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A Virtual Cinema Potpurri

AMC has announced that its theaters will be opening soon with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet”, a typical summer blockbuster. Social distancing will be followed with no more than 30 percent of the seats filled and the staff wearing masks. I suppose that Nolan will be a magnet for fans of his movies, an experience roughly equivalent to playing a video game while on methamphetamine. Every one that I have seen has left me cold, especially “Interstellar” that inspired this faux trailer.

I’ll probably get a studio freebie for “Tenet” in time for our yearly NYFCO awards meeting but I doubt it will be a hundredth as good as the films that have come my way as virtual cinema, a fancy name for VOD. Indeed, I have received more screeners this year than in recent memory. As it happens, the documentaries, the foreign-language films, and the off-beat indie films I cover never faced the same obstacles as the big studios. Film Forum, Laemmle, et al have simply gone virtual, all to the benefit of the filmmakers and their audiences for whose tastes I cater.

Although the films reviewed below vary in quality and interest, I am sure that CounterPunch readers will find something worth seeing. The price of a rental is generally lower than a physical theater ticket and should encourage to take a chance on some off-beat and even entertaining films, all of which open today.

African Violet

Available from Laemmle Virtual Theaters, “African Violet” is a warm and intimate Iranian film that avoids touching on the political issues dividing Iranians as found in Jafar Panahi’s work. With most of the dialog shared by only three characters living under the same roof, it has a theatrical quality.

The film begins with a woman in her fifties named Shokoo rescuing an octogenarian man named Fereydoun from the loneliness and neglect of a nursing home. Despite the vast differences between the USA and Iran, they share the same warehousing of old people approaching death.

You might think that he’d be grateful for her kindness, especially when you learn that she has prepared a room for him in her home. But during the entire drive and even after she has him set up in his new digs, he never says a word. Does cognitive decline explain his silence? No, instead it his resentment that she divorced him many years ago. Did their separation flow from their vast age difference? We never really find out. The film has other ground to cover.

Shokoo somehow managed to convince Reza, her current husband much closer to her in age, to go along with this arrangement. He never quite rebels against this imposition but remains resentful from the beginning until he manages to penetrate Fereydoun’s silence and discover the old man’s humanity. After serving, willy-nilly, as his caregiver, and even helping him get his bearings after wetting his bed, Reza finds the old man good company. However, tensions remain between the three and only become resolved in the course of Fereydoun’s inevitable denouement.

“African Violet” gets it title from Fereydoun’s favorite flowers that Shokoo bought to cheer him up. Hamidreza Bababeigi’s screenplay is based on a story by director Mona Zandi Haghighi. Haghighi is a 47-year old female and the first I have come across in Iranian film. In the press notes, she says that Shokoo is based on a character who existed her own family, “a woman who had gone to fetch her ex-husband from a nursing home in order to look after him at her new family home with the aid of her second husband.”

If you like Chekhov and prefer family drama to car chases and superheroes, this might be just the film for you.

The Prey

Generally, a certain kind of American action film, especially Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”, are remakes of a Hong Kong film—in this case “Infernal Affairs”. At first, “The Prey” appears to be something of a novelty since it goes in the opposite direction. It is clearly borrowing liberally from “Hard Target”, the very good Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle that has him trying to evade rich urban hunters who pay huge sums to stalk and kill homeless victims. If Van Damme can get to the finish line, he gets a cash reward.

I say appears since “Hard Target” was the first Hollywood film made by the great Hong Kong director John Woo. But then again, the screenplay was written by Chuck Pfarrer and is based on the 1932 film adaptation of Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”. This sharing of themes and style is one of globalization’s few virtues.

“The Prey” features Xin, a Chinese cop working undercover in Thailand in order to penetrate a mafia gang. When the Thai cops sweep the gang’s lair in the beginning of the film, Xin is apprehended and sent to prison. Since other gang members have been arrested as well, he keeps his identity hidden in order to continue his work. To maintain contact with his superiors, Xin wears a watch with a GPS transmitter.

Things begin to fall apart after a Thai prison guard steals his watch. Even worse, he becomes prey for a group of wealthy and sadistic Thai men who pay the warden big bucks to track and kill prisoners. Only Xin and a petty thief manage to avoid their bullets as they make it to the forest where they hope to elude the hunters.

This is mindless entertainment in its purest form. Although the actors are mostly Thai, except for those playing Xin and his Chinese handlers, the film was written and directed by Jimmy Henderson, a self-taught filmmaker who has worked in Cambodia for the past 11 years. The film is the best Hong-Kong type action film I have in quite a few years even if it took an Italian (despite his name) to make it. Long live globalization, sort of.

It opens in Virtual Theaters today, showing at the Laemmle in L.A. and Alamo On Demand in New York.

On August 25th, it will be available as VOD including: iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Xbox, Vudu,  Direct TV, Dish Network and all major cable providers.

The 24th

I hesitated to include this film since I bailed about half-way through. This is a film based on a historical event, the armed attack by Black GIs on white civilians and cops in Houston, Texas on August 23, 1917. This was just one of a number of armed conflicts between Black GIs and whites toward the end of WWI and in subsequent years. Most of you are probably familiar with clashes that took place in this period, especially in Tulsa, and I looked forward to seeing the film.

When the shooting starts, it is the Black GIs who inflict most of the damage, with mostly white civilians as their targets. There is also “friendly fire” that cost the lives of white soldiers that they mistook for Houston cops (they shared similar khaki uniforms.) These incidents are dramatized in the film and left me wondering why it was made.

