With local film venues getting scarce—OK, not the worst of problems facing our nation today, but still—you could do your patriotic duty by spending later Independence Day at Smoke & Mirrors: A Midsummer Benefit for Other Cinema, Mon/4. That last-named showcase for experimental and “personal cinema” is in immediate financial need after 37 years, so the usual party atmosphere of its weekly calendar screenings will be traded for a one-time actual party featuring three live bands (The Clog, Combo, Vivian Panache) plus 16mm “cult-cinema selections.”
The latter will include Paul Bartel’s original 1975 Death Race 2000, whose hitting-and-running stars include post-Kung Fu, pre-Kill Bill David Carradine, pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone, and the perpetually great Mary Woronov. There’s also Gamera the Invincible, the 1966 Japanese monster mash in its imported American form, complete with conspicuously slumming Hollywood actors, a cool rock theme song, and petty squabbling betwixt indignant military Murricans and those conniving Soviets. It was the first vehicle for the fire-breathing flying giant turtle (played by a man in a rubber suit, natch) thawed from Arctic hibernation by nuclear blast, and the only such to ever get Stateside release.
The “hybrid holiday event” also promises an “eccentric cabaret vibe” plus “dazzling strobe lights throbbing through the delightful swirls from our smoke machines,” which sensory disorientation seems an utterly right way to conclude July 4 this year. Details on Monday’s 8pm Artists Television Access fete are here
The major theatrical openings this week are all in the realm of colorful fantasy. Mr. Malcolm’s List offers plush Regency-era romantic intrigue in a mode of Jane Austen imitation, albeit with Bridgerton-style diversity of casting giving the upper-class past an inclusive makeover. It certainly does cater to that aristocratic-lifestyle-porn jones with sumptuous settings and all, though the arch, contrived tenor makes you realize that one reason we still value Austen today is because she makes such frippery look easy—when in fact it is very hard to pull off, and failing to do so results in the intended fancy confection tasting more like a Hostess Twinkie. Then there are two ‘toons, the franchise sequel Minions: The Rise of Gru and more idiosyncratic Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, a feature extension of comedienne Jenny Slate’s stop-motion shorts.
In the realm of modern-dress live action, there are some interesting movies new to theaters and/or streaming:
Summer offers at least some respite from what’s increasingly become a nearly year-round “awards season,” with speculation and campaigns and actual best-lists cluttering pretty much the entire rest of the calendar. This new Spanish-Argentine coproduction is a satire of the people whose egos have become very, very dependent on that kind of art-world self-congratulation. When an aging billionaire tycoon (Jose Luiz Gomez) decides he needs to leave something behind for posterity to burnish his reputation, he rather arbitrarily hits on the idea of funding a movie. Of course, it must be a Very Important Movie, with only the best elements money can buy: A Pulitzer-winning novel as source material, an imperious critically-acclaimed director, the two biggest star… well, biggest in Spain, at least.
The tycoon may have a world-class ego, but his vanity project now sports “talent” that will make him look like an amateur in that regard. Gathering at a sleek, cold corporate HQ for rehearsals, the participants are, naturally, soon at each others throats—even these oversized empty rooms aren’t big enough for one alpha “creative,” let alone three competing ones. Vain, vacuous popular idol Felix (Antonio Banderas) and humorless artiste Ivan (Argentine actor Oscar Martinez) immediately take their roles as brothers in conflict to heart, seeking each other’s approval while privately whining how much they hate, hate, hate that guy. Prestigious auteur Lola (Penelope Cruz) alternately coddles and manipulates them, her own artistic “process” often bordering on the perverse.
Competition’s real-life Argentine writing-directing duo Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, whose last big-screen collaboration was the claustrophic social commentary-cum-thriller 4×4 (which we reviewed last year here), have evidently been around this particular block more than a few times. Their depiction of temperamental near-insanity under the cloak of Art feels based on actual experience even when most outlandish, managing the neat trick of often being acidly hilarious without ever quite crossing into caricature. It certainly helps that the three stars are in great form, limning unsympathetic characters in terms more comedically concise than flamboyantly obvious.
Likewise, the filmmakers’ tenor is droll, their staging restrained even when the action (like a kissing sound-test sequence, or a scene where bad things happen to treasured awards) is close to slapstick. Its indictment of extreme privilege somewhat recalling Ruben Ostlund’s (The Square, Force Majeure) satirical dissections, Official Competition is a sneaky movie—an elegant, seemingly detached objet d’art that nonetheless delivers some of the biggest laughs I’ve had all year. it opens Fri/1 at the Roxie, Opera Plaza, Albany Twin, Piedmont, Rafael Film Center, and other area theaters.
