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Wednesday, November 25, 2020
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Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Watching from the thick of it all

Screen Grabs: Watching from the thick of it all

This week sees a gaggle of releases that seem appropriate for our anxiety-fraught moment. (Although we're hoping for good news)

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Writing in the midst of an election week even more fraught with anxiety than expected, it is appropriate that new streaming releases involve demonic invasion, captivity, incest, battery, racism, and getting the hell off this planet. Of course, everything bad seems relevant when you’re biting your nails to nubs. Hopefully by the time you read this, our future will be looking a little brighter.

Among new titles we did not have the time or opportunity to preview are mainstream suspense drama Let Him Go, with Diane Lane and Kevin Costner; well-reviewed teen romance Words on Bathroom Walls, which is opening at the Kabuki after being delayed from earlier in the year; music doc Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man, a star-studded tribute to the veteran rock keyboardist that’s playing Rafael@Home; and Cup of Cheer, an Airplane!-style spoof of treacly holiday movies. 

It’s also time for the 45th annual American Indian Film Festival, Fri/6-November 13, featuring 102 films including 55 world premieres. That’s a lot to see, check it out here.

The below are all releasing today to on-demand and digital platforms (and in some cases available theaters), unless otherwise noted: 

The Dark and the Wicked
The weekend’s best new movie provides supernatural horror to get your mind off the real-world kind. Louise (Marin Ireland) returns to the bleak prairie farm she was raised on, with brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) having already arrived as well. They’re here for the probable last days of their bedridden father (Michael Zagst), who’s being cared for by their care-worn mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) and a hired nurse (Lynn Andrews). 

But even given the circumstances, mom seems deeply depressed, behaving oddly and repeatedly telling her offspring that they shouldn’t have come. We begin to glean something unusual is happening when she turns around from the kitchen counter to find a chair just behind her has moved…by itself. Soon she is practicing grievous self-harm. It doesn’t take much longer for the siblings to start experiencing weird phenomena as well, strange sounds and sights that rapidly escalate from the unsettling to the terrifying. 

Writer-director Bryan Bertino previously made two of the better horror thrillers of recent years, 2008’s original The Strangers and lesser-noticed 2016 The Monster. Both were spare narratives trapping protagonists in a single setting from which they fought for survival against largely unseen, unexplained threats—a concept that might have quickly grown dull or hokey in less canny hands. Darkness likewise has a minimalist air, though it’s rich in atmospheric dread, with strong performances and some arresting images. As is often the case with such exercises, the climactic mayhem is actually a bit less scarifying than the very creepy buildup to it. Nonetheless, this is one of the best films of its type in a while, if not quite in the uppermost echelon of 21st-century horror movies to date. 

Kindred
Vaguely in the same realm of genre material emphasizing restraint and character psychology, albeit with less success, is this UK. first feature by commercials director Joe Marcantonio. Charlotte (Tamara Lawrence) and Ben (Edward Holcroft) are an interracial couple expecting a child—something he’s ecstatic about, while she (due to her own problematic upbringing) is much less so. 

Planning a move to Australia, they reluctantly visit his aristocratically broke family’s huge, dilapidated estate and the imperious mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw) he’s semi-estranged from on. She’s thrilled by news of an heir, albeit enraged by the imminent relocation. However, that proves moot when Charlotte suddenly finds herself alone. In her confusion of grief—though also perhaps drugged without her consent—she’s hastily “taken in” by Margaret and Ben’s obsequious stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden). She doesn’t really want their “help,” but they won’t take no for an answer. Soon she suspects she’s no guest but a captive here, at least for the length of a pregnancy she didn’t want in the first place. 

With its shades of Rosemary’s BabyYou’ll Like My Mother, and other maternity horrors, Kindred has promise, but it ultimately seems self-defeatingly reluctant to embrace its own genre nature. Charlotte keeps blacking out, attempts to escape, finds assumed allies are actually in league against her. Yet it feels like all too little happens here; a suggested occult angle leads nowhere, and the slow pacing is not as spellbinding as presumably intended. Kindred takes itself far too seriously for a movie that develops little real depth, let alone tension or notable style. It’s not bad, yet its cautious good taste finally just kills the fun without providing any more substantial reward. 

Proxima
Faring better at turning what looks at first glance like an escapist premise into poker-faced drama is French writer-director Ailce Winocour’s German co-production. Sarah (Eva Green) is about to fulfill her lifelong dream: When an expected crew member has to bow out, she is selected for a mission aboard the International Space Station. This will require her being away for over a year, something which will be particularly hard on her approximately 7-year-old daughter Stella (Zelie Boulant). 

The girl can be sent to live with the husband Sarah is separated from, astrophysicist Thomas (Lars Eideinger). But a new home, school and other upheavals make Stella extra-needy as Sarah nears the deadline for quarantine before rocket-launch. Meanwhile mom is undergoing grueling climactic preparations (in scenes largely shot at a real European space-training station), as well as getting to know her two fellow travellers—a nice Russian (Aleksey Fateev), and an NASA veteran who initially seems a sexist blowhard (Matt Dillon). 

