Julianne Moore as Gloria Steinem and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug in Julie Taymor's 'The Glorias.' (LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)
Adaptation to the streaming universe continues apace for viewers, purveyors and nonprofit film entities such as festivals. The daily newspapers’ “opening this week” roundups list VOD releases, Netflix, etc., in lieu of theatrical venues. What feels the same, though, is the quickening pace of the fall movie scene. The calendar is surprisingly full.
Premieres Sept. 30
Julie Taymor, renowned for her inspired flights of visual fancy (The Lion King onstage, Frida onscreen), is an unlikely choice to tackle a formulaic 20th-century biopic. And when she inevitably infuses her literalist adaptation of feminist Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road with dreamily fantastic sequences—catapulting a smugly sexist TV interviewer into a tornado out of The Wizard of Oz, for example—more often than not they land with a thud.
Nonetheless, The Glorias (a two hour-plus extravaganza made for theatrical release) exudes a gravitational pull and amasses an irresistible if intermittent power as it wends its way from Gloria’s childhood with a dancing-on-the-edge-of-broke father and a chronically anxious (and thwarted journalist) mother. Her early career is infuriating, if unsurprising: After a sojourn in India following her graduation from Smith College, Steinem endures a wave of casual sexism from Manhattan magazine editors before and after she publishes a landmark exposé of her undercover stint as a Playboy bunny.
The Glorias casts four actresses at different ages and stages of Steinem’s life who, from time to time, converse with each other on a Greyhound bus of the mind. That idea works about as well as you’d expect. Taymor’s best decision, though, is placing Steinem alongside—rather than above—Florynce Kennedy (an electric Lorraine Toussaint), Dolores Huerta, Bella Abzug (Bette Midler having a blast) and Wanda Mankiller.
The popular Cinequest film festival has long been a welcoming spot for mavericks, showcasing fistfuls of world premieres that, frequently, are never heard or seen again. Forced to move online during the pandemic, the sprawling program consists of two sections: “Spotlight” comprises 14 movies and events scheduled for specific times, while “Showcase” lets viewers peruse 115 features and shorts over a two-week span.
The offerings include local filmmaker Ben Rekhi’s optimistic documentary, The Reunited States, which follows a handful of folks around the country who strive to close the partisan gap. (By singing “Kumbaya”? Or shuttering a cable news network that broadcasts propaganda? You’ll have to watch the film to find out.) On the indie-comedy front, life imitates art in writer-director Michael Lovan’s Murder Bury Win (a world premiere) when the creators of a board game have to hide an inconvenient corpse.
Veteran shooter Kirsten Johnson’s terrific 2016 confessional exploration of the practice and ethics of nonfiction filmmaking, Cameraperson, is essential viewing for anyone with a serious interest in documentary. Her new film goes further, playing with the boundary between fiction and reality, but gradually loses the mooring of compassion that defined Cameraperson.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a film about loss and endings, as you’d expect. The filmmaker’s easygoing, octogenarian father is losing his memory, and acquiesces to retiring from his psychiatry practice, relinquishing his car keys and moving out of his exurban Seattle house into his daughter’s Manhattan apartment. As a way of confronting the inevitability of death—or worse, the eventual evaporation of personality (due to Alzheimer’s disease) that Dick’s wife and Kirsten’s mother endured—dad and daughter film a jolly series of choreographed accidents resulting in Dick’s demise.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses their memory. Johnson is slow to recognize, or accept, that Dick is fading, and leaves him alone in a friend’s unfamiliar apartment on Halloween to go out with her kids. His upset is painful to witness, while her obliviousness takes on an unintended and unwelcome air of cruelty. And a film that began in a spirit of loving collaboration takes a turn toward what feels like exploitation.
There is something to be gleaned by adult children of elderly parents from Dick Johnson is Dead, but it may not be what Kirsten Johnson intended.
Who knew the S.F. Greek Film Festival has been around for 17 years? Paradoxically, in the year of the pandemic, the fest is taking its light from under a bushel and reaching out to a broader audience. How? By making its program of streaming offerings completely free. The only paid event is the Oct. 4 drive-in screening of Jules Dassin’s wonderful 1964 caper comedy Topkapi at Par 3 at Poplar Creek in San Mateo.
The market for foreign films in the U.S. was shrinking long before the pandemic, and its hellishly difficult for Greek movies to find distribution. Even a slew of Hellenic Academy Awards (best feature film, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, production design) wasn’t enough to land a U.S. buyer for My Name is Eftihia. From that perspective, the S.F. Greek Film Festival’s presentation of Angelos Frantzis’ epic drama about the poet and lyricist Eftihia Papagianopoulou is something of a gift.
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