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Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Seeing the other side of Scorsese

Screen Grabs: Seeing the other side of Scorsese

Plus: Alternative Visions goes Buñuel, Astrakan touches, #Chadgetstheaxe swings, Perpetrator misses, more movies

Some highly individualistic filmmaking of both the past and the present is on tap this week, including an array of experimental work in BAMPFA’s annual showcase Alternative Visions. That long-running showcase for the cinematic avant-garde commences its latest incarnation this Wed/6 with Luis Bunuel’s notorious surrealist classics Un chien andalou (1929) and L’age d’or (1930)—provocations that still have the capacity to shock nearly a century later. (While Chien’s eye-slicing trick remains one of the most infamous images in film history, it’s worth noting that the longer, somewhat lesser-seen L’age actually revolves to an extent around a couple’s perpetually thwarted attempts to have sex in public. Yes, in 1930.)

The series will also include a September 20 of wonderful ’60s and ’70s educational films by Paul Fillinger (who’ll be present) that imaginatively introduced very young children to complex concepts, from how things grow to the Earth and the cosmos. There will also be programs of more recent work by Ernie Gehr, Lindsay McIntyre, Peggy Ahwesh, and Jacqueline Goss, plus themed multi-maker curations with titles like Breaking Ground: Queer Asian Experimental Video. A sidebar of four programs starting Wed/13 provides a rare opportunity to see films by infrequent exhibitor (and stained glass expert) Jerome Hiler, while an October 25 showing of the 1986 political documentary Nicaragua Hear-Say/See-Here pays tribute to its director Jeffrey Skoller, the retiring longtime co-curator of the yearly Visions. The series runs through November 15, more info here

Two generations of Hollywood iconoclasts are simultaneously being celebrated at two San Francisco venues. Already playing the Roxie is Orson Welles’ 1962 The Trial—made when he’d left Tinsel Town to seek funding abroad. It was among the least-troubled of his variously delayed or abandoned later features, comparatively speaking, and he himself thought it his best film. That might surprise fans of Citizen KaneTouch of Evil, or a few others, but this newly restored Kafka adaptation (with Anthony Perkins persecuted not just by a nightmare bureaucracy, but maddening women played by Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider and Elsa Martinelli) is indeed among his most brilliantly realized creations.

Existing more successfully than Welles within the confines of major studio-production—though he’s also occasionally strayed outside it—is Martin Scorsese, whose US historical epic Killers of the Flower Moon is among this fall’s most anticipated releases. Still apparently working at the top of his game at age 80, he remains best known for the long line of crime dramas that have stretched from Mean Streets half a century ago through Goodfellas to The Irishman.

But the 4Star’s current Scorsese: More Than a Gangster series focuses on an assortment of his other movies, encompassing black comedies (After HoursThe King of Comedy), costume dramas (The Age of Innocence), documentaries (ItalianamericanAmerican Boy), musical (New York, New York), concert record (Rolling Thunder Revue), sports biopic (Raging Bull), thriller (Shutter IslandCape Fear), and even children’s entertainment (the marvelous 2011 Hugo). A special program on Mon/18 will highlight preservation work of avant-garde shorts sponsored by The Film Foundation, which Scorsese founded in 1990. Many of these shows, running through Sun/24, will feature live introductions from special guests, and other extras. Full schedule and info here.

Also running a gamut of idiosyncrasy and enterprise are a number of smaller new features that have just arrived on home formats:

Reality Bites: Mother Lode, Astrakan

Neo-realism never really went away, and it continues to make its lasting influence felt in some of the films made internationally every year. Now available from arthouse streaming platform Film Movement Plus is Matteo Tortone’s Mother Lode, which uses nonprofessional actors to tell a slice-of-harsh-life story in which the lines between documentary and fiction are blurred. Jorge (Jose Luis Nazario Campos) is a young husband and father eking out a living on the outskirts of Lima when the taxi cab (basically a glorified scooter) he makes his living from gives up the ghost. With no other prospects, he leaves his young family to journey in search of work high in the Andes, in mining towns rife with violence, corruption, and desperation. Though there is not a lot of plot here, the raw realities glimpsed are compelling, particularly as presented in Patrick Tresch’s striking B&W photography.

There’s more narrative engagement in David Depresseville’s fine Astrakan, the kind of quietly wrenching portrait of an orphaned childhood that has long seemed a specialty to French-language cinema, from Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952) through the Dardennes’ Tori and Lokita earlier this year. Samuel (Mirko Giannini) could be anywhere between 10 and 13 years’ age; he’s got the kind of prematurely aged face that results from having to exercise too much worried caution too early in life. His latest foster home is with a young rural couple who’ve already got two similar-aged boys of their own, and clearly have taken in a third just for the government check. They’re not bad people, exactly. But they tend to take their many frustrations out on Samuel, who expects to be treated badly and is seldom disappointed in that regard.

