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Screen Grabs: Migrants snagged in a deadly web of politics at ‘Green Border’

Screen Grabs: Migrants snagged in a deadly web of politics at ‘Green Border’

Travel broadens the mind, they say, although sometimes it also batters the body—and it is rarely a good idea to go where you’re not wanted. Just in time for peak summer vacation season, this week’s new movies provide a gamut of narrative depictions in which journeying into unfamiliar geographic and/or cultural terrain brings results that range from the lovesick to the lethal.

Veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland, now 75, has made some of her best movies in recent years—notably In DarknessSpoor, and Mr. Jones. But she generated fury from many fellow countryman with her latest, Green Border, complete with the kind of mass online down-voting (often in stark contrast to critical acclaim) that now routinely comes with any high-profile film which displeases conservatives.

The reason for that reaction is its unflattering fictive portrait of desperate refugees being bounced back and forth “like footballs” amidst real-life political hostilities between Poland and its neighbor Belarus. The latter’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko, a particularly abhorrent Putin ally, began luring those fleeing war in the Middle East and other crises in mid-2021, orchestrating flights with promised easy further passage to western nations. But these migrants soon found themselves at the mercy of sometimes violent border guards, barred access to theoretically friendlier countries or humanitarian aid, caught in a diplomatic limbo. The trap was widely regarded as Lukashenko’s “revenge” for criticism of his policies within the European Union.

Shot in B&W, Green Border is a pretty blunt indictment of cruelty and cowardice—though claims that it somehow parrots anti-Polish propaganda from Belarus manage to overlook the fact that Belarusians come off much, much worse here. Holland weaves together several character threads, including a three-generational Syrian family and a lone Afghan woman (Behi Djanati Atai) thrown together by increasingly harrowing circumstances; a young Polish soldier (Tomasz Wlosok) pressured into dubiously moral actions amidst a Trump-like climate of xenophobic messaging against “invading hordes”; and various activists who risk arrest or worse to assist the refugees, including a psychiatrist (Maja Ostaszewka) living near woods some of them die attempting to traverse.

As with similarly monochrome The Painted Bird five years ago—another international production with Polish roots—this is a tale of fact-based geopolitical conflict so brutal it verges on horror. It may not be Holland’s subtlest work, but it’s powerful, and “black and white” only in visual terms. (While the shrink is a sympathetic figure, some of the fellow activists she’s forced into allegiance with are reckless and immature enough to be more hindrance than help to their cause.) Well worth seeing, this strong drama opens at the Roxie this Friday and at the Rafael Film Center at a date as yet TBD.

Turning back the clock almost two centuries, The Convert depicts another culture clash—this one in New Zealand circa 1830, when Britain was just asserting its hold on the islands as a colony. A lay minister delivered to one fledgling settlement, Thomas Munro (Guy Pearce) is shocked en route to discover Maori tribes already warring with each other, adhering to a strict policy of “only blood redeems blood.” He manages to save two youths from a warlord’s blades… but taken in as his wards, they are subject to the more politely veiled yet sometimes equally murderous bigotry of his fellow emigres. The “convert” of the title is Munro himself—though there is a climactic slaughter here, he emerges as a stubborn champion for indigenous peoples against the rising tide of European arrivistes.

Like Holland, director and co-scenarist Lee Tamahori had a Hollywood sojourn after making a splash with his debut Once Were Warriors 30 years ago. That stint ended badly, with what some consider the worst 007 entry (Die Another Day), a sequel so bad even Vin Diesel refused it (XXX: State of the Union), and his own embarrassing arrest for allegedly offering sexual favors to an LAPD officer.

In a way, though, all that was for the best: His work since has been on less commercial but more substantial projects that recaptured some of Warriors’ punch. This handsomely produced and shot historical piece can be accused of having a Dances With Wolves-like premise, with another “white savior” protagonist trying to mediate between natives and colonizers. Nonetheless, it provides a solid narrative context for Tamahori to demonstrate his skill at large-scale storytelling, staging action, and eliciting strong performances. The Convert seems to be bypassing Bay Area theaters, but Magnet also releases it to digital platforms July 12.

Two gentler tales of border-crossing, metaphorical or otherwise, arrive this Friday. Luke Gilford’s first feature National Anthem, which has already played a couple local festivals, is a sweetly plot-lite coming out party for 21-year-old New Mexican Dylan (Charlie Plummer), who’s spent his life to date having to support himself and a little brother while their trashy mother (Robyn Lively) flails about. Day-laboring at a remote ranch, he attracts the flirtatious attention of Sky (Eve Lindley). That seems to be fine by her lover, ranch boss Pepe (Rene Rosado)—this “House of Splendor,” peopled by incongruously glam types, is all about free exploration of sexual relationships, gender identity, et al.

Anthem has delighted many, winning an award at Frameline just last month. I’ll admit, though, that it was too much of a posefest for my taste. Gilford is a veteran of music videos and fashion shoots, influences that frequently make this wispy narrative feel like a picturesque queer-Americana conceptual magazine spread populated by louche model types. It’s an attractive tableau… but just as superficial as Strange Way of Life, the gay western Pedro Almodovar made last year that was pretty much a half-hour commercial for Yves Saint Laurent. It opens at the AMC Kabuki this Fri/12.

