Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Short bits on three movies opening this week.
If Riz Ahmed had something to prove, he certainly accomplished it with the one-two knockout of The Sound of Metal and Mogul Mowgli, two ferocious vehicles for the actor-musician’s powerhouse talents. The latter film shares a curious similarity in outline with Metal: Ahmed plays a gigging musician (here a rapper named Zed, no longer young, who is finally on the verge of his big breakthrough) stopped in his tracks by illness. This one allows Ahmed (who wrote the screenplay with director Bassam Tariq) to flourish his rapping skills, and his athletic full-body approach to the art sets up the shock of an auto-immune disorder that robs him of his ability to move under his own power.
The disease is baldly offered as a metaphor (or symptom) of Zed’s cultural dysphoria; though he makes noise about his roots and his Pakistani Muslim references, he’s also navigating in a white world, in which his ambitions about success are greedy—he went to America and left behind his London family, a fact they enjoy bringing up. The film depicts this struggle in intimate scenes and slightly surreal cultural references, becoming more dreamlike as it goes on. It feels ungainly overall, yet it has enough striking elements to carry it through to its appropriately suspended ending: Zed’s green track suit is somehow a full-fledged co-star, and the film erupts with serio-comic scenes like the night Zed runs into a hip-hop fan in an alley, who mistakes him for Zed’s archrival, a vacuous rapper named RPG (who, maddeningly, is going to replace Zed on the big-break tour slot). Most of all, the movie has Ahmed just letting it rip, again confirming the bristling confidence of this performer. (Plays at the Grand Illusion theater.)
If you saw Trey Edward Shults’s Krisha, you were introduced to Krisha Fairchild—the director’s aunt, as it happens—in the role of a kind of nightmare family member who just never learns, and who will never be redeemed. Fairchild, a longtime Seattle actress, gets to shine again in Freeland, where she holds center stage as a veteran pot farmer named Devi, whose hazy and profitable life in Northern California is upended when marijuana is legalized. There’s the potential for a screwball comedy in that description, but this movie, directed by Kate McLean and Mario Furloni, is somber and frequently alarming. The bureaucracy that now surrounds a formerly hippieish endeavor is like a final, stifling slam against a particular counterculture dream of freedom, and Devi isn’t handling it well.
You will have to get into the movie’s drifting, backwoods ambience, because its own style feels like a kind of counterculture refusal to adhere to easy storytelling expectations. Freeland does capture its location, and the mood of laid-back timelessness surrounding the business of smokin’ a bone by the roadside as the sounds of nature amplify. Fairchild inhabits the part with authenticity, and as in Krisha, refuses to shy away from exhibiting all the flaws of a specific individual—though Devi is far from the previous film’s walking nightmare. (Plays via SIFF’s streaming service.)
My Name is Pauli Murray
I’m on a committee for a critics group considering documentary films right now, so I’ve been absorbing a lot of new ones. Here’s a standout, not because it strikes special cinematic sparks—like so many documentaries, it is straightforward and mostly artless about the job at hand—but because of its subject. Pauli Murray was a civil-rights pioneer who lived an utterly fascinating life that included breaking color boundaries, becoming chums with Eleanor Roosevelt, and running off to teach in Ghana for a couple of years in the early 1960s because she “needed to leave the United States.” The fact that Murray identified as traditionally masculine in an era when it was almost impossible to usefully do that is another wrinkle. The name should be remembered, and the movie should be seen. (Plays at the Crest theater.)
September 17, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.