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Wednesday, November 25, 2020
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Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Contagion outdoors, creepy elders, Acute Misinformation... sound...

Screen Grabs: Contagion outdoors, creepy elders, Acute Misinformation… sound familiar?

Attack of the Demons, Darkness in Tenement 45, Koko-di Koko-da, and more twisted fare for a twisted moment.

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With a bewildering lack of fanfare, the city’s extant multiplexes re-opened last weekend: Meaning the Kabuki 8, the Century 9, and Metreon 16 (plus Century 20 in Daly City and Bay Street 16 in Emeryville). So finally Tenet was on several local big screens, as well as some routine commercial fare (The War With Grandpa, a few Halloween horrors, Liam Neeson chasing bad guys again). Pretty much the only interesting option was The Private History of David Copperfield at the Kabuki, so we took the plunge–and were rewarded not with a good film (this terribly cutesy, incoherently conceptual, not-quite-satirical take on Dickens actually annoyed me quite a bit), but at least with a non-scary, barely-communal moviegoing experience. There was a grand total of four well-spaced people in the auditorium. 

Of course, real life is offering a little too much entertainment value at the moment. As you may well be reading this on Election Day, it seems apt that the new streaming releases on tap all seem to be about humanity in extremis: Whether it’s dealing with a crazy person, child death, post-apocalyptic life, school shootings, or just a plain old plague of demons. Here’s hoping in a very short time our offscreen demon plagues (political and otherwise) are finally lashed under control and heading towards the exit. 

Acute Misfortune
The heightened demand for home-viewing product since corona shutdown in March has nudged more than a few dust-gathering films off the shelf that probably should have stayed there. But this 2018 Australian movie is a major exception, one that probably didn’t get a US release previously simply because it lacks familiar stars and isn’t particularly commercial in theme. 

A journalistic prodigy who’s already a jaded veteran at age 19 (Toby Wallace from Babyteeth, another excellent recent Aussie import) is assigned to profile an acclaimed if notorious artist (Daniel Henshall), whose bold work and personality cut through the youth’s cynicism. The resulting magazine profile is effusive enough that the middle-aged painter invites the kid to be his biographer. But it soon turns out the writer has so far only seen his subject’s good side—and there’s a whole lot of crazy, codependent, mood-swinging, paranoid, violent behavior he’ll soon be an alarmed witness to.

Thomas M. Wright’s film is based on Erik Jensen’s book chronicling his harrowing actual stint as would-be biographer/companion/punching bag for Adam Cullen, a wild-man Australian artist whose path of self-destruction finally culminated in his 2012 death at age 46. He’d stockpiled weapons, shot heroin and been a major-league drinker, for starters; amidst some resulting legal trouble late in life, a court-ordered psychiatric report classified him as bipolar. 

The movie has called the best Australian biopic since 2000’s Chopper, but in many ways it’s more comparable to John Maybury’s 1998 Love Is The Devil, which dramatized the severely dysfunctional relationship between British painter Francis Bacon (Derek Jacobi) and his working class lover (a pre-007 Daniel Craig). Not just because this dead celebrity is also an artist—in fact Cullen’s work is scarcely glimpsed here—but because the narrative likewise revolves around an outsider’s initially lucky-seeming, then increasingly disastrous involvement with a kind of mad genius. 

Misfortune isn’t as stylistically striking as either of those earlier films. But it has its own aesthetically stripped-down intensity, in addition to the emotional impact of a story whose torturing-tortured-artist center elicits both terror and pathos. Dark Star Pictures is releasing it to various on demand and digital platforms on Election Day. 

Kids: Can’t live with ‘em…
Three disparate new movies deal with the aftermath of a child’s death—or the death of many children. The latter applies to Kim A. Snyder’s documentary Us Kids, which depicts the furious activism of Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and other student survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 (and left an equal number wounded) on Valentine’s Day 2018. 

After years of such attacks on US schools (this one by a disgruntled alumnus) doing almost nothing to improve gun laws or shake the gun lobby’s grip on legislators, these teens were fed up—and used their social media skills, among other things, to rally national gun-control supporters more effectively than anyone might have anticipated. While that ongoing struggle has since gotten somewhat buried in the Trump era’s endlessly-clusterfucking news cycle, Us Kids is an inspiring portrait of angry citizen action forcing change—or at least forcing the discomfited protectors of a toxic status quo to explain themselves. Beyond regular VOD-outlet rentals, the doc will be available for free streaming via Alamo Drafthouse Virtual Cinema through Election Day.  

The plight of a lone parent dealing with a lone child’s loss is the subject of Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s Spanish Madre. It’s also being added to Alamo’s virtual cinema program, as well as that of Rialto Cinemas in the East Bay, in addition to general VOD release. Expanding on the director’s same-named prior short, it begins with young mother Marta (Marta Nieto) in her Madrid apartment, getting a call from her 6-year-old son, who’s on a trip with his father. But the exchange soon turns into a panicked emergency, with Marta helpless to intervene as the boy faces apparent peril, with his phone battery running out.

