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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Matter-of-fact horror of Ukraine war in 'Reflection'

Screen Grabs: Matter-of-fact horror of Ukraine war in ‘Reflection’

Plus: Mascarpone's gay rom-com delight, Nick Cave's macabre ornaments, Christina Ricci's Monstrous, ABBA: The Movie, more

Global events and the demand for streaming content have meant that there’s been an uptick in films from Ukraine of late, though you’ll still have to do a little searching—it’s not going to be at the local multiplex. Most of the films that have gotten some kind of US release recently are about the war, natch, albeit not this year’s Russian full-on invasion. Rather, they portray the slow-burning catastrophe of violent conflict that had already been going on for eight years prior in the borderlands of Eastern Ukraine.

Perhaps the most striking talent to emerge from this uptick in exported features from the region is Valentyn Vasyanovych, whose early work appears to have been largely comedic, but whose films from the last five years are anything but. Indeed, he can make even existential minimalists like Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr look jovial by comparison. His 2019 Atlantis (which just played the New Parkway) was a nightmare vision of the nation’s near-future as a kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland ravaged by years of war. The new Reflection is, conversely, set in 2014, at the start of the Russian-Ukrainian War. Early that year, Putin “annexed” the Crimea from former Soviet republic Ukraine, then pro-Russia separatists in the Donbas region declared “independence” from their own country.

Surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) feels called to serve the Ukrainian cause, perhaps in part because the ex-wife with whom he still co-parents a young daughter is now partnered with a soldier on the frontline. But he is soon captured at an enemy checkpoint, and forced to be complicit as a medico in interrogations and tortures. When he’s released at the film’s midpoint, he must return to “normal” life, even if that now seems scarcely real, or bearable.

Reflection’s somewhat more straightforward story makes it more accessible if also a bit less arresting than near-abstract Atlantis. Yet Vasyanovych’s ascetic style remains the same, as he deploys mostly stationary, widescreen medium-to-longshots whose cool distance render the matter-of-fact presentation of atrocities even more squirm-inducing. The effect is at once alienating and potent, with (as in Atlantis) the thin ray of hope that eventually emerges all the more powerful for the oppressively somber mood around it. These films are specific to Ukraine’s bleak situation, yet they have the same indicting, philosophical universality of a painting by Anselm Kiefer or a novel by Camus. Film Movement released Reflection to limited theaters (none in the Bay Area yet) and virtual cinemas last Fri/6.

Other new streaming releases (plus a couple music-related Roxie Theater programs):

Antonio (Giancarlo Commare) basically lives the life of a housecat: Sleeping as long as he wants, jobless, amusing himself, expecting to be petted. Apparently he trained to be an architect, but he seems to no longer hold any ambitions in that direction, having been involved with the gainfully employed Lorenzo (Carlo Calderone) since he graduated high school 12 years earlier. He’s comfortable, and complacent. So it’s a world-shaking shock when Lorenzo announces they’re finished—he’s actually been involved with someone else for a while, which our oblivious hero didn’t even suspect—and that Antonio needs to start fending for himself.

Assuming this jarring change is just a temporary one, Antonio rents a room in the apartment of flamboyantly promiscuous Denis (Eduardo Valdarnini), then apprentices to baker Luca (Gianmarco Saurino) when he needs rent money. Already thus inclined, he realizes he likes pastry-making enough to possibly make a career of it; having been monogamous his whole life, he also acquires a taste for casual sex. But when a Mr. Right turns up in the form of Thomas (Lorenzo Adorni), these new avenues may have to be reconsidered.

Alessandro Guida and Matteo Pilati’s Italian feature is lightweight, and the attempt to get serious with a third-act crisis feels forced. But at the same time, it’s never frivolous, or divorced from reality like so many indie gay romcoms. There’s something refreshing about its reversing the usual equation of such movies: Rather than True Love providing the inevitable narrative solution, here it’s suggested Antonio may be better off further exploring his own still-new independence before becoming half of a couple again. This very pleasing movie’s debt to Paul Mazursky’s 1978 An Unmarried Woman is made explicit when it closes on a replication of that film’s final scene. Mascarpone is getting released by Dark Star Pictures and Uncork’d Entertainment to US DVD and On Demand platforms on Tues/10.

