Month: November 2014

2014 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part III

indexWednesday, November 26

Get On Up (Dir.: Tate Taylor; GRADE: B) This energetic, time-hopping biopic of James Brown comes on as a Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould-style take on the Godfather of Soul, but it becomes more conventional and familiar as it progresses. Still, nothing can detract from the lead performance of Chadwick Boseman, who transcends the limitations of impersonation to capture the seething hunger that made Brown tick.

The Babadook (Dir.: Jennifer Kent; GRADE: B) A much-lauded festival hit from Australian first-timer Kent, a low-budget, low-gore horror chiller with plenty of style and smarts.  Essie Davis plays a single mother raising a kindergarten hellion with severe protection issues, a complex only exacerbated by the mysterious appearance of a terrifying black-and-white “children’s book.”  There is some wonderfully excruciating suspense in the buildup, but the ending strives for therapy at the expense of scares.

images2Rocks in my Pockets (Dir.: Signe Baumane; GRADE: C+)  Although originally produced in English, this is the Latvian submission for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards.  Baumane tells the story of the women in her family who battled with depression and suicidal thoughts, including herself, and while the film has a nice mix of empathy and irrepressible humor, the animation is static and doesn’t do much besides mimic the narration.

Friday, November 28

Nymphomaniac, Vol, I (GRADE: B-); Nymphomaniac, Vol. II (GRADE: C+)

index3Nymphomaniac, as an experience (Dir.: Lars von Trier; GRADE: B-) I watched both films with my wife in one sitting on the morning after Thanksgiving, just as I imagine the filmmaker intended.  The first part, with its Scheherazade set-up and deranged diversions into flyfishing and cake forks, is more tolerable than the punishment-heavy second volume, but they are both alternately enticing and insufferable, dogmatic and deeply personal, stimulating and repulsive throughout.  I’m glad I saw it…now let’s never speak of this again.

Still Alice (Dir.: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland)  ***DO NOT OPEN UNTIL EARLY 2015***

images4Birdman (Dir.: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu; GRADE: C) Like being hit in the brain with a tiny hammer by a guy who thinks that people saying “balls” = satirical comedy.  Once the impressiveness of the technical virtuosity wears off (for me, it was about a half hour in), you’re left with a film that expresses contempt for everyone and everything save for the smell of its own farts.  It actually made me long for Inarritu’s earlier, funnier work.

Merchants of Doubt (Dir.: Robert Kenner; GRADE: B) A documentary about the fake experts and pseudo-scientists employed by corporations to spread doubt about scientific facts, a practice originally perfected by the tobacco industry but taken to new levels by global warming skeptics.  More of a muckraking piece about media manipulation than a psychological exploration into the mind of a hired liar, but still a compelling watch. Reviewed for the SN&R on April 9, 2015.


like-father-like-sonSunday, November 23

American Sniper (Dir.: Clint Eastwood) Reviewed for the Colorado Springs Independent on 1/21/2015.

Monday, November 24

Only Lovers Left Alive (Dir.: Jim Jarmusch; GRADE: B+) This was a rewatch – here is my original review; the sentiments expressed were generally unaltered by a second viewing, although I realize now that I slightly botched the implication of Hiddleston’s “sands at the bottom of the hourglass” quote.

Like Father, Like Son (Dir.: Hirokazu Koreeda; GRADE: B) A slight but not-as-sentimental-as-it-sounds human drama from the director of After Life and Still Walking.  A wealthy, workaholic father’s ambivalent feelings towards his six year-old only son are further confused when he learns that the boy is not really his, and that his “real”, switched-at-birth son has been raised by a family of working-class slobs.  Do they keep the children they raised, or switch them back?  Koreeda just barely walks the tightrope between wise introspection and sappy artifice, but as the film played out, I was already imagining Ben Affleck as the father in an awful American remake.  It’s available now on Netflix Instant.index2

A Most Violent Year (Dir.: J.C. Chandor) Reviewed for the SN&R on 1/29/15.

The Homesman (Dir.: Tommy Lee Jones; GRADE: A-) *** Reviewed for the SN&R on 12/04/14.

Tuesday, November 25

The Overnighters (Dir.: Jesse Moss; GRADE: A-) One of the best documentaries of the year, a deeply personal and moving look at a North Dakota preacher who devotes his church to housing itinerant workers attracted by the state’s oil boom.  No tidy hero worship or political soapboxing here, but rather a nuanced and devastating view of homelessness, as well as the high costs of compassion and self-denial.  My #2 documentary of 2014.

