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Monday, February 26, 2024

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: New films provide visions of the end

Screen Grabs: New films provide visions of the end

Plus: Slovakian 'Servants' is stunning—our critic's favorite movie of the year so far.

The pandemic drastically slowed film production, which is now back to something like normal (albeit with contagion precautions still in place), but was significantly hobbled for quite a while. From the start, however, some enterprising souls insisted on work-arounds, making movies entirely composed of ersatz Zoom calls, or otherwise finding ways to tell a story about and/or under COVID restrictions.

To be honest, a lot of this stuff is near-unwatchable—when all creative resources are directed towards simply making a feature under extremely problematic circumstances, the results are seldom very inspired as art or entertainment. Nonetheless, there have been exceptions, and we’re going to be looking for them a while yet, as films shot last year or even the year before continue to trickle out.

Actually predating COVID is The Pink Cloud, though you may find that hard to believe. So hard, in fact, that this bizarrely prescient, not-very-fantastical Brazilian sci-fi drama opens with a disclaimer/explainer saying that it was written in 2017 and shot in 2019. Because otherwise you’d surely think it is a thinly veiled commentary (as opposed to a purely accidental one) about our current, no-end-in-sight-yet epidemiological reality.

Two middle-class singles in their 30s, Giovana (Renata de Lelis) and Yago (Eduardo Mendonca) are just casual acquaintances when the titular phenomenon—a mysterious toxic gas that appears around the globe—means she cannot leave his apartment. What initially is expected to be just a temporary emergency turns into a very, very long-term one that the government and society must adjust to. Most relationships become online-only; food and everything else must be delivered, rather than purchased on-site; stir-craziness assumes different forms for different people. Sound familiar?

Writer-director Iuli Gerbase’s first feature is somewhat reminiscent of the underrated Swedish Aniara from 2018, in which space-shuttle passengers find their planned short trip becoming a permanent one. Deprived of the connections, pursuits, and choices they once had, they settle for what’s now possible, and/or rage against those limits—like the protagonists here. It’s an intelligent, well-crafted drama, though I’m not sure whether it benefits or suffers from an imaginatively-conceived story that fate has instead rendered all too experientially familiar. After bypassing the Bay Area in a limited theatrical release a couple months ago, The Pink Cloud is available on Digital and On Demand platforms as of March 1.

Also arriving on home formats that day is After the Pandemic, a fairly typical example of the kinds of enterprising, if also trying, low-budget genre films that have been made over the last two years. Here, a much worse plague has wiped out nearly all of humanity, leaving only a few lone survivors like southwestern teen Ellie (Even James) alive. Even they are on the run, however, from Hazmat-suited government agents hunting for any cases of natural immunity, so they can be experimented on to benefit the elites now presumably hiding in underground bunkers. One day Ellie is saved from capture by a tougher, punkier, slightly older young woman (Kannon Smith), who’s willing to share her survivalist tactics but wary of any longer-term partnership.

Richard Lowry’s film inhabits familiar “post-apocalyptic” terrain—a subgenre with obvious appeal in the COVID era, as it deals primarily in isolated locations and protagonists—but feels fresh enough for the first half hour, when nary a word is spoken. Once the dialogue commences, we soon realize these actors don’t quite have the chops to carry a film by themselves, and things get progressively less convincing as After becomes more of an action movie. As with so many such joints made under a degree of lockdown restriction, Pandemic ends up more admirable as a “nice try” than impressive as an end result.

Also shot as a make-work project while other avenues were closed is Studio 666, improbable as a comedy horror vehicle for rock band Foo Fighters. They really hadn’t seemed the type, even if frontman Dave Grohl (formerly of Nirvana) has actually directed and produced some music-centric documentaries in recent years. This feature-length goof has the group’s six members holing up in an Encino mansion to record their 10th album, unaware it’s the site of an ill-fated previous band’s brush with supernatural evil and bloody death.

I like the Foo Fighters well enough—some of their albums strike me as very good, others mediocre, though I couldn’t begin to tell you what the difference is. To their credit, though, this isn’t an excuse for concert footage or to launch new songs, but a proper sendup of both band dynamics and horror tropes. As such, it’s good-natured if not particularly inspired, fun albeit not as much fun as it would have been at, say, a tight 80 minutes (as opposed to an indulgent 106). Only Grohl himself demonstrates more than a “good sport” level of acting talent, while cameos by people like Will Forte and Lionel Ritchie only brighten matters as much as their so-so material allows. God knows there are worse horror comedies out there than B.J. McConnell’s first directorial feature since the like-minded Hatchet III nine years ago. But 666 is just good enough to make you wish it were a little bit better. It’s currently playing theaters nationwide.

Two movies new to streaming also dabble in the fantastical. The Long Walk is a rare exported feature from Laos, whose film industry has been so slow to develop that writer-director Mattie Do (ChanthayDearest Sister) is the nation’s first-ever woman to assume those job descriptions—or person of any gender to have a film shown at Cannes. (Though she was, in fact, born to Laotian emigre parents in Los Angeles, making a professional move to their homeland only in 2010.)

