Month: September 2015

IN THEATERS (SF) – “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch…”

imagesA Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015; Dir.: Roy Andersson)

GRADE: A

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens tomorrow at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

“I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine.”  A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is the best film of the year so far, and it’s not that close. This is the first film I’ve seen from iconoclastic Swedish auteur Roy Andersson, so perhaps my game-changing revelation is someone else’s old hat, but I’ve never seen a movie with such an unusual, profound and disturbing psycho-comedic mindset. A series of mordant, magnificently composed blackout sketches shot entirely in a studio (that includes the hyper-real “outdoor” scenes), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch feels like Schizopolis directed by Jacques Tati, or a less manic and navel gaze-y Holy Motors, or Stanley Kubrick’s lost Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker comedy, or Monty Python punching up a Peter Greenaway script, or Wes Anderson and Ingmar Bergman flushing their meds for three months and collaborating on an art installation. I’m trying to say that it’s great.

images2Andersson doesn’t move the camera or cut within the sequences, instead emphasizing composition and interior space, and allowing us to dwell on the dark, occasionally horrifying absurdity of the scenes. A freshly dead man is politely harvested for his beer (but not his shrimp sandwich, thank you), a vivid and bizarre WWII musical memory persists through the decades, the misery of a test monkey struggles to be heard over the more workaday misery of its lab-coated tormentor, and the armies of King Charles XII march past a modern-day tavern to defeat against the Russians, while the two most depressing people on the planet make it their business to “help people have fun.”

Those two hapless joke merchants are the closest thing to a narrative through line here, and it’s a sign of the film’s pitch-black sense of whimsy and morality that the two white men who appear to have benefited the least from free-market colonialism are the ones forced to atone for its awful legacy.  All rivers here empty into the scene of the century, a sick, disturbingly beautiful sequence of unspeakable horror and racial dehumanization at the service of delusional grandeur and artistic experimentation. It’s about as righteous and unsettling as cinema can get.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R, 9/24 issue

index*Starring Johnny Depp, Black Mass is such a sturdily faceless production that it could have come from a kit labeled “Whitey Bulger Biopic”.

*Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley are such likable performers that they’re watchable in the worst tripe, but it’s hard to imagine a weaker vehicle for their considerable talents than Learning to Drive.

*Star Sanaa Lathan is so good in The Perfect Guy while being given so little to work with, it’s a crime that she isn’t headlining better films than this one.

*This year’s Tower of Youth festival, featuring films made entirely by teenagers, runs on Friday, October 2 at the Crest Theater in Sacramento.

In Theaters – “The Visit”

cx9utnbevqoc6ibb4t9zThe Visit (2015; Dir.: M. Night Shaymalan)

GRADE: D

By Mike Dub

“You can’t mess up slow dancing because it’s just kind of a slow motion hug.  The only way you could mess it up is if you started fast dancing in the middle of it.  And she was like, ‘What are you doing?’  And I’m like, ‘I don’t understand social cues!’” — Mike Birbiglia

Somewhere toward the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, I experienced a sudden vision of comic Mike Birbiglia bizarrely fast dancing to a slow song, thrusting hands and arms and hips unrhythmically, confusedly glaring at others on the dance floor for signs of appropriate behavior, knowing that he’s doing something wrong but incapable of understanding what it is.  It seemed like quite an apt metaphor for Shyamalan as a director: a bumbling ne’er do well, incomprehensibly flailing about as if to yell, “I don’t understand cinema!”

That spirit has been distilled recently into the strangely slow, bloated-at-94-minutes horror-comedy mockumentary The Visit.  Here are just a few of the things about cinema that Shyamalan doesn’t understand:

Meta!

the-visit-m-night-shyamalan-1500x1000The story centers on 15-year old Rebecca and her 13-year old brother Tyler as they head to their estranged grandparents’ country home for a week-long vacation without their mother.  Rebecca, a budding filmmaker whose cloying precociousness makes Macauley Culkin’s early work seem quietly reserved, decided to film the reunion as a documentary.  The mockumentary device gives Shyamalan free reign to indulge in a meaningless and random cacophony of filmmaking buzz words: “classical formalism,” “focal length,” “mise-en-scene,” a half-assed nod to Hitchcock during the climax, omnipresent product placement for Final Cut Pro, and of course, self-referential plot points that draw our attention to his previous films.  But there is never any context, no cleverness, and certainly no commentary.  Shyamalan tries to excuse his remedial conception of cinema studies by placing the movie in the “voice” of a 15-year old.  In addition to employing an annoying and tired gimmick, the problem is that Shyamalan doesn’t possess enough to touch to differentiate between obnoxious characters and obnoxious films.

Irony!

the visit.previewDespite the constant presence of juvenile humor (an elderly person’s incontinence is a running gag throughout the film) and the irritating, self-reflexive winking, Shyamalan clings to the reality of his film like a 15-year old making a mumblecore movie.  There is a never ending stream of dead-air punchlines, as when Tyler sees an old woman’s bare ass and turns to the camera to say, “I think I’m blind,” but everything that happens in the film is contained within the reality of the premise of Rebecca’s documentary.

That is, until the climax.  At the end of the bloody climax, which involves abuse, mortal danger, and several killings, there is an obscene use of a soft, lovely pop song – the kids’ mother’s favorite song.  The juxtaposition suggests an attempt to undercut the superficially happy ending with an acknowledgement that the events these children have experienced are truly horrific and traumatic and will likely leave lasting scars on their psyches.  It’s the first moment of the film that we are at all aware of Shyamalan’s capacity to comprehend anything larger than the scene in front of him.  Not to worry, though, because there are two painfully heartfelt scenes that follow the climax, complete with sincerely saccharine orchestration on the soundtrack and characters competing with each other for who can squeeze out the most tears of joy and forgiveness.

