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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Scrappy kids, rotting queens, and 'the Liberace...

Screen Grabs: Scrappy kids, rotting queens, and ‘the Liberace of lucha libre’

Three of Sundance's most interesting movies finally hit screens here. Plus: Can you ride with Outlaw Johnny Black?

Though fall film festival season is now very much upon us—Venice, Telluride and Toronto have all been raining prestige titles in what suddenly looks like a very good year, while closer to home Mill Valley is nigh—theaters are also seeing the release of movies that premiered at Sundance eight months ago. Three of those are arriving this Fri/15, and to one degree or another they’re all worth a look.

One of the best-received movies in Park City last January was writer-director Charlotte Regan’s debut feature Scrapper, which won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. If not necessarily the best, it was indeed probably the most accessibly enjoyable narrative film I saw out of the 2023 event—one movie that could (like the prior year’s Cha Cha Real Smooth) be recommended to practically everybody.

It starts out seeming like a Broken Britain version of The Florida Project, focusing on another almost alarmingly independent little girl who’s getting no parenting whatsoever. 12-year-old Georgie (Lola Campbell) gets by on a mixture of subterfuge and thievery, exploiting the blind eye generally turned towards harmless-looking children who in fact might be tough as old boots. She carries on a black-market trade in stolen bicycles, among other things, having convinced anyone who asks that she’s living with an uncle. In fact, Georgie has been fending entirely for herself since her mother died, and is not remotely looking for any adult supervision.

Ergo it is not exactly a joyous moment for her when over the back fence comes clambering a suspicious man (Harris Dickinson) who introduces himself as “Jason—yer dad.” This is freaking news to Georgie. She’s not buying it, reluctantly letting him in only once he threatens to rat her out to social workers otherwise. Her sole friend, the teen Ali (Alin Uzun), actually warms to this newcomer before she does. Having apparently pissed away the years of her life in Ibiza, he’s arrived broke and needy; one suspects there were good reasons why her mother didn’t want him around. But he is fun, not the user and/or creep we initially fear, and he appears to truly want to forge a relationship with her.

There is nothing surprising about Scrapper in gist. We’ve seen this dynamic many times before (the gold standard perhaps being Paper Moon), in which prematurely wised-up kid turns ne’er-do-well adult into the parent they didn’t think they needed. Regan’s direction is stylish if a bit effortfully antic at times. But even as it heads exactly where you’re expecting, her simple story grows just as likable and touching as it intends. She draws excellent performances from the young newcomers as well as Dickinson, who is almost certainly going to be one of England’s major actors in coming decades. (Without quite scoring a breakout role yet, he’s been the best thing in a dozen projects over the last six years.) This is a small movie, but in the end a very satisfying one. It opens Fri/12 at the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center.

If Scrapper first presents itself as a grimy kitchen-sink drama that braces one for potential child abuse, only to turn out a wholesomely sweet (if potty-mouthed) seriocomedy, its opposite number is Sebastian Silva’s Rotting in the Sun. This movie is shamelessly, cheerfully, amorally filthy, and the majority response at Sundance seemed a shuddering recoil. Well, sue me: I thought this latest from the Chilean writer-director of The Maid and Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus was utterly hilarious, an audacious black-comedy prank whose main (ahem) butt is the filmmaker himself. He can really, really take a joke.

Introduced with Silva playing himself Googling “How to commit suicide in Mexico,” the film straight away posits itself as a self-portrait so scurrilous it would constitute slander from any other source. This Sebastian is one very hot mess who’s a trial to everyone, from his dog to his manager. The latter suggests he get out of his k-hole (literally, he’s snorting ketamine) by going to a gay beach resort, hopefully there getting his shit together. This seems a dubious idea, as upon arrival he is endlessly distracted by naked dicks—yet another addiction, one gathers.

When he nearly drowns attempting to rescue somebody else, he attracts the attention of one Jordan Firstman—an apparent Instagram celebrity/writer/comedian hitherto unknown to me. Let’s assume he, too, is playing a monstrous exaggeration of himself as a noxious, pushy, filter-free exhibitionist who immediately superglues himself to Silva as fan and hopeful collaborator.

Appalled, but also kinda intrigued (if only by Jordan’s ready access to corporate-sponsor bucks), Sebastian does not entirely discourage this unasked-for new friendship with another hairy horndog. But once back in Santiago, the internationally known filmmaker suffers a sudden twist of fate. It is left to his long-suffering housekeeper Vero (Catalina Saavedra, reprising her domestic-gremlin figure from The Maid) to deal with the consequences, which include hiding this unlucky turn from the inquisitive Jordan, who shows up just after.

