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Monday, September 28, 2020
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Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Meet in the middle

Screen Grabs: Meet in the middle

This week's must-stream films bring visions of faraway lands and all-too-close looks at our own.

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New streaming releases this weekend constitute a 60-40 split between East and West. While both sides play on the nonfiction as well as narrative field, the three features from various points in Southeast Asia offer diverse content, from the heartwarming to the brutal. As in real life at present, however, the two US movies happen to make us look like something of a “shithole country,” to borrow the phrase of a certain modern sage. Nonetheless, they too are worth a look—just don’t expect to be uplifted.

The Hole 

There’s one oldie here, and that is Tsai Ming-liang’s 1998 film, which is playing Roxie Virtual Cinema in a new restoration. its director has kept a lower profile over the last decade, but in the ’90s and oughties he was the superstar of Taiwanese cinema’s Second New Wave, which basically spanned that exact period. From his debut Rebels of the Neon God through Golden Lion winner Vivre l’amourGoodbye Dragon InnThe Wayward Cloud, and so forth, he demonstrated an exciting thematic adventurousness within a signature stylistic palette of long takes and minimalist dialogue/storytelling, flecked with absurdist fantasy. 

The Hole is a near-perfect summation of that approach, making something both plaintive and flamboyant out of an odd, small concept that requires little beyond his two favorite actors. (Who, however, reportedly did not get along at all during production.) A close-mouthed, nondescript shopkeeper (Lee Kang-sheng) lives immediately above a more astringent, upwardly-mobile woman (Yang Kuei-mei), their apartments growing too connected for comfort once a plumber inadvertently creates a hole between them. Meanwhile, an endless torrential downpour is creating larger problems, not least a virus whose contagion makes people scuttle around like cockroaches, seeking the dark and damp. 

This Kafkaesque nightmare is alleviated by incongruous musical sequences, as the woman lip-synchs buoyant vintage pop songs amidst dance numbers that erupt in the soggy building’s corridors and elevators. The songs are by Grace Chang, popular Hong Kong actress/singer in movies like Mambo GirlBooze Boobs & Bucks and Air Hostess for a decade until she retired in 1964; her vintage tracks have been featured in several of this director’s movies, as well as Crazy Rich Asians. The Hole shouldn’t add up to more than a novelty, yet it’s accomplished and charming in a way that lingers. 

Red White & Wasted

Getting wet and wild in an entirely different way are the real-life protagonists of this bizarre documentary set in Central Florida, where every male does indeed seem to be a Florida Man, and the women can’t stop twerking in public or obeying shouts to “Show us yer tits.” Yes, this is ‘Murrica, where poor whites being crowded out of home turf by high-end development nonetheless think a real estate mogul running for POTUS (as the film begins in 2016) will protect their interests. Of course, they’ve fallen for the notion that it’s the “foreigners” and political correctitude (“a buncha fuckin’ pussies complainin’ about bullshit, they get offended by everything”) that are destroying their lifestyle, not greedy wealth-gap-expanders like … well, Donald Trump.

But then, “Living offa other people’s garbage ain’t easy,” in the words of Matthew Burns, who makes his threadbare coin scrapping from Disney’s Orlando-area theme park castoffs. His true passion is “mudding,” a vicarious-thrill pursuit of reckless offroad monster-truck driving in area swamplands. Trouble is, “Things have changed so much…you can’t get away with nuthin’ anymore,” particularly because most of the land he used to tear up for fun is now privately owned and heavily patrolled. The mudding that still does happen has been hijacked by People With Money (you should see how monstrous their trucks are), resulting in one event whose drunk, violent, naked bacchanal may remind one of the classic Italian exploitation title Porno Holocaust

Directors Andrei Bowden-Schwartz and Sam B. Jones obviously gained the trust of their subjects, and try to communicate empathy for them. But that’s not an easy feeling to share. Matthew has the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. His daughters (one a “hard party girl” soon pregnant by a creepy ex, the other an epileptic with “an anger problem” who can’t be trusted to take her meds) are more like large, sugar-rushing toddlers. Seriously, these people are so stupid it hurts—all the more so because they do know what their problems are, yet refuse to work on them because that would take effort. Naturally they feel persecuted cuz … um … well, what about those damn immigrants?!? (As pregnant Krista inimitably puts it re: the “Spanish people” next door, “I just think you should like know the rules of like speaking English, like.”) 

Needless to say, these proud Americans are second amendment AF, grade-school dropouts, have cringeworthy racial attitudes, are “against voting” (because “one vote doesn’t matter”), and don’t really mind the term “redneck” so much—even they know that shoe fits. This movie will not make you feel better about your fellow citizens, especially with an election around the corner. But if you’re looking for a train wreck to gawk at, it’s got a whole family and then some. Red White & Wasted hits some virtual theaters this Friday, then VOD Sept. 22.