Honeymoon (Dir.: Leigh Janiak; GRADE: B+) The smart, low-budget horror chiller that I had hoped The Babadook would be, a disturbing and slyly witty story of newlyweds honeymooning at a lonely cabin in the woods.  That’s a familiar set-up, but rather than getting terrorized by an outside menace, they are torn apart from within.  It appears to the husband (Harry Treadaway) that the wife (Rose Leslie) has been possessed or replaced, an amusing but never too cheeky extension of the fear that marriage changes people.  The film is fully realized on a miniscule budget; Adam Wingard may have all the Hollywood outsider buzz, but Leigh Janiak has the chops.

imagesVirunga (Dir.: Orlando von Einsiedel; GRADE: B) Like last month’s E-Team, this is another slick and stirring Netflix exclusive documentary.  This one is about the Virunga National Park in Congo, home to the last of the mountain gorillas, and about the brave and devoted rangers who risk their lives to protect the land from poachers, oil companies, and warring military factions.  It’s available now on Netflix Instant.

The Skeleton Twins (Dir.: Craig Johnson; GRADE: C) Serviceable lead performances from Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader aside, this is a perfect encapsulation of every pejorative thing that pops into your head when you think of “a Sundance movie”.  The film got a lot of attention for a scene in which Wiig and Hader’s characters bond by lip-synching in their living room, but I quite preferred this version.

Happy Valley (Dir.: Amir Bar-Lev; GRADE: A-) My #3 documentary of 2014.

THE-SKELETON-TWINS-r3-1-1-2.JPGYoung and Beautiful (Dir.: Francois Ozon; GRADE: B-) Or: Blue is the Lukewarmest Color.  I find that I am simultaneously tantalized and disappointed by most of the Ozon films that I have seen (the scabrous 5X2 notwithstanding), and this low-key tale of sexual awakening is no exception.  It’s available now on Netflix Instant.

Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger (Dir.: Joe Berlinger; GRADE: B)  A solid documentary about the “Whitey” Bulger trial in Boston, a seeming slam-dunk case against the former gang leader, murderer, and longtime fugitive that became problematic for the government when Bulger grew more concerned with defending his reputation than his innocence.  Engrossing on a narrative level, but only perfunctory as cinema.  It’s available now on Netflix Instant.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/CSIndy, 11/27 issues

thumbnail_19241*I Am Eleven, in which documentarian Genevieve Bailey interviews eleven year-old children from around the world, doesn’t have the ambition of the Michael Apted Up series, but the personalities of the amazing kids she finds were enough to make me hope for future installments.

*Eddie Redmayne does bravura work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, but the film only has imagination enough to be his showpiece.

*My original SN&R review of The Theory of Everything was reprinted in this week’s Colorado Springs Independent.

2014 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part I

mortenson-isaac-dunst-januaryI am devoting the entire week of Thanksgiving to cramming for my best of 2014 lists and SFFCC awards ballot – catching up on the movies I missed, screening as-yet-unreleased awards season hopefuls, and rewatching some of my favorites from earlier in the year.

Friday, November 21

The Two Faces of January (Dir.: Hossein Amini; GRADE: B) This silken Patricia Highsmith adaptation is the directorial debut of long-time screenwriter Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove, Drive), and while it is well-crafted and alluring, it could have benefited from a more assured hand.  Oscar Isaac is an American con man living in Greece who projects himself into the orbit of a dapper American couple played by Viggo Mortensen (smoking the fuck out of a cigarette) and Kirsten Dunst, seeing them first as marks, later as father figure and lover, respectively, and finally as accomplices in murder.  There is a thrilling, who’s-conning-who elasticity to the film, but it feels vaporous and unsteady, lovely to look at and yet visually unrealized and indistinct.

happy-christmas-anna-kendrickSabotage (Dir.: David Ayer; GRADE: B+) Along with The Lego Movie, Edge of Tomorrow, and to a lesser extent The Equalizer, David Ayer’s profoundly scuzzy Sabotage  is my nominee for The Unexpectedly Awesome Film of the Year.  Another movie from a screenwriter turned director, but this fourth film from David Ayer has a visceral visual confidence. This is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Clint Eastwood film, an ultra-violent shock of steely-eyed action electricity that merges a heist film, a revenge film, an all-star action film, and an Agatha Christie whodunit into everything I ever wanted but never got from The Expendables franchise, minus Dolph Lundgren.

Saturday, November 22

Happy Christmas (Dir.: Joe Swanberg; GRADE: B) Fun fact: Joe Swanberg will have written, directed, produced, and starred in four films by the time you finish reading this sentence.  That said, this is only the second Swanberg movie that I have seen after last year’s Drinking Buddies, and it makes a nice, low-key companion to that nice, low-key film.  The Swanberg twist – and it’s a good one – seems to be that the female characters are complex and self-destructive and searching, while the men are simple and domestic.  Anna Kendrick is very good as an overgrown screwup who comes home to live with her brother (Swanberg) and his wife (Melanie Lynskey), but despite a relaxed and intimate atmosphere – a nice touch is that babies and animals behave naturally and uncoached – there is barely any movie here to grasp onto.

