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Friday, April 19, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Terrific, complex 'Teachers' Lounge' raises prickly moral...

Screen Grabs: Terrific, complex ‘Teachers’ Lounge’ raises prickly moral questions

Plus: Unique 'Mami Wata' aims for Kurosawa-meets-Lynch, South Korean 'Concrete Utopia' offers grim action-satire.

Even before the culture warriors decided to make Critical Race Theory (and now DEI), transgender youth, and supportive books their favorite freakout topics du jour, there was arguably no 21st century job more thankless than that of schoolteacher. Dealing with pupils raised on digital devices was already hard enough… without the threat of mass shooters, the need for “trigger warnings,” conservatives’ insistence on historical revisionism, parents’ fury at Little Tyler’s academic performance (not that they’re inclined to provide help at home), et al.

People expect teachers to be babysitters, trainers, counselors, psychics, bodyguards, social workers. And the emphasis on standardized scores has left them little time to actually teach, as opposed to simply prepping kids to pass tests that leave little real understanding of any subject, let alone knack for critical thinking. Yes, some public schoolteachers make decent money, and yes, they have unions. But there are also a whole lotta teachers out there who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

I’ve had friends leave the profession in droves in recent years—they hated to quit, but they hated even more what it’s become. How qualified or competent will their replacements be? Our society seems to simultaneously expect teachers to hand-sculpt tomorrow’s winning adults while begrudging them safety, sanity, and a living wage. Who’ll choose that vocation in the future? It’s almost as much of a dead end as… er, journalism.

A very savvy look at the maddening predicament of being a teacher in the current climate is provided by The Teachers’ Lounge, Germany’s entry to the Best International Feature competition at the Oscars. Surely things must be somewhat different over there, you might think—Europeans value public education! But while the fictive school depicted here does appear well-funded (and to serve a comfortably middle-class community), many issues prodded in director Ilker Catak’s ingenious tale have an awfully familiar ring.

Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) is a math and physical education instructor whose energy and idealism remain intact—they’d better, since this is her first job. Still, it’s a struggle, as the kids in her various-grade-level classrooms are largely privileged brats who cheat without guilt, then get irked when they have to pretend remorse. A different problem arises when there’s a cloak-room monetary theft, the latest in many, and suspicion falls on a boy from a Turkish emigre family.

Not only does Carla believe his claims of innocence, but she comes to believe it’s actually a staffperson who’s picking available pockets. She even records incriminating proof. But that only sets off angry denials, accusations of “spying,” and hostility from the guilty party’s child—who is also a student here.

From our point of view, Carla is often the sole person here who’s really trying to do the right thing… even as her youth and experience show in the way she sometimes backtracks or changes tactics. Yet everything she does seems to turn others against her, obfuscating the original issue of serial theft. Soon parents, fellow teachers, students, even the student newspaper are accusing her of everything under the sun, from cultural bias to cover-up lying. Like a kicked hornet’s nest, there seems no calming the situation: It only gets worse, and somehow only she keeps getting stung.

This is a tangled web woven with near-brilliance. Catak and cowriter Johannes Duncker manage to accommodate the separate quicksand pits of parental blame-gaming, administrative over-caution, defensive faculty, gullible children, and teens blithely inclined to blow up everything on the Internet.

Its anxiety heightened by the prickly strings of Marvin Miller’s original score, The Teachers’ Lounge achieves something like a thriller’s nerve-wracking suspense, though the stakes may appear pitifully small in description. (James Bond is perpetually saving the world, yet I can’t think of the last time his travails accrued half so much urgency.) This is a terrific movie, funny, engrossing, insightfully relevant. Let’s hope nobody who actually aspires to be a teacher sees it, however. We do need them, and any such persons watching this film will probably run screaming down the next available career path. It opens Fri/12 at SF’s Opera Plaza Cinemas, with other Bay Area to be added in coming weeks.

Two less microcosmic visions of society in freefall are playing at the Roxie this weekend. Both are also their respective nations’ official submissions to the Oscars this year, each striking and ambitious in very different ways.

The Nigerian Mami Wata, which won a Cinematography prize at Sundance last year, is a parable shot in highest-contrast B&W—glowingly white face paints and costume elements leap out against the actors’ dark skin, which itself is offset by backdrops so inky-black they seem like existential voids. Director C.J. “Fiery” Obasi’s feature, subtitled “A West African Folklore,” is set in no precise historical or geographic framework. A small matriarchal village is ruled over by Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), a seeress dedicated to the titular female water spirit.

Her power already somewhat resented, her judgment is thrown into question when she refuses non-traditional medical treatments to combat a virus that claims the life of a child. Two young women, Efe’s own daughter (Unzoamaka Aniunoh) and protege Prisca (Evelyne Ily Juhen), find their loyalties torn. But the discontent provides an opportunity for duplicitous warlord Jasper (Emeka Amakeze) to worm his way in, first as an alleged benefactor, then as a heavily armed conqueror.

Only at the end does this tale of tribal spirituality and values versus violent modernity take a leap into the “magic” part of “magical realism.” But it has an otherworldly feel throughout, the arresting aesthetics and atmosphere compensating for a somewhat talky progress. While Mami Wata demands a degree of patience, it does have a uniqueness that Obasi has defined as well as anyone could, in saying that his primary inspirations included both Akira Kurosawa and David Lynch. It opens at the Roxie on Fri/12 (more info here).

The South Korean Concrete Utopia is dystopian-future sci-fi—something we keep getting more and more of, for reasons you don’t need a degree in climate (or political) science to figure out. Amidst news reports of an unusual meteor shower, Seoul suffers a catastrophic earthquake. Miraculously, exactly one high-rise apartment building remains standing. At first, its residents welcome other survivors who straggle in from the cold and rubble outside. But when scarcity stirs panic, those residents violently expel all “outsiders” under the direction of a self-appointed official “delegate” (Lee Byung-hun) no one quite remembers as their neighbor—though he does have a key to a flat. A rigid but constructive new order is imposed, one that seems to ensure not just survival but the endurance of civility and community.

However, desperation soon begins to trouble the complex anew, while those even worse-off beyond its gates plot to regain access. Leader turns dictator, making a semi-reluctant acolyte of our nominal protagonist Min-seong (Park Seo-joon) Increasingly horrifying is the latter’s wife Myeong-hwa (Park Bo-young), a nurse who can’t stomach the cruel moral compromises this fortified “village” requires from its frightened inhabitants.

Though often spectacular in its scale and FX, Concrete Utopia (which is based on a digital comic book) is less a disaster movie—let alone a dystopian action flick a la Mad Max—than a petri dish in which a swath of humanity breaks down in stressful isolation. We never do find out just what the “big picture” is: Help does not seem to ever be arriving, so presumably the rest of the world is in equally dire straits. Nor do occasional flashbacks reveal much more than what the main characters were doing when the cataclysm struck.

Instead, the focus is on society in miniature, as it alternately rallies and buckles under pressure. Mostly, the trajectory is downward: Compassion soon exits the building, its place usurped by paranoia, greed, and predation. By the time there are calls for “internal cleansing,” we’ve been reminded not just of the Nazis and other ethnic scourgers, but the Cultural Revolution, recent neofascist movements, etc.

Concrete Utopia is hardly a heavy-handed metaphorical screed, however. It has some humor, as well as suspense, intrigue, and impressive CGI depicting damage more extreme than that of a war zone. It’s not a particularly upbeat look at one possible grim near-future, but it is an entertaining one. After opening on very short notice at the Roxie last week, it continues through this weekend; check the theater website for further added shows.

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