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Friday, December 3, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: A feast of Eastern European scares

Screen Grabs: A feast of Eastern European scares

Plus: Maltese fisherman stiff in 'Luzzo,' four knockout performances in 'Mass,' more new movies

’Tis the season for scary movies—never mind that I find the prospect of watching Hallmark Channel Christmas ones far more terrifying. Perhaps the most interesting local program stepping up to that Halloween-occasioned plate is at (of course) the Roxie Theater. This weekend they are kicking off a series of “Eastern European nightmares” called “Don’t Open It!” with a 4K restoration of Polish director Andrzej Zulawski’s Berlin-shot French co-production Possession. It’s a divorce drama of sorts, in which Sam Neill is distressed that the wife he’s separated from (Isabelle Adjani) seems to be having affairs not just with another man, but also with…well, something that is definitely not a man, or even a human, period. 

When it premiered at Cannes in 1981, Possession left most critics aghast, then managed to get banned in several countries. The 1983 US release lopped off close to an hour, not just deleting content but scrambling chronology and adding effects to create a demented abstraction out of the already mad original. (I actually like both versions.) The Roxie will be showing the director’s full original vision, which is comparatively coherent—yet still an exercise in emotional (and fantastical) extremis unlike anything else, even within Zulawski’s own eccentric ouevre. The actors’ commitment to this berserk nightmare remains awe-inspiring; whether you’ve seen Possession many times or wish you never had, it’s an experience not easily forgotten. 

Possession starts Fri/15 and is currently scheduled to play at least until October 25. (It’s also opening in other theaters, including Alamo Drafthouse.) Additional titles in the “Don’t Open It!” series will be mostly single showings: Agnieszka Smoczynska’s 2015 Polish feature The Lure (Wed/20 only), a disco-rock-operatic musical about the bloody showbiz career of two cannibal mermaids; a newly restored print of Nosferatu the Vampyre (Fri/22), Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake of the Carl Dreyer silent classic; Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi’s bizarre 2006 gross-out fantasia Taxidermia (also Fri/22); Juraj Herz’s B&W 1969 The Cremator (Fri/29), a chilling historical fiction that was one of the last gasps of the Czech New Wave; and Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 Soviet masterpiece Stalker (Sat/30-Sun/31), a sci-fi-tinged metaphysical adventure through landscapes of the mind. 

Not included in the series but definitely appealing to a similar sensibility is Ivan Zulueta’s Arrebato, a 1979 Spanish feature that is to horror what Radley Metzger’s much slicker “The Lickerish Quartet” was to sexploitation a decade earlier—an elaborate intellectual game of reality and illusion toying with “downscale” genre motifs. A director of trashy thrillers (Eusebio Poncela) living with his actress-girlfriend (Cecilia Roth) is contacted by a fan and distant acquaintance (Will More), who wants to share some material with him. But that gift proves fateful… if confusingly so.

It’s a somewhat baffling no-budget labyrinth whose horror elements are almost subterranean. Is its vampirism a real thing, or a metaphor for drug addiction? For the artistic process? This is purportedly Pedro Almodovar’s favorite movie—all three principal actors (who are very good) later worked with him. I found it more impenetrable than intriguing, and while one can admire his resourcefulness under the circumstances, there is no mistaking the shoestring budget Zulueta had to work with. Still, it’s always impressive when someone gets away with something this experimental under the guise of commercial product. The 4K restoration of Arrebato (aka Rapture) plays the Roxie Mon/18 only. 

Like Possession, other newly arriving movies this weekend involve marriages that are dysfunctional, or otherwise under threat in some way:

Mass 
No marriage should have to withstand the strain suffered by the protagonists in this first feature as writer-director by Fran Kranz, an actor probably best known to mainstream audiences for playing the stoner in Cabin in the Woods a decade ago. In fact, one of the two couples here have broken up, while the other are clearly on a kind of effortful auto-pilot. The reason they’ve gathered in a church basement room, as arranged by some sort of official reconciliation adviser (Michelle N. Carter), isn’t spelled out until about 35 minutes into this nearly two-hour drama. Then, finally, the thing they’re all politely avoiding spills out: Some time ago, Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard’s (Reed Birney) son killed Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay’s (Jason Issacs) son, along with other students, before killing himself in a high school shooting. 

