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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Of saints, elephants, wars, manifestos and mothers

Gerald Schmitz

09/13/2017


All Saints (U.S.)
Pop Aye (Thailand/Singapore)
Good Time (U.S.)
Bushwick (U.S.)
Manifesto (Australia/Germany)
Motherland (Philippines/U.S.)

The fall movie season is upon us and with it the expectation of “prestige” pictures and awards hopefuls in the next months, some getting glitzy premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival currently in full swing (highlights to come next month). But that’s not to overlook a spate of other films out there with interesting angles if of varying quality. Here are a half-dozen to consider.

Director Steve Gomer’s All Saints tells the true story of a failing country church rescued by an influx of refugees and a first-time pastor, Episcopalian priest Michael Spurlock (John Corbett) accompanied by wife Aimee (Cara Buono) and young son Atticus (Myles Moore). A former salesman, Father Michael has been charged by his bishop, an African American with mission experience in Africa, to sell the indebted church property. That isn’t well received by the dwindling white congregation. Especially skeptical of Michael and his ideas is crusty curmudgeon Forrest (Barry Corbin) who calls him a “con man in a collar.”

The arrival of a large group of Burmese refugees proves providential. They are former farmers from the persecuted Karen minority who fled to camps in Thailand, enduring terrible conditions. Their English-speaking leader and fixer, Ye Win (Nelson Lee), informs Michael they are Anglican and he in turn hears God’s voice calling him to turn church lands to agriculture worked by his new parishioners, with the proceeds from the harvest used to pay off the church mortgage. The scheme gets the church a conditional reprieve. So Michael goes into the fields, even enlisting Forrest in the effort, while Aimee attends to the education of the Karen children.

Obstacles abound at every turn. To support themselves the Karen also have jobs working long days at a chicken processing plant. Equipment is lacking. Drought is followed by flood. Yet as serial misfortunes test faith, and the money is short, you just know the story will have an inspirational religious happy ending. That said, it isn’t a predictable one. Filmed on location in Smyrna, Tennessee, with many actual Karen playing their roles, the little All Saints Church on Lee Victory Parkway survives with a renewed mission as Michael moves on to a new assignment.

This is a solid genuinely uplifting movie; moreover, taking place in Trump territory, the acceptance shown refugees is positively heartening. Sure, it helps that they are Christian. Still, as a longtime parishioner declares: “We don’t choose whom God sends to our door. We do choose how we receive them.” A closing message directs viewers to https://www.worldrelief.org/ through which local churches are empowered “to serve the most vulnerable,” notably immigrants and refugees.

***

Writer-director Kirsten Tan’s Pop Aye, which earned a world cinema screenwriting award at the Sundance festival, is a most unusual road movie. It has a very large star in Bong, a huge elephant with impressive tusks who is named “Popeye” by its new owner after the Disney cartoon character of his childhood. When depressed Bangkok architect Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) comes across Popeye as a circus outcast, he thinks he has found the elephant he grew up with in a rural village. Thana built a landmark high rise called “Gardenia Square” in the 1990s, but he’s being eased out, bypassed by soaring new developments. His sullen wife, Bo, has given up on him too. A sad, dumpy, paunchy figure, Thana’s flagging spirits are lifted in bonding with the elephant. He sets off with Popeye to return to the country home he thinks they shared in happier times.

Along the way this very odd couple encounters other social rejects, including a fatalistic disheveled hobo, Dee, squatting in an abandoned gas station, and a transgender singer, Jenni, in a seedy bar frequented by prostitutes. The way Thana is able to empathize with this world of the forsaken provides some of the film’s most poignant, touching moments, whether or not Popeye is really the long-lost elephant of his dreams. This is a story with heart, humour and genuine pathos about those left behind by the gods of progress. And if there were an Oscar for elephants, Bong would definitely deserve it.

***

Good Time, directed by brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, scored a place in the Cannes festival’s main competition and several awards, including for lead actor Robert Pattinson as Connie Nikas, an out-of-control New York City thief on the lam after convincing his mentally challenged brother, Nick (played by Benny Safdie), to be an accomplice in a bank robbery that goes awry. Nick gets apprehended, sent for psychiatric evaluation, beaten up by other inmates, and hospitalized. Connie escapes and goes on a wild tear fixated on getting Nick released. Seeking bail money Connie barges in on a female acquaintance (Jennifer Jason Lee). When that fails Connie schemes to get Nick from his guarded hospital bed, but springs the wrong man. The latter winds up an even bigger loser after a crazy collision of consequences involving a teenage African American girl, an unlucky amusement-park security guard, and the wrong guy’s drug dealer.

