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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Of Cocaine Bears and Jesus freaks

Screen Grabs: Of Cocaine Bears and Jesus freaks

Plus: Julian Assange's father comes to Roxie with new doc, Oscar-nominated Irish-language 'Quiet Girl,' more

Kids, don’t do drugs!!! Conveying that timeless message in very different ways—none of which 1980s token crusader Nancy Reagan would find comfortably familiar—are three new movies.

Actually Nancy and her hapless “Just Say No” campaign appear early on in Cocaine Bear, which—alongside a soundtrack full of retro hits—is the main indication that this critter-horror-comedy exercise is set in the mid-1980s. It opens with a syndicate drug-runner dumping a giant payload of cocaine from a plane onto rural areas of the American South. But he’s too blow-addled to hit his marks, so various duffel-bags of Bolivian Marching Powder end up unaccounted for, many falling in Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest. There, they’re discovered by the titular black bear, which when we (and some unfortunate European hikers) first meet it, has already gone full Al Pacino-in-Scarface.

Others eventually imperiled by this hairy party monster include a local mother (Keri Russell) whose young daughter (Brooklynn Prince) has chosen the wrong time and place to play hooky from school; an officious park ranger (Margo Martindale) and her favorite nature lover (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); two gofers (Alden Ehrenreich, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) sent to retrieve the illegal goods by a crime boss (Ray Liotta, who died last year but has several more films awaiting release); an out-of-state cop (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) on their trail; three juvenile delinquents who’ve been terrorizing park patrons, and more.

In 1985 a Georgia bear really did ingest a quantity of contraband that had fallen from the sky into its lair—though the consequences were fatal only for the mammal itself, which harmed no one. But this “inspired by true events” tale isn’t much interested in that odd, sad little anecdote. Instead, it’s a gory high-concept comedy, one that’s stoked a wide audience’s expectation of an intentionally campy good time more than anything of that ilk since Snakes on a Plane. And very much like Snakes, it’s that viewer goodwill which ultimately sustains a just-OK movie whose inspiration doesn’t stretch much further than its titular gimmick.

I’m a fan of Elizabeth Banks as an actor, so I’ve been rooting for her as a director, though in truth her choice of projects to date (Pitch Perfect 2, the ill-received Charlie’s Angels reboot) has not been encouraging. This game stab at something more outrageous—the kind of “good-bad” genre goof we fully expect to be dumb AF, but hope will surprise us with extra helpings of enthusiastic hysteria and bad taste—disappoints mostly because it isn’t that, really.

Oh, it’s got severed limbs and such. But it’s ultimately conventional enough to insist on the same sappy “Family is the most important thing” dross you’d get in a creature feature of the Marley & Me type. Jimmy Warden’s screenplay doesn’t give an able cast the lines to make comic hay of the situation, and Banks’ handling of them as well as the action is just competent, when Cocaine Bear cries for the macabre splatstick wit of a young Sam Raimi. This movie isn’t bad, but its title will retain golden pop-culture-reference status long after everyone has forgotten the details of these 95 passably-amusing minutes.

Also already in theaters everywhere—though only at the Metreon in heathen San Francisco—is Jesus Revolution, which starts with almost the same vague onscreen-text claim (“inspired by a true movement” versus “Inspired by true events”) as Cocaine Bear. However, this is otherwise a very different joint… so to speak.

Indeed, recreational drugs are a primary temptation faced by its So. Cal. youth circa 1968, as Kelsey Grammer’s suburban pastor sneers at those dirty hippies on TV, even as his bored congregation dwindles to almost nothing. Then his own eye-rolling teenage daughter introduces him to the charismatically Christ-like Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie), who converts him to accepting flower children as spiritual questers in need of guidance, and who has a remarkable (some way “miraculous”) ability to spread the Gospel among them. Thus the fairly short-lived but for time globally impactful “Jesus Movement” of so-called “Jesus freaks” is born.

I’ve generally avoided “faith-based entertainments” because, well, they’re usually awful, and I’m not their target audience. This one, however, is appealing in its relative non-preachiness, nostalgic tenor, and for its reminder that the New Testament’s Jesus was an inclusive, giving, forgiving type—something so many of today’s monetized, politicized evangelical “Christians” seem hellbent on forgetting. Co-directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle’s movie is duly inspirational to a point, whether or not you’re a believer. But the point at which it let me down is when it jettisons Frisbee from the narrative, about a half hour from the end. It does so in ways dramatically fuzzy yet clearly intended to flatter the church leaders who greatly benefitted from the ministries he largely built, then excised his contributions from their official histories.

For that full story, it’s worth tracking down the 2005 documentary Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. It tells of an open-hearted man whose gifts were exploited by the same ambitious colleagues who later shunned him—in part because he was bisexual. He died of AIDS in 1993. Jesus Revolution ends with umpteen informational-text epilogues, yet not a single one mentions the real-life injustices done to its most fascinating dramatized figure. This ingratiating movie exemplifies much of what’s attractive about Christianit, yet what it omits simultaneously underlines the kind of selective hypocrisy that continues to erode faith in its institutions.

It’s surprising to see a particularly good “talking someone down from a bad trip” scene in a movie that appeals to the Bible crowd like Jesus Revolution. There is nothing remotely godly about the horror-adjacent new Spoonful of Sugar, which begins streaming on genre platform Shudder this Thurs/2. But it turns out to be even more about lysergic experimentation run amuck.

