IN THEATERS (SF) – “Spa Night”/”Danny Says”/”Cameraperson”

rsz_1maxresdefaultSpa Night (2016; Dir.: Andrew Ahn)

GRADE: B-

Danny Says (2016; Dir.: Brendan Toller)

GRADE: B-

Cameraperson (2016; Dir.: Kirsten Johnson)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

*All three films open in the Bay Area on Friday, September 30.  Spa Night and Danny Says play at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco; Cameraperson plays at the Landmark Opera Plaza in SF and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

I overbooked for the week, so this is happening.

rsz_dannysaysLos Angeles-based filmmaker Andrew Ahn makes his feature debut with Spa Night, a fairly flimsy but authentically lived-in story of a closeted Asian-American teenager trapped between his expanding desires and his oppressive, non-assimilating parents.  All roads entwine at the Koreatown spas – it’s a family ritual, cultural tradition and status symbol built around male bonding, and also a hotbed of sexual curiosity and tentative activity for the reserved David (Joe Seo).  The film slowly goes exactly where you would expect from there, with David leading a double life – stoic student by day, tantalized towel boy by night – that culminates in the usual facepalm-inducing shots of the hero looking into a mirror as though seeing himself for the very first time.  At least Ahn and cinematographer Ki Jin Kim deliver a sharp-looking movie with a congruous visual and tonal concept on a presumably low budget, and it all feels genuine and resonant enough to halfheartedly recommend.  If his handsome lead actor possessed a little more natural magnetism, the emotional connections might have fused at a more reliable rate.  Ahn is one to watch, even if his debut film isn’t.

Although ostensibly a clip-happy rock doc about promoter and manager Danny Fields, Brendan Toller’s spry Danny Says also takes time to explore the awakening of its homosexual hero.  In fact, the ten minutes or so devoted to Fields’ adolescent sexual exploration and immersion in pre-Stonewall gay subculture, a path that eventually led to his acceptance into Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, are among the most compelling scenes in Danny Says.  While Fields makes for an engaging storyteller throughout, his  tales about his time spent as “company freak” for Elektra Records, where he worked publicity for The Doors and signed MC5 and The Stooges, are pretty standard music industry jerk-off material: heavy on name-dropping and portent, vague on details and context.  And so it goes for Danny Says, a very canny and well-assembled cinematic scrapbook, but one that barely seems to scratch the surface of anything it purports to care about.  The sections on the Ramones, who Fields got signed to Sire Records and managed through their best run of albums (the song “Danny Says” was written about Fields), are disappointingly skimpy, especially considering the film’s already over-inflated running time.rsz_cameraperson

By far the best film of the week, and a strong candidate for the best documentary of 2016 so far, is Kirsten Johnson’s brave, wise and unexpectedly moving memoir Cameraperson.  A longtime documentary cinematographer who has worked with industry standard-bearers like Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick and Michael Moore, the globetrotting Johnson assembled Cameraperson from her extensive reel, forging a deeply personal greatest hits collection out of clips, outtakes and footage of her own family.  Far from a dry experiment or a masturbatory self-tribute, though, Cameraperson comes alive with possibilities in every scene, mutating and evolving from moment to moment like an engrossing conversation.  Without any narration and with very little onscreen text, Johnson creates a sprawling and beautiful work, one that challenges our notions about documentary filmmaking, especially regarding the role of the cinematographer, while also making profound statements about mortality, poverty, narrative structure, power structure, racism, sexism, violence and motherhood.  I mean, no big deal, right?  Just that.  What comes through strongest is Johnson’s powerful need to connect with people through her camera, whether it’s a random stranger on the street or her own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother.  One of my favorite scenes of the year: a shot of two children, one an elementary-school aged boy and the other a baby, playing with an axe; you can feel the agonizing tension between Johnson’s protective instinct to remove children from harm’s way and her compelling duty to keep filming the shot, and she audibly exhales when the baby finally wanders away. This is a remarkable film.

 

IN THEATERS (SF) – “White Girl”

rsz_white-girlWhite Girl (2016; Dir.: Elizabeth Wood)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, September 16, at the AMC Van Ness 14 in San Francisco.

