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Monday, March 4, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: UFOs, time travel, pod babies... just another...

Screen Grabs: UFOs, time travel, pod babies… just another weekend at the movies

New sci-fi films tackle contemporary problems. Plus: 'The Unknown Country' and a Pema Tseden tribute

Science fiction was a fairly rare celluloid flavor until the 1950s, when “atomic age” anxiety (and the exploding popularity of drive-ins) made fearful futures a more popular theme. Still, the genre largely remained a matter of spaceship invasions, laser fights, and creature terrors. There’s been more diversity lately, however, as accelerating technological advances seem increasingly more a threat than a boon to humanity, while at the same time the industrial era’s technology looks to have wreaked havoc on Mother Earth… which is still, y’know, the place we live. Three new movies offer sci-fi storylines that in one way or another veer from familiar terrain.

The most conventional among them is Marc Turtletaub’s Jules, if only because it involves an actual flying saucer, in the traditional oversized-silver-hubcap form. Ben Kingsley plays Milton, a widowed small-town retiree who worries his daughter (Zoe Winters) because he seems to be getting a bit senile, but refuses to consider assisted living or any other change to his living situation. He clearly has too much time on his hands, as evidenced by the local city council meetings where he regularly bores everyone with trivial and/or repetitive proposals, like fellow seniors Harriet Sansom Harris (as a wearying do-gooder) and Jane Curtin (a chronic complainer). Ergo everyone just assumes he’s off his rocker when he announces that a UFO has landed in his backyard—crushing the azaleas!—and disbursed a chalky, mute, apparently injured wee alien (Jade Quon in butoh-like getup).

But, in fact, this has indeed occurred. After a few initial jitters, Milton simply invites the extraterrestrial inside to recoup while it repairs its damaged spacecraft. He could use the company—and when those other lonely local elders accidentally discover his “guest,” they too start using the petite, expressionless alien (whom they dub a gender-neutral “Jules”) as their sounding board.

This E.T. for fans of Book Club and Maggie Smith movies is pleasant in an innocuous way, but the very mild seriocomedy of Gavin Steckler’s script doesn’t demonstrate much imagination or playfulness given the fantastical conceit. And I found its sentimentality a bit deflating: While these actors could clearly do more, the film insists on making their characters one-note, accepting it as a given that any old person would be dull, irritating, and friendless, a portrayal somehow simultaneously meant to be cute. That makes Jules the kind of comfort-food cinema that’s a little too much like tapioca, bland and sweet, offered on the assumption that viewers couldn’t handle anything more crunchy or flavorful. It opens in theaters around the Bay Area (including SF’s Metreon) on Fri/11.

Erring in the opposite direction is the more conceptually bold Lola, a B&W Irish-UK indie by first-time feature writer-director Andrew Legge that is posited as “a cache of film reels discovered in a house in Sussex, England.” Two orphaned siblings (Emma Appleton, Stefanie Martini) growing up in the isolation of a family manse have invented a machine—the titular acronym—that is rather like a TV set, only it provides glimpses of the future. This being 1941, the Hanbury sisters soon realize they can actually use that intel to help Britain’s war effort. That proves a spectacular success… at first. Then, inevitably, things start going very wrong.

The “alternative history” type of sci-fi is always intriguing, especially when applied to something as epoch-changing as WW2. But way too much of Lola is iike a child’s fantasy of “Wouldn’t it be SO cool if you could go back into the past but tell everybody about all the things that are cool NOW?!?” Acting like very up-to-the-moment middle-class teens (I kept imaging they were the current UK pop duo Wet Leg, having raided grandma’s clothes closet), the sisters get excited about Bowie and Dylan, make The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” an unlikely propaganda anthem, and so forth.

This silliness kills off any period-setting credibility. It also overwhelms the tale’s more interesting (and consequential) aspects, which end up coming off as rushed, melodramatic afterthoughts. Still, Lola is an admirable attempt at something ambitious on slim means, worth a look for fans of sci-fi more driven by ideas than visual FX. Dark Sky Films released the film to On Demand platforms last Fri/4.

