Thanksgiving week is traditionally a time to make dinner, not love or war. Yet two new films focus on military service, in particular African American protagonists fighting for equal treatment within their fighting units—one due to racial prejudice, the other homophobia. The big release is J.D. Dillard’s Devotion, with Jonathan Majors from The Last Black Man in San Francisco as Jesse K, Brown, the US Navy’s first Black aviator, who died in combat during the Korean War. We weren’t able to catch this inspirational epic in advance, but it’s gotten good reviews, with raves for Majors, who’s about to become a big star (his next films are franchise popcorn behemoths.)
The Inspection, which also opens in Bay Area theaters on Wed/23, is a much smaller-scaled enterprise. So much so that it’s a rather surprising choice to release smack in the middle of heavy-duty awards competitors—this unstarry, idiosyncratic drama is exactly the sort of film that gets habitually overlooked in favor of more conspicuous prestige efforts when the prizes are doled out at year’s end. History will probably repeat itself in that regard. But uneven as it is at times, Elegance Bratton’s debut feature treads familiar terrain with an often striking originality, and surely announces a significant screen career.
We first meet Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) in 2005 Trenton, New Jersey, where he’s living in a homeless shelter, his prospects no brighter than when thrown out of his mother’s home five years prior. He pays that holy-roller lady (Gabrielle Union) a visit before going off to the Marines boot camp he’s determined is his only accessible option to a better life. But she is the same as ever—piously and viciously decrying his gay “lifestyle,” expressing doubt that even enlistment can make “a man” of his sort.
But French excels in the constant physical and mental testing of the Parris Island, South Carolina training ground, irking another recruit (McCaul Lombardi) who assumed he’d be top dog, and defying the drill sergeant (Bokeem Woodbine) who’d promised them all “I will break you.” Then in a moment’s absent-minded erotic reverie that represents the first of several breaks from strict realism here, our hero makes a terrible-if-unwitting mistake—he gets a hard-on in the showers. Everybody notices, and moments later everyone is beating “the fag” senseless. Those who’d been his nemeses previously (notably the aforementioned) now openly bully him, while his allies (including Raul Castillo as another instructor) can only be supportive on the sly.
In a grueling regimen designed to have a high attribution rate, it is is fully expected he will be forced to drop out—if they don’t manage to kill him first. But French is very, very determined to prove himself, as much to his mother as to these jarheads.
The true story this was “inspired by” is Bratton’s own; he was homeless for a full decade before his own stint in the Marines. (The film is dedicated to his mother, a relationship apparently just as stormy as depicted here.) The Inspection’s initial stretch is so good you might think it the best thing of its kind since Full Metal Jacket, whose first half also depicted boot camp in the same exact location. When the writer-director begins introducing less-straightforward material, including fantasies and outre stylistic gambits, those tonal shifts don’t always work—at least not as cogently as the early going.
Still, those are flaws born of ambition, not lack of competence or imagination. Even when this film wobbles, it remains fresh, a very personal, credible vision of military trial-by-fire closer in spirit to David Rabe’s Streamers or the classic early ’70s TV movie Tribes than the usual boo-rah stuff … let alone tacitly homoerotic propaganda porn like Top Gun. There have been a number of films this year more immaculate as a whole conception-execution than this one. But The Inspection is one of 2022’s best in the ways it really counts, as an emotional experience and singular artistic expression. It opens in Bay Area theaters Wed/23.
This week’s other new arrivals (apart from Spielberg’s The Fablemans, which we’ll cover next time) are more in the realm of pure escapism, whether it’s the comedy mystery of Knives Out sequel Glass Onion, Luca Guadagnino’s R-rated YA cannibal romance Bones and All, or the Disney action-adventure ‘toon Strange World. But there are also some more eccentric, adult, and under-radar dips into fantasy terrain on tap, detailed below.
The most (relatively) mainstream among them isn’t about subject matter fantastical so much as miraculous. Based on Room author Emma Donoghue’s novel, Sebastian Lelio’s The Wonder has no-nonsense English nurse Mrs. Wright (Florence Pugh) dispatched to a remote village in the Irish midlands of 1862. There she is to tend, watch, and tacitly investigate the phenomenon of a preadolescent girl (Kila Lord Cassidy) whose parents swear she hasn’t touched a bite of food in four months. Yet she seems to be in perfect health.
