Month: June 2015

ESFS Festival 10, Film 3 – “The Son”

indexThe Son (2002; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

In my festival intro, I mentioned that actor Jérémie Renier served as the Dardenne brothers’ “on-again, off-again muse,” a blonde-mopped personification of moral turpitude and financial desperation in modern-day Belgium. That argument still holds water, especially since the characters that Renier played in La Promesse, The Child, and The Kid with a Bike (and presumably Lorna’s Silence, I still haven’t seen it) seem like they could be different versions of the same person.  But for the purposes of this festival, I should have been talking about the importance of actor Olivier Gourmet.

The 51 year-old Gourmet, who figured prominently in all three films in this festival, has 99 TV and film credits listed on IMDB, but he became an in-demand actor largely due to his work with the Dardenne brothers, starting in 1996 with La Promesse.  Since then, Gourmet has appeared in every single feature made by the Dardenne brothers – most recently, he played the foreman who tries to get Marion Cotillard fired in Two Days, One Night, and he was the heartless waffle stand owner in Rosetta.  Mike Dub singled Gourmet out for praise in his review of La Promesse, calling his portrayal of a schluby single father/sleazy slum lord “the epitome of quotidian self-preservation.”  Gourmet plays another sad-sack schlub with questionable motives in The Son, but it’s a rare starring role for the career character actor, and a rare chance to display a sliver of human decency and tenderness.

imagesWhile working at a center for troubled boys, the typically taciturn but short-fused carpentry teacher Olivier takes an unusually patient and obsessive interest in one of his new pupils, a stone-faced minor recently let out on parole.  We soon learn that the boy was involved in the death of the teacher’s son, a connection that Olivier keeps secret from the boy.  As the two of them grow closer, though, Olivier prods the boy with questions in order to gauge his remorse levels…is Olivier out for rehabilitation, or revenge? Only the constantly eavesdropping camera has any clue (watch how often the camera follows a character’s eye line).  It all leads to a finale that should feel familiar to anyone who has followed along with the festival.

Even minor Dardenne is major cinema, but The Son is their least substantial work, and I placed it last in my updated Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings.  It has all of their usual intellectual rigor and stylistic and thematic hallmarks, but little of the narrative momentum of their best films.  Once the story elements fall into place at the end of the first act, there’s not much left to do but wait for the inevitable final confrontation between Olivier and the boy.  While the film is beautifully constructed and achingly raw, like an unfinished, handmade wooden box, the visual austerity felt a little more punishing and a little less electric this time.

But none of that diminishes a magnificent lead performance from Gourmet, who keeps finding new layers of mystery and confusion in this broken shell of a man.  Gourmet possesses a curious mixture of intensity, weakness, gravitas, and invisibility, operating sort of like a less bombastic Paul Giamatti or Philip Seymour Hoffman.  If the Gourmet of La Promesse was the banality of evil, and the Gourmet of Rosetta was the banality of power, then the Gourmet character of The Son is the banality of grief, a teetering man for whom salvation and self-destruction may be the exact same thing.

The Year in Barnesyard – 2015 Mid-Year Review

imagesBy Daniel Barnes

IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

The best 2015 release I’ve seen so far is Don Herzfeldt’s 17-minute animated short World of Tomorrow.  It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of work, equally hopeless and life-affirming, dire and playful and powerful all at once. See it tomorrow and send your clones back to thank me yesterday.

And now for my recap of the first half of 2015.  Links to my original Sacramento News & Review, CO Springs Independent, San Antonio Current, and E Street Film Society reviews are included wherever applicable.

* = indicates a film that never played in a Sacramento-area theater

TOP 10 FEATURES OF 2015

*1) The Duke of Burgundy

imagesMY TAKE: “It’s tempting to label the all-female Burgundy as [director Peter] Strickland’s sex-movie-without-sex B-side to his violent-movie-without-violence Berberian, especially since both films seem to encode their protagonists’ third-act psychological breakdowns into the DNA of their images.  But Strickland penetrates much deeper into the psyches of his characters in The Duke of Burgundy, finding the erotic in the banal, the banal in the erotic, and infinity and insanity between a lover’s knees.”

2) Mad Max: Fury Road

MY TAKE: “Oh, so that’s what it feels like to not blink for 2 hours straight. Ow.”

