Home, or the lack of it, is a major theme in two worthwhile new documentaries that landed in local virtual cinemas as of last weekend. Lance Oppenheim’s Some Kind of Heaven, which premiered at Sundance a year ago (and is now in online programming for the Roxie, Rafael, CinemaSF and Alamo Drafthouse), is a portrait of only-in-America prosperity and excess.
Its subject is The Villages, a booming planned community in Central Florida that sprawls over three counties, and whose population is now pushing towards 150,000. This “Disneyland for seniors” affords nothing but fun, fun, fun—from innumerable social clubs to sports, dances and whatnot—to its aging-Baby-Boomer residents. It seems a welcoming place, but of course it’s an all-American consumerist and leisure mecca open only to those who can afford it.
While maintaining a colorful, humorous tone, Oppenheim focuses on several protagonists who aren’t ideal fits here: Bostonian Barbara, whose husband died soon after they relocated, leaving her a serious-minded widow in an almost overbearingly frivolous milieu; longtime couple Anne and Reggie, stuck coping with unexpected mental health issues; and 81-year-old Dennis, a gatecrasher living in his van while hoping to snag a well-off sugar mamma with his fading charms.
Their dramas provide useful contrast to The Villages’ daily parade of escapism, in which nostalgia sometimes verges on second childhood. (There are even octogenarian cheerleader squads.) It’s a bizarre and fascinating place to visit, though you wouldn’t necessarily want to live there—even if you were old and wealthy enough. With its surfeit of vulnerable but stubborn, largely conservative elders, one wonders how well The Villages has coped with COVID, a non-issue when this documentary was filmed.
Also living in very peculiar circumstances are the Roma family in Radu Ciorniciuc’s Acasa, My Home, now playing the virtual cinemas of BAMPFA, the Roxie and Rafael. The Enaches are a huge clan (just how large is debatable—at one point we’re told they are nine children, at another 20) whose middle-aged patriarch says 18 years ago he “moved here because I hated this wicked civilization.” ‘Here’ being an abandoned water reservoir just outside Bucharest, where they live in a makeshift hut, go fishing, and keep a menagerie of animals from pig to pigeon.
But this prime land is about to become Vacaresti Nature Park, a public preserve, bringing in all sorts of tour groups and government-employed minders. It is inevitable that the authorities (in particular Child Protective Services) should find cause to uproot the Enaches from their Eden, before their scavenging lifestyle begins to seriously offend the now-daily influxes of day-trippers, rangers, environmental watchdogs, and so forth.
Even before it’s lost, this is no paradise: We can see that dad Gica keeps the kids illiterate in order to better control them, and that for all his bullying bluster, it’s eldest son Vali who really does almost all the work. It’s also Vali who adjusts best when they’re forcibly relocated to housing in the city. There, the children are enrolled in school, but the clan’s boisterousness does not make friends of landlords or prejudiced neighbors.
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Will they eventually prosper? Acasa is fascinating and complicated, lyrical and messy; we sympathize with the subjects while also feeling society’s spasm of impatience with them. Do they represent “freedom,” or are they just freeloaders? Whatever direction post-Ceaucescu Romania is heading, these determined outliers seem destined to stay on the margins.
For an array of up-and-coming local talent also largely working in the documentary idiom, check out SF Youth Film Uprising. its two programs featuring thirteen individual shorts (plus a couple solo performances) are available through Roxie Virtual Cinema now through Jan. 29. The selections encompass LGBTQ+, people of color, and differently-abled perspectives, with a variety of social-justice as well as personal themes explored. Viewing is free, though donations are encouraged (and gain access to a raffle with an iPad as prize). More info here.
Recommendable to those young filmmakers, and anyone else you know who might be wading into the profession, is Justin McConnell’s brutally honest Clapboard Jungle. Shot over about five years, this documentary finds the humble but determined Canadian director struggling in the new “wild west” of too much product and too many platforms, where even makers of commercial genre films like him can find it devilishly hard to get funding, let alone turn a profit. At the start he’s already made a shoestring feature or two, but still finds the rules constantly changing in terms of how to pitch new projects and hopefully work with bigger budgets.
Jungle seeks advice from fellow directors with many decades of experience (including the late George Romero and Larry Cohen), as well as producers, actors, programmers, festival personnel, sales agents, distributors, FX people, casting directors, et al. There is a happy ending of sorts—McConnell gets a more polished movie made (sci-fi horror Lifechanger) and seen, including a sale to Netflix. But the tone remains cautionary, providing an invaluable crash course in just how resourceful you need to be as an independent in this “oversaturated” media landscape now. Talent is no longer enough, if it ever was; business sense and inexhaustible drive are now required. Clapboard Jungle is available on digital platforms as of Tues/19.
Other new streaming releases of note:
The Strong Ones
This first feature by Chilean writer-director Omar Zuniga Hidalgo, which premiered at a home-turf festival nearly a year and a half ago, may be the first movie of the new year to go on my 2021 “best” list. It’s a gay love story that is sexy (and has pretty graphic sex scenes), but hardly escapist wish-fulfillment. In fact, it somewhat recalls Ammonite director Francis Lee’s exceptional prior male romance God’s Own Country, being similarly simple but moving in plot gist—albeit with a more laid-back, lyrical tenor than that sometimes harsh film.
