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Friday, December 3, 2021

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: Arab Film Fest hits 25, Jane Campion's...

Screen Grabs: Arab Film Fest hits 25, Jane Campion’s brilliant return…

Bruce Lee's first two big films, a senseless police murder in 'The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain,' more movies this week

This week’s big local event in terms of international cinema is the opening of the Arab Film Festival, Thu/18. The oldest and largest such event in North America, it celebrates its 25th anniversary edition with a program both in-person and virtual through Wed/24. The “live” screenings will kick off this Thursday at the Castro Theater with Moahmed Diab’s Palestine-set Amira, a drama about paternity and incarceration that won several prizes at the Venice Festival this year.

Later screenings at the Roxie Theater and Oakland’s New Parkway include Ameen Nayfeh’s 200 Meters, another acclaimed Palestinian drama; Maysoon Pachachi’s fictive slice of Baghdad life Our River…Our Sky; Nouri Bouzid’s The Scarecrows, depicting perils of motherhood amidst Syria’s civil war; and Beirut-born Selim Mourad’s freewheeling, highly personal filmic essay Moss Agate. Documentaries on tap encompass ones about sexual assault in Egypt (As I Want), Lebanese childhood reminiscence (Stove) and the end of a sixty-year, transcontinental marriage (Their Algeria).

There’s also shorts programs, animation, experimental works, a couple virtual reality experiences, plus spotlights on women’s nonfiction shorts, queer and Iraqi filmmaking, and more. Streaming content will be available a few days beyond the official closing date, through Sun/28 via the festival’s own virtual portal. For full schedule, program and ticket info, go here.

Some other notable events for cinephiles this week look backward. Thu/18, the Roxie is hosting a “roadshow” edition of the annual Association of Moving Image Archivists’ program, which is normally only screened for their members. The nearly two-hour package is a grab-bag of diverse recent restoration projects from around the world (each clip usually preceded by a spokesperson’s explanation), spanning from an 1897 can-can dance shot on 68mm to Bay Area hero Marlon Riggs being interviewed for a PBS show three decades ago. Among the fun errata included are a US Army training film starring a very young Jack Lemon; 1970s video art; a 1938 Hungarian stop-motion animation; vintage Mexican TV commercials; a 1965 short to promote the city of Wellington, New Zealand; a 1945 performance by proto-rock-n-roller Louis Jordan’s band; and 1967’s Bobcats A-Go-Go, which used a gyrating cutie to peddle agricultural machinery to trade-show attendees.

A somewhat less nostalgic type of retrospection is provided the prior night, when the Roxie will show a diptych of shorts by Bay Area filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. He first gained significant attention in 1994 with The Smell of Burning Ants, which utilizes B&W archival footage to illustrate a third-person voiceover monologue about an upbringing instilled with toxic masculinity, fear of the father, bullying, domestic discord, peer competition, queer-baiting, rage, and animal abuse. The 21-minute short won a slew of awards at festivals around the world. Nearly three decades later, he made a companion piece in the longer, more straightforwardly documentarian When We Were Bullies, which further probes an incident of remembered schoolyard aggression briefly mentioned in Smell. While Rosenblatt still isn’t quite ready to find (let alone face) the kid he and others had tormented over half a century ago, his new film is an act of atonement. The filmmaker will be on hand for a post-screening onstage conversation with the recently Oscar-nominated (for short Life Overtakes Me) Kris Samuelson. More info here.

There’s no time for sensitive reflection on personal misdeeds in the cinema of SF-born Bruce Lee, whose first two starring features (discounting his child-actor period in Hong Kong) will be shown this Thurs/18 night at SF’s Balboa Theatre. Disappointed by his limited sidekick role on the much-ballyhooed “Green Hornet” TV series, and the paucity of Hollywood offers after its cancellation, Lee had despaired of achieving stardom in the US when he got an offer to star in a low-budget action film in his native Hong Kong. But 1971’s The Big Boss proved an unexpected hit, not so much on its own merits but because Lee was so magnetic, whether in dynamic action or equally charged repose.

He more or less singlehandedly turned martial arts movies, hitherto largely ignored in the West, into a popular new category of exploitation cinema worldwide. Ergo, Lee was rushed into a better-produced followup the next year, Fists of Fury, also directed by Wei Lo, though disagreements on set put the kibosh on future collaborations between them. Lee would make just one more Hong Kong film before returning to the US in triumph with 1973’s Enter the Dragon—though he died of a cerebral edema (triggered by an adverse medication reaction) just before its release at age 32. Info on Punches & Kicks presentation of Boss and Fists—which were confusingly originally marketed with each other’s titles—is here.

Among regular commercial openings (both theatrical and streaming) this week:

The Power of the Dog
Wellington native Jane Campion’s first feature since 2009’s Bright Star (in the interim she made the two “Top of the Lake” miniseries) is another left turn in an always-unpredictable career. In some ways it’s reminiscent of her “greatest hit,” the multiple Oscar-winning drama The Piano in 1993, being another tale of a wife and mother somewhat aghast at finding herself in a rough, hostile frontier life. But that movie was ultimately a story of romantic (and sexual) fulfillment, while this is something much thornier—bitter, sardonic, almost grotesque.