Considerably more emotional weight is pulled, if still in a low-key vein, by Touch. This latest from Icelander Balthazar Kormakur—another talent who’s made films both at home and Hollywood-ish ones abroad—is arguably a personal best after 30-plus years before and behind the camera. Adapted from a novel by Olaf Olafsson, its complicatedly achronological story ultimately tells a fairly simple tale. In the present tense, Kristofer (Egill Olafsson) is an elderly widower who gets some significant medical news and advised to “take care of any unfinished business.” Without telling his children or anyone else, he takes off on an eventually multi-nation trip in pursuit of a love left behind—not willingly—a half-century earlier.

Back then, young Kristofer (Palmi Kormakur—the director’s son, too good here to be dismissed as a nepo baby) was a foreign student at the London School of Economics. Challenged by mates to live up to his anarcho-socialist principals and join the proletariat, he drops out, impulsively seeking employment at a Japanese restaurant. There, he becomes infatuated not only with an unfamiliar language, cuisine, and culture, but with the mentoring owner’s (Masahiro Motoki) rebelliously westernized daughter (Koki).

Cutting between the senior citizen’s search for her decades later and their original, on-the-sly romance, Kormakur sketches yearning in such persuasively delicate fashion that it’s almost disappointing when he feels the need to spring some belated political content—these characters are moving enough without need to drag in a historical tragedy as “explanation.” But despite that minor reservation, Touch is an unusually intelligent, artful love story that earns the tears eventually jerked. It opens this Fri/12 at theaters throughout the Bay Area, including SF’s Kabuki and Metreon.

Mention should be made of a globe-circling trio of events starting in the next few days. Running just this weekend, Fri/12-Sun/14 is the Balboa Theater’s Stephen Chow Film Festival, which celebrates the comedic action writing/directing/producing/acting superstar not only in his international breakthroughs (Shaolin SoccerKung Fu Hustle) but Hong Kong cinema hits going back as far as 1992’s all-star All’s Well, Ends Well and 1995’s two-part fantasy epic A Chinese Odyssey.

Over in Berkeley at BAMPFA, Friday also sees the launch of Made In Italy: Morricone, Leone, and More, a six-week series showcasing the great, insanely prolific composer Ennio M.’s work for some of his directorial fellow countrymen—not just spaghetti western maestro Sergio Leone (represented by no less than eight features here), but also Wertmuller (The Lizards), Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers), Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket), Petri (Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion), Pasolini (Teorema).

Among the lesser-revived films tapped are Petri’s 1968 psychodrama A Quiet Place in the Country, with Franco Nero playing a mad painter opposite spouse Vanessa Redgrave, and Liliana Cavani’s 1970 The Year of the Cannibals, an adventurous mix of radical politics and ancient Greek tragedy. The series runs through August 31, ending with a four-hour “extended director’s cut” of Leone’s 1984 swan song Once Upon a Time in America—a bad movie at any length, swimming in the syrup of Morricone’s score. But hey, some call it a masterpiece.

Rakchham plays the Frozen Film Fest

If you’d prefer something else this weekend, there are plenty of choices at the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival, whose 18th annual program runs next Wed/17-Sun/22. “Dedicated to creating avenues for independent filmmakers, youth, filmmakers of conscience, and artists from underserved communities, SFFFF provides a mix of local and international work of all lengths and genres, from animation to surf/skate, LGBTQ+ and experimental interest. In addition to in-person shows at the Crossing Outdoor Cinema, there will be films available for online streaming. For more info, go here.

Last (because it screened when we were already pushing deadline) but far from least, this weekend also brings what is sure to prove one of the year’s best horror films. Osgood Perkins’ Longlegs has Maika Monroe as Lee Harker, a newbie FBI Special Agent assigned by her superior (Blair Underwood, very good in a routine role) to help investigate a series of slayings over the last 30 years—stretching back to 1966, as our present tense here is the Clinton era. These are murder-suicides within entire families, wherein the husband kills everyone else, then himself. There’s always a young daughter whose birthday is on the 14th, and a note left behind that’s written in code, by a hand not identifiable as belonging to any of the inhabitants. Presumably an outside force is creating this grisly havoc in the name of Satan, somehow without ever leaving any other physical trace.

Agent Harker brings some unusual skills to the ongoing perp search, including apparent psychic abilities. She also may have a personal connection here, as tipped by a 1970s prelude in which a little girl at remote farmhouse gets a sinister visitor. It’s not until halfway through Longlegs that we get a clear glimpse of that same-named guest, a quease-making fellow played by Nicolas Cage in floury decrepit-mime makeup and some prosthetics. He is effective…even though this is one of those Cage performances that hangs on a single imitative gimmick. (I’ll give you a hint at his source here: “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”) Other notable figures in a sparsely populated narrative include Alicia Witt as the heroine’s reclusive hoarder mother, and Kiernan Shipka as an institutionalized past survivor of past mayhem.

Perkins is, yes, the son of late Psycho star Anthony, and there’s a faint whiff of that film’s memorable astringent strings in the new film’s score by Zilgi. Indeed, every design element here is cunningly spare, nearly every composition leaving protagonists isolated and vulnerable in the frame, every physical space fraught with dread. The story is interesting enough, if not terribly original or depthed. But this film is really all about jarringly ominous atmosphere, and on that level the director more than lives up to the promise of his first feature, boarding-school chiller The Blackcoat’s Daughter, and makes you forget the disappointment of his second, I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House.

As is often the case in this genre today, fans of mainstream slasher-type thrills will lament precisely the qualities of ambiguity and restraint that make Longlegs more creepy than splashy. But those who don’t need to be prodded awake with a dismembering or some such every ten minutes will find this a satisfyingly unsettling100 minutes. It opens in theaters nationwide this Fri/12.