LA 92 (2017; Dir. Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, November 17, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
The best documentary of the year so far, a harrowing, sweeping, intelligent, dynamic and elegantly constructed montage about the Los Angeles riots of 1992. LA 92 begins with footage from the racially charged Watts riots of 1965 and proceeds to build a strong cast of root causes for the inevitable sequel, with racial inequality, police brutality and economic insecurity receiving plum, above-the-title roles. An intensifying anger finally found its release after two high-profile cases of racially motivated violence against African-Americans – first the senseless murder of teenager Latasha Harlins by an Asian store clerk, then the horrific beating of Rodney King by four white policemen – resulted in revolting injustice. Much of this territory was covered in last year’s epic O.J.: Made in America, and we’ll presumably see many of those same iconic clips (e.g., the Rodney King beating, and the assault on Reginald Denny) in John Ridley’s just-released Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992. But Lindsay and Martin (Undefeated) have also assembled a fair amount of rare and never-seen footage, much of it culled from on-the-scene camcorders, and a lot of it utterly unbelievable (e.g., the blood-soaked nightmare at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, or the man coolly lighting palm trees on fire as he strolls down a lawless street).
God’s Own Country (2017; Dir.: Francis Lee)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, November 10, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Postcard-worthy slow cinema from actor-turned-auteur Lee, a bruising but underwhelming love story set amongst Yorkshire sheep farmers. With his friends all gone off to college, angry young man Johnny (Josh O’Connor) gets stuck assisting his ailing father (Ian Hart, awkwardly theatrical compared to his underacting co-stars) with their failing farm, numbing his pain through alcohol-soaked nights and brisk sexual encounters with anonymous men. That all changes when handsome, no-nonsense Romanian immigrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) arrives on the farm, arousing resentment from the racist townsfolk and simply arousing Johnny. After a lifetime of abuse from his father, Johnny finally experiences real tenderness with Gheorghe, but his self-destructive instincts inevitably kick in, jeopardizing their relationship. I liked the love story at the heart of God’s Own Country, but the film is just as plodding and impenetrable in its shaky-cam stoicism as Yorgos Lanthimos’ polar-opposite The Killing of a Sacred Deer was with its antiseptic precision.
Brimstone & Glory (2017; Dir.: Viktor Jakovleski)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, November 3, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
A color-saturated, visually stimulating, razor-thin documentary about the National Pyrotechnic Festival that takes place in the Mexican municipality of Tultepec, a national center for fireworks production. There are two main events during the festival – one involving skyscraping towers festooned with colorful explosives, and the other involving elaborately decorated bulls that detonate into blazes of fireworks while daredevils dance around in the colorful flames. Making his feature directing debut, Jakovleski provides little context, less story and almost no commentary, and rather than using the festival as a springboard to explore issues of worker safety, environmental desecration and out-of-control machismo, he mostly turns the 67-minute Brimstone & Glory into a candy-colored formal exercise. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Jakovleski and his collaborators (including the editor and composers behind Beasts of the Southern Wild) deliver one jaw-dropping sequence after another – I doubt I’ll ever forget some of the potent images in this film, especially the enormous bulls erupting into rainbow-colored infernos while sparkling projectiles whiz through crowds of cavorting lunatics.
Tragedy Girls (2017; Dir.: Tyler MacIntire)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, November 3.
Appealing newcomers Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp headline this ghoulish and unfunny horror satire, playing high school cheerleaders and lifelong besties with an unhealthily active interest in serial killers. In an attempt to expand their skills and increase their followers, murderous social media addicts Sadie and McKayla kidnap a seasoned serial killer (Kevin Durand), wreaking homicidal havoc in his name when he refuses to help and using the resulting infamy to promote their online brand. As bodies pile up in increasingly cartoonish fashion, Sadie and McKayla’s natural-born-killers bond gets tested by cute boys and the vicissitudes of teenage popularity. Director MacIntire and co-writer Chris Lee Hill pile on the bratty amorality, but it’s all in the service of a cheap, bad-looking, one-joke movie (Millennials and their social media amirite nyuk nyuk nyuk) filled with enough tired and uninsightful self-referential jokes to fill Scream 5 through 7. Only the sheer adorable-ness of Hildebrand and Shipp makes Tragedy Girls the least bit bearable.
Rat Film (2017; Dir.: Theo Anthony)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 27, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Director Anthony makes his feature debut with this unconventional documentary about the persistent rat problem in Baltimore, and the connections between the thriving vermin and the city’s long history of racist zoning laws. Rather than the usual deadening context of talking head interviews, Anthony follows several different people devoted to killing and/or caring for the rats, including a laid-back city exterminator and several amateur hunters with a wide array of weapons, everything from a dart-spewing blowgun to a fishing line and a baseball bat. Meanwhile, an omniscient female narrator intersects with historical insights on the local housing laws that segregated the black (and rat) population in unhealthy ghettoes, as the well as the connection between rats (and black people) and social/medical research, including studies conducted by Johns Hopkins University in inner-city Baltimore. Rat Film tackles an unusual and complex subject in an original and engrossing manner, although the oversimplified [rats = black people] metaphor is somewhat offensive. Anthony really falters when he reaches for Herzog-ian fascist-humanist fantasy-babble in the final segment, imagining a dream scenario where Baltimore-ians gather to celebrate the destruction of their city, with plans to randomly re-distribute the lots (of smoldering ash, I guess) at “corner stores.” Whatever.
78/52 (2017; Dir.: Alexandre O. Phillippe)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 27, at the Alamo Drafthouse at New Mission; now playing on VOD services.
Superficial cinephilia from The People vs. George Lucas director Phillippe, a wide-ranging non-examination of the infamous shower scene from Psycho (the title of the documentary refers to the 78 shots that comprise the 52-second sequence). Bloviating dude after bloviating dude gives their mostly unnecessary takes on Hitchcock, naturally leading to spurious claims about how Psycho was the first film to ever do everything. Obviously, I’m interested to hear what film scholars and qualified experts like Janet Leigh body double Marli Renfro and ex-critic/contemporary Peter Bogdanovich have to say about Hitchcock (although Bogdanovich appears especially grumpy here, possibly the victim of an overly tight ascot), but not narcissistic windbags like Eli Roth and Richard Stanley. Not Bret Easton Ellis. Not Elijah Wood. Not Danny Elfman and not even Amy Duddleston, the editor of the Psycho remake (although this does lead to a marvelous story about a tense moment in the editing room, when she and Van Sant realized their version of the shower sequence wasn’t working, even though they were following the original film shot-for-shot…that was the only time this concern came up?!). Most irritating: Phillippe’s overuse of shoddy re-enactments and chintzy black-and-white cinematography, while actual clips from Psycho are sparingly seen.