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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: I better get them cha-cha heels!

Screen Grabs: I better get them cha-cha heels!

We won't beat you over the head with Christmas movies. Check out these thriller, sci-fi, and prison dramas instead

Somehow we’re managing to get through this season without doing a Christmas-themed movie roundup, if only because while there are more of them every year, the new ones that crossed our path (like Yuletide horror comedy It’s a Wonderful Knife) just weren’t worth our attention. However, mention should be made of an oldie that is surely many folks’ annual favorite… you know who you are.

That would be John Waters’ 1974 Female Trouble, probably the best of his early “underground” features, even if it’s a tad less famous than the preceding Pink Flamingos. Divine (of course) plays Dawn Davenport, a child of middle-class suburbia whose path of transgression takes her all the way to the electric chair. There’s Mink Stole as horribly whiny offspring Taffy, who commits the ultimate sin of becoming a peacenik Hare Krishna; Edith Massey in eye-popping bondage leathers; plus Cookie Mueller, David Lochary, Mary Vivian Pearce, and other Waters favorites.

The Christmas content is early, brief but cherished: Teenaged Dawn’s disapproving parents earn her considerable wrath when she discovers they have failed to honor her gift request (cha-cha heels) under the tree. This big-hair epic was purportedly inspired by the writer-director’s visits to a Manson Family member in prison. It was made for $25,000! The Castro Theatre showing Fri/22 will be in a 35mm print.

Otherwise, the year’s tail end is full of direct-to-streaming releases (as well as big theatrical ones—we’ll get to some of those in the next two columns), none of which detailed below bear any relation whatsoever to Santa Claus, mangers, or foliage you kiss under.

The Inner Cage
Actually, this belated Italian import (it premiered at Venice a couple years ago) does bear a slight resemblance to this year’s curmudgeonly Christmas critical hit, The Holdovers, in that it is another tale of reluctant bonding between those stuck at a lonely, isolated institution while everybody else has moved on. This isn’t a New England boarding school over the holidays, however. It’s a prison on the island of Sardinia that is being shut down, and all the inmates transferred to other facilities. Unfortunately, that process hits a snag when problems arise at one of those other locations, which as a result cannot accept the dozen prisoners it had committed to. So they temporarily have nowhere to go. An equal number of guards who’d been celebrating their last shifts are informed they’ll have to stay on and mind the stragglers until a solution is found.

No one is happy about this, particularly as the vast, fortress-like place has already largely been taken out of commission: The kitchen closed down, the warden obligated to report at her new post, etc. The motley group of remaining prisoners (some not Italian, reflecting the number of primarily African refugees and detainees who get stranded on this waystation to Europe) are fed by an outside caterers. But they find that stuff so “nasty,” they go on a hunger strike. Veteran guard Gaetano (Toni Servillo), who’s been placed in charge, finally arrives at a solution: He’ll allow mafia don Carmine (Silvio Orlando) to cook for everyone, something he does unexpectedly well.

It’s a first softening of the hitherto rigid guard/prisoner divide, one whose success suggests how much more humane their relations might have been all along. The inmates have their own dynamics and hierarchies—everyone likes the guileless youth (Pietro Giuliano) whose one criminal mistake may destroy his entire life, while shunning the feeble-minded old man (Nicola Sechi) incarcerated for child molestation. We don’t know what anyone here is capable of, and the possibility of violence breaking out lends an undercurrent of tension.

But The Inner Cage is not a prison uprising or escape thriller. Instead, it thoughtfully wends its way towards making a poignant statement about how under these extraordinary circumstances, the two “sides” relax some of their roles’ innate hostility—they’re able to see each other as people, rather than adversaries. That theme comes to fruition in a long setpiece where a power outage leads to everyone eating together in a communal space, a simple if rule-violating act that brings unexpected joy. It’s all the more potent because this film by writer-director Leonardo Di Constanzo (a veteran documentarian making his third narrative feature) so fully captures the chilly stone alienation of its physical setting, its own stripped-down aesthetic reinforced by a minimal percussive score. The Inner Cage begins streaming on Film Movement Plus as of Fri/22.

Likewise not going where the starting premise might lead you to expect is this French sci-fi drama from director/cowriter Edouard Salier. In a near future not recognizably different from today, Spanish twin brothers Tristan (Louis Peres) and Lazaro (Pablo Cobo) are among the elite youth drafted for the European Space Force. Both are undergoing rigorous physical and intellectual training in the hopes of being chosen for a very long-term mission—one we’re given to understand may be of great importance for humanity. They’re an inseparable duo, even if Tristan has an actual girlfriend, and seems the even-more-ambitious sibling.

Yet he is also the party chosen by fate to suffer a catastrophe: While the brothers are testing their breath-holding endurance in a lake, some sort of asteroid or other extraterrestrial debris crashes nearby. Laz escapes unharmed, but Tristan is “contaminated.” His athlete’s body becomes covered with grotesque boils; speech, respiration and movement are severely compromised. Cruelly, his mind is intact, so he’s wholly aware of the severity of his ill fortune, which is unbearable for someone so driven.

Tropic’s working title was Un monstre, moi aussi, and this setup certainly recalls numerous horror movies in which some unlucky schmo poisoned by space junk turns into an unstoppable killing machine or the like. But Tristan’s plight is used for pathos, rather than suspense. The focus is primarily on how this awful burden impacts him, his guilt-ridden sibling, and their mother (Marta Nieto), who’d already given up her life back home to accompany them here—and will now likely spend the rest of her days caring for an invalid.

Some viewers expecting a genre piece will no doubt be disappointed that the sci-fi aspects here are so underplayed, and the central mystery left unexplained. (We never do find out the precise cosmic origin of Tristan’s affliction.) But this astutely handled film is striking for taking a fantasy theme and employing it to such poignant, psychologically-focused ends. Having bypassed the Bay Area in a brief theatrical release earlier this month, Tropic releases to On Demand platforms this Tue/19.

On the other hand, delivering pretty much exactly what you’d expect is this rural thriller from writer-director James Rowe, whose only prior feature was the likewise North Carolina-set Blue Ridge Fall a quarter century ago. Dovey (Darren Mann) is getting out of prison with his naivete largely intact, thanks to the mentorship of older convict Ray (Dermot Mulroney). The latter says he has bone cancer, asking his protege only that he track down an estranged daughter (Alyssa Goss as Eve) to make amends. This requires the young man to cross state lines, violating his parole conditions—but hey, how can he refuse a dying man’s request?

It does not come as a huge surprise when we realize that our puppyish hero is being used for far more nefarious purposes than he’s grasped, or that his good deed will in fact place himself, Eve, and her daughter (Ezra DuVall) in danger. As one character puts it, “Ray doesn’t have a daughter—he has a vendetta.” Recalling Cape Fear and such, things wind up towards a violent-struggle climax during a conveniently timed hurricane, then end on a suitably regional note with a closing-credits song by the Avett Brothers.

Though the actors are perfectly capable, these characters aren’t all that complex or involving as written, the twists that beleaguer them too familiar to stir any great suspense. Still, Breakwater is a competently crafted potboiler that’s entertaining if unmemorable. Vertical releases it to limited theaters and On Demand platforms on Fri/22.

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