You are left with the impression that their action was hardly appropriate to the racist insults they had put up with since it seemed so random and with no other purpose than revenge. Not having known much about the Houston events before seeing the film, I decided not to continue with “The 24th” (the name of the regiment) because it seemed like such a waste of resources when there are so many more African-American acts of resistance that have never gotten the treatment they deserve, like Robert Williams battles with the KKK in North Carolina or even a totally fictional drama in which Black GI’s defend the Black community from white racists during the post-WWI period. Why not take advantage of literary license especially given the brutality of cop violence now taking place? I should add that the film was written and directed by Kevin Willmott, an African-American professor who co-wrote Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”, a problematic film that glorified a Black undercover cop who had infiltrated Black student groups before taking on the KKK.

The 24th” can be rented on Amazon Prime.

Random Acts of Violence

Just as mindless as “The Prey”, and even more entertaining, this is a slasher movie having much more in common with indie films than those rolling off the “Halloween” or “Friday the Thirteenth” assembly line. Directed by Jay Baruchel and co-written by him and Jesse Chabot, it tells the story of four people traveling by car from Toronto to the USA on a press tour to promote the final issue of Slasherman, a comic book that kids like me used to enjoy reading in the 50s until they were banned by the censors.

I was eager to see this film since I enjoyed Baruchel’s work as an actor in “The Trotsky”, a so-so film, and especially his voice-over as Hiccup in “How to Train Your Dragon”. Baruchel has a supporting role in the film as the Slasherman’s publisher. The author is Todd Walkley, who can’t decide how to end the series with a bang.

As the two men and their girlfriends go on the road, they begin to see the victims of new attacks by the serial killer, upon whom the Slasherman series was based on. The victims were mutilated in the same fashion as those in the comic book, leading Walkley to conclude that he and his friends might end up as dead meat as well.

Unlike other films in this genre, it does not rely on “scary” surprises like the killer jumping out of a closet, which really function more as startling devices than true scares. What makes the film interesting is the discussion that Walkley and his girlfriend Kathy have over the morality of his work. He takes the position that it is only fiction but perhaps begins to worry for the first time whether that fiction is intruding into his reality.

The film can be seen as VOD on Shudder.com, a service specializing in horror movies. You can take out a trial subscription if the film interests you.

Dark Circle

This is a digital restoration of a 1982 documentary that must be seen. It is about the danger that plutonium poses to those that living close to it in places like Rocky Flats, Colorado or to nuclear power plants like Diablo Canyon in California. I had no idea before seeing the film that nuclear weapons are based on plutonium, which is only available as a byproduct of the uranium used to produce nuclear power. This “waste” is then used by Rockwell in Rocky Flats to manufacture H-Bombs. If there’s any better reason to close down every nuclear power plant in the world, I can’t think of it.

The film interviews a man who worked at Rockwell and was in the final stages of brain cancer. Within the 10-mile radius of the plant, the cancer rate was 16 percent higher than normal. For those working inside the plant, the rate was five times higher. It affected not only the workers but the people living nearby who were exposed to the soil and water that had minute quantities of plutonium. We meet the father of an 11-year old girl who after skinning her knee playing near their house had to have a leg amputated within a year after developing cancer. Her father, a building contractor who made his living building homes in Rocky Flats, denounced the nuclear arms industry as a whole. After his daughter was cremated, he sent the ashes to a lab that discovered plutonium.

The back-story of “Dark Circle” indicates how committed American capitalism is to this suicidal arms race. PBS was supposed to broadcast it in 1985, but changed its mind a year later. Barry Chase, the PBS vice-president for news and public affairs, said, “It’s an advocacy film and it does not provide any opportunity for any viewer who is coming to the subject for the first time to draw any conclusion other than those which the producers hold.” I thought that was what PBS was supposed to broadcast, wasn’t it? Four years later, PBS reversed its decision and aired the documentary.

The film has an exclusive one week digital engagement at the Metrograph from August 21-27. Subscriptions to its VOD screenings are available in a $5/month or in a $50/annual Metrograph Digital Membership. Metrograph is great and I encourage you to sign up.

Route One / USA

Like “Dark Circle”, the 1989 documentary by Robert Kramer is a digital restoration and just as great. Time constraints only permitted me to see the first half of this four hour odyssey across the entire length of Route One that begins in Maine and ends in Florida (part one ends in Bridgeport, Connecticut.) However, what I saw was such a profound examination of the social crisis in the USA that continues to this day that I can recommend as a better guide to our maladies than anything else I have ever seen.

Director Robert Kramer was a man of the left. Born in 1939, he died much too young in 1999 from meningitis. Among his credits are “FALN”, about the guerrilla movement in Venezuela, “People’s War”, a film in solidarity with the Vietnamese, and “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal”.

Route One / USA does not tell, as most documentaries do. It shows. For example, in New Hampshire we see Christian fundamentalists and supporters of Pat Robinson’s election campaign saying things that make you shudder. It was Kramer’s skill as a filmmaker to allow them to hang themselves on their own petard.

He doesn’t make an appearance in the film. His proxy is an old friend named Paul McIsaac, who worked as a physician in Europe and shares Kramer’s politics. Like Diogenes, he travels Route One looking for an honest man or woman.

The film is available from Lincoln Center Virtual Cinema. It can also be rented from Ovid.TV, the leftwing version of Netflix that everybody on the left should subscribe to.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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