Buoyancy

The persecution complex of such folk is really put in context by the reality presented in Rodd Rathjen’s Australian-produced feature. It’s admittedly a dramatic narrative, but one based on the fact of an estimated 200,000 men and boys currently thought to be virtually enslaved in Southeast Asian fishing industries. 14-year-old Chakra (Sarm Heng) feels he’s the hardest working but also least appreciated member of his large, impoverished rice-farming family—with nothing to look forward to save one day laboring for the favored elder sibling who already hardly lifts a finger. 

He’s tempted into running away by rumors of high pay for labor in Thailand, figuring he’ll make his fortune after a couple years then return home. But he and an adult he befriends (Mony Ros) find themselves shanghai’d away from the promised factory jobs, instead put to work on a fishing trawler scooping up seafood to be ground into pet food. They slave from before dawn till after dark on one daily cup of rice each, the weak or disobedient simply getting tossed overboard. There is no escape; even when they dock, they’re kept from going ashore at gunpoint. Though he ingratiates himself with their brawny, brutal captain (Thanawut Kasro) as a survival tactic, Chakra soon has murderous mutiny in his heart.

Lyrically shot, Buoyancy is nonetheless a challenging watch, its story grim and violent. But it’s too well-crafted to become a mere dirge of sadism and suffering. While there’s no editorializing here, the film does give one reason to reflect that not so long ago, most people would have incredulously denied that slave labor still exists. Now, after decades of economic “globalization” that has seemingly only increased pockets of exploitation, the only excuse for that claim is pure ignorance. Buoyancy is available through some virtual theaters and the streaming service Kino Marquee.

Rent-a-Pal

Getting back to first world problems, this character study/thriller by writer-director Jon Stevenson is about the kind of lonely, unemployed, disgruntled adult male who lives in his mom’s basement. However, David (Berkeley-born actor Brian Landis Folkins) isn’t about to go postal for freedumb thanks to Boogaloo Boys propaganda. It’s 1986—he doesn’t even have a computer. And while he’s not the most socially adept guy on the planet, his jobless, housebound status is due to the fact that his oft-cantankerous widowed mother (Kathleen Brady) is disabled and dementia-afflicted. She requires his full-time, live-in care, while they both squeak by on her Social Security payments.

David’s paltry hopes for happiness are pinned on a local video dating service where so far he hasn’t had a “match.” Out of boredom, one day he brings home from their offices a VHS tape called “Rent-a-Pal,” which is exactly as pathetic as that sounds: Some guy (Wil Wheaton as Andy) pretending to converse with you from a pre-recorded cassette. This is a bit of an in-joke, because in the crazy anything-will-sell 1980s VCR heyday, there really was a commercial tape called Rent-A-Friend, which achieved some notoriety in recent years when it was featured in the hilarious Found Footage Festival touring clipshow. (You can see the whole, unbelievable creepy original thing here.) 

Stevenson takes that pop culture footnote and turns it into the hook for a Joker-esque drama of loserdom pushed over the edge of insanity—though whether David is simply snapping tether here, or “Andy” really is some kind of malevolent supernatural force, is left to the viewer to decide. When our hero does finally get a shot at potential romance (with Amy Rutledge as fellow single Lisa), the disconcertingly sometimes-static, sometimes-a-little-too-“interactive” Andy appears to feel jealous. Even betrayed. 

Despite its long, careful buildup, Rent-a-Pal doesn’t render this turn of events entirely credible—Andy doesn’t seem that unstable. But there is some suspense in seeing how things play out, which is (surprise!) not-prettily. This isn’t as strong a portrait of mental disintegration in the guise of genre horror as, say, the actual 1980s cult film Pin, or much-more-recent Joker for that matter. But it’s an interesting stab at something offbeat. The IFC Midnight release is on digital and cable VOD platforms as of today. 

Our Time Machine

Acclaimed Chinese conceptual artist Maleonn a.k.a. Ma Liang also has some parental issues. But he’s not trying to flee Mom—he’s trying to turn a somewhat problematic relationship with Dad into art before Dad’s mind, like Elvis, leaves the building. Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang’s award-winning documentary feature charts Maleonn’s creation of the multimedia spectacle Papa’s Time Machine, a collaboration of sorts with his father Ma Ke, a fabled former Peking Opera director whose memory is fast being erased by dementia. It’s the son’s hope that his “sci-fi stage play” mixing shadow puppetry, projections, robotics, live music, and more will provide a meaningful connection between them before dad’s ability to connect the dots disappears for good. 

This handsome documentary, which joins both the Roxie and Rafael’s virtual theater programs today, provides a look at a prolonged development/rehearsal process dogged by budget and schedule overruns. But the primary focus is on Maleonn’s life as a son to parents who greatly suffered during the Cultural Revolution, with the result that his father was a remote, impatient familial presence afterward—because he felt such pressure to make up for the creative time lost by political perversity. 

In the present tense, Ma Ke may have retired, but he’s still so single-mindedly focused (despite, or perhaps due to, his mental degeneration) that he’s driving his loyal wife nuts. Our Time Machine suggests that art has healing qualities—not just for its audience, but for art-makers themselves, and even those who can no longer make the art they spent their lives on.

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