Pack up the leftover Halloween candy and head to the movies this weekend — what better way to escape election-related craziness and/or rest your liver after all that LET'S GO GIANTS damage you just did?
Your options are pretty spectacular, as well: intriguing Israeli doc The Flat, in which a Jewish filmmaker learns his grandparents counted a Nazi couple among their social circle (my interview with director Arnon Goldfinger here); bonkers 1987 rock 'n' roll taekwondo spectacular Miami Connection (Dennis Harvey's take on this newly discovered instant cult classic here)
Plus, RZA's The Man With The Iron Fists, an homage to chopsocky classics (with, I'm assuming, a much better soundtrack); Denzel Washington playing an airline pilot whose secret drinking problem comes to light only after he prevents a plane from crash landing in Flight; and Deep Dark Canyon, a NorCal-set thriller by former locals Silver Tree and Abe Levy starring Ted Levine.
And that's not even the end of it! Read on for video game characters run amok, two found-footage horror flicks, a musically-inclined Pacific Film Archive program, tributes to Tony Bennett (speaking of the Giants) and Monty Python's Graham Chapman, and, I kid you not ... even more.
Amber Alert An audition tape for The Amazing Race quickly turns into an epic chase in this low-budget "found footage" drama. Arizona BFFs Nate (Chris Hill) and Sam (Summer Bellessa, wife of director Kerry Bellessa) — and Sam's teenage brother, shaky-cam operator Caleb (Caleb Thompson) — notice they're driving behind the very Honda that's being sought by an Amber Alert. "Following at a safe distance," as advised when they call the cops, leads to high-decibel arguments about how to handle the situation — and for the next hour-plus, the viewer is trapped in a car with two people communicating only in nails-on-chalkboard tones. Amber Alert's nonstop bickerfest is so tiresome that it's actually a relief when the child molester character starts taking an active role in the story. Not a good sign. (1:20) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Bay Top-quality (i.e., realistically repulsive) special effects highlight this otherwise unremarkable disaster movie that's yet another "found footage" concoction, albeit maybe the first one from an Oscar-winning director. But it's been a long time since 1988's Rain Man, and the Baltimore-adjacent setting is the only Barry Levinson signature you'll find here. Instead, parasites-gnaw-apart-a-coastal-town drama The Bay — positioned as a collection of suppressed material coming to light on "Govleaks.org" — is a relentlessly familiar affair, further hampered by a narrator (Kether Donohue) with a supremely grating voice. Rising star Christopher Denham (Argo) has a small part as an oceanographer whose warnings about the impending waterborne catastrophe are brushed aside by a mayor who is (spoiler alert!) more concerned with tourist dollars than safety. (1:25) (Cheryl Eddy)
"Don't Shoot the Player Piano: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow" The late Texarkana-born composer's birth centenary is celebrated in this two-part (Fri/2 and Sun/4) program of films examining his unique contribution to 20th century music. Frustrated early on by the inability of standard musicians to play his incredibly complicated scores, he turned to composing for player pianos, with their greatly heightened capacity for producing density of notes and rhythms. A member of the American Communist Party, he returned from fighting fascists in the Spanish Civil War to discover the U.S. government had revoked the passports of many citizens with similar political convictions. As a result, in 1940 he moved to Mexico, where he remained until his death 57 years later — his reputation remaining an underground musicologists' secret until the early 1980s, in large part due to his disinterest in fame and dislike of crowds (he'd always avoided any gathering of over five people). But in his last years he became much more widely known, thanks in large part to fans like fellow composer Gyorgy Ligeti, who in one documentary here calls him “the most important composer of our time,” comparing him to Beethoven and saying “his work is completely, totally different from [his contemporaries].” Among the movies screening are Uli Aumuller and Hanne Kaisik's 1993 German Music for 1,000 Fingers, in which the reclusive, elderly subject allows us into his studio to explain his (still somewhat inexplicable) methodologies. The brand-new, hour-long Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano offers a posthumous appreciation of his life, music and influence. It's a first film from James Greeson, a professor of music at the University of Arkansas who knew the man himself. Also featured are several international shorts that provide interpretive visual complements to Nancarrow pieces. His widow and daughter, as well as kinetic sculptor Trimpin and composer-former KPFA music director Charles Amirkhanian will appear at both PFA programs. Pacific Film Archive. (Dennis Harvey)
