Month: May 2015

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Sunshine Superman”

indexSunshine Superman (2015; Dir.: Marah Strauch)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

First-timer Marah Strauch directs this documentary about BASE-jumping pioneer Carl Boenish, a man described as having an “aura of life,” even as he relentlessly chased death off of every cliff ledge, tall building, and TV tower he could find.  Boenish was not only a spiritual thrill seeker with a childlike enthusiasm, he was also a filmmaker, and he used helmet-mounted cameras to capture some truly spectacular footage of bodies hurtling gracefully towards the earth.  Strauch mixes some of that amazing footage in with the usual talking-head interviews, ill-conceived re-enactments (Strauch plays Boenish’s milquetoast-y wife Jean), and old TV footage (seeking to legitimize BASE-jumping in the 1980s, Carl and Jean made the media rounds as weirdo segment fillers for the likes of Donahue and Sajak).  Sunshine Superman generally favors spectacle over substance, stubbornly refusing to psychoanalyze Carl, who pursued the euphoric high of the jump to his untimely death on a Norwegian mountain face.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/SA Current

index*My Summer Movie preview was reprinted in this week’s issue of the San Antonio Current.

*Bertrand Bonello’s aloof and oddly compelling biopic Saint Laurent is unique in that it’s not a story about an artist’s difficult ascent toward triumph, but about his easy descent from triumph toward irrelevance and into oblivion. The Yves Saint Laurent that we see here devolves from a man into a brand into mere initials, and finally into nothing.

*Poltergeist is a tentative and patently unnecessary remake, of course, but director Gil Kenan (Monster House) brings a high level of craft to his haunted house film, more than matching recent over-hyped ghost stories like The Conjuring and Insidious.

Festival #9 Wrap-Up/Awards

imagesBy Daniel Barnes and Mike Dub

DANIEL: First of all, Dub, I want to thank you for honoring my “no flats” policy for this festival wrap-up – I feel like the Palme d’Or calls for a little old-school glamour.  As I wrote in my review of When Father Was Away on Business, the Palme d’Or award is similar to the Oscar in that it has attained a phony prestige over the years, and the winners tend to have a whiff of “importance.”  Cannes juries favor small-scale human dramas over genre pictures, and the films that win usually take place against a sprawling cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment (side note: on the surface, at least, the 2015 Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, about Sri Lankan immigrants living in the Paris suburbs, fits this template).

“A sprawling cultural canvas” is actually a pretty apt summation of Paris, Texas, German director Wim Wenders’ romantic and slightly askew notion of the lonely American West of 1984.  One of the things that struck me the most in Paris, Texas was the idea of the road as a lifeline – Travis (a haunted Harry Dean Stanton) starts in the desert with no memories and no voice, but his senses come back the more that he connects with the highway.  It’s like a blood vein, and even an escape into the hills of the L.A. suburbs comes with a view of the artery, and the incessant sound of its roaring heart. What did you think of this outsider’s vision of Americana?


Well, I agree that it was slightly askew, in Wenders’ sometimes-brilliant (the German doctor in Mexico) and sometimes-not (Aurore Clement’s distractingly bad English) style of European playfulness.  But Wenders is a very good filmmaker, and in Paris, Texas, he creates a wonderful visual framework for both distinguishing himself from and building upon his favorite westerns – The Searchers is the reference point that immediately comes to mind.  However, it’s also tough for Wenders to successfully stretch his reverence for American sentimentality.  The first half hour of the movie is brilliant and mesmerizing, but once the father-son reunion forms the center of the film, it becomes much less vital.  Like its main character, the further from the desert the film gets, the more conventional it becomes (save for the scenes in the peep show, which you mentioned in your review), and the more it turns into something that has a road laid out for it.

indexPerhaps that’s why I liked Ballad of Narayama so much.  Although it was based on a novel that had already been filmed, Imamura’s version feels more like an attack than an homage, wrought with ugly depictions of sex, family, society, and tradition.  I have not seen the first version, but I know that about half of what we see in Imamura’s version could not have been shown in any film in 1958.  The Cannes crowd, in addition to enjoying “sprawling cultural canvasses,” also loves to feel validated by films that borrow from and build on the history of cinema.  How do you feel Narayama compares with the other films from our festival?

