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).
Gook (2017; Dir.: Justin Chon)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, August 25, at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
When Martin Scorsese combined Cassavetes’ methods with the beloved crime films of his youth and filtered it through his own pseudo-biographical religious hangups in his excellent Mean Streets, did he have any clue just how much bad cinema he had unleashed? Scorsese fell out of critical favor in the 1980s (great job again, critics!) but got rediscovered by the VCR generation, with the gritty and masculine Mean Streets becoming his most readily regurgitate-able property. Every other independent film from the 1990s felt like a half-assed clone of Mean Streets, and Justin Chon’s Gook, a black-and-white day-in-the-life set in 1992 Los Angeles just as the riots are ready to explode, attempts to recapture the raw intimacy of the independent films from that era. Gook does capture some of the visceral qualities of those films, but a lot more gets caught in the net – the shoddy narratives, the inconsistent pacing, the amateur-hour dream sequences, the woefully unrestrained actors, the over-reliance on out-of-control melodrama, the method of allowing every emotional scene to devolve into a chaotic screaming contest. Writer-director Chon also stars as Eli, a Korean shoe store owner dealing with racism, cultural alienation, financial instability and a host of contrived, interlacing, ticking-clock story threads. The cacophonous result comes a lot closer to recapturing the spirit of Crash than the spirit of the 1990s.