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Thursday, June 30, 2022

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Immersed in the works of an African...

Screen Grabs: Immersed in the works of an African great

Plus: A Georgian wrestler in New York, and miserables Irish spin on 'Hereditary,' Zero F*cks Given, more new movies

This appears to be the rare spring week in which there is not a local film festival opening (at least that we know of), but there are a couple notable series kicking off at two East Bay venues. Starting Fri/1, the New Parkway in Oakland is having its first-ever Doc Week of nonfiction feature favorites. They include classic bios The Times of Harvey Milk, I Am Not Your Negro (about James Baldwin) and RBG, plus films about music (Summer of Soul, Searching for Sugar Man), whistleblowers (Citizenfour), critters (March of the Penguins, feline Kedi), sports (Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings), space exploration (Apollo 11), art (Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop), activism (Dolores, as in Huerta), foodiedom (Jiro Dreams of Sushi), stranger-than-fiction human interest stories (Three Identical Strangers) and more.

The program includes five Oscar winners, as well as daily appearances by local filmmakers introducing their own work. While everything here is recommendable, two less-well-known titles particularly worth your while are the recent Revolution of Our Times, which vividly chronicles ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong; and Tickled, which starts out as a very amusing look at a fetish subculture, then takes a rather startling turn down a rabbit’s hole of obsession, harassment, conspiracy, and deep-pocketed malice. The New Parkway’s Doc Week runs Fri/1-Thu/7; for full schedule and related info, go here.

One upside to the pandemic era’s huge increase in demand for streaming content is that films previously unlikely to receive US distribution of any kind began turning up on one platform or another. That was certainly a boon for African cinema, which has seldom enjoyed the export opportunities afforded movies from other continents and their nations. But even if you’ve managed to see any of the recent features that have benefitted from that expanded access, you may understandably be very vague on Africa’s celluloid past, all too little of which has traveled far beyond the festival circuit.

Berkeley’s BAMPFA is providing one opportunity to play catch-up with “Souleymane Cisse,” a series of four restored works by the now 81-year-old Malian talent long considered one of Africa’s greatest directors—if not the greatest, period. It begins this Thurs/31 with his first narrative feature Den muso aka A Young Girl, in which the deaf-mute daughter of a rich factory owner is preyed upon by his disgruntled ex-employee. Released in 1975, it seems remarkably undated in both documentary-like economy of style and sharp indictment of ingrained societal misogyny. The stinging critique of class/gender mores was not well-received by Mali’s government, which for a time both banned the film and jailed its maker.

Nonetheless he made two more social-realist features as followups, Baara aka Work (1979) and Finye aka Wind (1982), both showing at BAMPFA. In 1987 he became the first African to win a Cannes Jury Prize with the contrastingly fantastical Brightness aka Yeelen, which is as much a mythic/mystic hero’s journey as something like The Holy Mountain or The Green Knight. Set vaguely in the 13th-century Mali Empire, it presents a young prince (Issiaka Kane) pursued by a father who wants him dead.

Having inherited magic powers, Nianankoro’s adventures include his being able to drive away another king’s enemy attackers, and curing his wife of barrenness, though the latter task also results in some new “trouble” of a familiar type. These wonders are depicted in the simplest means possible, with little use for special effects or even sets. Yet the film’s atmospheric otherness and visual beauty lent this Bambara legend make it fully persuasive. Brightness has frequently been called the single finest African feature ever made. The Cisse series runs through April 17, for full program and ticket info go here.

As it turns out, this week’s new releases provide further illustration of how streaming has pried open a window for some more adventuresome imports:

It’s A Dirty Job But Someone’s Gotta Do It: Brighton 4th and Zero Fucks Given

Two offbeat character studies focus on globe-trotters who are not exactly “jet set” in terms of socioeconomic oomph. The Best Foreign Film Oscar submission from former Soviet nation Georgia this year, Levan Koguashvili’s Brighton 4th is about burly, bearded, even-tempered Kakhi, a former Olympic wrestler (as is his actor, the excellent Levan Tedaishvili) who still coaches athletes despite being in his 70s. But he leaves that and a bedridden wife behind in Tbilisi to visit Brooklyn’s Georgian expat community. There, son Soso (Giorgi Tabidze) has gotten himself in a mess: Working as a mover, he can neither take the exam to qualify as a doctor here or complete his green-card marriage to the very nice Lena (Nadezhda Mikhalkova) while he’s in hock to gangsters for gambling debts.

Like a friendlier (and taller) Charles Bronson, Kakhi is the kind of old guy you know will somehow be able to sort things out, even kicking some ass if necessary. But this isn’t really a crime melodrama or anything else predictable, so much as it is a snapshot of a personality and a culture in exile. Boris Frumin’s screenplay feels a little underdeveloped at times, more anecdote than filled-out story. Nonetheless, the cumulative effect is insightful and poignant—largely thanks to Tedaishvili, who as a man of few words nonetheless communicates a lifetime of weary, dutiful burden-shouldering. Kino Lorber releases Brighton 4th to Digital and On Demand platforms Tues/29.

