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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: High-tail it to 'Hundreds of Beavers'

Screen Grabs: High-tail it to ‘Hundreds of Beavers’

Hilarious and chewy. Plus: Jewish Film Institute Winterfest animates Ann Frank, James Baldwin scathes US

The year is still young, but it may not bring anything more delightful to a local screen than Hundreds of Beavers, a new “fur-trapping photoplay” from midwestern director Mike Cheslik and cowriter-star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews. This throwback to the heyday of silent comedy (as well as that of Looney Tunes), which has a lively soundtrack but no dialogue, manages to eke out nearly two hours of slapstick hilarity from the epic struggle of one hairy frontiersman to conquer an army of the titular wood-chawing critters (played by actors in furry suits) in the proverbial Frozen North.

Having just reviewed it for a national publication, I won’t go into much further detail here. But suffice to say, Beavers’ visual invention and gag-happy resourcefulness put to shame most amply bankrolled major releases— this ingenious indie enterprise is unique, unexpected, and great fun suitable for all ages. It opens at the Balboa Theater in SF, and you keep an eye on the self-distributed feature’s future dates and venues here.

Things are considerably more serious-minded on other area screens this weekend, not least at the Jewish Film Institute Winterfest, which returns to the Vogue Theatre this Sat/24-Sun/25. There is some levity to it in the form of Joanna Arnow’s The Feeling That The Time For Doing Something Is Passed, which also played Indiefest last month. But even its humor is of a caustic ilk, with the writer-director herself as a Manhattanite whose corporate job, wildly unsupportive parents, and other relationships (including a particularly joyless BDSM one with an older man played by Scott Cohen) are all like some cosmic joke where she’s the punchline. If you like your humor very, very dry, it may be more funny than squirmy.

But other Winterfest selections run a poker-faced gamut from the inspirational to the provocative and tragic. Anthony Hopkins stars as “British Schindler” Nicolas Winton, who saved hundreds of refugee Jewish children from the Nazis, in fact-based drama One Life. Approaching overlapping subject matter with more of a YA tilt, Where Is Anne Frank from Waltz With Bashir’s Ari Forman retells the famous Holocaust victim’s story in animated form, within a modern-day framework mixing fantasy and immigration politics.

That last theme is also central to Bay Area director Cady Voge’s All We Carry, a documentary portrait of a Honduran family who flee danger at home for the US, ending up in a western Seattle Jewish community’s unexpected embrace. Likewise championing the marginalized is Canada’s first female Supreme Court Justice, whose career is charted in Barry Avrich’s Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella. An all-around provocateur is memorialized in a third nonfiction feature, Jeff Zimbalist’s How To Come Alive With Norman Mailer. It makes a case for that late, notorious “literary lion” being a dedicated challenger of convention and complacency, even if his pugnacious public image sometimes overshadowed his achievements.

Promising an enigmatic mix of historical inquiry and ambiguous psychology is closing selection No Shade in the Desert, a French-Israeli co-production from director Yossi Aviram. Two middle-aged strangers (Yona Rozenkier, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) meet during a Tel Aviv trial for Nazi war crimes in which their elderly parents are accuser and accused. But the ties that bind them may run even deeper, in a tricky quasi-romance that sounds reminiscent of Kiarostami’s fascinating Certified Copy.

Earlier that Sunday, Winterfest will present “Subjective POV: Filmmaker Barak Heyman Reflects on Israel’s Complex Reality,” a live event in which the documentarian (whose past works include the terrific choreographer portrait Mr. Gaga) will discuss and show clips from his body of work. That work has frequently touched on Palestinian issues, and his own life experience (encompassing friends still in Gaza, as well as others killed by Hamas last October) likewise reflects the thorny nature of political and social existence in Israel. For complete JFI Winterfest schedule, program and ticket info, go here.

(It is worth noting here that the following weekend, Sat/2-Sun/3, Oakland’s New Parkway will host multimedia forum Palestinian Voices—including films originally scheduled to show at the Arab Film Festival which got indefinitely postponed due to the roiling political climate last November.)

Meanwhile as Black History Month draws towards a close, having been observed with some particularly wide-ranging programs at the Balboa and 4-Star, the Roxie provides a late bonus with the revival of I Heard It Through the Grapevine. Barely seen on its original 1982 release, and basically “lost” since, this feature co-directed by the marital duo of veteran British documentarian Dick Fontaine and model-actress Pat Hartley has been restored from original 16mm elements in time for the centennial of James Baldwin’s birth.

It’s an autumnal piece in multiple respects: Not only is that late, great writer and activist near the end of his life, but here he’s returned from European self-exile to ponder “what happened to this country” almost 20 years after the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. This provides occasion to review the original 1960s events, in which so many of his friends (MLK for starters) were killed, and whose brutality of white pushback still has the power to shock in archival footage. There is also discussion of how disappointing to the Black community Presidents JFK and LBJ’s halfassed support of was at the time, though their reputations on that score have since been somewhat dubiously rehabilitated.

Touring sites of former organized struggle and discussing that recent history with surviving allies (including Amiri Baraka, Chinua Achebe, and others), Baldwin’s verdict on the long-term results is mournful: The legal end of segregation has seemingly brought only greater poverty and isolation. African Americans duly took advantage of their new freedoms to “go downtown” and patronize mainstream businesses—a favor that was not returned. Black-owned businesses died a slow death, neighborhoods sank into crime and poverty.

The repressive economic tools (such as “red-lining”) that had kept them from flourishing like most of post-WW2 America continued unabated. And just as the South responded to slavery’s end by inventing any excuse to create likewise “free” chain-gang labor, so now a national response to superficial new racial equality seemed to be ramping up targeted entree to the burgeoning prison-industrial complex—a trend that’s only escalated in the decades since.

No wonder Baldwin’s purview, in recollection, observation and conversation alike, is sorrowful. Shot in 1980, Grapevine sees the battles hard-won not many years earlier stealthily reversed by a System that hardly been defeated after all. It’s a striking time-capsule whose lessons are, alas, all too relevant to our current “divisive” culture, in which once again many citizens have been convinced people unlike them are somehow less than “true” Americans, and should be treated as such. I Heard It Through the Grapevine opens at the Roxie this Fri/23.

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