Horrors: Kids, Zombies, Sheep, Mom
We swept out the trash (after watching about a half hour each of three or four other films you don’t need to know about) and found a quartet of variably horror-ish exercises that in their own way are each ambitious and well-crafted enough to merit a look. Whether they actually reward that effort, though, is a mixed bag.

The clear standout here is The Innocents by Eskil Vogt, best known for his impressive screenplay collaborations with fellow Norwegian Joachim Trier including Oslo, August 31st and the recent Worst Person in the World. This solo writing and directorial venture is more of a genre effort than those films, but it shares their real-world psychological acuteness.

Nine-year-old Ida (Rakel lenora Flottum) has just moved to a suburban high-rise apartment complex with her distracted parents and the bane of her existence, severely autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). She finds companionship in another resentful outsider, Benjamin (Sam Ashraf). Then that trio unexpectedly becomes a quartet when a little girl with vitiligo, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), discovers lines of psychic communication to the suddenly-less-withdrawn Anna—allowing supposedly “normal” kids Ida and Ben to experience some supernatural fun when in their company. But Ida soon realizes Ben’s prickly resentments far exceed her own, and that he’s got the paranormal abilities to truly do harm with them.

The Innocents could be dismissively encapsulated as Kiddie Carrie, or Scanners R Us. But as with a prior slowly-paced Scandinavian horror, Let the Right One In, its fantastical elements are really a metaphorical extension of childhood pain from social exclusion, bad parenting, and so forth. Indeed, your average genre fan probably won’t think there’s horror enough here. But as a psychological thriller taken a few steps further, Vogt’s film is very effective. IFC Midnight is opening it in theaters (including the Roxie) as well as On Demand platforms this Fri/13.

There are no children in Rob Jabbaz’s Taiwanese The Sadness, an incongruous name for a film whose primary tenor is one of screaming panic. Attractive young Taipei couple Jim (Berant Zhu) and Kat (Regina Lei) wake up, have a minor dispute, and separate for just another working day before they realize a virus is already reducing the city to violent chaos. At about the 15-minute mark, the action suddenly cranks to 11, and there’s never any respite again.

This is basically a zombie movie, even if the infected still retain full physical and mental faculties. They abruptly become enthusiastically homicidal, however—not just that, but also sadistic, and rapey. (Which envelope-pushing content explains the deliberate exclusion of child characters here.) It is the latter two elements that truly “distinguish” this very precocious feature directorial debut, and not (to my mind) in a good way. The Sadness is a kick-ass action horror movie with elements of black comedy and a lot of gore. But it’s also such a gratuitously nasty piece of work, I couldn’t enjoy it much after a point. Needless to say, many horror fans will disagree. It begins streaming on genre platform Shudder this Thurs/12.

Jabbaz means to floor us, and for better or worse, he does succeed. By contrast, effort outweighs end result to an awkward extent in Welsh director Russell Owen’s Shepherd film. Moody loner Eric (Tom Hughes) accepts the titular job on a remote island, where things quickly start seeming odd—as his herding dog notices even before he does. Often handsome-looking, the Scottish Highlands-shot thriller nonetheless pours on too much too soon, with a hysteria-prone musical score sounding the alarm as dreams, nightmares, visions, flashbacks, et al. drive isolated Eric over the edge.

Shepherd sometimes seems a mashup of two distinctive recent films with a similar physical setting, Damian McCarthy’s Caveat and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. But where they used judicious restraint in narrative and style, Owens throws in everything but the kitchen sink in terms of currently over-exposed horror tropes. He takes the resulting overheated stew too seriously (complete with an opening quote from Dante’s Inferno), while simultaneously undermining it via gratuitous cutesy “chapter” titles (like “The Trouble With Heights,” belittling our hero’s vertigo). Poor Hughes has to run the gamut of emotions frontwards and backwards for little ultimate reward. Already in limited theatrical release, Shepherd arrives on Digital and On Demand platforms Tues/10.

