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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: For the love of Monica

Screen Grabs: For the love of Monica

A tribute to Italian screen siren Monica Vitti, two Davids (Lynch and Cronenberg) face off, 'Hold Your Fire,' more movies

Beauty meets a couple of beasts in two revival events spotlighting three cinematic greats this weekend. Fri/20 brings to SF’s Brava Theater Center “Monica, Amore Nostro” (i.e. Monica, Our Beloved) an evening’s tribute to the great Italian star Monica Vitti, who passed away at age 90 this last February. While most female stars of that nation’s postwar celluloid heyday—from Silvana Mangano through Loren, Lollabrigida and Laura Antonelli—won fame as tempestuous bombshells, Rome native Vitti (originally Maria Luisa Ceciarelli) provided a cooler, more intellectual, even neurotic object of desire, in line with the quintessential early-1960s art films she came to be associated with.

At least that was the case in the four movies she made then with Michelangelo Antonioni, with whom she was also involved romantically at the time. 1960’s L’avventura fascinated and infuriated audiences with its deliberately cryptic tale of a missing woman and those she leaves behind—notably an ambivalent Vitti, who drifts into an affair with her MIA best friend’s lover even as they search for her. It prepared viewers for the similarly complex, moody, non-plot-driven views of modern life and its disenchantments in La notte (1961), Eclipse (1962) and Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert (1964).

All these featured Vitti, though a bit oddly, the Italian Cultural Institute event has chosen to show La notte—the one in which she does not star, but is just a brief interloper in the marital malaise of leads Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. Regardless, it’s a fine demonstration of the director’s art.

After Desert, auteur and muse parted ways (at least until 1980’s underwhelming, video-shot The Mystery of Oberwald), with Vitti now turning to projects very different in tone. Suddenly a flair for comedy defined her career, whether in international productions like Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise or in the many homegrown farces that kept her a box-office star for many years in Italy.

A movie which really secured that status but remains little-known abroad (despite an Oscar nomination that year) is Mario Monicelli’s 1968 The Girl with a Pistol aka La ragazza con la pistola. Opening the Brava event with a rare screening, it’s a madcap gem with Vitti as a stone-faced Sicilian woman who sets off in pursuit of the local rake (Carlo Giuffre) who seduced and abandoned her.

The film spoofs the archaic rigidity of Sicilian customs (esp. as applied to gender roles), setting our humorless, black-clad heroine in hedonistic color explosion of Swinging London, where she learns to liberate herself, after a fashion. If the very serious La notte allows Vitti to be livelier than usual for Antonioni, antic Pistol sees her adopting a dour deadpan—to hilarious effect. She was, indeed, a great comedienne, and this is one of her best vehicles as such.

Co-presented with BAMPfA, “Monica, Amore Nostro” will feature introductions by host Enrico Magretti, a well-known Italian film critic and author. For full event and ticket info, go here.

Meanwhile at the Roxie, the same night will see the start of a three-day “contest” between “two cinematic heavyweights” under the match title David Lynch vs. David Cronenberg. (There will also individual-feature encore screenings through Thurs/27.) These dueling Davids are both still active in their late 70s, transitioned from experimental work to mainstream features as idiosyncratic as the system could bear, and while their bodies of work are very different, they share a penchant for the sinister, surreal, and body-horrorific.

“Round 1” really delivers on that last count with a double bill of Lynch’s B&W midnight movie classic Eraserhead (1977) and the Canuck’s first US feature Videodrome (1983). Next (on Sat/21) it’s Cronenberg’s icky, sticky ’86 remake of sci-fi horror The Fly and 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the still-divisive big-screen prequel to the TV series that (briefly) made Lynch an unlikely king of trending pop culture. Finally, spice up for two head-clutching literary adaptations: There’s Lynch’s singular if seldom-loved 1984 version of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the other guy’s 1996 Crash, the highly controversial, grotesquely outre version of J.G. Ballard’s “unfilmable” novel.

For info on the whole series, which is co-presented by Amoeba Music, go here.

Some new releases to local theaters and to streaming:

Breathing While Black: Two New Films
With the Buffalo shootings last weekend underlining that openly racist rhetoric is now at a pitch unheard in the US since the Civil Rights Movement era, two very different new films seem especially timely. Both
deal with Black protagonists facing white (and especially police) hostility—one in documentary form, the other a black comedy fiction.

A forgotten Dog Day Afternoon-type incident in Brooklyn almost half a century ago is the subject of Hold Your Fire. Told almost exclusively through archival footage (because it was a major news event at the time), plus the latterday recollections of surviving participants, Stefan Forbes’ film is a tense, sad story of a stupidly conceived crime that rapidly went south, yet could easily have turned even more disastrous.

Four young African-American men, terrified by violence recently directed towards Sunni Muslims like them by Nation of Islam forces (including a DC home invasion massacre that January), decided in 1973 they needed guns to defend themselves. For whatever reason, they also decided they’d get those guns by robbing a sporting goods store. But as they bungled around inside, police were already gathering outside, so the would-be thieves couldn’t leave. Stuck, they took hostages, and the incident became a standoff that lasted 47 grueling hours after an initial exchange of gunfire left one cop dead and one participant gravely wounded.

