The current flashback documentary Summer of Soul reminded how few things were more ubiquitous on the radio 50-odd years ago than SF’s own Sly and the Family Stone, a fact obscured by his subsequent gradual retreat from public life. Definitely the ultimate sweaty seasonal party song is that act’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” something that finally seemed relevant again in Stone’s erstwhile hometown late last week. (Never mind that while I was writing this, the temperature had dipped to the low 60s again.)
Of course, nobody is enthused about those broiling harbingers of climate change that recently baked residents of Portland, Texas, et al. Yet there is still that desire for weather that encourages clothes-shedding and summer recreation of various undulatory natures. Appropriately, then, a spate of new movies seem to be all about the body—at rest and in motion, sometimes fussed and fretted over, sometimes actively imperiled.
Certainly the most sensuous of new releases is this 2018 Belgian feature belatedly making it to United states On Demand and digital platforms via Oration Films. It’s based on a novel by that nation’s bad-boy literary celebrity Dimitri Verhulst (The Misfortunates), which itself was a sort of roman à clef fictionalizing the short life and premature demise of pro cyclist Frank Vandenbroucke. A remarkable athlete, he was dogged by doping scandals and other awkwardly public woes. In 2009 he died from pulmonary embolism while on holiday in Senegal, most likely triggered by further drug use.
In Koen Mortier’s drama, Fae (Fatou N’Diaye) is a beauteous, self-possessed prostitute who refuses to classify herself as such—“I consider myself a gazelle,” she tells us in voiceover narration—but nonetheless meets visiting star bicyclist Thierry (Vincent Rottiers) while working in that capacity. It is, however, love at first sight for both of them, even if money must be exchanged. (Indeed Thierry has already told his brother Serge, played by Paul Bartel, that he can only have sex if he’s “in love.”)
The saturated hothouse colors of Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography make these two striking people as beautiful to us as they are to each other. Angel a.k.a. Un Ange is really a gorgeous film, its highly worked visual textures furthered by a string-heavy score that at first seems an odd fit, but soon feels appropriate for the film’s air of impending tragedy. For Thierry’s behavior grows ever more erratic, irrational, even paranoid and abusive; we’re not sure to what extent this is a matter of continued drug abuse and/or mental illness. (Vandenbroucke eventually claimed to suffer from schizophrenia.)
Despite flashbacks littered throughout, Mortier’s script doesn’t really explain this manchild’s issues so much as convey his feverish mental state in expressionistic terms. Very well performed by both leads, Un Ange ends on a somewhat dubious note, underlining Fae’s mourning of a great love—though really, hasn’t she just been a bystander unlucky enough to get swept up in a First World trainwreck’s self-destruction? Still, there’s a distinctive intensity to this film, both aesthetically and emotionally, that makes it well worthwhile.
The Body Fights Back
If fictive Fae and Thierry are “perfect” physical specimens—a blessing and a curse for both, in different ways—the real-life interviewees in Marian Vosumets’ documentary are very much involved with their bodies’ perceived imperfections. Her UK protagonists represent a gamut of body-image issues, from genetic predisposition towards “plus-size” to anorexia, “emotional eating,” and compulsive exercise. (A bodybuilder here has sometimes spent 2.5 hours at the gym every day.) Experts weigh in on the ills of a profit-driven diet industry, pervasive “fat phobia,” the socioeconomics of healthy food (and who it is/isn’t available to), et cetera. We’re also sold on the virtues of “intuitive eating,” and embracing the full range of body-type diversity, as demonstrated in a climactic “real catwalk” on Trafalgar Square.
The message of inclusivity, and opposition to unrealistic ideals (plus the fad diets that chase them), is certainly worthwhile, if familiar. Much of the same ground was covered in better-organized fashion 30 years ago by The Famine Within, among other related documentary surveys. The Body Fights Back meanders repetitiously, with reality-TV-show-like attention to a few leading participants whose predicaments are grasped quickly, but whose screen time goes on and on. You also wonder just what we’re learning when the male bodybuilder is constantly shown working out, and a fleshy woman frequently eating junk food, though they’re presented as if they’ve turned a corner to some happy lifestyle balance.
The film’s emphasis on victimization (“It’s always society—the problem is always outside, it’s never the person,” someone says) can feel like its own “addicting” trap, one that occasionally suggests anyone else’s attempt to lose weight or tone up is oppressive to those who don’t. Though nearly two hours, Fights Back manages to almost completely side-step the fact that changes in diet and exercise can be matters of urgent health necessity. There are a lot of good points made in Gravitas Ventures’ release, which hits digital platforms on Tue/13. But the whole might best be taken as just one counterbalancing perspective on the endlessly complex terrains of body, self, and society.