A Late Quartet Philip Seymour Hoffman is fed up playing second fiddle — literally. He stars in this grown-up soap opera about the internal dramas of a world-class string quartet. While the group is preparing for its 25th season, the eldest member (Christopher Walken) is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson’s. As he’s the base note in the quartet, his retirement challenges the group’s future, not just his own. Hoffman’s second violinist sees the transition as an opportunity to challenge the first violin (Mark Ivanir) for an occasional Alpha role. When his wife, the quartet’s viola player (Catherine Keener), disagrees, it’s a slight (“You think I’m not good enough?”) and a betrayal because prior to their marriage, viola and first violin would ”duet” if you get my meaning. This becomes a grody aside when Hoffman and Keener’s violin prodigy daughter (Imogen Poots) falls for her mother’s old beau and Hoffman challenges their marriage with a flamenco dancer. These quiet people finds ways to use some loud instruments (a flamenco dancer, really?) and the music as well as the views of Manhattan create a deeply settled feeling of comfort in the cold —insulation can be a dangerous thing. When we see (real world) cellist Nina Lee play, and her full body interacts with a drama as big as vaudeville, we see what tension was left out of the playing and forced into the incestuous “family” conflicts. In A Late Quartet, pleasures are great and atmosphere, heavy. You couldn’t find a better advertisement for this symphonic season; I wanted to buy tickets immediately. And also vowed to stay away from musicians. (1:45) (Sara Vizcarrondo)
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman Blessed with recordings made by Monty Python member Graham Chapman (King Arthur in 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Brian in 1979's Life of Brian) before his death in 1989 from cancer, filmmakers Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson, and Ben Timlett recruited 14 different animation studios to piece together Chapman's darkly humorous (and often just plain dark) life story. He was gay, he was an alcoholic, he co-wrote (with John Cleese) the legendary "Dead Parrot Sketch." A Liar's Autobiography starts slowly — even with fellow Monty Python members Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin lending their voices, much of the bone-dry humor falls disappointingly flat. "This is not a Monty Python film," the filmmakers insist, and viewers hoping for such will be disappointed. Stick with it, though, and the film eventually finds its footing as an offbeat biopic, with the pick-a-mix animation gimmick at its most effective when illustrating Chapman's booze-fueled hallucinations. In addition to opening theatrically, the film also debuts Fri/2 on premium cable channel Epix. (1:22) (Cheryl Eddy)
The Loneliest Planet Travel broadens, they say — and has a way of foregrounding anxiety and desire. So the little tells take on a larger, much more loaded significance in The Loneliest Planet when contextualized by the devastatingly beautiful Caucasus Mountains in Georgia. In this film by Russian American director and video artist Julia Loktev, adventuring, engaged Westerners Nica (an ethereal Hani Furstenberg) and Alex (Gael García Bernal) hire a local guide and war veteran (Bidzina Gujabidze) to lead them on a camping trip through the wilderness. They’re globe-trotting blithe spirits, throwing themselves into new languages and new experiences, though the harsh, hazardous, and glorious Georgian peaks and crevasses have a way of making them seem even smaller while magnifying their weaknesses and naiveté. One small, critical stumble on their journey is all it takes for the pair to question their relationship, their roles, and the solid ground of their love. Working with minimal dialogue (and no handlebar subtitles) from a Tom Bissell short story, Loktev shows a deliberate hand and thoughtful eye in her use of the space, as well as her way of allowing the silences to speak louder than dialogue: she turns the outdoor expanses into a quietly awe-inspiring, albeit frightening mirror for the distances between, and emptiness within, her wanderers, uncertain about how to quite find their way home. (1:53) (Kimberly Chun)
