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Saturday, April 1, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Elvis'? We'd rather watch 'Clambake'

Screen Grabs: ‘Elvis’? We’d rather watch ‘Clambake’

Plus: Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes, Flux Gourmet, Gatlopp: Hell of a Game, more new movies reviewed

The big noise in theaters this week—and I’m sure it will be loud AF—is Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, the musical biopic phantasmagoria that premiered at Cannes last month to decidedly mixed reviews. Though mildly curious, I’ll admit to being no fan of the Australian writer-director-producer-champion of too-muchness, who to me exemplifies the notion of “all icing and no cake.”

Strictly Ballroom was OK, but Romeo + Juliet was mostly about fussy decor. I’ve never managed to get past the “Ken Russell on MTV steroids” overkill of Moulin Rouge!’s first act, and sitting through all three hours of cliche-encyclopedia Australia was a scarring experience, though you must grudgingly admire any movie that can trivialize an entire continent. I avoided his Great Gatsby because I value that novel. His touring live “La Boheme” was actually very enjoyable, which perhaps only underlined that his particular gifts for spangly clutter are better suited to art forms where the ADHD aesthetic is forced to slow down a bit.

The real Elvis did, and does, lend himself to kitsch pastiche—you haven’t lived until you’ve seen faithfully preserved, expensively terrible taste of Graceland’s interiors, with its “jungle room” and acid-flashback-inducing pool table niche. But even the terminology of the favorable early reviews suggested this movie might be migraine-inducing. And the less-favorable ones (“It’s not a movie so much as a 159-minute trailer for a film called Elvis—a relentless, frantically flashy montage, epic and yet negligible at the same time, with no variation of pace…” etc.) were enough to keep me at a safe distance. If you’re so inclined, go thou and enjoy. I’d rather re-watch Clambake.

As a tribute of sorts, however, we’re surveying some other new movies that go out on a limb of some sort, pursuing the fantastical, apocalyptic, eccentric and/or excessive—though all of them combined, I suspect, would only tally up to a fraction of Luhrmann’s King-ly budget.

Dawn Breaks Behind the Eyes
Probably the most successfully offbeat of new arrivals is this elaborate homage to the intersection between arthouse and exploitation cinema in European movies of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Austrian-Sri Lankan director Kevin Kopacka is a painter as well as a filmmaker, and he definitely approaches this medium like a conceptual artist. The Escher-like narrative, always curling in on itself, begins with Margot (Luisa Taraz) inheriting a decrepit family “castle”—it’s really more of a mansion—which she visits with pushily mansplaining husband Dieter (Frederik von Luttichau).

What ensues is a mixture of bizarre, astringent character psychology and giallo-style logic gaps, the menacing atmosphere recalling everything from Barbara Steele movies and 1965 sleaze classic Bloody Pit of Horror to Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery. (Meanwhile, the soundtrack straddles Goblin and Morricone.) But midway even that baroque reality is suddenly revealed to be a film within the film, though the onscreen professionals making it seem doomed to re-live its fictive horrors. Need we say “LSD-soaked wrap party climax”? A genre homage that also transcends genre, this German-produced whatsit may demand a fairly high level of esoteric cinephilia to be fully grokked, but it is, well, coolsville. Dark Sky Pictures is releasing it to digital platforms on Fri/24.

Flux Gourmet
English writer-director Peter Strickland explored similar terrain to the above in Berberian Sound Studio a decade ago, then paid tribute to retro Euro erotica in The Duke of Burgundy, and pushed his genre-trash referentiality further towards the outlandish in 2018’s In Fabric (about a literal “killer dress” passed from one ill-fated owner to another). This latest is the most overtly surreal and satirical yet, though you might argue that the shallow depths of this idiosyncratic auteur’s imagination are beginning to reveal themselves.

At a spacious country estate (where nonetheless guests are crowded dormitory-style into shared bedrooms), aristocratically gracious Jan Stevens (Gwendoline Christie) presides over a historied program of funding “culinary residencies” for groups exploring “sonic cooking”—which appears to be a mix of gooey kitchen experimentation, musique concrete, and ’70s-style gallery performance art. There are also elements of drama therapy, as well as ritualized orgies.

The current beneficiaries of this arrangement are a collective consisting of the obnoxious, ungrateful, inept yet rigid Elle di Elle (Fatma Mohamed), who regularly blames her own screwups on flunkies Billy (Asa Butterfield) and Lamina (Ariane Labed). Chronicling their efforts for institutional posterity is a hirsute Greek called Stones (Makis Papadimitriou), whose significant gastrointestinal issues are simultaneously being addressed by the off-puttingly acidic Dr. Glock (Richard Bremmer). Meanwhile, a spurned rival collective keeps pulling destructive “pranks” to derail this residency.

