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Monday, February 6, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Fantastical action in 'The Lost City' and...

Screen Grabs: Fantastical action in ‘The Lost City’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

Plus: caustic Israeli 'Ahed's Knee,' Brazil's enigmatic 'Madalena,' and alarming knockout 'Topside.'

The two big movies opening this weekend are both variably fantastical action comedies—and both, oddly, directed by directorial duos going under a single name (and who give themselves cameo roles). The starrier of the two is “the Nees’” (i.e. brothers Aaron and Adam Nee) The Lost City, a flashback to the semi-parodic Battle of the Sexes adventures like Romancing the Stone that sprang up in Indiana Jones’ original wake. Sandra Bullock plays a romance novelist on a book tour, with Channing Tatum as the Fabio-haired (only it’s a wig) book-cover model annoyingly sharing that spotlight. When she’d kidnapped by a rich nutcase (Daniel Radcliffe) who thinks she can help him find an ancient treasure on a tropical island, her promotional himbo thinks he can ride to the rescue, like the dashing hero he poses as on paperback jackets.

Needless to say, this all goes very wrong in a sort of jungle-slapstick way. City is amiable if uninspired, too loyal to rom-com conventions to really send them (or any other genre) up, rendering a ripe satirical opportunity never more than mildly humorous. Nor is the action anything special; the film is pleasant enough, but it could use a jolt of energy. Radcliffe, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Brad Pitt (in an extended guest spot as a real Fabio-haired swashbuckler type) lead a support cast that’s game but doesn’t get the material to excel. Still, you could do worse.

A much more adventurous adventure in conceptual and stylistic terms is Everything Everywhere All at Once from “the Daniels,” co-writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Their prior joint feature Swiss Army Man (which also featured Radcliffe) was a strenuous novelty whose achievement felt a little like air guitar to me, though some certainly loved it. Seven years later (during which span Scheinert made the equally outre ’n’ effortful The Death of Dick Long), they’re back with another very meta comedy, albeit on a much larger scale.

Evelyn Wang (Malaysia-born veteran Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh) is reaching critical mass in terms of a lifetime’s built-up disappointments. Born to privilege, she married for love, ending up running a lowly laundry business with a hapless husband (Ke Huy Quan). Her long-estranged father (James Hong) will surely disapprove of everything during his imminent visit, including the fact that his granddaughter (Stephanie Hsu) is in a lesbian relationship. Everything seems to be falling apart, including Evelyn’s marriage—and on top of it all, the government is threatening to close down the business over tax discrepancies.

When the entire family traipses downtown to meet with the ill-tempered IRS auditor (an unrecognizably spinstered-out Jamie Lee Curtis), however, fate has yet another curveball in store. Suddenly, the Daniels’ latest turns into one of those “Only this seemingly mediocre individual can save the entire universe from a ruthless evil!” fantasies… with incredulous Evelyn turning out to be the Chosen One. She must adapt quickly not just to that notion, but the idea that all the parallel lives she might have lived are available to be “verge-jumped” into—and must be, for her to, y’know, save the day.

The aptly titled Everything Everywhere starts throwing the FX-riddled works at you almost immediately, its ADD mixture of prank and puzzle-making even something like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World look relatively straightforward. Some will doubtless find cosmic significance in connecting the many, many dots here, though to me the cleverness seemed entirely surface-bound, and the aura of woo-woo “deeper mystery” just as much a feint it is in the more pokerfaced primary inspiration here, The Matrix.

Still, even if a closer inspection does make the Daniels’ self-consciously dazzling phantasmagoria look like (to quote one character) a “pointless swirling bucket of bullshit,” it is inventive and playful in ways wildly non-formulaic by current commercial-cinema standards. It’s as if Christopher Nolan and a particularly hyperactive videogame had a baby—a baby with a sense of humor. As it happens, I don’t much love Nolan or videogames. But this film is going to make a lot of people who do very, very happy for 139 minutes…even if the rest of us might find its incessant funhouse less exhausting it at, say, 89 minutes.

Other notable films opening this weekend are much more stripped-down, sober affairs:

Ahed’s Knee
Well, maybe “sober” isn’t exactly the right word for Israeli auteur Nadav Lapid’s latest, which won a jury prize at Cannes last year. Nor is “stripped-down” apt for a film so often irritatingly mannered and self-conscious, with show-offy digressions of a mostly-musical nature that begin with a karaoke rendition of “Welcome to the Jungle.” His last flim Synonyms gave fair warning, being a somewhat maddening Rorschach of conflicted cultural identity as a young man just out of Israeli Army service tried to lose himself in Paris. But that character’s performance-art-like rebellions against the love/hate pull of home seem larky beside the bile in which the writer-director’s protagonist marinates here.