Ten years later, she’s started a new life—a non-parental one, as her son remains missing, quite probably dead. But while working at a coastal bar near the French border, she chances upon a teenage tourist who eerily reminds her of that lost child, and who’s just the age he would be now. Her ensuing obsession with young Jean (Jules Porier) is a little weird even before it begins striking both her own appropriately-aged boyfriend (Alex Brendemuhl) and the boy’s summer-vacationing family as just plain wrong. 

After the shrill high melodrama of its opening, Madre becomes more graceful and contemplative. But the long film demands patience without necessarily rewarding it, and there’s a creepiness to Marta’s quasi-incestuous relationship with Jean (who sees her as his “experienced older woman” a la Mrs. Robinson) that Sorogoyen doesn’t really explain or render sufficiently poignant in psychological terms. While a somewhat different animal, one can’t help but remember how brilliantly the Belgian Les Cowboys five years ago developed a similar plot hook to ultimately devastating, near-epic effect. By contrast, this well-crafted but opaque miniature feels like it leads nowhere. 

Last and possibly least, there’s Johannes Nyholm’s oddball Swedish-Danish coproduction Koko-di Koko-da, in which a young couple on vacation (Leif Edlund, Yiva Gallon) suffer the equally abrupt and traumatic (though more clearly fatal) loss of their only child. Three years later, their marriage frayed, they go on an unhappy camping trip. It gets a lot worse with the arrival of three somewhat fantastical malevolent figures: A creepy old man in straw hat and ice cream suit, a bizarre woman with eccentric hair, and a Tor Johnson-type hulk. (They also have a vicious dog.) These people, or demons, or whatever they are, do not bring good tidings. The couple endures one savage demise after another at their hands, the film frequently rewinding to offer our hapless protagonists alternative (but seldom kinder) fates.

This violent whimsy has the air of a very grim fairy tale, and is tricked out with several neatly done sequences of shadow puppetry. But its Funny Games-style puzzle box of meaningless cruelty (which also recalls Oliver Stone’s early horror feature Seizure) fast becomes tedious and unpleasant without being actually disturbing. Swede Nyholm has clearly made the movie he wanted to, and its idiosyncrasy will no doubt attract some small cultish attention. Still, its mix of sadism and surrealism is likely to strike most as just an off-putting indulgence. Koko-di begins playing some virtual theaters around the country as of Fri/6, then arrives on general VOD platforms Dec. 8. 

It’s the end of the world and you know it
Two more new features provide variously-hued black comedy takes on apocalyptic times, something that seems fairly relevant at present. 

The live-action Darkness in Tenement 45 opens with a montage of archival footage suggesting a worst-case-scenario result for the US had the Cold War run a terminal course in the early ’60s or so. Amidst fears of biological warfare, NYC is evacuated. But our protagonists choose to stay in their decrepit apartment building, barricading themselves inside from the presumed Commies and “contagion” without. Now, untold months later, food is running low. Though he’s clearly the glue that holds these diverse strangers together in relative communal peace, single father Felix (David Labiosa) volunteers to brave the outside and go foraging. When he fails to return, motherly Martha (an imposing performance by Casey Kramer) gradually turns into a bullying tyrant—and teenaged niece Joanna (Nicole Tompkins) begins forming an organized resistance. 

Writer-director Nicole Groton’s film might have worked better as a stageplay. Indeed, its premise is eerily similar to that of Shelf Life, a very clever theater piece devised nearly 30 years ago by three former Bay Area stage actors, then made into a regrettably under-seen film in 1993 by the late Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul). As its societal microcosm gradually shades from Diary of Anne Frank meets Flowers in the Attic territory to something more grotesque and near-farcical, the whiff of novelty keeps you hanging on—but neither this material or its execution are ever quite inventive enough to keep Tenement from growing a bit dull and protracted.

More overtly absurd is Eric Power’s Attack of the Demons, an animated feature in the cut-out style of South Park (whose look it apes more than a little). Three professed nerdy young hipster types are among the few residents not attending a small Colorado mountain town’s music festival when some bad juju unleashes consuming evil upon the concertgoers. Our heroes must scramble to save themselves and stop the infestation, amidst lots of pop-culture references. 

Attack has a cool horror-spoofy concept and nice design, but it’s actually a bit of a slog to get through; the pacing drags, the jokes don’t land, and Andreas Petersen’s script is meh. It’s great to see indie cartooning on this kind of ambitious scale. Nevertheless, enterprise is no substitute for good writing, which is the thing really lacking here. It’s available on DVD and VOD as of today; Darknessalso arrives on digital/VOD platforms this Election Day,

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