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Thursday, October 29, 2020
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Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: When punk made racism uncool again

Screen Grabs: When punk made racism uncool again

White Riot documents Rock Against Racism. Plus: I Wake Up Streaming, Trial of the Chicago 7, The Wall of Mexico, more

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There’s a number of film festivals launching their 2020 events virtually this week, including the already in-progress CAAMFest Forward, formerly known as SF Asian American Film Festival, which runs though Sun/18 (and kicked off with a new Wayne Wang film); and the United Nationals Association Film Festival, whose 23rd edition continues to Sun/25. UNAFF’s theme this year is “The Power of Empathy”—remember ye olden days, when that was a quality we just assumed other people possessed?—and that concept will be advanced via a wide-ranging lineup of documentary features, shorts and Zoom panel discussions. The human rights-focused subjects addressed encompass climate change, war crimes, racial, economic and gender disparity; countries are represented from Greenland to Ghana to Guatemala and beyond; notable presences behind or before the camera include Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Joan Baez and Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Another festival of sorts that started this week is the return of Elliot Lavine’s long-running showcase for vintage noir, its online-only current edition prompting a title tweak to I Wake Up Streaming. This “Masterclass” version is designed to be interactive, with 90-minute Zoom sessions each Tuesday so viewers can discuss with their curator/host the two films whose screening links they’ve already had a week to watch. 

Running though Nov. 24 (with no program on Election Night—god knows that may prove noir enough already), the schedule of 12 features is heavy on reprised favorites from prior I Wake Up Screaming series. But it still offers a diversity of peak-period B&W American crime thrillers, from major studio classics like the original D.O.A., Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo and actress-turned-director Ida Lupino’s taut The Hitch-Hiker to relative obscurities. Among the latter are soon-to-be-blacklisted Joseph Losey’s underrated 1951 remake of the German classic M; 1948 Poverty Row gem Open Secret, about systemic anti-Semitic violence; and 1955’s Female Jungle, a lurid murder mystery that provided the screen debut for bullet-bra’d sexpot Jayne Mansfield. For full program and sliding-scale ticket info, click here.

Two new releases this Friday look at sociopolitical turmoil some decades ago—though the themes that emerge are all too disturbingly relevant to where we are now. Rubika Shah’s documentary White Riot, which joins the Roxie and BAMPFA’s virtual cinema programs today, is about the activist organization Rock Against Racism. Founded in 1976, just as punk was breaking, it emerged in reaction to the alarming rise of openly xenophobic, fascistic U.K. political party National Front, as well as some casually racist public comments by mainstream rock stars (like Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart) who should have known better, given their artistic debt to black musical idioms. During its brief period of real popularity, the NF’s extremist ideas included “repatriating” people of color to their “countries of origin,” even those born in Britain. 

Doing much of its outreach via benefit concerts, RAR encouraged interracial harmony by programming “black and white bands together,” uniting audiences for acts including The Clash, Steel Pulse, Gang of 4, 999, Misty in Roots, X-Ray Specs, Tom Robinson and Sham 69—the latter a gamble, since their fanbase included a fair number of NF-sympathetic skinheads. Neo-Nazi types duly targeted RAR events for violence, and the local police often proved dismayingly uninterested in protecting the peaceniks. (Sound familiar?) But as this friendly flashback chronicles, the shows of unity ultimately helped make the National Front crawl back under the rocks it came from, while making racism very uncool once more.

New Netflix feature The Trial of the Chicago 7 is star dramatist Aaron Sorkin’s take on the infamous proceedings when seven (originally eight, until Black Panther Bobby Seale was severed from the case) high-profile activists were tried for conspiring to incite riots outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Dragging on for months into 1970, it was a trial much complicated by Seale’s lack of representation (his lawyer had been sidelined by illness), as well as Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin’s prankish, disrespectful behavior. But the main problem was the open hostility towards all defense personnel from Judge Julius Hoffman (no relation) a humorless, possibly-senile bully who was generally considered a giant a*****e amongst any Chicagoans who’d ever had to deal with his court. His heavy hand turned the spectacle into a travesty of justice—one whose harsh judgements were rather quickly overturned later on, the Judge himself earning publicly rebuke from a US Court of Appeals. 