The unreconstructed hostility of the interviewed police officers decades later suggests the robbers were correct: If they’d simply exited the building as requested, they would have died in a hail of bullets. Complicating things further was the four men’s ties to the Black Liberation Army, a revolutionist group. Fortunately (albeit to the fury of those aforementioned officers), NYPD opted to put the situation in control of one Harvey Schlossberg—a crisis negotiator, something more or less unheard of at the time. His training would go on to become a gold standard, arguably saving tens of thousands of lives in hostage/crisis incidents, just as he saved several here. But as closing text points out, few US police today are schooled in such tactics. A thoroughly absorbing flashback with many applicable lessons for us now, Hold Your Fire opens Fri/20 at SF’s Presidio Theater, simultaneously releasing to On Demand platforms.

Contrastingly jaunty—to a point—is Emergency, the Sundance-premiered fiction feature from director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Davila. It starts out like a typical campus comedy, with studious Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) trying not to get dragged into any mess by trouble-magnetizing best friend Sean (RJ Cyler). Nonetheless, Kunle agrees to a “legendary tour” of seven exclusive term-end parties—a plan derailed before it starts, when the two young men come home to find a young, blonde, very white woman inert on their living room floor. Stoner housemate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) has no idea how she got there, either. We soon do, though: Noxious, princessy fellow student Maddie (Sabrina Carpenter) let little sister Emma (Maddie Nichols) get hammered at a party, and was too preoccupied to notice her toddling off to pass out in a stranger’s house.

When she does realize Emma is missing, however, she automatically assumes the girl has been abducted, tracking her via phone GPS. Meanwhile the lads, relieved to discover their uninvited guest is just drunk (i.e. not dead), yet petrified by the many red flags their predicament (three men of color + unconscious, underage white girl) will likely raise for any nosy/hysterical onlooker, wonder what to do. Finally they decide to take her to the hospital. But things keep going wrong, then wronger, then wrong-est. Misunderstandings, poor judgment calls, and frequent collective panic threaten to turn this into another “oopsie!” scenario in which unarmed but “suspicious” Black people end up dead.

This is one of those “giant pileup of dumb behaviors” stories that gets less and less plausible even as we’re meant to take it more and more seriously. It’s always entertaining, with an admirably sobered, non-hyperbolic conclusion. But it is also dominated by two characters (Sean, Maddie) so argumentative, antagonistic, and wrongheaded that it becomes a movie about the dangers of hanging out with assholes—as opposed to the intended clever meditation on racial presumptions, #MeToo, political correctitude, and other pressing sociopolitical issues. Expanding the writer and director’s prize-winning 2018 short of the same title, Emergency is at once fun and frustrating, slick and over-contrived, admirable for a tonal balancing act it admittedly often strains to maintain. It opens Fri/20 at the Opera Plaza, Shattuck Cinemas and Rafael Film Center; next Fri/27 it’s available on Amazon Prime.

Mondocane
Monica Vitti was about to commence a gradual retirement from the screen in 1981, when The Road Warrior’s global success triggered just about the last in a long time of Italian copycat exploitation-movie cycles. The resulting brief clutter of cheap, mostly dull post-apocalyptic adventure flicks springs to mind because this new film by hitherto TV-focused writer-director Alessandro Celli is vaguely in the same terrain—though less cheesily so. Indeed, it’s equidistant between Mad Max territory and something like Children of Men, with a little Bicycle Thieves and Prayer of the Rollerboys thrown in.

Pietro aka Dogworld (Dennis Protopapa) and Cristian aka Pisspants (Giuliano Soprano) are barely-teenaged orphan boys who’ve scraped along by their wits in a resource-depleted near future where the lucky, moneyed “have’s” live in relative comfort. For everybody else, the options consist of slave labor, scavenging, and/or slow death by environmental contamination. When their combative alliance with an old fisherman comes to an end, the boys try to join The Ants, a quasi-revolutionist “gang” that’s equal parts Burning Man, commune, boot camp, and Billy Jack-style Free School, with a mass of juvenile acolytes controlled by the aptly-named Hothead (Alessandro Borghi). The latter’s mechanizations, reeling between benevolence and brutality, ultimately drives a wedge between the two BFFs.

Mondocane (whose name recalls another Italian film subgenre, the sensationalist “mondo” quasi-documentaries of the 1960s) is full of ideas and homages. They never quite add up to a coherent whole, or point, though it’s well-crafted. The very young, inexperienced leads (also including Barbara Ronchi as Sabrina) impressively hold their own—though this movie is also rendered a bit silly by being a poker-faced survival drama-action film whose protagonists appear to be 12-year-olds. Neither fish nor fowl, essentially serious-minded yet often hard to take very seriously, Mondocane is an ambitious, watchable dystopian fantasy that works…almost. It opens Fri/20 at the Opera Plaza and Albany Twin.

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