The SF International Film Festival that wasn’t a couple months ago—one of COVID-19’s earliest cultural casualties—would have included a 20th-anniversary screening of Greg Harrison’s Groove. That SF-set ensemble piece is still possibly the best fictive movie about the erstwhile rave scene, something that no longer exists in its original form, or at least has largely morphed from an underground phenomenon into a massive commercial behemoth of global EDM festivals and other high-ticket events. Groove might even have been the only good non-documentary feature on that subject… at least until Brian Welsh’s new Beats, a B&W British indie I hadn’t even heard of last week, but which is now firmly lodged amongst my favorite 2020 releases. (It actually opened in some EU nations last year.)
Beats is set in 1994, when several years’ explosive growth of drug-saturated underground dance parties had led the authorities to pass legislation banning them outright. (It rendered illegal any large, permit-flaunting gathering whose amplified music was driven by “repetitive beats.”) This is grim news to a couple BFF teens living in a bleak Scottish housing project, who’ve dreamed of going to events that are now against the law. As if they don’t already have enough problems: Johnno (Cristian Ortega) is about to be moved against his will to a different house and school district, part of his mother (Laura Fraser) cementing her relationship with a cop (Brian Ferguson). Spanner (Lorn Macdonald) lives parent-free, but that’s no advantage when his flatmate is older brother Fido (Neil Leiper), a notorious local dealer and all-around violent psycho.
Thus it’s very good news—if only as an opportunity for a mutual last hurrah—when the boys discover a huge protest party is being planned for the weekend, location TBA. They score tickets, and Spanner (in an arguably suicidal move) helps himself to some of big bro’s drug cash. This “actual, proper rave” begins about an hour into Beats, and it is possibly the most ecstatic sequence you’ll see all year—a thing of beauty that in 14 minutes manages to encompass the best of not only Groove but (gulp) 2001. Then the plot kicks back in, which at first seems a terrible bummer. But Beats has a lot of layers and nuance; ultimately it’s about much more than two fanboys losing their cherries for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, or at least two out of three (and you’ll have to be liberal with the “rock” part).
Shot in B&W, this seriocomic flasbhack encompasses police violence, domestic violence, and other woes, yet it’s only one-part classic Brit Miserabilism—with several other parts are considerably more exhilarating than you might expect. Beats is cinematic as hell, despite being improbably based on a stage play; it is also comprehensible (thanks to subtitles), despite those impenetrable Scottish accents. I loved this movie, and I don’t even like electronic dance music as a general rule. It’s available for streaming through various outlets including Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.
Another terrific new movie is this Ina Weisse’s German drama, starring Christian Petzold regular Nina Hoss’ somewhat OCD-afflicted violin teacher at a conservatory. Discerning great talent undetected by colleagues in an underprivileged new admission (Ilja Monti), she focuses on his development to a degree that not only alarms this protege, but threatens to alienate her own husband (Simon Abkarian) and son (Serafin Mishiev).
Reminiscent to a degree of another story involving classical music and repressed emotions in extremis, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, The Audition isn’t quite that chilly, or freaky. Nonetheless, it is a complicatedly surprising story with a considerable queasy punch, and a perfect showcase for the always-impressive Hoss. It begins streaming today as part of Alamo Drafthouse’s virtual programming. More info here.
Three Mixed Bags: Tree, Aviva, Feast
Three new features being added to local virtual-cinema programs (all are available through both the Roxie and the Rafael) earn major points for seriousness, ambition, and risk-taking, though in each case I wasn’t so sure about their ultimate success. However, these are the kinds of divisive films that will win passionate defenders, as well as leave a few others scratching their heads.
There are certainly worse things to imitate than the best movie of 2016, but Shola Amoo’s The Last Tree is conspicuously over-indebted to Moonlight in both theme and mannerisms, without attaining the depth of feeling or transcendent style that made Barry Jenkins’ film extraordinary. His protagonist is another wary, withdrawn black youth viewed over several years’ course.
When we first meet Femi (Tai Golding), he’s a happy, sociable child living contentedly with a white foster mum (Denise Black) in the countryside. When his African-emigre biological mother (Gbemisola Ikumelo) decides she’s ready to take him back, however, he yanked out of that comfort zone and deposited in a very rough lower-class London environment. By high school (now played by Samuel Adewunmi), he’s developed a hard shell, complete with criminal contacts, with his still-sensitive soul buried deep.
