What do two Bay Area-born directors, a UC Berkeley professor/bestselling author, an Emeryville-based studio and a Berkeley filmmaker have in common?
Their eclectic work arrives either in Bay Area movie theaters or on streaming services this week.
Let’s dive into all these goodies.
Palo Alto-born filmmaker Jake Wachtel makes the most out of a minuscule budget for a mind-bending feature debut “Karmalink,” the first Cambodia-made sci-fi film. It will leave heads spinning in theaters and might lead studio heads to nod in approval when Wachtel’s name gets bandied about for future projects. He’s just that good.
Set in a relatable future in the Phnom Penh community of Tralok Bek, a scrappy section where so-called progress continues to uproot and disrupt the poor, “Karmalink” tosses in a lot of meaty thematic ingredients into its narrative broth: past lives, Buddhism, AI technology and a community in crisis.
That’s an awful lot to digest but director/co-screenwriter Wachtel — who launched his filmmaking career working on shorts for nonprofits and taught a filmmaking class to Cambodian children (some are in the film) — makes all of it far more accessible than one would expect. It helps that the focus is placed on two engaging and young characters, 13-year-old Leng Heng (Leng Heng Prak), who has visions of past lives centered on a coveted Buddha statue, and street-smart orphan teen Srey Leak (Srey Leak Chhith). They’re both interested in finding the statue for different reasons. So are others.
“Karmalink” is scrappy no doubt, but it has a brainy, inspired story to tell and tells it with authority and a strong sense of visuals. There’s an air of authenticity throughout since many of the leads and others involved came from Tralok Bek and attended Wachtel’s course. (Opens Friday at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley and Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol in Sebastopol; also available on demand)
Workers’ rights and high fashion don’t seem as though they’d be cut from the same narrative pattern. But San Francisco-born director Anthony Fabian’s delightful “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” stitches them together rather seamlessly, even though it’s lead actor Lesley Manville who patches it all together so smashingly well.
The celebrated British actor gives a polished but lively performance as a WWII widow who hits upon a spot of good luck and places her bets on achieving her dream — to go to Paris and buy a Christian Dior original. The hard-working Mrs. Harris is treated shabbily as a London house cleaner and even gets stiffed on wages by one of her boorish clients. “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” might seem like it could be just another toss of a British comedy, but there’s fire and spirit here as Mrs. Harris stands up not only for herself but also other “invisible” workers. Here’s a bit of trivia: Angela Lansbury, Diana Rigg and Omar Sharif starred in a 1992 version that used the original book title, “Mrs. ’Arris Goes to Paris.” (Opens in Bay Area theaters Friday)
When we got word that award-winning Berkeley filmmaker Sara Dosa’s transcendent Sundance award winner “Fire of Love” got acquired by National Geographic Documentary Films, we were both thrilled and concerned that it wouldn’t be shown where it truly belongs — in a big theater where you can surrender to its visual and auditory wonders. Well, you’re in luck, Bay Area cinephiles. Narrated by Miranda July, “Fire of Love” is an editing marvel as it strings together video archives and images to illustrate the groundbreaking work of French scientists and volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The talented Dosa continues to chronicle and respectfully tell captivating true stories of naturalists and their remarkable lives. “Fire of Love” is a bubbling cauldron of celebration and creativity, from its French New Wave filmmaking style to its jaw-dropping volcano scenes. (Opens Friday at the AMC Kabuki 8 and the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission in San Francisco; opens July 22 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael)
Speaking of the Smith Rafael Film Center, the jewel in the North Bay came up with ideal summer entertainment for families and animation fans. Its “Pixar Family Series” kicks off this Saturday and runs through Sept. 5. It’s an eight-week showcase of some, but by no means all, classic treats cooked up by the Emeryville-based studio.
Each film will be screened twice with one of my all-time favorites, “WALL-E,” kicking it off (Saturday and Monday). That one will be introduced by supervising sound editor Ben Burtt, who provided the voice of the lonely robot.
Other “gee, Mom, can we go to ’em all” nuggets include the tearjerker “Up” (July 23 and July 25), the lost fish story “Finding Nemo” (July 30 and Aug. 1), the superhero action-adventure “The Incredibles” (Aug. 6 and Aug. 8), the charming “Ratatouille” (Aug. 13 and Aug. 15), the visually sumptuous “Coco” (Aug. 20 and Aug. 22), the buddy-buddy “Monsters, Inc.” (Aug. 27 and Aug. 29) and the existential “Soul” (Sept. 3 and Sept. 5). (Tickets to Monday screenings: $12.50 general, $9 senior and youth and $7 for California Film Institute members; $5 for Saturday matinees)
If you’re in the mood to learn about the benefits of mood-altering drugs and how their presence was viewed throughout history, then head-trip your brain over to Netflix for the four-part documentary series “How to Change Your Mind.”
Based on UC Berkeley professor and author Michael Pollan’s 2018 bestseller, it marks Pollan’s collaboration with Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney, who serves as executive producer on the docuseries. It’s chock full of buzzy details, charts and Bay Area folks, and is directed by Alison Ellwood and Lucy Walker. Pollan appears in the episodes, which delve into LSD, psilocybin, MDMA and mescaline. It just dropped on the streamer. (Available now on Netflix)
In the Amazon Prime tearjerker of a road-trip dramedy “Don’t Make Me Go,” UC Berkeley grad and extra-busy actor John Cho plays a dad harboring a terrible and depressing secret — he has an inoperable brain tumor. Sounds like it would make for a bleak film, and at times, this one captures how life can be painfully short. But director Hannah Marks’ road trip father-daughter dramedy works the best whenever Cho, as single dad Max, and newcomer Mia Isaac, as his fiery teen daughter Wally, are in the driver’s seat, which happens to be quite often. The story spins on a staple of road movies — the trip to a college reunion — but never adheres to the standard tropes. And New Zealand does a magnificent job impersonating America. (Available starting Friday on Amazon Prime)
With more violent events — from shootings to international conflicts — tragically becoming more of the norm across the globe, writer/director Michael Nagler’s message documentary “The Third Harmony” grows in relevance. Nagler is the founder and president of the Petaluma-based Metta Center for Nonviolence, and his 45-minute film reflects how adopting nonviolent approaches can enrich lives for both the individual and humanity overall. The Smith Rafael Center is hosting a free screening and discussion at 7 p.m. Saturday. Although it costs nothing, you’ll need to score a ticket. You can do so by clicking https://rafaelfilm.cafilm.org/the-third-harmony/.