This extremely awkward meeting, taking place in the wake of extensive press coverage, finger-pointing and litigation, is designed to hopefully arrive at mutual “healing.” But of course it’s not that simple. And in discussing the trauma that’s afflicted all of them (including both couples’ surviving children), the painful questions must arise: Why did it happen? And why didn’t anyone—especially the perp’s parents—somehow stop it from happening?

Raw and straightforward, Mass could easily have been done as a play, though despite primarily taking place in one room, it manages not to seem too stagy or even claustrophobic. Kranz has four excellent actors who seldom get these kinds of hefty lead roles. They make the most of them, sans any awards-bait showiness. Other films have dealt with similar subject matter, often in a more sensational or hand-wringing fashion. Mass offers no easy answers, nor the emotional release that melodramatically contrived blame would allow. But it does let these characters credibly work through agonies at once opposed and inextricably linked, showing us what unites them as well-meaning, grieving parents—as well as the impossibility of ever really “coming to terms” with a tragedy of this nature. Mass opens Fri/15 at area theaters.

Luzzu
A man who’s never left his Mediterranean island home, Jesmark (Jesmark Scicluna) is a Maltese fisherman making his living the same way as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him—even using their same brightly painted wooden boat, called a luzzu. But concerning news about the health of the baby his wife Denise (Michela Farrugia) recently bore underlines just how close to “the end of the line” that ancient profession has come. 

Catches have dwindled to almost nothing; regulation is stifling; local buyers are fussy skinflints. The boat needs repairs and the infant expensive treatment, things that aren’t going to happen on Jesmark’s earnings, or his wife’s from waitressing. Accepting help from his in-laws means accepting their disapproving inference as well. Should he follow other natives’ lead and accept an EU buyout, giving up his fishing rights in perpetuity to gain some cash and help preserve aquatic life? These are unpleasant options, but then so is the illegal black market work Jesmark temporarily pursues to buy some time. If he doesn’t figure out a longer-term solution, his marriage itself might move from the endangered list to extinction.

Alex Camilleri’s film, a neorealist affair with nonprofessional actors in some roles (including handsome lead Scicluna, basically playing himself), chronicles a vanishing way of life—one that existed unchanged for centuries, but which climate change and other factors is now grinding to a halt. While scenically picturesque, this Sundance prize-winner is one of those noose-tightening movies, from Bicycle Thieves to 99 Homes and Uncut Gems, in which escalating financial desperation creates as much suspense as the usual fictive serial killer. There’s a quietly moving cumulative impact—and besides, how often are you going to see a movie in the Maltese language? Luzzu opens Fri/15 at theaters including the Orinda. 

Bergman Island
French actress turned writer-director Mia Hansen-Love’s English-language feature has Tim Roth and Vicky Krieps as a director husband and writer wife who’ve accepted an artist residency on the Swedish island of Faro. It is where Ingmar Bergman famously lived the later decades of his life, and also shot some of his films (including Scenes from a Marriage). Now it is mostly devoted to tourists worshipping that god of cinema, somewhat to the annoyance of permanent residents. 

As the duo take part in such touristic activities, and interact with other celluloid pilgrims and professional keepers-of-the-flame, Krieps’ Chris struggles with a script set here. As she describes it to Roth’s Tony, we see it acted out by Mia Wasikowska as yet another film-director-within-the-film-about-filmmaking, and Anders Danielsen Lie (of Joachim Trier’s films) as the ex-lover she’s reunited with too late, when they’ve both settled into other relationships.

Bergman Island is “interesting.” But it’s also the kind of navel-gazing exercise that has no real point, no real grasp on life outside that lived by artists like Hansen-Love herself—a pretty rarefied sphere. We don’t even learn much about the central marital relationship, beyond a hint that these characters get along better when their child is present as a buffer. Plus, several years after her international breakthrough in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, I still don’t “get” Krieps: She is not compelling enough to build a film around, and sometimes she is awful (as in the recent M. Night Shamalayan mess Old). A movie this vague really needs an anchoring performance, and she just helps it drift out to sea. Bergman Island opens Fri/15 in theaters including the Embarcadero, and is available on VOD as of Oct. 22.

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