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Friday, February 3, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Family dysfunction, with all the yikes

Screen Grabs: Family dysfunction, with all the yikes

Patton Oswalt's 'I Love My Dad,' Lena Dunham's 'Sharp Stick,' teen pregnancy fallout in 'Icon,' more cringey relations

This weekend brings two big action movies of the general “nonstop thrill ride” type, both said to be brainless good fun: Opening in theaters, there’s Bullet Train from the director of the original John Wick and Atomic Blonde, a Japan-set excuse to have Brad Pitt fend off a multinational army of assassins. Going straight to streaming is Hulu Original Prey, an 18th-century-set Predator franchise prequel pitting Native Americans against rasta-haired space aliens that can only be an improvement after hot mess The Predator four years ago.

On the other hand, if your taste in blockbusters is strictly retro, on Fri/5 Oakland’s New Parkway kicks off its first-ever Throwback Week, highlighting summer hits of the past—including the ’89 BatmanStand By MeRaiders of the Lost ArkSpeedFerris Bueller’s Day OffThe Goonies, the first Point Break and Karate Kid, etc. Go here for schedule details.

But in the interest of swimming against that big-budget, mainstream Hollywood current, we looked at a number of smaller new independent features whose contents revolve around that thing much more common in real life than nonstop action or space monsters: Family dysfunctionality.

There’s a definite sour irony built into the title of James Morosini’s I Love My Dad, in which the writer-director-star plays a withdrawn young man still living with his mother (Amy Landecker), his problems unhelped by a lifetime of excuses and letdowns from the absentee father (Patton Oswalt) she divorced long ago. When Franklin finally blocks pa Chuck from all his social media accounts, the latter—good intentions taking a wrong turn, as usual—impulsively adopts the identity of a cute waitress (Claudia Sulewski) to covertly renew their communication.

Trouble is, lonely, needy Franklin really, really likes this “new friend,” resulting in some very awkward exchanges (including sexting), and a demand to meet in person. That in turn leads to a father-son road trip that might generate real reconciliation, or complete disaster, or both.

Purportedly based on some things that actually happened to Morosini, this seriocomedy goes down some rather dark alleys in an ingratiating way that works surprisingly well—if you don’t think about it. The very soft-pedaling of “yikes” material is itself rather questionable, given that its supply of humor, nuance and affecting emotion largely depend on the filmmaker drastically downplaying Chuck’s sociopathic neglect (just why did he basically miss his son’s entire life to date?) and Franklin’s mental fragility (encompassing at least one past suicide attempt). 

I Love My Dad is skillful sleight-of-hand, with some major and incidental pleasures (like a great support turn by Lil Rel Howery), but its arriving at a successful feel-good destination doesn’t quite erase the conceptual quease. It opens Fri/5 at the Opera Plaza and Balboa Theater in SF.

Likewise living with a supportively long-suffering mom (Julia Denton)—who really does not want to discuss his long-absent father—is Icon protagonist Sam (Parker Padgett), who lives a pretty carefree life of skateboarding and guitar playing that is only enhanced when he falls in mutual lurve with fellow high schooler Ana (Devon Hales). Until that high hits a familiar crash point: Teenage pregnancy. Frantic to raise funds for the abortion she’s considering, Sam gets into some dicey business that he isn’t careful enough to avoid screwing up, just as he’s not mature enough to be what Ana needs in this tight spot.

Basically Blue Denim meets The Spectacular Now, writer-director Tony Ahedo’s first feature alternates been the insightful, over-familiar and heavy-handed, with some clumsy flashbacks heading up the latter department. It’s typical of the mixed-bag results that a punchy wake-up call for our hero (when he finally reunites with “dad”) is very effective after a bit too much piled-up melodrama… but then the film dissipates that impact by closing on an excess of warm-and-fuzzies. It’s an honorable debut, if compromised by both too many ideas and too few original ones. Icon was released this week to most streaming platforms as well as Blu-ray and DVD.

Absent family members are also a central issue in Isabel Castro’s Mija, which opens Fri/5 at the Roxie (more info here). But they’re not a matter of deadbeat (or criminal) dads—instead, the clan portrayed here is separated by a geographic border and hardline immigration laws. The primary focus of this gracefully crafted documentary is Doris Munoz, who was born and raised in SoCal, albeit to parents who illegally emigrated from Mexico almost thirty years ago. But her older brother, just an infant back then, got deported a while back. So he’s stuck in Tijuana, while mom and dad endure years without seeing him, stranded by their own lack of (pending) green cards.

At least Doris has been able to support them all to an extent by realizing her own “American Dream” as a successful music talent manager. However, when she has a murkily explained falling out with longtime client Cuco, she has to start all over again, hoping to make a star out of another young Latinx talent—Jacks Haupt, a singer from Dallas with a distinctive voice vaguely in the realm of Billie Holliday. (In contrast to Doris’ family, Haupt’s parents are so unsupportive of her career choice, they briefly render her homeless.) While Mija leaves a fair amount of questions unanswered, it nonetheless does gracefully illuminate aspects of both the music industry and Mexican-American communities, as well as the DIY chutzpah often required to flourish in either.

