Apparently obeying the logic that audiences will be sufficiently occupied with such recent popular entries as Frozen 2 or Ford v Ferrari—if they aren’t simply too immobilized by food intake to leave the house—this Thanksgiving brings relatively few arrivals. The biggest among them is Knives Out, a slavish homage to old-school, Agatha Christie-type whodunnits from writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, The Last Jedi). Daniel Craig plays the Hercule Poirot-esque sly fox poking around for evidence of murder when a rich author (Christopher Plummer) seemingly commits suicide, with lots of greedy heirs (including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson) a little too eager to see how the dead man’s will disburses his fortune.
A lot of people have already loved this throwback in its fall festival appearances, and I certainly wanted to. But I and my equally game companion wound up being disappointed. There are some witty lines and performance moments here. Yet the tricky plot feels more effortfully contrived than ingenious, the character writing is one-dimensional, there’s too much hyperbolic action for the benefit of the short-attention-spanned, and the humor is too often fairly lowbrow. (The major running gag involves Ana de Armas’ immigrant nurse vomiting whenever she tries to tell a lie.) Yes, it would be fun to see this kind of all-star murder mystery movie make a comeback—but I suspect people’s desire for that is making them think Knives Out better than it is. It’s the kind of film at which you may well have a good time, if only because the film can’t stop winking and nudging, telling you just how much fun you’re having.
Among other commercial openings this week are Queen & Slim, a purportedly stylish Bonnie and Clyde update for the Black Lives Matter era that’s the first feature for Linda Matsoukas, best known previously from her frequently award-winning music videos for artists like Beyonce and Rihanna. It stars Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith as a couple whose first date turns into permanent flight after a racially-profiling cop’s traffic stop goes south. China-U.S. coproduction White Snake is an animated action-fantasy spectacular based on the same traditional Chinese legend that inspired Tsui Hark’s Green Snake a quarter-century ago, among many other interpretations in various media. Kim Longinotto’s documentary Shooting the Mafia profiles Letizia Battaglia, a photojournalist who had the almost-unbelievable (some might say foolish) courage to snap images of Cosa Nostra figures—and the scenes of murders they committed, or fell prey to, amidst the factional “wars” that made a bloody chaos of 1970s and 80s Sicily. Even more incredibly, she survived to tell the tale.
For intel on genre festival Another Hole in the Head, whose annual program begins this Sunday, stay tuned for our separate preview coming later this week.
Todd Haynes is a great American director, so it was notable when 2017’s Wonderstruck—a complex, literary mix of drama, whimsy, multiple time periods and more, which combination seemed right in his comfort zone—fell short with both critics (who were mixed) and audiences (who just weren’t interested). It was a rare miss by the director of Far From Heaven, Safe, Carol, I’m Not Here, Poison, and other adventurous projects. Perhaps as a consequence, the new Dark Waters is Haynes’ most conventional film, if only by his normally far-more-idiosyncratic standards: It’s a fact-based whistleblower tale in the mode of Erin Brockovich and such.
Mark Ruffalo plays a Cincinnati lawyer referred in 1998 by his grandmother to a farmer in her West Virginia town whose livestock have been sickly and dying since DuPont started using neighboring property for a landfill—one that wasn’t supposed to house hazardous chemicals. As the case balloons and the evidence grow ever-more damning, there’s blowback not just from DuPont but from the townspeople themselves. Despite their sky-high levels of cancer, birth defects and other suspicious ails, they’re loathe to bite the corporate hand that has fed them for decades. But it eventually emerges that the chemicals used in making Teflon products have infiltrated the area water supply, and are extremely harmful—something that DuPont knew, yet suppressed public knowledge of, as early as the 1970s.
An important story told in solid if sometimes heavy-handed terms, this isn’t the year’s best whistleblower drama (that would be The Report), and it’s got a few dully formulaic aspects, not least Anne Hathaway as the protagonist’s wife, who nags and sighs and gets lines such as “You’re talking like a crazy person!” The same history of corporate malfeasance and local health issues was also chronicled in one of last year’s best documentaries, The Devil You Know, which was not only more informative, but arguably had more emotional and dramatic punch. Still, this is a respectfully crafted work with a compelling theme (particularly given Trump’s current dismantling of the EPA), even if it hardly elicits particularly creative treatment from an atypically impersonal Haynes. Opens Wed/27, Embarcadero, Shattuck, and area theaters. More info here.
