42nd Mill Valley Film Festival Reviews

by on October 8, 2019

Dignity amid tragedy … Sorry We Missed You.

Ken Loach’s new film “Sorry We Missed You” delivers a quietly chilling study in slow death by capitalism.  Delivery driver Ricky and elder homecare worker Abby just want to better their family’s lives. But they’re unaware the gig economy system ruthlessly exploits their compassion and desire for independence into voluntarily working themselves to exhaustion.  At least teenage son Seb actively rejects an educational and economic game that’s rigged against him. Yet the powerlessness of his awareness is self-evident.

***

How people deal with grief (or not) is one of the classic fictional themes.  Eric Pumphrey’s intriguing short “Evelyn x Evelyn” approaches this theme by using an emotionally true visual metaphor.

It’s the aftermath of a funeral in a middle class probably 1950s black community.  Couple Charles and Evelyn have now been left alone to emotionally pick up the pieces.  It soon becomes obvious that Evelyn will have more difficulty dealing with her grief as other Evelyns start appearing around her.

Pumphrey’s visual metaphor may throw viewers who see it for the first time on screen.  One moment the titular character is standing alone in the kitchen. The next, she’s surrounded by four women who bear her name and generally look similar to her but with often subtle differences.  The confused viewer will understandably wonder at this point if there are women they missed seeing in the earlier shot, or even if Evelyn has a secret way of cloning herself.

It takes a moment or two before the viewer understands these other women figuratively represent the fracturing of Evelyn’s feelings by grief.  These other Evelyns serve as both Greek chorus and literal representations of the emotional confusion and turmoil brought on by such a traumatic personal event.   Having different actresses silently play Evelyn shows how the multitude of emotions generated by a traumatic event complicate the process of coming to terms with that event.  If nothing else, those images of the Evelyn horde show why “pull yourself together” feels like very inadequate advice. The Evelyn horde’s existence also makes clear why talking about grief is such a difficult act.

Does the presence of the different Evelyns serve as a way for actress Natalie Paul to slack off on her job of playing the central Evelyn?  Not really. The other Evelyns stand or sit silently in the background, and Charles is aware of their presence. Yet as the film shows, that knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean he’s able to communicate with his grieving wife.

“Evelyn x Evelyn”’s final shot is ambiguous.  Is it karma punishing Charles’ failures in effectively communicating with his grieving wife?   Or does it portend the husband’s own coming difficulties?

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For the nine orphaned teen subjects of Jeanne C. Finley and Lyazzat Khanim’s poetic and sometimes abstract documentary “Journeys Beyond The Cosmodrome,” the world of adulthood outside the orphanage the teens are leaving feels just as strange and exotic as a discovered exoplanet.  The Akkol Orphanage may share the Kazakhstan Steppes with the Baikonur Cosmodrome. While the teens’ imaginings call back to Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” the film’s renderings of their expectations feel no less mysterious than space’s own enigmas.

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American culture may not openly use the term “Christmas cake.”  However, the attitude behind that Japanese slang term unfortunately is one shared by both Americans and the Japanese.  Why that term is offensive and how one woman deals with it in a unique way is the subject of May Yam’s short documentary “Xmas Cake–This American Shelf-Life.”

“Christmas cake” comes from the Japanese idea that a cake made for the Christmas holiday is no longer desirable the day after that holiday ends.  That explanation may sound harmless until you learn from the film that it’s used as a metaphor for unmarried women of a certain age. Essentially, it a Japanese woman is not married by age 25, she’s no longer considered sexually desirable or marital material.  There may be men who are willing to marry or date women older than 25, but there’s the unstated attitude that such men would happily ditch the older woman for a younger one if the opportunity presented itself.

American Petra Hanson got a rude introduction to the “Christmas cake” prejudice when she moved to Japan in the 1990s.  High on “follow your dream” fumes, the film’s subject decided to try living and working in Japan despite being a tall blonde gaijin who didn’t know the language or the country’s cultural mores.  Hanson’s looking through the newspaper want ads led to her seeing pointed job notices saying that the employer didn’t want to hire women older than 24.

Finding a measure of fame fronting the band Gaijin A Go Go strikes the viewer as deluding Hanson into believing rejecting the Christmas cake stigma was just a matter of personal will power.  A friend’s Christmas cake-related suicide and the personal and professional collapse of Hanson’s own life provides the film’s subject with the rudest of awakenings. Hanson’s experience could be said to show that the “follow your dreams” advice needs to more accurately state “follow your dreams until you’re (put sexist age cutoff here) and then hang them up.”

