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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: How to be a man's man—and why...

Screen Grabs: How to be a man’s man—and why not to be one

Godland, The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, Marlowe, The Wounded Man, more reviewed. Plus: Wild & Scenic Film Festival

A truly manly man’s-man must test himself amidst the rigors of the Great Outdoors—if he can drag himself away from the chat rooms long enough—though that means going up against Mother Nature. And you know how women are. (This reminds me of the drumming circle I briefly sampled many years ago, its “this ain’t for me” moment being the group hug that ensued when one guy started sobbing complaints about his “bitch” ex-wife.) In two adventurous new dramas arriving this weekend at local theaters, protagonists take up that challenge, soon discovering that they really, really shouldn’t have.

In the stark period drama Godland, opening at the Roxie Fri/17, ginger-haired Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove) is a newly minted Lutheran priest whose first assignment is to travel from his native Denmark to Iceland, and build a church on its southeastern coast before the long winter sets in. Being also an enthusiast for the still-relatively-new art of photography (this is somewhere in the later 19th century), he’s chosen not to sail directly to his destination, but take a much longer overland route requiring a pack-horse train, in order to take pictures of landscapes as yet very seldom seen by outsiders.

This proves challenging, and we soon realize that Luther is not made of very strong stuff. He resents the crusty old guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson), who does not speak Danish—it does not seem to occur to Luther that, this being Iceland, he might have learned its language. (At least this spares him knowledge that Ragnar calls him a “Danish devil.”) The terrain is rugged and unpopulated, the summer days interminable. When a tragic accident claims the expedition’s only bilingual member, his translator, Luther crumbles, psychologically and physically. Even reaching the eventual “civilization” of a farm at road’s end, one inhabited by a middle-class Dane (Jacob Lohmann) and his two marriageable daughters (Vic Carmen Sonne, Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir) doesn’t fully pull him from his peculiar funk. And his hostility towards Ragnar, who’s stayed on to erect the church, only grows more bafflingly vehement.

Parallels have been drawn to There Will Be Blood. Indeed, this is a similar parable of religion, alienation, and rage, though you might say Luther is both Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano—faith proves too weak a shield to prevent him becoming a monster of sorts. Much of Godland seems backgrounded by a historical and fundamental colonialist culture clash (Iceland was ruled by Denmark for nearly four centuries, until 1918) that goes unexplained here. Still, the gist comes through.

Even more severe and enigmatic than writer-director Hlynur Palmason’s impressive prior features (Winter Brothers and A White, White Day, which we reviewed here), this 143-minute minimalist epic has a hypnotic otherness that carries you through its sometimes mystifying perspective on a none-too-sympathetic protagonist.

By contrast the titular figure in Robert Machoian’s new The Integrity of Joseph Chambers (which both opens at Tiburon’s Cinelounge and launches on VOD platforms Fri/17) is an open book: A 40-ish middle-class husband, father and insurance salesman in a rural community he’s not native to. Ergo he seems determined to “prove himself” by the local standards, which means hunting, with a gun. He has so far had just minimal experience in that realm, so his spouse (Jordana Brewster) is markedly unenthused when he insists on getting up before dawn one morning to spend the day stalking bucks in a private preserve—alone. She doesn’t think he’s ready.

And, of course, it turns out he isn’t. After goofing around for a few hours (often loudly enough to scare away any game), underlining his good-natured incompetence for us at every turn, Joseph (Clayne Crawford) hears something, gets excited, and rather blindly shoots. By this point we are not at all surprised that this impulsive action turns out to be a catastrophic one.

Machoian made one of the best movies of 2021, and Crawford gave one of its best performances, in The Killing of Two Lovers (which actually premiered at Sundance in 2020), an equally stripped-down but much subtler portrait of Everyman malaise. So I couldn’t have been more excited for Integrity, or more disappointed. It retains the prior film’s striking visual authority—like Godland, these Alabama-shot images have a near-square aspect ratio—but in moral and character terms things are much more simple, even simplistic.

It’s certainly valuable these days for any entertainment to underline how easily the myth of the “responsible gun owner” can mask the likelihood of a gun being used irresponsibly at any time, even by supposedly upstanding citizens. But Machoian makes that point heavy-handedly here (Joseph mutters excuses to himself about “standing my ground”), and Crawford too is working much more broadly; their protagonist is a bit of a buffoon. This isn’t a bad movie, per se, and I might even have considered it a stylistically daring, fairly-good one if made by other filmmakers. But it’s a big letdown coming from this crew.

