*Opens Friday, August 4, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
More dreary provocation from Heli director Escalante, this time an intriguing but no less deadening blend of sexually charged sci-fi and kitchen-sink social drama. Impressive newcomer Ruth Ramos stars as Alejandra, the flustered and unsatisfied wife to Ángel, a macho scumbag who is secretly sleeping with Alejandra’s gay brother Fabián. Creeping in from the margins comes Verónica (Simone Bucio), a strangely soothing outsider who worms her way into Fabián’s life, eventually enticing him to a cabin in the woods that houses a strange presence. When Fabián is found dead, Ángel is accused of the murder, but Alejandra finds herself drawn towards that same strange presence in the woods…with sexy results! (Not really, it’s super gross.) The film earns maximum points for sheer “What-the-shit?!”-ness, offering an unholy blend of Cronenberg-ian body horror and domestic misery porn, and yet it all feels unusually empty. As was the case with Heli, there is a potentially fascinating and wholly original film flickering on the fringes of The Untamed, but Escalante’s navel-gazing sadism still takes center stage.
April and the Extraordinary World (2016; Dir.: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Pure enjoyment, but then I’ve always been in the bag for humanist sci-fi, lizards wearing robot armor, unusual and meticulous production design, and adventure stories where one of the heroes is a brainy woman and the other is a talking cat. A cheeky but emotionally mature vision of a retro-future past where Napoleonic rule continued into the 20th century, but a string of unsolved kidnappings of famous scientists kept the world stuck in the steam and coal age, April and the Extraordinary World feels utterly fresh and genuine compared to a please-all-masters appeaser like Disney’s Zootopia. Married scientists Paul and Annette are working to create a serum of invincibility and immortality when they’re captured by a mysterious force and presumed dead. Years later, their determined daughter works in secret to recreate the serum, aided only by her self-aware feline Darwin, but pursued by the same forces that took her parents. Marion Cotillard voices April/Avril in the French-language version that I screened, and other voice actors in that cast include the legendary Jean Rochefort and Dardenne brothers favorite Olivier Gourmet (meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons contribute to the English-dubbed version). It’s part steampunk whimsy, part Lost-like mystical conspiracy, part science vs. nature philosophical discourse, part slapstick-laden intellectual hero’s journey, but all respect-yourself-in-the-morning animated fun.
*When a film works, the critical tendency is to praise the director and move outward from there, but the palm-sweat intensity of Sicario feels more like a triumph of brilliant actors and collaborators over a gaseous auteur.
*The Walk only exists only for the Twin Towers tightrope sequence, and while it’s certainly lucid and entrancing IMAX 3-D experience, director Robert Zemeckis spends 90 minutes grasping at straws just to get us there.
*Ridley Scott’s sci-fi plodder The Martian respects the concept of intelligence; if only it respected the viewer’s intelligence.
In this weak-kneed sequel to last year’s surprisingly enjoyable Divergent, Shailene Woodley returns as Tris, a fugitive in a post-apocalyptic world of heavily regulated societal factions. Tris belongs to the thrill-seeking Dauntless faction, but she’s secretly a “Divergent”, a Neo-like chosen one with elements of all five factions, which makes her a threat to the fascist new world order fronted by a slumming Kate Winslet. Divergent set out a buffet line of one-dimensional characters and pilfered sci-fi tropes, but most reasonable objections were lost in an action-packed whirlwind of world-building gobbledygook; it moved too fast for the stupidity of the premise to settle. Insurgent, meanwhile, spends the first twenty minutes mooning about a hippie commune while the characters get makeovers and play on the swings, and most of the first two acts are spent desperately postponing the obvious conclusion. This is pure space-filling product, almost as though the series skipped straight from A New Hope to Mockingjay, Part 1; it probably doesn’t help that competent filmmaker Neil Burger was replaced for the sequel by R.I.P.D. auteur Robert Schwentke. Woodley still makes for a emotionally resonant action hero, looking downright adorable in a post-apocalyptic pixie cut, and the pace picks up in the final stretch, but it’s too little too late to care.
*The setup of Bong Joon-Ho’s meditative sci-fi action epic Snowpiercer may be high-concept times a thousand, but the obviousness of the symbolism is so inextricably interwoven with the forward momentum of the plot and so well complemented by Joon-ho’s comic-book style and sick humor, you can’t help but buy in.
*Begin Again is director John Carney’s blatant attempt to recapture the magic of his 2006 surprise hit Once, and if it seems churlish to hold this shiny new product’s feet to that previous film’s lo-fi flame, blame Carney for rubbing our noses in it.
*Under the Skin is the best film of the year so far. Scarlett Johansson (pictured left) is perfect as the alien seductress at the movie’s center, a blithe black widow who gets increasingly weaker the further she explores a budding humanity that is only skin deep. Director Jonathan Glazer uses the Maxim Hot 100 mainstay in much the same way that James Cameron used former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator—as both an almost too-perfect metajoke and as a back door to introducing some troubling ideas about dehumanization. Under the Skin makes Johansson’s blinding sex appeal and self-conscious acting style essential to her character.
*The rancid Fading Gigolo sleazily postulates that the beautiful and lonely female professionals of modern-day New York crave only one thing: 57-year-old John Turturro (pictured left, with co-star Woody Allen). But here’s the joke: there’s no joke, that’s the movie.