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Monday, September 20, 2021

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Keeping it together—and falling apart

Screen Grabs: Keeping it together—and falling apart

Spotlight on mental health with Blackbird, Last Call, the Swerve, Rialto, and Oliver Sacks. Plus: The Beatles, Chuck Berry, Space Dogs

Beyond providing yet another answer to the question “How could things possibly get worse?,” the death of RBG last Friday gave everybody on the reasonably sane, non-delusional side of the political fence cause to wonder if sanity is all it’s chalked up to be. It’s just not a happy time to be alert, aware, concerned, capable of grasping facts, and all those other things we (but definitely not everybody) generally think of as plusses. 

Conveniently, a running theme in many new streaming releases at present seems to be mental health—or rather, the lack of it. Sometimes there is something kinda reassuring in entertainment portraying people who are living even closer to the fraying edge than you’re feeling at present. 

The starriest of the lot is Blackbird from veteran UK director Roger Michell (of Notting Hill, various literary adaptations and Hanif Kureishi-scripted features), remaking a 2014 Danish film from Bille August called Silent Heart. This is the kind of awards-bait project that is heartwarming and tearjerking on the one hand, but on the other delivers such an astringent dose of family dysfunction, you’ll be glad you don’t belong to this particular clan. Susan Sarandon plays the somewhat imperious matriarch gathering her loved ones for an early shared “Christmas” celebration that, we soon glean, will be her last—she does not intend to let ALS run its full course, as it has already seriously hobbled her physical functions. 

Joining Lily and doctor husband Paul (Sam Neill) for the holiday at their beachfront are eldest daughter Jennifer (Kate Winslet), a slightly maddening control freak, with her own contrastingly bland spouse (Rainn Wilson) and exasperated teenage son (Anson Boon); perpetually in-crisis younger daughter Anna (Mia Wasikowska), who’s brought along her semi-ex-girlfriend (Bex Taylor-Klaus); plus longtime family friend Liz (Lindsay Duncan), whose presence slightly irks the offspring—but is explained later on. 

When Lily announces it’s her plan to self-euthanize while surrounded by those closest to her, the domestic dramatics (already percolating between warring sisters) combust, with all old and some new resentments dragged out into the open for collective dissection. Christian Torpe’s screenplay arguably piles on a little too much conflict, and many of these self-absorbed, self-pitying characters are very hard to like—if you were invited to this Christmas dinner, you’d probably be calling a Lyft for rescue by the soup course. But it’s a gracefully made film with a powerhouse cast whose narrative finally arrives in safely in port after all rocky emotional seas. It’s available via Rafael@Home as well as other streaming platforms.

Peter Mackie Burns’ Irish Rialto, which is playing Frameline’s online edition (through the 27th) concurrent with its launch on other streaming platforms, is an uncompromising film for similarly focusing on characters it’s hard to like, or even defend. Even before he’s downsized out of the dockside Dublin managerial job at a company he’s worked 30 years for, middle-aged Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) shows signs of unraveling. He’s got a stable marriage to Claire (Monica Dolan), with two kids (an adult daughter he gets on well with, a teenage son who’s a sullen brat), but has the wind knocked out of him by the death of his own father, a very difficult, often cruel man. 

Then Colm is accosted in a public loo by rent boy Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney), who seems to mistake him for someone else. Yet Colm becomes entangled anyway with this “chav” type, letting himself be blackmailed while also paying the lad for sexual liaisons. Problematic as this relationship is, Colm keeps leaning into it harder as he risks alienating the friends and family alarmed by his reckless new behaviors (which include a relapse to serious drinking). Rialto is a tough watch, because it portrays self-destruction without clear explanation or neat resolution. But if not exactly uplifting, it’s nonetheless made with plenty of skill and conviction. 

Likewise suffering the kind of midlife crisis that might turn into a full-on trainwreck is The Swerve’s protagonist, a wife, mother and teacher whose “having it all” immediately looks more like Diary of a Mad Housewife—Holly (Azura Skye) is the pincushion everyone sticks their needles into, knowing she can take it. Or can she? Her husband (Bryce Pinkham) is overworked, snappish, possibly unfaithful; her sons (Liam Seib, Taen Phillips) are at each others’ throats, when not at hers; her own parents are thoughtlessly demanding. 

It doesn’t help that bitchy younger sister Claudia (Ashley Bell) is back in town, blaming everyone else for her own latest failures at marriage and rehab. Holly has the anxious, rail-thin look of someone whose desperation to please is beginning to poison her, a condition exacerbated by pills, insomnia, maybe anorexia. She’s on the verge of falling apart—and the only person who seems to notice is an ardently admiring student (Zach Rand) in her high school class, which is not the kind of support she needs. 

Writer-director Dean Kapsalis’ debut feature is a sort of mental health thriller, taking on the unreliable-narrator POV of a heroine who increasingly, somewhat unknowingly becomes a menace to herself and others. That feverish tenor works on the whole, even if I’m not sure The Swerve can quite pull off a finale that’s full-on grand guignol, almost Medea-like in its tragic horror. But give Kapsalis and his committed cast credit for boldly going out on a limb—their movie isn’t perfect, but it definitely makes an imprint. 

