Some variation of “based on a true story” has become so ubiquitous a text at the start of movies in recent years, it’s now a kind of unintentional in-joke. No matter how formulaic or downright absurd the ensuing narrative, there’s often just such a proviso assuring us what we’re about to witness is “real.” Or reality-adjacent? In an alternative universe, at least. (I must give Marvel and DC movies credit for not going this route…. Well, not yet.)
As fictive entertainment seems to get ever more unenlightened—as do many of the entertained, if you know what I mean—one may want to cling to the comparatively irrefutable truths of something like DocLands, the annual nonfiction film festival that returns to the Smith Rafael Film Center in Marin this Thu/5-Sun/8 (and continues through the CAFILM streaming app till Wed/11). Its documentary assortment officially opens and closes with world premieres: Global surfing adventure Savage Waters from Mikey Corker, and Lori Miller’s Living Wine, about No. Cal. winemakers surviving catastrophic wildfires.
In between, there are films about the US battle over education (Let the Little Light Shine), re-rainforestation (The Territory, Tigre Gente), teen spoken-word poets (Our Words Collide), 20th-century African political history (Grandpa Was An Emperor), pro sports (La Guerra Civil), trekking Baja California (Le Recua: The Mule Pack Train), the shocking true story of global warming’s Most Wanted (Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography), Ukraine’s relationship to bad-boyfriend Russia (The Long Breakup), and much more. This sixth edition of California Film Institute’s festival may provide the audiovisual fortification necessary to withstand such imminent threats to gauging reality as an Elon Musk-controlled Twitter and Top Gun: Maverick.
On the other hand, if you’re all in favor of snapping tether, there happen to be plenty of explorations of madness (in disparate forms) hitting local theaters this weekend.
The latest missive from habitual transgressive Gaspar Noe—who claimed he was definitely quitting movies about four movies ago—is dedicated to “All those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” The Argentina-born, France-raised and -based filmmaker evidently suffered a brain hemorrhage a few years ago, which led him to think more seriously about death. The result is this 140-minute drama in which an elderly couple in denial of their disintegrating mental frailty hurtle towards eternity, one bad decision at a time.
The husband (81-year-old cult horror director Dario Argento) is a still-working academic and author caretaking a longtime spouse (Francoise Lebrun, a French screen regular from Eustache and Duras to Desplechin and Schnabel) who cannot remember who he is or what she’s doing from one moment to the other. “That man is following me everywhere” she tells their son (a fine performance by Alex Lutz), whom she asks to take her “home”—failing to recognize that she is home, or that the “man” is her husband. Is she worsening their situation by feeding them both the wrong prescription meds? Yet whatever sympathy we might have towards Monsieur is dwindled by his own difficult personality, and refusal to admit any problem.
This is easily the most humane film Noe has made… but that’s not saying a lot. A compulsive sensationalist alternately brilliant and hollow, sometimes within the same movie, he has previously given us varying degrees of too-much-ness in search of a truth one suspects might have benefitted from laying off the hard stuff a bit. I Stand Alone was over-effortful ultraviolence; Enter the Void hallucinatory drugginess without depth, Love graphic sex without character insight. But then Irreversible is vicious excess somehow poignantly humanized by its reversed narrative chronology, while Climax has a remarkable first act (who expected him to be so good at filming dance?!?), no matter that it later degenerates into dumb shock cinema.
Vortex, presented almost entirely in split-screen, is a miserabilist tale that might’ve turned wicked black comedy in other hands. But Noe doesn’t have a sense of humor. Nor does he like people enough to render their senile distress touching. This is a rather tough and unpleasant watch, even a bit grueling—and like every Noe joint, more than halfway to being a horror movie. I’d like to think he’s got something to say about humanity, but once again it seems he’s mostly got something that should be worked out on a therapist’s couch. Vortex opens Fri/6 at the Opera Plaza.
Woes Betide: ‘Hatching,’ ‘World’s Fair’
Two new movies that really do tilt the scales towards horror—though both retain an ambivalent balance—center on young women losing their figurative religion in an oppressive psychic landscape. Interpreted whichever way, it ain’t pretty.