Human emotions!


the-visit-copy-500x375cLike in most horror films, the
 characters’ experiences in The Visit serve as a metaphor for underlying emotional problems: the catalyst for the children’s danger is the breakdown of their family.  Their father left five years ago, and their mother has been estranged from her parents since she was 19 years old.  The children journey to their grandparents in order to understand and heal the rift between their grandparents and mother, and thereby understand and heal the emotional damage wrought by their father’s absence.  Shyamalan, a father himself, has constructed a film aimed at teenagers around this moral: regardless of devastation, parents must always be forgiven. Indeed, it is the responsibility of children (even if they are 13 or 15 years old) to repair the family bonds that have been severed by their neglectful or abusive parents before it’s too late.  At the age of 45, M. Night Shyamalan has made a film whose emotional complexity amounts to, “You’ll be sorry when I’m dead!”

Auteur!

One thing I’ll admit: I didn’t see the big twist before it was revealed.  That being said, Shyamalan’s commitment to rehashing the same gimmick again and again has long ago passed the point of holding any interest – certainly, it cannot sustain a feature film.  Shyamalan has become a garishly self-conscious “auteur,” interested only in reiterating superficial tropes instead of creating a meaningful examination of recurring themes.  With The Visit, he has managed to make a film that is both annoying and dreadfully boring at the same time.  I suppose that is an achievement of sorts.

One gets the sense that Shyamalan doesn’t understand why he can’t just make the same movie over and over again.  I don’t understand how he can.

VOD Review – “The Mend”

imagesThe Mend (2015; Dir.: John Magary)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

*Available now on iTunes and other VOD platforms.

Where in the wide world of fucks did this crazy thing come from? First-time writer-director John Magary makes an exhilarating debut with The Mend, an NYC-based comedy of ill manners that exudes a weird, nervous energy from the opening seconds and never relents.  I couldn’t shake this film – it persisted in my mind like an stubborn houseguest.  It recalls the Coen brothers in its singularity of voice and tone, offering not a new cinematic language but rather a new dialect, simultaneously tense and liberated, gleaming the edge between fussy and shambling, and by the end you feel as though the film has chewed its nails down to the nub. The central construct sounds like a Sundance nightmare – two estranged brothers, one a “freelance web designer”/total fuckup (Josh Lucas), the other a seemingly contented office worker on the brink of an unwanted engagement (Stephen Plunkett), stuck together in a Brooklyn apartment to hash out their daddy issues – but The Mend is one of the freshest and most invigorating films of the year.

Music thrusts in and out, the camera fidgets like a nervous party guest, stray shots and shreds of dialogue echo back in strange and unexpected rhymes – the film thrusts and staggers like a drunk who can’t figure out how to get out of his own apartment.  Lucas is good for the what the film needs, believably grimy and thoughtless and grossly charming, but Plunkett is the real breakout star here.  A little-known actor with a smattering of TV credits and a great screen face (he looks like Jack Black sat on Michael Shannon), Plunkett runs the gamut from pathos to deadpan comedy to bathroom door-stabbing ferocity, whether clutching his cellphone like a lifeline or drunkenly screwing with a production assistant (“He’s very hurt,” comes the crackling plea from a stolen walkie-talkie).  Plunkett’s ability to play a variety of contradictory emotional states is essential for a film that wonders if love means letting go, or if it means holding on for dear life.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The New Girlfriend”

indexThe New Girlfriend (2015; Dir.: Francois Ozon)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco, the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

Popular and prolific French auteur Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool; In the House) has always used genre subversion as a means of exploring other types of subversion, whether sexual, moral, or in the case of The New Girlfriend, gender. After her lifelong best friend Laura dies following childbirth, Claire (Anais Demoustier) learns that Laura’s grieving husband David (Romain Duris) is a closet transvestite finding comfort in his dead wife’s clothes. Claire agrees to keep David’s secret from her own husband, discovering new pangs of extramarital desire as David assumes the female identity of Virginia; but is Claire attracted to David/Virginia or to the ghost of Laura? From its opening closeups of a costumed bride slowly revealed to be an embalmed corpse, The New Girlfriend wants to keep you unbalanced and curious, but like a lot of Ozon films, it never quite gets out of its own head. Adapting a short story from mystery writer Ruth Rendell, Ozon offers the set-up for an old-school, door-slamming French sex farce, but instills the material with a swooning romanticism and overtones of Hitchcock-ian kink. Unfortunately, nothing in The New Girlfriend ever matches the operatic emotion and locomotion narrative of its own prologue, a laser-fast outburst of girlhood obsession, blood oaths, repressed desire, and sudden switches of fate – it’s like the opening montage of Infernal Affairs reconfigured for romantic comedy.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R, 9/10 and 9/17 issues

images*The #1 film at the box office last weekend, The Perfect Guy is barely a professional effort, and frequently veers in to the lane of lurid trash, but its depiction of white-collar African-Americans is an extreme rarity in the cinema, and the film serves a woefully underserved audience. Too bad it’s a total dud.

*Christian Petzold’s quietly mournful post-World War II elegy Phoenix whispers infinite thematic and narrative echoes of Vertigo, but the film’s cold-blooded aloofness fails to fully captivate.

*A Walk in the Woods is based on a memoir by travel writer Bill Bryson, but everything about the film feels artificial, like a failed pilot for a channel you’d downgrade cable plans in order to avoid.