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Sunday, January 23, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Tragedies of global market capitalism on display

Screen Grabs: Tragedies of global market capitalism on display

From Lesotho to Ohio, new films draw a damning through-line. Plus: Oscar nominated shorts

It’s not your imagination—the whole annual awards-season thing IS taking forever this year. The Oscars are still over three weeks away, which ceremony will finally end the most drawn-out, confusing such season in the medium’s history. All this is thanks to the havoc COVID wrought on the industry in 2020, of course, and continues to wreak now, even though theaters (those that survived at least) are duly re-opening, presumably for keeps. A couple days ago saw the arrival of the widest big-screen release in twelve months, Godzilla vs. Kong, and there will be more where that came from—though it’s questionable whether going out to the movies will ever fully bounce back. 

Though you may well be sick of awards talk at this point, at least there’s an upside in the arrival of the year’s Oscar Nominated Short Film Programs. Those three bills are rolling out this Friday at a host of Bay Area venues including the Roxie, Embarcadero, CinemaSF, Rafael Film Center, and more—on public-auditorium screens, via virtual cinema programs, or both, depending on each institution’s current status. 

The Live Action and Documentary short collections are both over two hours long, and heavy on US titles—interestingly, in the first category, the sole exceptions are from Palestine (The Present) and Israel (White Eye). We chose to wade into the shorter Animated bill, which is a bit more international in reach. Its nominees are also surprisingly short on trad family-friendly cuteness, with only Madeleine Sharafian’s Pixar production Burrow fitting that description. 

Otherwise, there’s a surfeit of very grownup ambition in style and theme on display here, perhaps the biggest revelation being Adrien Merigeau’s sixteen-minute French Genius Loci. Its painterly evocation of a heroine’s dislocation, alienation and possible madness paints a whole, complex inner psychological landscape in terms reminiscent of the late Susan Pitt’s (Asparagus) remarkable work.

Equally stunning in its way is L.A.-based South Korean emigre Erick Oh’s Opera, which encapsulates all human history and endeavor in one pan down and up a minutely detailed cosmic pyramid. Gisli Darri Halldorsson’s Yes-People is a sort of existential comedy in a Roy Andersson mode, animated Aardvark-style. But I have a feeling the Oscar may well go to Michael Govier and Will McCormack’s US If Anything Happens I Love You, because it deals with gun violence in a heart-tugging, politically neutral way that will appeal to Academy voters. 

Unlike the other shorts categories, in which some entries run over half an hour, the five’ toon nominees are brief enough that their program has been padded with three additional acclaimed shorts. Probably best among them is Kapaemahu, a handsome Hawaiian folk legend reflecting ancient non-Western ideas about healing and gender. 

The kind of rapid-fire globetrotting possible in such programs may underline that there’s still no place like home. But several of the week’s new feature releases remind that sometimes “home” isn’t an option—or it’s one imperiled by the brutalities of real estate and other forms of market capitalism.

A rare feature from Lesotho, an independent state wholly surrounded by South Africa, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s This Is Not A Burial, It’s A Resurrection provides blunt illustration of “progress” mowing down tradition and community. Elderly widow Mantoa (Mary Twala Mhlongo, who passed away last summer) has already outlived every loved one, having lost parents, husband, son, even grandchildren over the years. All she wants is to be buried alongside them in peace. 

But when she complains to the village chief that the cemetery is in disrepair, he stuns her by saying it doesn’t matter. Because soon all Nasaretha will cease to exist: It’s scheduled to be flooded once a dam is constructed. Protesting with a zeal that belies her physical frailty, Mantoa is at first thought “crazy” for resisting such colossal change. Nevertheless, soon she manages to rally nearly all her neighbors to protest, too. Just how far they can fight such powerful forces as bureaucracy, corruption, and greed, however, is another matter.

Simple as this story is, Mosese lends it a sort of near-mythic grandeur. His film is slowly paced, to say the least (an opening shot alone lasts nearly seven minutes), but it is always in firm command of a rich color palette and impressive compositions in the near-square Academy ratio. A must for anyone interested in contemporary African cinema, Burial joins the Roxie and Rafael’s virtual cinemas this Fri/2. 

