver Casino Royale. He was mean again in the big-budget 2011 flop Three Musketeers remake, and is currently creeping TV viewers out as a young Dr. Lecter on Hannibal.

Those roles are pretty much all American viewers know about Mikkelsen. But if you’ve been following Danish movies since 1996, when he debuted in the first of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy — and you should have been, even years before that — you’d know he’s an endlessly charismatic actor who’s played many sympathetic roles. Several have been for leading Danish writer directors Anders Thomas Jensen (2005’s Adam’s Apples), Ole Bornedal (2002’s I Am Dina), Susanne Bier (2002’s Open Hearts, 2006’s After the Wedding) and Lone Scherfig (2002’s Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself). Why he hasn’t made a movie for Lars von Trier, I dunno — though he’s probably a happier person for it.

He’s a very fine actor, the kind whose international profile is eventually assured — even though Hollywood, which invariably magnetizes such actors with its engorged salaries and publicity, has so far found nothing else for him to do than play diabolically intelligent monsters. The Danish movies reveal other sides: the gradual crumbling of his charity-worker’s character’s well guarded emotional defenses in After the Wedding, for instance, or the near farcical yet eventually beatific blind faith of his minister in Adam’s Apples, who holds fast during a blackly comedic avalanche of misfortunes echoing the Book of Job.

His ability to evoke both sympathy and a suspicion of otherness are particularly well deployed in The Hunt, which won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year. Strangely, it’s Mikkelsen’s first film with another major Danish writer-director, Thomas Vinterberg — perhaps because the latter spent most of the interim time since 1998’s Dogme triumph The Celebration making weak English-language features.

In the very Danish Hunt, Mikkelsen plays Lucas, a benign lifelong small-town resident recently divorced from his son’s mother (with whom he has ongoing custody disputes), and who currently works at the local kindergarten. One day one of his charges — the youngest child of his best friend, in fact — says something to the principal that suggests Lucas has exposed himself to her. We’ve already seen how the little girl, who has obvious if unexplained psychological issues (symptomized by her superstitious skittishness about stepping on any sidewalk or tiling line), might’ve been led to parrot elders’ statements through sheer infantile confusion and willingness to say what adults apparently want.

Once her misguided “confession” is made, however, Lucas’ boss immediately assumes the worst. She announces her assumptions at a parent-teachers meeting (from which Lucas has already been excluded) even before police can begin their investigation. By the time they have, the viral paranoia and suggestive “questioning” of other potential child victims by all parties has created a full-on, massive pederasty scandal with no basis in truth whatsoever. Lucas is shunned (even beaten) by people he’s known all his life.

The Hunt is a valuable depiction of child-abuse panic, in which there’s a collective jumping to drastic conclusions about one subject where everyone is judged guilty before being proven innocent. (If you doubt that judgment, look on any gay-related Yahoo news comment-board, in which some posters will invariably state the “fact” that all gay people are pedophiles and/or were “turned” gay by being molested as children.) Many parents fervently believe “children don’t lie” — yet they do all the time. Sometimes inadvertently because they don’t understand the complexities of a situation, sometimes blatantly because they’re simply trying to tell adults what they want to hear.

The Hunt‘s emotional engine is Lucas’ horror at the speed and extremity with which he’s ostracized by his own community — and its willingness to believe the worst about him on anecdotal evidence. Mikkelsen’s imperfect yet upstanding father and teacher here is a fine parabolic illustration of such predator-hyperconscious adults’ victims. Engrossing, nuanced, and twisty right up to the fade-out, The Hunt questions one of our era’s defining public hysterias. In our own society, many people believe in entrusting guns to young children whom they wouldn’t dream of thinking mature enough to drive, drink, or absorb basic sex ed. Nonetheless — and this is not to remotely dismiss the existence and prosecution of genuine child sexual abuse cases — they assume children always know what they’re talking about when they’re nose-led into accusing elders of vaguely grapevine-heard behaviors they probably don’t yet understand the actual meaning or consequences of. *


THE HUNT opens July 26 in Bay Area theaters.

Hi-yo, stinker


FILM Pop-culture historians who study 2005’s top movies will remember Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the so-so action flick that birthed Brangelina; Batman Begins, which ushered in a moodier flavor of superhero; and Tim Burton’s shrill Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

That last title is of particular interest lately. Not only did Charlie provide grim confirmation that a post-Planet of the Apes (2001) Tim Burton had squandered whatever goodwill he’d built up a decade prior with films like Ed Wood (1994) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), it also telegraphed to the world that Johnny Depp — previously a highly intriguing actor, someone whose cool cred was never in question — was capable of sucking. Hard.