Operating in a entirely different zone of near-future satire is Sophie Barthes’ The Pod Generation, the pinkest movie this side of Barbie. Its riot of nursery pastels constitute the pervasive corporate environment of The Womb Center, a business which provides yuppie couples (this service ain’t cheap) with wholly automated means of carrying a baby from conception to birth—minus the actual pregnancy. Many people here still create a family the “traditional way,” but for those who for medical reasons can’t, or simply prefer not to, this is a new alternative. Choosing to go that route are Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Eijiofor), a tech company executive and botanist, respectively.

Already accustomed to having their Alexa-like virtual home assistant nosing into every area of their lives, the two aren’t nonplussed at first by the company’s idiosyncrasies. They get into the play-acting rituals of quasi-pregnancy as instructed, which include tending and carrying around a large plastic egg containing the developing fetus. But after a while it becomes a tug of war between themselves and the Pegazus Corporation’s zealous control of their “property.”

Fairly elaborate for this kind of indie quirkfest, the Belgium-shot Generation keeps suggesting it’s going somewhere, presumably somewhere sinister—it’s like a maternity version of The Stepford Wives. Yet there isn’t enough bite to the satire here, which touches on various subjects of worrying future speculation (like nearly all jobs being replaced by technology, and the death of public education) without really exploring them. The bland, upbeat fadeout extracts any teeth the movie might have left. The result is mildly diverting, with a sheen of novelty. But its nearly two hours feel like an idea that’s overextended without having been thought out, wasting the resources of the actors involved. The Pod Generation opens Fri/11 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

Also opening Friday at the Rafael is the contrastingly very present-reality-grounded The Unknown Country. Morrisa Maltz’s first narrative feature follows Tana (Lily Gladstone) on a road trip from Minnesota to southernmost Texas. She’s just spent two years caring for an elder who passed away, and is starting over with this long, digressive drive that also retraces a journey the late grandmother took. En route, she stops to visit with Oglala Lakota relatives in the Dakotas, parties with some nice people her age in Dallas, and meets a lot of roadside strangers. The latter appear to be real people more or less playing themselves. These sequences heighten Country’s resemblance to Nomadland—another documentary-adjacent road movie taking the pulse of a working-class heartland US that perseveres, even as it increasingly struggles.

This episodic series of vignettes and introductions doesn’t have a lot of narrative spine, or even give its heroine much backstory. So its slim 86 minutes feel longer, for lack of much overall shape. Yet it’s also a mood piece that’s easy to sink into, the graceful craftsmanship achieving a lyrical, meditative tenor via very handsome photography of wintry landscapes, and diverse soundtrack choices whose talk-radio snippets limning a nation no longer easy with itself. Gladstone (who also contributed to the screenplay) has appeared in some recent Kelly Reichardt movies. This film has a similar feel, while sporting its own confident aesthetic.

Likewise in the business of making road movies with at least some non-professional actors was Tibetan novelist-turned-director Pema Tseden. His independent features over the last two decades would represent a considerable achievement even if they didn’t also constitute acts of innate resistance against the Chinese government, which does not exactly encourage expressions of Tibetan culture as a distinct, separate entity.

Two of them are being shown by the Roxie this Sun/13 as a tribute—alas, Tseden died this May from a heart attack, aged just 53. The B&W Tharlo from 2015 centers on a simple shepherd forced to get a government ID in the city. There, he meets a comely young hairdresser whose impact on him is as ruinously potent as Dietrich’s on Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel. In 2018’s Jinpa, a trucker picks up a hitchhiker, an act that will prove fateful for both parties.

These droll, minimalist, artful films require patience, but their seemingly random storytelling does pay off. Fortunately, we haven’t heard the last from Tseden: He reportedly left a couple more features behind, completed but as yet unreleased. Here is more info on the Roxie program.

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