A multitude of mention-worthy movies are dropping this week, so we’ll get right to it, starting with a pair of pictures that try to capture cinephilia at its most extreme.
You think you love movies? Never miss the latest critical darling down at the local art house? Well, that’s great, but it doesn’t approach the spiritual, sensual, all-encompassing fervor for film exhibited by the makers of, and characters in, two equally bizarre items playing this weekend at the Hollywood Theatre.
Spanish filmmaker Iván Zulueta’s 1979 film Arrebato (which translates as Rapture) is one of Pedro Almodóvar’s favorite films, and it’s not hard to understand why. It centers on a director trying to finish his latest horror flick who receives a mysterious package from a bizarre young man he knew in the past. The package contains a reel of super-8 film, a cassette tape, and a key. As the film flashes back and forth between their previous relationship and the present, it emerges that the precocious youth had embarked on a project to capture his own consciousness on film—or something like that. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of heroin use (reportedly both on and off screen) and other transgressions, as well as a notable performance by Cecilia Roth in her film debut. Roth would go on to appear in Almodóvar’s first feature the very next year, and become a mainstay in his regular troupe.
Arrebato is a ragged, unruly thing, clearly made by disturbed and dangerous people. Zulueta, in fact, would never complete another feature. But it speaks, especially in its masterful final act, to cinema’s dangerous, intoxicating allure in a way that few other films can.
One of those that can, however, is Japanese auteur Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, completed while the director was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. It’s an utterly surreal farewell valentine to movies and an urgent, earnest plea for world peace, all wrapped in a three-hour package bursting at the seams with invention, wit, and nostalgia.
The plot, such as it is, centers on a movie theater in Ôbayashi’s coastal hometown of Onimishi, near Hiroshima, over the course of its last night in business. The program is a marathon of Japanese war movies, and when lightning strikes the theater, three movie-mad spectators find themselves transported into the worlds on screen. They work their way through depictions of historical conflicts from the samurai era up to the bombing of Hiroshima, confronting the ways that movies can both propagandize and inspire.
Ôbayashi remains best known in this country for his first feature, 1977’s cult horror movie Hausu, but he’s produced an extensive, independent filmography in the decades since, supporting his vision by directing thousands of TV commercials. This has allowed him near-complete aesthetic freedom, and Labyrinth of Cinema exploits that freedom to the fullest. It’s shot almost entirely against green-screen backgrounds, and employs a madcap, hyperactive editing style that makes Oliver Stone look like Bela Tarr. (If you get that joke, you’re probably in this film’s target audience.)
Linear narrative largely gives way to an almost fugue-like structure, with recurring motifs and repeated dialogue enhancing the sensation that cinema is life, and vice versa, or, as Ôbayashi tells us over and over, “A lie can be the truth.” (“Arrebato” screens Friday & Saturday, Nov. 5 & 6, at the Hollywood Theatre; “Labyrinth of Cinema” screens on Sunday, Nov. 7 at the Hollywood Theatre)
THE NOTION THAT FICTION can often get at reality more clearly than fact (cue Werner Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” quote) is evidenced in Spencer, in which Kristin Stewart stars for director Pablo Larraín as Princess Diana. The opening title card reads “A Fable from a True Tragedy,” and the movie imagines how things may have transpired over one of the nightmarish Christmas holidays that Diana endured with the royal family at Sandringham. (It seems to be 1991, though the exact year is never stated in the film.)
Larraín, the Chilean auteur who previously steered Natalie Portman to an Oscar nomination as Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie, may just do the same for Stewart as another grief-stricken, glamorous, iconic mother trapped in a world she never made. It’s not the most instinctive casting, but Stewart’s sharper features and tense mien nicely capture the side of Diana that the public rarely, if ever, got to see. Here, she’s physically and psychologically on the edge, her frame scarily thin and her mind on the brink as she tries to negotiate the suffocating rituals of the Windsor clan. And, yes, she pretty much nails the accent.