Director Hanna Bergholm and writer Ilja Rausi’s Hatching is an indictment of shit parenting so blunt you can’t miss it. The desperately eager-to-please child of a horrifically vain mum (Sophia Heikkila), pubescent gymnast Tinja (Siiri Solalinna) rebels by rescuing an egg presumably hatched by a bird Ma destroyed when when it interrupted her “ordinary Finnish family” photo-op. But when that object hatches, it proceeds to avenge itself on all Tinja’s real or imagined enemies, like a vicious Id.
This pretentious creature feature has won some critical plaudits. But I found it neither quite surreal or naturalistic enough to work as fantasy or emotional truth—though it’s well made and very deliberate in its choices. Hatching opens this Fri/6 at area theaters including the Metreon and Opera Plaza, arriving on Digital and On Demand platforms May 17.
Even more laudable in the abstract is Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, in which teen protagonist Casey (Anna Cobb) declares “I love horror movies and I thought it would be cool to live in one.” Ergo she repeats a mantra that purportedly invites a malevolent spirit in, a la Candyman, while playing what’s supposedly “the internet’s scariest online horror game.” Eventually a long-distance dude appears online to offer “help.” It does not actually help matters that Casey seems to live in a remote rural area, without any apparent friends or responsible adult supervision.
This does not go the way you might expect, whether the expectation be “crazy blood-soaked horror” or her would-be helper’s assumed pederastic creepiness. One of the more interesting projects conceived and filmed under COVID lockdown conditions, World’s Fair ultimately bucks in a direction not entirely predictable, if also somewhat anticlimactic. It’s got something—even if I wasn’t particularly won over. Amidst a smattering of other recent Bay Area dates, it opens at the Roxie Sat/7.
On the other hand, it’s very hard to dislike Mira Nair’s admittedly muscle-relaxed multicultural 1991 romcom set in the shifting landscape of the American South. Sarita Choudhury played the child of Indian-heritage emigres who’d bought into the regional hotel industry; Denzel Washington played the local golden boy surprised to find he’s “forbidden fruit” by her family’s standards.
Nair had already made better films (Salaam Bombay!) and has since made worse ones. But Masala, which opens at the Roxie in a restored print this Fri/6, is the kind of movie that is not particularly good yet somehow better than “good.” It is memorable. Not least amongst its qualities is Washington’s performance. Sure, he’d already been excellent in Glory, The Mighty Quinn, Cry Freedom and A Soldier’s Story, not to mention broadcast series “St. Elsewhere.” But his laying-on-the-charm here was the first time I thought “Good god, this man is a born movie star.” It opens a regular run at the Roxie on Fri/6.
Escape the Field
This new indie thriller has a premise so reliably intriguing, variations have been used by numerous other movies, novels, TV shows et al. in recent years: Several complete strangers wake up in an unfamiliar environment with no idea how they got there, realizing soon enough that they are forced participants in some kind of elimination game from which few if any will survive.
First to experience that unpleasant awakening is nurse-smocked Sam (Jordan Claire Robbins), who finds herself in a cornfield clearing, a gun and single bullet by her side. She’s soon joined by Tyler (Theo Rossi from “Sons of Anarchy”), then a handful of equally panicked and bewildered others, each of whom has likewise been given one item of presumed necessity. Without provisions, they spend whole days attempting to find a “way out”—yet somehow there seems no end to this field. Inspiring more dread than their own mutual distrust are the periodic sounds of a siren, which seem to herald one member of the party being dragged off to their death by a fleetingly glimpsed “monster.” Of course, random “clues” found by the dwindling group en route seem to promise a solution to the lethal “puzzle.”
But Emerson Moore’s competently made and acted film finally frustrates the very reasonable expectation that all this mysterioso running in circles will finally lead somewhere. Nor is Escape frightening or atmospheric enough to make the journey worthwhile despite its ambiguous destination. We’ve been down this particular wormhole before (in, for instance, the more visually interesting Cube), and need more than a narrative dead end to make that plunge worthwhile again. Lionsgate is releasing to limited theaters as well as Digital and On Demand platforms Fri/6.