The least well-received of these movies has been Sharp Stick, which premiered at Sundance in January and opens at the Opera Plaza this Fri/5, with release to digital platforms on August 16. It is, admittedly, not the best work to date from Lena Dunham, of cable series Girls and the 2010 indie feature Tiny Furniture. But I suspect the bile issuing from some corners has less to do with the movie’s quality than people’s hostile feelings about the creator herself—one suspects the reviews would be much better if she were a newcomer rather than a divisive celebrity—as well as a double standard toward raunchy sexual humor coming from women.

This poisoned valentine to LA has Kristine Froseth as Mary Jo, the odd duck in an odder family unit where she and sister Treina (Taylour Paige) have different absentee fathers. That’s a tribute to the restlessness of a much-married mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), so terminally showbiz-shallow she was background cheesecake in not one but two vintage Duran Duran videos. Mom has duly passed those values onto budding if petulant influencer Treina, the kind of person for whom taking selfies is her “job.” Whereas Mary Jo has a real, paying gig as special-needs caregiver, currently helping out a pregnant high-end career woman (Dunham), her slacker husband (Jon Bernthal), and their son with Downs Syndrome (Liam Michel Saux).

Somehow a virgin naif at 26 despite her thoroughly jaded blood relatives, Sarah Jo decides to explore sex at last—with the employer-husband. Things get complicated.

Edging from mumblecore comedics towards the more grotesque terrain of Todd Solondz, while hanging her satire on a plotline that mimics ye olden“Good Girl Turns Instant Nymphomaniac” grindhouse scenarios, Sharp Stick is inorganically conceived and tonally unsteady. It’s an experiment that never fully pulls together—but it’s always watchable, with some astute writing, funny moments, and very good performances. While Dunham’s sensibility is as pro-actively female as ever, arguably the two great moments here are gifted to two male actors, who kill it: Bernthal has a climactic meltdown that’s the last word in throwing-toys-across-the-room manboy-dom, while the film’s ultimate, twistedly inspirational uplift comes from the unlikely lips of a porn star played by Scott Speedman. Sharp Stick may be problematic, but many a better movie overall has no scenes half so memorable.

A couple additional new arrivals, both at the Roxie, are also worth your perusal:

Blue Island
Stretching the biological realities above to a metaphorical fit, one interviewee in this adventuresome documentary by Tze Woon Chan says “Hong Kong is my family”—as opposed to, say, the Chinese mainland or its Party, whose allegiances are being forced on him. Blue Island is a quietly lyrical meditation on resistance and loss, very much composed in the wake of a National Security Law passed to prevent (and punish) widespread protests like the unprecedented ones that took place in 2019. Since then, thousands have been arrested for participation in those events, while about 100,000 Hong Kongers have fled outright.

It is a depressing truth of our era that China’s enormous economic growth now means it’s not only “too big to fail,” but too big for other countries to risk criticizing even as it openly crushes dissent in the territory it is assuming full control of after long (if increasingly nominal) British rule. Comingled archival footage and dramatic reenactments trace a line of rebellion against oppression—against those Brit colonizers, during the Cultural Revolution (which saw nearly a quarter-million mainlanders escape to HK), in the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” whose leaders now serve long prison sentences, and so forth. The film’s complex but coherent overview takes note of official ideology and propaganda in different recent eras, allowing us to witness the blind religious devotion to State demanded in each.

Far-flung from the raw verite reportage of something like last year’s same-themed Revolution of Our Times, this film is more of a poetic and philosophical (as well as political) essay. Though the struggle continues, what we absorb here is already a tragedy—a progress towards democracy stymied and reversed. It ends in a long, silent montage of citizens from every walk of life facing charges that are all variations on “conspiring to subvert state power.” Blue Island has such a melancholy long view, watching it is already like excavating some sorrowful relic from a time capsule intended for posterity. It begins playing the Roxie Fri/5 (more info here).

The Visitor 
Directed by Giulio Paradisi, this 1979 Italian-US coproduction is belatedly starting to acquire a cult following. Joanna Nail (whom you might recognize from her starring role in an established cult fave, Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters) is Barbara, mother of Katy (Paige Conner), a seemingly normal little girl with a disconcerting tendency to swear like a longshoreman when out of ma’s earshot. Also unbeknownst to mom is that her boyfriend (Lance Hendriksen, no less), as well as characters played by such grizzled veterans as Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, and the inimitable Shelley Winters are all very interested—on both the good and the evil side—in Katy, a “miracle of nature” with “immense powers.”

Those powers apparently include making Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s basketball explode at the hoop, and sending teenage boys through plate glass at an ice rink. Some of the adults nosing around Katy really, really want Barbara to give her a similarly gifted baby brother, others do not. It all involves some kind of interplanetary conspiracy to… well, beats me, frankly. There’s also Franco Nero as a mute blond Jesus. Because why not.

Its utter senselessness part of the charm, The Visitor includes any number of bizarre moments, including Winters’ evident enjoyment of slapping some sense into Katy. (The child actor later confirmed that the Oscar winner went a little too Method in that scene.) Then there’s reptilian old Huston intoning the line “I’m, uh…the babysitter,” a moment inevitably recalling his famous parenting methods in Chinatown. This glossy sci-fi/horror mess borrows elements freely from 1977’s Exorcist II: The Heretic (a fiasco that inspired very little imitation), The Omen (or rather 1978’s Damien: Omen II) and, strangely, Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (directly ripping off its famous Hall of Mirrors scene). Yet there’s a certain undeniable originality and go-for-broke flash to its incoherence. It begins playing the Roxie Fri/5 (more info here).

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