Saturday, November 28, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: Racist technology, rocky queer love, and an...

Screen Grabs: Racist technology, rocky queer love, and an Oakland thriller

Plus: Berlin & Beyond's In Focus installment, Mank, The Outpost, and more movies to dive into this week.

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With many local movie theaters now back open on a restricted basis, we did a hurried catch-up (albeit at home) on some awards-bait titles already playing, as well as a couple brand-new releases—including one conspicuously shot in the Bay Area. Film festivals are continuing to stick with mostly online-only programming. This week’s events being a special abbreviated “In Focus” edition of Berlin & Beyond, the showcase for German-language cinema that has generally occupied the Castro for a week each of the last 25 years. 

Taking place Thu/19-Sat/21, it’s an entirely free program that encompasses some pre-recorded Q&As and panel discussions. (Registration is required, however, as there’s a limit on the number of viewers, and access is primarily limited to greater Bay Area residents.) The 10 feature films on tap are all recent releases from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, starting with Ilker Catak’s opening-night selection I Was, I Am, I Will Be, which like many recent European films deals with immigration issues. The official closer on Saturday is Johannes Naber’s Curveball: A True Story, a bitterly satirical account of how dubious German intelligence was complicit in rubber-stamping the launch of the Iraq war. 

In between, there’s a sports drama (boxing-themed Gipsy Queen), sex-trafficking true crime documentary (Lovemobil), a family film about Nazi-fleeing Jews (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit), and Undine, the latest from Christian Petzold, which reunites his Transit stars Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski. More info here.

Disrupted

However, first up is something much closer to home: Andre Walsh’s Disrupted, which takes place largely in his hometown of Oakland, is a solid thriller that starts out a bit Crash-y—albeit with less heavy-handed pretensions towards Meaning—then gradually turns into more of a neo-noir. The protagonists are wholly unconnected at first: Burly Pete (Ron Kaell) is 60-ish man barely scraping by at menial jobs, the sole bright spot being his reconciliation with the soon-to-be-married daughter after getting sober. At the opposite end of the scale, there’s wealthy venture capitalist Harold (Geoffrey Lower) whose veneer of entrepreneurial and philanthropic achievement hides a deep well of violent sociopathy. Then there’s Jay (Chioke Jelani Clanton), a sometime rideshare driver whose hustles are not limited by legality, particularly when his partner Prez (Ahku) gets involved.

Harold’s alarming underside comes out when he escalates an unpleasant encounter with a drug dealer to a lethal denouement. It is called to Pete’s attention that the nature of that murder is very similar to that of his wife, slain in a never-solved crime 30 years ago. A Luddite, he tries to follow that trail via old-school means, while his very technologically-savvy quarry is pursuing the thief of his credit card—someone connected to the late dealer, which leads Harold to Jay and Prez, then finally Pete.

Reminiscent of nihilistic, noose-tightening ’70s thrillers like Night Moves and The Nickel Ride, with a dash of economic-inequality critique, Disrupted doesn’t entirely hold water plot-wise if thought about too hard. But it’s easy to go with the slightly sardonic flow, which is relatively low-key for a genre exercise yet tightly paced, with strong performances (including numerous current and past Bay Area actors, like onetime local stage regular Kaell) and good use of locations in Oakland, SF, and Tahoe. Welsh shot as well as wrote and directed this first feature, which was apparently made on a shoestring budget, but has a sharp, glossy professional sheen. It’s easy to imagine his project remade with major stars—not to suggest it needs them, but rather that this director is clearly ready for bigger things. Disrupted is currently playing limited theaters, and becomes available On Demand Tue/17. 

Coded Bias

Disrupted makes a point of protagonist Pete being increasingly alienated from a milieu that’s not only gentrifying beyond his means, but shutting out anyone who still resists the digital age. Shalini Kantayya’s documentary takes a deeper look at the often-hidden problems of a world in which computer algorithms compile information about individuals without our consent, then put that intel to uses that can be prejudiced, damaging, even dangerous. 

Guided by the work of Joy Buolamwini and other primarily female researcher-activists, it shows that widely deployed programs frequently reflect the unconscious biases of their creators. Thus facial recognition software is far more accurate with white male faces than anyone else, which can lead to false arrests or worse. Despite supposed “machine neutrality,” algorithms can (and do) discriminate against women and people of color, impacting the fate of applications for jobs, housing, loans, even parole—or heightening risk of negative targeting, such as for foreclosures. 

As rapidly as all this big-tech innovation has entrenched itself in society, legislation protecting individuals from such bias (or invasive, involuntary surveillance) lags far behind. Like an iceberg, it’s a civil rights issue whose enormity lies below the surface of public awareness. “There is no algorithm to determine what is just” says one participant here, underlining that in many situations nuanced human judgement remains far preferable to the expedience of a computer program. Kantayya’s film makes clear that the results and risks of such systems give major cause for alarm. Coded Bias plays Roxie Virtual Cinema and Rafael@Home as of Wed/18. 

Ammonite

This historical speculation about real-life figures is the second feature from Francis Lee, whose 2017 God’s Own Country was one of the finest debuts in recent years, as well as probably the best gay male screen romance since Brokeback Mountain (which depicted an equally thorny one). Ammonite is superficially very different, being a costume piece set nearly 200 years ago. Yet it has significant similarities, particularly in its taciturn character dynamics and portrayal of a somewhat harsh, grinding everyday existence. 