In late 1978 Walon Green, director of alarmist “Insects are taking over the world!!” nature film The Hellstrom Chronicle—quite possibly the silliest thing ever to win a Best Documentary Oscar—completed a big-screen companion piece to a Stevie Wonder concept album that was in turn based on a nonfiction book. The Secret Life of Plants was not well-received, neither in its premiere or in its minor theatrical release nearly two years later. (And it has been virtually impossible to find ever since, suggesting possible legal-rights issues.) Despite Wonder’s full participation, the hope of creating a midnight-movie hit about plant sentience for “head” audiences died on the vine.
Forty years later, that goal has been achieved at last. The midnight-movie circuit may be long gone, but at least the plant-life feature that would have ideally suited it is finally here in Louie Schwartzberg’s Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us, which plays a regular run at the Roxie after a one-off Castro screening last month. It deploys a lot of time-lapse photography, computer animation and more to note how mushrooms and the rest of “the fungus kingdom” play a key role in the grand planetary ecosystem we’re currently wreaking havoc on.
Narrated by Brie Larson, the feature offers the kind of trippy eye candy (with whoa-worthy statements like “Trees are communicating”) that would have rated a High Times cover and endless repeat views from stoner viewers back in the day. There’s even a sequence depicting pre-human primates dosing on psilocybin, which it’s theorized sped up the evolution of their brain capacities. Scientists and other experts weigh in with various facts of environmental and political interest. But it is the visual factor here that will have you feeling like you’re swinging gently in a cosmic hammock over a tie-dye river, absorbing (as Brie puts it) “the pulse of eternal knowledge.” Opens Fri/29, Roxie. More info here.
Duet for Cannibals
In the late 1960s film suddenly seemed the most adventurous, important and “now” of all art forms—after basically being dismissed as “entertainment” previously—so some of the leading public intellectuals felt compelled to try their hand at it. This resulted in any number of (mostly) near-unwatchable movies from the likes of Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Susan Sontag. The latter, for reasons best known to her, chose to write and direct her first two features in Sweden, perhaps because (thanks to Ingmar Bergman) that nation then seemed to represent the medium at its most “serious.” The first fruit of that labor was this B&W 1968 drama which wasn’t widely seen at the time, and has been very hard to see since. Let’s face it: No one would be watching the recently-restored Duet for Cannibals now, or ever, if not for Sontag’s lasting fame. But if her association is the only truly interesting thing about it, that thing is still kinda interesting.
Handsome young academic Tomas (Gosta Ekman) is hired to assist Bauer (Lars Ekborg), who’s some kind of former revolutionary leader, in assembling his papers for literary posterity. But the boorish, bullying older man keeps insisting Tomas instead attend to his wife, Italian Francesca (Adriana Asti), whom Bauer claims is unstable and/or terminally ill. But then, she also claims the same things about him. Soon Tomas’ girlfriend Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner) is also pulled into these mind-games, which sometimes involve sex and frequent, inscrutable role-plays. The senior couple are nothing if not high drama, wreaking a destructive influence on themselves and anyone in their orbit. But is it all just some perverse sport for them?
What this “means” is not only murky but off-limits, given that Sontag famously wrote the case “Against Interpretation.” Still, sussing just what she was going for here is more intriguing than what, if anything, she achieves. Though the actors are competent, the filmmaking is basic to the point of seeming disinterested—this material would’ve worked just as well as a stage play. Duet is a particularly arid example of the kind of pretentious sexy psychodrama that everyone from Bergman (Persona) to Joseph Losey (The Servant) to exploitation-mongers like Joe Sarno (Young Playthings) was doing back then, and it’s somewhat flummoxing that she made so little of it. Still, if you’re a Sontag reader or just a 1968 cinema completist (what a year!), this curio is worth crossing off the bucket list at long last. Thurs/5, Roxie. More info here.