More striking for what it tries to do than what it achieves is another drama of extreme distress, Gavin Michael Booth’s Last Call. Recalling 1965’s The Slender Thread, in which hotline volunteer Sidney Poitier tried to talk caller Anne Bancroft out of suicide, it has Sarah Booth as Beth, a single mother and college student working as night custodian in a campus building. Expecting someone else, she picks up a ringing phone, only to gradually realize that drunken Scott (Daved Wilkins) has called a temporarily unstaffed suicide-prevention line, and she must cope as best she can with trying to talk him off the figurative ledge. 

Written by the director and actor Wilkins, Last Call is a somewhat stagey two-character piece which seeks to overcome that via the gimmick of being a split-screen movie in which our protagonists are each shown in one continuous hand-held shot. Even at little more than an hour’s length (if you discount the long opening and closing credits), this approach tends to wear out its welcome, encouraging showy histrionics without necessarily deepening insight or involvement. As well-intentioned as it is, Last Call never quite transcends the feeling of being primarily a stunt. It’s currently playing Alamo Drafthouse’s virtual cinema. 

On the nonfiction-cinema side, a deep dive into the complexities of the human mind is on tap in Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, whose subject   made them his life’s study. The late London-born neurologist, best-selling author (The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A HatAwakenings, etc.), and onetime San Francisco resident was himself a very complicated individual whose own idiosyncrasies and difficult childhood no doubt helped him grasp the extreme disorders explored in his famous case studies. Ric Burns’ documentary portrait is being offered via the Roxie, BAMPFA, and Rafael’s virtual cinema programs. 

Another mental health-related new doc is Paul Saltzman’s Meeting the Beatles in India, which chronicles the fabled visit of the Fab Four (as well as Donovan, Mia Farrow, and Beach Boy Mike Love) to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rishikesh ashram in 1968. Executive produced by David Lynch, a longtime champion of Transcendental Meditation, it recalls these pop celebrities’ somewhat rocky but influential seeking of Eastern spiritual wisdom and practice. It’s also available now via Rafael@Home and CinemaSF in advance of a general On Demand release October 9. 

Whether Space Dogs will balm or brutalize your psychological wellness is a matter of personal taste. This award-winning documentary from co-directors Elsa Kremser and Levin Peter is ostensibly a commemoration of Cold War canine hero Laika, the Moscow street dog who was “the first creature to be fired into space.” And who died there, like most animals—there were also chimpanzees and turtles—used in such early extraterrestrial missions. Often-discomfiting archival footage shows these critters undergoing high-speed motion tests, or trapped in the weightless bondage of their space capsules. 

But these historical flashbacks are more a poetical pretext for Dogs’ majority, which is observing the lives of modern-day Moscow street hounds. They appear to be plentiful, and tolerated or ignored by human passers-by. (How they survive winter goes unaddressed here.) Much of this footage is remarkable, because the dogs seem utterly oblivious to cameras that are following right along them into pockets of brush or other hidey-holes. It’s a hard-knock existence, to be sure, one where it’s often difficult to tell the difference between mutts who are play-fighting and about to tear each others’ throats. (Also, big trigger warning: You will not be charmed by what happens to a stray cat two such dogs stumble upon.) 

Many of these bowsers seem to have some German Shepherd in them, and if you’re like me, you could watch such critters all day, as matted and mongrel-y as may be. But this semi-experimental, poetical essay of a film (available through the Roxie and Alamo) is probably too disturbing and occasionally brutal in content for pet lovers who’d rather not confront the uglier aspects of everyday life for strays.

Speaking of harsh reality, if you can stand it (I’m taking a break, myself), there are a ton of urgently relevant new political documentaries releasing each week at present, and this week is no exception. The latest wave includes looks at the history of US voter suppression (All In: The Fight For Democracy); the 2/15/03 anti-Iraq War protest that, at an estimated 30 million participants worldwide, was the largest demonstration in history (We Are Many, available via the Rafael and CinemaSF); immigrant rights (The Undocumented Lawyer, at the Rafael as of Friday); combating the rise of white nationalists and other fascistic groups (Healing From Hate, at the Roxie; also Stars and Strife, on STARZ platforms); public education reform (My Name is Pedro); women’s political activism in the Trump era (Resisterhood); and a current environmental disaster that provides a road map to future, larger perils (Miracle in the Desert: The Rise and Fall of the Salton Sea). 

Of course, if you’d rather just shut up and dance, there’s Chuck Berry: The Original King of Rock ’n’ Roll, a documentary tribute to the man whom George Thorogood calls “the connecting rod between blues and what rock became later.” A pioneer not just musically but in terms of crossing the color line of hitherto sharply-divided radio play and concert bookings (though he certainly also suffered from racial bias), Berry was what Elvis aspired to be—plus unlike that “King,” he wrote his own songs. 

This somewhat pedestrian documentary by Jon Brewer doesn’t have enough performance footage, and has too much commentary by some questionable experts. (Why does Gene Simmons from KISS get more screentime than any other interviewee here? Why do we need to hear the musical analysis of someone identified as the “Berry Estate Attorney” at all?) But it’s interesting to hear from his surviving relatives, including the wife he stuck with (even if he was far from faithful) from 1948 to his 2017 demise at 90. 

We get glimpses of a somewhat thorny, embittered personality, whom short-term collaborator Keith Richards admits “gave me more headaches than Mick Jagger,” scattered amongst an alternately tabloid-y and worshipful timeline of biographical highlights. If this doc (which is a current Roxie Virtual Cinema selection) doesn’t capture the exhilaration of his art, at least it does remind you that there will always be a Chuck Berry, and that is a good thing. 

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