Claire Mathon’s expressionistically drab cinematography and Johnny Greenwood’s nerve-jangling score, which alternates between baroque strings and disorienting free jazz, combine to give the viewer some sense of what it may have been like inside Diana’s head. Other than one memorable scene in a billiard room where she squares off with Charles, the royals exist only in her peripheral vision. Her virtual prison warden is the composite character Major Alastair Gregory (Timothy Spall), who watches her every move, and her only confidant is one of her dressers (Sally Hawkins).
The notion that being a member of the British royal family ain’t all it’s cracked up to be is itself something of a cliché, thanks to Netflix’s The Crown and, well, reality. But Larraín, Stewart, and screenwriter Steven Knight (Locke) aren’t just aiming for another takedown of the antiquated, stifling institution. Instead, the pointedly titled Spencer is a stark and insightful character study of a woman who was always more and less than her public self. (Opens Friday, Nov. 5 at the Regal Fox Tower and other area theaters)
IF YOU THINK THE HOUSE OF WINDSOR is an insulated clan of entitled people who carry the burden of altogether too much power, then you should meet The Eternals. The latest, and maybe weirdest, entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe concerns a group of (as the name implies) unaging cosmic beings who have been living secretly among us Earthlings for millennia, helping to spur key advances in human civilization. “Chariots of the Gods” meets The Illuminati, sort of.
The movie’s based on a series written and drawn by the great Jack Kirby, who was at his most unleashed when creating these galaxy-and-eon-spanning mythologies. One interesting facet of the Marvel cosmology is that it dispenses with any sort of Judeo-Christian benevolent deity in favor of things like the floating space-realm of Asgard or the interventions of the godlike Celestials, one of whom sends the Eternals on their mission to Earth.
The typically star-studded, and pleasingly diverse, cast includes Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani, and not one but two Game of Thrones alumni, Richard Madden and Kit Harington. The director is Chloe Zhao, whose two previous films, The Rider and Oscar winner Nomadland, have focused on characters at the edges of society. That sort of goes for The Eternals, too, except these outsiders can shoot laser beams from their eyes or turn water into rock or run super-fast.
The movie’s too long at over two-and-a-half hours, and the tell-don’t-show nature of the long expository passages can be eye-glazing. But I found the performances engaging and the action scenes expertly staged, and the fact that these aren’t Marvel mainstays such as Spider-Man or Thormeans means that, (a) there’s far less pre-existing baggage for fans to overcome, and, (b) there are real stakes because, despite their toughness, these characters can die (and at least one does) without disrupting the inevitable sequel plans or merchandising schemes. (Opens Friday, Nov. 5 all across the galaxy, and probably beyond)
FINALLY, if all this talk about movie love and aristocratic power doesn’t do it for you, there’s always The Beta Test. This pitch-black Hollywood-insider comedy stars indie-film stalwart Jim Cummings as an amoral talent agent named Jorden who receives a mysterious invitation to an anonymous one-night stand, and decides to go for it.
Naturally, this turns out to be a terrible decision, despite the incredible, blindfolded sex it leads to. Jordan has two options: go crazy trying to figure out who the woman he met in the hotel room was, or get back to the business of planning his wedding, knowing that he’ll never have an experience like that again. Add in a heaping cupful of Jordan’s justified insecurity about his professional life (he’s a complete poser who is slowly becoming aware of that fact), and you’ve got the ingredients for an almost Lynchian deconstruction of his once-ordered life.
Cummings and co-writer/director P.J. McCabe (who also plays Jordan’s best friend) make offhanded, scabrous references to the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein, and other low-hanging fruit, but they do it in a way that’s knowing enough to hit home. And as The Beta Test spirals into real insanity, it becomes a pretty memorable ride. P.S.: If you’ve never seen Cummings’ short film Thunder Road, check it out here. (Opens Friday, Nov. 5 at the Living Room Theaters and various streaming services).