To her credit, the Gaijin A Go Go frontwoman doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat how socially accepted ageism hurt her emotionally.  Seeing how the film’s subject finds a way to bounce back by figuratively throwing off the pressure to marry will have sympathetic viewers raising a cheer.  Having and enjoying life experiences may be key to possessing a meaningful life. As Hanson’s story shows, having others define for you what those enjoyable life experiences should be does not really create a life worth living.

The current status of Japan’s Christmas cake stigma will leave mixed feelings in the viewer.  The term may have fallen into disuse, but the attitudes associated with that term haven’t. Until, say, there’s a highly popular manga series about a society of women past the age of 25 supporting each other to find non-marital happiness, Japan has a long way to go culturally.  In the meantime, a shot of a geisha giving the viewer a middle finger will have to do for now.

***

Calling Brett Harvey’s highly entertaining documentary “Inmate #1: The Rise Of Danny Trejo” a show business biography badly sells the film short.  Yes, there are clips from some of the 366 films its subject has appeared in. There are also plenty of anecdotes of Trejo’s encountering such Hollywood names as Salma Hayek, Charles Bronson and Robert De Niro.  There are even interviews with such Trejo friends and peers as Cheech Marin, Michelle Rodriguez, and Robert Rodriguez.

But the film’s emotional core isn’t Trejo’s experiences in show business.  It’s learning about the process by which someone who was supposedly trapped in the pipeline to prison and death got a second chance in life.  The film’s subject eventually become a counselor and role model to the addicted and those who believed their only future lay in dying in prison.

Trejo himself proves the perfect person for telling his story.  He doesn’t embellish or downplay the successes and mistakes of his life.  When he laughs while telling a story, it’s as if the actor can’t quite believe either the incident happened or the degree of foolishness he displayed in his younger days.

Despite going to “Richie Valens Junior High” (the local nickname for Pocoima Middle School, as the late musician was a student there), a bookmaker looking at Trejo’s background would not have given good odds on his reaching his current station in life.  Pocoima, located in the San Fernando Valley, had a reputation as the area’s murder capital. Trejo’s father was an alcoholic who abandoned his family when the film’s subject was three. To be fair, the father later returned for his son and brought young Danny to live with his brother and stepmother.  But the elder Trejo turned out to be the emotionally distant sort.

Trejo’s father probably thought lack of obvious affection was a way of teaching his son to be a man.  And it is true that one theme of young Danny Trejo’s life was finding a role model who looked like him.  The trouble was that the role models Trejo found fell short in various ways. The elder Trejo’s shortcomings have already been mentioned.  Actor John Wayne was an idol because he kicked ass. However, the old Western star was white. Actor Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez worked with Wayne in roles that showed Mexicans didn’t have to be just criminals or laborers.  But Gonzalez was more a supporting player, not a leading man.

Young Trejo eventually found his role model in his Uncle Gilbert, for some good but mostly evil.  The two relatives did bond over a shared sense of alienation. Boxing, which Uncle Gilbert taught Danny, would later stand the younger man in good stead.  Reflected community respect came to Danny from hanging around his uncle.

On the other hand, young Danny followed Uncle Gilbert’s path of becoming an armed robber and heroin addict.  Viewers’ jaws will drop at learning the broad strokes of how the young delinquent terrorized Pocoima. Anything from a market to a hamburger joint was considered fair game for armed robbery.  His robbery weapons of choice ranged from a shotgun to a hand grenade. The latter weapon will understandably cause viewers to wonder how young Danny Trejo avoided blowing himself up.

It would ironically be during one robbery attempt that Trejo would be shown an alternative to his current life’s path.  Young Trejo’s target, a place with a lot of cars parked outside it, turned out to be an AA meeting. One of the members warned Trejo that if he left the meeting, he’d inevitably wind up in prison.  But high on a combination of pills and alcohol, the robber didn’t take that advice. And the AA member’s prediction unfortunately came true, as Trejo wound up in San Quentin.

The actor’s account of life in the prison system is reminiscent of director Samuel Fuller’s assessment of his World War II combat experiences:  “The only real glory of war is surviving it.” Trejo may have been a prison boxing champion and have tattoos memorializing chunks of his life lost to the prison system.  But boredom, the cumulative anger of the prisoners, and the “you’re predator or prey” ethos that dominated prison life definitely didn’t make life behind bars a stress free environment.

