The debacle last week of a House Speaker’s election being held up by a handful of wackjobs—the longest such delay in 162 years—underlined that the only “radicals” and “extremists” threatening US democracy these days are all on the far-right. Nonetheless conservatives continue to enjoy throwing such terms in the other direction, a few particularly Q-wazies still blaming 1/6/20’s events on that elusive yet seemingly omnipresent evil unicorn, Antifa. Don’t look now…they’re right behind you!
Once upon a time, however, a genuine radical left did seek to shake our government and other power structures up, down, and (ideally) out of existence—long before the upheavals of the “turbulent” Sixties. Shedding some light on those political currents a century or more ago is Anarchy in the USA!, a collection of archival films launching Jan. 18 and 19th on the subscription streaming service OVID.
The 10 shorts and features brought together under that umbrella include five on disparate related subjects (from Jewish anarchist labor activists to NYPD’s surveillance “Red Squad”) made by Brooklyn-based Pacific Street Films’ Joel Sucher and Steven Fischler between 1972-1999. There are also two by fellow documentarian Peter Miller, and the streaming premiere of Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird’s 1979 The Wobblies, which was recently restored (and reviewed here) after being appointed to the National Film Registry. It will premiere on the platform on Thu/19.
Offering a cogent international overview of anarchism’s origins, influence, and fadeout as a movement is Tancrede Ramonet’s three-part, 2.5 hour No Gods, No Masters. Presented in English-dubbed form, the 2017 European co-production spans from French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s mid-19th century coinage and Russian socialist Mikhail Bakunin’s more practical applications (which commenced a split from Marxist thought) through anarchists’ involvement in the 1871 Paris Commune, the 1886 “Haymarket Affair” in Chicago, Mexican and Russian Revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, and more.
But despite (or perhaps because of) their success fighting gross inequities of the industrial age, they became popularly associated with bombings and assassinations, frequently bearing the brunt of police and judicial protectionism towards the moneyed classes. By the time of WW2, when the series ends, capitalist and fascist powers had basically killed off anarchism as a major force amongst progressive movements.
It did leave a few lasting martyrs, however, perhaps most notably two Italian emigres whose cause stirred international indignation. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were poor workers arrested for an armed robbery in 1920 Massachusetts. They were given the death sentence, and all appeals denied over a seven-year period before their executions—even as “witnesses” who’d identified them confessed they’d were lying, and the actual perps came forward. It didn’t seem to matter that they were clearly innocent of the charges; the judge figured them guilty “enough,” since they were admitted anarchists.
The OVID series features Miller’s 2006 documentary Sacco and Vanzetti (with John Turturro and Tony Shaloub voicing those figures’ written words) as well as Giuliano Montaldo’s 1971 Sacco & Vanzetti, a large-scale narrative feature dramatizing the story, with Riccardo Cucciolla and Gian Maria Volonte in the title roles. Complete with a theme song by Joan Baez, the latter was a major global release. That included within many Communist nations that then rarely showed Western commercial movies, even in the waning days of the Cold War. Its popularity in some such places, however, was more than a bit ironic—because S&V had been held up as victims of ruthless, corrupt capitalism by more than one regime that was simultaneously rounding up and executing anarchists as no longer in synch with the Party line. Anarchists may have helped topple the Czar, but there was no place for them in Stalin’s Russia.
Highlighting “Films from an independent world,” OVID has a wide range of foreign and U.S. documentary, arthouse and series programming, with a free 7-day trial for new subscribers. Info: www.ovid.tv
On a more frivolous level, this week brings plenty of enterprising if variable new genre movies, most with a degree of tongue planted in cheek. Taking itself fairly seriously, and consequently looking hella silly, is Roxanne Benjamin’s There’s Something Wrong With the Children. Two 30-ish couples, one with kids (Amanda Crew, Carlos Santos), one without (Alisha Wainwright, Zach Gilford), share a weekend rural getaway. After they discover a mysterious structure during a hike, those kids (Briella Guiza, David Mattle) start acting very weird, though at first only Gilford’s character notices their newfound malevolence—and is thought to be having a psychotic break as a result.
But he’s right: These brats are possessed, by… er, something or other (malevolent space insects?). They apparently want to toy with and kill all the adults because, well, of course they do. This slick but very dumb variation on Village of the Damned (complete with glowing eyes) is at once heavy-handed and ridiculous, in a conceptually lazy way suggesting the entire enterprise needed more adult supervision. It hits Digital and On Demand platforms Tues/17.
