Month: June 2014

ESFS FESTIVAL #6 (July 2014) – “HOLLYWOOD 1963”

imagesThis is one of the festival themes that we will be revisiting from time to time, a snapshot of one year in the life of a particular country’s cinema.  For our July festival, we will be looking at three American films that were released in 1963, all of them directed by directors who maintained their creative voice through the studio system and beyond, yet were largely supplanted by the New Hollywood they helped create.  Although 1963 is not viewed as a high water mark for American cinema (the Best Picture winner that year was the British production Tom Jones), it sits at an interesting nexus between old Hollywood and New Hollywood, as well as between established and revolutionary ideas of film criticism.  Andrew Sarris published his “Notes on the Auteur Theory” in 1962, an American expansion on the work of the French Cahiers du Cinema crowd, a group of critics turned filmmakers who were largely responsible for rescuing the reputations of directors like Sam Fuller and Nick Ray.

index2All of the films are available for DVD rental on Netflix, and Shock Corridor is also streaming on Hulu Plus.  Here is the full ESFS Festival #6 schedule:


THURSDAY, JULY 10: Shock Corridor (Dir.: Sam Fuller) [Review by Daniel Barnes]

MONDAY, JULY 14: 55 Days at Peking (Dir.: Nick Ray) [Review by Mike Dub]

MONDAY, JULY 21: America, America (Dir.: Elia Kazan) [Review by Daniel Barnes]

WEDNESDAY, JULY 30: Festival Wrap-up [By Daniel and Dub]



indexCitizen Koch (2013; Dir.: Carl Deal and Tia Lessin)


By Daniel Barnes

Despite its title, Citizen Koch is not a Citizen Kane-like attempt to unearth the buried souls of brothers Charles and David Koch, the conservative political donors who funded the Tea Party. It’s also not a Roger & Me-style piece about trying and failing to get access to the elusive billionaire Koch brothers. In fact, the film has seemingly no interest whatsoever in the two people central to its story, which may be why Citizen Koch feels like a meal of trimmings with no main course.

Instead of pursuing the Koch brothers, this polished but waist-deep look at the God-like influence of political bankrollers follows the same narrative threads as nearly every liberal partisan documentary of the last decade-plus: lifelong Republican regular Joes who struggle through dark nights of the soul towards the morally enlightened satisfaction of voting Democrat. “I always thought the Republican Party was for the people,” and so on and so on and so on. In case you’re not entirely convinced how to feel, there is plenty of ominous music to guide your heart. Who cares what side of the aisle you’re on? This kind of filmmaking is offensive in its intellectual reduction.

images2Ironically, the entire issue of unlimited campaign donations stems from a partisan scare film, an election cycle-era conservative hit piece called Hillary: The Movie, produced by a group named Citizens United. A lawsuit surrounding the film went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that unlimited campaign donations were a freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, opening the floodgates for corporations and billionaires to overpower their opposition with money.

From there, Citizen Koch focuses on the political battleground state of Wisconsin – both its Tea Party-backed, union-busting Governor Scott Walker, as well as a pyrrhic recall attempt that inadvertently turned the state into a slush fund for the Koch brothers’ cash. They outspent the opposition 8-to-1 just to win 53% of the vote, vehemently pushing to disenfranchise minorities and poor people along the way,

It’s an important and deeply unsettling issue that offends the very core of our nation’s democratic values. So why would I have rather watched a feature-length film of the unbelievably strange Americans for Progress rallies that are merely excerpted here? Probably because their fanatical sincerity, no matter how misguided and disturbing, doesn’t feel like it was shoehorned into a story that had already been written.


Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 6/26/2014 issue


*The highlight of the opening weekend of the Sacramento French Film Festival was Alain Gauraudie’s quietly spellbinding Stranger by the Lake, which is like Hitchcock distilled down to his purest form.


index2*In the lovely but empty The Immigrant, director James Gray carves away genre trappings to expose the small-time chintz and chicanery at the heart of the American Dream, but what’s left is just a carcass of clichés.

