Month: September 2014

Pilgrimages – “Tower of Youth Festival”

indexTower of Youth Festival 2014

By Daniel Barnes

This Friday, the Crest Theatre in Sacramento will host the 18th annual Tower of Youth Festival, a one-day event that showcases the best teen-made short films and documentaries in the United States and Canada. I wrote about last year’s event for the Sacramento News & Review, so check that out HERE for a little more background on the festival and to read me behaving like a wiseacre. Over 600 students and teachers are bussed in for the event, and in addition to the film screenings, representatives from major California film schools will be present.

Thanks to the generosity of Dr. William Bronston, the event organizer and Tower of Youth C.E.O., I was able to screen a wide swath of the 30 films that will show at Friday’s festival. The selections from this year’s event are even stronger than last year’s, more cinematic and more assured in their storytelling, while still speaking directly to the hopes and fears of modern adolescents.

Here are a few of my favorites that will be screening at the festival:

Outward (Dir.: Noah Bartel, Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston) – Opening with a Kurt Vonnegut quote, this sci-fi mindmelt features some very powerful visuals of sinister alien landscapes, and creates an inscrutably unsettling vibe.

Descending (Dir.: Jake Whitlock, Raw Art Works & Real to Reel Film School in Lynn, MA) – A teased-out poetic metaphor about descending under the weight of peer pressure narrated over a teased-out visual metaphor about scuba diving deep beneath the surface; merciless in the execution.

Blockbusted (Dir.: August Blum, Ulysse Silva, George Khabbaz, Lauren Morgenbesser, Sarah McCallister, and Itai Lev, Harvard Westlake School in Studio City, CA) – There were several media-savvy satires among this year’s crop, and Blockbusted was the best, an endlessly inventive black-and-white throwback to classic Hollywood that fights for the future of cinema’s soul.

2 by 2 (Dir.: Ruby Drake, Grover Cleveland High School in Reseda, CA) – The strongest merger of visual and narrative ingenuity, a 7-minute hyperlink ensemble epic told simultaneously in four separate quadrants of the screen.

Pulling (Dir.: Andrew Robbin, San Francisco Film & Art for Teenagers) – An absolutely devastating short about a self-loathing girl who obsessively pulls out her own hair, as well as the hair of her dolls; a creepy yet empathetic take on self-mutilation that is fully realized in under five minutes.

Once Upon a Childhood (Dir.: Sarah McAllister and Marcella Park, Harvard Westlake School in Studio City, CA) – The winner of my own personal jury prize, a powerful documentary about poor Laotian families still dealing with the aftereffects of the Vietnam War, as tens of millions of buried and unexploded cluster bombs make their children’s lives a literal minefield.  It’s a sensitive and clear-headed take on a very difficult subject, and a validation of everything this festival stands for.

*The 18th Annual North American All Youth Film and Education Day Super Reel (aka The Tower of Youth Festival) takes place from 8:30am to 4:30pm on Friday, October 3, at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento. Tickets can be purchased at the box office, $15 for adults and $10 for youths.

ESFS FESTIVAL 8, FILM 3 – “Kagemusha”

1980_kagemusha_poster_12Kagemusha (1980; Dir. Akira Kurosawa)


By Mike Dub

It might be hard to think that, at the age of seventy and already recognized around the world as a master of modern cinema, Akira Kurosawa would be capable of surprising us with a film that is as grand and captivating as Kagemusha. His previous effort Dersu Uzala was a staid crowd-pleaser that felt mired in its simple and old-fashioned narrative, and suggested that perhaps the march of time was creeping in on the genius who gave us Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ikiru, among so many others.

But while Dersu is tepid, with an easygoing message delivered with kid gloves, Kagemusha is anything but. Released five years after Dersu, Kagemusha replaces the contemplation of it predecessor with pointed incisiveness, yet it also feels more expansive in its themes. The result is a grim, beautiful, harrowing, and, at times, oddly humorous study of war, identity, politics, and tradition.

Based on a true story, the film takes place in 16th century Japan, an era of constant war among three major clans vying for control of the country, and primarily follows the Takeda clan, led by Lord Shingen. When Shingen’s brother discovers that a petty thief who is scheduled to be executed has a remarkable resemblance to Shingen, they decide to spare his life, assuming he will be of use to them in the future.  Years later, Shingen is fatally wounded in battle, and with his last breath he commands that his death be kept a secret for three years, so as to keep his loyal army intact and to avoid emboldening his enemies. Shingen’s brother and a select few executive statesmen train the boorish thief, known as the kagemusha (which translates as “the shadow warrior”), to act as Shingen.

kagemusha_akira_kurosawa_criterion_blu-ray_movie_imageKurosawa’s narrative may seem simple, but, like The Godfather (probably the film’s closest cinematic antecedent), the somewhat straightforward storyline and character motivations belie the film’s depth and ambition. While Kageumsha contains a sprawling network of subplots, along with two grandiose battle sequences, it is most concerned with the study of the kagemusha and his dual identity as both pawn and king in a system that is so much larger than himself, a system that he ultimately succumbs to.