Introduced as a very young-looking teen named Millicent—we’ll eventually discover she has a rather wide range of age appearances and identities—our protagonist (Morgan Saylor) is a college student taking a semester off, or so she says. She’s interviewing for a position as nanny to the special-needs child (Danilo Crovetti) of a well-off couple, high-strung author Rebecca (Kat Foster) and hunky carpenter Jacob (Myko Olivier). Little Johnny doesn’t speak, is allergic to almost everything, wears a crash helmet, and is not allowed off the couple’s property. “Millie” seems rather odd, and unqualified for the task, yet she gets the job—mostly because the withdrawn boy shows signs of liking her.

But what immediately appears to be a rather strange situation just keeps getting stranger. Foster-raised Millicent is being treated with LSD microdoses (which she takes in macro quantities) by a doctor also overseeing the myriad prescription drugs ingested by Johnny—whose father thinks all his alleged ailments are psychosomatic, anyway. The seeming golden married couple are at odds over other issues too, their vigorous sex life being a kinky inversion of power dynamics practiced out of bed. Millie, meanwhile, lives with a much older man (David Yow) in a transparently unhealthy relationship unhelped by her personal mental cocktail of sociopathic logic and chemical hallucinations. She works at seducing Jacob even as she appoints herself playmate-slash-substitute mother to Johnny, who sometimes subjects his real mum to sudden bursts of savage violence.

Director Mercedes Bryce Morgan and writer Leah Saint Marie’s feature is a perverse psychodrama with elements of black comedy and thriller that definitely earns points for audacity. But while well-cast and smoothly crafted, it’s got a fundamental problem: Most movies that travel this far into demented territory have some framework of grounding reality we can orient ourselves by. Either we realize a particular character is delusional, or that the entire film has adopted that warped perspective. But here, pretty much every character is potentially nuts, in different ways, adding up to a conceptually tangled vision that requires too much suspension of disbelief on the viewer’s part. Spoonful is intriguing and offbeat, yet ultimately its byzantine psychological hangups (contained in relatively a straightforward filmmaking style) feel show-offy, with no real point. It’s an interesting, accomplished attempt at something… I just couldn’t tell you what.

Two other new movies are contrastingly sober, even sobering. The documentary Ithaka, which plays the Roxie Thu/2 and Smith Rafael Film Center March 3, is Ben Lawrence’s portrait of the fight to free Wikileaks founder Julian Assange—or at least prevent his extradition to the US, where he faces a possible 175-year prison sentence. The espionage charges against him there are for Wiki’s 2010 release of classified documents exposing apparent American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. While those crimes themselves have gone unpunished, our government’s vigorous pursuit of Assange—including CIA surveillance bugging of London’s Ecuadoran embassy during his seven-year stay as an asylum seeker—is widely viewed as a deliberate warning to whistle-blowers, as well as an ominous challenge to freedom of the press.

Ithaka focuses primarily on the public battle being fought on Assange’s behalf by his 76-year-old Australian father, John Shipton, as well as the lawyer who’s now the mother of his two children, Stella Moris, plus as other key advocates. Shipton is a highly sympathetic figure, not least for the fact that he so clearly would prefer to be out of the spotlight he’s doggedly thrust himself into.

As some other reviews have noted, the case the film makes actually benefits from its subject’s inaccessibility in a high-security London lockup: A problematic figure in many ways, Julian Assange is not necessarily his own best defender. (Even his father refuses to discuss issues of his son’s “character” or personal family history.) In any case, Ithaka does make a strong argument for the notion that he’s being targeted precisely to nail shut any future leakage of inconvenient government secrets… never mind those pesky First Amendment protections. Its sole Roxie show at 6:30pm (more info here) will be attended by Shipton, his other son Gabriel, and the Human Right Foundation’s Alex Gladstein, who’ll lead an onstage conversation afterward.

Last but far from least in this bunch is The Quiet Girl, a current Foreign Language Feature Oscar nominee that opened last Friday at the Kabuki. It’s 1981 in rural Ireland, though it could as well be Potato Famine times the prior century, given the timeless misery at hand. Her mother endlessly pregnant, her father a much-absent drunk, her siblings so scornful you might at first assume our protagonist a foster child, 9-year-old Cait (Catherine Clinch) gets by keeping her head low, since any notice she attracts seems to be negative. Even at school, she’s ignored by teachers and snickered at by fellow students.

When mom’s due date approaching—yet again—it is decided to farm Cait out to relatives, just to winnow their squalorous shack’s population. Treating her like a grim burden, Dad leaves her in the care of a distant cousin and husband three hours away. Warm, welcoming Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) is thrilled to have a youngster on the premises. If dairy-farmer spouse Sean (Andrew Bennett) is considerably more gruffly stand-offish towards the newcomer at first… well, that’s what Cait is used to, anyway. She’s far more flummoxed by their comparatively luxurious home, let alone having her own room and plenty to eat. Life here is nice—something utterly alien to Cait’s experience.

Directed and written by Colm Bairead (adapting a novella by Clare Keegan), The Quiet Girl is quietly heartbreaking, because it withholds almost all the usual sentimental pandering in portraying a child’s first taste of happiness—one we fear may be too brief. It’s a very small film, without much in the way of plot, but nothing feels meandering or meaningless. Like Jesus Revolution, albeit on a less splashy scale, this movie is touching because it reminds that nothing is quite so salvational as simple kindness. The most modest of the five films in its Oscar category this year (others are the German All Quiet on the Western Front, Belgian Close, Polish EO, and Argentina 1985), it nonetheless fully merits being in such excellent company.

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