3) It Follows

MY TAKE: “The story touches on themes of venereal disease, rape, contagion fears, PTSD and more, while combining cinematic influences from zombies, ghosts, slashers, J-horror, conspiracy thrillers, exorcisms, Robert Altman, teen sex comedies, apocalypses, John Carpenter, chase films and the first five minutes of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening into something deeply unsettling and nightmarishly lucid. Imagine if Texas Chainsaw Massacre-era Tobe Hooper directed a Richard Linklater rewrite of Under the Skin.”

index4) Wild Tales

MY TAKE: “The revenge film to end all revenge films, a glorious and bonkers blast of visual creativity and storytelling energy, and one of the most purely entertaining films of the year. If the naughty-boy, early-1990s ouevres of Pedro Almodovar (who co-produced the film with his brother Agustín Almodóvar) and Quentin Tarantino were somehow able to copulate, then Wild Tales would be their sick and beautiful sextuplet offspring.”

5) Timbuktu

MY TAKE: “Rest assured that [director Abderrahmane] Sissako cuts his searing social realism with significant doses of absurdist comedy and dreamlike beauty.

6) Far from the Madding Crowd

MY TAKE: “Far from the Madding Crowd may or may not be the equal of [director Thomas Vinterberg’s] The Hunt, but it’s probably the more impressive achievement — a beautifully mounted, fiercely intelligent, bracingly alive literary adaptation that remains an unabashed crowd-pleaser.”

index7) Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem

MY TAKE: “It’s minimalist but moving, A Separation meets Anatomy of a Murder, a methodical and emotional process film fused with a potent legal drama, as well as a fascinating look inside a religious bureaucracy where male supremacy is written into law.”

*8) Results

MY TAKE: “A Sundance-era “that guy” with nearly 100 feature film credits in the last quarter century, Kevin Corrigan has always been an actor who speaks and moves to rhythms that only he can hear.  This barbed comedy from indie legend Andrew Bujalski is getting promoted as a Guy Pearce/Cobie Smulders rom-com, but the breakout star is Corrigan, getting one of his juiciest, Corrigan-iest roles in years, and giving a career-defining performance in exchange.”

9) Clouds of Sils Maria

MY TAKE: “The film explores the psychology of female role-play with depth and intelligence, and the performances are outstanding—Binoche brings her expected ethereal complexity, and Stewart cuts through her aura like vinegar through grease.”

index10) ’71

MY TAKE: “The violence is sudden and devastating and immediate—you feel it—and [director Yann] Demange navigates this 1970s urban war zone with the intensity and clarity of a born filmmaker.”

TOP 5 DOCUMENTARIES OF 2015

*1) Approaching the Elephant

MY TAKE: “The birth of democracy is the death of empathy. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? Either way, I’m late for my vasectomy.”

*2) Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck

MY TAKE: “Heroin is bad.”

index*3) I Am Big Bird: The Carroll Spinney Story

MY TAKE: “An open and affecting look at the little white-haired man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch – withdrawn, childlike, curious, and mercurial, not unlike his two iconic characters.”

4) Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine

MY TAKE: “By allowing Shepard to become flesh and blood, it only makes his hate crime murder seem that much more personal, the outpouring of hate at his funeral that much more infuriating, and the “generation of advocates” that became his legacy that much more inspiring.”

5) Dior and I

MY TAKE: “In the wake of Project Runway, there has been a boom in fashion world documentaries, many of them simplistic and self-serving, and almost all of them structured in the manner of a reality show. Frédéric Tcheng’s Dior and I goes for something more ambitious and complex, a cross-generational dialogue about artistic authorship.”

10 MORE REALLY GOOD MOVIES THAT NEVER PLAYED IN SACRAMENTO

*Appropriate Behavior

*Ballet 422

*Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll

images*Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

*Kung Fu Killer

*Maps to the Stars

*Mommy

*Predestination

*When Marnie Was There

*Wolf at the Door

JUST PLAIN AWFUL (The 10 Worst of 2015)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

MY TAKE: “We get it, guys—you hate women.”

Broken Horses

MY TAKE: “It’s hard to tell if the film is an unfunny joke or an earnest failure.”

Cake

MY TAKE: “A so-so Lifetime special and a pretty lousy film.”

*The Cobbler

MY TAKE: “GAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!”

Entourage

imagesMY TAKE: “This isn’t a binge watch, it’s a purge watch.”

The Gunman

MY TAKE: “Not a particularly well-written film, but at least it’s also poorly directed, and wastes the time and talents of several world-class actors.”

*Like Sunday, Like Rain

MY TAKE: “Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day pops up in a few scenes as Meester’s no-good boyfriend, and of his performance I can only say: Adam Levine, I apologize.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

MY TAKE: “This is just about the Sundance-iest Sundance movie that Sundance ever Sundanced, so aggressively quirky and needy and contrived that it makes The Spitfire Grill look like A Woman Under the Influence.”

*Project Almanac

MY TAKE: “No gimmick in cinema past, present or future could make this tripe palatable. It exists solely to shill Red Bull and other demographic-appropriate products.”