With its colorful participants and high theatrics (including the inexcusable low of Seale being literally shackled and gagged), this episode was the subject of several prior films. Sorkin’s script has been kicking around for years, with Steven Spielberg originally expected to direct—and there remains some of that populist’s formulaic, crowd-pleasing “inspirational” tenor in the end result, as well as in the writer’s own familiar West Wing soapboxing style. Still, this is a satisfying re-creation of a moment we’d do well to recall, when peak anti-Vietnam War protestation ran into maximum government resistance. Flashbacks reveal how Mayor Daley, police with riot gear, and undercover FBI agents all maximized the violence of what protestors had made every advance effort to render a peaceful gathering—then found themselves charged with turning into a “riot.” (Notably, these events are now often referred to as “The Chicago Police Riot.”) 

Sorkin’s tendency to lecture the audience, telling rather than showing, hobbled his first directorial feature Molly’s Game, another fact-based drama in which Kevin Costner gratuitously showed up near the end to explain what it all meant to Jessica Chastain (and us). Here, the numerous well-known characters and complex tapestry keep such didacticism to a relative minimum. While they all meld successfully into an ensemble, there are a lot of strong performances here that really punch Trial across, including Sacha Baron Cohen (yup, Borat) as Abbie, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as prosecutor Richard Schultz, Mark Rylance as defense attorney William Kunstler, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Seale, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, and Frank Langella as the infuriating Judge Hoffman. 

Other new streaming arrivals:

Martin Eden
SF’s Jack London is best known for Call of the Wild and other rugged adventure stories, a genre he did a lot of writing in simply because it was so commercially successful for him—and he was the kind of once-poor nouveau riche who found it very, very hard to hold onto his money. But he also wrote in many other idioms, from the journalistic to sci-fi fantasy. The 1909 Martin Eden is the most blatantly autobiographical of his novels, a thinly veiled account of his own early struggles as a would-be writer, including the physical labor jobs that paid bills, his flirtation with socialist ideals, and his ultimate disillusionment at finally achieving celebrity-author fame. Today, it feels somewhat stereotypical as an angst-ridden Portrait of a Young Artist, with London’s manic energy and massive egocentrism fully present. But Martin Eden invented many of those seeming cliches. Uneven as it is, it was a big influence on subsequent creatives as diverse as James Jones and Susan Sontag. Its critique of US class divisions and capitalism also made it very popular in some unexpected places, like the Soviet Union. 

This Italian screen adaptation (coming just a few months after yet another Call of the Wild movie) is as uneven as its source material, yet compelling for many of the same reasons. The translation to a Naples setting works surprisingly well, though director Pietro Marcello’s decision to introduce a slowly increasing number of period anachronisms is more annoying than bold—this story really requires the context of societal norms about 120 years ago. Nonetheless, while the sprawling, episodic tale presents numerous challenges in this medium, and for modern audiences, this enterprise is largely held together by lead actor Luca Marinelli. He makes the driven, precocious, raw, compulsively self-educating Martin seem a wholly credible mass of dynamic contradictions—as well as a wholly Italian expression of them. Martin Eden is now available through Roxie Virtual Cinema and Rafael@Home.

Shithouse
Despite its profane title, this campus-set debut feature for writer-director-star Cooper Raif is not the raunchy teen sex comedy you might expect—in fact, it’s a riposte to such joints. Alex (Raiff) is tall, cute, and nice. So why, six months into his freshman year, does he have no friends? Admittedly, he could have done better in the roommate sweepstakes (Logan Miller plays Sam, a spectacularly charmless party monster), but still, he ought to be dating, or at least have people to hang out with. Is it that his fellow students are shallow and thoughtless? Or is the problem just that he’s too homesick-clingy towards the warmth of the mother and sister left behind in Dallas? During one particularly bleak Friday night of watching everyone else have fun, Alex winds up spending time with his sophomore RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula). Despite initial speed bumps, it seems a connection might actually be made.

