Month: October 2015

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Welcome to Leith”

15311-3-1100Welcome to Leith (2015; Dir.: Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens tomorrow at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

In a year of solid doubles for domestic documentaries, here’s another extra-base hit to put on your watchlist (eat it, Peter Travers!). Welcome to Leith looks at the panic that overtook the citizens of a microscopic North Dakota farming community when white supremacists sought to legally take over their town. A barren city of a few dozen citizens decimated by recessions and ignored by the oil boom, Leith is the sort of nowhere town where teenagers sit on the city council; the current Mayor got his council seat when he was sixteen years old, and only gained his current position when the previous two officeholders died of old age. Enter well-traveled hatemonger Charles Cobb with a loose conglomeration of followers and an evil plan: buy up plots of land and outnumber the citizenry with sympathizers, turning Leith into a white supremacist-run city. The town sits in a sparsely populated county where a handful of police officers patrol 1600 square miles of land, so the authorities are helpless to protect the people of Leith, who begin stockpiling weapons and installing surveillance cameras in response. Welcome to Leith highlights the often-ignored issues of domestic terrorism, crumbling infrastructures and heartland hate groups, but it’s also a chilling look at the post-9/11 readiness of Americans to bend civil liberties and sacrifice their own freedoms in order to neutralize a terrorist threat. Tightly wound and terse throughout, Welcome to Leith ends on a note of disturbingly unresolved tension – the terror is real, even if it’s only in your head.

IN THEATERS (Larkspur) – 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows

images17th Annual Animation Show of Shows

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens tomorrow at the Lark Theater in Larkspur.

I’ll take any opportunity to urge people towards the seventeen life-changing minutes of Don Herzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, so here we go again. I wrote this about World of Tomorrow in my 2015 mid-year review: “It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking piece of work, equally hopeless and life-affirming, dire and playful and powerful all at once.”  For a while it was only available to watch on Vimeo and in sporadic festival showings, but now it’s the crown jewel of the 17th Annual Animation Show of Shows, a traveling festival that curates eleven animated shorts from around the world.  The Show of Shows recently played week-long runs in San Francisco and Berkeley, and on October 30 it plays the charming Lark Theater in Larkspur. World of Tomorrow is strategically situated in the anchor leg of the festival, almost as though to insure against early walkouts, but the rest of the program is extremely strong, all killer and no filler. A few of the shorts even rival World of Tomorrow: the whimsy and melancholy of the Seuss-ian nursery rhyme The Story of Percival Pilts, the graphic novel compositions of the missed connection romance Snowfall, the batty energy and paper-hat anarchy of Messages Dans L’Air, and the clean visual and narrative lines of the heartbreaking We Can’t Live Without Cosmos, a story of Russian cosmonauts joined by an unspoken love, and torn apart by tragedy.  These are some of the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying movie experiences I’ve had in 2015.

The Barnesyard’s Now Playing Power Rankings (October 30 – November 5, 2015)

images* = SF Bay Area only

OFFICIALLY BUMPED

*1) Jafar Panahi’s Taxi
*2) Marshland
*3) Welcome to Leith
4) Inside Out
5) Sicario
*6) Room
7) Jurassic World
*8) Tangerine
*9) Coming Home

MIXED-POSITIVE

10) Steve Jobs
*11) Phoenix
*12) 99 Homes
13) All Things Must Pass

MIXED-NEGATIVE

index14) He Named Me Malala
15) Meru
*16) The Walk
*17) Trainwreck
*18) Goodnight Mommy
19) Crimson Peak
*20) Experimenter

OFFICIALLY DUMPED

21) Ant-Man
22) The Martian
23) Black Mass
24) The Perfect Guy
25) Truth
*26) The Assassin
27) Grandma
*28) Learning to Drive

indexHAVEN’T SEEN

*The Amazing Nina Simone
*The Black Panthers: Vanguard…
Bridge of Spies
Burnt
*East Side Sushi
Everest
*Freaks of Nature
*Freeheld
Goosebumps
Hotel Transylvania 2
The Intern
Jem and the Holograms
*Labyrinth of Lies
Ladrones
The Last Witch Hunter
Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
Meet the Patels
Minions
*Nasty Baby
Our Brand is Crisis
Pan
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost…
Rock the Kasbah
Scouts Guide to the Zombie…
*Suffragette
*Victoria
The Visit
War Room
Woodlawn

These rankings are updated every Thursday, and they reflect the opinion of Daniel Barnes only. All films playing in Sacramento area theaters are listed, as well as most films playing exclusively in the S.F. Bay Area. Underlined films are on my 2015 catchup list.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R, 10/15 and 10/22 issues

index*The Steve Jobs that we meet in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs is a master of prioritizing the package over the product, of putting grand ideas over gritty details, and this sleek biopic subscribes to that same hollow ethic.

*99 Homes boasts strong performances from Andrew Garfield and (especially) Michael Shannon, but an interesting first half gets undermined by an overly tidy finale.

*The Belgian creeper Goodnight Mommy conjures cinematic references ranging from Haneke to Franju, and there are a number of powerful images and surrealist red herrings, but the film is more icky than creepy, with a final third that gets a touch too “torture porn”-y.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Experimenter”

indexExperimenter (2015; Dir.: Michael Almereyda)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opening tomorrow at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.  Now available to rent on VOD.