Even during what we would normally expect to be a massive, epic battle sequence, the camera remains restricted to the kagemusha’s perspective. Kurosawa has been properly lauded throughout his career for his masterfully choreographed and edited battle sequences, particularly the intricate staging of the combat in Seven Samurai, but here he pulls a sleight-of-hand trick. The horror of war is not illustrated through blood and carnage, but by simply focusing on the kagemusha, his shock, his fear, and his horror at the carnage occurring in front of him. When several of his bodyguards are shot protecting him, he watches in stunned silence. They know he is not the real Shingen, and yet they have died protecting him, still in service of their dead leader. There is as much honor as absurdity in their deaths.

film-kagemusha-l-ombre-du-guerrierThroughout the film, Kurosawa works with a dazzling, baroque visual palette that provides an unsettling surrealism to the horror of war. Highlighted by sequences that show armies marching along a disturbingly artificial blood-red horizon, Kurosawa unloads a panoply of colors that are as beautiful as they are sinister. Every moment of the film is expertly framed, intermingling the calm blue hues of nature, the fiery reds of nightmares, and the barren, earthly browns of the battlefield.

Kagemusha was the third film in Kurosawa’s “comeback,” after years of professional and personal tumult, including a failed suicide attempt. It revisits several themes that Kurosawa has investigated in the past: the individual’s place among the collective, family dynamics, the virtue and limits of tradition, the power and horror of war. But there is a peculiar kind of nuance in Kagemusha. On one hand, he examines those themes with the weight of his age and his recent past – he seems more cynical here, less conflicted. Here, war is a tragedy. On the other hand, he seems artistically inspired, his visual presentation as ambitious and youthful as ever – he was perhaps spurred somewhat by the New Hollywood of the 1970s (Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas helped secure financing so Kurosawa could finish Kagemusha).   Kurosawa may have once been close to death, but Kagemusha is a film full of life.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/CSIndy – 9/25 issues


*With the excellent films Coraline, ParaNorman, and now The Boxtrolls, the stop-motion animation studio Laika has firmly established itself as the smartest and therefore best purveyor of animated entertainment working today. It certainly helps their case that Pixar has become obsessed with sequels, that Pixar’s parent company Disney still holds a fetish for singing princesses, and that DreamWorks Animation mostly produces mediocrities. A much larger factor in Laika’s pre-eminence, however, is the consistency of the three features that its produced over the last five years. All three films have promoted a visually compelling house style and a commendably weird tone while still maintaining individual identities.

index2*This review was also printed in the Colorado Springs Independent.


*Like most of Kevin Smith’s films, Tusk is all dick and no balls.

ESFS Festival 8, Film 2 – “Dersu Uzala”

600full-dersu-uzala-posterDersu Uzala (1975; Dir. Akira Kurosawa)


By Mike Dub

Kurosawa has always been considered by critics to exhibit the most “western” style of filmmaking of all the Japanese greats. So it shouldn’t come as too big a surprise that Dersu Uzala at times feels more like one of those large-scale epics coming out of the U.S. in the previous ten years. Unfortunately, especially throughout the first half of the film, Dersu comes off as old-fashioned as many of those other films.

The film tells the story of early 20th century Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev (on whose memoirs the film is based) and his friendship with an aboriginal tribesman, Dersu Uzala. Even before the story is laid out, though, we know where it’s going. Despite Arsenyev’s initial prejudgment of Dersu as an unsophisticated savage, Dersu saves the day – and Atsenyev’s surveying crew – several times with his crafty wit and experience, leading to a strong bond that would last years.

The biggest problem of the two-hour, forty-minute epic is that it spends the entire first hour validating Dersu’s very existence, as though culture has not evolved in the fifty years between the film and the publishing of Arsenyev’s memoirs. In an endless stream of unnecessary exposition, Dersu continually proves himself better than the Russian crew. He is smarter, stronger, savvier, a better shot with a rifle, a better tracker, and even, despite seeming to have had virtually no human contact for years, Dersu is wittier than the Russians, always able to one-up a demeaning jibe.

KurDersuReview1Dersu, a relic of pre-industrial civilization, is not only a better woodsman than his new compatriots, but he constantly drops Miyagi-like pearls of wisdom that reiterate his respect for and connection to nature. When Russian soldiers dare him to join a contest that involves taking target practice at a glass bottle, Dersu derides, “Why shoot and smash…? Where in forest you find bottle?” When asked why he refers to nature with human pronouns, he explains, “Fire, water, wind: three mighty men.” Like so many other films, the hero here is depicted with condescending novelty that passes for respect.