30-ish Lucas (Samuel Gonzalez) is visiting his dentist sister (Marcela Salinas) and her husband (Rafael Contreras) in a small seaside community before he goes to Montreal for graduate studies. He’s already left behind Santiago, and parents there who apparently still do not accept his homosexuality. He hardly expects to find an electric connection here with Antonio (Antonio Altamirano), a fisherman who also takes part in reenactments of 19th-century independence battles for tourists. Both of them have their issues, but the looming one becomes that Lucas still wants to leave the country, while Antonio (despite his own difficulties here) doesn’t want to go anywhere.
The Strong Ones (aka Los Fuertes) has some subplots and thematic undercurrents, yet it’s film that is complex not so much in content as in textures. Hidalgo conveys a great deal without needing to explain much, or even give his characters more than minimal dialogue. It’s the kind of deceptively casual film you know will reward repeat viewing for some time to come, and which heralds a significant new talent. It’s available as of Tues/19 on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures, and On Demand from most major platforms including Amazon, iTunes and Fandango. More info here.
The Strong Ones (aka Los Fuertes) has some subplots and thematic undercurrents, yet it’s film that is complex not so much in content as in textures. Hidalgo conveys a great deal without needing to explain much, or even give his characters more than minimal dialogue. It’s the kind of deceptively casual film you know will reward repeat viewing for some time to come, and which heralds a significant new talent. It’s available as of Tues/19 on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures, and On Demand from most major platforms including Amazon, iTunes and Fandango.
Don’t Tell a Soul
Those looking more for suspense may be satisfied with this unpleasant but effective indie thriller from writer-director Alex McAuley. In an unidentified industrial town, 14-year-old Joey (Jack Dylan Glazer) is a sensitive kid relentlessly bullied by his awful older brother Matt (Fionn Whitehead), who’s appointed himself the “man of the house” since their alcoholic father died. Mom (Mena Suvari) just sits on the couch, self-medicating and whining for diet sodas. It’s Matt’s idea that the brothers rob an empty house where there’s reputed to be a cache of cash. Turns out he’s right—but they immediately run into a security guard (Rainn Wilson). While chasing them in the surrounding woods, that man falls into an abandoned well.
The depths of Matt’s viciousness, and Joey’s fear of him, become clear as the latter worries the trapped, wounded adult may die—a happy ending, as far as Matt is concerned. But this already complicated situation grows even more so after a significant plot turn just past the halfway point.
Apart from innocent Joey, there is no one to like here, and the ugly sibling relationship winds up being just one such dynamic among several. Just when you fear it might become monotonous, Kentucky-shot Soul gets its characters outta that hole and into fresh trouble. This well-crafted, queasy movie, neither a formulaic thriller or entirely credible as drama, nonetheless ultimately pulls off a kind of backroads grand guignol that is worth a look.
Noel Coward’s 1941 comedy has proved his most enduring, with innumerable stage revivals and at least seven prior film adaptations (including TV ones). This latest is most likely the worst of them all. It’s got a less-than-glittering cast, particularly given that prior incarnations have included the likes of Rex Harrison, Margaret Rutherford, Lauren Bacall, Claudette Colbert, Coward himself, Dirk Bogarde, Ruth Gordon and Estelle Winwood. More problematic still are the three credited writers who are not Noel Coward. They certainly do smack him around—this pretty but rancid bon-bon is exactly the kind of “vulgarized, distorted and ruined” result he publicly feared in refusing to sell his play to Hollywood. (He let pre-Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean make the first film for a British studio in 1945 instead.)
Charles (Dan Stevens) is a successful crime novelist suffering writer’s block in his 1937 English countryside manse. Looking for material, he invites a quack spiritualist (Judi Dench) to host a seance for him, but somehow she manages to actually conjure a ghost—his own late first wife Elvira (Leslie Mann). Though only he can see or hear her, she is loudly unhappy to find herself dead, as well as to discover he’s now married to Ruth (Isla Fisher). Getting rid of “El” before she ruins his life and/or career proves difficult.
Available on digital and On Demand as of Tues/19, this Blithe Spirit looks nice, although director Edward Hall’s design choices suggest he really wanted to set the story in 1930s Beverly Hills rather than musty olde England. But otherwise it is a textbook example of people taking dated-but-charming material, then helpfully “updating” its sensibility until all the charm has been beaten out, like a rug.
The normally reliable Dench counter-productively underplays a role meant to be flamboyant. Stevens and Fisher are likewise good actors ill-served here. But Mann, seldom a plus even in husband Judd Apatow’s films, is to Coward as an anvil is to a souffle—every appearance deflates and flattens, her “sophisticated farce” style basically consisting of a smirk. No doubt whatever epithets Coward might hurl at this production from the grave would be wittier than anything in Blithe’s increasingly irksome 95 minutes. The original film may be 76 years old now, but very soon it will once again be the only one anyone remembers.