DANIEL: I think that Narayama is most similar to the other two films in the festival in that it examines a very specific time and place, entering an often overlooked culture while keeping the focus on its basic human drama.  As you mentioned in your review, the framework of Narayama is not so far off from indigestible Hollywood treacle like Stepmom or My Life – a woman heroically prepares her extended family for life after her impending death – but the details of the pre-industrial, highly superstitious mountain village in which she exists give the story depth and flavor.  Aside from a few dated 1980’s camera tricks, The Ballad of Narayama makes us feel as though we’ve been deposited into an extinct world that we never knew existed.  If there is an outlier in this bunch, I think that it’s When Father Was Away On Business, which is the most explicitly topical film of the three films in our festival.  Although it’s set in Sarajevo 1950, the film’s depiction of ordinary life in a dehumanizing totalitarian regime was highly relevant to audiences of 1985…what, if anything, do you think that is has to say to us now?

imagesDUB: If there is one theme that both the Cannes jury and the Academy Awards love to love, it’s movies that depict life under tyranny.  The same year that When Father Was Away won the Palme d’Or, it was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, losing out to The Official Story, another semi-biographical period piece about life under a terrible dictatorship.  You can understand why juries are so quick to reward relevant political works – if we were to ever lose faith in the cinema’s power to shape our culture, then the art form itself would function as little more than, as Gene Siskel’s wife once remarked, “an excuse to eat candy in the dark.”  There is a bit of symbiosis to films like When Father Was Away and the awards they receive.  They validate each other.

That being said, there is no question that of the three films we watched for this festival, When Father Was Away was the least stylistically interesting.  It is practically void of a visual personality, and relies on the somewhat grating narration of a six year old child to bring the audience up to speed.  Personally, it has always been a turn-off for me when we see important historical events through the fuzzy and ignorant perspectives of children.  Still, the content is interesting enough to avoid succumbing to truly nauseating crap like Life Is Beautiful, which was such a charmer in 1998 that it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and, of course, Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.


1) Paris, Texas (B+)

2) The Ballad of Narayama (B+)

3) When Father Was Away on Business (B)


1) The Ballad of Narayama (A-)

2) Paris, Texas (B+)

3) When Father Was Away on Business (B)


*The glorious Palme d’Or goes to… The Ballad of Narayama.

*The so-so Grand Prix goes to… Paris, Texas.

*The shameful Un Certain Regard goes to… When Father Was Away on Business.

For our June festival, we’ll be staying on the Palme d’Or theme by covering three films bythe Belgian sibling team of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, two-time winners of the Cannes top prize.  Over the course of three weeks, we will be watching and reviewing their first 3 feature films – La Promesse (currently available on Hulu Plus), 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta, and The Son.  If you would like to receive updates on upcoming festivals, follow us on Facebook, and follow Daniel Barnes on Twitter.

Fin…or is it?

ESFS Festival #9, Film 3 – “When Father Was Away on Business”

index2When Father Was Away on Business (1985; Dir.: Emir Kusturica)


By Daniel Barnes

If you look at the recent history of the Cannes Film Festival, it’s pretty clear that for all of their emphasis on unique cinematic voices, there is a certain type of film that tends to win the Palme d’Or. Cannes is infinitely more auteur-driven than the Academy Awards, but like the Oscar, the Palme d’Or has become imbued with a phony prestige over the years. You can’t just give the Palme fucking d’Or to something frivolous like Shrek 2 (which played in competition at the 2004 festival), you need to give it to something “important,” which is why genre winners like Pulp Fiction and All That Jazz are extremely rare.

index1Cannes juries tend to favor small-scale human dramas played out against either a large cultural canvas or a significant sociopolitical moment. If you look at the Palme d’Or winners from 2000 to present, almost every single film fits that description – Dancer in the Dark, Uncle Boonmee…, The Tree of Life in the former category, The Wind That Shakes the Barley, 4 Months…, The White Ribbon, The Pianist in the latter, Elephant and The Child a little of each – and so do all three of the films in this festival. The Ballad of Narayama and Paris, Texas painted their simple family dynamics onto that large cultural canvas, but Emir Kusturica’s 1985 winner When Father Was Away on Business falls into the other category, setting its coming-of-age story in the significant sociopolitical moment of Sarajevo 1950.

