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Saturday, November 28, 2020
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Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: A much-needed civic boost with 'City Hall'

Screen Grabs: A much-needed civic boost with ‘City Hall’

Plus: tributes to women older and younger, a portrait of toxic friendship, religious ecstasy in Brazil

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Though the specter of a winter COVID case resurgence has spurred the city of San Francisco to tighten restrictions on theater attendance (still 25%, but now a maximum of 50 rather than 100 people), movie venues continue to re-open after their long slumber. 

Yet despite that return to big-screen business, distributors and publicists still seem to be very slowly getting back up to speed re: promotional outreach. So we were unable to preview several films now playing at the just-reopened Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas, including: Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard’s adaptation of JD Vance’s memoir, which despite the presence of Amy Adams, Glenn Close and others is already getting some of the year’s worst reviews; Ammonite, a period lesbian romance with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan that is director Francis Lee’s first feature after the exceptional 2017 God’s Own Country; and Mank, David Fincher’s take on the behind-the-scenes drama in the creation of Citizen Kane, focusing on its screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). Elegy and Ammonite are also currently playing at the Rafael Film Center; in addition, Elegy and Mank (which opens at the Rafael on the 20th) will soon be on Netflix. 

Continuing through the weekend is the SF Transgender Film Festival (see 48 Hills’ full preview here). Of related note are two new documentary features: Shron Liese’s Transhood, which follows four young transgender persons over five years’ course, is currently playing on HBO; and next Wed/18 brings Tania Cypriano’s Born to Be, about New York’s pioneering Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, to virtual theaters (including the Roxie) nationwide. 

One of the many common wisdoms that got blown to hell during the last four years was that a rogue POTUS could only do so much harm, because our systems of “checks and balances” was too strong to let any unruly despot run amuck. Ha. Apparently our government rested on a fragile assumption that surely no President would ever undermine, defy, or ignore every standard procedure, ethic and law pertaining to his office simply because he wanted to. It was a giant trust exercise just waiting for someone completely untrustworthy to make it seem as sturdy as tissue paper. Can that public trust ever be fully regained? Should it? Are we looking at a future in which the sociopathic and delusional are rampant in high office, as those particular floodgates may never be closed again?

Some reassurance is offered in the form of City Hall, 90-year-old Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary. As is usually the case with his work, it is a look at an institution of one sort or another, and how its disparate parts function as a whole: In this case the city government of Boston, which happens to be the filmmaker’s hometown. Also as usual, that observational dissection is without overt editorializing (in the form of narration, onscreen text, an authorial agenda, etc.), with insight gained through epic accumulation of detail. City Hall, available for streaming through the Roxie, BAMPFA and Rafael@Home as of today, is four and a half hours long. It is basically a jumbo civics lesson—the sort of thing that was weeded from the American school curriculum long ago, and which we all may need a wee dose of now. 

Early on, an official lectures on how Boston’s $3.3 billion annual operating budget breaks down, providing a convenient overview of what local taxpayer dollars turn into. But otherwise the film simply provides a representative cross-section of city departments, jobs, and community outreach. We glimpse work at a 311 call bank, the registrar’s office, amongst garbage collectors and meter maids, a building inspector on site, firefighters in action, an animal shelter, road maintenance. Meetings are held to discuss coordinating services for families of homicide victims; creating eviction prevention policies; providing shelter for the homeless in winter; advocating greater hiring and contract-awarding diversity, improved disability accommodation, reduced economic inequality. 

City Hall has a sort of “star” in the form of Mayor Marty Walsh, who is seen everywhere—congratulating the Red Sox for another World Series win, advising seniors on scammers, addressing nurses and veterans. The son of Irish immigrants, a recovering alcoholic, and former labor union official, he is the very salt of the earth—not a polished political performer but something much rarer, a truly well-meaning politician. Much of City Hall shows his city government working hard to shed its racially divided past and embrace a present in which 55% of Boston’s populace is now non-white, 28% foreign-born. This administration is about inclusivity, and determinedly trying to help the needy. As such, it is almost diametrically opposed (during the 2018-2019 months chronicled here) to rhetoric issuing from the White House, whose stances on immigration, housing discrimination, and other issues Walsh & co. actively resist. 

City Hall has its longueurs, during which sometimes it strays too far from the ostensible subject. There’s a lengthy scene at a town hall where veterans of various past wars speak about their experiences—something worthy and interesting in itself, but which has nothing to do with the functioning of city government. Still, if sometimes Wiseman’s focus grows arbitrary, the film nonetheless shows how elected officials and civic employees still can truly serve the greater good, putting “democracy in action” even amidst “an erosion of civil rights in the country.” I barely recognized the Boston depicted here (having lived there nearly 40 years ago), but came away with the perhaps-surprising conviction that San Francisco could sure use a mayor like the one they’ve got. 

