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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Latino Film Fest charts a wide course,...

Screen Grabs: Latino Film Fest charts a wide course, from Hurricane Maria to Argentine classic

Plus: Revived African diaspora must-see Sankofa, Tom Skerritt's late-life star turn, more new movies

While the fall film festival season may still be a bit muted this year due to COVID restrictions, it’s at least semi-back, and this week’s San Francisco Latino Film Fest aka Cine+Mas provides a case in point. The event’s 13th annual edition will be primarily online, with most of the 100+ features and shorts from Latin America, Spain and the US (including nine themed shorts programs) available for streaming Fri/1 through October 17. But four features will be screened on-site at the Roxie Theater: Friday’s opening night selection is Denise Blasor’s Calle de Resistencia, a musical performance piece whose 20 original songs chart ordinary Puerto Ricans’ increasingly furious response to governmental inaction after the catastrophe of Hurricane Maria. 

Sun/3 brings a revival of Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel’s now 20-year-old first feature, the memorable middle-class family portrait La Cienaga. On Sun/10 there’s Ivan Mora Manzano’s Ecuadoran Yellow Sunglasses aka Gafas Amarillas, an acclaimed seriocomedy about a young woman’s return from European studies to the Andean city of Quito. The closing night film on Sun/17 is Vinicius Reis’ Jaguar Man aka Homem Onça, which weights the last quarter-century of change in Brazil through the viewpoint of a worker greatly impacted by shifts in the industrial and political landscapes.

The wide gamut of streaming titles include narrative and documentary works encompassing environmental, activist, LGBTQ+, indigenous, musical, feminist, and migration themes, as well as numerous nationalities. They can be watched on almost any device or TV, with live-chat tech support available in various languages should you run into problems. Passes and multi-ticket packs are available in addition to individual show purchases. For full program, schedule and ticket info, go to Cine+Mas’ website here.

Among regular new commercial features, those reviewed below (all of which were released last Friday) globe-trot from LA to London, and from the Pacific Northwest to the Atlantic-straddling horrors of the erstwhile African slave trade.

Sankofa
That last-noted film is a flashback in more ways than one: Ethiopian-born, US-based filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1993 feature is being reissued in a 4K restoration (by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing) to audiences who probably missed it the first time around, if they were even born yet. Despite critical acclaim for his prior documentaries and dramas (including the verite-style slice of Watts life Bush Mama), the director was unable to secure conventional distribution for this more ambitious period piece, though he had some success releasing it himself. It has been somewhat hard to find ever since.

The modern-day framing device has an American fashion model (Oyafunmike Ogunlano) on location in Ghana, oblivious to the dark history of the Cape Coast castle site she’s posing against. Wandering the premises on her own later on, she’s suddenly confronted by the accusing eyes of dozens of shackled slaves—this trading post’s erstwhile “business” for nearly 300 years—and to her terror is thrown in among them, stripped and branded. Somehow she’s then transported back to a plantation in the antebellum American South, as an obedient house servant in love with rebellious West Indian field laborer Shango (Mutabaruka). They react to the realities of their brutal daily existence in different ways, another extreme being mixed-race Joe’s (Nick Medley) adoption of Christianity despite the markedly un-Christian behavior of his keepers. Cumulative injustices finally result in a full-on slave revolt.

An often painterly film, Sankofa is visually rich, and sometimes stark in its power. But the series of vivid vignettes and setpieces is short on narrative structure, its impact landing somewhere between the disjointed indictment of the more exploitative Goodbye Uncle Tom, and the engrossing character-based drama of “Roots” or 12 Years a Slave. Imperfect as it is, it’s an important work in African-American and African diaspora cinema that should be seen. Sankofa is now on Netflix, as well as playing limited theaters. 

East of the Mountains
Tom Skerritt got equal star billing with Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in the original 1970 film M*A*S*H (none of them were in the later TV series), yet somehow he did not become a star, despite appearances in some other famous movies (like Alien and Top Gun) and a film/TV resume that’s seldom slowed down since he started building it 60 years ago. He’s 88 now. While it’s not a competition, he’s frankly wearing advanced age better than some fellow long-term working thespians—and this small drama is certainly better than Clint E.’s concurrent Cry Macho.

Based on Snow Falling On Cedars author David Guterson’s novel, it has Skerritt as Ben, a retired, recently widowed Seattle surgeon whose daughter (Mira Sorvino) urges him to move in with her. But Ben has other plans, insisting on traveling solo inland for a last hunting trip with his dog—even after his car breaks down en route. Camping overnight, he suffers a disastrous attack that puts his own life at risk. He’s fortunate to make it out alive, landing on the doorstep of a sympathetic small-town veterinarian (Annie Gonzalez). Yet he is not done here, or rather he wants to be done on his own terms, for his own reasons.