Films like Dersu Uzala, which feature clashes of culture, particularly an advanced culture versus a primitive one, often suffer from viewing the world through the perspective of the outsider. Even though it is Arsenyev and his men that are trespassing into Dersu’s world, it is Dersu and his primeval methods that are alienated from the viewer. He is the one who must prove his value – Arsenyev’s is never questioned, at least not overtly.

Because that perspective holds so true in the first half of the film, the second half of the movie, when we begin to see Dersu on his own footing, dealing with his own complicated fate, that the movie picks up. After saving Arsenyev’s life during a snowstorm, it seems, the film is satisfied that Dersu has proved himself worthy of his own storyline. Accordingly, the second half of the movie deals with the ever-encroaching machinery of industrialization, and Dersu’s inability to secure a place in the new age of the 20th century.

Dersu_Uzala_04If the plot of the film is not the strongest, the movie remains compelling because of the stunning color cinematography. Kurosawa was a master of black-and-white images for decades leading up to Dersu, and here he uses color in much the same fashion. His super-wide 70mm lens allows him the full expanse of a palate of highly contrasting colors. At their best, Kurosawa’s images highlight the desolation and beauty of unsoiled land, but even the less poetic images are still striking in their depth and layered colors. When the dialogue becomes too hammy and the plot too predictable, the visuals still keep the film afloat.

Dersu Uzala does have heart, even if it is too often overrun by the simplistic mechanisms of its first half.  By the end, though, Kurosawa finds his footing and manages to convey a nuanced, more complex understanding of the themes of his film, if not the characters.  Civilization may be supplanting our connection to our more primitive and connected past, but Kurosawa suggests, even that erosion of unspoiled nature may be part of the natural order.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Zero Theorem”

indexThe Zero Theorem (2014; Dir.: Terry Gilliam)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opening today at the 4 Star Theatre in San Francisco and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley.

In the opening shots of Terry Gilliam’s cheeky sci-fi dystopia The Zero Theorem, a bald, naked, future man who lives in an abandoned church studies the churning menace of a black hole on a large computer screen, all the while waiting for a phone call that will unlock the secrets of the universe. Then, Gilliam and screenwriter Pat Rushin really start to pile on the ponderous symbolism.

Over the last two decades, Gilliam has made mid-career crisis diversions into Southern gothic (Tideland), mainstream CGI fantasy (The Brothers Grimm), and opera (a production of Faust), with a string of projects in various states of completion left in his wake (including The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, stitched together after star Heath Ledger’s death).Therefore, old-school fans will be happy to hear that The Zero Theorem is Gilliam’s Gilliam-est movie in decades. He has even proclaimed it to be the final chapter in an unofficial trilogy of bleak futures that started with Brazil and 12 Monkeys.

images2I generally hold Gilliam’s work in lower esteem than the cinephile status quo, however, so a return to his form of fish-eyed frenzy is not necessarily a selling point (I ranked and rated all of his films HERE). The Zero Theorem is true-to-form overstuffed and exhausting (between this film and Tusk, I’ve had my fill of jokey props and signage for a while), and as is the case with a lot of Gilliam’s work, soul and meaning tend to get lost in the swarm of ideas.

Christoph Waltz plays the bald, naked man, a socially awkward computer slave named Qohen who lives in a corporate totalitarian state. Like almost everyone else in this world, Qohen works for an omnipresent corporation called ManCom, and spends most of his day “crunching numbers” by performing seemingly nonsensical and dehumanizing tasks. After a chance encounter with Management (Matt Damon, literally blending into the scenery), Qohen is put to work on a burnout task to find the zero theorem, a reorganization of information that could prove the futility of existence.

images3Qohen slaves away at the project for months, with the promise of a return call in re: the meaning of life serving as carrot to his cart horse. When Qohen starts to burn out, Management pushes his buttons, sending him a confidant (David Thewlis, stealing scenes right and left), a young mentee (Lucas Hedges), an AI shrink (Tilda Swinton, now appearing in everything), and a virtual reality prostitute (Melanie Thierry) in order to keep him on the job.

Amidst the jam-packed, pop-art ghetto set design (including some overly familiar graffiti that inspired a lawsuit by a trio of street artists), wacky costuming, and blather about black holes, clones, and “the neural net” lies a lot of half-formed existential riddles.  Is the search for meaning meaningless?  Does blind faith lead to salvation or slavery?  Can free will exist in a world of constant surveillance and evaluation?  But it’s all just a misty, sleight-of-hand prelude for Gilliam to devolve into his usual incoherent chaos in the home stretch.  There is the impression that, after a lot of stops and stumbles, Gilliam made exactly the film he wanted to make here, which is a mixed blessing at best.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 9/18 issue


*The low-rent genre trappings of No Good Deed conceal a halfway decent psychosexual thriller with strong performances from Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson.

*Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange may be as warm as chicken soup, but it’s nowhere near as nourishing as the similarly themed 1937 classic Make Way for Tomorrow.