Taken 3

MY TAKE: “The only thing “taken” here is the plot from almost every episode of Murder, She Wrote.”

Where Hope Grows

MY TAKE: “In a pile of manure, apparently.”

imagesTOP 10 MOVIES I STILL NEED TO SEE

*Buzzard

*Eden

*Hard to Be a God

*Heaven Knows What

*Inside Out

*Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

*A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

*Slow West

*Welcome to New York

While We’re Young

AWARD-WORTHY PERFORMANCES

Desiree Akhavan, *Appropriate Behavior

indexKristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche, Clouds of Sils Maria

Christopher Plummer, Danny Collins

Jack Black and James Marsden, The D Train

Sidse Babett Knudsen and Chiara D’Anna, *The Duke of Burgundy

Salma Hayek, *Everly

Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenarts, and Michael Sheen, Far from the Madding Crowd

Gemma Arterton, Gemma Bovery

Ronit Elkabetz, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem

Karidja Troue, *Girlhood

Blythe Danner, I’ll See You in My Dreams

Maika Monroe, It Follows

Viggo Mortensen, *Jauja

Vincent D’Onofrio, Jurassic World

imagesPaul Dano, John Cusack, Paul Giamatti, and Elizabeth Banks, Love & Mercy

Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and Nicolas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road

Channing Tatum, Magic Mike XXL

Ayako Fujitani, *Man from Reno

Julianne Moore and Mia Wasikowska, *Maps to the Stars

Anne Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, and Suzanne Clement, Mommy

Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, *Predestination

Kevin Corrigan, Cobie Smulders, and Guy Pearce, *Results

Gaspard Ulliel, Saint Laurent

Mads Mikkelsen and Eva Green, *The Salvation

Jack O’Connell, ‘71

Ibrahim Ahmed, Timbuktu

imagesJemaine Clement and Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, What We Do in the Shadows

Zsofia Psotta and Sandor Zsoter, *White God

Oscar Martinez, Ricardo Darin, and Erica Rivas, Wild Tales

Milhem Cortaz and Leandra Leal, *Wolf at the Door

RELATED LETTERBOXD LISTS

*Top 10 of 2015 (Features + Docs)

*2015 Unranked

*2015 Catchup

*2015 Contenders (movies I rated 4 stars or higher)

ESFS Festival 10, Film 2 – “Rosetta”

images4Rosetta (1999; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

There persists an idea that the Dardenne brothers create aimlessly verisimilar films, but now that I’m five movies deep into their filmography (deep enough to create my first Dardenne Brothers Power Rankings), it’s clear that they shrewdly and meticulously structure their narratives, while retaining an electric and unpredictable authenticity from moment to moment. If their most recent release Two Days, One Night was “12 Angry Men meets the world economic crisis,” then their 1999 Palme d’Or winner Rosetta is Mouchette meets The Passion of the Christ, with the tortured Savior recast as a heroically stubborn, barely tolerable, and marginally employable teenage girl.

Off-the-grid poor and saddled with a useless alcoholic mother, Rosetta (Émelie Dequenne) enters the film like a wild animal, attacking the manager who furloughed her from her factory job, and grabbing at lockers and bathroom stalls while security officers try to drag her away. The camerawork is equally violent, clomping heavily through the forest with Rosetta as she visits her secret stashes and fishing lines, finally arriving at the campground where her mother barters sex for bottles. There are a number of intense physical confrontations in Rosetta, awkward grapples and flails that border on slapstick while holding onto an element of danger, and the Dardenne brothers and their cinematographer Alain Marcoen shoot them as though the camera were just another wrestler.  It may feel random and raw and unformed, but there is a keen sense of onscreen and off-screen sound and space in every long take.

imagesForced to weather-strip their drafty trailer with toilet paper and soothe her stomach pains with a hairdryer, Rosetta yearns for the security of employment, and begins hungrily eying a position at a local waffle stand. She schemes to befriend a dim-witted waffle stand employee named Riquet (the scene where they share dinner while listening to a tape of his drum practice is strangely funny and endearing), and when that proves to be a dead end, she considers more drastic and soul-deadening options. Rosetta is a study in contrasts – she has the angelic face of a young girl but the broken posture and heavy gait of an old washerwoman; she’s fiercely independent, but in a way that seems more resentful than proud; she wants the unemployment benefits for which she’s ineligible but refuses to collect her rightful welfare; basically, she’s internalized the cruelty and caprice of capitalism.

