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Monday, July 4, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Strange fantasies, just before the holidays

Screen Grabs: Strange fantasies, just before the holidays

A horticultural thriller, a killer red dress, The Two Popes, A Million Little Pieces: Here's what's in cinemas this week

This week was so packed, we separated the revival and rep-house screenings into a separate feature (here). What’s left is a particularly idiosyncratic array of new features from the U.S., Europe and Latin America, all opening this Friday:

In Fabric
Excluding his first feature a decade ago, Carpathian suspense drama Katalin Varga, English director Peter Strickland’s films have demonstrated a fetishistic obsession with the stylistic and narrative tropes of vintage European exploitation cinema. Berberian Sound Studio (2012) was an homage to the Italian giallo genre of murder-mystery horrors, while The Duke of Burgundy (2014) revisited the lipstick-lesbian eroticism of the high softcore era. His latest is more of the same, and it seems to be getting a somewhat reduced U.S. release. Yet it’s the most entertaining of the lot so far, as there’s an amusingly fantastical story here—however cryptically told—that proves less monotonous than the alluring but limited, purely aesthetic interest of his prior efforts.

A department store staffed by some conspicuously witchy women sells a scarlet evening dress to Sheila (Secrets and Lies’ Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a divorced bank teller and single mother who needs it for her occasional “Lonely Hearts ad” blind dates. But there’s something sinister about this dress, which wreaks havoc not only on Sheila, her washing machine, the son (Jaygann Ayeh) who still lives with her and his annoying girlfriend (Gwendoline Christie), but also eventually on an appliance repairman (Leo Bill) and his fiancee (Hayley Squires). The frock seems to have a murderous mind of its own—and why not, since it is the color preferred by Halloween-costume Satanists.

Eventually bordering on black comedy, In Fabric is not afraid to be ludicrous and nonsensical, with some content more outlandish, even sexually rude (flying splooge!) than Strickland has dared before. Needless to say, it’s all slavishly styled as if made in Italy circa 1972, complete with an original score by “Cavern of Anti-Matter” (a side project for Stereolab’s Tim Gane) that could not possibly be more retro-kitschy. I admired Strickland’s prior films more than I enjoyed them, but this one is really fun. If you liked Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, this will be right up your alley. Roxie. More info here

Little Joe
Another outre U.K. fantasy, if a less successful one, is this first English-language feature by Austrian director Jessica Hausner. Alice (Emily Beecham) is a scientist working for a private firm whose genetically engineered new flowering-plant species—which she dubs “Little Joe”—is designed to give off a scent that actually generates happiness amongst people in its vicinity. The trouble is, it also seems to subtly change the personalities and control the behavior of those people, among them Alice’s 13-year-old son (Kit Connor).

If you’re going to lift your concept from Invasion of the Body Snatchers so blatantly, you might as well embrace the earlier incarnations’ sci-fi horror emphases. But Little Joe is pretentiously poker-faced in a way that only makes it sillier, its slow, mannered tenor suggesting a profundity beyond mere genre thrills. Yet no meaning emerges here beyond a vague “Messing with Mother Nature = BAD!!,” rendering the film’s affectations useless. It’s visually interesting in a deliberately sterile way that offers scant relief from the general lack of energy, or the stilted performances from normally capable actors including Ben Whishaw and Kerry Fox. The inedible icing on this plastic cake is a taiko-based score as clamorously intrusive as the storytelling is tediously restrained. Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas. More info here

Handsome fortysomething Pablo (Juan Pablo Okyslager) creates shock waves in his devout upper-class Guatemala City family—coinciding with actual earthquake tremors, which naturally get attributed to “God’s wrath”—when he comes out as gay. Moving in with working-class boyfriend Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadua), he hopes to maintain a civil relationship with his wife Isa (Diane Bathen) and continue parenting their two young children, while supporting them all.

But the blowback is swift and severe: He’s fired from his white-collar job for “immorality,” barred from seeing his kids, even legally warned from being near any minors—the assumption being that someone with homosexual tendencies must also be a pederast, natch. Meanwhile, his family continues to hammer him with insistence that he is “mistaken,” is sinning, and can be “cured” by their evangelical church’s form of “conversion therapy.”

