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Thursday, October 6, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Tween screams—and other late-summer hits and misses

Screen Grabs: Tween screams—and other late-summer hits and misses

A crucial abortion-at-the-border doc, 'Summering' recalls a gender-switched 'Stand By Me,' plus more new releases.

OK, so the box-office hit of the year by far is that ode to cartoon machismo, the Top Gun sequel. It’s probably the biggest example of cinematic reactionary exceptionalism since American Sniper, a film whose existence (and star) is a joke to everyone but the bazillions who buy it wholeheartedly. And yes, the wave-making recent cancellation of a completed Batgirl movie for tax write-off purposes is a fate one cannot quite imagine happening to a male-centric superhero film. Still: Despite continued #MeToo revelations, lack of diversity at the top, et al., one must say the film industry is doing fairly well in succumbing to long-overdue change as far as gender equity goes.

Not so long ago, feature projects driven by female characters were largely limited to routine romcoms and the occasional Steel Magnolias-style all-star “chick flick” blowout that no (straight) man would be caught dead at. Now women directors are at work in all kinds of genres, and it’s no longer notable in itself that the central figure in action movie (or something else not traditionally considered “niche”) has a woman protagonist.

This weekend brings a broad array of new films that loosely fall into the category of “progress” in that regard, whether they’re overtly commercial thrillers that in the past might have had male leads (and/or emphasis on female T&A), serious dramatic explorations of universal issues (aging, economic inequality, politicized religion), or non-fiction examinations of the current war on women’s bodily autonomy.

The latter is the province of CiNEOLA’s “Cuerpos Libres” series at the Roxie, presenting two recent documentaries that provide Latinx perspectives on reproductive rights in crisis. On Sun/13, director Maya Cueva will appear in person with her On the Divide (info here), about Whole Women’s Health in McAllen, Texas—the last abortion clinic in the vicinity of the border—as well as the “Christian pregnancy center” located next door. Shot over seven years’ course, the film gives voice to staff, volunteer, and clients on both sides of the ideological fence as their conflict grows even more heated. On Sun/14, there’s Celina Escher’s Swedish co-production Fly So Far, focusing on a different frontier for pro-life activism: The criminalization of miscarriages and stillbirths, which in El Salvador can now earn women up to 30 years in prison as “punishment” for their medical misfortune.

Jesus is also apparently very concerned with keeping a tight leash on the “fairer sex” in another Latin American feature at the Roxie. Opening Fri/12, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Medusa is a stylistically bold, blackly comedic commentary on political trends in Brazil, focusing on a private religious high school where children of the rich get an education somewhere between The Stepford Wives and Mein Kampf. While boys will be boys, channeling their sexual frustration into sports and thuggery, the princessy “mean girls” secretly get their jollies donning masks to anonymously beat up women they deem sluts at night. More uneven than this director’s prior quasi-horror Kill Me PleaseMedusa is nonetheless a truly warped original in glaring candy colors, reeling from thriller to near-sci-fi to musical kitsch, with the school’s pop hymns like reactionary K-pop.

Hewing closer to a conventional genre template—though still subverting it—is Dutch actress-turned-director Halina Reijn’s first US feature Bodies Bodies Bodies. When newly sober Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) shows up with her new girlfriend Bee (Maria Bakalova) at longtime bestie David’s (Pete Davidson) country family estate, the newcomer instantly notes off-the-chart levels of privilege, narcissism, and woke-speak amongst the weekending twenty-somethings assembled. Once the drugs come out and the party games start, however, it becomes clear that people are gonna get more than their feelings hurt.

A generational satire in slasher disguise, Bodies may be more clever than credible, but even that gets worked out in the ingenious “oops”-based resolution. I was seated too close to the screen at a preview attended for the frequently hand-held, head-on photography to work well, and some snarky dialogue also got lost in the mix. But this collision between Clueless and Scream has definite cult appeal. It opens wide in theaters nationwide this Fri/12.

Likewise opening at many a theater near you is Fall, one of those single-setting entrapment thrillers whose success relies largely on the plausibility of the basic situation and the effectiveness of the additional perils piled onto it. You know the type: James Franco wedged in a crevasse for 127 Hours, kidnapped Ryan Reynolds Buried in a coffin, etc. (Those are pretty much the best of the subgenre.) Here, daredevil vlogger Hunter (Virginia Gardner) decides that the way to cheer up alcoholically grieving BFF Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) after the latter’s husband dies in a climbing accident is to drag her up a 2,000 foot radio tower as a stunt. Um … right. Never mind that Becky consents, that they don’t tell anyone where they’re going, don’t wear gloves, don’t seem to notice the rickety old structure popping bolts as they climb.