Trejo’s turning point came with his being thrown into solitary confinement for the death penalty-grade crime of assaulting a prison guard.  Re-enacting the entire Judy Garland version of “The Wizard Of Oz” kept Trejo sane while he awaited his fate. Promising God he’d do right by other people if he got out of his current situation became a promise the former delinquent would spend the rest of his life fulfilling after his wish was granted.

Admittedly, after a lifetime of criminal activity, figuring out how to help others without expectation of a reward would be a day by day challenge.  Thanks to the prodding of Johnny Harris, Trejo started attending AA meetings and eventually found personal satisfaction in being a drug counselor. But the most telling sign of the former convict’s change of heart would have to be his rejecting Uncle Gilbert’s blandishments of money and dope.

The tattoos Trejo got in prison would ironically lead to the future actor’s involvement in Hollywood films.  Ex-criminal mastermind Eddie Bunker, who was acting as technical advisor to the Andrei Konchalovsky production of “Runaway Train,” noticed those tattoos and asked Trejo to teach boxing to the actors.  Later, Bunker would become a mentor to the ex-convict regarding working and surviving in Hollywood. The ex-mastermind’s best piece of advice to the aspiring actor would be “The whole world can think you’re a movie star, but you can’t.”

More critical viewers would suspect that much of Trejo’s work wasn’t seen in Harvey’s documentary because the ex-prisoner was typecast by Hollywood casting directors as “the mean Chicano.”  Also, given that Trejo’s characters were frequently referred to as “Prisoner #1” odds were the characters Trejo played were likely punching bags or disposable targets for the films’ lead characters.  Yet the Pocoima native didn’t mind such casting as he considered such experiences part of learning on the job and being paid for it. Also, meeting and working with the likes of Charles Bronson and Robert De Niro were perks in themselves.

Aside from Bunker, the other person who would play a significant role in shaping Trejo’s career would be director Robert Rodriguez.  Rodriguez cast Trejo in roles that would build the actor into a pop culture icon.

“Desperado”’s Man With The Knives dominated the screen with his glowering presence and crazy good knife skills…despite lacking any dialogue lines whatsoever.  Younger audiences who saw “Spy Kids” loved Trejo’s cool gadget making uncle Isador “Machete” Cortez. But the role that would cement Trejo as a pop culture icon nearly didn’t happen.

“Machete” was originally intended as a Mexploitation parody (over the top violence, Mexican lead) trailer for “Grindhouse.”  But what Rodriguez intended as only a one-shot joke became to other viewers a taste of a fun action movie they wanted to see hit the big screen.  It took Robert De Niro’s willingness to attach himself to the “Machete” film that brought the star power and money needed to really go crazy with the story…and create a hit that spawned at least one sequel.

Machete, with his “They messed with the wrong Mexican” tagline, has become a superhero of the Latinx community.  People who recognize Trejo on the street hail him as Machete. When Trejo saved a baby from an overturned car a couple of months back, the incident was reported in some news outlets as “Machete Saves,” a play on the second Machete film “Machete Kills.”  Trejo does get coolness points for recognizing that every community needs a superhero and he’s happy to fill that role as Machete. However, other coolness points get deducted from Trejo’s score for forgetting that the black community has its own superheroes in the Black Panther and private detective John Shaft.

In a way, Trejo’s embracing his popularity as Machete brings his life story full circle.  The role model he spent his younger days looking for turned out to be himself. Urging his audiences of addicts and prisoners to help others makes Trejo a role model to those who thought their life choices were limited to the hell of addiction or imprisonment.

(“Sorry We Missed You” screens at 9:00 PM on October 9, 2019 at the Cinearts Sequoia Theatre (25 Throckmorton Avenue, Mill Valley).  “Evelyn x Evelyn” screens as part of the “5@5: Smooth” program at 6:00 PM on October 8, 2019 at the Century Larkspur Landing (500 Larkspur Landing Ctr., Larkspur) and 8:45 PM on October 9, 2019 at the Smith Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael).  “Journeys Beyond The Cosmodrome” screens at 7:00 PM on October 9, 2019 at the Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center Street, Berkeley). For further information about these films and ways to order advance tickets, go to https://www.mvff.com/. )

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