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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Strap yourself in for a harrowing 'Civil...

Screen Grabs: Strap yourself in for a harrowing ‘Civil War’

Plus: 'The Beast,' 'The People's Joker,' 'Arcadian,' 'Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World,' more new movies

If Twitler doesn’t re-assume office by means either legitimate or otherwise come November (and if the Supremes don’t bend over backwards to extract him from legal straits in the meantime), there is no longer the slightest doubt that he will foster violent revolt. This will be unfortunate on many levels, not least its demonstrating for keeps that in letting one mad, greedy, fairly stupid and transparent con man upend our entire apparatus, we are truly not the nation we thought we were. So…fascism or chaos? Let’s hope the response to “It can’t happen here” doesn’t turn out to be “Ha.”

Offering a preview of possible coming detractions is Civil War, which—like all the other movies noted below—opens this Friday, April 12. I found writer Alex Garland’s prior directorial features (Ex MachinaAnnihilationMen) interesting but pretentious, and not as sophisticated in their ideas as his execution made it appear. But this latest eschews fantastical metaphor for the kind of near-future fiction so presciently immediate it’s less sci-fi than speculative reportage. Some time not at all distant from now, the US has dissolved into complete disorder, with several “secessionist” states having severed ties to the federal government. Though there are pockets of tranquility (and/or denial), much of the country is now a war zone of collapsed infrastructure, protest, refugees, terrorism, and combat between a bewildering ideological array of armed factions.

As such, it is being covered by the world press (and given aid by humanitarian organizations) just like Gaza, or Ukraine, or any other large-scale conflict. Lee (Kirsten Dunst) is a famous war photographer introduced shooting a street standoff between police and protestors—both sides soon reduced to bloody mess by a zealot’s bomb—in central Manhattan, alongside her partner in journalism Joel (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura). They’re both crusty professionals hardened by years of grim witnessing and high risk, as well as the adrenaline-junkiedom that goes with the job.

They confide to an older colleague, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), that they plan next a potential “suicide mission”: Trying to reach an entirely sealed-off Washington DC, in hopes of interviewing a President (Nick Offerman) who hasn’t spoken to press in over a year. Sammy manages to talk his way into a seat in their SUV. Lee is much less happy when the same dubious privilege is granted Jessie (Cailee Spaeny from Priscilla), a hero-worshipping photojournalist aspirant who claims to be 23 but looks like a teenager, and whose inexperience could easily get her killed.

So this is basically a road movie, journeying into an ever-increasingly dangerous and surreal version of America knocked off its fragile axis. Civil War is a big, expensive endeavor (though its scale is actually pretty amazing on a “mere” $50 million budget), which means it can’t afford to be too “divisive”—it is, improbably, almost apolitical. We perceive that the POTUS is something of a fascist, now on his questionably-legal third term; stray remarks are heard about things like “Portland Marxists,” an “Antifa massacre,” far-right and religious extremists, etc. There are firing squads, vigilantes hanging alleged looters, and plain old malevolent psychotics running loose. Corpses, burning buildings, wrecked cars, military checkpoints, and so forth litter the landscape on this perilous, roundabout drive. Even as Lee reluctantly takes a mentoring/maternal instinct to Jessie, we realize not everyone in this wee party is likely to survive the trip.

Imperiled and necessary as they are, journalists are hardly the most interesting element in such an equation. They center narratives like this one because they conveniently provide a somewhat-neutral observational point, enabling the story not to “take sides” (or even define them). Garland’s character dynamics are familiar—the cub-reporter-trained-and-protected-by-grizzled-vet thing is even a bit corny—though Dunst, Moura, and Henderson bring great depth to their figures.

But Civil War is harrowingly effective because it makes so palpable, and credible, the eerie reality of a complacent consumer paradise abruptly turned into lethal madhouse. There’s guts aplenty but no glory in these disunited States. Its citizens have let themselves be divided into such narrow camps of paranoia, hate, and retribution that, like Humpty Dumpty, it’s hard to imagine them ever being “put back together again.”

It’s a remarkable hellish vision, realized with great skill by cinematographer Rob Hardy, editor Jake Roberts, production designer Caty Maxey, and everyone else; The dislocating musical soundtrack choices (from De La Soul to Suicide) are particularly inspired. Will a large public actually go to see this bleak, nerve-rattling, feel-bad film? Will they recognize their potential selves in it? I’ve no idea—but if any movie ever deserved the term “cautionary tale,” this is it.

A new US civil war is mentioned, just in passing, among other recent-past catastrophes humanity has more or less survived in Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast. The present here is 2044, and it looks more or less like our own moment—but appearances deceive. Lea Seydoux and George MacKay play people who keep fatefully crossing paths in different eras and personas, from belle epoque Paris to a current Los Angeles of models, dance clubs, and stalkers. But are these interwoven dramas just some sort of VR role-play for denizens of the near future? The artifices toyed with are confusingly many, encompassing AI, CGI, plastic surgery, dolls, robots, and more. Even the film’s own closing credits are simply a QR scan code, further suggesting soon there will be little left of humanity but its digitized memory.