images3When Father… takes place shortly after socialist Yugoslavian dictator Tito split with Stalin and Communist Russia, and the plot hinges on concepts of infidelity, authoritarianism, and dehumanization, but Kusturica’s sardonic twist is to tell the film through the eyes of a small child. The “Father” of the title is a mustachioed, hairnet-wearing cad and “fun Dad” whose extramarital affairs are an open secret, but who gets punished with “voluntary work in that mine” after his mistress repeats a harmless comment about a political cartoon to a party official.  After his imprisonment, the father is sent to a shitwater burg to be “reconstructed,” but he gets by – they have booze and whores there, too. Meanwhile, the boy pines for a real leather football, while the wife bottles her rage and acts “as if nothing happened.”

images4Kusturica’s film has a much drabber palette than the lush natural tones of Narayama or the pop-art colors of Paris, Texas, but the graininess fits this world of black market peddlers and banal paranoia. Poor is poor here – even the home of the puffed-up party official is devoid of simple comforts, beyond a spare pistol and a self-righteous superiority.  It’s not particularly dynamic, but I liked Kusturica’s compact camera moves and bleary sense of ephemeral whimsy.  Things threaten to get a little too twinkly-eyed at times, especially in regards to the boy’s penchant for sleepwalking, but Kusturica generally keeps things grounded and recognizable.

There’s a bawdy boisterousness to the film’s depiction of a dictatorial bureaucracy that recalls the Polish films of Milos Forman, especially his 1967 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Firemen’s Ball.  When Father… would be pitch-black if it wasn’t so humane, and a lot of the humor is gently cutting in a Forman-esque fashion, such as in the highlight scene where the boy thwarts his parents’ attempt at a conjugal visit.  As it turns out, Forman chaired the 1985 Cannes jury that bestowed the award on When Father…, so maybe all you need to win the Palme d’Or is a little bit of luck.


IN THEATERS (SF) – “Jauja”

indexJauja (2015; Dir.: Lisandro Alonso)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Roxie in San Francisco.

More adventures in aspect ratios: Mommy director Xavier Dolan, Argentinean auteur Lisandro Alonso sees your 1:1 frame and raises you the rounded corners and stiff compositions of a 19th-century photograph. Viggo Mortensen stars as Gunnar Denisen, a Danish surveyor stuck with his daughter and a band of lusty soldiers on a seemingly endless mission to a hyperreal tropical desert. When the daughter sneaks off to sleep with a young soldier, Gunnar chases her into the wilderness, increasingly losing touch with time and logic the longer he pursues. Alonso aims for a surreal, slow cinema take on a psychological western, sort of like Anthony Mann meets Peter Greenaway, and he wills you into his weird rhythm by allowing most shots to run a minute or so longer than you would expect. There’s a single shot of Mortensen filling a canteen that may still be going. Like a lot of slow cinema, it’s halfway between hypnotic and narcoleptic, with vibrant colors that pop off the screen, a very delicate and detailed use of sound editing, and a sea lion-infested, psychedelic landscape that has to be seen to be believed.  There’s also a ton of dead air – the script emits faint echoes of The Searchers and Heart of Darkness, but the film is determinedly vapid, and a late twist that jumps away from those impossibly beautiful landscapes only exposes a fairly prosaic visual style.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/CSIndy (5/21 issues)

index*In this year’s SN&R summer movie preview, me and Jim Lane pick our most anticipated films of the season.  My portion of the Summer Movie Preview was also reprinted in the Colorado Springs Independent, and will run in next week’s San Antonio Current.

*My Far from the Madding Crowd review was reprinted in this week’s Colorado Springs Independent.

*The oddball Swedish offering The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is about as lighthearted and inconsequential as a dark comedy dealing with mass murder and nihilistic destruction can possibly get.

*Taking its cue from the sort of pandering nostalgia that usually gets peddled to Baby Boomers, Mat Whitecross’ irritating Spike Island follows a teenage gang of the Stone Roses’ superfans in 1990 Manchester, but it’s much more Detroit Rock City than Rock n’ Roll High School.