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.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Little Men”

rsz_12maxresdefaultLittle Men (2016; Dir.: Ira Sachs)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco.

With this wistful number and 2014’s autumnal Love is Strange, the films of Ira Sachs are becoming the cinematic equivalent of rustling leaves.  I’m fairly sure that I don’t mean that as a compliment, and while Little Men is a delicately constructed and achingly restrained tour-de-force of emotional repression set in a rapidly changing New York, the filmmaking is probably just too tranquil and sedate to get a rise out of me.  The connections between the characters slyly coil like creeping vines, the direction is understated and melancholy, and the performances are authentic and smart…all that and a plot and you’d have one hell of a movie.  Struggling actor/jerk Brian (Greg Kinnear, of course) and his sugar-mama psychotherapist wife Kathy (Jennifer Ehle, subtly stealing the film) inherit prime real estate in gentrified Brooklyn when his estranged father passes away.  They swiftly move into the building, leading to tension with a Chilean store owner (Paulina Garcia) accustomed to paying friend prices on the rent, and sparking a doomed but passionate friendship between their star-crossed pubescent sons (Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri).  Sachs thrives on capturing the moments when a public facade morphs into a private epiphany, but in this case his liberal piety and tasteful restraint get in the way of his everyone-has-their-reasons humanity.  Brian grows so steadily petty and spiteful that by the end I half expected to start eating live cats and dogs, and there’s a (possibly unintentional) Ayn Rand-ian undertone to the film’s attitudes about artistic destiny.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Miss Sharon Jones!”

rsz_misssharonjonesMiss Sharon Jones! (Dir.: Barbara Kopple)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, August 11 at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

The 60s soul revival band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings built a worldwide reputation largely on their electric live shows, gaining a devoted following without ever recording a hit song.  At the center of the Dap-Kings sound and stage is Jones, a powerhouse belter once labeled by a Sony rep as “too fat, too black, too short, too old” for stardom, a tornado onstage and an Ellen-binging sweetheart offstage.  But in June 2013, just as the band was finishing work on their 2014 album Give the People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which required an extremely invasive surgery and six months of chemotherapy.  Kopple’s intensely personal documentary chronicles Jones’ treatment and long recovery, and while the filmmaking is fairly conventional on a formal level, Miss Sharon Jones! feels just as intimately embedded with its subject as Kopple’s 1976 calling card Harlan County U.S.A.  This is hardly the first time Kopple has helmed a musical doc – she followed Woody Allen’s band around Europe in Wild Man Blues and directed the 2006 Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing – and it helps that the Augusta, Georgia-born Jones makes for such a thoroughly likable subject.  Kopple understands that any smart and compassionate audience will be engaged by Jones, no matter what she does – Jones is such an unstoppable dynamo that it seems impossible anything could ever get in her way, not even cancer.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Witness”

rsz_thewitness1_kittyheadshot-1024x683The Witness (2016; Dir.: James D. Solomon)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

I recall a college Sociology professor giddily, almost lustily retelling the story of Kitty Genovese’s murder.  After all, it’s the stuff of college Sociology professors’ wet dreams – in 1964, the bar manager (“barmaid” in the press) was stabbed to death outside of her apartment building in Queens, screaming for help the entire time while dozens of neighbors watched and heard and did nothing.  Only nah, not exactly, but whatever, close enough, book deal.  Kitty’s story, told and retold over the decades with little regard for the hard facts of the case, became a ready-made symbol for urban apathy and moral culpability through inaction.  But for her younger brother Bill Genovese, Kitty’s death was only a symbol for an overwhelming and unresolved grief that nearly tore his family apart.  The Witness documents Bill’s decade-long obsession with uncovering the true story of Kitty’s life and death, and we see how her story was mangled and manipulated by overeager and unethical caveman journalists and embraced by a public all too eager to believe the worst about humanity (the hard-won moral lesson: never trust anything printed in The New York Times or taught by college Sociology professors).  Even brother Bill does a little too much manipulating, as this otherwise righteous and restrained documentary makes an ill-advised veer into The Act of Killing-style self-awareness in the final sequence, hiring an actress to recreate Kitty’s screams at the scene of the crime.  It’s a loud false note at the end of a fine film.

 

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Phantom Boy”

rsz_phantom_boy_stillPhantom Boy (2016; Dir.: Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

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

The New York-based independent distributor GKIDS is becoming as important an imprimatur of quality animated cinema as Pixar or Laika.  Specializing in importing the best in hand-drawn foreign fare, GKIDS has racked up eight Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations in less than a decade, and in the last few years alone they released such enchanting and challenging movies as Ernest & Celestine, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea, When Marnie Was There, Boy & the World, and this year’s April and the Extraordinary World.  Their latest film is Phantom Boy, directed by the same French team that made the Oscar-nominated GKIDS import A Cat in Paris, and it’s as charming and inventive yet modest and unpretentious as most of the films that carry the GKIDS label.  Phantom Boy weaves together comic book, film noir and supernatural sci-fi tropes into a sensitive (but not lugubrious) story of a young chemotherapy patient discovering new powers while his mortal body wastes away.  As a phantom, the boy can travel anywhere he chooses, teaming up in the hospital with an injured cop to bring down a disfigured supervillain who tries in vain to reveal his origin story.  There’s just barely enough film here to make it to feature length, even with a silly finale that involves guessing a computer password while a clock ticks down, but there’s a nice balance between genre homage/send-up and a genuinely eerie and affecting story of death and disease, with a vision of New York City so loving and romantic that it could only come from a foreign visitor.