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Sunday, December 3, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Septuagenarians run wild—Cronenberg and Davies are back

Screen Grabs: Septuagenarians run wild—Cronenberg and Davies are back

Plus: Vivid teen-led 'A Chiara,' terrifically enjoyable 'Roundup,' three outrageous indies, more new movies

Circumstances necessitated a scaling-back of Screen Grabs’ coverage for the last couple weeks, so here’s a roundup of some notable new movies currently in theaters (all of which opened Fri/3), plus a few worthwhile streaming arrivals.

Septuagenarians run wild: Cronenberg & Davies
Torontonian David Cronenberg and Liverpool-bred Terence Davies have each been making movies for roughly a half-century, their output including some all-time personal favorites. Now at 79 and 76, respectively, they’re back with their first features in several years—despite all accumulated stature, artists this idiosyncratic do not find it easy to get funding these days. In both cases, it’s great to have them back, though the onscreen results are at once characteristic and problematic.

Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (which shares a title if nothing else with his 63-minute experimental work from 1970) finds the director back in the body-horror mode of his most outre works like Videodrome and Crash, whose conceptual extremity make them particularly beloved fans of cult cinema. I don’t think they’re among his best, however (or worst—that prize is probably won by misfired stabs at the mainstream like M. Butterfly and Maps to the Stars), and this first return to that queasy mode since 1999’s eXistenZ feels like a rudderless rehash of yesteryear’s transgressions.

Shot in Greece for presumed budgetary reasons, Crimes takes place in a grubby low-budget coming dystopia we never get a clear fix on. The protagonists played by Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux are performance artists (a very 1980s notion of the cutting edge) whose act consists of public surgical procedures removing the “new organs” his afflicted body is constantly growing as a result of “Accelerated Evolution Syndrome.” Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart (at her twitchiest) play a creepy duo from the “National Registry of Organs.”

Characters keep saying things like “We’re creating meaning out of emptiness.” But that’s exactly what the film lacks—there seems to be no point beyond the frequent ick value of graphic carve-ups. Crimes is grotesque, all right, but also tiresome, because Cronenberg simply seems to be reprising his own Greatest Grossest Hits to fetishistic ends that offer little save to terminal gawkers. Aiming for a shock value he’s already exhausted, he arrives at pretentious tedium.

Davies’ Benediction is also a throwback of sorts, in that it occasionally echoes his great initial features (Distant Voices Still Lives, The Long Day Closes) more closely than anything he’s done in the three-decade interim. That period was filled by subjects (autobiographical documentary Of Time and the City aside) he wasn’t quite right for: The very different American milieus of Neon Bible and A Quiet Passion eluded him, as did the Scottish one of Sunset Song (a savage novel made awfully genteel), while The Deep Blue Sea was a dated stage play that didn’t need reviving.

It’s immediately clear that Davies is back on terra more firma with the life of Siegfried Sassoon, well played here by Jack Lowden. Decorated for bravery in World War I service, he was nonetheless so horrified by that experience that he got committed to a military psychiatric hospital rather than return to fight a conflict he no longer supported. His resulting “war poems” would prove the most enduring product of a long literary career that gave him little joy. Nor did a series of gay relationships, or a subsequent marriage. He remained a scarred, increasingly isolated and embittered person—or so he’s portrayed here.

Sprawling over decades, Benediction has a lovely, melancholy fadeout, and enough fine elements that it’s easily Davies’ best narrative film since the superb Edith Wharton adaptation House of Mirth in 2000. But it also sports some very clunky writing, and too soon degenerates into a chronicle of doomed involvements between vindictive people ill-suited to relationships with each other, or with anyone. In particular, society gadfly Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and actor/musician Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) are painted in such stereotypical “bitchy queen” terms, it feels like the director caricatures them simply to make our protagonist more sympathetic. It’s an uneven movie whose strengths ultimately outweigh its weaknesses…but only just. Crimes of the Future is currently playing theaters nationwide, Benediction at area theaters including SF’s Opera Plaza and Metreon.