Her latest starts like a gory horror film, with a corpse discovered, then getting part of a finger severed. But despite such occasional ickiness, this is primarily a spare, handsome mood piece, in which rural villagers ranging from a boy (Por Silatsa) to a young woman (Noutnapha Soydara) to an old man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) seem trapped in a loop where the past is endlessly doomed to repeat itself. Some of these people are, in fact, already dead—their ghosts seeking absolution and/or release from prior tragedies. But in trying to fix the past by influencing the living, they seem to only render the present worse. It’s an eerie, quiet, mysterious tale that requires a degree of patience, but also intrigues strongly enough to tempt the greater narrative insight repeat viewings might afford. Yellow Veil Pictures is releasing it to On Demand platforms March 1.

Time travel of a much sillier sort drives Japanese sci-fi comedy Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. Short and sweet at 70 minutes, Junta Yamaguchi’s low-budget fantasy has a café worker going upstairs at closing time to his flat, where he sees himself on his computer monitor—talking to himself from two minutes into the future. This anomaly induces amazement, amusement, and panic in turn, with five people eventually running up and down the stairs to interact with their past and/or future selves. While there’s a threat of violence after a while, the tone remains light, making this a sort of Escher-drawing farce. Indiecan recently released the feature to On Demand platforms.

The perils are all too real-world in two more new thrillers. The Burning Sea, which opened in limited theaters and On Demand last Friday, is the third entry in a surprising wee trend of Norwegian disaster movies. It’s from the same folks who previously gave us The Wave (2015) and The Quake (2018), movies that echoed the mass-destruction fun of such ’70s campfests as The Towering Inferno, minus the cheese. This latest amps up the eco-warning factor as too much drilling beneath the ocean floor destabilizes the seabed, collapsing an oil rig where some people are left stranded. Needless to say, many a saved-in-the-nick cliffhanger episode ensues during rescue attempts.

While I really enjoyed the prior films (which had some connecting narrative threads between them), this free-standing followup suggests the revival may be tapped out. Quake director John Andreas Andersen’s film is certainly well-produced. But now there’s a tone of bleak indictment rather than vicarious excitement, and the characters are less quirky than blandly earnest.

Still, Sea is a triumph alongside The Desperate Hour, an awful gimmick-based melodrama all too transparently built around COVID shooting restrictions—there’s no other reason to keep poor, hardworking Naomi Watts alone onscreen for almost its full, exasperating runtime. She plays a recently-widowed resident of upper-middle-class suburbia (Ontario presumably standing in for New England) who’s out jogging on her day off work when she realizes there’s some kind of shooting incident at her children’s school several miles away. Worse, she begins to fear her withdrawn teenage son may be the perp.

This is a dramatic and relevant hook, to be sure. But most of this film’s 84 minutes consist of Watt’s Amy frantically trying to micro-manage the situation…on her cellphone, while hobbling down country roads. No actor should be stuck running the gamut of panicked emotions for so long, as bombastic music and editing struggle to make this plight seem more urgent than painfully-contrived—and even irksome, since Amy’s insistent calls actually interfere with police and others’ efforts to safely end the crisis.

Chris Sparling’s script tries to “say something” about school shootings, but ultimately manages nothing more than a purposely vague, inoffensive “isn’t it just terrible?”—which is almost worse than saying nothing. Veteran Australian director Philip Noyce has made some very good films over the last near half-century. This laughable hunk of BS about a very serious issue, however, is a personal nadir for all concerned. The Desperate Hour was released last Friday to limited theaters as well as Digital and On Demand platforms.

At least Australians aren’t pretending to be anything else in writer-director James Vaughan’s debut feature Friends and Strangers, which immediately establishes a mumblecore-ish tenor of comedic haplessness amongst privileged yet alienated twentysomethings. Ray (Fergus Wilson) and Alice (Emma Diaz) are friends living in Sydney, though the different ways in which each views their relationship become clear during a camping trip that quickly turns sour. Back in the city, Ray drifts through a series of further conflicted, irksome exchanges, finally landing at a seaside house where he’s engaged as a wedding videographer.

With its static compositions and interesting musical choices, Strangers has the right arch, aimless, ironical tone to render its shaggy dog story tart and interesting rather than just indulgent. You need to be in a receptive mood for this kind of quirkfest, however, or the Slacker-style dawdling will drive you mad. It’s available for streaming through Metrograph At Home.

If a lot of these movies seem rather trifling, whether in a good or bad way, there is relief for the substance-deprived from an unexpected quarter. Slovakian director Ivan Ostrochovsky’s Servants is set in a Bratislava theological seminary in 1980, where friends Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic) have just been enrolled. Soon after their arrival, someone posts a vaguely anti-authoritarian message on a bulletin board, saying that Christ would have disapproved of his servants affiliating themselves with any kind of political ideology. This is enough to start a witch hunt within the school, with informants among both staff and students, not to mention thuggish government operatives who do not shrink from using torture or even murder to ferret out “subversives.”

At a time when “Mother Russia” is once again using force to build an empire, Servants provides a vivid reminder—one that “religious freedom”-loving US conservatives would particularly benefit from absorbing—of what totalitarian rule really looks like. Dour as it may sound, this is a rather stunning movie in aesthetic terms, almost every one of its Academy-ratio B&W images a knockout. While terse and minimalist in storytelling terms, the Kafka-esque atmosphere nonetheless builds considerable dramatic tension. A 2020 title belatedly getting a US release via virtual cinemas, VOD and Digital platforms from Film Movement, Servants is easily the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2022.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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