An entirely different kind of detachment is the subject of this slight, curious but engaging Greek feature from writer-director Christos Nikou. One day our bearded, 40-ish protagonist (Aris Servetalis) exits his apartment, boards a bus, falls asleep, and upon waking cannot remember who he is or where he was going. Apparently such sudden, complete amnesia is an epidemic at present, as strangely flippant and unhelpful hospital staff soon inform him.
As there is no cure, his only alternative to long-term institutionalization is entering a “New Identity Program” in which he’s given off-site housing and a life, sort of. But that turns out largely to consist of his performing a series of assigned tasks that theoretically might trigger memories, but increasingly seem just like a weird human-guinea-pig psychological experiment. En route he meets a woman (Anna Kalaitzidou) who’s in the same predicament but approaches it with a somewhat freer (sometimes alarmingly so) spirit.
Nikou has been an assistant director on other films, including Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth—clearly he’s been influenced by that talent’s penchant for surreal black comedy, though it takes a gentler, less cruel form here. While we puzzle over the realization that the hero here may be deliberately avoiding recovery of his old self, Servetalis’ stoic passivity is somehow endearing, the movie itself understated in a way that feels original if ambiguous. Apples opens Fri/1 at the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center.
It may come as a surprise to realize that David Lynch hasn’t directed a feature film since 2006’s Inland Empire—and neither that or the preceding Mulholland Drive were originally conceived for that form. In fact, it’s been a full quarter-century since he set out to make a straight-up movie, and finished the job. (Presumably he’s tried more recently, but it seems financiers can no longer be found to underwrite the ideas of strange old auteurs.) That last effort was this 1997 drama-cum-dream, which opens Fri/1 at the Roxie in a new 4K restoration that really punches across its woozy visual strategies—and a soundtrack that, in addition to Angelo Badalamenti’s score, features music by Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, David Bowie, and This Mortal Coil.
Co-written by Wild at Heart’s Barry Gifford, Lost Highway exasperated many critics (and was ignored by most audiences) for its disinterest in narrative coherence over a 2 1/2-hour course—though in that regard, Lynch was just getting warmed up. (Mulholland, Empire and the Twin Peaks reboot would go at least as far out on that particular limb.) It begins in a relatively familiar territory of noir tropes, with Bill Pullman as Fred, an angsty jazz saxophonist who already regards wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) with vaguely threatening suspicion before they’re both creeped out by a series of mysterious videotapes indicating someone, or something, is watching them—even as they sleep.
Paranoia builds to a homicidal peak, at which point suddenly Fred is suddenly no longer Fred, but younger garage mechanic Pete (Balthazar Getty)—and brunette Renee now blonde Alice, a moll to a gangster customer (Robert Loggia) Pete would be very unwise to anger. Nonetheless, a reckless affair ensues, one whose doomed nature is sealed by this Arquette incarnation turning out to be not a noir victim of In a Lonely Place-style jealous male psychosis, but a classic femme fatale. (Either way, she sure spends a lot of time undressed or undressing—this is one Lynch joint whose creepiness has a distinctly objectifying, misogynist tinge, replete with artily off-putting sex scenes.)
Its maxi-minimalism visualized by extreme close-ups, blurring focus, stark interior decor, and other devices, Lost Highway has been compared to a mobius strip for the way its narrative (il-)logic is both oppositional and circular. Sparsely populated for the most part, it nonetheless finds room for a bizarre casting gallery including Henry Rollins, Mink Stole, Gary Busey, Giovanni Ribisi, Natasha Gregson Wagner, the aforementioned Manson, Richard Pryor (in his last film role), Twiggy Ramiriez, and Eraserhead himself Jack Nance—even if they’re given little to do.
Certainly none get the chance to make half so vivid an impression as Robert Blake, whose pasty-faced “Mystery Man” is inexplicably alarming. (Though not entirely surprising, at least to me: While Blake hadn’t yet achieved notoriety by being tried for the killing of his second wife, I’d seen him speak at an AIDS-era gay rights March on Washington, DC. That was a theoretically nice gesture obscured not just by the thought “What IS TV’s Baretta doing here?,” but by the very odd, concerningly disconnected tenor of his short speech.)
If Lost Highway looks better now than in 1997, perhaps that’s just because our expectations have adjusted—it can be luxuriated in as an exercise in pure, uneasy mood and style, rather than expected to take any kind of finite, explanatory plot shape. Like a warm bath in silty water, it’s enjoyable both because and despite one’s being a mite queasy about just what’s in that murk.