Inspired (very loosely) by a Henry James story, this sprawling, immaculately crafted narrative puzzle has been compared to Cloud Atlas, which is conceptually apt—though the tone struck by French director and co-scenarist Bonello (NocturamaSaint Laurent) is far more meditative and abstract. It’s a head-scratcher, albeit a consistently interesting one, aesthetically and otherwise, with some memorable flights of poetry, suspense, and more over 2.5 hours’ course. The Beast is opening at SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas.

Another ambitious whatsit is the even longer (at 163 minutes) Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World. This latest from Romanian writer-director Radu Jude (Bad Luck Banging or Loony PornI Do Not Care If We Go Down in History As Barbarians) furthers his rep as that beleaguered nation’s most antic, unruly, and dyspeptic screen critic. Fortyish Angela (Ilinca Manolache) is an overworked, underpaid production assistant to a Bucharest video company at the mercy of its foreign contractors’ whims. (One such commissioning executive is played by Nina Hoss; there’s also a visit to a monster-movie set where Uwe Boll plays himself.) She is forever stuck in traffic between appointments, when not interviewing the hapless victims of workplace accidents for one video project.

Those disabled citizens’ severe straits—unable to afford electricity or heat—underline how the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship has somehow made way for a market capitalism that benefits very few. (Romania is the poorest nation in the EU.) The crass pursuit of profit without the reward of prosperity is ridiculed by a side gig Angela practices in stolen moments: Using an app that renders her face a caricature of gross masculinity, she rants online as “Bobita,” a horny, misogynist lout who brags about hanging with “my mate Andrew Tate.”

Her exhausting day is intercut with sequences from Angela Moves On, an actual 1981 Romanian feature about another doggedly independent single woman. That Angela, too, is weary—though however dishonest its portrayal may be, the society she lives in still appears less chaotic than the current one. Jude’s movie is itself challenging, spontaneous, sometimes quirky to a fault. (It’s your call whether you find the stationary 35-minute closing shot brilliant or exasperating.) He’s a distinctive, in-your-face talent, uninterested in appeasing the audience. World is opening at SF’s Roxie, and the Rafael Film Center.

Contrastingly becalmed—if sinister—is another blackly comedic indictment, Ena Sendijarevic’s striking period piece Sweet Dreams. In the Dutch East Indies circa 1900, sugar plantation life is proceeding according to all relevant stereotypes: The boozy lord of the manse (Hans Dagelet) has sired a “half-breed” child (Rio Kaj Den Haas) with a much younger servant (Hayati Azis), while his imperious wife (Renee Soutendijk) behaves as if living in an upscale suburb of Rotterdam. Meanwhile, “the natives are restless,” fed up with their occupiers’ abuses, now compounded by withheld pay, and fueled by the resentment of perpetual underlings like Reza (Muhammad Khan).

Soon an unexpected death drags presumed heirs (Florian Myjer, Lisa Zweerman) reluctantly from the Netherlands. But inheritance proves problematic, and indeed this whole colonial epoch seems to be mercifully coming to an end—though it may be merciless for some. Exquisitely mannered, its grotesque culture-clash theatrics like a parabolic fever dream reminiscent of both Fassbinder and Herzog (among others), the Bosnian-Dutch writer-director sinister satire is beautiful to look at—even as we’re well aware the tropical fruit on offer is poisonous. Though it’s bypassing Bay Area theaters, Sweet Dreams is streaming for a month as of this Friday on Metrograph at Home, alongside other works in the series “Focus on Ena Sendijarevic.”

More overtly phantasmagorical is The People’s Joker, from director-cowriter-editor-star Vera Drew. This crowdfunded feature, dedicated to “mom and Joel Schumacher,” is a twisted tribute to the DC universe—which apparently objected to the unauthorized homage, as some prior screenings were canceled over legal threats. Taking place in a Shakes the Clown-like parallel universe to the parallel universe of Batman et al., it has Drew as an unhappy child who leaves Smallville for Gotham City, there suffering the growing pains of becoming both a professional comedian and the gender outlaw known as Joker the Harlequin. Variably helping and/or hindering is a fucked-up romance with another trans comic (Kane Distler as Dr. J), a job offer from a fictive Lorne Michaels, and a lot more.

