The Idol (2016; Dir.: Hany Abu-Assad)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad garnered Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations for his terrorist dramas Paradise Now and Omar, both mediocre efforts elevated by their presumed hot-button timeliness. Abu-Assad’s latest film The Idol is something different – an intentionally old-fashioned, feel-good musical biopic – but it still offers a lot more of the same perfunctory visuals and sludgy storytelling. The Idol tells a highly fictionalized version of the life of Mohammed Assaf, a Palestinian singer who galvanized the Arab world when he won Arab Idol in 2013. There’s plenty of meat in Assaf’s actual life, but Abu-Assad piles on the Andy Hardy contrivances instead, splitting the story between Assaf’s childhood (depicted here as a Newsies-style world of street bands, adorable urchins, tragedy-tinged hijinks and soldier-on message-mongering) and his long path to Arab Idol as a struggling young taxi driver on the Gaza Strip. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the concept of The Idol, not even the attempt to rewrite an extremely recent real-life event witnessed by the entire world into melodramatic storybook nonsense, but there’s nothing particularly notable about Abu-Assad’s execution either.
A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2016; Dir.: Rodrigo Plá)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.
You won’t find a stronger proponent for unconventional running times than this critic – in the world where I rule you like a god, the multiplexes play 50-minute movies right along with 500-minute movies, and everyone eats a flavorless mush I call “root-marm.” Mexican director Rodrigo Plá’s crusty anti-HMO screed A Monster with a Thousand Heads clocks in at 74 minutes, conspicuously short by today’s standards but longer than some of William Wellman and Charlie Chaplin’s best films, so fuck you, today’s standards. Unfortunately, Plá’s iron-fisted approach to the thriller genre wrings out any possibility of tension or mystery, leaving only an over-baked and undernourished gimmick movie, and a fairly laughable one at that. While her husband wastes away at home, unable to obtain the uncovered medication that he desperately needs, his wife Sonia (Jana Rulay, limited to one expression) takes matters into her own hands. After a doctor brushes her off, she follows him home and abducts him at gunpoint, but even with hostages in tow, Sonia is still forced to navigate an obstinate bureaucracy. Plá’s one trick is to follow a sequence to its conclusion, then reset from an incidental participant’s point-of-view, usually accompanied with narration ostensibly culled from a future deposition or trial. It probably sounds a lot cooler than it plays, but for the most part this dud feels like a Dog Day Afterthought.
Margarita, with a Straw (2016; Dir.: Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Cine Grand 7 in Fremont and the Camera 3 in San Jose.
Kalki Koechlin stars in this wispy but well-meaning romantic comedy as Laila, a spunky aspiring writer with cerebral palsy who leaves India to pursue an education in New York, where a newfound permissiveness kicks an already revving sexual awakening into overdrive. After a few unrequited crushes on “normal boys” and a fumbled attempt to experiment with another wheelchair-bound classmate, Laila falls in love with a blind female student protester, tentatively coming out while still itching to explore. Sensitivity and restraint are the greatest strengths of Margarita with a Straw – the film is firmly set against exploitation and pandering, at least until the face-palm final scene, and always meets the character of Laila at her emotional and physical eye level. With humor and heart, it deals with subjects that most movies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, especially the day-to-day challenges and sexual needs of people with disabilities. I just wish the movie wasn’t so feel-good perfunctory, so comfortable and comforting, so eager to ape the therapy-movie mold of drippy American indies.
High-Rise (2016; Dir.: Ben Wheatley)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, May 13 at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
Barbecued dog is the appetizer here, human flank steak the main course, with a buffet line of sociopathic consumption and apocalyptic class war in between. Director/co-editor Wheatley and writer/co-editor Amy Jump’s take on J.G. Ballard’s poisonous satire of Thatcher-era England looks and feels a lot like David Cronenberg’s take on J.G. Ballard’s Crash, stark and gloomy and detached, but High-Rise also displays a pitch-black playfulness more in line with The Rules of Attraction and Fight Club. After an ill fit as Hank Williams in I Saw the Light, Tom Hiddleston gives a cool and polished lead performance as Laing, a mild-mannered, Patrick Bateman-esque social climber in a sleek 1970s wardrobe. Laing leases an apartment in an ultra-modern high-rise with so many amenities, including a gymnasium, a grocery store and a school, that the inhabitants eventually neglect to leave, instead turning against each other in a homicidal battle to throw “the better party.” As with the train in Snowpiercer, the High-Rise skyscraper becomes an obvious but reliable metaphor for the social order, with the Royal family living in reclusive luxury on the top floor, the professional classes stuck in the middle and the lower classes drowning in debt on the bottom. Wheatley and Jump ground the story in its original time and place, which only makes the relevance of the satire and the familiarity of the targets all the more disturbing. High-Rise slices forward fearlessly, relentless in its narrative thrust and yet overflowing with show-stopping setpieces. The effect is dazzling, although I should be noted that I’m a sucker for this sort of heavily stylized decadence and decay.
Tale of Tales (2016; Dir.: Matteo Garrone)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, May 13 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Bizarre but oddly restrained gory fantasy from Gomorrah director Garrone, an intertwined anthology inspired by the fairy tales of Giambattista Basile. Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly play a childless queen and king in the opening chapter, perfect casting in that those are literally the only two people that this staunch patriot could ever imagine revering as royalty. A hooded mystic influences the unhappy queen to send her husband to steal the heart of a sea monster, the first in a series of practical-effect beasts that lumber throughout this luxuriously stiff oddity. Devouring the sea monster’s heart instantly causes the queen to become pregnant, but the female servant who prepared the meal also gives birth to an identical albino twin. Sixteen years later and Hayek looks exactly the same, just like in real life. The queen takes the hand of a debauched king but fixates entirely on her son, frowning on his friendship with his serf-class double, while the boys hatch a Prince and the Pauper-style scheme. Other arms of this beast involve cave ogres, giant fleas, lonely princesses, witches, tightrope walkers and performing bears, but most story threads wrap around power struggles of truth vs. deception and freedom vs. control in familial relationships. Viscous and tactile, Tale of Tales feels like David Cronenberg hijacked the set of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre with an EXistenZ gristle gun. If only there was some more shape to this thing! Too many scenes struggle on awkwardly, like a slain animal that doesn’t know it’s dead yet.
Neon Bull (Dir.: Gabriel Mascaro)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
A documentarian making only his second narrative feature, writer-director Gabriel Mascaro invests the entrancing and upsetting Neon Bull with equal parts lived-in authenticity and dreamlike beauty. Neon Bull follows a surrogate family of cowhands and entertainers at the “Vaquejadas”, a particularly brutal Brazilian rodeo where bulls are brought down by their tails. The film quietly observes their dreary daily routines and occasional cloudbursts of fortune as they travel from town to town, sleeping in the same trailer pen used to transport the bulls. At the center of the microscopic amount of story that exists sits Iremar, a scruffy and calloused bull wrangler with a surprising sentimental streak, and a burning ambition to work in the clothing industry. Mascaro’s aesthetic is rigid (camera movements are terse and functional, and he rarely cuts within a sequence) in the mode of the European neo-miserables while also embracing a Lynch-ian weirdness, including any number of disturbingly sexual sequences involving humans and horses. In its nonjudgmental empathy for people living on the farthest fringes of society, its bleakly epic scope, its portrait of a world where everything and everyone is disposable, and in its sentimental nihilism, Neon Bull shares a fair amount of DNA with the films of New Hollywood. It’s a road movie to nowhere.