Every city has a cinema where movies go to die. In San Francisco, Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas takes that honour: with five tiny screens and sound so tinny your iPod earbuds would probably be an improvement, the cinema plays hosts to movies that have worn out their welcome at Landmark’s bigger screens or that were never quite deemed worthy of them. Of course, how these decisions get made can be perplexing. While the mediocre comedy, The Grand Seduction, gets the royal treatment at the newly renovated Embarcadero Cinema in SF, the fanastic Swedish comedy We Are the Best! just barely scraped by with a one-week Embarcadero release, although it was initially slated to screen at Opera Plaza. But the excellent Cold in July, which premiered at Sundance and earned a coveted spot at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight, will only screen at Opera Plaza Cinemas in SF. If you head down to San Jose, you can catch it on a proper screen at Camera 12, or if you have cable – and only if you have cable – stream it on demand.
After last year’s We Are What We Are about a family of cannibals, Writer-Director Jim Mickle heads into more mainstream and palatable territory with his gorgeously shot, pulp thriller, Cold in July. The film starts out as a fairly straight forward child abduction scare tale, albeit a highly stylized and sophisticated one. When a young burglar breaks into the home of family man, Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall), Richard accidentally fires his gun and kills him. It turns out the burglar is the son of a well-known criminal, Russel (Sam Shepard), who makes it immediately clear that he intends to spook Richard and kidnap his son (Brogan Hall). Still coping with the aftermath of taking another man’s life – Richard and his wife, Anne (Vinessa Shaw), have to actually clean the blood stains off the wall and the couch – he’s trying desperately to move on, only to find himself in an even scarier position.
Mickle is highly attuned to the conventions of the genre, using everything at his disposal, even a heavy downpour on the night of a stakeout, to increase the tension and suspense. Just when you think you know what kind of film this is and where it has to go, Mickle wraps up that piece of action, with another hour still to go. All bets are off: the film could go anywhere, which is exciting, especially when the first zig it makes is to humanize Russel and tie him and Dane together in unexpected ways. As the plot shifts, so, too, does the look and feel of the film, and it’ll zag again before it’s all through. You’d certainly never expect that it would all lead to meeting a cowboy played by Don Johnson who’s a pig-farmer by trade, and a private detective on the side. By the end, the genre conventions have shifted enough to make you feel like you’re in a different movie, and yet it has a satisfying, if dark, conclusion that’s true to each step along the way.
With a release at the Presidio Theatre – an out-of-the-way small cinema in the far corner of SF – and widely on VOD, it’s a bit easier to see Chris Mason Johnson’s film, Test, but it’s not nearly as good as Mickle’s film. As a period piece about a gay ballet dancer in 1980s San Francisco, it’s like a grown up Billy Elliott without the heart and strong performances, but with a more frank depiction of life as a gay man back then. It centres around the quiet, but mostly blank, Frankie (Scott Marlowe), and his will-they-won’t-they romance with Todd (Matthew Risch). We watch him navigate the dating scene and professional world at a time when newspapers were printing stories suggesting gays should be quarantined, and people had no qualms about making loud homophobic remarks.
The eponymous test is the blood test for HIV introduced in 1985, when the film takes place. Test reminds us that it was not so long ago that people commonly thought AIDS might be transmitted by sweat – an awkward misunderstanding in a dance company with gay men sweating in rehearsal – and there was massive paranoia that merely getting tested for AIDS could blacklist you. Test is full of such period details about the harsh realities of being a gay men, even in one of the country’s most liberal cities. Frankie has a roommate who occasionally comes onto him, stops it just before it turns into sex, and then has a girlfriend on the side who seems to be more than just a beard: it’s just as much about his own self-deception. It’s also interesting (and heartbreaking) to see the stigma that was initially attached to the introduction of condoms for sex between men – it worked almost as an accusation of infection – and the very real dangers that would have been faced in a time when this was not the norm.
But thoughtful reminders of how far we have (and haven’t) come in thirty years is not enough to sustain a film. Test is most alive during the many impressive dance numbers being rehearsed or performed by Frankie’s company. Like Jamie Bell in Billy Elliott, Marlowe is a skilled dancer, but he lacks Bell’s acting talent. The script also has very little character development, which makes it difficult to care much about Frankie’s trials and tribulations as an individual: he’s really more of a stand-in for the “gay experience” at the time than a real person. It’s a huge missed opportunity, because this is important subject matter. If dramatized effectively, it could get a wider audience and draw attention to important issues. As it is, Test falls flat, a forgettable story about things we shouldn’t forget. It’s not worth the trek out to a mediocre cinema, but in the comfort of your own home, those dance numbers make it well worth a watch.