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Saturday, June 10, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Real horror in the Capitol

Screen Grabs: Real horror in the Capitol

New doc details January 6 insurrection. Plus, three more seasonally appropriate thriller-chillers

Last week’s return (yet again) of Michael Myers in Halloween Kills has nothing on this week’s arrival of Four Hours at the Capitol, definitely the horror movie of the month, if not the year. After all, a fictive Unstoppable Killing Machine is mere entertainment. A mob of angry morons storming our seat of national government because they can’t handle reality (i.e. their guy lost the election, by a lot) is straight-up sick-making. 

Jamie Roberts’ documentary interviews journalists, Congressional members and staff on both sides of the aisle, and various “patriots” who were all present. Speaking months later, the conservative voices have depressingly settled into their cover stories (that there were indeed vague “election irregularities,” that the rampaging hordes were just visiting “our building”), while everyone else expresses a certain shock that they are still alive. Not interviewed, of course, are the people who aren’t—including four insurrectionists who died of injuries, the police officer who did likewise, and the four cops who committed suicide afterward.

But most of Four Hours consists of footage actually from January 6, starting with outgoing POTUS Twitler telling the crowd “We will never concede… this theft” and urging them to “fight like hell.” His speech wasn’t even over yet when a fair number of them had broken through all barriers, overwhelmed Capitol Police, and smashed their way into the Capitol itself. Amidst “total anarchy,” a New York Times photographer notes “I got the impression that there are some people here who are playing dressup and fuckin’ around, and there are some people who are not fuckin’ around”—the latter being ones who had weapons, apparent preplanned tactics, and probable homicidal intent. Meanwhile government personnel, initially oblivious, are rushed to safety or trapped in individual offices.

One can accept many of the insurrectionists truly believe “a totalitarian government is taking over the country,” and that they were needed to set all “traitors” present (from Capitol Police to Pelosi) to rights. One man from a group seriously called Cowboys for Trump tells the filmmakers “I believe that Donald Trump was anointed by God.” Of course, sincerity doesn’t negate stupidity or delusion, let alone justify violence. 

While the worst perps were most likely keeping a low profile, their faces obscured by ski masks, etc., we get plenty of dummies eagerly seizing the spotlight. They include one QAnon nut—not the shirtless “shaman”—who looks like a stoner community-theater lead in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and duly lights up a joint under the dome. (He is actually surprised when this amply-documented public moment gets him “into trouble” later on.) There is a certain amount of schadenfreude to be experienced eventually, when some of these same dolts are shocked and dismayed not just at being arrested, but by their Orange Savior’s complete disinterest in riding to the rescue.

But laughable and loathsome as many of these folk are—yes, you will get an eye- and earful of the vainglorious QAnon Shaman—Four Hours at the Capitol makes it clear that they’ve only doubled down on their false narratives in the months since. More contemptible are the GOP politicians (as well as pundits) who’ve encouraged them, and whose “willing blindness” one veteran Republican operative suggests is inexcusable coming from “Smart people who know better.” Many of us thought that, at the very least, Trump’s hold on the party would lessen after his loss; instead, he’s tightened a death grip, which office holders now ignore or deride at their peril. This discomfiting dive into a testosterone-driven riot bottles the kind of “mob mentality” energy that, if it spreads unabated, really could spell the end of our democracy. Four Hours premieres on HBO and HBO Max this Wed/20. 

Such extremist currents continue to gain strength around the globe, and will be scrutinized in much of UNAFF2021: Moving Forward, the United Nations-adjacent annual film festival showcasing documentaries that span the gamut of human rights issues. This year’s 24th edition, which returns to in-person events after 2020’s virtual program, takes place this Thurs/21-Sun/31 primarily at Peninsula locations in Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, and on the Stanford University campus. There will also be one evening (Wed/27) of films at SF’s Roxie Theater, which we’ll detail in this space early next week. For info on the overall program, go here.  

A vivid fact-based illustration of extremist peril is the 2019 film Held for Ransom (retitled from its original Do You See The Moon, Daniel?), which just got released by Samuel Goldwyn Films to US On Demand and Digital platforms last Friday. Directed by Neils Arden Oplev and Anders W. Berthelsen, it dramatizes the ordeal of Daniel Rye (played by Esben Smed), a young Dane who began a photojournalism career after an injury ended his Olympics hopes as a gymnast. He soon found himself flying to “trouble spots,” and in May 2013 was taken prisoner by ISIS in a Syrian border town. 