*For all of the delicately structured character arcs and hushed visual poetry in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, his cinematic reserve often makes it feel arid and passionless.


*David Michod’s The Rover is the work of a talented and ambitious filmmaker with nothing to say.

June NETFLIX INSTANT REVIEWS – “20 Feet from Stardom”

53966_38e5f603f4085f24d4a0b82934869943_194c0351f9aae66208af9dd312dc345820 Feet from Stardom (2013; Dir.: Morgan Neville)


By Mike Dub

There seem to be two kinds of films that win Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, particularly in recent years.  First, there are the hard-hitting, didactic, social activist films that hope to engender political change by making us all feel really bad: films like Bowling for Columbine, Born into Brothels, Taxi to the Dark Side, and The Cove.  Then there are the feel-good stories about redemption, perseverance, and talent: Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man and Undefeated.  This year’s winner, 20 Feet from Stardom, not only falls into the latter category, it provides a bright new sheen to the subgenre.  In fact, if I were reputable enough to be a quote whore, I’d write something like, “The most purely entertaining musical documentary Oscar winner since Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got.”

4009910517727-e1371153657619Not that there is anything wrong with being entertaining, but director Morgan Neville (no relation to singer Aaron Neville, in case you were wondering) concentrates so much on proving just how wonderfully his subjects can sing, the film never reaches beyond the attractive, waxy coating of its musical performances.  Early in the film, there is the prospect of depth, especially in its discussion of the early career of the great Darlene Love, who recorded several songs under Phil Spector in the early 1960s that would be credited, unbeknownst to her, to the popular girl group The Crystals.  The movie showcases her singing in early sound and video clips, but through a series of interviews she also describes hearing her song for the first time, credited to someone else, decries Spector as a controlling egomaniac, bemoans her poor business skills.  In this early section, Love begins to reclaim a voice that she was denied for so long.

However, before long the film loses itself in a lackluster structure that focuses more on inclusivity than depth.  The film’s primary focus resides on three singers: Love, Merry Clayton, the iconic female backup on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Lisa Fischer, a powerhouse from the following generation.  It also features interviews with about a dozen other backup singers.  Neville tries to weave all their stories together, but rather than creating a common voice among the women, the film feels more like partially written chapters in disparate narratives, leaving stories half-told and questions unasked.  After all, am I the only one who wants to know what happened to Darlene Love in the handful of years between leaving Phil Spector and becoming a house cleaner to earn a living?  Or, for that matter, how backup singer Claudia Lennear, former Playmate and reported inspiration for the song “Brown Sugar,” wound up a high school Spanish teacher?

stardomAlongside the stars of the film, various veteran backup singers pop up to discuss their own trials and tribulations in the industry.    A few seconds of the film covers the objectifying sexuality that backup singers are expected to indulge in.  Another couple of seconds features the perfunctory “the-60s-was-a-crazy-time” montage, followed by a few seconds of equally obligatory regret over rampant drug use in the 1970s.  A few more seconds lament the advances of technology that make everything “easier” for these young kids today.  Even a segment that attempts to discover why so many backup singers fail as solo artists seems rushed and even superficial.  At one point, the film features a sequence in which backup singers express their ambition for stardom while Judith Hill, a young phenom who sang backup for Michael Jackson before he died, actually plays a song about determination and following your dreams.

But with all that being said, the film exists in order to show off the talent, and on that level it cannot help but succeed.  All the performances, whether they be archival footage or scenes shot specifically for the film, showcase the extraordinary talent of true professionals who have spent decades perfecting their craft.  Even if the movie isn’t necessarily profound, the strength of the music and the sheer charisma of nearly everyone in the film makes for an enjoyable, if light, experience – sort of like driving around, listening to the oldies station on a sunny afternoon.