The 1990s nostalgia trend in pop culture continues with this energetic throwback to Larry Clark’s Kids, Gregg Araki’s early work, and other benchmarks of casually shocking 1990s independent cinema.  Morgan Saylor (Brody’s daughter from Homeland) gives a ferocious and fearless performance as Leah, an Oklahoma-bred college student who dives nose-first into the hedonistic opportunities and pitfalls of NYC life, barely even pausing to acknowledge when she’s been ripped off or raped.  After moving to an off-campus apartment in a particularly rough neighborhood, Leah quickly becomes involved with the charismatic but volatile Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc), a small-time corner drug dealer whose Scarface ambitions are awakened by this heedless and psychotically privileged party girl.  Leah also works an internship for a rich, sleazy, exploitative pervert played by Justin Bartha, who apparently should only be playing rich, sleazy, exploitative perverts.  White Girl is reportedly based on the real-life experiences of first-time writer-director Elizabeth Wood, and while you feel some compassion for Leah’s utter lack of self-control, as well as some grudging respect for the insane lengths she goes to get the guilty-as-hell Blue out of jail, she certainly isn’t softened into someone sympathetic or likable.  It’s all a little empty and pro forma, but Saylor is an absolute powderkeg – she’s so intense and unpredictable, it feels as though Leah is capable of anything, which is thrilling and terrifying all at once.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Elevator to the Gallows”

rsz_elevator-to-the-gallowsElevator to the Gallows (1958; Dir.: Louis Malle)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, September 9, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

This punchy debut feature from French New Wave satellite Louis Malle recently received a 2K digital restoration and a restored soundtrack, all the better to admire the documentary-style depiction of Paris nightlife and the electrifying jazz score by Miles Davis.  Lovers Florence and Julien (Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet) plot the perfect murder, but when Julien returns to the scene of the crime to fix a crucial mistake, he gets trapped between floors in a high-rise elevator, leaving a distraught Florence to ponder his whereabouts.  From there, the narrative splits into three threads, alternating between Julien’s precarious situation in the elevator, Florence wandering the streets and seedy bars of Paris like a zombie, and a young couple who kick off a crimewave by boosting Julien’s car.  The narratives re-intersect in a way that makes Elevator to the Gallows feel like a direct influence on twisty 1990’s indie crime movies, but the film’s finest quality is a very Malle-ian interest in physical environments and clashing cultures.  It’s compelling but a little gangly, very much a first film, with a few head-scratching plot holes (whatever happened to that dangling rope, anyway?), but those complaints seem insignificant in the glare of the Paris lights, the flare in Jeanne Moreau’s eyes and the blare of Miles Davis’ trumpet.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Mia Madre” + “In Order of Disappearance”

rsz_mm-sf1Mia Madre (2016; Dir.: Nanni Moretti)

GRADE: C+

In Order of Disappearance (2016; Dir.: Hans Petter Moland)

GRADE: C

By Daniel Barnes

*Mia Madre opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Albany Twin in Albany and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael; In Order of Disappearance opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

The 39th annual Mill Valley Film Festival kicks off in about a month, and my plan is to cover it here in a fashion similar to my 2014 and 2015 coverage.  A full schedule comes out in a couple weeks, but I’m already salivating over confirmed films from Paul Verhoeven, Park Chan-Wook, Ken Loach, Jim Jarmusch, Asghar Farhadi, Kenneth Lonergan, Maren Ade, Mia Hansen Løve, Terence Davies, Jeff Nichols and more.  Meanwhile, some of the less glorified flotsam and jetsam from last year’s festival slate are finally slinking into SF-area theaters, following last week’s Ixcanul.  MVFF38 veteran Mia Madre is the latest soggy offering from Italian director Nanni Moretti, a former Cannes Palme d’Or winner (which is crazy) who puts out a new non-event every five years or so.  Margherita Buy plays a harried film director named Margherita, a woman beset with challenges on her latest production, including the impending death of her ailing mother.  Most of the movie plays like a wet-noodle version of 8 1/2, with reality, memory and dream colliding in a way that only Moretti could make so pedestrian.  All of the best moments go to John Turturro in a glorified cameo as the unbearably vain American movie star Barry Huggins – Turturro is in full Jesus mode here (he’s the rare actor who gets better the further over-the-top he goes), hijacking Mia Madre just like the stampeding Huggins takes over Margherita’s set, and the film suffers when he’s not onscreen, which is almost all of the time.rsz_kraftidioten-bilde-5