Other new films: 

Irmi & Greta & Audrey
Contrastingly concise is the new 70-minute documentary Irmi by local filmmaker Veronica Selver and formerly local one Susan Fanshel, which is currently playing the Roxie and BAMPFA’s virtual cinemas. It’s a biographical portrait of the former’s late grandmother Irmi Selver, who died in 2003 at age 97. In her mid-80s she wrote a memoir, whose excerpts are read on the soundtrack here by Hanna Schygulla. 

It was an eventful life: Born to a factory-owning Jewish family in Germany, a happy upbringing that led to marrying her first love—but the family they began was destroyed by the Nazis, leaving only Irmi alive to begin again in England…then the US…then France…then the US again. Relatively late she stopped being primarily “a wife,” and began a career of her own—which she didn’t retire from until reaching 89. With many surviving relatives weighing in here, Irmi is remembered as both an exuberant personality and one sometimes haunted by loneliness and anxiety. This is a sort of high-end family album of a movie, highly personal yet not so insular that it can’t be enjoyed by general viewers.

Two more-famously remarkable women are also being celebrated in new releases: Teenaged Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is profiled in Nathan Grossman’s I Am Greta, a movie that’s been critically praised but has an absurdly low IMBD user score thanks to the predictable trolling of climate-change denialists. (These same folk also reliably inflate the ratings of Dinesh D’Souza’s laughable far-right-propaganda “documentaries.”) It’s currently streaming on Hulu.

Available through Rafael@Home is Deborah Shaffer and Rachel Reichman’s Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack, the 89-year-old American artist best known for pioneering photorealist painting—though she’s since moved on, into other styles and media. 

Divine Love
The hopeful departure (hopefully kicking-and-screaming) of our current POTUS from the White House should decelerate conservatives’ gains at turning our democracy into a theocracy. But that threat is hardly going to go away overnight. Gabriel Mascaro’s feature from Brazil—which has also had a hamfisted far-right populist for President of late—imagines a near future in which the state is ostensibly “still secular,” but religious morality has seemingly invaded every avenue of life. 

That’s no problem for Joana (Dira Paes), as she and hunky husband Danilo (Julio Machado) are slavishly devoted members of a church where Jesus is worshipped to a techno beat, amidst hot discotheque-like neon colors. (There’s also optional drive-thru consultations with a pastor.) Joana works for the government, supposedly processing couples’ divorce papers, but often exerting her faith by pressuring them to stay married. It takes us a while to realize that she often “helps that along” by recruiting them to her church—where ritualized sex and partner-swapping are part of the “worship.” 

When not pursuing sacred ecstasy, however, Joana and Danilo confront a problem—they can’t seem to conceive a child—that makes them less than ideal citizens in a culture that values procreation above all else. When this dilemma is resolved, it creates another problem, and religious hypocrisy is exposed. Divine Love goes from being a somewhat graphically sexed-up, mildly dystopian satire-cum-fantasy to the kind of allegory that asks, “If a real miracle occurred, would evangelical Christians reject it for not fitting into their rigid societal norms?” You can guess the answer. Not entirely satisfying, but intriguing and original nonetheless, this is a speculative portrait of society at a constant low-level fever of religious hysteria that duly opiates the masses—but has no place for the nonconforming individual. It’s playing Roxie Virtual Cinema. 

The Climb
Director/costar/cowriter Michael Angelo Covino’s film begins with a great sequence in which his longtime “best friend” Mike informs happily soon-to-be-married Kyle (co-scenarist Kyle Marvin) of something that ruins his happiness, and probably that marriage, during a strenuous duel bike ride in the French countryside. As the sequence descends from the pleasantly picturesque into the discordant and chaotic, it does a great job of keeping us surprised. 

Unfortunately, the rest of The Climb does the opposite—because it turns out every scene in this sour “toxic friendship” comedy is structured exactly the same way. They’re all continuous shots (or the illusion of such) in which an event or relationship gradually crumbles into disorder, usually because Mike is just such a compulsive asshole. He can hardly help but ruin his bestie’s life over and over again, which Kyle enables by being the kind of endlessly supportive friend whose selflessness always wins out, no matter how many times it’s socked by Mike’s utter selfishness. 

We’ve all been there (at least briefly), in that kind of situation where one party is forever giving and the other taking. It’s a good subject for a movie. But in The Climb, everything is sacrificed to the self-conscious gimmickry of the writing and presentation, making it a movie whose single stunt simply gets repeated until the 90-minute mark is reached. There are some laughs here, and there’s some cinematic dexterity, but I soon found it all exhausting and exasperating. Originally scheduled for release at the beginning of the COVID shutdown, The Climb opens today at the Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas and Rafael Film Center. 

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