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a self-taught paleontologist whose fossil finds in the cliffs of Lyme in Dorset have made her esteemed amongst geologists—yet not really rewarded, let alone “accepted” into their exclusively male “gentleman scientist” ranks. She and her ailing mother (Fiona Shaw), whose other nine children all died young, live in not-so-genteel seaside poverty. Still, Mary’s reputation brings her an acolyte in the form of Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a young Scottish geologist who wants to learn her methods, and is willing to pay for it. She reluctantly accepts that offer. Once he traipses off to excavate on the continent, she’s less happy to be stuck humoring the sickly wife (Saoirse Ronan) he’s left behind to “recuperate.” Worse, Charlotte Murchison soon falls seriously ill, forcing Mary and her mother to care for her. But the two younger women gradually begin enjoying one another’s company—a little, then a lot.

That romance is pure fiction, though the two actual women did indeed become friends and correspond. Slowly paced Ammonite does not recapture the intensity of God’s Own Country, perhaps in part because Winslet’s brusque, emotionally shut-down character is far from the self-destructive live wire Josh O’Connor played in that earlier work. Nonetheless, this film is just as impeccably acted and observed, with a finely detailed sense of mid-19th-century life absorbing us when the repressed (then rather too predictably un-repressed) central characters do not. Ammonite is currently playing local theaters, including the Embarcadero, Century Daly City, Rafael Film Center, and Shattuck Cinemas. 

Mank

Another historical speculation is this film about Herman Mankiewicz and his involvement in the creation of Orson Welles’ legendary debut feature Citizen Kane. As depicted here, “Mank” (Gary Oldman) is a shambling wreck in 1940, when the then 43-year-old writer was dispatched by the 24-year-old radio/Broadway boy wonder to recover from a serious car accident, dry out from his chronic alcoholism, and pen Kane’s screenplay. His broken leg in a cast, he’s tended to by a secretary (Lily Collins) and nurse-housekeeper (Monika Grossman), occasionally cattle-prodded by fussbudget producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), and given 60 days to bang the script out. 

As he does, we flash back to the broken friendship to publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his chorus girl-turned-movie star mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). It’s surmised here that the dissolution of that social affiliation with Hearst—hinging on Mank’s disgust at the dirty tricks Hearst and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) pulled to discredit progressive 1934 gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair—embittered Mankiewicz enough to pen the scandalous roman Ă  clef Kane, whose title figure is clearly a thinly-veiled Hearst. 

Mank is a marvel of period homage, both doing for 1930s Tinsel Town what Once Upon a Time In Hollywood did for the late ’60s, and meticulously imitating the deep-focus, proto-noir look of Citizen Kane itself in glorious B&W. The performances are, for the most part, equally impressive, and there are several dazzling (if theatrically self-conscious) set pieces. 

Yet enjoyable as Mank is, I admired it more than loved it. Fincher has almost always directed darker-themed pieces (even The Social Network felt like a monster’s origin story), and this sole, posthumously produced screenplay by his late father Jack feels clever, sentimental and “writerly” in ways his son normally avoids. It lacks characteristic edge, substituting elements that are intelligent yet feel less of a natural fit for this director. The frolicsome lumbering of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pseudo-retro-jazz score likewise rings just a tad false. It’s a movie with nary a marcelled hair out of place, yet somehow it ends up feeling inconsequential. Mank is currently playing the Embarcadero; it’s on Netflix as of Dec. 4. 

The Outpost

Also currently playing local theaters (in a “director’s cut” a few minutes longer than hitherto seen) is this film by Rod Lurie, which has been out for over four months—it was one of those films or TV shows that probably benefited from COVID, in that what might have otherwise been a modest success turned into a major home-viewing sleeper. I skipped it in July out of a general disinterest in combat dramas, but finally caught up due to the re-release, as well as much good word-of-mouth. It was worthwhile—this may be the best movie of its type since 2013’s Lone Survivor. (I wasn’t a big fan of Dunkirk.) 

Based on journalist Jake Tapper’s book, it dramatizes the plight of US Army troops at PRT Kamdesh, a military base in a mountain-ringed valley of Northern Afghanistan that some dubbed “Camp Custer” because it was such a death trap. Told in sections “chaptered” by the names of successive commanding officers (they don’t last long) over a three-year course, The Outpost chronicles the sometimes raucous “frat house” behavior of the soldiers, their near-incessant targeting by Taliban forces in the hills above, problematic negotiations with seemingly neutral locals, and finally the sustained onslaught that overwhelmed the troops on October 3, 2009. After that, the camp was closed, along with others judged “obviously indefensible.”

As is typical with such movies, it’s hard to keep the characters straight (despite on-screen text identifying each as they’re introduced), and there isn’t much time or need for “plot.” But Lurie vividly conveys the tension of living in both isolation and too-close quarters, under constant threat of attack. When the action comes, as it frequently does, it is viscerally effective, conveying the fight between internal discipline and external chaos. 

Some actual participants in the events depicted were involved in the filmmaking, no doubt helping The Outpost receive unusually high marks among veterans for its overall accuracy and credibility. There’s also a notable lack of jingoism here, either of the rah-rah or antiwar stripe. That may distress those who need a war movie to have a “message” of some sort or another, but it also underscores the film’s authenticity in showing what’s ultimately no crusade, but a shitty job undertaken largely by people who had few other options beyond military service. In addition to being on Netflix and available in other home formats, The Outpost is currently playing select theaters. 

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