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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: Dig deeper into 'made in China' at...

Screen Grabs: Dig deeper into ‘made in China’ at SFMoMA film series

Plus: A Krautrock hero, SF Sketchfest brings classics to the Castro, Megacities, and Karen Kusama

One of the world’s largest movie markets, China nonetheless has an odd relationship towards the international film market. Stringently limited number of foreign films are allowed to screen there each year. Homemade productions (still somewhat separate from the more independent, purely commercial Hong Kong industry) encompass movies made strictly for local consumption, and those created at least in part to access prestige and/or mainstream audiences abroad. (The latter efforts, still very much a work-in-progress conceit, have included some notably awkward attempts at “crossover” popcorn cinema, including a mind-boggling action mess last year called The China Salesman whose idea of luring Western audiences involved the hiring of those noted thespians Steven Seagal and Mike Tyson.)

Already in progress, SFMoMA’s series Turn It On: China on Film, 2000-2017 encompasses 20 titles from another sector of the medium: independent Chinese documentary. It’s a field that is particularly daring, as its artists often find themselves in opposition to government messaging in a nation where there isn’t really much “free press” in reality or even in theory. Among their subjects are persecuted intellectuals (Storm Under the Sun, In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul), past human rights abuses towards political prisoners (Jiabiangou Elegy), China’s secretive aerospace industry (Falling from the Sky), environmental issues (Plastic China), criminal justice system cover-ups (Garden in Heaven), and more. 

The series also contains free classes addressing related sociopolitical and artistic issues. Occasioned by SFMoMA’s large-scale exhibit Art and China After 1989, the individual films are also being made available to public library members via streaming service Kanopy. SFMoMA Phyllis Wattis Theater, through Sun/27. More info here.

Elsewhere this week:

Sketchfest at the Castro
The second, final week of SF Sketchfest is particularly heavy on movies, or at least various forms of prerecorded (as opposed to live) audiovisual entertainment at the Castro. Friday there’s the return of Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher’s beloved Found Footage Festival, in which they present their latest compendium of variably horrific VHS-era artifacts excavated from the nation’s attics and thrift stores; they’ll be sharing the bill with inspired video mixologists Everything Is Terrible! 

Saturday brings a 20th anniversary screening and cast reunion for Christopher Guest’s ensemble improv classic Best in Show, while the following Thu/24 there’s exactly the same kinda thing for the equally old cult fave Office Space. In between there are similar revival event screenings of Bill Forsyth’s 1983 Local Hero (with Peter Riegert in person), arguable greatest-film-of-all-time Evil Dead 2 (with Bruce Campbell ditto), and a Sunday matinee of Rifftraxxers riffing on a program of particularly atrocious old industrial, educational and promotional shorts. SF Sketchfest continues at the Castro through Thu/24. More info here.

Megacities and Workingman’s Death
Late Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger’s international reputation was staked on these two documentaries, which the PFA is reprising. Both look at the hidden costs of First World consumerism—particularly the grueling manual labor we’re seldom aware of that operates largely for our benefit in less privileged nations. 

In 1998’s Megacities, the director lifts the rug to see what lies under the surface gloss of several modern metropolises. Whether it’s NYC, Moscow, Mexico City, or Bombay, he finds stark contrast between the lifestyles of an economic elite, and the endless struggle of those working poor at the bottom of the societal totem pole. Worker safety and health are not exactly priorities in the hellish landscapes of 2005’s Workingman’s Death, wherein we glimpse the generally well-hidden realities of illegal Ukrainian coal mines, Indonesian sulfur harvesters, a Nigerian slaughterhouse, Pakistani ship-deconstructors, and so forth. These striking, commentary-free documents are full of indelible images and almost surreal extremes. PFA. Megacities: Sat/19, Mon/May 3. Workingman: Wed/18, Sun/20. More info here.

Conny Plank: The Potential of Noise
A hidden hero of Krautrock whose sonic innovations extended well into the New Wave era and beyond, Konrad Plank finally gets the solo spotlight in this German documentary by Reto Caduff and Stephan Plank. As a producer, sound engineer, and player — after getting his professional start as Marlene Dietrich’s sound dude engineering — he worked the first Kluster album in 1970. He went on to collaborate with Kraftwerk, Neu!, Can, Eno, and other acts whose enormous influence on post-punk music encompassed his own participation in work by Ultravox, Eurythmics, Flock of Seagulls, and more. He’d prove (in life as well as posthumously) to be a figure of major influence on everything from prog to dub to synthpop and techno. This feature promises a wealth of performance and recording footage spanning several exciting musical epochs. Fri/18, Roxie. More info here.

A tardy mention of this latest film by Karyn Kusama, whose career started off strong with the 2000 indie Girlfight before a couple expensive flops pushed her into TV work. Sorry — we thought it was opening this week, but it turned out they’d pushed the local release up to last Friday. Well, it’s an appropriate movie to fall asleep at the wheel for, since its main character is a DUI type with a vengeance.

Something of a return to form (and to Girlfight’s hard edge), the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi focuses on Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), an LAPD detective who’s burned a lot of bridges — both personal and professional — since an undercover infiltration of a drug-dealing gang went disastrously wrong 17 years ago. Nearly two decades, one broken marriage, and a whole lotta substance abuse later, she’s barely tolerated by fellow cops and loathed by the teenage daughter she’s perpetually let down. 

Destroyer cross-cuts between the present and past as our protagonist sniffs the resurfacing of an elusive longtime foe, bending or breaking the rules over and over in order to settle a bitter old score. This is a tough, nasty investigative thriller with an antihero(ine) in the mode of 70s films like The French Connection. It’s well-cast down the line, with Kidman relishing the chance to play a character whose battered-by-life looks and battering-ram personality are the opposite of her usual elegant presentation. At area theaters. 

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