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Thursday, October 29, 2020
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Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: New films storm the barricades, in myriad...

Screen Grabs: New films storm the barricades, in myriad ways

New movies embody the spirit of activism—and different spirits, too. Plus: American Indian and Filipino flicks, and a Woody Allen stinker.

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The twin urges to storm the barricades on one hand and medicate oneself into oblivion on another are conveniently addressed by several films new to streaming this Friday. Better living through chemistry is explored in Tyler Chandler’s Dosed, available as of today through CinemaSF.

It follows a friend of the filmmaker’s, who’s struggled with addiction and suicidal thoughts, as she abandons the world of street drugs and prescription medications for plant-based therapies encompassing psilocybin mushrooms and African-shrub-derived ibogaine, which are intended to help her explore previous traumas and recover. If drowning your sorrows in a more traditional way appeals, there’s Mark Johnson and Mark Ryan’s Wine and War, which looks at winemaking in politically unstable Lebanon—a region that purportedly first gifted that elixir to the world about 7,000 years ago. It is currently playing virtual cinemas around the country.

If you’d rather get active than inebriated, several more new docs provide inspirational portraits of activist leadership in myriad forms.

Playing the Roxie, Rafael, Alamo Drafthouse, Rialto and CinemaSF virtual cinemas is Catherine Gund’s Aggie, about her octogenarian mother Agnes—a major philanthropist and art collector who sold a Roy Lichtenstein painting (for $165 million!) in order to start a nonprofit agitating for criminal justice reform and the end of U.S. mass incarceration.

Another hero is the subject of Lillian LaSalle’s My Name Is Pedro, also available via CinemaSF. Pedro Santana turned a “troubled” South Bronx middle school into a district model, using the kinds of hands-on attention he wishes he’d had available himself as a former “special ed” student with learning disabilities.

Coming just a couple months after The Fight, an excellent documentary about four key lawsuits the American Civil Liberties Union has brought against the current White House administration, there’s Mighty Ira, which chronicles both the history of that organization and the life of its former executive director (1978-2001) Ira Glasser. Now in his 80s, he’s still active—and still defending some of the ACLU’s more controversial actions, which included supporting the right (if not the righteousness) of neo-Nazis to demonstrate. It’s available in some virtual cinemas now, on general streaming platforms as of Oct. 23. 

Finally, there’s activism and a whole lot more on tap in the A.I.M. (American Indian Movement) West International Film Festival (more info here), which Roxie Virtual Cinema is hosting October 12-15. This latest showcase for new Native American filmmaking is focused on “Indigenous Self-Determination in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” In addition to three mid-length shorts, there are two documentary features: Shelton Wolfchild’s The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code is a Buffy Saint Marie-narrated look at the U.S. government’s legal and other self-justification for seizing “newly discovered” lands; and Sanjay Rawal’s Gather finds current Native activists working to reclaim cultural identity via development of healthy, independent food sources. 

Elsewhere in the world of new streaming arrivals: 

Filipino-Americana: Yellow Rose and Bitter Melon
Last year there was the Scottish Wild Rose, with Jessie Buckley as a working-class Glaswegian who yearns to be a country music star. Now we have documentarian Diane Paragas’ first narrative feature, in which Eva Noblezada plays another unlikely aspirant towards Nashville fame—a Texas teen who’s also an illegal immigrant, brought to the States by her motel-housekeeper mother. Hinging upon disadvantaged li’l ladies with miraculous big heartbreak voices, both these movies are formulaic feel-good seriocomedies with just enough conviction to override their contrivance. Yellow Rose may use ICE raids as a melodramatic plot device, but Noblezada (who is, like fellow cast member Lea Salonga, a veteran of Broadway musical Miss Saigon) sure can sing purty. 