This small movie is interesting because its protagonist is a shy, probably-virginal boy who is not a stereotypical “loser” or “geek”—he just has an above-average need for emotional safety in a milieu of feckless hookups and barf-ups. Shithouse (named after the location of one unpleasant off-campus party) is low-key and likable, gradually moving from a comedic to dramatic emphasis. These characters are plausible, even a little boring, so that the film’s emotions are hard-won—and it feels like a bit of a cop-out when an epilogue provides maybe more of a trad “happy ending” than we really need. Still, this is an intelligent, accessible effort in a genre that usually aims low. How many films of its ilk can you safely recommend to both high schoolers and their parents to watch as a spur for imminent-college-separation discussion? It’s available as of today via digital and cable VOD as well as available theaters.

Time 
Garrett Bradley’s Sundance prize-winning documentary centers on the Rich family, whose life is charted in nearly two decades of home movies—almost none of which feature father Robert, as he’s in Louisiana State Penitentiary, serving a very long stint for an armed bank robbery. Just how or why he received a 60-year sentence (without possibility of probation or parole), while wife Fox aka Sibil long ago finished a much shorter one (for being the getaway driver), might have been better explained here. But Time’s focus is on the family’s survival despite, and fight against, the perceived injustice of such extreme incarceration. In fact, Fox is an activist, agitating not just for her husband’s release, but for fundamental change in a system that seems designed to break up African-American families and exert excessively harsh punishment on black law-breakers.

Almost too artfully assembled in B&W, with an elegiac piano score, Time is more documentary as objet d’art than as verite record. Though we can see the couple’s children growing up, the footage isn’t assembled in a way that renders the passage of time coherent; as a practiced, somewhat flamboyant public speaker, Fox sometimes seems too theatrically aware of the camera’s presence. Nonetheless, there’s an undeniable power to witnessing real people struggle with a never-less-painful loss (and the system that perpetuates it) as time mercilessly marches on. Time is available today on Amazon Prime. 

Other new documentaries of interest include This Is Not a Movie (in the Roxie and CinemaSF’s virtual cinemas), about globe-trotting English war zone journalist Robert Fisk. On a less overtly political front, there is ode to female surfers She Is the Ocean (CinemaSF, Rafael@Home); equally sporty ROM Boys: 40 Years of Rad (available On Demand), which chronicles the effort amongst skateboarders, BMX riders and street artists to save a storied East London skatepark; and Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something (also CinemaSF & Rafael), a docu-bio of the late 1970s singer-songwriter.

The Wall of Mexico
“Somewhere in the American Southwest,” new Florida emigre Donovan (Jackson Rathbone) gets a job working for the Aristas, a wealthy, insular Mexican-American family whose patriarch is Esai Morales. A hunky hick a la Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, Don hopes to benefit from association with city slickers who will only ever see him as a piece of raw meat. They treat him alternately as a servant, a pet, and a sex toy. Nonetheless, he can’t help being drawn by their insanely decadent lifestyle, with parties like rap-video fantasies that are presided over by the sexy, spoiled Kardashian-like daughters (Marisol Sacramento, Carmela Zumbado) Don fixates on. Offering something else to obsess over is the enigma of the Aristas’ well water, which is reputed to have curative, perhaps even magical properties, and which Don must guard from thieving locals. It provides a flashpoint for hostilities between this “arista-cratic” clan in their isolated manse and the resentful working-class whites in town.

A big improvement on Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak’s exasperating fiction about young Hillary Clinton, When I’m a Moth (which premiered at SFFilm last year), Wall is like a luxuriantly stylish variant on the underrated 1995 US race relations allegory White Man’s Burden. Here, the dynamics flipped are Latinx/white rather than African-American/white, but the issues of bitter class and economic disparity remain similar. In the end, the filmmakers’ intriguing concept is stretched a little thin, and a final head-on address of the political issues hitherto just alluded to comes off as more heavy-handed than illuminating. But Wall of Mexico is still an adventuresome and unexpected commentary on many issues that are currently tearing our nation apart.

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