Starting out as a rude comedy of compulsive instant gratification, filled with NSFW moments, Rotting eventually becomes a farce in which the sport is no longer “hide the salami” (not that this movie ever does) but stash-that-corpse. Eventually it does pall a bit, running overlong at almost two hours. Still: This playfully misanthropic (and inside-joke homophobic—Silva’s gay milieu makes the circuit party world look altruistic by comparison) construct is original, outrageous, and often terribly funny. It is most definitely not a movie to be recommended to “everyone.” For those who can take the heat, however, it may be the comedy of the year. It opens Fri/15 at the Alamo Drafthouse, also releasing that day to streaming platform MUBI.

You might expect something almost equally outre from Cassandro, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the titular figure aka Saul Armendariz, the “Liberace of lucha libre.” That El Paso native began his wrestling career in the late 1980s as an exotico—a Mexican variation In the US tradition of having ring performers portray gay-ish stereotypes as villains for the crowd to jeer. But Armendariz, who really was/is gay, did not want to be the heckled loser. He wanted, at least sometimes, to win, and to turn raucous crowd’s reflexive homophobia into cheering for a flamboyant underdog.

This real-life story was told in a documentary, Cassandro the Exotico!, which played SF Indiefest a few years back. It was a bit of a mess, but certainly suggested its subject might make for a very good narrative film. What works about Roger Ross Williams’ first feature is the most important thing: Garcia Bernal, an adventurous actor with great range, throws himself into this role with the expected commitment and aplomb.

That giant plus isn’t quite enough to singlehandedly float a movie that is otherwise disappointingly conventional, sentimental, and lacks flamboyance of its own. The by-numbers screenplay stays on the surface (admittedly, the documentary suggested that may be about as deep as anyone gets with Cassandro), despite the soulfulness the star lends. And the heavily choreographed “fights” that are supposed to be at least somewhat spontaneous, with wrestlers unprepared for our protag’s playfulness, aren’t convincingly staged. Worth seeing for its lead performance, Cassandro can hardly help but be fun. Alas, it could and should have been more. It opens at the Roxie and Rafael Film Center this Fri/15, becoming accessible via Amazon Prime Sept. 22.

As brawny as Garcia Bernal is scrawny, martial arts-trained Michael Jai White (whose new movie reveals he’s still got six-pack abs in his late fifties) delighted many in 2009’s Black Dynamite, an uneven but frequently hilarious sendup of 1970s Blaxploitation flicks he co-wrote and starred in. Disappointingly, it and the same-named animated Adult Swim spinoff series didn’t really lift his career out of the second-rate action vehicle treadmill. So I was hoping for some belated Dynamite redux from Outlaw Johnny Black, which he directed and produced in addition to the above roles.

“Filmed in Cinemaphonic Quadravision”—yep, that means precisely nothing—it promises more genre spoofery early on, with very bogus-looking “Indians” and spaghetti western-style opening credits announcing a close study of late 1960s “B” oaters. Blazing Saddles is evoked in the way that White’s titular lone gun prompts an epidemic of dropped jaws simply by riding into a lily-white frontier town somewhere in the post-Civil War Wild West.

Soon he’s defending an all-Black settlement from a rich racist (Barry Bostwick), who knows there’s oil wealth beneath these ranchlands, and an even more vicious hired bandit (Chris Browning) who once killed Johnny’s own preacher pa. He does so—not just quick-draw sharpshooting but also kickboxing—while posing as one Reverend Percy (Byron Minns), whom he thinks dead. This guise makes him the most eligible new bachelor in town, causing a certain conflict of interest between sisters played by Anika Noni Rose and Erica Ash.

Good as it was, Black Dynamite managed to overstay its welcome, even at just 84 minutes. Outlaw Johnny Black is nearly an hour longer—a basic B-western plot that inexplicably goes on and on, not because there are unexpected twists but because the script just plods. That can be killing for a comedy, and half the time White doesn’t even seem certain that’s what he’s aiming for. There’s a dull earnestness to the predictable storytelling that doesn’t get goosed nearly enough by the generally uninspired humor, which too often just references genre tropes or prior movies without actually providing a joke. The lack of writing wit is signaled by the fact that two genuinely funny scenes (one involving a “woman scorned,” the other a slap-happy jailbreak) involve no dialogue at all.

This good-natured movie has people you want to see, from singer Jill Scott to old-timers Glynn Turman, Jimmy Walker, and (I think) a briefly-glimpsed Fred Williamson and Jim Brown, the recently-deceased latter honored in a closing dedication. Supposedly even Slick Willie Brown is in there somewhere. Yet while it appears a good time was had on set by all, the material isn’t there for viewers to share that sentiment. I really wanted to like Outlaw Johnny Black, which opens in theaters nationwide this Fri/12, but it’s a long pokey ride on a limping horse.

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