Always attracted to the grotesque, Strickland ultimately takes this bizarre scenario where you’d expect—the logical culinary extreme being cannibalism—with plenty of absurd detours en route. Flux Gourmet is sometimes quite funny, particularly in the secret affair that develops between Jan and Billy. The performers are admirably committed, especially the director’s regulars Mohamed and Christie (from “Game of Thrones”). But as it reels between the gross and the arch over nearly two hours’ course, the movie’s self-conscious, self-contained quirkiness begins to seem less a means of creative liberation than a box the director has cornered himself into.

Like Cronenberg’s recent Crimes of the Future, it’s a unique yet airless world whose creator now seems to be repeating himself. IFC Midnight is releasing to limited theaters and On Demand platforms Fri/24; the film also plays the Alamo Drafthouse on July 10.

End of the World Games: Gatlopp, Revealer
Two less-upscale ventures on the narrative wild side find trapped characters dealing with matters of life-and-death urgency—and even beyond, into the potential hellfire of eternity.

In Luke Boyce’s Revealer, which begins streaming on genre platform Shudder Thurs/23, two young women’s natural enmity turns into a forced alliance. Showing up to work as an exotic dancer at a peep show-adult bookstore-type joint, Angie (Caito Aase) must run a familiar gauntlet of evangelical protestors, including shrill, prudish Sally (Shaina Schrooten). Then Judgment Day happens, or something. The sparring duo find themselves stuck inside, trying to find a way out that doesn’t lead to oblivion. When not busy fending off CGI snake monsters and one devil dude with ram’s horns, they discover they have more in common than they thought.

The dully earnest sharing of confidences and self-doubts towards unlikely sisterhood, as well as the claustrophobic setting, make Revealer play out like a not-very-good stage script (Tim Seely and Michael Moreci are the writers) awkwardly trying to pass as a cinematic horror fantasy. Our heroines do eventually get somewhere, we’re given to understand. But it feels like their movie goes nowhere for 86 very long minutes.

Considerably livelier is Gatlopp: Hell of a Game. Its protagonists are a quartet of thirtysomething old friends who’ve drifted off into their own orbits, reuniting for an evening to support Paul (Jim Mahoney, also the screenwriter), whose wife just left him. Seeking any excuse to get collectively wasted, they decide to play the titular mysterious board game, a truth-or-dare thingie with drinking prompts. But it soon starts asking disturbingly personalized questions. By the half-hour mark, they find they’ve been swept into some kind of supernatural limbo from which they cannot escape until the game is played out—if they can survive that long.

A feature directorial debut for Alberto Belli, Gatlopp feels a bit too much like an audition for bigger/better projects—as far as a modest budget allows, it throws every cinematic trick in the book at us, to high-energy if sometimes grating effect. The humorously random action is fun at times, as when the characters abruptly find themselves in a 1980s-style televised jazzercise competition. But the movie is also less clever than it thinks, and we’re expected to be touched by revelations of personal faults and fibs that are all too trite. The result gets an A for effort, but docked a grade or two for being so effortful. XYZ Films released the feature to On Demand and Digital platforms last week.

On an entirely different plane, there’s this Canadian first feature by writer-director Bretten Hannam. It’s got nothing at all to do with the fantastical, or with stylistic excesses—but hey, it’s Gay Pride Weekend, and relevant in that regard. Lincoln aka Link (Philip Lewitski) is a hard-nosed teen living in rural Nova Scotia with younger half-brother Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony)—under the roof, unfortunately, of their drunken, violently abusive father (Joel Thomas Hynes).

When Link realizes Dad has been lying all this time about his mother being dead, he and Travis make a run for it. During an initially rudderless search for the missing mom, they acquire some new friends, including a young pow wow dancer (Joshua Odjick), a sly older pastry chef (Michael Greyeyes), a drag queen named Mother Mary (John R. Sylliboy), and others who help connect Link with his neglected Mi’kmaw tribal heritage.

Though handsomely shot, Wildhood is tough-minded enough to avoid seeming like typical coming-out movie romantic wish-fulfillment—even though Lewitsky (who’s introduced dying his hair blond) somewhat resembles Jan-Michael Vincent, and his  love interest Odjick an old-school Keanu. There’s not a lot of plot here, yet the low-key film never seems aimless, and its style is reserved without becoming mannered. Canada has put a lot of real institutional support into indigenous-peoples cinema, something sorely lacking in the US. This solid, sympathetic drama is just the latest happy result of that cultural advocacy. Wildhood begins streaming on Hulu Fri/24.

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