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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: 'Endangered' asks, Can the free press be...

Screen Grabs: ‘Endangered’ asks, Can the free press be saved?

Plus: Sweeping Russian fantasy 'The Sword and the Dragon,' Tex-Mex adventure in 'Green Ghost,' creepy 'Passenger,' more

An unabashedly reactionary-activist Supreme Court’s decisions last week in favor of death (re: USA = Guns R Us) and forced birth (Roe), with gay and contraception rights already earmarked as up for “reconsideration” next, makes one wonder where it will all stop.

Well, what else does an emergent fascist police state require? One key element is suppression of a free press, something that would be an easy sell to conservatives already hostile towards the “liberal media” after years of indoctrination re: “fake news,” Qanon, Fox, Twitler, et al. It seemed so in 2016, and it certainly looks so now: The single most dangerous legacy of the Trump era (not that he was entirely responsible) was convincing a substantial segment of citizens that any proven truth could be denied if it simply didn’t conform to one’s prejudices.

Ergo it seems especially timely as a warning that this Tue/28 HBO is premiering the Ronan Farrow-produced documentary Endangered, which looks at press freedom under duress around the globe. The primary focus to Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s film is on journalists in three nations in the Americas: Mexico, where at least 120 reporters have been murdered (nearly all those cases still “unsolved”) since 2000; Brazil, where Trumpier-than-Trump President Bolsanaro openly directs his nationalistic devotees to rage against investigative critics; and the US, where our recently-ex POTUS is seen likewise stirring his volatile fanbase to disbelieve, heckle, and even attack insufficiently submissive members of the Fourth Estate. (We eventually see some of these “patriots” stomping on the equipment of media professionals they’ve forced to flee during the Jan. 6 insurrection.)

Much of this is mixed up with misogyny, as is so often the case with right-wing agitation—Mexican women protesting an epidemic of such violence (including murder rates about six times’ that of the US, per capita) are aggressively greeted by police in full riot gear. Sao Paolo journo Patricia Campos Mello is so insistently slandered as a whore (not metaphorically, either) by Bolsonaro, she actually succeeds in suing him for damages. These people place themselves at risk for simply reporting facts that some in power would prefer get buried from public view. As the documentary shows, those ever-expanding taboos came to include Coronavirus, which the Brazilian oaf-in-chief dismissed as “a fantasy” even as about one in 300 of his citizens died from it.

Endangered also takes in the efforts of the NYC-based Committee to Protect Journalists, whose original mission was originally to advocate on behalf of media operating under oppressive regimes overseas. But increasingly they’ve found cause for alarm right here at home, particularly given the rise of deliberate disinformation, and of “news deserts” in which millions of Americans no longer have any truly local newspapers or other trustworthy sources to keep them informed about issues in their own backyard.

Sobering if also inspirational, and offering some degree of hope, Endangered begins broadcasting on HBO and streaming via HBO Max as of Tues/28.

Other new viewing arrivals offer, for the most part, some compensating escapism:

Swords ’n’ Sorcery, Soviet & Tex-Mex varieties
Two colorful, diverting if mixed-bag fantasies offer fun of a frivolous, more or less family-friendly nature. Indeed, the newly restored 1956 USSR superproduction The Sword and the Dragon is often broad and simplistic enough to seem like a children’s film, but then there are odd, surprisingly grisly moments like a pan across a corpse-strewn battlefield. This medieval fable has blue-eyeshadow-wearing “brave youth” Ilya (Boris Andreyev, who was 40 at the time and looks more like 55) venturing forth to save beloved homeland Rus from evil Tartar marauders. This being a Soviet joint, care must be taken to show the aristocracy he’s ostensibly fighting for as decadent and weak; only peasants are true Russians.

The promised dragon (a three-header that looks like it stepped out of a Toho Studios epic) doesn’t appear until the end, and there is too much yelling amongst disagreeable people where there ought to be action. On the other hand, this goofy semi-musical has rich color, lavish sets and costumes, charming retro FX, and a spirit of kitsch adventure that’s like Maria Montez territory with a more boorishly macho, patriotic tenor. If you’ve watched The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or Clash of the Titans too many times already and want something similar but unfamiliar, Alexandr Ptushko’s Cold War extravaganza might be just the ticket. Deaf Crocodile Films has just released a 4K restoration to US Blu-ray, and digital streaming (through Grasshopper Films).