Over the next 13 months he was held captive alongside other foreign nationals (including the American reporter James Foley, one of six among them who were eventually beheaded), frequently tortured for a “confession” of his non-existent status as an alleged CIA agent. Meanwhile, his family back home was extorted for an ever-rising ransom to secure his release, getting little help from their government, since Denmark has a “no negotiation with terrorists” policy. Held for Ransom is brutally straightforward, with no editorializing about the surrounding political complexities. It’s hardly a pleasant watch, yet one whose nearly 2.5 hours pass quickly. 

In contrast to the overwhelmingly masculine, combative stories above, three new narrative features look inward, each letting a female auteur work through her protagonist’s demons in psychological-thriller guise:

Fever Dream
Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s latest is an enigmatic puzzle about the fateful paths-crossing of two young mothers. Amanda (Maria Valverde) has rented a summer home in the Argentine countryside for herself, little daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta), and a husband who takes his sweet time joining them. She’s soon making the acquaintance of glam, extroverted neighbor Carola (Dolores Fonzi), who also has a single child in the slightly older Daniel (Emilio Vodanovich). Though the women become fast friends, differences in temperament and class arise: Carola, who’s tethered to this podunk village, envies Amanda’s relative freedom. 

But then more serious concerns surface, albeit none-too-clearly. There’s some kind of “migration” going on here, a possibly supernatural and/or environmental menace that first claims a horse, then David, who becomes a “monster”—or does he? Meanwhile Amanda begins experiencing fainting spells, and Nina may be at peril. Told in a deliberately convoluted fashion, with any solution to its narrative mysteries murky at best, Fever Dream is not for those who need straightforward genre thrills, or a clean payoff. But it is gracefully crafted, and casts an atmospheric spell. It is currently on Netflix.

After a traumatic loss lands her in sanatorium care for a full year, Molly (Cecilia Milocco) is released to a very tentative new life, housed in an apartment building with no apparent friends or family as support. She’d be adjusting OK, it seems, if not for a persistent knocking on the floor of some other flat directly above her. Is someone signaling for help? Are they being held captive? Various neighbors who live on that floor overhead politely shrug off her inquiries, claiming they hear nothing. But Molly’s suspicions only increase, as do her accusations, until emergency services stop taking her panicked calls and fellow residents call her “crazy.” Is she paranoid? Hallucinating? Off her meds? Or is something malevolent really going on upstairs? 

The answer is, ultimately, rather conventional—if handled in a way that still leaves room for ambiguity and doubt. But Frida Kempff’s debut feature is intriguing enough in texture and tension as a sort of Swedish Repulsion, embedding us in the fragile mental health of a protagonist whose own character and backstory are as mysterious as the misdeeds she (perhaps) imagines happening just a few feet away. Yellow Veil Pictures releases Knocking to On Demand and Digital platforms Tues/19. 

The Blazing World
The understatement of those two cryptic visions is not a goal for actress Carlson Young (“Scream: The TV Series”), whose own feature debut as writer-director is a flamboyant hothouse bloom grafting together elements of Pan’s Labyrinth and Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau version), plus nods to Suspiria, 2001, David Lynch, Jan Svankmajer, maybe even Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice

In an opening that rivals Antichrist’s for overamped “artistry” and familial guilt-tripping, she presents one of two twin girls drowning in a pool while their parents are too busy quarreling to notice. Fifteen years or so later, Margaret (Young) returns to the manse where mom (Vinessa Shaw) and dad (Dermot Mulroney) are still at each other’s throats. As if all this wasn’t already enough of a surrealistic pillow dream, our heroine is then beckoned into a black hole by a sinister figure (Udo Kier), whereupon her PTSD Alice in Wonderland experiences all sorts of trippy, FX-laden frights, though which she runs like a cartoon Disney ingenue. 

That may sound fun, but Blazing World takes itself awfully seriously, the occasional possibly-tongue-in-cheek element drowned in pretentious tosh. We get that Margaret is a victim, but her parents are so caricatured in “real life,” their more monstrous incarnations down the “rabbit hole” scarcely seem worse. After seeing him give real performances in the recent Swan Song and Painted Bird, it’s depressing to see Udo reduced yet again to smirking Weird Guy, stuck with lines like “I am the darkest dream in the forest of light.” 

You can’t help but admire Young’s imaginative ambition, or her assertive use of color and music. But instead of realizing a landscape of the subconscious, these factors too often come off like garish eye candy, complete with disco-worthy neon lighting hues. Resourceful and accomplished in its way, the film nonetheless feels like an affectedly angsty, juvenile princess fantasy that thinks it’s Persona. Young demonstrated chutzpah by getting a project this eccentric made, but next time out I hope her talents focus on something much less self-indulgent. Vertical Entertainment released The Blazing World  to On Demand platforms last Fri/15.

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