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Monday, May 20, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 90 years ago, a 'Black Cat' slunk...

Screen Grabs: 90 years ago, a ‘Black Cat’ slunk in from the future

Plus Ralph Fiennes' Macbeth, 'Evil Does Not Exist,' 'H2: The Occupation Lab,' 'Terrestrial Verses,' more movies

Strife is rife in releases both old and new this week, as forces of oppression, harassment, and violence show their many faces—whether in the complex forms of military, cultural and/or governmental persecution, simpler criminal threats, or just plain Boris Karloff.

The latter was back at Universal Pictures, generator of the original horror movie vogue, with The Black Cat—originally released pretty much exactly 90 years ago. It was the first of several pairings with Bela Lugosi, who (as Dracula to Boris’ Frankenstein monster) had been the other star both “made” and trapped by that genre wave. It was also certainly the best of those, as well as a somewhat premature career peak for its talented director.

Indeed, this would prove more or less the first and last official major-studio assignment for Edgar G. Ulmer, a Hungarian expatriate. It was a hit, yet he was more or less blacklisted thereafter for the crime of getting romantically involved with the wife of the studio chief’s nephew. That sin relegated him to “Poverty Row” features for the rest of his professional life, even if his stylish resourcefulness under ultra-low-budget circumstances (see: Detour) also won eventual cult adulation. (For what it’s worth, he and Shirley Ulmer nee Kassler also got, and stayed, happily married ever after.)

Ostensibly “suggested by” a Poe story, The Black Cat is a nutty 66-minute wonder whose ridiculous script Ulmer lifts into a zone of black comedy—not in the giddy tenor of James Whale, but something more coldly ironical and kinky, like (yes I know it’s a stretch) Alain Robbe-Grillet.

A honeymooning American couple (David Manners, Jacqueline Wells) fall into the company of a genial psychiatrist (Lugosi, an improbable good guy) returning to his homeland for murky reasons. An accident forces them to find shelter under the roof of the older man’s erstwhile friend turned nemesis (Karloff), whom he suspects of having entrapped and/or killed his wife long ago. Needless to say, that suspicion turns out to be true, and the Satanic cult that claimed her life now has designs on the recent bride who is (of course) her doppelganger.

The Black Cat is unique—an “olde dark house” story that instead of a crumbly castle plunks an incongruously sleek, ultramodern manse in the Hungarian countryside. Karloff is styled so he looks like a supporting character cut from Rocky Horror, while Lugosi gets some lines no actor could get away with, like “Supernatural?…perhaps. Baloney?…perhaps not.”

Indeed, the whole mix of seemingly deliberate camp and queasy sadism has a sophisticated boom-boom that sets it apart from anything else that would come along for aeons—it feels closest in spirit to something like Re-Animator, a half-century later. This macabre treat is getting a rare big-screen revival at the Roxie on Tues/14. (And for another something that is completely different, the Roxie is also as of Fri/10 showing Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 Possession—an over-the-top marital horror phantasmagoria whose praises we’ve sung before, and doubtless will again.)

Speaking of bloody grounds for divorce, already playing select Bay Area theaters on select dates is Macbeth, a filmed record of a still-touring stage production with Ralph Fiennes as the Thane of Cawdor and Indira Varma as Lady M. Simon Godwin’s staging has them in modern military and corporate dress amidst a war-torn Scotland we can’t help but project Ukraine onto. Fiennes’ oafish warrior finds quite a bit of comedy in this climber’s dissolution, which naturally exasperates his more ruthless spouse.

He’s an actor I’ll always watch, though in truth this performance is—like everything around it—occasionally inspired but uneven. The best Macbeth I ever saw remains a very trad one at Shakespeare Santa Cruz years ago, with the Bay Area’s own reliably excellent James Carpenter in the title role. But while this version won’t eclipse that one in the memory, it’s still worthwhile for Shakespeare aficionados. Local venues include Berkeley’s Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and the Rafael Film Center, with dates and locales available here.

The trees may not be Birnam Woods, but a forest is nonetheless the setting for conflict in Evil Does Not Exist, the latest from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi. A snowy rural area in the shadow of mountains is home to a sparse but close-knit community taken aback when informed that they will soon be invaded by an upscale “glamping” development offering“a luxurious outdoor experience” as company retreats for Tokyo urbanities. A town hall with its representatives makes it clear that little effort has been expended on ensuring this development won’t negatively impact the environment, or local residents.

