Escapism may be one of the few commodities experiencing a boom during lockdown, but not all escapes are lighthearted—the new releases highlighted below offer primarily the escape of focusing on somebody else’s troubles rather than your own. From 19th-century human trafficking and various forms of criminal impersonation to discovering there’s a malevolent ancient tree-witch next door, these streaming movies may make you feel better about your own current predicament… at least by comparison.
Keep in mind that with movie theaters shut down, many have embarked on “virtual screening” tie-ins with newly released films, so that for instance if you want to watch Deerskin (below), you can benefit local venues the Roxie, the Vogue or Balboa (both at www.cinemasf.com) by purchasing “tickets” to access it. Visit the websites for your favorite theater (also including the Alamo Drafthouse and Pacific Film Archive) for extensive selections of home viewing titles, including new as well as revival indie and international cinema.
One revival getting a restored re-release this week is Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold, the Bay Area director’s adaptation of a novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn that was in turn inspired by an actual historical chronicle. Rosalind Chao plays Lalu, a Chinese farmer’s daughter sold into slavery to pay her father’s debts, shipped to California, then passed hand to hand until she crosses paths with the kindly Charlie (Chris Cooper), one “white demon” who isn’t bend on simply exploiting her.
Approaching the Gold Rush era from a unique cultural perspective, this period drama (which premiered at the San Francisco International in 1990 before getting a modest theatrical release the next year) is a small gem of US independent filmmaking that’s well worth rediscovering. You can benefit the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael by watching it (Find out more here).
Now, on to brand-new movies (note: The Wretched and Deerskin aren’t available until Fri/1):
The best feature at Canadian genre festival Fantasia last year, the Pierce Brothers’ film is a throwback to those not-entirely-serious ’80s horror movies aimed primarily at teens, like The Lost Boys, Gremlins and Fright Night. 17-year-old Ben (John-Paul Howard) is spending the summer working with his father in a waterfront resort community as payback for some mildly criminal misconduct in the wake of his parents’ upsetting divorce. It’s hardly the worst punishment. But soon Ben has real worries when he notices that the vacationing family next door is under some kind of supernatural threat—though no one believes him, of course.
Fast-paced, humorous, and likable, The Wretched may be more than a little silly in gist (it’s a shape-shifting “tree-skin hag” we’re dealing with here), but it’s suspensefully engaging in execution. So many mediocre-to-worse horror films flood the market each month, it’s a real pleasure to see one like this that respects its audience, deftly tips hat to past genre entries, and pulls off a fairly clever plot with a certain Hitchcockian panache.
A downright jaunty enterprise compared to Romanian New Wave auteur Corneliu Porumboiu’s prior works like 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, this international intrigue may lack their biting social critique, but it does share some their jaundiced, deadpan wit. Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) is a corrupt cop who must travel to the Canary Islands in order to enable—not investigate—a convoluted criminal plot involving cash-stuffed mattresses, the requisite femme fatale (Catrinel Marlon as Gilda), and much double-, even triple-crossing.
It’s the kind of caper that’s driven not by action but by our trying to keep track of who’s conning who, and why. If Parasite whetted your appetite for more movies with ingeniously twisty narratives, this relatively lightweight, playful (but still amply lethal) noir might do the trick. You can benefit the Pacific Film Archive by renting it from Magnolia Pictures through the Berkeley venue’s “Watch From Home” program. (Find out more here.)
When an inebriate preacher (Bruno Bichir) driving south rescues a man (Shea Whigham) collapsed by the side of the road, their brief alliance proves ill-fated. Soon the surly stranger is assuming the cleric’s identity, taking his new job in Texas border town church—where, despite his lack of common language with a largely Spanish-speaking congregation, he’s rather surprisingly accepted. But a couple local youths in trouble with the law (Bobby Soto, Alvaro Martinez) suspect he isn’t who he says he is, and eventually the local police chief (Michael Shannon) shares their doubts.
Just before the shutdown, an excellent Polish movie called Corpus Christi opened that had a strikingly similar premise. But while that was a tonally complicated, seriocomic meditation on faith, this is a noirish small-town suspense tale that takes itself a little too seriously without ever being quite credible. Shannon is compelling as usual, but the movie would’ve been greatly improved if he’d played the lead. Whigham’s blank performance suggests little inner tension, or guilt, and his listless pulpit recitations make it absurd that churchgoers would find him “inspiring.” The story has its degree of intrigue, but Scott Teems’ film is ultimately too plodding to properly exploit its thriller aspects, while hardly weighty enough to justify its pretensions towards Meaning.
Intending no profound significance at all—or even basic logic—is this latest from French writer-director Quentin Dupieux, whose entire ouevre to date has traded in WTF absurdism. Georges (Jean Dujardin) is a middle-aged man on the run from responsibility (we glean he’s left his wife, and that she’s fine with it) who spends an improbable small fortune acquiring a short-waisted, heavily fringed vintage leather jacket. Some such items are tres cool; this, however, looks like something Yanni might have worn in the mid-’80s.
Nonetheless, Georges thinks it gives him “killer style,” gaining the confidence to move into a mountain hotel and pass himself off as a filmmaker despite having now exhausted all his funds. He copes with that in part by conning a local barmaid (Adele Haenel) into lending him money, with a promise of film work. All this is bizarre enough, but soon Georges is talking to his coat—and it is talking back. In fact, the jacket is something of a megalomaniac, and it manipulates its wearer into embarking on a nefarious plot to rid the world of all other, “rival” jackets. Considerable mayhem ensues.
Dupieux’s breakthrough film a decade ago was Rubber, which was told from the viewpoint of a “homicidal car tire”—so Deerskin is no loopier than any of his prior projects. Like them, it’s at once amusingly daft and a single joke arguably overstretched (even at just 77 minutes here). It’s sustained largely by the always-welcome Dujardin, who did not seize the usual obvious Hollywood and big-paycheck opportunities (Bond villain, etc.) for foreign actors after his Oscar win for The Artist a decade ago, preferring to stay the career course at home. Older, heavier and greyer than last seen, he treats this ridiculous concept with just the right faux-oblivious gravitas.
Another troublesome hero is the center of Israeli writer-director Yuval Hadadi’s first feature. Brutally handsome Yoav (Oded Leopold) is a successful Tel Aviv architect who’s always been the kind of person others are attracted to, even though he is kind of a brute—arrogant, insensitive, none too demonstrative with his affections. Nonetheless, he’s celebrating his 15th anniversary with comparatively easygoing boyfriend Dan (Udi Persi).
That stability begins to erode, however, when news that Yoav’s old friend Alma (Ruti Asarsai) is pregnant triggers in him responses that are inappropriately hostile even by his temperamental standards. Clearly he’s got some deep-seated issues that are being stirred up. But what are they? Apart from a few vague hints (he’s estranged from his now-dying father), we never get much insight into what’s causing the self-destructive actions that alienate Yoav’s intimates and drive 15 Years’script. Ergo it’s hard to care about our rather insufferable protagonist, or avoid thinking that those in his life are probably better off being ejected from it. This is a well-crafted and acted drama, but the precise point of Hadadi’s bilious character study eluded me.