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Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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Arts + Culture Movies Screen Grabs: Two notorious tricksters return—as does the big...

Screen Grabs: Two notorious tricksters return—as does the big screen(?)

'Tenet' and 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things' get twisty. Plus: classic 'Beau Travail,' memorable 'Shadow of Violence,' more

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This week sees the US release at last of what must be the most re-scheduled movie in history, Tenet. Christopher Nolan’s latest Rubik’s Cube-y sci-fi extravaganza was the highest-profile screen COVID casualty, it’s finally opening this Thursday (its fourth official such date), after already launching in most other countries last week.

But what does that even mean, given that quarantine regulations mean about half of the nation’s movie theaters remain closed, including all (drive-ins aside) of California’s? Well, you can travel out of state—and yes, some Nolan enthusiasts are exactly fanatical enough to do so—or you can wait it out. Early reviews have run a gamut from “grandly entertaining” and “amazing” to “humorless disappointment” and “a locked puzzle box with nothing inside,” thus confirming from all angles that this is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from this filmmaker. (Even the title is a palindrome.)

In our state, theater re-openings will be permitted under strict capacity-limiting guidelines only in counties whose COVID case status is rated as less than “widespread.” San Francisco is indeed among those lucky few, but it remains unclear just when such indoor venues will actually be permitted to open for business again. And no, Tenet is not available in any home formats yet. So… This is a bizarre situation in which a $300 million Hollywood blockbuster investment is being released “wide” only in the most haphazard and compromised fashion. Worse things have certainly happened, but once again, we have reason to thank this White House administration for handling a major national health crisis soooooo well.

Another filmmaker whose considerably smaller but still-substantial following tends to accept a tricksy surface structure as “depth” is Charlie Kaufman, whose new movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things is going straight to Netflix on Friday. There is no question that Kaufman had a liberating effect with his imaginative, witty screenplays for films directed by Spike Jonez (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the admittedly lesser Human Nature) and George Clooney (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind).

But there were already signs that his particular bag of tricks might wear out its welcome, and his features so far as writer-director have confirmed that hunch, though they have their fervent defenders. The animated Anomalisa was an admirable stab at illustrating major depression, though I found it easier to appreciate as an accomplished stunt than a serious drama. 2008’s Synedoche, New York, however, struck me as insufferable auteurist navel-gazing, its “postmodernism” all empty gimmickry to hide an utterly hollow center. His latest is likely to provoke a similar reaction from some, as well as exaltation from those who thought Synedoche one of the best movies of its year (or even the best of its decade, like Roger Ebert).

Based on a 2016 novel by Canadian Iain Reed—though one suspects Kaufman took considerable liberties with that material—I’m Thinking starts off in a clever (if familiar) key of mixed amusement and annoyance. Lucy (Wild Rose’s Jessie Buckley) is on a winter drive to meet boyfriend Jake’s (Jesse Plemons) parents, her inner thoughts (mostly about how she’s thinking of breaking up with him) constantly interrupted by his attempts at small talk. When they arrive, the dissonance only increases, his own extremely awkward reunion with mom (Toni Collette) and dad (David Thewlis) rivaled by Lucy’s discomfort at their collective weirdness. Finally the younger duo drive homeward during a blizzard.

That seems simple enough, only nothing here is simple—character dynamics abruptly shift without explanation, people grow older (or younger) likewise, as if this story were constantly rewriting itself. We’re not even sure whose viewpoint all this is from; the film is such an “unreliable narrator” construct we don’t ultimately know whether its perspective is singular, multiple, delusional or literally schizophrenic. Sometimes as dependent on lengthy dialogues as a stageplay, at other times highly cinematic, I’m Thinking incorporates entire chunks of a Pauline Kael film review and the musical Oklahoma!, an extended dance interlude, some animation, quotes from David Foster Wallace, Wordsworth and Guy DuBord, et al.

It is basically a giant brain-teaser, but the rules of this game keep shifting, if indeed there are any. The actors are admirably flexible, as they must be, and to a point Kaufman’s surreal toying with horror-suspense tropes (among other things) entertains, so long as you’re in the mood to be toyed with. But one reasonably expects that there will be a point (or at least a destination) at the end of 134 minutes’ rat-in-maze turns. Instead, Kaufman shows his cards, and they’re blank. Worse, he chooses to end on a gambit that woefully suffers from its inevitable comparison to something that worked spectacularly well not long ago in Marriage Story. That was a very different movie, but it took risks while knowing exactly what it was doing—something I’d doubt anyone could claim for this film without bluffing.

If you aren’t in the mood for two very different filmmakers nonetheless equally dedicated to gazing into the Escher painting of their own mind (or to put it less kindly, with head up some more-southernly body part), you could do worse than soak in the almost Zen simplicity of Beau Travail. Possibly French director Claire Denis’ single most acclaimed feature (though 2008’s 35 Shots of Rum is probably my favorite), this 2000 drama is a Billy Budd-like construct in which an older, unlovely French Legion officer (Denis Lavant) is driven to a sort of madness by the indifferent beauty of a young recruit (Gregoire Colin) under his command in the northeast African republic of Djibouti.

Endlessly trained on athletic young bodies in motion, Denis’ camera provides the homoerotic undercurrent she resists spelling out in narrative or character terms. It’s a movie spare almost to the point of being slight, yet all its restrained tension explodes in one of the most memorable and surprising closing sequences in recent screen history. Offered in a new 4K restoration, Beau Travail is now playing Roxie Virtual Cinema.