A Chiara
Very far from those worlds of sci-fi fantasy and Brit gentility is the reality of our titular 15-year-old heroine in this latest from Bronx-born, Italy-based writer-director Jonas Carpignano. The middle child amongst three sisters, Chiara (Swamy Rotolo) is an ordinary, somewhat tough teen living in Calabria, the “toe” of Italy’s “boot.” When mystifying, violent events suddenly remove father Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) from the family home, no one will tell her what’s going on. She has to find out from the internet that the now-fugitive parent is involved in international drug trafficking. With the stubborn, somewhat reckless insistence of her years, Chiara pushes to discover the whole truth, whether that knowledge will be good for her or not.

This latterday neorealist exercise could be more compactly told (it nudges past the two-hour mark), and its resentful protagonist is not terribly ingratiating. But Carpignano’s strong sense of place and culture is abetted by utterly authentic performances (they oughta be, since he seems to have largely cast local nonprofessionals), adding up to a vivid view of how everyday life can somehow rest unknowingly atop criminal enterprises. Like a grazing pasture that’s also a minefield, its normalcy will inevitably be broken by the occasional detonation. A Chiara is currently playing SF’s Opera Plaza.

The Roundup
If all the above sounds like too much heavy lifting, this South Korean action movie provides a very high grade of pure escapist fun. It’s a sequel to 2018’s The Outlaws, but you really don’t need any prior acquaintance. The hulking Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee returns as a police investigator hero whose bull-in-china-shop methods—his punch regularly sends unruly perps flying through solid walls—are “unconventional,” but undeniably effective. Dispatched to Vietnam with his fusspot captain (Choi Gwi-hwa), he discovers a brutal kidnapping ring whose psycho expat leader (Son Sukku) duly follows them back home to create more mayhem.

Though it has a different director (Lee Sang-yong) and scenarist (Kim Min-seong), The Roundup reprises its predecessor’s mix of vigorously physical thrills and character-based comedy, with Ma’s hamfisted yet softhearted hulk the deadpan center around which various dithering colleagues and over-the-top thugs flutter like moths. It’s at once a very violent and disarmingly good-natured movie, a combination that must be hard to achieve but makes for one terrifically enjoyable watch. It’s currently playing the CGV Cinemas San Francisco and Century 20 in Daly City.

Black Comedy Bonanza: Three Outrageous Indies
The continued death march of theater closures means more non-mainstream releases are bypassing Bay Area screens all the time. Fortunately, sooner or later they end up accessible via home streaming, which is where you will find three diverting, subversive comedies that debuted on the festival circuit over the last two years.

Actually, it’s been over two years for Dinner in America, which premiered at the last pre-COVID Sundance Festival in early 2020. It’s something of a throwback to the anarchic likes of trailblazing Amerindie features like Repo Man, as punk rock singer, drug dealer, police fugitive and all-around ne’er-do-well Simon (Kyle Gallner) finds himself hiding out in the suburban home of on-the-spectrum superfan Patty (Emily Skeggs) and her family, doing a very unconvincing impersonation of a religious missionary. Adam Carter Rehmeier’s movie may lack originality, but it has considerable esprit, a good heart beneath the snark, and a knockout lead performance by Gallner, It’s available On Demand from Best & Final Releasing as of Tues/7.

There is no lack of originality in the B&W Laguna Ave, which played Another Hole in the Head last year. An inspired absurdist whatsit that starts out as a drolly off-kilter neo-noir of sinister LA apartment-block life, it gradually veers toward a giant nonsense conspiracy and bizarre superhero sendup. Not everything works, but director David Buchanan and writer Paul Papadeas’ first feature has a willingness to pursue any crazy idea that is quite winning, if you’re in the proper mood. It’s currently on most On Demand platforms as well as distributor Arrow Films’ own streaming site.

Finally there’s Josh Wallace’s black comedy/satire Keeping Company, a which.was in SF Indiefest last year. It manages to combine elements of Sorry To Bother You, Psycho and Eating Raoul as two life-insurance salesmen (Devin Das, Ahmed Bharoocha) find themselves held captive by one very antisocial mamma’s boy (Jacob Grodnick). The humor here can be a bit broad, and mean-spirited. But nonetheless there is a certain zesty ingenuity to the increasingly violent, satirical goings-on. This feature from some Funny or Die veterans is available as of Tues/7 from 1091 Pictures on VOD platforms.

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