Frank (Dir.: Lenny Abrahamson; GRADE: C+) A hack songwriter thrusts himself into the cult-like orbit of a mentally unstable avant-garde bandleader, a man who lives life in a papier-mache head, onstage and off.  Abrahamson flings the film in so many directions – by turns, it’s a zany comedy, a serious portrait of mental illness, a story of showbiz ambition, a social media satire, and more – that there is no center to hold it together.  Fine performances by Michael Fassbender (mostly hidden under the head) and Maggie Gyllenhaal can’t save it.

indexPoint and Shoot (Dir.: Marshall Curry; GRADE: B+) This unbelievable documentary about American thrill-seeker turned Libyan rebel soldier Matt VanDyke is the missing link between Grizzly Man and American Sniper.

Code Black (Dir.: Ryan McGarry; GRADE: B) Just as bloody as Sabotage, but this time a documentary going behind the scenes in the emergency center at L.A. County Hospital, directed by one of the hospital’s doctors.  Beyond the graphic realism, this is more of an aggravated state-of-the-state than a pick-a-side political treatise.

My updated ranked list of every 2014 release that I have seen to date is HERE.

E Street Film Society – The Future…and Beyond!

the-man-who-came-to-dinner-monty-woolley-1942Hello readers, this is Daniel Barnes, your friendly neighborhood film snob.  I wanted to step away from my usual critical distance and pandering references to The Simpsons to talk about some of the changes that are coming to the E Street Film Society.

Mike Dub will be reducing his participation in the blog in order to free up his time for other projects – he will still be contributing occasional pieces, but his role moving forward will be more of a sounding board/guru/moral center, rather than an active day-to-day participant.  Therefore, I am going to stash the ESFS Festival format for now, since I probably will not be able to keep up the once-a-week pace on my own.  I am working on an exciting new format, however, which I plan to debut in early 2015 – look for details in late December.  Beyond that, expect more reviews of new movies, and more frequent Dare Daniel reviews.

For the immediate future, I thought it would be more fun and more interesting for you to follow along with my end-of-year screener cram-fest.  Now that I am a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, I get to vote for the nominees and winners of our annual awards.  My SFFCC awards ballot arrives in exactly 2 weeks and is due in exactly 3 weeks, so I am already feeling the crunch of a deadline. Over the last month, I have been deluged with screeners and links from awards hopefuls, and my plan is to take the entire week of Thanksgiving off to emerge myself in tactical catchups and rewatches.

My 2014 Year-End Catchup List, a list of already-released films that I have yet to see organized by urgency and availability, is HERE.

My ranked list of every 2014 release that I have seen to date is HERE.

The unranked 2014 list is HERE.

***Someone in the next room dumps a bucket of change onto a linoleum floor***

Thirty-seven dollars and seventeen cents.  Mostly nickels.  And finally, my list of films that I hope to rewatch before awards time is HERE.

Wooley2I will be updating all of these lists frequently, and I will be logging every film that I see on my Letterboxd page.  In addition, I will be posting capsule reviews of  the more notable films that I see here on E Street, in a diary style similar to the one I used for my Mill Valley Film Festival coverage.  The first of my 2014 End-of-Year Cram-Fest Roundup posts will go up this weekend.  Hopefully, I will also be able to publish my awards ballot in its entirety after it has been completed and submitted.  My goal is to be as transparent and honest about this process as possible – I can’t promise to not be wrong, but I can promise to bullshit you.

And as a special bonus, next week I will serve up an ESFS-exclusive Thanksgiving turkey shoot, where I will carve up the year’s most overstuffed cinematic butterballs.  Mood Indigo, you are officially on notice.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 11/20/14 Issue


*After Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, it has become almost too easy to mock and dismiss the conventions of the traditional biopic. Although uneven as a comedy, Jake Kasdan’s 2007 parody so effectively spotlighted and skewered the hoary tropes of the genre that any film employing them with a straight face risks looking ridiculous. When The Theory of Everything, a straight-faced biopic about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane, fades into gauzy flashback within the first few minutes, I half expected Tim Meadows to step in and say, “You’re going to have to give them a moment. Stephen and Jane Hawking need to think about their entire marriage before he accepts a prestigious award.”

index2*Rosewater, the directorial debut of The Daily Show host Jon Stewart, reaches for high levels of sensitivity and evenhandedness throughout, often to its own detriment and nearly to the point of flavorlessness.  Stewart overfills his plate with agenda items when he should have focused on the characters.