The COVID-19 pandemic may have temporarily shut down arts venues last year, but that did not stop musicians, actors, playwrights, filmmakers, painters and dancers (among so many others) from creating and those very same venues from embracing streaming technology to keep the arts alive as we hunkered down in our homes, waiting for the worst to pass. Two of the films highlighted in this month’s What to Watch column address the challenge of creation in the age of COVID and lockdowns.
The first, The Year of the Everlasting Storm, is an anthology film that brings together seven daring filmmakers from around the world under the guidance of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who knows a thing or two about making films in confinement; he was first sentenced to six years in prison by the Iranian government in 2010 for his participation in the Green Movement Protests, then placed under house arrest and banned for 20 years from making any movies (he’s directed five since the ban, including his contribution to this anthology). The second, Language Lessons, is a mano-a-mano between Cuban American actress and director Natalie Morales and Mark Duplass that takes full advantage of Zoom’s strengths and weaknesses.
Of the eight films featured in the column, half are by first time filmmakers. There is nothing more exciting than discovering a new voice regardless of the art form.
LOS ÚLTIMOS FRIKIS
(debuts on Vimeo On-Demand on September 2 and begins streaming on Topic on September 16)
Music has long been one of Cuba’s most important exports, thanks in great part to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. However, there is a thriving underground rock, reggaetón and hip-hop scene that, outside of the breakthrough success of such groups as Orishas and Gente de Zona, most people may not be familiar with. In fact, members of this underground music scene were one of the driving forces behind the recent protests in Cuba.
Produced by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney and filmed in Cuba over the course of 10 years, Los Últimos Frikis tells the story of one of these groups: heavy-metal band Zeus. Founded in the ’80s when rock was still seen by the Castro government as another weapon concocted by those dirty imperialists to undermine the Revolution, Zeus became a countercultural phenomenon, its lead singer spending six years in prison at the height of his career. The documentary follows them on a national tour as they try to defend their relevance as a group officially sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture’s Agency of Cuban Rock.
Topic is available to U.S. and Canadian audiences on topic.com, AppleTV & iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android & Android TV, and Apple TV Channels, Roku Premium Channels, Bell Fibe, and Amazon Prime Video Channels.
(available through virtual cinemas on September 3)
Winner of the Roger Ebert Award for Best New Director at last year’s Chicago International Film Festival, João Paulo Miranda Maria’s phantasmagoric feature debut follows Cristovam (Cinema Novo icon Antônio Pitanga), an Indigenous black man from the rural north of Brazil who migrated for work during the economic boom to an affluent Austrian enclave in the south. He has long put up with the many racist and xenophobic insults from his fellow workers and community residents; but now he also has to deal with the indignity of having his wages cut at the milk factory he has worked for since he first arrived. Cristovam finds refuge in an abandoned house full of ancient relics and the hallucinatory visions they trigger connect him back to his roots. The physical and the metaphysical collide as Cristovam comes to the realization that he can no longer be a passive victim.
(opens theatrically nationwide and on-demand on September 3)
Did you know that Brazil is home to the world’s largest community of Japanese descendants outside of Japan, most of them from Okinawa? Set in São Paulo’s Japanese community and based on the graphic novel Samurai Shiro by Danilo Beyruth, Yakuza Princess centers on a 21-year-old orphan girl who discovers that she is the heiress to half of Japan’s expansive Yakuza crime syndicate and forges an alliance with an amnesiac stranger who believes an ancient sword binds their two fates. Directed by Vicente Amorim, Yakuza Princess promises to deliver a lot of slicing and dicing. Here’s hoping that Brazil’s Japanese community is more than a fanciful backdrop to this actioner.
THE YEAR OF THE EVERLASTING STORM
The idea proposed by the anthology’s producers was a simple one: to challenge a group of international filmmakers to respond to the technical limitations imposed by the COVID lockdowns in their respective countries and to tell personal stories that reflect the current climate. Rules were established following CDC guidelines to later be rewritten as the pandemic evolved, and the producers realized their original concept was too U.S.-centric. Under the editorial guidance of Jafar Panahi, who himself contributes a short film, The Year of the Everlasting Storm brings together such new voices as Anthony Chen, Malik Vitthal, Dominga Sotomayor and some more established ones like Laura Poitras (Citizen Four), David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Green Knight) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul (whose new film, the shot-in-Colombia Memoria, was also picked up for release by NEON, the anthology’s distributor).
(opens in New York’s IFC Center on Friday, September 10 and on Friday, September 17 in Los Angeles at the The Royal and in Pasadena’s Playhouse, with a nationwide theatrical rollout to follow, including the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago on September 24.)
Set at the height of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” Swiss director Andreas Fontana’s feature debut takes place in the world of that country’s One Percenters as Yvan de Wiel, a private banker, arrives from Geneva with his wife to replace a colleague who has mysteriously disappeared. Desperate to convince his clients that there is nothing to worry about while trying to find out what happened to his missing colleague, Yvan finds himself tangled up in a web of secrets, lies and innuendos. Co-written by Argentine filmmaker Mariano Llinás (La Flor), Azor promises to follow in the footsteps of Benjamín Naishtat’s extraordinary police thriller Rojo, also about the complicity of Argentina’s middle and upper classes in the disappearance of thousands of opponents of the country’s military regime.
(opens in select theaters nationwide on September 10)
Sick and tired of Zoom meetings and gatherings, or for that matter Skype, Google Meets or any of their ilk? So am I. But they are now part and parcel of our lifestyle in these times of COVID, so it makes perfect sense that artists should explore the role these platforms play in our lives and in our interpersonal relationships.
Winner of the Audience Awards at this year’s SXSW and Provincetown film festivals, Natalie Morales’s second film to be released this year after Plan B (currently streaming in Hulu) centers on the virtual, almost platonic, relationship between Adam (Mark Duplass) and his Spanish-language teacher Cariño (Morales). Adam lives a well structured life until his husband surprises him with weekly Spanish lessons which he reluctantly takes. But when tragedy strikes, Cariño becomes much more than a teacher; she turns into a socially-distanced companion and a friendly shoulder to cry on, even if that shoulder is on the other side of a screen.
A LA CALLE
(begins streaming on HBO Max September 15)
Shot clandestinely during a period of three years, Nelson G. Navarrete and Maxx Caicedo’s feature documentary debut offers a first-hand account of the efforts of the opposition to defeat Nicolás Maduro’s regime. The documentary includes exclusive interviews with such key figures as Leopoldo López, whose arrest and imprisonment inspired a national movement, and grassroots activist Nixon Leal, as well as a host of everyday citizens. A la calle also records acting interim President Juan Guaidó’s efforts to rally international opposition against the regime and its reaction as people take on to the streets.
(opens theatrically in New York City at the IFC Center on September 24, at L.A.’s Landmark Westwood on October 1 with a nationwide digital and theatrical expansion to follow on October 8, including the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago)
Another feature debut! Spanish artist Amalia Ulman invites her mother Ale to join her in this ingenious exercise of roleplaying where Amalia plays a daughter who reconnects with her eccentric mother after the death of her father. Shot in black and white, this quirky comedy featuring Nacho Vigalondo (best known as the director of Time Crimes, one of the best mindfuck films of the 21st century, and the Kaiju-inspired Colossal), the film pits mother against daughter as one reclaims her sexuality and the other finds tries to hold on tight to her middle-class lifestyle.
Featured image: Yakuza Princess