Though still best known for three-part 1970s epic The Battle of Chile—which he completed while in European exile—Patricio Guzman began a new phase in his long career (he’s now 81) with 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light. That unexpected international success was also primarily about the 1973 overthrow of the progressive Allende government, and subsequent Pinochet dictatorship. But it was handled in a form of philosophical-poetical essay, with stunning visuals, that he continued with The Pearl Button (2015) and The Cordillera of Dreams (2019). Together, those three raised the entire medium’s bar considerably over a decade’s course.
His latest, My Imaginary Country, is a return to more straightforward reportage, and of less interest as a cinematic objet d’art. Guzman contrasts the early ’70s period of his continual fascination with recent Chilean events in which popular fury at institutionalized “poverty, exploitation, precariousness” resulted in a 2019 Santiago protest rally that was (at an estimated 1.2 million attendees) the nation’s largest ever. That, combined with sustained subsequent resistance, ultimately led to the beginning of what may be fundamental societal changes—ones very much going against the right-wing tide sweeping much of Latin America.
While there are obvious parallels between “his” era and this one, Guzman is impressed by the differences, particularly in who’s manning the barricades. It’s said “Women are furious, and they are totally right”—in this country where nearly three-quarters of children are born to single mothers, and mothers in general are stranded, their frequently desperate financial straits heightened by being unable to work because there is no childcare.
Mixing recent and archival protest footage with a lot of representative talking heads, My Imaginary Country catches history’s lightning in a bottle. As a woman journalist puts it, “There are flames that consume and flames that nourish… we’’ll see what happens.” It opens Fri/30 at the Roxie.
Other new openings this week are all fictive narratives, placing (with one male exception) women in other situations of considerable duress—though unlike Guzman’s film, these aren’t portraits of collective struggle, but lone, beleaguered outsiderdom.
The Good House
Actually, Sigourney Weaver’s veteran real estate broker in this adaptation of Ann Leary’s novel seems anything but a figure of pathos… at first.
Hildy Good is a confident, successful businesswoman “everybody knows” in her coastal Massachusetts small town, where she’s ridden a slow wave of gentrification from outsiders moving in. She’s survived it all: A husband (David Rasche) who left her after 22 years for a man; two adult daughters (Rebecca Henderson, Molly Brown) who remain whiny and needy, dependent on mom’s fiscal largesse; a former protege (Kathryn Erbe) turned rival who stole half her clients; even a family intervention that forced her into rehab to keep the peace, despite her regarding it as an absurd overreaction to ordinary social drinking.
She’s always held it together for the sake of others, and continues to do so—never mind that she now simply drinks on the sly, or that her finances are much shakier than she’ll admit. As she briskly gives us the lowdown in direct-camera-address asides (a device way overused here), it takes us a while to realize that Hildy isn’t just a woman whose resiliency and coping strategies are underestimated by therapy-speak-spouting crybabies.
She is, in fact, a woman in serious denial of exactly the serious problems everyone is worried about on her behalf. When various factors (including a new spark with crusty old flame Kevin Kline) increase the pressure, cracks appear in that facade—and The Good House turns from a cozy, slightly bland comedy into a painful chronicle of major substance-abusive relapse.
It’s a great role for Weaver, who always appears so smartly in-control—we want to believe Hildy’s delusions even as we witness their unraveling. A good supporting cast (including Morena Baccarin, Rob Delaney, Beverly D’Angelo and others) gets their own well-drawn character subplots, and Nova Scotia passes adequately for New England. If this latest from the directorial team of Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky (Infinitely Polar Bear, The Polka King) is a bit sudsy at times, more beach-read than Nobel material, it nonetheless duly provides some real dramatic meat to chew on. The Good House opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters including SF’s Kabuki, Presidio and Century Centre 9.
A much more somber treatment of coastal woe is this Irish drama by American directors Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer. Emily Watson plays Aileen, shift manager at a fish processing plant in a remote seaside village where it seems a given that most marriages are unhappy, and women must simply deal with their crappy lot.