In the years since 2005, Depp hasn’t done much to stamp out those initial flickers of doubt. If anything, he’s fanned ’em into a bonfire. His involvement in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (which is plodding toward a fifth installment) has taken up most of his schedule, though he’s always willing to don a wacky wig whenever Burton needs him (2007’s Sweeney Todd; 2010’s Alice in Wonderland; 2012’s Dark Shadows). The rest of his post-2005 credits are a mixed bag, mostly best forgotten (ahem, 2010’s The Tourist), though one does stand out for positive reasons: 2011’s animated Rango, a cleverly-scripted tale that reunited Depp with Gore Verbinski, who helmed the first three Pirates movies.

The pair returns to Rango‘s Wild West milieu for The Lone Ranger; certainly there’ll be no Oscars handed out this time, though Razzies seem inevitable. The biggest strike against The Lone Ranger is one you’ll read about in every review: it’s just a teeny bit racist. The casting of the once and future Cap’n Sparrow — who apparently has a blank check at Disney to do any zany thing he wants — as a Native American given to “hey-ya” chants and dead-bird hats is very suspect. Some (white) people might be willing to give this a pass, because it’s always been part of Depp’s celebrity mythology that he’s part Indian. I mean, he totally has a Cherokee warrior inked on his bicep, just below “Wino Forever”!

Mmm-hmm. Let’s go to the source, shall we? Speaking of his heritage in a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Depp mustered the following: “I guess I have some Native American somewhere down the line. My great grandmother was quite a bit of Native American, she grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian. Makes sense in terms of coming from Kentucky, which is rife with Cherokee and Creek.”

Sounds kinda sketchy, JD. The actor who played Tonto on TV may have been born Harold J. Smith (“Jay Silverheels” was his nom de screen), but he was also raised on Canada’s Six Nations reserve and was the son of a Mohawk tribal chief. So The Lone Ranger TV series, which ran from 1949 to 1957 — and had its share of racial-insensitivity and stereotype-perpetuating issues — was able to cast an actual indigenous person to play Tonto, but 2013’s The Lone Ranger, which elevates Tonto from sidekick to narrator and de facto main character, was not.

In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to assume that the casting of Depp (also credited as an executive producer) is the only reason this Lone Ranger exists. Clearly, he really wanted to play Tonto, and Depp has a way of making his performance the most important thing about whatever film he’s in. Were audiences really screaming out for The Lone Ranger, a rather literal big-screen take on a 1950s TV show with some heavily CG’d train chases added in? Could not $250 million, the film’s reported budget, have been better spent doing something … anything … else?

Obviously “redface” is nothing new in Hollywood. It was frequently deployed in the pre-PC era, as when a white actor played a heroic Native American figure — think Chuck Connors in 1962’s Geronimo. But shouldn’t we have transcended that by now? You’d never see blackface in a film unless it was being used to make a character look ridiculous (2008’s Tropic Thunder), or to make a satirical point, as with 2000’s Bamboozled. Somewhere, Kevin Costner is clutching his Oscars for 1990 post-Western Dances With Wolves — more or less cinema’s biggest mea culpa for all those “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” yarns of the John Wayne era — and weeping.

Tonto isn’t the only Native American character in The Lone Ranger. But the others (none of whom are given names, unless someone was called “set dressing” or “background actor” and I missed it) have a slightly sharper aura of authenticity than Depp, who spends the whole movie caked in either old-age make-up or campy face paint. They are mere plot devices, there to give contemporary audiences a reason to feel outraged when an evil railroad baron lays his tracks through their land and raids their silver mine. “Our time has passed,” an elderly Indian character tells the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer, whose role literally consists of riding a horse and reacting to Depp’s scenery-chewing buffoonery). “We are already ghosts.”

But back up, kemo sabe. Racism may be The Lone Ranger‘s worst problem, but it’s not the film’s only problem. There’s also its bloated length (nearly three hours); its score, which dares to introduce an Ennio Morricone homage into a film Sergio Leone wouldn’t line his gatto‘s litter box with; its waste of some great character actors (Barry Pepper, William Fichtner); its assumption that having random characters ask the Lone Ranger “What’s with the mask?” over and over is the funniest joke ever; and its failure to follow through on its few inventive elements — that herd of Monty Python-inspired rabbits, for example.

And another thing: if the moral of The Lone Ranger — spelled out with all the delicate subtlety of a fiery train crash — is “greed is bad,” why did El Deppo sign onto this piece of crap in the first place? *


THE LONE RANGER opens Wed/3 in Bay Area theaters.