Month: July 2015

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Look of Silence”

imagesThe Look of Silence (2015; Dir.: Joshua Oppenheimer)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Camera Cinemas in San Jose.

In the Fall of 1965, the military-led, American-supported government of Indonesia oversaw the genocide of nearly one million people under the guise of eradicating Communism, and the people who ordered and carried out the butchery became rich and famous, many of them remaining in power to this day. Joshua Oppenheimer’s disturbing and transcendent 2013 documentary The Act of Killing examined the slaughter from the inside out, showing the killers reenacting their “heroic” crimes as Hollywood-style genre films, and offering a new level of moral understanding through the naked self-discovery of performance. Oppenheimer’s brilliant follow-up film The Look of Silence (once again, most of the key crewmembers here are listed as “Anonymous”) takes the opposite approach, viewing the genocide from the outside in, as the brother of one of the most gruesomely dispatched victims confronts the wealthy perpetrators, some of whom still live in his parents’ village. The Look of Silence doesn’t push the documentary form like The Act of Killing (similar to a lot of modern documentaries, it’s more of an outrage-inducer, stoking fury over an unresolved injustice), but it’s just as emotionally devastating and even more beautifully shot and edited, with a keen awareness of the effects of an eerie silence and a ghostly composition. As Oppenheimer and his unnamed inquisitor/optometrist search for answers, they encounter an entire country – indeed, an entire world – living in a determined state of shortsightedness and senility.

Barnesyard Revisited – “The Act of Killing”

Anwar-congoThe Act of Killing (2013; Dir.: Joshua Oppenheimer, w/ Christine Cynn and Anonymous)


By Daniel Barnes

*This review originally ran on March 6, 2014.  It is reprinted in anticipation of Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up film The Look of Silence, which Daniel will review here on Friday.

One of the great, unique, often intangible and sometimes scary potentials of the film medium is the way that cinematic artifice can achieve something more profound than mere fact.  We usually talk about realism in the sense of grimy settings and handheld cameras, but the manufactured beauty of set-bound stylists like Hitchcock, Almodovar, Max Ophuls, and Vincente Minnelli supersedes a mundane depiction of reality and captures a more transcendent truth.

That’s why I would argue that Brian De Palma’s deranged rock-and-roll fantasy The Phantom of the Paradise is a more accurate depiction of the music industry than La Bamba, The Buddy Holly Story, or any other musical biopic.  In the same sense, John Frankenheimer’s surrealist political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which connects the veins of political corruption to a toxic heart of psychological deviance, is a more realistic look at politics than grim, stiff-necked dramas like Lincoln and The Ides of March.

Among so many other things, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (co-directed by Christine Cynn and “Anonymous” – a number of key credits here are listed as Anonymous) displays that power of film to transcend reality, even when it’s aiming to pervert it.  In the early 1970s, Indonesian death squads often run by street gangsters killed over one million innocent people under the guise of eradicating Communism.  Forty years later, not only have they gone un-persecuted for their crimes, they have achieved great wealth and influence because of them, and now seek to memorialize their “heroics” on film.

The main figure is Anwar Congo, a bright-eyed, snowy-haired senior citizen and former “movie theater gangster”/executioner whose great legacy was to create a more efficient method of slaughtering Communists.  Early in the film, he visits the scene of his murders, gleefully demonstrating his bloodless method of strangling people, and even spontaneously breaking into dance on his victims’ graves.  He intends to make a film glorifying his war crimes as heroic deeds, but after experiencing the naked self-discovery of performance, he revisits the same murder scene and can’t stop violently retching.

This artifice-as-honesty paradox is at the heart of the best sequence in The Act of Killing.  A neighbor of Congo, pulled in for a minor role in the film, tells the killers about discovering and burying his father’s corpse in the wake of the death squads.  Knowing that the cameras are recording him talk about his own life, he is self-conscious, and smilingly assures the killers that he only intends to offer research, not criticism.  When the cameras roll and that same neighbor assumes the role of a tortured “Communist”, the intensity of his performance grasps at something more genuine and personal than simple storytelling can convey.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets”

index23 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets (2015; Dir.: Marc Singer)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opening today at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley, and the New Parkway in Oakland.

Many critics have already referred to the scalding 3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets as “timely” or “relevant.” When was this story ever not timely and relevant? On Black Friday in 2012, African-American teenager Jordan Davis was murdered at a Jacksonville gas station, gunned down by a white man who fired wildly into his vehicle over an argument about loud rap music. Marc Singer’s infuriating documentary follows the resulting murder trial, where the defense leaned heavily on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which permits citizens to use deadly force when their life is threatened, even if that threat is imaginary. This was the same Florida law used to acquit the murderer of Trayvon Martin, and Singer makes a powerful and convincing (albeit none-too-subtle) case that in an American society trained to fear black men, “Stand Your Ground” amounts to legalized modern-day lynching. While the defense attorney seeds doubt about Jordan and courts sympathy for an unremorseful defendant, Singer shows us the immense burden placed on Jordan’s anguished parents.  The more that the trial focuses on blaming the victim and shielding the shooter, the more that they can sense justice – and their son – slipping away from them.  Singer keeps this intelligent outrage-inducer blisteringly paced and mostly restrained, although it gets a little glib in the final stretch.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/SA Current (7/23 issues)

index*There’s certainly a palpable sense of warmth and understanding to Maya Forbes’ family memoir Infinitely Polar Bear (pictured), but I wish that she wanted to give her audience something a little more substantial than a case of the warm fuzzies.

*The searing documentary Cartel Land examines the brutal violence being waged on America’s doorstep by the Mexican drug and human trafficking cartels, and especially at the armed vigilante movements that have sprung up on both sides of the border in retaliation.

*My ESFS review of Cartel Land was reprinted in this week’s San Antonio Current.

*Trainwreck feels like the product of Judd Apatow convincing Amy Schumer to turn down her volume in order to appease the immature male chauvinist jag-offs that they both hold in high contempt.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Tangerine”

indexTangerine (2015; Dir.: Sean Baker)


By Daniel Barnes

A relatively minor all-nighter comedy elevated to the status of a major breakthrough by casting transgender performers in the roles of transgender prostitutes, and by refraining from ever psychoanalyzing or judging them (harsh judgment is rightly reserved for the pimps and johns). Just out of rehab, Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) learns on Christmas Eve from her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) that her pimp/boyfriend has been cheating on her with a blonde “fish.”  While an enraged Sin-Dee tears like a hurricane through the seediest back alleys and donut shops of Santa Monica Blvd. in an attempt to find him, an Armenian cab driver and frequent customer leaves his family to track Sin-Dee down. Shooting on an iPhone, co-writer/director Sean Baker (Starlet) gives the film a kinetic immediacy and sustains a high level of energy throughout, although he frequently mistakes chaos for humor (too many scenes devolve into nonsensical screeching matches, like a Dreamgirls with better wigs). Still, any director who can merge compassion, intensity, and no-holds-barred attitude this adroitly is a filmmaker with major potential.

The Barnesyard @ the SN&R/SA Current/Monterey County Weekly


*Director Asif Kapadia (Senna) constructs Amy, a heartbreaking documentary about the self-destructive chanteuse Amy Winehouse, almost entirely from existing footage, largely allowing Winehouse’s words and lyrics to tell her own tragic life story.


*Despite a screenplay that boasts contributions from Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, and Adam McKay, hack director Peyton Reed ensures that the empty Ant-Man remains the same old Marvel smirk-fest.

*My Testament of Youth review was reprinted in the San Antonio Current.

*My Me and Earl and the Dying Girl review was reprinted in the Monterey County Weekly.