Other new streaming arrivals this Friday: 

The Shadow of Violence
Regrettably retitled from its arresting original Calm With Horses (also the name of scenarist Colin Barrett’s source novella), this first feature from Nick Rowland is indeed about a character struggling to contain his violent side. Although for Arm (the excellent Cosmo Jarvis), aggression pays the bills: An ex-boxer, he’s now resident enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers clan, whose greasy tentacles extend all over his rural West Ireland community. They both exploit him and provide Arm a sense of “family,” even if that means he’s semi-estranged from disapproving former girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) and only allowed to see their 5-year-old son (Kiljan Tyr Moroney) under strictly limited conditions.

Arm may have issues, but he’s also a model of stability compared to some of the more hapless Devers, notably his supposed best mate Dympna (Barry Keoghan). They are forever on the verge of bloody chaos, and when an apparent molestation within the family is discovered, it’s Arm who’s tasked with doling out the “justice”—and trying to keep it from becoming less than a death sentence.

This is the sort of crime drama in which you know things can only get worse. But despite the familiar narrative arc of fated self-destruction amongst ne’er-do-wells, Shadow (which reaches US On Demand and digital platforms today) is less a melodrama than a character study, with Jarvis making the inarticulate, not-bright yet essentially well-meaning Arm a memorable figure of grungy tragic nobility. A modest but rewarding movie like this offers one small bright side to the epidemic: If we weren’t all stuck at home far more than usual, it probably would have gone entirely unnoticed by American viewers.

Social Justice Storytelling: “The Garden Left Behind” and “Made in Bangladesh”

Two worthy if slightly clunky new independent features explore pressing rights issues in the U.S. and abroad. Flavio Alves’ The Garden Left Behind stars Carlie Guevara as Tina, a longtime NYC resident who’s nonetheless still an undocumented immigrant living with a grandmother (MIriam Cruz) who yearns for their native Mexico. Tina is also a trans woman hoping to qualify for medical gender-transition procedures via interviews with a pioneering expert in the field (91-year-old Ed Asner), while struggling financially and trying to hang onto a boyfriend (Alex Kruz) who seems awfully skittish about being seen with her. Violence and discrimination drive our reluctant heroine to join others in public protests for trans rights.

Less artfully crafted and more unevenly acted than the similarly-themed recent Lingua Franca, Garden substitutes on-the-nose obviousness for that film’s excess of discreet narrative ambiguity. Nonetheless, it’s an earnest drama that walks the walk in progressive screen representation by having all relevant cast members portraying their real-life gender identity, rather than using actors to impersonate transpersons.

Like Tina, who drives for an Uber-like rideshare company for lack of better opportunities, the protagonists in Rubaiyat Hossain’s Made in Bangladesh are exploited in the workplace to enrich people they’ll never see. Having fled the prospect of a forced marriage at age 13, Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) barely supports herself and her jobless husband by slaving at a garment-factory sweatshop in capital Dhaka. The base wages are dismal, conditions ditto, and it’s all made worse by bosses who keep putting off paying the women at all for their long overtime hours. Finally Shimu is disgusted enough to take the bait from a nonprofit advocacy organization worker she meets, secretly trying to organize her coworkers for unionization.

This very Norma Rae-like narrative holds few surprises, but it’s spirited and visually colorful. At risk of providing a semi-spoiler, it should be noted that Hossain’s “happy ending” nonetheless depends on our heroine being forced to use underhanded tactics to get any kind of appropriate government-agency answer to her petitioning at all. It seems the whole system is rigged, with corruption at every level, and even good guys have to play dirty or continue being stepped on. Still, at least someone is making a new Norma Rae, somewhere—try to imagine a major Hollywood studio doing so in today’s political climate.

Horror Abroad: English “Owners” and Canadian “Blood”

A pair of interesting if not quite slam-dunk new horror thrillers find terror in the quaint English countryside and the rougher Canadian hinterlands. In The Owners, amiably dim Nathan (Ian Kenny) has borrowed his girlfriend’s car to pull a wee “job” with his mates, the even-dimmer Terry (Andrew Ellis) and malicious Gaz (Jake Curran): Waiting for a genteel old couple to leave their impressive manor, then robbing the safe of valuables said to be hidden there.

Trouble is, the olds take forever to leave, during which time that girlfriend (Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams as Mary) turns up demanding the auto—she’s already late for work. She’s persuaded to wait further, then come inside when finding the safe proves difficult, despite her unhappiness at being involved in a robbery.

All concerned will get much unhappier, however, once those owners return. Richard (former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy) and Ellen (60s Brit screen legend Rita Tushingham) are easily overpowered, but not quite so frail—let alone innocent—as they look. Julius Berg’s debut feature treads familiar thriller ground in which criminal trespassers are quite surprised to find themselves becoming prey. Based on a graphic novel, it’s a well-made and well-cast if misanthropic exercise.

More original to a point is Jeff Barnaby’s Canadian Blood Quantum, a zombie movie with a difference—here the setting are Mi’gmaq tribal lands in northern Quebec, and the only people seemingly immune from contagion are full-blooded Natives. The stylish film has an intriguing buildup that makes good use of cultural differences, reservation politics and distinctive personalities as an undead epidemic fast overtakes this rural landscape.

But once survivors have barricaded themselves in a tribal compound, the story becomes more conventional, not to mention a little too redolent of The Walking Dead. Actually, Blood Quantum’s characters and milieu are promising enough that it might better have provided fodder for a series—in 100-minute feature form, it all too soon turns into a familiar action bloodbath, leaving behind the idiosyncrasies that initially lift it out of the disposable-genre-entertainment category. It’s currently on horror-focused VOD subscription service Shudder.

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