Monday, June 14, 2021

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: An unlikely hero stands up to massive...

Screen Grabs: An unlikely hero stands up to massive redevelopment in ‘Dead Pigs’

Plus: Thrilling sequel 'A Quiet Place 2,' a lost Black intellectual classic from 1982, and a trans romance gem.

What turned into an as-yet-unended game of Release Date Shuffle for numerous major studio releases began with A Quiet Place Part II, which had the ill luck to premiere on March 8 of last year. It was meant for a wide release 12 days later, but by then the pandemic had closed US cinemas. As the shutdown dragged on, many films wound up going straight to streaming platforms. This one held out for theatrical distribution, hopefully rescheduling its release over and over again until…well, here we are, 14 months later. Though well over half of movie houses remain closed, QP2 is still likely to be the film more people will see by going out than anything since COVID hit. 

The original was a very satisfying piece of genre entertainment whose great strength was the exceptionally skillful direction. That came as a surprise, because while John Krasinski is a pleasant actor who’d previously directed a couple indie movies, nothing he’d done had suggested any particular affinity for suspense. Who knew that guy from The Office would have a knack for agonizingly tense life-or-death setpieces? 

The simple but clever premise provided plenty of opportunity for those, with the director and offscreen spouse Emily Blunt playing a couple who with their three children (and another on the way) attempt to survive in a world invaded by huge, fast, murderous space creatures who are blind, but have acute hearing. When the film starts, the family has managed (unlike most of humanity, we glean) to stay alive for over a year… by being very, very quiet. A Quiet Place should have been silly, but its combination of restraint and close-mouthed terror worked like gangbusters, achieving something pretty dang scary without gore or even frequent creature sightings.

Natch, we see considerably more of those ugly critters—with their grasshopper-like bodies and cauliflower-dentata faces—in the sequel, which Krasinski wrote as well as directs this time. He’s also in the opening scene, despite his character very definitely not surviving the prior film. So this one starts with a flashback to “Day One,” in which many of the Abbott family’s fellow small-town citizens are at a nice summer day’s Little League game that gets interrupted by strange activity in the sky. Soon all hell has broken loose, even if amidst this bravura sequence it’s murky just how Krasinski’s dad figures out the whole “don’t make a sound” thing immediately.

We then leap to Day 474, immediately after the events of the prior movie. There are now just  three Abbotts (plus the newborn), and their previously semi-safe abode is no longer safe at all. So they set out on stealthy bare feet to find a new home, ending up at a fellow refugee’s bunker beneath an abandoned factory. Getting there has left son Marcus (Noah Jupe) injured. Nonetheless, his deaf sister Regan (Millicent Simmonds) remains determined to move on, as she believes there is a group of survivors sending out radio signals (that she can pick up via her cochlear implant) somewhere nearby. Thus the remaining family is temporarily separated, yea more so when mom Evelyn (Blunt) goes to find medical supplies for Marcus’ wound. The film makes sure these figures all find themselves in different extreme perils during its sustained climax. 

A Quiet Place Part II gives viewers what they came for—it is scary—so there’s little point in carping it’s the kind of sequel that’s basically “more of the same,” rather than expanding on the original’s concept in any intriguing or surprising way. It basically lines up enough dangerous situations to fill about 90 minutes, then stops, having reached feature length. The characters (including new ones played by Cillian Murphy and Djimon Hounsou) don’t evolve; they simply survive another day. As the action takes place over the course of just a couple high-risk days, they’re kept in such a state of constant emergency that actors who were very good in Part I are pushed to the brink of hamminess by the need to sustain maximum fearful intensity. 

Nevertheless, Krasinski confirms that he is very good at orchestrating nail-biting sequences that rely on few jump scares (and even those are pretty good ones). QP2 is not the kind of sequel that lingers in the mind afterward, but it’s good enough to make getting back to the movie theaters seem worth getting off the couch for.

Other new arrivals this Friday:

Dead Pigs

Another film whose fate got impacted by COVID was Birds of Prey, the DC Entertainment Universe showcase for Margot Robie’s Harley Quinn that came out in February ’20—when theaters were still open, but audiences had already grown leery of sharing public space. Thus it was something of a commercial disappointment, despite decent reviews. Its choice of director was a surprise: Cathy Yan, a China-born, US-raised former journalist who’d only made one prior feature. Now that 2018 debut is finally being released here.

It doesn’t take long to figure out how Dead Pigs won Yan that plum Hollywood assignment: It’s a big seriocomic crowdpleaser that nimbly juggles numerous plot strands to entertaining and stylish effect. Her script is a social satire of China’s exploding capitalist “new economy,” particularly as it impacts citizens of growth-crazed Shanghai. Candy Wang (a very funny performance by veteran star Vivian Wu) is a beauty salon entrepreneur whose company motto is “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” She’d be enjoying her success more if the longtime family home she lives in weren’t the last such structure standing in an area slotted for a garish new residential development. She’s stubbornly refused the builder’s offers, but they’ll get her out of the way if it takes a wrecking ball to do it. 

Meanwhile her ne’er-do-well brother (Haoyu Yang) is desperate for money, having gotten himself deeply indebted to the wrong people. His son (Mason Lee) is a restaurant busboy who develops a crush on, then an unlikely friendship with, a spoiled-brat rich girl (Meng Li). These and other characters’ fates converge as Candy’s resistance to “progress” becomes a trending news story. 