A different kind of dislocation from traditional ways of life provides the unspoken core of Brazilian The Fever, which is now streaming at BAMPFA’s virtual cinema (more info here). This first narrative feature from documentarian Maya Da-Rin focuses on Justino (Regis Myrupu), a burly middle-aged security guard at the harbor in Manaus—a city virtually carved out of the Amazonian rainforest, its “free economic zone” a monument to global industry. His wife passed away, Justino has only daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto), who’s been offered a chance to study medicine in a distant city. 

While he encourages her to seize that opportunity, the prospect of a long separation seems to have a deadening effect on Justino. Already suffering fugue-like spaceouts on his tedious daily rounds amongst giant shipping containers, he begins experiencing a degenerative “fever” of mysterious origin and effect. He also thinks there’s some kind of mystery creature lurking in bushes nearby, forever just out of sight. 

While nothing is spelled out here, it’s pretty clear what Justino suffers from is a profound loss of self: The landscape and culture he came from is disappearing. The present is soulless, and the future seems utterly disconnected from the past. That jungle he left behind seems to be calling him back, while there’s still enough of it left for him to return to. This very quiet, enigmatic narrative is like a more somber take on the kind of magical realism associated with Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul—Da-Rin’s film, too, might have been called Tropical Malady.  

Likewise aiming to create a sort of mystic fable from the conflict between economic opportunism and ordinary people’s lives is Funny Face. Writer-director Tim Sutton’s fifth feature is about two misfits getting squashed by the big bad city. Saul (Cosmo Jarvis) is a somewhat simpleminded corner-store stockboy with anger issues. He likes to wear a grinning Riddler/Guy Fawkes-type mask, and imagine himself superheroically righting wrongs. Orphaned Zama (Dela Meskienyar) is a young Muslim woman in a burqua—somewhat to the bewildered dismay of the relatives she lives with—who runs away from home, but has nowhere else to go. They cross paths to mutually supportive results, eventually pooling their individual rages to aim at a horrible Trumpian real estate magnet (Jonny Lee Miller) whose luxury developments are about to turn Saul’s elderly grandparents (Dan Hedaya, Rhea Perlman) out of their own home.

Funny Face is billed as a “dark New York fairy tale,” a bit of turd-polishing for something so glum and pretentious. It’s an often beautifully shot piece, albeit undone by overall delusions of being Crash by Tarkovsky or the like. There are some important issues here, such as the bulldozing of working-class neighborhoods to create de facto tax shelters for rich foreigners who’ll never even live there. But by the time Sutton articulates those ideas, in on-the-nose fashion, the film has worn out our patience with its mannered aesthetics and sometimes laughably simple (yet humorless) morality. 

The exceptional Jarvis is stuck playing the same kind of ass-kicking holy innocent Billy Bob Thornton once hung the equally dumb, self-important Slingblade on. Miller’s nameless villain is such a caricature of decadent evil, we see three hired ladies of the night writhing for his impotent pleasure in his ultramoderne penthouse. (“And for all his money, he still can’t get it up!,” we’re no doubt meant to cluck.) Funny Face aims for poetry, not to mention profundity. It falls so far short of those goals, you’ll be reminded how there’s practically nothing worse than a truly bad poet, solemnly proclaiming labored banalities as if ventriloquizing Zeus Himself. It is getting released to digital platforms Fri/2.

Refreshingly humble by contrast, at least, is Karla Murthy’s documentary The Place That Makes Us, now available for streaming via on the WORLD Channel, WORLDChannel.org and the PBS App. It’s about “post-industrial city” Youngstown, Ohio, once a flourishing burg built on steel mills that have long since shut down. The ensuing economic decline saw most of the peak population leave, hastened by a crack epidemic and skyrocketing murder rate. Crime remains a big problem, but now the “sinking ship” has sunk sufficiently that it’s attracting ship salvagers—people who’ve come here (or are returning, or never left) who want to revitalize neighborhoods and renovate those abandoned houses not yet beyond repair.

Of course there’s no money, to a degree that basic infrastructure problems are often beyond the city’s ability to address. Ergo the local leaders profiled here, none of them elected officials, are mostly volunteers and non-profit founders hoping to make something out of near-nothing. This simply assembled feature is, appropriately, itself more enterprising than polished, an admiring snapshot rather than any kind of clear or definitive overview. But as the ways of the capitalist world keep pushing resources and affordability out of the common grasp, Youngstown’s kind of DIY making-do with its abandoned detritus may well be what the future looks like, for many. 

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