Thursday, April 15, 2021
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Dark Money, Generation Wealth, Everything Else

Screen Grabs: Dark Money, Generation Wealth, Everything Else

McQueen, a Jacques Becker retrospective, Milford Graves: Full Mantis, and more in cinemas this week.


SCREEN GRABS This week’s movies seem unified by the theme of money—not least the big new popcorn movie Mission: Impossible 6, because no one makes a sixth entry in a franchise for any reason beyond profit. That said, it pains me to confess that this M:I has gotten the best reviews of the series so far. Why is that painful? Well, speaking as someone who could hit “Delete” on pretty much Tom Cruise’s entire screen ouevre without a qualm, I am particularly happy on the rare occasions when he makes something that’s actually worth seeing. But word has it this is an outstanding chunk of big-budget action escapism, and it would be remiss to avoid plugging an apparent not-too-guilty pleasure just because its perpetually effortful star gives me no pleasure. 

Elsewhere (all below opening Friday at area theaters unless otherwise noted):

As we grow nearer to a midterm election we’re already told will be interfered with by Russia—and as the GOP continues its merry gerrymandering and voter-suppression ways—the timing couldn’t be more apt for this engrossing new documentary. Kimberly Reed, whose prior Prodigal Son was a much more personal look at her own family and gender-transition issues, turns towards more traditional reportage to examine the escalating, catastrophic effect that Citizen’s United has had on our democracy. 

She particularly focuses on her home state of Montana, which had some of the “cleanest” election laws in the nation—due to a history of corporate political corruption during peak mining days as long as a century ago. But now that’s been undone by a flood of dishonest smear campaigns, shadowy Super-PAC funding, phony new “grassroots” organizations, dubious trickle-up legislation, and more—all of it legal since the Supreme Court’s “Citizens” decision, natch. And of course these tactics invariably further a far-right agenda, with the Machiavellian Koch Brothers often to be found at the end of each “follow the money” inquiry. As involving as it is infuriating, Dark Money should be a must-see for voters of any party affiliation. Reed will appear for Q&A’s at some opening-weekend shows (at the Opera Plaza and Shattuck Cinemas). At area theaters. More info here. 

A different inquiry into our current United States of Avarice is made here by Lauren Greenfield, whose prior The Queen of Versailles looked at a Florida real estate billionaire and his wife as they built a garish new home—one that would be the largest “single family residence” in US history. Realizing that her entire career has been spent photographing, studying and promoting people of (or aspiring towards) fabulous wealth, Greenfield decided next to explore the general subject of conspicuous consumption. That encompasses everything from high-end financial crimes to plastic surgery, empty Kardashian-type “celebrity,” commodity fetishism (like people who “collect” $20,000+ handbags), and much more. 

Perhaps this terrain is a little too close to the director’s heart, since her movie winds up spending way too much time dwelling on her own personal issues around workaholism, status, and navel-gazing. The result is something of an indulgent, catch-all mess. Still, you can’t look away when Greenfield trains her camera on such up-to-the-moment “lifestyle” excesses as stripper-pole workout classes, or showcases personalities like one “Limo Bob,” who proclaims his love of “old-world elegance” while wearing thirty-two ridiculous pounds of solid-gold bling around his neck. Clay Theatre. More info here. 

Yet another documentary about the perils of too much dough-ray-me, this acclaimed feature profiles the life and legacy of famed British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The humbly born Londoner rocketed to success at an early age, his daring, theatrical designs attracting such patrons as David Bowie, Bjork, and stage multimedia maestro Robert Lepage. 

Sometimes macabre, always arresting, his diverse work reached beyond mere “clothes” such that New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art chose to build an entire 2011 exhibition around him. But by the time it opened, he’d already committed suicide, done in by myriad psychological and substance-abusive demons at age 40. Co-directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettdgui, this is said to be a handsome and insightful feature homage to a striking if eventually tragic talent. Embarcadero. More info here. 

Dona Flor (Adriana Barraza from Babel and Amores Perros) is the impassive face of impenetrable bureaucracy in a featureless Mexico City government office, turning away ID-card applicants who’ve waited hours because of some trivial technical error in their filling out the required forms. It’s a numbing daily routine she can only enliven by petty cruelty. Nor is there much comfort at home, where the sole being interested in Dona Flor is her cat—and he may just be in it for the free food. 

This is a first narrative feature for director Natalia Almada, and she has a documentarian’s eye for how truth revels itself in seemingly nondescript details. The tedious repetitions of our protagonist’s days and nights are faithfully recorded in precise compositions that seem to trap her in the frame, like a museum specimen pinned to a diorama of “typical urban life for the modern spinster.” She’s the cheerless inhabitant of a dreary life from which all exits have vanished, save the final one. 

This is reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Dielman…. That 1975 woman seemed in desperate need of some, any role other than “housewife.” Almost half a century later, this heroine is not at all liberated by the white-collar job that gets her out of the domestic cage. You don’t go to a movie like this for “fun,” but for a gradual accumulation of details that adds up to a provocative larger picture—one not just of an individual character, but of the surrounding sociopolitical environ that inevitably turns her story a sort of hopeless, commonplace tragedy. It’s a “difficult” viewing experience, albeit one with rewards and resonance for the patient. Roxie. More info here. 

Though not particularly prolific—he only made a baker’s dozen features before dying in 1960 at 53—Becker has come to be seen as one of the masters of French cinema before the Nouvelle Vague. Indeed, like Renoir (whom he began his career working under), he’s among the few “old-school” directors who were admired by upstarts such as Truffaut and Godard, who otherwise derided the veterans their “wave” displaced. 

This already-in-progress PFA retrospective is particularly unmissable this weekend, as it brings two showings (Friday and Saturday night) of Becker’s acknowledged masterpiece Casque d’or. The 1952 drama stars Simone Signoret as a turn-of-the-century gangster’s moll who tempts fate when she falls for an ordinary working man (Serge Reggiani). Despite its period trappings, romantic melodrama is often considered a direct precursor to Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player a decade later. On Sunday there’s also Becker’s 1951 Edouard et Caroline, a modern-day light seriocomedy about an artistic couple braving the eddies of Paris’ cultural and class snobberies. The series continues through August 31 at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. More info here. 

A major force in free jazz since the early 60s, Queens-raised percussionist Graves has worked with everyone from Pharaoh Sanders, New York Art Quartet and Paul Bley to Miriam Makeba, John Zorn and Sun Ra. Seemingly ageless though approaching 80, he’s a lively subject in director Jake Meginsky’s dynamic, playful documentary, which takes its stylistic cues from his free-ranging musical imagination. Even as an interviewee, Graves is all over the place, in a good way: Interests key to his art encompass martial arts, West African culture, plant life, and the finer functioning points of the human heart, just for starters. Full Mantis is a distinctive portrait of a unique talent and eccentric personality. Roxie. More info here. 

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