Christina Ricci is similarly tasked in Monstrous, having to lend hard-taxed emotional earnestness to a labored screenplay’s contrivances. Her Laura is a chipper housewife circa 1960 who’s fled an apparently abusive husband with their reluctantly dragged-along son (Santino Barnard as Cody). But then the rural house they’ve rented seems to come with its own threatening disturbances, not least a shape-shifting monster that emerges each night from a nearby pond.

Ricci is working seriously here, but Carol Chrest’s script hits predictable notes en route to a Big Twist that simply undoes the logic of all preceding horror content, even in fantasy terms. While Chris Sivertson’s direction is competent, it’s also too literal-minded to pull off such sloppy thinking as a conceptually bold leap. The only reason this is a monster movie, it turns out, is because it needs that commercial hook—which it then yanks out from under us, rendering most of Monstrous a ruse that doesn’t even make sense as a ruse. The film is available in limited theaters and On Demand as of Fri/13.

Music movies: Nick Cave, ABBA
The venues are back open, but not everybody is fully ready to rub shoulders with possibly-contagious fellow humanity for the sake of live music. Riding to the rescue are two glorified concert films at the Roxie this week, one new, one 45 years old.

This Much I Know To Be True opens with Nick Cave taking advantage of a UK government initiative to “retrain as a ceramicist” because it’s no longer viable to be a touring musician. Recreating the handiwork of factory-employed Victorian children, he creates a series of macabre Hummel-type ornaments “telling a story in 18 figurines of the Devil.” Well, there you have it: Yet again, this artist purveys “darkness” like a specialty antiques collector, making sardonic tchotchkes much as he’s created music from the borrowed blood-and-thunder of American blues and other idioms. Despite admiring some of his work (especially movie soundtracks), I’ve realized I don’t like Cave, or quite trust him—he’s all about an “authenticity” that is ersatz, a kind of studied homage.

But if you feel otherwise, there is no doubt this second such collaboration with fellow Australian Andrew Dominik (following 2016’s One More Time With Feeling) will seem as good as a concert movie can get. Shot over five days at Battersea Arts Centre during London lockdown, this concert sans live audience is a mournfully elaborate affair with room for one guest star (Marianne Faithfull, briefly present to recite prose), plus a lot of guest players joining Cave and longtime collaborator Warren Ellis. (The latter duo did my favorite Cave-related thing, the original score for Dominik’s great narrative feature The Assassination of Jesse James.) The graceful, atmospheric filmmaking perfectly suits the weighty, solemn pitch of a playlist that gradually grows more energetic—but not too much, and not for long. True is currently playing the Roxie just Wed/11 and Fri/13 (more info here), though one suspects further shows might be added.

There is nothing somber whatsoever about ABBA: The Movie, which is also playing the Roxie (as well as select other theaters nationwide) Thurs/12 and Sat/14 (more info here). It’s the Me Decade Spice World, a cash-in that occurred when some enterprising souls thought to build a thin narrative around 1977 concert footage of the Swedish quartet touring Australia, where they were hugely popular. Of course, ABBA were hugely popular almost everywhere—but evidently not yet enough in the US, because this film didn’t really get distributed here. Now, with the group reunited for its 50th anniversary, it’s finally enjoying a first-ever US wide (if short-term) release.

It’s not a great movie, but it’s better than it needed to be, borrowing a bemused/celebratory attitude towards pop megastardom from A Hard Day’s Night. The fictional storyline revolves around the attempts to get an exclusive interview by a radio DJ who was played by local actor Robert Hughes—later a long-running Aussie sitcom star (on “Hey, Dad!”) and now a longterm convict for child sexual assault convictions. But beyond that: The majority here is a parade of hits performed by the ever-sunny Stockholm act. As with the Cave film, the director in charge is himself a Big Kahuna: It’s Lasse Hallstrom, who’d made many of their pre-MTV promotional clips, but would soon become internationally known for My Life As a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, and so forth.

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