Our current White House may be turning the clock back on gay rights, but sometimes you need to remember how much worse it is elsewhere—and Temblores (i.e. Tremors) provides vivid illustration, as Pablo’s exiting the closet is received about as badly as it would have been in our own 1950s. This new film by Ixcanul director Jayro Bustamante may depress those looking for a “positive portrayal” of gay life.

A happy ending does not seem possible in this cultural context for Pablo. (We’re not even sure he’s a good match with the very different Francisco, anyway.) As he bows to overwhelming pressure that he get off his “evil path” to have any kind of life at all, the film may seem to endorse “pray the gay away” tactics. But that’s a misreading: In this effective, painful drama, Bustamante is simply showing the extent to which some people will deny their own nature when given no other viable option. Opera Plaza. More info here.

The Two Popes
A more upbeat view of religion is afforded by this latest from another Latin American director, Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener). At once impressively large-scale and an intimate two-person tale, it imagines the behind-scenes negotiations in 2012 between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce)—ideological adversaries, and past rival candidates for the papacy, now meeting for two conflicting purposes.

A rigid, doctrinaire conservative embattled by the Church’s recent scandals (notably priest sexual-abuse coverups), this Pope wants to make the almost unprecedented move of resigning. The progressive-minded Cardinal, on the other hand, wants to retire from his duties, feeling himself at odds with current backpedaling Vatican policies. Their initially prickly discourse eventually grows less awkward as the two men find some common ground, as well as a way forward for the institution they represent.

This is not a film for those who believe the Catholic Church is so tainted it can do no good, and that any flattering (if not-uncritical) portrait is de facto propaganda. While hypocrises and moral conflicts (both personal and systematic) are discussed, The Two Popes embraces the future Pope Francis’ notion of the Church as a dynamic organism that can, and must, change with changing times. Faith itself is not on the table here—just the best means to serve it.

Based on a play by Anthony McCarten, the film is sometimes too heavy-handedly polemical, at other times straining too hard to be flashily “cinematic.” Yet overall it’s a satisfying, surprisingly good-humored treatment of complex political and theological issues, with the expected fine performances by two esteemed actors (who duly speak Spanish, Italian, German and Latin at times here, in addition to English). At Embarcadero and area theaters. More info here

The Aeronauts
Hitherto best-known for his TV projects, including several episodes of the much-liked Peaky Blinders and an acclaimed War and Peace miniseries, director Tom Harper transitioned to theatrical features with no less than two awards-contender films this year. The first was Wild Rose, an underdog tale with Jessie Buckley as an aspiring country music singer from Glasgow that a lot of people liked better than I did.

The other is this new period spectacle that reunites The Theory of Everything stars Felicity Huffman and Eddie Redmayne in another science-y tale. This one is a loosely fact-based saga of hot air ballooning and meteorology (then a fledgling field of study) in the early Victorian era. It is purportedly visually spectacular, though sorry, we didn’t manage to catch an advance screening. At Embarcadero and area theaters. More info here

A Million Little Pieces
Why would anyone want to make a movie of James Frey’s best-selling 2003 “memoir,” which was widely discredited (and reclassified as a “semi-fictional novel”) after it turned out the author had fabricated much of it? Actually, it’s clear right away why Nowhere Boy and Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson chose to: It provides a vanity showcase for her husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson from the Kick-Ass films. He not only gets to run the gamut of awards-bait emotions as a recovering addict, but has several gratuitous scenes of full-frontal nudity in which to show off his perfectly buffed (if improbable for an alcoholic crackhead) body and impressively large flaccid penis. Well, if you’ve got it, why not flaunt it? Oh, plus, I almost forgot: Hey kids, don’t do drugs!!

Rather like the real Frey, who has since provided additional reasons to be loathed (look up his Wiki bio), this character is variably a jerk and a blank, though neither actor or movie seem to grasp that. His redemption struggle at a residential treatment center is thus alternately exasperating and interesting, the latter mostly due to subsidiary characters played by Billy Bob Thornton, Charlie Hunnam, Juliette Lewis and others. As a glossy sobriety sermon, this has some value. But as art or drama, it does not do much to redeem a tainted literary source. Roxie. More info here.

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