The Last Tree is often pretentiously stylized, with way too much slo-mo (plus a couple too-obvious Spike Lee “homages”). Character development is spotty, and the narrative takes an arbitrary late leap that is interesting but doesn’t really make a problematic film any better or worse overall. It feels like Amoo is trying too hard to prove himself here—perhaps the subject is so close to home he felt called upon to make a personal-statement “masterpiece,” resulting in something that’s more affected than affecting. Still, it’s a worthwhile attempt. In addition to the Roxie and Rafael, it’s also available for streaming through Alamo Drafthouse. More info here.
Straining for distinction in an entirely different way is Aviva, the latest from Boaz Yakin, who as writer and director has been involved in a bewildering range of projects, from gritty indies to mainstream popcorn fluff. Yet another departure, this dance drama is about a Parisian woman and NYC man’s stormy romance, with each of them played by both a man and a woman, all dancers—one also the film’s choreographer, Bobbi Jene Smith. Sometimes their relationship is expressed in conventional dialogue, sometimes in pure movement, sometimes both.
There’s lots of theatricality, fourth-wall-breaking, nudity and sex, which combined with the heavy emphasis on dance will probably strike many viewers as very fresh. To me, Aviva was oddly reminiscent of Blue Is The Warmest Color, another overlong movie that felt extremely “intimate” by virtue of baring much actors’ skin, yet didn’t bother making the characters they played particularly detailed or interesting. Still, it’s probably a must for anyone devoted to contemporary dance. Several sequences that are very good on that plane alone, particularly an anguished duet between Smith and her fellow former Batsheva Dance Company member/co-choreographer/
Even more conceptually out-there is Feast of the Epiphany, probably the most experimental feature to get (some kind of) regular release in a while. Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, and Farihah Zaman directed this odd duplex of a feature, whose first half has actors portraying guests at a dinner party thrown by Brooklynite Abby (Nikki Bolluyt), one both occasioned and made awkward by the presence of a recently deceased friend’s ex (Jessie Shelton). Then after 40 minutes or so, the film abruptly becomes a documentary about an upstate organic farm operation marking its 25th anniversary.
There’s a thin connective thread here involving different relations between food and community-building, but as deliberate as Feast seems in its well-crafted idiosyncrasy, I found little truly engaging in either the initial section’s annoyingly self-absorbed fictive “types,” or the handsomely shot nonfiction footage later on. On the other hand, some have found profundity as well as novelty in the film’s resistance to (any) formula. Please feel free to give it a watch, then if so moved, explain it to me.
Ella, Education, Activism and More—this week’s documentaries
Marking director Leslie Woodhead’s 50th year as a feature documentary filmmaker, the new Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things is nothing if not workmanlike in its look at the celebrated late jazz vocalist. There’s a richness to the early going, which sketches her turbulent beginnings as an orphaned child of the Harlem Renaissance, hoping to become a dancer but stumbling into singing instead (or so legend has it) at a 1934 Apollo Theater amateur night, aged just 16. We follow her ascendance from a gig with Chick Webb’s band to pop success (wartime novelty hit “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”) to bop, on to pop again (via her sumptuous 1950s Decca “songbook” albums), then finally as the tirelessly touring grande dame of concert-hall jazz.
The plentiful archival footage here, performance-oriented and otherwise, is hard to resist. Still, Just One of Those Things probably won’t do much for serious Ella fans, as it’s a pretty basic 90-minute overview of a long and amply chronicled career. Underwhelming new interviews from a handful of surviving acquaintances and latterday admirers eat up screentime to increasingly pedestrian effect. Still, for many, an uninspired tribute to Ella Fitzgerald beats an inspired tribute to any lesser talent, hands down. It’s available through both the Roxie (more info here) and the Rafael’s (more info here) virtual cinema programs.
The Rafael is also adding several other new musical documentaries this Friday: Take Me to the River, about Memphis’ storied role in American music-making; All I Can Say, a sort of posthumous autobiography by Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon, assembled from the copious video-diary footage he left behind; and My Darling Vivian, the portrait of Johnny Cash’s forgotten first wife that we previously reviewed here (link).
Additional newly arriving documentaries focus on the pursuit of zero-waste policies (Racing to Zero, available through the Roxie Mon/29-Wed/1 only), economic-justice activism in desperately poor Madagascar (Madagasikara, on Amazon Prime), the importance of pre-K early childhood education (No Small Matter, now available On Demand); and challenges facing LGBTQ refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. (the S.F.-set Unsettled, available on WorldChannel.org). There’s also the Windrider Film Festival, whose all-online 11th edition offers a Virtual Film Forum of three short documentaries Sat/27, followed by a seven consecutive Sunday nights of more award-winning shorts, all free with advance registration. Info: windriderbayrea.org