The Other Son The plot of ABC Family's Switched at Birth gets a politically-minded makeover in Lorraine Lévy's The Other Son, in which the mixed-up teens represent both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. When mop-topped wannabe rocker Joseph (Jules Sitruk) dutifully signs up for Israeli military duty, the required blood test reveals he's not the biological son of his parents. Understandably freaked out, his French-Israeli mother (Emmanuelle Devos) finds out that a hospital error during a Gulf War-era evacuation meant she and husband Alon (Pascal Elbé) went home with the wrong infant — and their child, aspiring doctor Yacine (Medhi Dehbi), was raised instead by a Palestinian couple (Areen Omari, Khalifia Natour). It's a highly-charged situation on many levels ("Am I still Jewish?", a tearful Joseph asks; "Have fun with the occupying forces?", Yacine's bitter brother inquires after his family visits Joseph in Tel Aviv), and potential for melodrama is sky-high. Fortunately, director and co-writer Levy handles the subject with admirable sensitivity, and the film is further buoyed by strong performances. (1:53) (Cheryl Eddy)
A Simple Life When elderly Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), the housekeeper who's served his family for decades, has a stroke, producer Roger (Andy Lau) pays for her to enter a nursing home. No longer tasked with caring for Roger, Ah Tao faces life in the cramped, often depressing facility with resigned calm, making friends with other residents (some of whom are played by nonprofessional actors) and enjoying Roger's frequent visits. Based on Roger Lee's story (inspired by his own life), Ann Hui's film is well-served by its performances; Ip picked up multiple Best Actress awards for her role, Lau is reliably solid, and Anthony Wong pops up as the nursing home's eye patch-wearing owner. Wong's over-the-top cameo doesn't quite fit in with the movie's otherwise low-key vibe, but he's a welcome distraction in a film that can be too quiet at times — a situation not helped by its washed-out palette of gray, beige, and more gray. (1:58) (Cheryl Eddy)
Wreck-It Ralph Wreck-It Ralph cribs directly from the Toy Story series: when the lights go off in the arcade, video game characters gather to eat, drink, and endure existential crises. John C. Reilly is likable and idiosyncratic as Ralph, the hulking, ham-fisted villain of a game called Fix-It-Felix. Fed up with being the bad guy, Ralph sneaks into gritty combat sim Hero's Duty under the nose of Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch), a blond space marine who mixes Mass Effect's Commander Shepard with a PG-rated R. Lee Ermey. Things go quickly awry, and soon Ralph is marooned in cart-racing candyland Sugar Rush, helping Vanellope Von Schweetz (a manic Sarah Silverman), with Calhoun and opposite number Felix (Jack McBrayer) hot on his heels. Though often aggressively childish, the humor will amuse kids, parents, and occasionally gamers, and the Disney-approved message about acceptance is moving without being maudlin. The animation, limber enough to portray 30 years of changing video game graphics, deserves special praise. (1:34) (Ben Richardson)
The Zen of Bennett Landing somewhere between a glorified album making-of and a more depthed exploration, this documentary about famed crooner Tony of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" fame shows him recording last year's all-standards Duets II disc. His vocal collaborators are an eclectic — to say the least — mix of mostly much younger artists including Norah Jones, John Mayer, Carrie Underwood, Willie Nelson, and Andrea Bocelli. Some pairings are clearly a matter of commerce over chemistry, while others surprise — Lady Gaga is better than you might expect, while Aretha Franklin is certainly worse. Most touching as well as disturbing is his session with the late Amy Winehouse, whose nervous, possibly hopped-up appearance occasions his most gentlemanly behavior, as well as genuine admiration for her talent. (Others on the record, including Mariah Carey and k.d. lang, do not appear here.) Unjoo Moon's rather mannered direction includes little displays of temperament from the octogenarian star, and glimpses of his family life (which extends well into his work life, since they all seem to be on the payroll), but just enough to tease — not enough to provide actual insight. Still, fans will find this less than-definitive portrait quite satisfying enough on its own limited terms. (1:24) (Dennis Harvey)