Peter Sarsgaard stars in this intriguing but paper-thin biopic as Dr. Stanley Milgram, the Yale scientist whose bold and ethically questionable experiments in compliance and authority painted a dark picture of human behavior. Milgram and his confederates fooled test subjects into thinking that they were administering increasingly powerful electric shocks to a fellow test subject, while an authority figure in a lab coat egged them on. His research showed that when relieved of any personal responsibility, two out of three people will theoretically torture someone to death, a “robotic impassivity” that Milgram argued was the fuel for Nazism and genocide. The opening half hour of The Experimenter is riveting stuff, as Almereyda shows us the experiment from the viewpoint of the subject, then methodically reveals the layers of artifice and manipulation and surveillance that made it work (Milgram controlled every aspect of the experiment, right down to the color of the lab coat). Once The Experimenter gets past those cameo-heavy scenes, howeverit merely becomes a series of bullet points about Milgram’s life (sample narration: “Meanwhile, Obedience to Authority gets translated into eight languages, and nominated for a National Book Award.” Such insight!), and stylistic choices that felt fresh early on (e.g., straight-to-camera narration, rear projection, stage sets) get recycled to increasingly decomposing effect. The film works better when crafting its own experiments in social embarrassment, such as the scene where Milgram argues about his work with an uninformed woman and an Abe Lincoln impersonator, as opposed to the stuffy book report that dominates the final hour.

MVFF38, Weekend 2 (Fri-Sun)

imagesBy Daniel Barnes

The 38th annual Mill Valley Film Festival wrapped up last night with a gala screening of Suffragette, starring an on-the-scene Carey Mulligan, as well as Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep. Suffragette is a legit awards season “contender”, so I’ll have ample opportunity to see it before any ballots get filled out.  Instead, just as I’ve done for the entire festival, I spent the final weekend ignoring the awards bait and focusing on some of the more low-profile offerings.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation is probably the most “high-profile” MVFF38 film that I screened, a Netflix production about child soldiers in an unnamed African country. It features a show-stopping, speech-heavy supporting turn from Idris Elba as a deranged but determined rebel leader who abducts children into his guerrilla army, but the breakout performance comes from Abraham Attah as the young abductee Agu.  The film is sensitive and powerful and maybe just a little too slick, and Fukunaga brings the same talent for incorporating racial and regional angst into a propulsive narrative that he showed in Sin Nombre and the first season of True Detective.  It’s a solid film with some gutsy performances, but by no means is it a definitive or original vision.

indexThe theme of third-world people displaced by war also figures heavily into Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, which centers on a Sri Lankan soldier who forms a “family” with two strangers in order to gain entrance into France.  It’s one of the most emotionally visceral films of the year, a curious mix of rigorous asceticism and soap opera broadness, with a climactic action scene unlike anything I’ve ever seen, but the resolution comes so clean and easy that you wonder what all the wallowing was for in the first place.

Of course, why travel halfway across the world for child violence when you can buy domestic? Like last year’s highly underrated Palo Alto, Gabrielle Demeestere’s Yosemite adapts a book of James Franco short stories about Bay Area suburban angst into a scruffy anthology drama, with Franco himself playing a supporting part.  Unlike Palo Alto, however, there’s no sense of vision or danger, with navel-gazing substituted for narrative coherence, and sleepiness for satire.  It’s a barely watchable doodle, generously padded to reach feature length, and James Franco completists should know that he’s gone for good after the first ten minutes.

indexYosemite takes us to places that we’ve seen all too often on screen, but part of the thrill of the festival experience is finding a film that takes you somewhere you’ve never seen. Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories, a Vietnamese ramble that follows disaffected youth as they drift between the neon lights of Saigon and a more tranquil but less permissive boat life on the riverbeds, doesn’t pull out any new tricks, but the contrasting vision of club life and traditional country life in contemporary Vietnam made up for the smallness of these stories.

Another unique cultural locus comes in Romanian director Radu Jude’s coarse and effective Aferim!, a shambling, deliberately paced ciorbă western about 19th-century father-and-son bounty hunters chasing a runaway slave.  The father clings to old-world notions of gypsy depravity and rule of law, passing those values onto his son/apprentice, but they’re slowly eroded by the injustices they encounter on their journey.  It’s a bawdy and brutal depiction of a Romanian frontier dominated by inhumanity and violence, sort of like Peckinpah with a neo-realist streak, loosely stitched together but surprisingly powerful.

indexThe stark black-and-white photography is a highlight of Aferim!, but black-and-white is used to even greater effect in Ciro Guerra’s entrancing Embrace of the Serpent. This is a two-headed, cross-generational story about white explorers searching the Amazon for a mysterious plant, and the native who encounters them both at different stages of his life.   Embrace of the Serpent is the kind of film that festivals like Mill Valley exist to spotlight: dark, challenging and provocative, with a focus on an underrepresented culture.  It’s the discovery of the festival.

You can read my #MVFF38 Weekend 1 coverage HERE, read my MVFF38 Weekdays coverage HERE, and check out my MVFF38 preview piece for EatDrinkFilms HERE.  My final MVFF38 Power Rankings can be found on Letterboxd – I screened 21 MVFF38 films over the last couple of weeks, and these are my top 5:

1) Taxi
2) 45 Years
3) Marshland
4) Embrace of the Serpent
5) One Floor Below