Like most (if not all) of the Dardenne brothers’ films, Rosetta examines the enormous burden of poverty, but especially the burden of going it alone. Rosetta lives in a world where empathy equals suicide, but it’s only when Rosetta expresses a need for empathy and assistance from someone else that she can possibly achieve grace. Dequenne does tour de force work as Rosetta, alternating between calculation and desperation and defeat, keeping a terse and thorny demeanor while giving us glimpses of the scared and exhausted teenager underneath. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same actress who played the relentlessly plucky hairdresser in Not My Type.  She matches the Dardenne brothers’ severity beat for beat, making Rosetta boldly unlikeable but admirably resourceful, so ferocious a survivor that it might just kill her.  Behind every one of Rosetta’s conniving maneuvers and savage outbursts lies an inherently human need to prove her worth, and an innocent belief that she can achieve her dreams, even if her only dream is to not “be left by the wayside.”

*The Dawn of the Dardenne Brothers Festival continues on Tuesday with Daniel’s review of The Son, and Daniel and Mike Dub will wrap up the festival and rank the films on Thursday. Check out Mike’s review of La Promesse HERE.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Rebels of the Neon God”

indexRebels of the Neon God (1992: Dir.: Tsai Ming-liang)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

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

Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang is revered by festival circuit cinephiles for films like Goodbye Dragon Inn, What Time is It There?, last year’s Stray Dogs, and Journey to the West (the slow-walking monk one, not the kung fu demon hunter one). The moody vérité noir Rebels of the Neon God is his 1992 debut feature, a movie largely unseen stateside, but now arriving in an HD restoration for a brief theatrical run. Appropriately enough, this was also my first Tsai Ming-liang experience, and the film’s hypnotic mix of pungent atmosphere and anti-narrative attitude left me excited to explore more of his work (I expect that we’ll be doing an ESFS Festival on Tsai Ming-liang sometime in the near future). Initially, Rebels of the Neon God seems to have little in the way of narrative shape, as it follows two disparate but equally disaffected Taipei youths – withdrawn but seething dropout Hsiao Kang, and a handsome change thief named Ah Tze – as they struggle to fit into their separate worlds. A chance road rage encounter eventually forces their paths to cross, and Hsiao becomes obsessed with the pretty motorcycle boy, forming an unspoken rivalry with Ah Tze as he stalks him through strobe-lit roller rinks and neon-soaked video arcades. With its handheld camerawork, restrained electronic score, vivid colors, persistent rainstorms, and rich street scenes, Rebels of the Neon God creates a tangible sense of time and place, even as it delves deeper into incoherence and dissolution. It’s a Godard-ian hangout movie larded with James Dean references and dripping with a teeming urban atmosphere, from Ah Tze’s perpetually flooded apartment to Hsiao Kang’s ridiculously overcrowded classroom to the Dial-a-Date phone bank where Hsiao finally winds up, unable to even answer the phone. When you worship the Neon God, you worship alone.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/CSIndy (6/18 and 6/25 issues)

images#barnesyardbumps:

*The idea that one’s brain must be switched into sleep mode in order to appreciate a film is silly and offensive, but that shouldn’t prevent a fully switched-on brain from enjoying a deeply stupid movie like Jurassic World.

#barnesyarddumps:

*Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s oxygen-deprived Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and while it’s relatively weightless and apolitical, the double win was inevitable. This is just about the Sundance-iest Sundance movie that Sundance ever Sundanced, so aggressively quirky and needy and contrived that it makes The Spitfire Grill look like A Woman Under the Influence.

*My Me and Earl… review also ran in this week’s Colorado Springs Independent.

*Doug Ellin’s nauseating Entourage isn’t a binge watch, it’s a purge watch.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Wolfpack”

imagesThe Wolfpack (2015; Dir.: Crystal Moselle)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and the Regency in San Rafael.

Many hardcore cinephiles are socially maladroit misfits, and many more behave as though they learned how to talk and act through the movies, but the six long-haired Angulo brothers took the socializing influence of film to a whole new level. Home-schooled and shut off from the world by their abusive and overly protective “free spirit” father, the Angulo brothers (and their one mostly offscreen sister) spent most of their lives locked in a Lower East side Manhattan apartment. Movies offered the boys their only pipeline to the outside world, and they would obsess over their favorite films, staging elaborate recreations using homemade costumes and props. Their childhood development patterns were akin to Nell with a VHS collection, and even in their talking-head interviews, the boys seem to slip in and out of character, trying on different accents and affectations. It’s telling that their first tentative steps into the outside world come while wearing matching Reservoir Dogs shades and skinny ties. Director Crystal Moselle gained remarkable access, both to the Angulo boys and to their library of home movies, but The Wolfpack is largely the triumph of a fascinating subject over a pedestrian treatment. You get the feeling that certain potentially troubling cards were held under the table in order to keep the Angulo story strictly inspirational, and the link between cinephilia and learned behavior is explored on a superficial level.