There’s also some fun to be had from Green Ghost and the Masters of the Stone, which appears to be made by some pals of Roberto Rodriguez, and has some of the same playfully genre-mashing tilt as his Machete or Spy Kids movies. The enterprising indie fantasy has Charlie Clark as a none-too-successful gringo car salesman with a penchant for dressing up in a superheroic green leotard. That comes in handy when he’s swept up in his adoptive Mexican-American family’s renewed battle against ancient foes (Elpidia Carrillo, Marko Zaror) who will use the all-powerful Green Stone to destroy humanity if not stopped.

Michael D. Olmos’ film is equal parts Karate Kid and Goonies (albeit without the kids), plus a little Indiana Jones, a dash of Marvel, and a whole lotta mixed-martial-arts-type fighting—the latter gets a bit tired after a while, as does Danny Trejo’s comedy drunk act. The movie has energy, a nice comic-book-ish look, and a tongue-in-cheek attitude, but so little real narrative impetus that it seems to run out of ideas well before reaching the final credits at a 75-minute mark. You can sense this was a labor of love; too bad more labor (and skill) didn’t go into the script. Gravitas Ventures releases it to VOD platforms on Tues/28.

The Passenger
A more successful mix of humor and fantasy genre tropes is this debut feature for Spanish co-directors Fernando Gonzalez Gomez and Raul Cerezo. Sexist blowhard Blasco (Ramiro Blas) is the van driver for a rideshare service, to the annoyance of his adult female customers today (Cecilia Suarez, Cristina Alcazar), though he finds surprising commonality with surly teen Marta (Paula Gallego).

Everybody is at each other’s throats when their vehicle collides with a figure standing in the middle of a rural backroad. They bring aboard the severely hurt stranger, meaning to transport her to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately for them, that tourist was already in deep distress before they arrived—her body possessed by some crash-landed space alien shape-shifter, which wastes little time in acquiring new human “hosts.”

Fast-paced, clever, stylish, and with some surprisingly engaging character depths (surprising because these people seem so grating at first), The Passenger is at heart still a familiar creature-feature. But if it lacks much in the way of originality, it nonetheless provides a fun ride with considerable esprit. On the heels of a minor theatrical run, Dark Star Pictures and Bloody Disgusting release it to US On Demand and DVD this Tues/28.

Videophobia
No fun at all, particularly for its heroine, is this 2019 B&W Japanese feature from writer-director Daisuke Miyazaki, which is belatedly getting US release. Ai (Tomona Hirota) is a pretty, detached young woman who’s returned to Osaka after failing to make a splash in Tokyo. She’s still taking acting classes (while paying the bills as a fully bunny-costumed “shopping mall mascot”), hoping to become “an actress like Isabelle Huppert”—and there’s a certain eerie resemblance, not just physically but in shared air of faintly bored diffidence.

In a rare moment of relative abandon, she goes home with a guy met at a club, noting without concern a camera perched on a bookcase above the couch where they make out. But then a videotape of their sexual interlude turns up online—then another, where she is even more clearly identifiable. Frantic attempts to track down the one-night-stand perp (who deftly avoided giving her his name) prove fruitless: The apartment, it turns out, was an illegal Airbnb, and police can’t do much to help. Ai’s predicament becomes something of a Kafkaesque nightmare before she takes drastic action.

Striking as a monochrome photo-album travelogue of industrial city Osaka, Videophobia is less effective as a thriller, a tenor it only takes up in isolated sequences. And despite the potent subject matter of privacy-invasive cybercrime, we feel less horror than we should at the heroine’s plight because she’s written as such a blank slate. Seemingly ambivalent towards other people, without any real attachments or tangible goals, she’s defined by little more than a vague discontent that predates her Internet-porn fiasco yet never really gets explored.

This is an intriguing piece of independent filmmaking, albeit somewhat frustrating as both character drama and paranoid illustration of a worst-case-scenario all too common in the Internet era. It’s just been released to US Blu-ray and streaming platforms (including Vinegar Syndrome) by Kani Releasing, a new label “dedicated to bringing Asian films to the North American market.
 

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