Another MVFF38 veteran, the cheeky revenge movie In Order of Disappearance stars Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård as Nils, a mild-mannered Norwegian snowplow operator pushed over the edge when his son dies of an apparent drug overdose.  Certain that his son wasn’t an addict, Nils pursues a lead to the real killers, and murders them in cold blood for their crimes.  Still not satisfied, Nils starts slowly climbing the ladder of the syndicate that ordered the hit, piling up corpses en route to a sleazy crime lord, and inadvertently starting a gang war in the process.  It’s a grizzly story told with a typically dry, dark Nordic humor (a death notice appears onscreen after every murder), but it’s also incredibly meager and surprisingly dull.  Skarsgård gamely goes through the motions, but the script gives him little of substance to work with, as Nils changes from stoic family man to superhuman vengeance machine at the flip of a switch.  The film shoots for Fargo and winds up with Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. Shoulda made that left turn at Truth or Consequences, N.M..

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Ixcanul”

rsz_ixcanulIxcanul (2016; Dir.: Jayro Bustamante)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

This austere story of contemporary peasant exploitation comes from Guatemala, although the themes and character dynamics are fairly universal and familiar, which is both the point and the problem.  Newcomer María Mercedes Coroy stars as María, teenage daughter to a laborer on a coffee plantation, arranged to be married to the westernized boss while secretly canoodling with an alcoholic migrant worker.  María and her family observe their indigenous tribal customs and mores, and yet the brutality and manipulation of the modern world intrude into their lives on a daily basis.  The family resides in a hut set at the foot of an active volcano, a black rock seething with fire, central in their religious ceremonies as well as an all-purpose metaphor for the passion churning beneath María’s placid surface.  A frank depiction of sexuality is one of the film’s strongest assets, but the attempts to force melodrama fall flat, and the protagonist is such a moon-faced cipher that it feels almost insultingly respectful.  It would be most unfortunate if the national cinemas of emerging countries became inspired and influenced by this sort of dreary, emotionally distant art-house aesthetic, rather than by Pacific Rim.  There’s nothing glaringly wrong with Ixcanul, it’s just hard to get whipped up for stoicism.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Lo and Behold…”

rsz_screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-4-07-08-pmLo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016; Dir.: Werner Herzog)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley, Osio Cinemas in Monterey, the Camera 3 in San Jose and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

From the “repulsive” corridors at UCLA where the Internet was invented to the gleaming surfaces of Elon Musk’s rocket lab, Werner Herzog’s latest hand-wringer ponders the place of artificial intelligence and robotic autonomy in a world where humans have become increasingly reliant on machines.  As usual, Herzog blurs the line between documentary and fiction by having the interview subjects directly address the camera, often delivering clearly pre-scripted dialogue, and the legendary German director/self-parody makes for a fine narrator and philosophical tour guide.   Unfortunately, Lo and Behold… is a pretty skimpy, borderline get-of-my-lawn treatise (full disclosure: I watched the film on…the Internet!), offering some new stuff (the poetic, nearly spiritual logic of the scientists was especially interesting), a lot of throwaway old stuff (brief suites on Internet bullies and video game addicts feel simultaneously exploitative and prurient), and a whole lot of Gibney-esque (not a compliment!) dread draped in Herzog’s trademark existential exasperation.  It’s hard not to get a little incredulous when Herzog waxes all end-of-days about soccer-playing trash cans, or when he lingers on an extremely frail robot unscrewing an empty jar (“Soon it vill be unscrewing youuuuu,” he seems to whisper), and a Wild Blue Yonder-y stretch that imagines a post-apocalyptic future full of Tweeting Buddhist monks is playful nonsense but adds little in the way of credibility.  A long closing piece where Herzog asks every single person in the film the same annoying question (“Could it be the Internet starts to dream of itself?”) required a fair amount of teeth-gritting to conquer.