How I Became a Superhero
Notions of physical uniqueness as both “power” and burden are taken to extremes in the whole concept of superhero-dom, which has an ever-increasing stranglehold on the popular imagination. It also has great sway over the commercial filmmaking sector, resulting not only in new Marvel and DC screen incarnations at the multiplex every month, but also enterprising stabs at invading that territory on less lavish or star-studded terms. One of the best such efforts lately is this French feature now on Netflix.
Turning Paris into a humorously dyspeptic Gotham, Douglas Attal’s movie has Pio Marmai as a rumpled, grouchy police detective handling “supercriminality” cases, a job he’s blown enough to get assigned a new partner (Vimala Pons) he does his best to ignore. Nonetheless, they must learn to work together when there’s a rash of sometimes-fatal arsons in which youths appear to be ingesting a drug that turns their hands into flame-throwers. That isn’t the only superpower glimpsed here. And in what appears to be a world-building intro for a prospective series, we glean that the wisdom “Either you have powers or you don’t” is in fact wrong—some can apparently acquire them temporarily, while others discover they have them belatedly.
There’s no A-list Hollywood level of CGI spectacle in this movie. But what there is, is actually germane to the plot, and well-done. How I Became has decent intrigue that turns into explanatory backstory, plus incorporation of the superhero thing to illustrate a psychological gamut from “revenge of the bullied” to “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It mixes humor, fantasy, action, character development, and sincerity to smart, fast-paced effect. As the sparring cop partners, Marmai and Pons take things with just the right degree of seriousness—which is to say, some, but not too much. I would welcome these characters back, and for someone who’s basically checked out of the Marvel/DC “universes,” that’s saying a lot.
We all know a superheroic body can take a lot of abuse. Rather more impressive, particularly after 34 years, is how glam Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway appear as the gutter-trawling protagonists in Barbet Schroeder’s adaptation of writings by the cult author he’d already interviewed for what became the four-hour Charles Bukowski Tapes. The film catches the sardonic wit of that Skid Row scribe, perhaps more closely than the other films (also by European directors) that came out in the ’80s—though Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness and the Belgian Love Is a Dog From Hell also have their idiosyncratic pleasures.
As it was shot in his own downscale downtown LA backyard, Bukowski was more than usually involved in the production. He eventually wrote an amusing, bemused novel (called Hollywood, of course) about it, with the names changed to protect the guilty. Even so, one wonders if he was being nice, this film’s stars being among the most notoriously temperamental in the business. With Rourke as his alter ego Henry Chinaski, Dunaway as a fellow-traveler boozehound, and a supporting cast including such personalities as Frank Stallone, Eraserhead’s Jack Nance, and future Borg Queen Alice Krige, Barfly remains a flavorful approximation of life on the bottom rungs—even if Schroeder arguably seemed more at home much further up that ladder with Reversal of Fortune three years later.
Co-presented by Amoeba Music, the 35mm print being screened at the Roxie this Wed/14 offers a vintage look at “life on the edge” that probably lured more than a few weekend nonconformists off the diving board into a wading pool of local dives. For details, go here.
Rock, Paper and Scissors
Grievous bodily harms different from drinking oneself to death are explored in this Argentinian debut feature from co-directors Martin Blousson and Macarena Garcia Lenzi. Maria Jose (Valeria Giorcelli) and Jesus (Pablo Sigal) are 30-something siblings living in apparent complete isolation within their recently-deceased father’s home, which by the looks of it hasn’t enjoyed even the slightest decor makeover for about a half-century. They have no jobs, no friends, apparently no need or desire to go outside, even. Then they receive a visitor: Their half-sister Magdalena (Augustina Cervino), who’s learned of dad’s death and has returned from Spain to claim her share of the estate.
There is not, however, enough of that estate to go around—at least not if brother and sister want to maintain their hermetically-sealed status quo, which they most certainly do. Ergo Magdalena finds herself “accidentally” plummeting down a staircase, then recuperating from her considerable wounds in bed. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that the half-sibs do not intend for her to leave, ever. However, assumptions about just which relation is the craziest will have to undergo some revision during her ordeal.
Its off-kilter edge much amplified by a putrid color palette that’s all fading beiges, yellows and browns, Rock mixes the black-comedy captive crises of Misery and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with an absurdist tone closer to some of Yorgo Lanthimos’ films, like Dogtooth or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It feels more derivative than any of those models, however, and less certain how to balance straight suspense with the macabre. The results, now on digital and VOD platforms from Dark Star Pictures, are a mixed bag that nonetheless will pique the interest of those attracted to willfully eccentric cinema that seems aimed at a cult audience.