Not dissimilar in story gist if considerably lighter in tone is Kids Vs. Aliens from Jason Eisener, who like Benjamin is a veteran of the V/H/S horror omnibus series (as well as cult feature Hobo With a Shotgun). Nice teen Samantha (Phoebe Rex) is stuck minding little brother Gary (Dominic Mariche) and his friends when her cute but horrible classmate Billy (Calem MacDonald) commandeers the temporarily parent-free house for an out-of-control Halloween party. The siblings are going to be in sooooo much trouble—until suddenly that doesn’t matter, because space aliens (these ones more E.T.-ish, but not nice) invade to wreak far greater havoc than even a few dozen drunk adolescents can manage.
At 75 minutes, KvA is compact, even if it takes a while to warm up. This candy-colored, cartoonish Canadian fantasy would seem aimed at kids, if not for the fact that the onscreen ones drop f-bombs constantly, and there’s quite a bit of gore. There are few original ideas here (particularly if you’ve seen Attack the Block and its like), but energetic enthusiasm is not lacking. The film opens at the Alamo Drafthouse this Fri/20, simultaneous with launch on Digital and VOD platforms.
Also slick, entertaining and at least somewhat intentionally comedic is the Argentinian Legions from Fabian Forte, whose very low-budget feature debut I grokked at a local festival two decades ago. His latest is much more polished and FX-filled, as elderly shaman Antonio (German de Silva) must bust out of the psychiatric facility he’s confined to in order to protect his estranged daughter (Lorena Vega) from the demon who cursed them both many years ago.
The resulting mashup of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Exorcist is fun, but doesn’t always seem certain just how seriously it means for us to take it, so the scares feel half-hearted. I will forget it long before losing a few choice images from the director’s 2003 Mala Carne, which achieved a harrowing sense of freaky peril on slim resources. XYZ Films releases Legions to U.S. VOD on Thurs/19.
A wholly different kind of fantasy action is offered in bulk by Virtually Heroes from G.J. Echternkamp, who made it in the middle of an eccentric career arc spanning from two features about his flamboyantly dysfunctional parents (a documentary and a dramatization, both called Frank and Cindy) to greatly belated recent sequels to 1970s cult flicks (Death Race 2050, The Car: Road to Revenge). This movie, executive produced by exploitation legend Roger Corman, premiered at the Sundance Festival a decade ago. Then it went unreleased, for reasons unclear, until now.
The plot is sort of MacGruber meets Groundhog Day: Our protagonists (Robert Baker, Brent Chase) are trigger-happy combatants in a Call of Duty-type video game where they’re forever blasting away armies of “Charlies,” rescuing a hot captive maiden (Katie Savoy) from a crazed warlord (Ben Messmer), being trained by a Yoda/Obi Wan-type figure (Mark Hamill), and so forth. Never mind that they themselves are continually killed off; there’s always another round to be played, even if Baker’s figure is less cool with that than Chase’s idiotically gung-ho one.
A surrealist (or maybe Situationist) prank sustained by its bounty of senseless action cutaways—basically all stock footage purloined from cheap vintage Rambo knockoffs, with name actors (look, it’s Jan-Michael Vincent!) sometimes visible—Virtually Heroes is just a goof. But it’s a pretty funny one. It is available on Digital streaming platforms as of Tues/17.
Another offbeat experiment is The Seven Faces of Jane. It isn’t really a genre film, or even a parody of one, but manages to be a lot of other things during the course of 92 minutes. Gillian Jacbos’ titular figure is introduced dropping off her reluctant daughter at summer camp. By the time she picks the girl up a week later, Jane has undergone a lot of changes—in fact, she seldom seems to be the same person for more than a few scenes at a time.
That’s because this exquisite corpse feature was crafted by eight directors, including Jacobs herself, plus Gia Coppola, Boma Iluma, Ryan Heffington, Xan Cassavetes, Julian J. Acosta, Ken Jeong, and Alex Takacs. Each were tasked with forwarding the protagonist’s story, but given no clue what the other segments would contain. Ergo various sections here range from Tarantino-esque violent comedy to music-driven romance, a dance interlude, earnest cross-generational bonding drama, Lynchian horror-mystery, and so forth.
I didn’t love any particular episode, and a couple I flat-out disliked. Still, Seven Faces is the kind of gamble one would like to see more of, in which the artistic dice are rolled within certain limits, and the results are diverse enough to hold attention even if they don’t add up to anything spectacular. It’s now available on VOD platforms from Gravitas Pictures.