There’s a lot of showbiz in-joking, some name cameos (including Bob Odenkirk, Maria Bamford, and Tim Heidecker), and no end of DIY visual stimulus—animation, green-screen effects, archival footage, videogame-style graphics, puppets, miniatures, et al.—to enliven this self-described “trans coming-out story’s” true content, which for the most part consists of pretty talky rhetoric. The People’s Joker is at once very busy and rather shapeless, an impressively resourceful self-expression that nonetheless is a bit of an effort to get through. But that opinion comes with a big caveat: Almost anyone more invested in superheroics than me (i.e. almost anyone under 40) is likely to find easier entree into Drew’s parody/reimagining of that fantasy canon. It plays through Thurs/18 at the Roxie, with the director in attendance Mon/15.

No less singular a vision is the Zellner Brothers’ Sasquatch Sunset, a dialogue-free—grunting aside—portrait of four aging adult yeti roaming the Pacific Northwest. These creatures of folklore act very non-mythological here, such that we spend a great deal of time watching them nit-picking, nose-picking, rutting, peeing, foraging, getting high on natural substances, creating temporary lean-to dwellings (they are evidently nomadic) and so forth. You have to wonder just how they have managed to remain a mystery to humankind, as they are frequently loud and conspicuous, not to mention less-than-bright. Nonetheless, this wee tribe is perhaps the last of their kind, and their numbers dwindle during these 89 minutes. That provides an undertow of ecological allegory, though hope is also on the menu.

Jesse Eisenberg, Riley Keough, Christophe Zajac-Denek, and Nathan Zeller (who co-directs with writer sibling David) are the sole performers here, unrecognizably buried under mounds of hairy prosthetics. Like Daniel Radcliffe playing the dead guy in Swiss Army Man, the most and least you can say about them is that they certainly are game. But lovely as Sunset is scenically (in Mike Gioulakis’ photography) and sonically (re: The Octopus Project’s original score), it is a goof that may well wear out its welcome too fast for many viewers. The Zellners are true originals, but sometimes their eccentric ideas look better on paper than they play out on film—at least at feature length.

This is one of those instances, a pokerfaced quirkfest that is theoretically fun but does not sustain itself as their Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter or Kid-Thing did. Still, no one will blame you if you just have to see an indie Bigfoot seriocomedy that feels kinda like a Sad Old Wookie quasi-documentary. It’s opening at SF’s AMC Metreon and Alamo Drafthouse.

Of course most screen treatments of that beast have been horror movies, and there are plenty of new films leaning in that creature-feature direction. The best of them is the Australian (but Brooklyn-set) Sting by Kiah Roache-Turner, who previously contributed an energetically crass franchise to the zombie subgenre with the Wyrmwood movies. Here, a fast-growing and none too friendly spider from outer space lands in an apartment building, where it is unwisely fed by angsty preteen Charlotte (Alyla Browne). Soon it graduates from consuming bugs to pets, then to pet owners. The basic elements here are formulaic, but they’re handled with considerable vigor, and a sense of humor. Sting is opening in theaters nationwide.

Larry Fessenden is a beloved figure amongst genre fans, as an actor and producer as well as director. With his latest Blackout he’s “done” the whole holy trinity of classic movie monsters: Vampires (in 1992’s Habit), Frankenstein monster (2019’s Depraved) and now werewolves. Alex Hurt plays Charley, a man who’s been absent from his hometown for reasons not unrelated to the full moon, or the monthly murders occurring during it. When he returns, he gets caught up in local politics involving scapegoating for those killings, anti-immigrant bigotry, a bigshot developer’s schemes (Marshall Bell), and so forth.

Indeed, there’s so much going on here, Blackout sometimes forgets to be a horror movie—that element as well as various character dramas and social-commentary themes all jostle for attention, none getting fully developed as a result. Some scenes feel like they exist solely to make use of a guest-star actor (Kevin Corrigan, Barbara Crampton, Joe Swanberg etc.) The unfocused result still testifies to Fessenden’s adventurous thinking and stylistic flair. But it lacks the discipline of his best features, Wendigo and The Last Winter.

Meanwhile back at the end of the world, Arcadian begins with a non-gonzo Nicolas Cage doing whatever it takes to keep himself and two infant boys alive amidst some environmental/war catastrophe. Fifteen years later, they’re ensconced in a farmhouse, the two now-teenaged sons (Jaeden Martell, Maxwell Jenkins) at each other’s throats. But personality conflicts are generally less pressing than continued survival against the real enemy: Underground hairy lizard-man creatures who only come out at night, but seem bent on eradicating what’s left of humanity.

Taking place over about 48 hours when all further hell breaks loose on our protagonists, Benjamin Brewer’s Ireland-shot film is anything but digressive a la Blackout—indeed, his direction and Michael Nilon’s script are just about stripped of anything save headlong action. The result doesn’t exactly have a surplus of novel plot or character ideas (apart from the admittedly imaginative monster designs), but it is suspenseful and eventful. At presstime, Arcadian was confirmed to open this Friday in primarily suburban Bay Area AMC and Cinemark theaters.

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