Proxima isn’t science-fiction, but rather a drama about scientists, focused on the emotions undergone by people whose job it partly is to suppress those emotions as much as possible. The same terrain was arguably explored in greater depth (and with a bit more plausibility) in Meg Howrey’s recent The Wanderers, an excellent novel that was also about three astronauts preparing for a long voyage and its separation from family. By contrast, Winotour’s film risks being repetitiously over-narrow in its emphasis on mother-daughter abandonment issues. (In the well-researched novel, it’s pretty clear no one with Sarah’s level of anxiety about leaving her child would pass the psychological tests currently required for such missions.) Still, this is an intelligently crafted, interesting fictive angle on a profession that never fails to fascinate. 

Teenage Wasteland: “Party” and “Brother”
Two smaller-scaled U.S. independent features offer wildly disparate perspectives on adolescence, though “It ain’t easy” applies to both. 

Jeff Roda’s 18 to Party (which opens at virtual cinemas including Alamo on Demand this Friday, then general VOD release Dec. 1) finds a group of eighth graders spending all day outside a suburban nightclub in 1984, hoping to eventually be let in to the evening’s concert. They’re ostensibly friends, but practically all they do is squabble and tell each other to “shut UP!!” 

Eventually some tough issues arise in conversation, including past peer suicides. There’s also an attempted lyrical ending involving rumored UFO sightings. But whatever Roda is attempting to capture here proves elusive—the period setting proves superfluous, the melodramatic elements are hamfisted, and these competently-played teen characters aren’t particularly likable or even entertaining. At just 75 minutes before the final credit roll, 18 to Party feels like an overstretched one-act play, or an undernourished stab at some middle ground between Stand by Me and River’s Edge. Either way, it falls short. 

Not aiming for realism at all is David Howe’s Call Me Brother. Dropped off by titanically self-absorbed divorcee mother, sis Lisa (scenarist Christina Parrish) is excited to spend time with her brother Tony (SNL’s Andrew Dismukes). He’s living with their father Frank (Asaf Ronen) and his 2nd wife Doris (Danu Uribe), whose adult sexual chemistry is inappropriately flagrant. Tony is excited, too. They’re both a little too excited. Over the course of the weekend, everyone will get a chance to be inappropriate, with the spazzy siblings’ incestuous feelings an uncontrollable rocket whose fuse is lit on mutual contact.

Brother manages to be raunchy and tasteless in a fairly amusing way that recalls the deadpan Americana absurdism of Napoleon Dynamite. Nothing here is meant to be taken seriously, starting with the cast of pushing-30 actors playing teens. The film has that particular riffing feel that comes from experienced sketch-comedy performers who invariably stretch the material for an extra laugh. Unfortunately, that material wears thin after a while, starting to pall just as the movie means to be hitting climactic stride. 

Flashback Friday: Fellini’s “Strada” and Dunye’s “Woman”
Two revivals of note, both recently restored, offer more reliable pleasures for those leery of rolling the dice on new releases. 1954’s La Strada (currently available for streaming via the Roxie, CinemaSF, and Rafael) really put Federico Fellini on the international map, though his prior three directorial features had been well-received. It was a rare foreign-language smash, particularly in the US, where it made Anthony Quinn perhaps the first Hollywood actor to achieve real stardom at home only after he’d played a part overseas. (A decade later, the same thing would happen to Clint Eastwood.)

Quinn plays brutish Zampano, an itinerant strong-man entertainer who literally buys sunny waif Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) off her mother as an assistant-cum-slave, then tries to beat the stubborn good nature out of her. Adding whimsy to the Italian neo-realist template, La Strada took an early step towards the fantastical flamboyance of Fellini’s trademark later style. Its mixed pathos and cruelty are perhaps less in line with today’s tastes, as is the gamine appeal of the director’s wife Masina. But it’s still a film many people love, and should be seen as one of those movies that greatly expanded international audiences for foreign cinema.

The Roxie is also bringing back Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 The Watermelon Woman, which was notable for being reportedly the first feature directed by a black lesbian. She plays an alter ego (also named Cheryl) who works in a Philadelphia video store and becomes fascinated by a fictitious “golden age” Hollywood performer known only as The Watermelon Woman, determining to make a documentary investigating that elusive figure’s life and career. 

Complete with a cameo by cultural critic Camille Paglia, the film both satirizes and reclaims African-American stereotypes of yesteryear, with the B&W celluloid enigma turning out to be a late Philly lesbian herself who struggled with the “mammy” caricatures she played for lack of better opportunities. A major title in its own era’s New Queer Cinema movement, Woman drew on its maker’s interest in documentary and autobiography to create a playfully complex meta-fiction. 

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This week sees a gaggle of releases that seem appropriate for our anxiety-fraught moment. (Although we're hoping for good news)
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