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Sunday, December 4, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Freedom, and other compromised concepts

Screen Grabs: Freedom, and other compromised concepts

Liberation and constraint, from Belgian playgrounds and the back alleys of Chad to Ted Kaczynski's paranoid manifesto.

Poet, critic and theorist Maggie Nelson’s recent tome On Freedom muses on the complex meanings of a term that 50 years ago generally signaled progressive ideals—and now has been largely coopted by the political right, whose goals often seem largely centered on taking away “other” people’s freedoms. (To vote, to have diversity acknowledged, to make a living wage, et al.) A wide-ranging clutch of features newly releasing to theaters and/or streaming this weekend further probe the notion of freedom, in its differing definitions and its conspicuous absences.

Playground
The sentimental view of childhood, often abetted by subsequent personal amnesia, is that it is a time of “carefree” happiness. Laura Wandel’s Belgian debut feature provides an unusually up-close look at a much thornier truth, in which seldom-articulated rules of social hierarchy and exclusion can make “child’s play” as brutally tactical as a battlefield.

Seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is tearful on her first day at school, clinging to older brother Abel (Gunter Duret), who tries to be supportive but insists she must/will make her own friends. And, in fact, she soon does just that, getting past her initial fears to mix well socially. But to her considerable distress, she witnesses Abel being bullied by bigger kids—and when she tries to intervene (or get teachers to intervene), the situation only gets worse. Eventually the conflict drives a wedge even between the siblings themselves.

This terse (at just 72 minutes) drama, very much in the tradition of astute French-language films about child psychology from Forbidden Games through Ponette, offers a heartbreakingly clear-eyed view of destructive social dynamics that can infiltrate even the most seemingly “innocent” setting. Playground’s original title is Un monde, and indeed recess becomes a microcosm for all the world’s human behaviors, good and ill. Film Movement opens the film Fri/18 at SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas.

The Pact
The agreement of secrecy and silence between siblings proves impossible for one party to maintain in Playground. A different kind of impossible contract is probed in this latest from veteran Danish director Billie August. In 1948, author Karen Blixen aka Isak Dinesen is already world-famous, primarily for the work by which we know her now: Out of Africa, the memoir of her years on a Kenyan coffee plantation. (Long after her 1962 death, it became an Oscar-winning Meryl Streep film of the same name.) That chapter having ended, she now holds court in a baronial manse—she is, in fact, a Baroness—just outside Copenhagen, entertaining the nation’s intellectual elite as well as foreign dignitaries.

As played by Birthe Neumann here, she’s a kind of literary Norma Demond, complete with turban: Imperious, flirtatious, prone to grand pronouncements, manipulative and possessive, with a scorched-earth policy towards anyone imagined to have done her wrong, Into her glittering orbit she invites Thorkild Bjornvid (Simon Bennebjerg), a young writer who’s just published a first book of poetry. She dazzles him with connections that might well be the making of his career, insisting he develop his talent with the utmost seriousness. She offers a pact of mentorship that seems wildly flattering, as well as beneficial to him—but the concealed strings soon make themselves known.

While Dinesen says she’s beyond physical love (she suffers considerable pain from the aftereffects of syphilis her husband gave her years earlier), she acts, nonetheless, very much like a jealous lover. That includes coming between Thorkild and the bewildered wife (Nanna Skaarup Voss) with whom he has a child, even pushing him towards an affair with a colleague’s spouse (Asta Kamma August) to loosen his marital “bonds.” The grande dame insists he must free himself from the shackles of “petit bourgeoise” obligation for art’s sake. Yet increasingly it seems this really means he’s shackled to her own whims and needs.

These mechanizations eventually turn handsome, well-acted, slow-moving The Pact into a somewhat labored melodrama. It’s not that the intrigues (based on real-life Bjornvid’s own memoirs) or personalities aren’t compelling, but rather that their trajectory becomes a little too obvious too soon, making this a plush but rather attenuated two-hour anecdote. Though often visually a treat, the film might have seemed more appropriately scaled as a TV drama. It opens Fri/18 at local theaters including the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center.