Caustic but ultimately warm-and-fuzzy, Dead Pigs (whose title comes from incorporation of a 2013 Huangpu River scandal involving dumped livestock) is a splashy, antic, enjoyable film that only overplays its hand with too many narrative bow-tying contrivances at the end. The major narrative figure of an American architect (David Rysdahl) somehow doesn’t quite work in terms of character psychology or casting, either. Still, the film confirms that Yan is a significant new talent sure to continue hewing a high-profile mainstream career path—whether here, in China, or both. Film Movement is distributing the feature via virtual cinemas nationwide (more info here) as of Fri/28. 

Losing Ground

Some movies get their release delayed—but unlucky others are never released at all. For decades that was the case with Kathleen Collins’ 1982 feature, which won some festival acclaim at the time but could not find a commercial distributor. Non-exploitation US independent films had a pretty hard time getting released in general then, a situation that would considerably improve later in the decade. Still, no African-American woman director would see a feature narrative effort breach that wall until Julie Dash’s Daughters in the Dust 10 full years later. By then, playwright, educator, activist, poet, and filmmaker Collins would be dead, felled by breast cancer in 1988 at age 46. 

Very rarely seen before its restoration in 2015, Losing Ground is unusual for several reasons, not least being its portrait of Black intelligentsia—not unlike Ganja and Hess a decade earlier, the ostensible vampire horror movie directed by Bill Gunn. He was another major talent thwarted by the system (his 1970 directorial debut feature Stop still awaits release in any format), so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Collins cast him as the painter married to her own alter-ego figure, philosophy professor Sara (Seret Scott). 

Their frequent clash of personalities is not eased when he insists they rent a summer house upstate, where he meets a young Puerto Rican woman (Maritza Rivera), whose every scene is accompanied by salsa drums—her sensuality contrasting with what he calls Sara’s “cold, analytical” nature. But meanwhile that prim academic improbably agrees to act in a student’s film project, in which capacity she sparks with a flamboyant professional actor (Duane Jones from Ganja and Night of the Living Dead). Soon, jealousies are flying in all directions.

Though occasionally stilted in its dialogue and performances, Losing Ground is an intriguing exploration of relationships amongst high achievers, each with strong individual ideas about ethnic cultural identity. One imagines the film’s own production must have been an equally stimulating atmosphere, since Collins, Gunn, Jones, Scott, and Billie Allen (who plays Sara’s actress mother) were all noted creatives who wore many hats, most of them also theater directors and playwrights. 

Sadly, the first three were also all deceased by the end of the 1980s, leaving foreshortened legacies as groundbreakers in various media who’d barely begun to fulfill their potential. Losing Ground would remain Collins’ only feature, discounting a 50-minute prior film called The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy. It’s currently streaming for free via BAMPFA’s virtual cinema, in partnership with the Oakland Theater Project, which is staging her Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One Acts through July 3. To access the film, click here for info; for info on the play, click here.

Sadly, the first three were also all deceased by the end of the 1980s, leaving foreshortened legacies as groundbreakers in various media who’d barely begun to fulfill their potential. Losing Ground would remain Collins’ only feature, discounting a 50-minute prior film called The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy. It’s currently streaming for free via BAMPFA’s virtual cinema, in partnership with the Oakland Theater Project, which is staging her Begin the Beguine: A Quartet of One Acts through July 3. To access the film, click here for info; for info on the play, click here.

Port Authority

SF-born, NYC-based Danielle Lessovitz’s own feature directorial bow reflects a very different kind of African-American experience, though at first our focus is on 20-year-old white boy Paul (Fionn Whitehead). He’s bussed from the midwest to the Big Apple, expecting to be met at the titular station by his half-sister—but it turns out that was a ruse by a relative anxious to get rid of him, as the sibling has no interest in putting him up. With nowhere to go, the greenhorn promptly runs afoul of some creeps on the subway, from which beatdown he’s rescued by stranger Lee (McCaul Lombardi). The latter takes this stray in, getting him a shelter bed and under-the-table employment. Lee’s generosity is conditional, however, requiring Paul join a posse of homophobic guys who shake down apartment tenants at eviction risk because of their immigration status or tardy rent.

That alliance becomes a conflict when Paul develops a powerful interest in Wye (Leyna Bloom), a pretty female member of a mostly Black, gay, and male voguing crew whose style he admires. He doesn’t aspire to be a dancer—just to have a family, like the one they’ve created for themselves. Mutual attraction between himself and the forthright, outgoing Wye is another lure. He doesn’t realize that she is trans, and when he finds out, the news is a bit much for him. But he is a person capable of making a mental adjustment for love. The bigger worry is just when, and how, the LGBTQ+-friendly side of his new life is going to crash against the gay-baiting “friends” he’s at least temporarily stuck with. 

Port Authority is a simple story, but not a simplistic one, with naturalistic performances that make all the characters seem fully dimensionalized. It eschews melodrama (though it certainly does build tension making you fear the worst might happen), arriving at a lovely, unforced sense of acceptance won between members of different marginalized communities. Everyone here has been rejected, one way or another; even Lee probably has a backstory that explains why he’s both kind and cruel. 

This is the kind of little-gem movie that often has a hard time getting exposure beyond the festival circuit (where it premiered two years ago), but which one can be grateful to pandemic-heightened streaming demand for knocking off the shelf. Momentum Pictures releases it to limited theaters today, with VOD and Digital platforms following on June 1. 

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