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Thursday, December 8, 2022

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: 'Song for Cesar' pumps up the music...

Screen Grabs: ‘Song for Cesar’ pumps up the music behind Chicano Power

Plus: 'Master' and 'Alice' probe Black experience spooky and surreal, and 'Fabian: Going to the Dogs' delves into early Nazi Germany

Cesar Chavez Day may not be for a couple weeks yet—the annual federal holiday first announced by President Obama in 2014 is March 31st—but you can get a jump on it this weekend with the opening of A Song for Cesar. Andres Alegria and Abel Sanchez’s documentary retells the much-told story of the late crusader’s activism on behalf of agricultural laborers, who (particularly in crop-rich California) were largely comprised by Mexican emigres drawn by the Bracero Program that began during WW2 to address wartime worker shortages.

But despite being invited by the US government, these pickers and plowers were very much treated as second class citizens (at best) by many growers, their low pay and frequently abominable work/living conditions remaining stagnant well into decades of postwar prosperity.

The film uses plentiful archival footage and interviews with leading fellow activists like Dolores Huerta to recount the struggle to build a United Farm Workers union, then make the owners (who frequently had police, scabs, and violent goons on their side) negotiate with the union. It was a long, bitter battle, but one that would play a huge role in the flowering of Chicano Power as both a civil rights movement and cultural renaissance.

Emphasizing that latter element is what distinguishes Song for Cesar from numerous prior docs on this general history, as it throws a spotlight on related developments in visual arts, theater, and particularly music, with acts like Santana, Tower of Power, War, Malo, Azteca, Dakila, and more rising out of the intersection between political and pop currents. Among participants and allies heard from in latterday interviews here are Maya Angelou, Joan Baez, Taj Mahal, Luis Valdez, Cheech Marin, Graham Nash, Edward James Olmos, Kris Kristofferson, and Lila Downs. Chavez himself was a big jazz-blues buff, and woven into the documentary are excerpts from an all-star 2016 commemorative recording session at Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios.

The film’s opening weekend at SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas will feature live discussion panels featuring filmmakers, representatives from local organizations like Mission Food Hub and Caravan for the Children, and more; Song is also opening Fri/18 at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For schedule info, go here.

A fair number of films at the Sundance Festival in January were also concerned with racial identity and bias, particularly couching views of lingering or renewed bigotry towards the Black community in genre narratives. Two of those movies, both debut features by female writer-directors, happen to be opening in theaters this Fri/18.

By far the better among them is Mariama Diallo’s Master, a striking, sophisticated mix of horror and up-to-the-moment political commentary. Jasmine (Zoe Renee) is a freshman at a historied Ivy League college. She’s from a solidly middle-class, privileged background, and was her suburban high school’s valedictorian. Yet everyone from her neurotic white roommate to professors treat her as if, being African-American, she simply must be some “token” poor charity case. Further wearing down her self-confidence is spookiness connected to that shared room’s murky history. But as Jasmine grows more and more distressed, her house-headmaster prof (Regina Hall) says of the real problem, “It’s not ghosts, it’s not supernatural, it’s…America.”

That’s an arguably too-on-the-nose moment in a film that otherwise juggles a lot of ideas and nuances with considerable skill. Master isn’t entirely successful—particularly in the horror department, which feels underdeveloped. But it’s stylish, provocative, and interesting, with some sharp satirical angles towards new ivory tower orthodoxies that do not leave Rachel Dolezal unscathed by implication. It’s a creepy, ambitious film, in the general realm of Get Out but with a more complicatedly thorny agenda. It opens this weekend at theaters including the Opera Plaza and Shattuck, while also launching on Amazon Prime Video.

Even more conceptually outre in its way is Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice, whose title figure (Keke Palmer) is a cook on the sugar plantation owned by brutal religious fanatic Mr. Paul (Jonny Lee Miller)—though Jesus doesn’t stop him from making her his sex slave, too. The enslaved Black laborers he calls “domestic livestock” have no rights here. Alice’s marriage vow to field worker Joseph (Gaius Charles) includes the phrase “Until distance due you part,” since either of them might be sold or traded at any time.

More Mandingo than 12 Years a Slave, this blunt depiction of presumably pre-Civil War horrors is not quite what it seems, however. Suffice it to say that if you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, you won’t be entirely surprised by the script’s big twist. That leap plunges our fleeing heroine into an outer world she never knew existed, where she gets radicalized in record time and suddenly turns into a lethally sassy ringer for peak-era Pam Grier.

Her makeover could have made for a giddily entertaining cartoon of comingled empowerment and vintage blaxploitation tropes. Yet Alice doesn’t seem to be in on its own joke. Well enough made technically but increasingly ridiculous, it takes itself all too seriously (despite being based on a tragic true premise), when the same ideas might have flown if executed with the absurdist wit and fun they seem to cry for. Of the 20-odd films I saw in Sundance this year, Master was among the best. Unfortunately, Alice was quite possibly the single worst. It opens Friday in theaters including Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas.

The line between infamous yesteryear and today’s turmoil is also blurred in Fabian: Going to the Dogs, a new adaptation by veteran German director Dominik Graf of the only major “adult” novel by Erich Kastner, best-known for such enduring children’s stories as The Parent Trap and Emil and the Detectives. Set in 1931 (when the book was first published), it depicts a Fatherland still reeling from the catastrophe of WWI, teetering on the verge of National Socialism, Berlin an epicenter for both economic inequality and decadent indulgence.

It’s there that Jakob Fabian (Tom Schilling) scrapes out an existence as a newspaper advertising copywriter—a waste of his talents, and one that he is soon relieved of. But still he can’t figure out what direction to take his still-young life in, not even after finding love with fellow-boarding house resident Cornelia (Saskia Rosendahl from Babylon Berlin), a law student turned film actress. Further confusing his compassionate but rudderless progress are the travails of his brilliant, mercurial friend Labude (Albrecht Schuch), recurrent encounters with the provocative Frau Moll (Meret Becker), and the worries of his provincial mamma (Petra Kalkutschke).

Also known as The Story of a Moralist, Kastner’s novel is short (at just 180 pages or so) but rich in scope and depth. Graf’s three-hour film logically references some of the ominous larger political context that the author wasn’t prescient enough to include at the time, even though he was fairly open in his dislike of the Nazis. (The feeling was mutual—though Kastner refused to go into exile, some of his books were burnt, and he narrowly escaped SS assassins towards the war’s end.)

Less justifiable are some of the very busy direction’s more effortful interjections, which encompass lots of period anachronisms, theatrical artifice, flashbacks/forwards, split screen, hand-held camera, and other gimmicky elements, plus the kind of full-frontal nudity so insistently gratuitous you sometimes feel like grousing “Jesus Christ, they did have bathrobes then.”

Nonetheless, Fabian is very well-cast, the performers’ engagement heightening the impact of some very affecting plot turns and a powerful overall arc. Its peculiar edge-of-abyss melancholy, while very much reflecting a reality of 90 years ago, also feels especially apt for our own moment, which is again imperiled by populist movements and socioeconomic strife. Fabian: Going to the Dogs plays the Roxie starting Sat/19 for just three shows (more info here), though more may be added.

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