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Saturday, November 26, 2022

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Help, there's a yak in the classroom

Screen Grabs: Help, there’s a yak in the classroom

A film from Bhutan heads to the Oscars. Plus: 'The Jockey,' 'Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,' and the final film from Jóhann Jóhannsson

As the Omicron variant peaks in one area or another, we’re amidst another wave of event cancellations and postponements, including the film world—the New Parkway in Oakland, for one, has “pressed pause” once again and is temporarily shuttered anew. So you should double-check venue websites before heading out to any of the new theatrical openings noted below, in case of last-minute closures. (At the time of writing, still-open venues like the Roxie, which just got some brand-new seats, were hewing to 50% capacity limits and proof of patron vaccination.)

Director Clint Bentley’s first feature, co-written and produced with Greg Kwedar, is very much in line with such recent features as The Rider, The Mustang and even Dallas Buyers Club—all gritty looks at horse-centric professional milieus that are a long way from the genteel excitement of National Velvet. Jackson Silva (Clifton Collins Jr.) is a middle-aged jockey who probably should have retired, resting on his laurels, a while ago. When under duress he goes to a veterenarian (as he still resists seeing a “people doctor”), he’s asked “How many times have you broken your back,” and shrugs in response “Three I guess.”

Taciturn but valued, he’s got a kinda-sorta personal relationship with his Phoenix-based trainer/employer (Molly Parker), and a friend circle of colleagues who gather like a 12-step group to nonchalantly share stories about their own near-fatal track injuries. Jackson wants one last big win to go out on, if he can hold himself together that long. But his priorities begin to shift when a new kid (Moises Arias), who’s been shadowing him on the circuit, confesses he thinks he’s actually our protagonist’s son by an ex-girlfriend he’d broken up with long ago.

This is a character study, with almost zero in the way of race footage, and the kind of approach that seems almost too low-key to have any emotional impact… until, suddenly, it has quite a lot. It’s entirely dependent on lead actor Collins, whom you might remember from various movies or TV series (the latter including stints on “Westworld” and “Veronica Mars”), that is if you don’t mistake him for Steve Buscemi. His credibly lived-in performance, void of sentimentality or macho posturing, provides Jockey with a strong core that makes this small drama worthwhile if not quite memorable. It opens Fri/21 at the Embarcadero, then begins expanding Jan. 28 to additional theaters including Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas.

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom
Livestock also looms large, as you might guess, in this rare Bhutanese feature to get released in the US. (It was also the first in nearly a quarter-century to get submitted to the Best Foreign Language Feature Oscar competition.) Writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji’s debut centers on Ugyen (Sherab Dorji), a somewhat spoiled and jaded young denizen of that nation’s capitol city Thimphu. What he really wants to do is emigrate to Australia, hopefully pursuing a career as a singer there. But meanwhile he’s obligated to complete four years’ government service as a teacher, a profession he’s already decided is not for him.

Appraising his ill-hidden disinterest, the authorities decide his final assignment stint will be a punishingly remote one—serving what may, in fact, be the most remote school in the world. After bidding adieu to his grandma, girlfriend, and buddies, he takes a very long bus ride followed by an eight-day hike to Lunana, pop. 56, a yak-herding hamlet where he is greeted like a visiting royal. Ugyen is rather less enthused in return, being addicted to devices he can no longer use (there’s no electricity here), discomfited by the high altitude, and dismissive of local customs.

Getting him to that destination here takes almost an hour, which limns our protagonist’s worldly petulance so well that the rest of the tale—in which predictably he experiences a change of heart—feels rather hasty, formulaic and glib. Nonetheless, this is a charming film, complete with one very well-behaved indoor yak. And the scenery captured is so spectacular, Bhutan has instantly shot to the top of my “dream backpacking vacation” wishlist. Lunana opens Fri/21 at the Opera Plaza Cinemas.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
A very different kind of cultural clash is charted in this latest from idiosyncratic Romanian director Radu Jude, whose work often mixes documentary and narrative elements. Here, Bucharest schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu) records a vigorous, verbal sexual interlude with her husband that later somehow gets leaked online. There it comes to the attention of students, superiors, and outraged parents, as well as members of the general public who begin propositioning the “Porn Teacher” with hitherto-unknown frequency as she goes about her daily business. Finally she’s called into a meeting (though it’s more akin to a firing squad) with those parents and the principal. There, the offending video is duly played for all, and she defends herself while pointing out her inquisitors’ obvious hypocrises.

In a film of three major, stylistically diverse chapters, this last segment is a broad comedic indictment that might have worked just as well as a stage play. The midsection is one long, vomitous hurl at the worst of Romania’s past and current crimes against humanity, justice, good taste, et al., as amply illustrated by archival footage in a sort of essayistic screen rant. The more naturalistic first section is, well, where the porn (mostly) is, and no one will accuse Bad Luck Banging of stinting on graphic material.

You could argue that this particular nation’s traumatic history does not call for subtle treatment, but still I find Jude’s sensibility by turns off-puttingly crude, flashy, and mannered. He’s a bold, confrontative director, yes. Yet the effect is a little like being harangued by someone with a bullhorn when—being five feet away from you—they could have used a normal “indoor voice.”

Nonetheless, his movie has a kind of undeniable, anything-goes chutzpah, as well as a finger on the pulse of how easily public discourse and personal tempers wax hysterical these days, with characters demonstrating the full range of COVID-era (ir-)responsibility. Bad Luck Banging opens virtually Fri/21 on Roxie Virtual Cinema and Smith Rafael Film Center; special in-person screenings begin Sat/22 at the Roxie.

Last and First Men
Gleefully lurid in color palette as well as other respects, Bad Luck Banging is diametrically opposed to another new arrival at the Roxie this weekend, a rigorous B&W abstract in which not a single human appears—let alone gets, ahem, busy. Men was the first/last feature directed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, an Icelandic composer whose original score here is at once expansive and droning, encompassing elements choral and orchestral. The film itself is streaked and marked, as if it were some buried artifact excavated by our species’ far-future progeny.

It is, in fact, “from” that progeny, with Tilda Swinton narrating a sort of letter to present-day humanity that describes our descendants’ evolution towards semi-immortality, their selves and societies assuming unfamiliar forms that encompass the development of “group telepathy.” But even attaining that lofty consciousness level is not enough to ultimately avoid a threatened extinction event, which this fantastical flash-forward hopes to warn us off.

Based on a 1930 sci-fi novel by Olaf Stapledon, this 70-minute experience is best taken as a kind of audiovisual poem saturated in cosmic mysticism. Its arresting visuals (shot by Sturla Brandth Grovlen) consist almost entirely of views of decaying monumentalist structures on stark landscapes. They are, in fact, buildings in the Soviet “brutalist” architectural style that are slowly going to pot in parts of former Yugoslavia. Not very welcoming in the conventional realms of narrative or character involvement, Men is nonetheless a unique experiment that casts a hypnotic spell. It plays the Roxie Fri/21-Sat/22 (more info here), with more shows possibly TBA.

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