Month: October 2014

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Listen Up Philip”

imagesListen Up Philip (2014; Dir.: Alex Ross Perry)


By Daniel Barnes

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

With the neophyte novelist Philip Lewis Friedman, a self-loathing narcissist driven to new heights of anhedonia and boarish behavior by his extremely minor notability, writer-director Alex Ross Perry has created a neurotic asshole for the ages.  He makes Ben Stiller of Greenberg look like the mensch neighbor from The Apartment.  Philip is a character so rich and complex and loathsome and identifiable (and, I would assume, gut-level personal), that you feel Perry could return to him periodically over the years, like a Rabbit Angstrom or a Nathan Zuckerman.  Perry made his bones with the 2011 festival sleeper The Color Wheel, a film he shot on 16mm black-and-white for about eleven cents, yet one that arrived with a fully formed artistic sensibility and a unique mastery of language.  Listen Up Philip takes that mastery to another level, even as Perry uses it to create a canyon of disconnect between words and meaning, between self-image and self.  There is a lot of talk about misunderstanding and misdirection here, and a constant sense that rage, lust, admiration, and energy are all pointed at the wrong person.  Even a sense of self is ill-defined and illusory – “Read an article about me…I’m ‘self-deprecating’,” deadpans a writer who later commits suicide.  As Philip, Jason Schwartzman is flat-out brilliant, a hilarious and scabrous and strangely touching revelation of airborne misery and brittleness, and he delivers some of the most amazing and unexpected line readings I’ve ever heard.  I could write an entire essay about the way that Schwartzman pronounces “shooting guns,” as though a gun that shoots was a particular type of gun different from all other guns.  And his delivery of the line “Here’s a piece of paper with some staples in it,” a curt summation of Philip’s lack of interest in the feelings and desires of other people, made me laugh/wince harder than any other movie moment this year.


imageseE-Team (2014; Dir.: Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman)


By Daniel Barnes

*Premiering today on Netflix Instant; opening October 31 at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco.

The solid documentary E-Team is a mix of bold, verite intentions and TV news-style slickness, a slightly too superficial telling of a complex and fascinating story.  It follows the Human Rights Watch “Emergencies Team,”  an international group of intensely dedicated individuals who often go undercover into hostile countries to investigate and document human rights abuses.  Their ultimate goal is to gather enough evidence to push the case to a mainstream media too busy checking Twitter to do their own legwork, thus creating international pressure to intervene.  They are an intelligent, courageous and diverse group, but the heart of the film is the fierce Russian investigator Anna, who crosses the Syrian border while pregnant with her second child, and her partner and husband Ole.  Some of the most memorable scenes involve Anna conducting conference calls while preparing dinner, or Ole delivering a live news feed from his hotel room – moments of domesticity and desensitization in between the stories of torture and rooms full of charred remains.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Diplomacy”

diplomacy-andre-dussollier-niels-arestrupDiplomacy (2014; Dir.: Volker Schlondorff)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opening today at Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Set in Nazi-occupied Paris as the Allied forces advance, Diplomacy is a one-set, two-character chamber drama (screenwriter Cyril Gely adapted his own play) about the long, boring conversation that prevented the deaths of thousands and the destruction of the city.  Niels Arestrup is the Nazi Governor of Paris, a paunchy man of assigned power used to following Hitler’s insane orders, and Andre Dussollier is the Swedish consul Raoul Nordling, tasked with talking him out of flooding the city upon retreat.  The actors are both fine – Dussollier is especially good as the twinkly-eyed but clear-headed consul – and I can see how this story could work on the stage, but the necessary tension and dynamism don’t come across on the screen.  Schlondorff and Gely reduce the drama to a two-person conversational struggle, then undermine its power by “opening up” the story to include an action subplot that could potentially render the conversation moot.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 10/23 issue

index2*In my Arts & Culture article on MVFF37, I talk about how the festival has become a major predictor of awards season favorites, including Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, a film so shallow and easy that it’s destined to win ten thousand Oscars.

*What hath Rudy wrought?  One of the executive producers of the football biopic 23 Blast is Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder, a man not exactly famed for his sensitivity and tolerance, yet the film does a nice job projecting sincerity without crossing over into sentimentality.

index*The passable WWII action-drama Fury retrofits old war-movie cliches for the age of CGI spectacle and body horror.

TOMORROW ON ESFS: Reviews of new films opening in the SF Bay Area, including Listen Up Philip with Jason Schwartzman and Elizabeth Moss, the WWII chamber drama Diplomacy, and the Netflix documentary E-Team.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 10/16 issue


*David Ayer’s hyper-violent WWII film Fury recycles war-is-hell cliches from the silent era to The Simpsons.

*As the curmudgeon with a heart of fool’s gold at the center of St. Vincent, Bill Murray brings a soulfulness that the film can’t match.

*There is a stony ambivalence to the way that Adam Wingard’s The Guest refuses to build a coherent mythology, but too much of it feels like a self-satisfied shrug.


*On the surface, Kill the Messenger tells a meaty film story about the unfairly disgraced investigative reporter Gary Webb, but this warmed-over biopic is less interested in the messenger than the message.

Pilgrimages – MVFF, Day 9 (Sat., 10/11): “You Had Me, I Never Had You”

imagesWhen 25 year-old French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan accepted a Jury Prize at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, he told jury chair Jane Campion, “Your Piano made me want to write roles for women…beautiful women with soul and will and strength, not victims, not objects.”  Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival was a great day for such complicated and objectification-averse female characters…tellingly, they were all in French-language films.

The lead character of Dolan’s Mommy, played with a mix of gusto and grace by Anne Dorval, is indeed a complex woman.  She is devoted to her adolescent son, a blonde hellcat whose learning disorders and raging hormones easily boil over into violent rage, and she defends him even when his pathology threatens her life.  She pleads for her son to behave, accepts him when he doesn’t, and sees that most of his bad behavior is directly learned from her.  Mommy is an uneven and unwieldly movie, but it is also wonderfully ecstatic filmmaking, with a gonzo use of slow motion and 1990s pop songs.

indexMarion Cotillard also portrays a working mother in crisis in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night.  This film is more schematic and story-driven than Mommy, but also more so than any other Dardenne brothers film before.  The set-up is basically 12 Angry Men meets the world economic crisis – in a shattering performance, Cotillard plays a working mother whose colleagues vote to have her fired rather than lose their bonuses.  She is given the weekend to convince her co-workers to forgo the bonus and take her back, an ego-demolishing task that doesn’t exactly mix well with her anti-depressants.  As she drags herself from co-worker to co-worker, her misery becomes their misery, and a profound image of working-class dehumanization is drawn – these people are all powerless…until they’re handed a weapon to off one of their one.

The 22 year-old female protagonist in Stephane Lafleur’s Tu Dors Nicole (translation: You’re Sleeping Nicole) does not have any children…in fact, she doesn’t have much of anything.  She still lives at home, works a dead-end job, flutters between beds, and nurses a go-nowhere crush on the drummer in her older brother’s band.  Tu Dors Nicole is as withdrawn and disaffected and devoid of personality as its lead character, but Lafleur shows a knack for deadpan comedy, and the film is beautifully shot in black and white.


Check out MVFF Day 1 coverage HERE

Check out MVFF Day 2 coverage HERE

Check out MVFF Day 3 coverage HERE

Check out MVFF Day 4 and 5 coverage HERE

Check out the MVFF Expansion Pack HERE

Check out MVFF Day 8 coverage HERE

Follow my regularly updated MVFF37 Power Rankings on Letterboxd HERE