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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Extreme double features for long winter nights

Screen Grabs: Extreme double features for long winter nights

Opioids and cheerleaders, trans Western and gay Ramadan, chamber suspense and '80s retro excess: new movies!

If folkloric wisdom decrees that bad things come in threes, perhaps good things come in twos—or at least they do this week. Recommendable new releases arriving in pairs include documentary features, LGBTQ+-themed narratives, and a couple kinda-sorta horror films. 

Nonfiction Cinema: Opioids, Cheerleaders

Two very different kinds of institutional wrongs are examined in new documentaries. Ondi Timoner’s Coming Clean provides an overview of America’s opioid crisis, which claims over 70,000 citizens’ lives each year now, in addition to tearing apart innumerable families and causing a great deal of crime. Greed and irresponsibility on the part of Big Pharma (particularly in pushing use of prescription painkiller OxyContin) began creating this epidemic of addiction around the turn of the millennium, so that Americans now consume 80% of the entire world’s opioids. In a repeat of Big Tobacco’s denialism not long ago, the industry has played dumb even towards its own findings of widespread abuse and harm, assisted by many lobbyist-bribed politicians. Lax regulation, our nation’s paucity of affordable treatment options, corrupted relationships between the FDA and drug manufacturers, and society’s “blame the victim” attitude towards addicts have all helped escalate the disaster. 

Coming Clean places emphasis on “therapeutic justice”—using rehab programs in place of incarceration—as our best option, while following a individual addicts from SLC to small-town Virginia through their recovery. We also get a nutshell history of U.S. drug development and commercialization; how opioids work on brain and body in scientific terms; America’s cultural shift towards solving any/every problem with medication; political responses to the problem; and more. 

In fact Timoner, who has made some excellent, much more narrowly-focused documentary features before (Dig!We Live in Public), takes on too much here. It’s a big subject, admittedly. But the film sometimes loses any sense of structure trying to cram everything in, and feels more impersonal than most of this director’s work. Still, too much information is better than not enough, and Clean certainly covers a lot of important ground. It’s currently playing virtual cinemas around the country; go to www.comingcleanmovie.com for info. 

Moving from public health issues to the workplace, Yu Gu’s A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem looks at a matter of extreme ongoing discrimination that is infuriating at this late point in time. Not so long ago, professional athletes were paid such a pittance that nearly all of them had regular, off-season jobs—they didn’t expect to make an actual living playing a sport, let alone get rich on it. All that began changing with the arrival of television, which brought them new levels of commercialized celebrity and spiraling salaries (as well as endorsement deals). Now pro footballers make a base salary of $400,000, with some getting tens of millions per year. The NFL as a whole generates over $16 billion in annual revenue. Even mascots are paid a none-too-shabby $60,000 or so for doing what costumed teenagers do all day at theme parks for chump change.

You’d think winning a hotly competed position on an NFL team’s cheerleader squad would be decently compensated as well, then. But, silly you: They’re just girls!! Though circumstances vary between outfits, pretty much all of them are paid less than minimum wage when paid at all; expected to fund their own transport, styling, attend charity events and promotions for the NFL, and undergo rigorous training for zero compensation. When lawyers look at the contracts involved, they identify “straight-up wage theft” that clearly violates the law. 

But when some women protest (notably from the Oakland Raiderettes and Buffalo Jills), they discover the depth of the League’s contempt for workers who are not only high-profile marketing tools, but athletes (and dancers) in their own right. Adding insult to injury, many of the same fans who ogle cheerleaders are cruelly dismissive of their worth as employees. And some former NFL cheerleaders cluck that “money or no money,” the new generation should feel “privileged” to do what they do—which suggests those ladies still think “a woman’s work” is really finding a husband or boyfriend to bankroll the “hobby” she nonetheless spends most of the year training for and performing. 

However you feel about the value of cheerleading (or football, for that matter), this is an engrossing, and maddening, portrait of institutionalized misogyny and injustice. I could have done without the late appearance by California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who makes some appropriate supportive statements her. But her own state bill AB5 destroyed the livelihoods of innumerable independent freelancer workers (yours truly included) just in time for COVID’s economic collapse, while ultimately doing zilch to rein in the exploitative practices of Uber, Lyft, and other big-league “gig economy” players it meant to target. But oh well. A Woman’s Work is available On Demand as of Tues/26. 

Diverse Queer Images: A Trans Family Drama and Gay Male Romcom

Two movies that played Frameline and other LGBTQ+ festivals last year are now getting general release. While neither are without flaws, they’re both easy-to-take, crowdpleasing mixes of humor and drama that take on serious issues in an engaging fashion. 

Writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys succeeds in making gender-identity issues into family entertainment. Already separated from wife Sally (Brittany Runs a Marathon’s Jillian Bell) due to his mental health issues, hapless if well-intentioned Troy (Steve Zahn) is nonetheless savvy enough to grasp what his conservative, frustrated ex-spouse cannot: That their 11-year-old daughter Josie aka “Joe” (Sasha Knight) isn’t just a stubborn “tomboy.” In fact, it’s dad that Joe first turns to in order to insist “I’m in the wrong body, I’m a boy!” 

When the parental divide on this issue proves a chasm, Troy “kidnaps” his willing child and tries fleeing through Montana wilderness to the Canadian border, as a not-unsympathetic police investigator (Ann Dowd) follow their trail. This scenically spectacular “Western” is pleasing if sometimes a mite simplistic, getting a giant assist from the always-excellent Zahn. Cowboys is currently playing CinemaSF’s virtual cinema before it hits general On Demand and Digital platforms Feb. 12.

Then there’s Mike Mossellam’s new feature Breaking Fast, with Haaz Sleiman as a gay Muslim doctor in West Hollywood who’s heartbroken when his closeted boyfriend caves to family/cultural pressure and marries a woman. Things look up, however, when our hero meets an actor (Michael Cassidy) who’s handsome, available, and speaks Arabic to boot—in other words, a classic romcom Mr. Right.

There’s a familiar, sometimes sitcom-ish feel to the seriocomic complications here, which include rote incorporation of foodie elements (re: Middle Eastern cuisine) and a familiarly “outrageous” queeny BFF (played by Amin El Gamal). Still, even if Fast is no deeper or less formulaic than, say, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it does juggle a lot of disparate culture-clash baggage in amiably entertaining ways. It was released to leading On Demand and Digital platforms last Friday. 

Genre Cinema: Minimalist Suspense and Comic Excess

Our last two new movies might each be very loosely bracketed as “horror,” but they could hardly be any less alike if they were a Tarkovsky film and a Russ Meyer joint. Barak Barkan’s terse debut feature Silence & Darkness is more of a psychological thriller, so stripped-down that for quite a while we have no idea what, if anything, we’re supposed to be afraid of here. Anna (Mina Walker) and Beth (Joan Glackin) are sisters whose individual limitations—they’re blind and deaf-mute, respectively—have made them in many respects function as one. But these young women also have individual interests, as Anna plays guitar and sings, while Beth is a gymnast. They appear to live happily enough in near-complete isolation with their physician father (Jordan Lage).

It takes some time before we realize that dad’s parenting is a little…odd. And just what happened to mom, anyway? When a neighbor’s dog finds apparent human remains on their property, the sisters begin to suspect something isn’t right—as well they should. Its minimalism extending to fairly scant dialogue and no musical score at all, Silence & Darkness is a small story that might as easily have been told in half an hour as these 80 minutes. But it holds our attention throughout that span, with the climactic revelations no less chilling for being delivered with as much restraint as everything prior. 

In the opposite corner, there’s PG: Psychic Goreman, a gleefully over-the-top quasi-kids’-fantasy-adventure whose subversions include the fact that it is really, really not appropriate for family viewing. In their suburban cul-de-sac, Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) are ordinary grade schoolers. Well, more or less, apart from sis being a little terror who’s like The Bad Seed meets Jonah Hill in Superbad

One day their convoluted games end up inadvertently releasing an “ultimate evil” that was buried in the backyard, a demonic Gill Man-type thing who likes to call himself “The Archduke of Nightmares.” Mimi gives him the titular name instead, and is so bullying (helped by the powerful space gem she stole from his hidey-hole) that the monster from planet Gigax is actually cowed into not incinerating her, Luke, their parents (Adam Brooks, Alexis Kara Hancey), and every other creature on Earth. The kids have fun with their reluctant new toy until the nemeses who’d vanquished him long ago, notably imperious Pandora (Kristen MacCulloch), arrive to stop him once more from destroying the galaxy.

Psycho Goreman (which does, indeed, have plenty of ludicrously extreme gore) is from director Steven Kostanski, who with several other participants here made prior shorts and features as part of Canadian collective Astron 6. Their work is an acquired taste—at once deadpan, campy, and full of snarky genre in-jokes—but I have acquired it. 

This latest effort sticks a mess of 1980s celluloid junk food (from E.T. and Gremlins to Troll 2 and low-budget Star Warsripoffs) in a blender to create something utterly rude and wrong, particularly whenever it pretends to get “heartwarming.” (The film culminates in one of the most perverse “What lesson have we learned from all this?” passages of family togetherness in entertainment history.)

If you don’t have a mental backlog of the retro pop culture being riffed on, this film’s convoluted joke may completely pass you by. But for those who can grok, it’s an instant minor classic of deliberate bad taste. PG is currently playing Alamo Drafthouse’s virtual cinema, as well as general On Demand and Digital platforms. 

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