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds
The casting-off of conventional morality that Blixen urges on her protege (albeit for selfish reasons) is unimaginable to the characters in Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s latest feature: They live in a society whose strict religious and gender-role rules can be ignored only at great risk, particularly for women.

Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) has made peace with being something of an outcast as a single mother, a status strongly disapproved of within her Muslim community on the outskirts of N’Djamena. But her hopes for daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) achieving something better appear to be dashed when the 15-year-old reveals she’s pregnant. If her future is to be salvaged at all, both agree she must get an abortion. That procedure, however, is both against the law and mosque-directed popular sentiment. Like the pre-Roe v. Wade US reality depicted in Sundance premieres last month, their only option is to locate (and somehow afford) a criminalized underground that exists to provide this “choice.”

Haroun (A Screaming Man) is more interested in probing the parental dynamic and surrounding societal mores than he is in providing narrative drive—though the question of “Who’s the father?” does generate some revenge-thriller elements toward the end. While a bit leisurely at times for westernized tastes, this flavorful drama nonetheless does powerfully underline the dangers and injustices of a “pro-life”-only society like we used to have…and which we might well soon live in again. Lingui opens Fri/18 at the Albany Twin in Berkeley.

Ted K
There’s a big diff between needing to transgress society’s oppressive rules, and rejecting society entirely—though one suspects the protagonist of this biopic might feel they’re the same thing. Sharlto Copley of District 9 fame plays Ted Kaczynski, the infamous “Unabomber” who’s been in federal prison for over a quarter century now. But Tony Stone’s film focuses on his later pre-arrest years in the Montana wilderness, living in a cabin he and his subsequently estranged brother built in 1971—just after Harvard-educated mathematician Ted abruptly abandoned his teaching career.

Surviving on odd jobs, plus money bullied from family members via payphone calls, he’s a back-to-nature purist gone increasingly mad: Obsessed with institutions, employers, area homeowners, and others he thinks are despoiling the land, and/or his personal peace. Those fixations eventually lead to vandalism, then to the targeted bombings that would claim three lives and leave another 23 injured over a 17-year span. By the time of his apprehension, the Unabomber and his epic, anarchistic manifesto (which argued for a forced end to industrialized society) had become modern legend, even if the latter’s publication led directly to his identification and capture.

This isn’t a measured, outside-looking-in take on Kaczynski’s deeds or philosophies, but rather an impressionistic attempt to inhabit his increasingly paranoid, vengeful, deteriorating mindset. To that end, time and reality become ever more amorphous, with titles like “Six Months Later” virtually meaningless, and some figures (like an imaginary girlfriend played by Amber Rose Mason) purely delusional presences.

Two full hours is a long time to spend in this particular land-o’-cray-cray, but by and large the film pulls it off. Its mix of natural beauty, black humor, cold-slap sobriety, and internal-voice nattering does get us closer to some understanding of a figure who can never be truly knowable, as does Copley’s fully committed performance. Of course what makes Ted K relevant now is that while his rhetoric may only have partial overlap with that of today’s alt-right extremists, Kaczynski provided an unfortunate model for their terroristic ideations. The film opens in theaters nationwide Fri/18, Bay Area locations TBA.

Strawberry Mansion
Moving from the homicidally to the whimsically daft, there is this unique slice of twee from co-writer/directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley. The latter plays a tax assessor sent to an elderly woman’s (Penny Fuller) remote home because she, in her rather less violently anarchistic way, has also refused to comply with the law. To be specific, the near-future government he represents demands he audit her backlog of taxable dreams—all recorded on 2000+ VHS tapes. Wading into that pile, his sense of reality begins to come unglued as well, though to ends considerably goofier and less lethal than for Mr. Kaczynski.

With its color palette of bright pastels, not to mention a sax-playing frog, Bigfoot-like creatures whose “fur” is made of grass, mice sailors, a talking fly, and a turtle named Sugarbaby, this part-animated quirkathon definitely cuts its own path. Landing approximately between Jan Svankmajer and Michel Gondry terrain, it is a singular goof, though whether you’ll find it enchanting or just cute-in-a-silly-way is a matter of personal taste. Strawberry Mansion, which premiered at SFFilm last year, opens this Fri/18 at the Roxie (more info here) and gets released to On Demand platforms Feb. 25.

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