Meanwhile Roxie Virtual Cinema is celebrating Filipino American History Month with a series of “Pinxy Flix” through October, curated by local filmmaker/musician H.P. Mendoza, and kicking off with his terrific 2018 dysfunctional-family blowout Bitter Melon. The latter is being offered not just free, but in a “First Cut” edition different from the acclaimed theatrical release, which purportedly has a much crazier, genre-defying tilt encompassing dream sequences and a musical number. More info here.

A Rainy Day In New York
We were stymied in seeing one mainstream auteurist exercise this week: Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, one of her (and star Bill Murray’s) better-reviewed films in recent years, did not materialize for preview by deadline. Alas, we did get to watch another comedy about characters romping about NYC. A Rainy Day is Woody Allen’s latest…well, almost-latest, as he’s actually completed another under-radar feature since this ill-starred one was shot three years ago. Timothee Chalamet and Elle Fanning play a collegiate couple who venture to his native Big Apple so she can interview a famous movie director (Liev Schrieber), and he can avoid his socialite parents. Hijinks ensue, regrettably not at all hilarious, but involving folks such as Jude Law, Rebecca Hall, Diego Luna, and Cherry Jones.

There’s something very wrong with a movie featuring so many relatively heavy hitters, in which nonetheless the performer who comes off best is Selena Gomez. I’m not sure which is worse: That the Woody stand-in Chalamet gets stuck playing is named “Gatsby,” or that elegant matron Jones has an “Of course I started out as a prostitute” monologue that would’ve elicited groans on Broadway in 1930. Young actors playing 20-year-olds speak dialogue that sounds exactly like it was written by a 84-year-old with no idea how such people actually talk now. Vittorio Storaro photographs cushy Manhattan settings as if he were creating a luxury tourism brochure. 

Finally showing up in the US over a year after it started opening overseas, Rainy Day got entangled in Allen’s collapsed deal with Amazon, plus the renewed scrutiny of his private life as the #MeToo movement gained steam. It’s been treated badly—but frankly it doesn’t deserve better. It’s a self-derivative, exhausted, anachronistic movie from a filmmaker who is out of ideas, and no longer recycling his old ones effectively. 

Song Without a Name
In 1988 Peru, when the country was just beginning to emerge from years of Shining Path terror, 20-year-old Georgina aka Geo (Pamela Mendoza) and husband Leo (Lucio Rojas) are Quecha villagers living on the city’s farthest outskirts, expecting their first child. One day while selling potatoes on the street, she hears an announcement for free medical assistance at supposed clinic to pregnant women in central Lima. After an examination, they tell her to come back when it’s “time”, and not to “worry about money.” 

She does return to give birth to an apparently healthy girl, which is taken away as she’s told to rest. But upon waking, the baby is gone, supposedly taken to an undesignated hospital “for some checkups,” and distraught Geo is simply hustled out the door. Later, the “clinic” itself has disappeared. Police refuse to help, and the couple run a maze of bureaucratic offices to no better result. Finally, they turn to the press, finding a journalist (Tommy Parraga as Pedro) willing to investigate—albeit at considerable peril to them all, as it soon emerges there’s an international ring of kidnappers smuggling infants abroad for lucrative adoption sales. Anyone who upsets that gravy train may be marked for violent threats, or worse.

A fictionalization of actual events, Melina Leon’s first feature is striking if flawed. The subject matter carries its own inevitable power, and the script’s more cryptic aspects are viable in lending a certain Kafka-esque nightmare feel. At the same time, a subplot involving closeted Pedro’s romance with an actor (Maykol Hernandez) is so pointless, it seems to belong in another movie. Leon’s direction can border on the mannered, but there is no question that Song Without a Name is arrestingly textured: Shot in B&W, with a nearly-square aspect ratio, it sometimes feels like a lost minor classic from sixty years ago. The lead characters’ shack on a featureless hill is so near-abstract in its visual starkness, you might feel you’re watching a cinematic transcription of a Beckett play. Song Without a Name is currently playing BAMPFA’s virtual cinema. More info here.

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