Skerritt’s low-key, soulful performance does more to fill in the blanks of Ben’s history than the script or occasional youthful-days flashbacks. It’s the kind of plot-lite character study that probably worked better in literary form. (Pay no attention to the trailer, which tries to package it as a pulse-pounding thriller.) Director S.J. Chiro pulled off something similar and a little more successfully with her first feature four years ago, Lane 1974. Still, it’s worth a look, for the Pacific NW scenery as well as a fine lead turn. Mountains is available On Demand and in limited theaters. 

Men Blowing Gaskets: “Surge,” “The Guilty”
The quiet dignity with which Skerritt’s Ben faces mortality has no place in the histrionic decathlons two 40-ish actors are put through in two slick but problematic new dramas. In Aneil Karia’s feature directorial debut Surge, Ben Whishaw plays Joseph, a Heathrow Airport security screener who is snapping tether. Why? We don’t know. Is it because his elderly parents are assholes for whom he can seem to do nothing right? Because his job is unpleasant? Because he appears to have no lover or friends? We’re presumably meant to see his self-destructive decline—which eventually includes robbing banks—as reflecting a world gone mad in general. But too often Surge seems little more than an excuse for a star to run the gamut of twitchy emotions for no particular reason at all.

Some have found Whishaw’s performance a “powder keg” etc, and if you’re a fan (I’m very much on the fence about this particular actor), his fireworks may illuminate… something or other. If not, Surge is probably going to seem pretty pointless. Karia appears to have closely studied the films of the Safdie Brothers (Uncut Gems, Good Time), in which a protagonist’s hapless spinning out of control is mirrored by the frenetic hand-held camerawork and general neurotic, coiled-for-violence atmosphere. But those movies (as well as older models like Taxi Driver) give us plenty of cause for their lead character’s implosion. This one does not. It crosses the line between the anxiety-inducing and the merely irritating in sticking us with a hero whose nervous breakdown is showy but meaningless. Surge is currently playing limited theaters, with On Demand availability as of October 25.

On the other hand, the reasons for Jake Gyllenhaal’s meltdown are spelled out a little too plainly in The Guilty, Antoine Fuqua’s remake of a very good 2018 Danish thriller with the same title. LAPD detective Joe (Gyllenhaal) has been taken off the streets and put on a 911 operator shift as a result of some infraction we don’t quite grasp for a while. (But it’s serious enough that he’s being dogged by calls from a nosy LA Times reporter.) Short-tempered, profane, his asthma exasperated by bad air quality from some hill fires, he is ill-suited to his current duties. But he snaps to attention upon realizing that one caller is a terrified woman who has surreptitiously turned on her phone in the car of her apparent kidnapper. As he tries to determine the vehicle’s location and orchestrate a rescue, his perception of her straits (and that of the children she’s left behind) grows steadily more dire.

You can see why The Guilty got a Hollywood remake: It’s a clever, engrossing plot with at least one startling twist. Those who didn’t catch writer-director Gustav Moller’s original will probably find this a decent suspense exercise. But it’s yet another example of strong material getting needlessly dumbed down and hyped-up for us ‘murricans. In the first film, Jakob Cedergren’s Asger was a bit of a dick, yet we gradually peeled back the complex layers of his character. Here, Gyllenhaal is always barking at others, throwing things around, having little tantrums—none of which is helpful. Still, the movie seems to think it’s only right, since it’s the alpha male who gets things done, yes? Nic Pizzolatto’s screenplay spoon-feeds us Joe’s motivations for being a blowhard, complete with a supervisor’s hand-wringing observation “Broken people help broken people.” (Reality alert: Nobody wants or needs a macho rageaholic on the line when they call for emergency services.)

Despite the star’s strenuous performance, as well as voice-only contributions from the estimable likes of Riley Keough, Ethan, Hawke and Peter Sarsgaard, this Guilty turns something ingenious and a bit hair-raising into something more in the realm of contrived, bombastic, pandering. It’s not quite as thorough a botch as the 1993 Hollywood remake of 1988’s Dutch The Vanishing, whose indelibly horrific ending was replaced by a “happy” one. But it is likewise another case of filet mignon ground into a Big Mac. The Guilty is currently playing limited theaters (including Embarcadero Cinemas), then goes to Netflix this Fri/1. 

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