Notwithstanding the movie’s ironic title, no one’s having a good time, though, when the game is up, there’s a suggestion Nick might get some professional help. This misbegotten brothers’ crime caper stretches the heist thriller with bizarre twists and careening in-your-face action captured with handheld cameras. Too raw and chaotic to recommend without reservations, Pattinson’s nervy performance stands out.

***

Do civil war dystopias seem less far-fetched in Trump’s Divided States of America? Getting serious attention is American War, a bestselling novel by Egyptian-Canadian journalist Omar El Akkad that imagines such a conflict sparked by the ravages of climate change. Bushwick, a Sundance Midnight selection directed by Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott, makes identity politics the casus belli as southern forces of white nationalism, fighting for freedom in a “new America,” assault the multicultural republic.

With helicopters hovering overhead, a young white woman, Lucy (Brittany Snow), and a male companion emerge from a New York subway as all hell has broken loose in her working-class Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Black-clad soldiers are in the streets. She flees bullets, explosions, and violent men until rescued by a hulking African-American man, Stupe (Dave Bautista), an Iraq vet medic turned janitor with a 9/11 victim backstory divulged during a break in the mayhem. Lucy and Stupe bond as a wounded pair trying to survive long enough — at her grandma’s house, druggy sister’s apartment, a Catholic church and a laundromat — to get to where they can be evacuated by the U.S. army. The attack is domestic terrorism. The invaders are Americans. Texas has seceded supported by other southern states. Stronger than expected resistance from Bushwick residents attributed to its ethnic and racial diversity has made it a shoot-to-kill zone.

Bushwick ends with an apocalyptic night image of the Big Apple as a smoking ruin of fire and fury, to coin a phrase. While it can’t quite escape the limitations of a low-budget horror movie, the idea of Americans being each other’s worst enemies doesn’t sound as crazy as it should.

***

I can guarantee that Berlin-based writer-director Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, another Sundance selection, is the year’s strangest film, developed from a multi-screen art installation to both provoke and mystify. That it works at all is thanks to the protean chameleon-like talents of Australian actress Cate Blanchett who convincingly assumes a dozen different personas and guises beginning and ending with the ranting protests of a shaggy bearded male vagrant. “He” gets the ball rolling citing from “The Communist Manifesto,” but subsequent monologues, usually spoken to the camera or in voiceover, are texts from exponents of various arty (including film) movements and philosophies — subjectivism, primitivism, constructivism, Dadaism, futurism; more “isms” than I can remember. Some of this, well a lot actually, sounds like crazy talk.

Blanchett, who famously portrayed Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, keeps us listening to these wildly contrasting characters, the recitations taking place in equally opposed settings of modernity and its dogmas, paired with striking visual images heightened by the use of overhead shots and pans. The effect is variously suggestive or confounding: didactic, contrarian, ironic, paradoxical, nihilistic (notably a very funereal oration), pretentious, satirical, scatological, humorous, sententious, self-regarding.

There’s a set piece in which Blanchett is a puppeteer performing with a puppet she makes of herself. In another she’s a news broadcaster discoursing on artistic nostrums while speaking with a reporter (also Cate, of course) holding an umbrella under a fake rainstorm. It’s a hurricane of absurdities delivered with a straight face, or rather faces. Nowhere is safe, including a family dinner table and a preschool classroom. Citations are only obliquely identified in a brief opening montage of titles. It doesn’t matter much because Manifesto is manifestly an art film for a very mixed-up world.

***

In Motherland (http://www.motherland-film.com/), director Ramona S. Diaz brings a candid roving camera into the overcrowded maternity wards of Manila’s Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, the world’s busiest (averaging 60 births each day) in the capital of the country with Asia’s highest birth rate. The documentary premiered at Sundance where it received a jury award for “commanding vision” as well as an editing award in the world cinema competition. It’s having a first theatrical release later this month.

Diaz captures the intensive atmosphere in which the arrival of new life is juxtaposed with all-too-common circumstances of teenage pregnancies and poor women already trying to care for too many children. Focusing on a few of the women and nurses deepens the immersive experience. Some with infants born prematurely become human incubators in a section called Kangaroo Mother Care. As the birth of the 100-millionth Filipino is celebrated, what does the future hold for many of these mothers and babies? Family planning remains both a personal challenge and a highly contentious social policy issue in this predominantly Catholic nation.

Diaz observes that “Fabella is the final safety net for very poor pregnant women, most of whom cannot afford either contraception or the $60 delivery fee. . . . a story about reproductive justice and maternal and women’s rights, unfolded within the hospital walls.” At the same time, the “wondrous mystery of motherhood is apparent in every frame of the film . . . the joy in Fabella is no different from the joys experienced by mothers worldwide.” Imagine a better world for all new human life?

*A final note on the extraordinary 10-part television series The Vietnam War, which I saw a preview of at the Tribeca Film Festival. From renowned documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, it begins airing on PBS stations Sunday, Sept. 17. Check local listings.