Needless to say, this has induced skepticism from authorities (our newly arrived heroine among them), but also created a destination for pilgrims eager to accept the child as some sort of living saint. Is Anna’s situation a “miracle,” a scam, or even abuse that might eventually threaten her life? Polite but unbending in her professional conduct—no matter how pressured by the family, clergy, and others—Mrs. W. is determined to solve the mystery, even as she grows attached to its ethereally tranquil object. Sociopolitical tensions between England and Ireland, recent memories of the latter’s Great Famine, and the era’s rigid gender roles (which Pugh’s character defies, as far as she can) are constant undercurrents in this very slow-burn tale.
It is intriguing, as well as another finely crafted and acted movie by a Latin American director whose movies have almost entirely centered around determined female protagonists—including A Fantastic Woman, the Chilean and US versions of Gloria, and (my favorite) 2017’s Disobedience, a forbidden same-sex romance set in a New York Orthodox Jewish community.
Like that last-named, The Wonder is a somewhat somber drama, rich in domestic details, that ultimately views religious faith as more of a trap than a salvation. It is perhaps slower than strictly necessary, and I found Lelio’s fourth-wall-breaking bookends (do we really need an actor to step out of character and inform us, “We are nothing without stories”?) pretentious, as well as gratuitous. Still, this is an intelligent period piece worth investing the patience required. It began streaming last week on Netflix.
Considerably less sober are two phantasmagorical obscurities getting revived for single shows at local theaters. Enjoying a rare big-screen revival at the Balboa Wed/23 is Avery Crounse’s 1983 Eyes of Fire, which was also released as Cry Blue Sky, but found very little audience in any incarnation. Yet it is definitely one of the more adventuresome genre films of its era, a surreal folk-horror thriller that anticipates both The Blair Witch Project and The Witch in some respects.
Nearly lynched for stealing another man’s wife, a corrupt “preacher” runs off with his motley hangers-on—including the wife, an old woman, and several children—into the 1750 New England wilderness, hoping to start a new settlement. But they stumble instead into a valley seemingly ruled by Indigenous spirits they can’t escape from, leading to much insanity, terror, and some highly unnatural deaths. Deploying Native American mythologies, demonic possession themes, ghosts, hallucinogenic visual effects, and more, this ambitious, atmospheric indie feature is an offbeat treat for horror obscurantists.
Venturing even farther “out there” in narrative, aesthetic, and commercial terms is Flaming Ears, which was shot on Super 8 in 1991, fleetingly released in 16mm blowup (I vaguely recall it playing Frameline), then apparently disappeared for decades. Now it is back in a 4K restoration, which is playing next Wed/30 at Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, and presumably will be available soon in home formats from Kino Lorber.
Exuding a gender-blurred queer sensibility long before that word was reclaimed from the category of “slur,” this Austrian feature by directing-writing-acting trio Ursula Purrer, Dietmar Schipek, and A. Hans Scheirl (who later made the similar, slightly-better-known Dandy Dust) is a dystopian fantasy set 700 years from now. In a city called Asche, a citizenry almost entirely female (though not all woman-identifying) includes a comic book artist, a pyromaniac nightclub performer, and an apparent space alien. They prowl around like it’s always Lesbian Dance Party Night in a micro-budget Escape From New York.
There are clothes made of paper and vinyl; model-scaled futurescapes and bits of stop-motion; a severed hand, a vampire attack, and one very odd knife fight, though this is no action or horror movie. What there isn’t here is a plot, with narrative elements cryptic at best. They’re subsumed in a vaguely noirish labyrinth of kinky-if-none-too-serious pursuits and flights.
This is the kind of film that basically feels like a New Wave club-slash-performance art installation, something that by 1991 probably already looked a little dated—though now it’s exotic all over again. It’s all attitude, as opposed to substance, and may well bore some viewers once the novelty wears off. But if you’re fond of such 1980s cult objets d’art as Liquid Sky, Born in Flames, Population: 1, Forbidden Zone, and such, you may well find Flaming Ears is exactly the movie you had no idea you’ve been waiting for.