Based on the late Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, the story is set in 1925 Montana, where the Burbank brothers live on their ranch, in an incongruously huge, isolated prairie mansion. (It was presumably built by their parents, who long since fled to a more urbane life.) Despite that splendor, they live so simply that the 40-ish duo still sleep on twin beds in the same room. But while strapping, ornery cuss Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is satisfied with this uber-masculine existence, George (Jesse Plemons), whom he not-so-affectionately calls “Fatso,” is not. To Phil’s caustic fury, George begins courting Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who runs the only restaurant in the nearest, makeshift “town.” Worse, he marries her, and Phil retaliates by turning what should have been a happy new life for Rose into little hell of hostility and humiliation. While her only child Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is away at medical school, it’s easy to protect him from this bullying in-law. But sooner or later he must visit… and then things get very interesting.

In recent years the original book has been compared to Brokeback Mountain. But while this is also a tale of repression, desire, and homophobia, in Campion’s hands at least it is more cruelly ironic than poignantly tragic. That Power is one of her best films does not make it a pleasant watch—it is acutely discomfiting at times. I saw it a day after Kenneth Branaugh’s Belfast, a piece of awards-bait warm-and-fuzziness so eager to please, it practically sits up on its hind legs and licks your palm. Whereas this rigorously crafted, finely acted movie does not want to be liked—even though I finally did like it, very much. It’s not a “western” so much as a prairie Gothic drama a la Days of Heaven or There Will Be Blood, and arguably better than either. it opens Wed/17 at the Embarcadero, then Wed/24 at Shattuck Cinemas and other venues, with Netflix launch on Dec. 1.

Prayers for the Stolen
Intense maternal concern in a hostile environ also looms large in documentarian Tatiana Huezo’s first film, which is Mexico’s Oscar submission feature this year. Based on Jennifer Clement’s novel, it chronicles some years in the young life of Ana, played first by Ana Cristina Ordonez Gonzalez, then by Marya Membreno. She lives in a verdant rural Mexican village with her mother Rita (Mayra Batalla)—her father is off somewhere else working, an absence that is supposed to be economically supportive, but is starting to look more like full-on abandonment.

Nonetheless, this would seem a fairly idyllic place to grow up if we didn’t soon perceive the area is almost entirely controlled by drug cartels. They run amuck terrorizing locals whenever the urge arises, while government soldiers are more cowed than protective. That dynamic has driven many to leave the area. Rita has committed to staying, however, even as she’s petrified that her only child may be raped, kidnapped, murdered, or all three—as happens to many girls around here. That danger greatly heightens when Ana goes from childhood to adolescence, and a boyish haircut can’t hide her suddenly buxom form.

Much of Prayers is taken up with the ordinary stresses, crushes, diversions, and conflicts of growing up, which Ana experiences in the company of inseparable peers Paula and Maria. Like any kid (she ages in the film from 8 to 13), she chafes at parental restrictions on her behavior, and can’t always see they’re for her own good. But we are very aware of the peril that might erupt at any moment, whether in the form of gunfire or poison sprayed from helicopters. By turns lyrical and harrowing, this impressive feature is both a familiar seriocomic “coming of age” story, and one about living in a de facto war zone. Following some limited theatrical play, it begins streaming on Netflix this Wed/17.

The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain
A different, not-always-tangible climate of fear is inhabited by the titular character in this Morgan Freeman-produced drama. In an approximation of real time, it relates something that happened almost exactly a decade ago: Yet another case of a Black man needlessly killed by police. In the wee morning hours of 11/19/11, retired veteran Corrections Deptartment worker and ex-Marine Chamberlain (played by Frankie Faison) accidentally set off a medical-alert pendant kept bedside because of his weak heart. When he slept through the subsequent service provider’s call, procedure required emergency services be dispatched to check on his well-being. Thus three White Plains NY cops wound up banging on his apartment door at 5am, trying to convince the groggy, confused, increasingly panicked man to let them in. Chamberlain refused, saying that he did not need help, and had already contacted the dispatch company to cancel their order.

But the police ignored his pleas, as well as those of fellow residents, Chamberlain’s niece, and his caregivers. They agitated his evident paranoia (he’d purportedly been diagnosed as bipolar), eventually calling for backup, screaming at him, at witnesses, even at each other. It seemed a classic instance of macho clusterfuck ending in a wholly unnecessary death—for which, natch, no law enforcement personnel involved were convicted, or even charged. David Midell’s film is a dramatization of events that presumably takes some imaginative liberties, since not everything about the incident was recorded. But at the end, there is actual audio and video footage (complete with racial epithets) that reinforce the viewer’s conclusion: That this was one more horrendous instance of excessive force at least partly driven by bigotry, in which a situation that cried for de-escalation was instead escalated by cops towards a fatal denouement.

Managing to sustain suspense and avoid hyperbole despite its basically one-note crisis storytelling, The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain is a solid film. But it’s also a maddening experience, precisely because it captures so vividly the crossed signals that can lead to such disasters—as well as the mindset of ill-trained, overreactive first responders who stubbornly ignore every opportunity to dial things down. They’re not “protecting and serving” anyone here; they’re acting like a SWAT team, itching to rain thunder on a frightened old man with PTSD, as if he were somehow what’s wrong with society. The film begins playing on HBO Max Fri/19—the 10th anniversary of the real-life events depicted.

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