I admired Hamaguchi’s international breakthrough Drive My Car without loving it as much as many observers. This much shorter, more lyrical exercise also seems a somewhat attenuated, mannered treatment of a strong premise. So much so that when conventionally melodramatic elements (a child’s disappearance, adult violence) break out in the last lap, they seem very much out of step with the meditative, sometimes droll prior tenor.

In the end, Evil struck me as a good movie flawed by an unnecessarily pretentious approach to a fairly simple allegory. Nonetheless, its story gist maintains interest, and there are aspects of real beauty in Yoshio Kitagawa’s cinematography and Eiko Ishibashi’s original score. The film opens Fri/10 at the Opera Plaza and Rafael, then Fri/24 at the Roxie.

Two new movies from and about the Middle East provide considerably harsher, more damning portraits of societies losing control of their own destinies. Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami’s grim Terrestrial Verses (which opens at the Roxie Fri/10) is a series of single-shot dramatic vignettes in which protagonists get knuckled under by unseen voices of Big Brother-like authority in Tehran. A man trying to register his newborn child’s name is told it’s too “Western;” an ebullient little girl in a dress shop is gradually stifled under the head-to-toe fabric of preferred “modest” garb; a woman rideshare driver is accused of removing her hijab on the job; a man seeking his driver’s license is subject to a virtual strip search.

These and other episodes (including one in which a filmmaker gets a Kafkaesque runaround on approval for his new project) range from the sexually harassing to the absurd. Yet all share a purpose: The crushing of individual spirit by simultaneously rigid and irrational authoritarian rule. It’s a pretty searing critique you can hardly believe got made in today’s Iran… but then the makers appear to have shot it on the sly, with a serious crackdown on participants after it debuted at Cannes. (Asgari is now banned from both further work and leaving the country.) If you’re one of those people who’s felt guilty about finding some Iranian cinema a little too ascetic and “pure,” this short, sharp feature will prove their stripped-down approach can be devastatingly effective.

Another filmmaking duo, Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf, provide a nonfictive indictment in H2: The Occupation Lab. It’s been playing festivals for two years, but is now getting released to US On Demand platforms at a politically timely moment. Their documentary is about Hebron, an ancient city that until recently was the West Bank’s largest. Since the war in 1967, a section including the “Old City” and Cave of the Patriarchs—historic burial-site monument of great significance to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike—has been under Israeli military control. The following year, 50 Jewish families moved into the area, something then seen as a gesture towards peaceful coexistence rather than an existential threat to the existing population.

Ample archival footage chronicles how instead that initial incursion turned into a dividing wedge. Eventually it was accompanied by checkpoints, rooftop sniper posts, and doors welded shut on homes that Palestinian families have lived in for generations. There’s no overt case-pleading in the dispassionate assembly of materials here. But a furious gist emerges still, of a methodical, hostile long-term takeover amidst escalating violence and chaos on both sides. Important viewing, H2 is available for streaming from Film Movement as of Fri/10.

After those last two you may find yourself parched for escapism, a pretty high grade of which is on tap with The Last Stop in Yuma County. Sort of like Robert E. Sherwood’s very earnest 1934 play (made into a 1936 film with Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart) The Petrified Forest, if it were crossbred with Blood Simple and Pulp Fiction, this first feature for writer-director Francis Galluppi is a pip—a modest yet fiendishly clever mix of thriller, black comedy, and eccentric character ensemble piece.

A sad-sack traveling knife salesman (Jim Cummings) en route to visit his child by an ex-wife gets stuck in an Arizona desert pit stop when the last gas station for a hundred miles runs out of fuel. He plants keister at the adjacent diner, where the lone employee (Jocelin Donahue from The House of the Devil) is soon waiting on several more passers-by needing to bide their time before the resupply truck arrives.

Unfortunately, two of them are fugitives from a well-publicized bank robbery, one big and dumb (Nicholas Logan), the other lean and mean (Richard Brake). Once they suss their identities have been guessed at, everyone else becomes a hostage. But sardonic twists of fate keep changing the dynamic, both before and after a shootout that drastically reduces the number of active cast members.

Many a referential, snarky neo-noir has attempted similar shenanigans since Tarantino first burst onto the scene. But Last Stop doesn’t just strike a pose—it really is clever, in both writing and execution. It also gets bonus points for especially felicitous use of “Let’s Live For Today,” a personal Grass Roots fave that is just one of several judiciously chosen oldies heightening the vaguely late-’60s-to-mid-’70s atmosphere. The film currently seems to be bypassing Bay Area theaters when it opens nationally this Fri/10, but it is also releasing that day to digital streaming platforms.

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