Avshalom Pollak plays a filmmaker very much intended to be confused with his creator: Another maker of acclaimed, divisive, “difficult” art films with a broad streak of sociopolitical critique directed at his native Israel itself. He’s flown from liberal enclave Tel Aviv to show a recent work at a remote desert town near the Jordan border, having been invited by a gushing admirer, local librarian and cultural-events programmer Yahalom (Nurk Fibak). He flirts with her even as he spits venom at the “Jewish, nationalistic, racist state” that’s bankrolled his trip, calling its “morality is a complete fraud.”

Needless to say, you can be quite certain this wee professional vacay is not going to end well. The director-guest “Y.” will implode, being sure to scatter the flames of his mingled rage and self-loathing on everyone within reach. Or as the script has him inelegantly put it, he’ll “Puke Israel out of me with a scream.”

Well, subtlety is not a priority for Lapid, though his blunt instrument does adopt some intriguingly perverse techniques. It’s hard not to admire the chutzpah that drives this 8 1/2 of self-abnegation, nor to admit that this kind of caustic celluloid rant is perhaps a natural form of reflection for this particular nation today. Ahed’s Knee (named after a controversial real-life teenage protestor “Y.” is considering making his next project about) may be cathartic for Israelis, their international supporters (both current and ex-), and not least for the filmmaker himself.

But his cri de coeur is rough sledding for the rest of us. Like his fictive alter ego, Lapid is the kind of provocateur whose accusatory masochism feels smug—his assumption of superiority is a lot more palpable than the evidence of it that his alternately fussy and in-ya-face art provides. Ahed’s Knee opens Fri/25 at local theaters including the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas.

Madalena
Almost excessively retrained by contrast is this cryptic first feature by Madiano Marcheti. It begins with emus foraging in a soya field, unconcerned or unaware that there’s a dead human body in their midst. We soon glean the corpse belongs to Madalena (Chloe Milan), a trans woman in this agricultural community. Yet just what happened to her remains a mystery, as the film instead focuses successively on others living on in what had been the victim’s world: A club hostess (Natalia Mazarim) who’d known her; a rich owner’s son (Rafael de Bona) who might have had something to do with the death; and friend Bianca (Pamella Yulle), another trans woman in this seemingly unlikely place. There is a certain ease to these people’s social interactions that might suggest tolerance is widespread hereabouts—but a closing text notes that Brazil has the highest rate of trans murders in the world.

These narrative panels may reveal frustratingly little about the central enigma. But they do shed light on everyday lives, the society they live in, and the strains of politicized poison being absorbed via campaign ads and sensationalized news media. While Madalena’s best feature is its excellent cinematography, the whole package presents a perspective fresh (if not entirely satisfying) on a culture both familiar and strange in its variably dramatic contrasts. It opens at the Roxie on Fri/25.

Topside
The perils of living on society’s margins, whether by choice or not, get painted in terms as harrowingly vivid in this new US indie feature as they are opaquely drawn in Madalena. Its starting premise may recall a documentary from 2000, Dark Days, which provided a glimpse at a vanished community: Homeless people who lived in the underground tunnels of Manhattan. They were subsequently evicted by city authorities, something that at the beginning here hasn’t yet happened to fictive figures Nikki (Celine Held) and her 5-year-old daughter Little (Zhaila Farmer).

Their fragile existence has found berth in a disused subway corridor. How they came to that, we don’t know—though we discern it has probably had something to do with mom’s drug habit. We also soon realize Nikki has been ignoring ample notices warning of an imminent site clearance by MTA workers. When they arrive, this precipitates a crisis, with the duo forced to go “topside,” where Little has scarcely if ever been before. It’s a disorienting, terrifying experience for her, one mom is not equipped to ease. This trauma is eventually compounded by a separation at once accidental and inevitable.

There are few things more alarming to witness onscreen than credible child endangerment. The recent Belgian import Playground seemed pretty intense in that department. Yet its bullying travails are minor-league compared to what transpires in Topside, whose impact might be roughly summarized as Beasts of the Southern Wild meets Requiem for a Dream. Young lead Farmer (a non-professional found when her family showed up at a church-held audition, looking for a soup kitchen) is remarkably natural, adding to a documentary-like feel heightened by improvised dialogue and gritty location shooting.

This is a first feature for co-directors Held and Logan George, and while small, it is something of a knockout. The much longer, more elaborate Everything Everywhere may turn a laundromat into an existential amusement park, but Topside really puts you through the wringer—and takes you somewhere specific you won’t forget.

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