ESFS FESTIVAL 5, FILM 6 – “Love in the Afternoon”

love-in-the-afternoon-rohmerLove in the Afternoon (1972; Dir.: Eric Rohmer)


By Mike Dub

In each of his Six Moral Tales, Eric Rohmer presents a character at a different stage in his life, in various evolving stages of a relationship.  Though basically unrelated, his films follow the evolution of a single love life amid the moral quandaries of maturing.  The film series begins with a boy’s first meeting with a woman he loves in The Bakery Girl of Monceau, and ends with Love in the Afternoon, where a married family man contemplates an affair with an old friend.

The married man is Frederic (Bernard Verley), a good looking lawyer who is a partner in a small office, mainly because it affords him certain freedoms that don’t exist in larger, better-paying firms: he can leave the office whenever he wants to, he takes late lunches in the afternoon to avoid crowds, he shops for clothes in the middle of the day.  Similarly, his wife, Helene (real-life wife Françoise Verley), enjoys the freedom of academia, choosing to finish her thesis during maternity leave for their second child.  They both enjoy a rather hip, pseudo-alternative lifestyle, and though Frederic repeatedly proclaims his love for her in voiceover, he eventually confesses that their marriage is founded on the roles they play for each other, rather than on a deeply connected and honest intimacy.

Enter Chloe (model and pop culture figure Zouzou), an old friend who shows up at Frederic’s office one day.  In a winking nod back to the second Moral Tale, Suzanne’s Career, Chloe and Frederic met years ago while she was dating his friend, Bruno, who has since suffered a breakdown.  We get the feeling that there were sparks back then, and Frederic handles their renewed relationship with trepidation, fearful that she will become too much a nuisance in his new life.

Frederic, though, is all too susceptible to forming a connection with Chloe.  From the beginning of the film, he tells us that, despite his love for Helene, marriage has fostered a romantic listlessness.  “I find myself missing that time, not too long ago, when I could experience the pangs of anticipation,” he tells us in voiceover.  “I dream of a life made of first loves, lasting loves.”  In a particularly charming sequence, Frederic fantasizes about wearing a pendant that could control the free will of anyone (particularly beautiful women) that he meets on the street.  Though he fantasizes about nearly every woman he sees, when Chloe appears, it is the first tangible prospect of an affair.

Love in the Afternoon
unfolds in the familiar fashion of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, heavy with witty and intelligent dialogue, but it moves easier than his earlier tales.  Just as his characters have matured to some degree, Rohmer has become more at ease as a cinematic storyteller throughout the series.  Here, he is as focused as ever, delivering punchy scenes that don’t suffer the languor of earlier films.  He employs subtle camera movements and bright, vivid colors to avoid the monastic atmosphere his films can sometimes slip into.  Though he’ll never be confused for David Lean, Love in the Afternoon is more pleasurable than taxing to watch.

That does not mean, though, that the content of the film loses any of its weight.  Rohmer’s treatments of relationships are so consistently entertaining and fascinating because they avoid making grand statements on the minds of all men.  There is simply this man, and what he thinks and how he behaves.  For a series referred to as Moral Tales, Rohmer approaches his characters with a remarkably personal and sensitive touch.  Even if Love in the Afternoon is the most digestible of the series, its final scene provides a beautiful cap to the Moral Tales.  Rohmer seems to have finally concluded that underlying all the sophisticated moralizing and philosophical arguing is the very simple human desire to connect, to love.  That it took six films and ten years to come to that conclusion, though, shows just how difficult that simple desire is to fulfill.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 6/19 issue


*The superior sequel 22 Jump Street burrows even further into the rabbit hole of self-reflexivity than its predecessor, and emerges as the best pure comedy of the year so far.



indexThe slickly made documentary Finding Vivian Maier offers little more than you would get from a Tumblr profile and a Wikipedia page.


David Michod’s disappointing follow-up to Animal Kingdom would be like to be a cerebral, slow cinema version of apocalyptic Aussie films like The Road Warrior or Wake in Fright, but The Rover isn’t cerebral, just slow.