Somewhat less sympathetic at first sight is the protagonist of Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre’s Zero Fucks Given. Cassandre (Adele Exarchopoulos from Blue Is the Warmest Color) is a young flight attendant for a penny-pinching European airline where she and her colleagues are endlessly pushed to meet concession sales targets, while micro-managed over trivial rules. It’s a fairly shitty job, but then she doesn’t seem to have much in the way of skills or ambitions; in her offtime, Cassandre is usually clubbing, drugging, and/or hooking up. When her situation changes about midway through this seriocomic slice of life, however, we begin to grasp the familial pain she has in fact been on the run from.

Portraying an airborne version of the kind of crap employment we’re used to hearing about re: Amazon or Walmart, Zero offers an interesting glimpse of corporate exploitation at 10,000 feet—and proof that yet another once-decent career path has been downgraded to Economy. Exarchopoulos, very funny last year in Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist Mandibles, is an actress willing to be “ordinary,” yet also lend that status a tangible depth. We may not like Cassandre very much at the start here. But by the end we’re rooting for her to make something of herself, and pretty convinced she’ll do just that. Zero Fucks premieres on streaming platform MUBI as of Wed/30.

Those characters’ travails are pretty minor-league alongside the real-life nightmare dramatized in Justin Kurzel’s new film. If his last one, True History of the Kelly Gang, was an exasperatingly fussy and flashy take on a violent life long since clouded by legend, Nitram mercifully takes a sober, respectful stance on more recent tragedy. In 1996 a heavily armed young adult male opened fire at the historical site of Port Arthur in Tasmania, killing 35 people and injuring another two dozen.

That climactic incident takes place off-screen here. The focus of Nitram, like the Unabomber film Ted K last month, is to portray the background and psychological dysfunction that led this perp (whose real name the title is an anagram of) to commit such a senseless, horrific act. When we first meet him, Caleb Landry Jones’ protagonist is already a man, but one with the mind of a child. And not in a good way: He’s an unemployable, surly, impulsive manbaby, incapable of grasping his limits, with a vicious temper. (His real-life equivalent had an IQ of 66 and received a disability pension, though professional opinions differed as to whether he suffered from schizophrenia or another diagnostic mental condition.)

He’s still living with the parents who’ve more or less resigned themselves to his ruining their lives, with Judy Davis as the acidically firm mother and Anthony LaPaglia the long-suffering, more passive pa. Then at age 19 “Nitram” meets an eccentric local heiress (Essie Davis), the kind with umpteen dogs and cats, eventually moving in with her. That arrangement proves ill-fated, and our antihero’s subsequent life alone only causes resentments to fester dangerously.

This is an unpleasant movie, for sure, not just because its central figure is incredibly unpleasant, but because it’s hard to see what anyone around him might have done to prevent disaster—apart from simply locking him up forever, of course. (Which is exactly what happened in the end, albeit too late for 35 lives.) He was a ticking time bomb whom all were trying their best to keep under control.

Though some factual elements (beyond the names) have been changed, making this a less-than-definitive treatment, Nitram is very effective, with fine performances from the lead actors. And there is some bittersweet consolation at the end, because after this catastrophic shooting spree—the country’s worst such incident in decades—the Australian government took only a few days to drastically overhaul its gun laws. No crime approaching Port Arthur’s death toll has happened there since. Contrast that decisive action with the US, and weep. Nitram opens in limited theaters, on Digital rental platforms and on streamer AMC+ on Wed/30.

You Are Not My Mother
Horror of a rather different stripe is offered in writer-director Kate Dolan’s debut feature. Teenage Charlotte (Hazel Doupe) lives a somewhat bleak existence in a working-class North Dublin housing estate, her beloved granny Rita (Ingrid Craigie) ailing. They’re both nervous caretakers of the generational midsection, Char’s mother Angela (Carolyn Bracken), a dysfunctional sort who alternates between sleeping off depression for days on end, and irrationality while awake.

Not helping our young heroine’s rep amongst mean-girl classmates is the persistent rumor that this family has dabbled in witchcraft, with a burn scar on her face attesting to a long-ago fire ritual. Then, abruptly one day, mum appears to be full of “normal” energy—an ominous sign. As her behavior gets crazier and crazier, the worry arises that this isn’t Angela at all, but a malevolent changeling that’s taken possession of her.

A sort of Irish miserabilist spin on the likes of Hereditary, Mother ultimately feels too slow and downbeat to be an effective horror movie, while too dependent on genre concepts to be effective as a serious drama about mental illness. Nonetheless, it is a thoughtful, very well-acted attempt to straddle those two terrains. Having bypassed the Bay Area in its limited theatrical release last Friday, it is now available for streaming from On Demand platforms.

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