If we’re going to enjoy many new films in 2021, we’ll have to rely largely on countries that have COVID-19 under control to provide them. Anticipate, as a consequence, a large crop of films from Australia, China, Iceland, Mongolia, New Zealand, and (fingers crossed!) Vanuatu in the year ahead.
But perhaps the Antipodean invasion has already begun! This year’s Another Hole in the Head Film Festival — running from Friday, Dec. 11 through Sunday, Dec. 27 — includes an outstanding new Kiwi production of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and a fun little treat from their neighbors across the Tasman Sea — about which, more below.
A timeless tale of apparitions plaguing a governess in a remote and forbidding country mansion, James’ story has been adapted for the screen many times since its publication in 1898. (Wikipedia lists nine versions, not including this one.) Writer/director Alex Galvin’s take on The Turn of the Screw tells the tale in a fresh new way: through the eyes of Julia, a young actress (Greer Phillips) cast in a stage adaptation of Turn.
Yes, this is the long-awaited-by-no-one meta-version of The Turn of the Screw — but it works. Despite his 21st-century spin on the story, Galvin treats the source material with utmost respect, and his cast is outstanding — with especial kudos to Jane Waddell, whose performance as housekeeper Mrs. Grose is the equal of Megs Jenkins’ in Jack Clayton’s 1961 classic The Innocents. Spoiler alert: this film will feature prominently in next week’s Favorite Films of 2020 column!
Closer to home, the locally produced Murder Bury Win is a true delight. Shot in Berkeley, El Cerrito, and Mendocino, it’s the story of three amateur game designers trying to raise funds to produce the titular game. When an anonymous donor comes to their apparent rescue, all looks promising — until an unfortunate run-in with a bear trap sends things spiraling out of control. Murder Bury Win is tremendous (if bloody) fun, with newcomer Henry Alexander Kelly making a particularly good impression as mild-mannered gamer Barrett.
I first heard of Mokele-mbembe via LA art-punk band Monitor, who released a song about the legendary creature on their eponymous 1979 LP. Now Mokele-mbembe has its own movie, The Explorer, a fascinating documentary about a Frenchman obsessed with proving the creature is more than just a legend. If you grew up enjoying Sunn International ‘classics’ such as The Mysterious Monsters (1975) and In Search of Noah’s Ark (1976), you’ll love The Explorer.
For those favorably inclined towards fever dreams, Country of Hotels provides the appropriate spasms of confusion and discomfort. A Kubrickian tale of an ill-fated hotel room — Room 508, not The Shining’s Room 237, though the wallpaper is identical — this is a dense and disturbing psychodrama about what happens when you check into a cheap, independently operated inn. Luckily, none of us will be doing that any time soon.
Finally, Australia’s The Big Kitty offers further proof supporting my ‘Down Under films to the rescue’ thesis. A gentle, good natured tribute to (and parody of) 1940s murder mysteries and films noir, The Big Kitty follows hapless private dick Guy Boyman (Tom Alberts) as he tries to rescue a kidnapped cat belonging to Russian princess Yukova Illinaditch (Lisa Barmby). It’s tons of fun, and proves its love for the genre by working in a subtle reference to Walter Neff, the insurance agent played by Fred MacMurray in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944).
‘Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane McGowan’
Fans of Celtic punks The Pogues will want to screen Julien Temple’s latest feature, Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane McGowan (currently available via Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and the Virtual Roxie), in which the by some miracle still alive singer-songwriter regales us with stories of his childhood (split between London and the Irish countryside) in between sips of various libations. Now wheelchair bound due to a broken pelvis and (still) perpetually sloshed, McGowan can spin a story with brio, though how much of what he relates is the truth may be open to debate. Also on hand: Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams, well preserved former junkie Nick Cave, and a blessedly brief appearance by the dreaded Bono.