For less traumatic celluloid sojourns into the outdoors, you might want to check out the Wild & Scenic Film Festival, whose 21st annual event takes place this Thurs/16-Mon/20. Its emphasis on environmental activism encompasses workshops, lectures, exhibitions, and over 100 films from around the world, with a lot of Bay Area documentary subjects and filmmakers in the mix. The in-person festival (wildandscenicfilmfestival.org) takes place in Grass Valley and Nevada City locations. But much of the program can also be accessed virtually, with streaming content available (more info here) from Sun/19 through Sun/26. For overall schedule and ticket info, go to WSFF.eventive.org

Men are getting into trouble in some other films of note this weekend, though it’s mostly of the indoor variety. Two of them approach same-sex attraction with a “forbidden love” frisson. On Sun/19 for one show only, the Roxie is reviving the late Patrice Chereau’s 1983 L’homme blesse (The Wounded Man) . That writer-director would make another 12 features before his death in 2013, some of them arresting, some exasperating. But arguably none had the gut punch of this breakthrough effort, in which a closeted teen (Jean-Hughes Anglade) meets an older hustler and petty thief (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) who’s part of the riffraff hanging about the town train station. Increasingly obsessive desire runs headlong into “mixed signals” to a maddening degree, in one of the medium’s great, tortured portraits of sexual frustration.

A gentler portrait of repression chomping at the bit is Maryam Touzani’s The Blue Caftan, which opened the Arab Film Festival in November and now commences a regular commercial run at the Opera Plaza. It’s a delicately nuanced drama about a traditional Moroccan tailor (Saleh Bakri) whose painstaking craft—inherited, like the shop, from his father—is becoming obsolete. That is a source of great worry for his wife (Lubna Azabal), but doesn’t seem to bother his new apprentice (Ayoub Messioui), who has a gift for meticulous embroidery. Complicating matters considerably is the wife’s terminal illness, as well as the tacit knowledge that her husband is a closet case a little too taken with that handsome assistant. This very slow-burning romantic triangle is mournful in tone, yet ultimately finds light at the end of the tunnel its three sympathetically drawn protagonists dwell in.

Very much landing on the heterosexual side of the scale is the classic LA private eye character created by Raymond Chandler about 90 years ago, then portrayed onscreen by myriad actors from Bogart and Mitchum to Elliott Gould. Now Liam Neeson dons the trenchcoat in Marlowe, which isn’t actually based on a Chandler original, but on an estate-authorized novel by one Benjamin Black, who is in fact a genre-fiction nom de plume for the great Irish writer John Banville. He wrote a personal favorite, 2009’s The Infinities, in which heirs crowding around an academic’s deathbed find their minds and bodies messed with by invisible ancient Greek gods, who come a-pranking just cuz.

Banville aka Black’s The Black-Eyed Blonde, the source here, is none too shabby either: A fond, deft homage whose aging Philip Marlowe is hard-boiled like an egg, in that he’s well-aware he cracks easily. Into his office and orbit comes a classy blonde (Diane Kruger) who’s part of a wealthy family (with Jessica Lange as matriarch), yet incongruously puts him on the trail of a missing low-life she claims was her lover. That road leads to a lot of wrong turns, much grief, and more than a couple corpses.

That all sounds good, even better when you learn it’s been directed by Neil Jordan, a variable director with some duds but also more than a few memorable films (The Crying Game for starters) on his resume from the last 40-odd years. Unfortunately, Marlowe turns out to be one of those movies that could be (even) worse, yet whose failure to be better tastes particularly bitter. The actors all feel either miscast or over-eager to embrace hoary stereotype (does Alan Cummings’ calling card say “Always happy to play noxious gay villains”?), the musical score is generic retro “tropicale” stuff a la Desi Arnaz, and if the vintage Los Angeles atmospherics feel costume-party-ish, that may be because Marlowe was shot in Barcelona and Dublin.

That geographic fakery was presumably necessitated by budgetary concerns. But you can’t excuse many of this limp ersatz noir’s other decisions, particularly since William Monahan’s script rings needless changes on Banville’s material that are almost invariably worse. Why change the period from early 1950s to 1939? Why shoehorn in dialogue whose cliches (“I’m too old for this”) and expletives (“Fuck yeah!”) feel clangingly current? Why throw gratuitous gore into a movie that mostly strains for a lighthearted, caper tone?

All these things would be OK if they worked. But the anachronisms and eventual near-complete abandonment of the novel’s storytelling never feel purposeful so much as arbitrary, and enervated. The result is, to utilize another phrase I don’t think was much evident in Chandler’s day, a shitshow. Marlowe opened in theaters nationwide on Wed/15.

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