She’s overjoyed when son Brian (Paul Mescal), incommunicado in Australia for several years, suddenly materializes without explanation to resume life here—even if he doesn’t get along with his father (Declan Conlon) much better than before. But Brian is soon accused of a crime that makes us wonder just what kind of person he is, and why he left in the first place. To protect him, Aileen provides an alibi—but almost immediately begins to think she’s made a terrible mistake.
Shane Crowley’s screenplay sets up potent conflicts, but is ultimately cagier than necessary. Brian remains a cipher, his past as well as what he’s capable left ominously murky. (It doesn’t help that the brogue-heavy dialogue is sometimes hard to understand.) Atmospheric but also a bit dirge-like, the film doesn’t quite summon up the emotional impact to equal, or justify, its solemnity of presentation. Still, it’s worth seeing, particularly for the agonized weight with which Watson invests Aileen’s worried silences. A24 opens God’s Creatures at the Opera Plaza on Fri/30, simultaneous with its On Demand release.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon
Not taking itself seriously at all is this third feature from Ana Lily Amirpour, of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and The Bad Batch. Like those films (which involved a vampire and post-apocalyptic life, respectively), this is a Jarmusch-y hipster comedy with a fantastical hook.
The titular Mona Lisa (Jeon Jong-seo) is a hitherto-catatonic patient in a mental institution’s high-security ward who wakes up, uses mind control to subdue staffers, and flees to nearby New Orleans. There, she’s taken in by French Quarter stripper Bonnie (Kate Hudson), who realizes the mystery girl’s psychic powers can be used for financial gain. They’re soon pursued by cop Craig Robinson, with other significant players including Evan Whitten as Bonnie’s neglected son, and Ed Skrein very good (if a bit reminiscent of James Franco in Spring Breakers) as a street hustler infatuated with Mona.
I’d say this is Amirpour’s best feature to date, but that’s not a big compliment: Her talents don’t land for me. (But then, I don’t like Jim Jarmusch much, either.) While it has more narrative impetus than she’s managed previously, Blood Moon still seems “about” little more than striking postures of derivative cool, set to a soundtrack of oldies that feels like somebody trying to impress you with their record collection. The fun had at the expense of “white trash” types is broad and predictable, though Hudson does enjoy slumming it as a shameless scammer.
There’s never any explanation of our heroine’s supernatural powers, or background, or anything else; she’s just a device on which to hang a movie not nearly as delightful as it thinks it is. However, Amirpour’s sensibility is a taste others have gladly acquired, and doubtless they’ll enjoy it again this time, even if it continues to do little for me. The film opens Fri/30 at Alamo Drafthouse, simultaneous with release to Digital and On Demand platforms.
Retreating from society rather than venturing into it is the unnamed protagonist (his voiceover narration spoken by Ethan Haslam) we barely glimpse in Austrian director Johannes Grenzfurthner’s English-language feature.
He’s a Central Florida data analyst who takes a sabbatical from his job to hole up in his apartment conducting “experiments” in a home lab to “better understand and cure my hearing impairment”—undiagnosed tinnitus he’s convinced has some hidden, deeper meaning. The self-imposed isolation is no sacrifice, as he admits “I’m a recluse, and my libido is null.” Still, his paranoid, obsessive quest digs its own rabbit hole of increasingly unhinged weirdness, escalating from the unhygienic ick of growing algae and such to… well, if you suspect a narrative like this must inevitably lead to homicidal violence, you’d be right.
Masking Threshold is itself a work of obsessive resourcefulness, presented as a sort of visual collage (featuring the protagonist’s cluttered immediate environment, microscope slides, online research, etc.) with a correspondingly dense sound mix. It is inventive, in a way that may recall such vaguely similar delusional-quest films about delusional outsiders as Pi or Bug.
Yet I found it off-putting hard work to spend 90 minutes or so with this antisocial ranter, who gets offended when someone compares his neurotic imaginative leaps to QAnon—but who is, indeed, exasperating in much the same way as “those people.” He is not a sympathetic figure, and the “entirely new cosmology” he comes up with is pure fantasy. Whether you find his filmic testimony an object of fascination or frustration may depend on your own tolerance threshold for such personalities. The movie opens Fri/30 at Alamo Drafthouse.