If you can swallow all that, about 40 minutes in the real danger arrives, leaving them with no way down and no way to alert anyone to their plight. Directed by Scott Mann, this movie is a good argument for the virtue of drone shots, which do provide some vertiginous thrills. But despite the welcome script-flipping of having young women as adventure thrill junkies, Fall is weighed down by some labored soap-operatic revelations and other missteps, not least a running time (107 minutes) way too padded to sustain this ordeal’s maximum tension. It’s ultimately more contrived than it is exciting.

Meanwhile back down on the ground, the always interesting Aubrey Plaza is ideally cast as the title figure in Emily the Criminal, a very different exercise in suspense drawn from the perils of committing to one highly dubious idea. She’s a Jersey Girl transplanted to Los Angeles, where she’d hoped to get her career in art going. But instead she’s slaving away in a food-service-industry job, drowning in student loan debt, a couple blots on her record seeming to prevent any progress up the professional ladder. So Emily is wary but intrigued when tipped to some well-paying if risky business helping some dudes pull credit-card fraud scams.

It’s a slippery slope, natch. But writer-director John Patton Ford’s debut feature is very astute about mixing character study, crime thriller, and critique of a “trickle-up” economic system that more and more Americans are finding is fundamentally gamed against them. Though not quite as tightly wrought, this is in some ways the best US fiction feature about institutionalized financial scams and the desperate straits they drive people to since Ramin Bahrani’s terrific 99 Homes in 2014. Emily the Criminal opens in Bay Area theaters, including the CGV Van Ness and Kabuki, on Fri/12.

Probably the most acclaimed among these films so far is Alli Haapasalo’s Finnish Girl Picture, which was very well-received in its Sundance premiere last January. It’s a coming-of-age saga in which two teenage besties, both workers at a mall smoothie stand, experience different kinds of problematic awakenings.

Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) experiences first love with Emma (Linnea Leino), who’s rebelling against the strict focus on competitive figure skating that has so far ruled her life. Ronkko (Eleonoora Kauhanen) meanwhile undertakes a dedicated course of study towards sexual fulfillment, with plenty of wrong turns en route. This warmly-observed youth seriocomedy (which opens at the Opera Plaza Fri/12) doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but offers a nice balance of realism and affirmation.

Backing up age-wise to the tween years is the US production Summering from James Ponsoldt, making a return to scale of the early indie features (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) that remain his best work to date. This tale of four small-town girls (Lia Barnett, Eden Grace Redfield, Sanai Victoria, Madalen Mills) who discover a dead body during their last summer as children—middle school looms in the fall—has understandably been called a gender-switched Stand By Me.

But that film felt more organic. This one doesn’t escape well-intentioned contrivance, and one suspects some female input on the screenplay (which Ponsoldt co-wrote with Benjamin Percy) really would have helped. Though the young actors are perfectly OK, these characters feel incompletely imagined, the gauzily-lyrical filmmaking attempting to impose a poetry too forced to cloak the overall artificiality.

The movie stumbles almost immediately because we never have the slightest inkling why the kids don’t tell the police, or even their parents, about their grisly find—and a subsequent vague supernatural element seems even less well-thought-out. The end result isn’t terrible, but it’s nonetheless a disconcertingly innocuous, un-illuminating look at a demographic the filmmakers don’t quite seem to grasp. Summering opens Fri/12 at local venues including Metreon and Emeryville’s Bay Street 16.

At the opposite end of the generational scale, there are two new movies about late-life love also arriving in theaters this weekend. I didn’t see Katie Aselton’s Mack & Rita, a pretty silly-looking comedy in which a grousing 30-year-old (Elizabeth Lail) wakes up as a wacky 70-year-old (Diane Keaton), naturally bagging a hottie half her age (Dustin Mulligan) in that perpetually-youthful-senior guise.

But I did catch the considerably less fanciful A Love Song, a first feature from writer-director Max Walker-Silverman—another youth who seems to pine for autumnal years. This stripped-down drama finds Faye (Dale Dickey) camping in an RV on a lake in southwestern Colorado, awaiting the arrival of a long-ago friend who may or may not even show. When he finally does, Lito (Wes Studi) turns out also to be alone after the death of a longtime spouse. But whether loneliness is enough to bond these two souls together after decades’ separation remains to be seen.

It’s nice the the film doesn’t cave to predictable sentimentality, or hinge on casting leads who look like Diane Keaton, or Sam Elliott for that matter. (In fact Dickey is the kind of 60-year-old who looks older, in the way of a lifelong “outdoor person” who could never be bothered with sunscreen.) There are also some moderately-amusing-if-slender subplots. But despite the solid performances, many nice sunrise/sunset shots, and a general air of elegant simplicity, Song ultimately feels a tad undernourished—so little happens, with so little explanatory dialogue (or backstory) to fill the many pregnant pauses.

Walker-Silverman seems to think we’ll be able to get all the information we’ll need from these actors’ weathered faces. And yes, they do convey a lot; but they aren’t magicians, and giving them some actual material to work with wouldn’t have hurt. A Love Song opens Fri/12 in local theaters, including the Kabuki.

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