This is an excellent first feature, poignant without being manipulative—although Depresseville kind of lost me with a big climactic leap into self-conscious ambiguity that has impressed some viewers, but seemed an overly showy abandonment of the film’s prior strengths. Altered Innocence has just released Astrakan to On Demand platforms.

Mondo Mayhem: Perpetrator, #Chadgetstheaxe

This week sees the wide release of The Nun 2, another clock-punch in a mainsteam horror franchise (all descended from 2013’s The Conjuring) that incredibly has birthed nine features in 10 years. One can reasonably expect another bloated two hours of familiar jump scares. Those looking for something with a wee more originality in the genre may find some satisfaction in two independent features newly released to streaming.

Actually, #Chadgetstheaxe is also pretty formulaic in outline: I can no longer count the number of slasher flicks whose “found footage” hook a la Blair Witch Project has centered on self-proclaimed influencers and YouTube celebrities poking around where they shouldn’t, just for clicks. Satirizing such narcissistic types is like shooting ducks in a barrel… and needless to say, the emotional stakes are considerably reduced when a movie’s entire cast consists of characters you’ll be happy to see put out of our viewing misery.

Nonetheless, Travis Bible’s debut feature does pretty well by its unpromising concept. Noxious Jackass wannabe Chad (Spencer Harrison Levin), also-ran friend and rival Spicy Steve (Michael Bonini), and the vainglorious duo known as Spennifer (Taneisha Figueroa, Cameron Vitosh) travel to the bayou-country site of a long-ago axe massacre whose Satanic-cult perps were never caught.

Of course, going to this decrepit manor in the dead of the night to tempt fate soon proves a very bad idea. Worse still, once the protagonists realize they’re in deep shit, their online following of yet even more crass live-stream viewers assumes it’s all just another prank—or actively roots for their bloody demise. (We see their snarky comments constantly scrolling onscreen.) Reasonably tense, #Chadgetstheaxe is ultimately less a thriller than an indictment—if you’re gonna live a self-absorbed, short-attention-spanned, empathy-challenged life, it suggests, be prepared to die on equally hapless, unmourned terms.

I’ll admit I don’t get it with writer-director Jennifer Reeder, whose own 2019 feature debut Knives and Skin struck many genre fans as the arrival of a bold new auteur—though I found it a maddeningly pretentious, substance-free festival of borrowed David Lynchian postures, without his usual wit or gravitas. Likewise Perpetrator (now streaming on genre platform Shudder, after bypassing Bay Area theatrical release) excited a lot of the same folks in its festival showings this year. Any attempt at arty, stylish horror is a theoretically good thing, in my book. But once again, Reeder’s extreme indifference towards the basics—sculpting narrative, dialogue, performances, etc.—comes off not so much as a quirky, “surreal” aesthetic as borderline sheer ineptitude, reducing the occasional vivid image to fussy eye candy.

Jonny (Kiah McKirnan) is a teen living in something close to squalor with a sickly father (Tim Hopper), who fears he’ll no longer be able to care for her when she turns 18—a point at which something ominous or other is expected to happen. Ergo she’s shipped off to live with alleged great-aunt Hildie (Alicia Silverstone), a controlling witchipoo type somewhere between Miss Havisham and Cruella de Villle. Meanwhile, Jonny is enrolled in an underpopulated high school where she finds tentative romance (with Ireon Roach as the more butch Elektra), and from which girls keep going “missing.”

Just what turns out to be going on here is explained in a long clumsy speech towards the end. If Reeder means its improbability to be deliberately, ironically over-the-top, she lacks the tonal control to convey that; indeed, most of Perpetrator lands so wide of any intended mark, it’s hard to tell what was being aimed for. The elements of satire towards patriarchy and other general societal ails never coalesce into a vision, and the suspense aspects are too severed from any tangible peril (or logic) to connect.

The actors are left to their own devices, which is just plain cruel in the case of a sorely miscast, amateurishly arch Silverstone—an admittedly limited talent who was just fine as recently as Senior Year just last spring. Reeder’s ideas are offbeat, but they just sort of sit there, left half-realized by writing and directing approaches that remain rudimentary after three features. It’d be interesting to see how she might fare with a strong collaborator, one loyal to the structural values she seems oblivious to.

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