Month: November 2015

In Theaters (SF) – The Creeping Garden

CreepingGardenThe Creeping Garden (2015; Dir.: Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

*Opens tomorrow at the 4 Star Theater in San Francisco.

“It’s not animal, it’s not vegetable, it’s not fungi. It’s slimeball.”

A fascinating science documentary by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp, The Creeping Garden bristles with a sense of awe that I hope still hits some junior high science students every now and then: that flash of inspired captivation, the seduction by something magnificent and previously unknown, and the need to investigate it to the limits of our imagination. That magnificent subject here is an ungraciously named life form called slime mold, a not-quite animal and not-quite vegetable that has the general appearance of a fungus, but it’s not quite that either. Impossible to classify but endlessly fascinating to those who study it, slime mold has a surprising array of possible uses to help extend our understanding of it, of our planet, ourselves and even our future.

4guide_creeping_garden_1_copy__largeLike the creepily expanding mycetozoa that is its subject, the film’s investigative tentacles branch out widely. In what is likely to be the favorite section of many cineastes, Grabham and Sharp takes us on a field trip to learn about the very beginnings of the nature documentary. By the end of the film, we have seen slime mold adapted for use in robotics, visual art, human social experiments, city planning, and even in as a “collaborator” in the composition of music. Along the way, we meet an array of slime mold enthusiasts, each of whom bonds with the mold in their very particular way, but these are not the usual assortment of perfunctorily strange and obsessed characters you might expect to see in a “quirky” documentary; most are university researchers and scientists who share the same enthusiasm for slime mold as the filmmakers.

The Creeping Garden is a highly polished film, making sophisticated use of computer imaging and time-lapse photography, while creating an intense, impressionistic portrait of the eerie mystery of nature. Though largely shot with dark, chilling tones and constantly backed by a haunting score by Jim O’Rourke, there lies underneath its aesthetic an almost counter-intuitive glee. It is exactly that sense of mystery, of unknown purpose and untapped potential, that makes nature so wondrous and exciting.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/MCW (10/29, 11/5, 11/12 issues)

index*Wide-eyed and sincere, Labyrinth of Lies exudes a childlike confidence akin to a Rousseau painting, and whatever it lacks in nuance and cleverness it makes up for in its mix of heart-on-sleeve moralism, pulp drama and classic movie forms and rhythms.

*The solemn and walnut-stained biopic Truth tries to sing a swan song for “old school” journalists and their charming drinking problems, but instead it’s a paean to boomer self-congratulation, an ode to getting the story more or less right.

*My review of Truth also ran in the 10/29 issue of Monterey County Weekly.

*It was the best of Bonds (Connery), it was the worst of Bonds (Brosnan) – my take on the many actors who have played James Bond.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Theeb”

indexTheeb (2015; Dir.: Naji Abu Nowar)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens tomorrow at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Camera 3 in San Jose.

Or: Loiterers of Arabia. The Best Foreign Film Oscar submission from Jordan and a debut feature for co-writer/director Naji Abu Nowar, the intimate epic Theeb concerns a young Bedouin boy’s abrupt coming-of-age in Arabia 1916. In a miniscule desert village seemingly worlds away from the raging conflict of World War I, a British soldier with a mysterious box arrives looking for a guide. He hires the older brother of young Theeb (aka “Wolf”), the skittish son of the tribe’s deceased sheikh, without informing either boy of the danger that awaits them in the wasteland. Abu Nowar and his cinematographer Wolf Thaler (he shot many of Michael Glawogger’s documentaries, including Workingman’s Death and Whores’ Glory) capture some gorgeously forbidding and textural desert landscapes, and they use point-of-view shots to powerful effect, yet after an interesting first half the film essentially squats in the dirt and swats flies for half an hour. There are some arresting sequences and an overall keen awareness of physical space, especially during a nighttime mountainside shootout, but the film gets exceptionally draggy at times, and it never fully drew me into its world.  It’s quite possible that after the recent Mill Valley Film Festival, I’ve just overdosed on slow, quiet movies about miserable people walking through violent and desolate foreign lands; whatever my headspace, Theeb plays like a gun without bullets.

Sacramento Mini French Film Fest preview (November 14, 2015)

imagesMustang (2015; Dir.: Deniz Gamze Ergüven)

GRADE: B

Welcome to New York (2015; Dir.: Abel Ferrara)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Both films screen this Saturday at the Crest Theatre in Sacramento as part of the 2nd Sacramento Mini Fall French Film Fest.

First-timer Deniz Gamze Ergüven directs this passionate drama about five feisty Turkish sisters who rebel against their strict seaside family, and find that their freedoms wane as their bodies mature.  After getting let out of school for the summer, the energetic girls frolic in the surf with some local boys, a harmless act that scandalizes their relatives into overreaction.  Their handsy adoptive uncle barricades the estate against the threat of boys, turning the entire home into “a wife factory,” and initiates a spirit-deadening, re-educative onslaught of cooking lessons and baggy, colorless clothes.  The long-haired girls fight back, growing reckless and self-destructive in their rebellion, but increasingly find that submission and suicide are their only escapes.  Ergüven imbues Mustang with the infectious spirit of youth and the casual assurance of a seasoned veteran, and the cinematography by David Chizallet and Ersin Gok is frequently stunning, finding a handheld sweet spot between the raw and the lyrical.  Although set and shot in Turkey, France submitted Mustang for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration, passing over Cannes award winners Dheepan and The Measure of a Man.  Mustang certainly possesses crossover appeal (comparisons to The Virgin Suicides are unavoidable), even if the wild-horses-can’t-be-broken conceit is just a little too obvious, and the ending just a little too easy.images2

Less ingratiating and more challenging, with an even slighter connection to French cinema is New York director Abel Ferrara’s upper-class evisceration Welcome to New York.  The story is loosely based on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn hotel rape case, with a fearless Gerard Depardieu playing a Strauss-Kahn analogue named Devereaux, and giving his most intense and exposed (both figuratively, and in a horrifying turn, literally) performance in decades.  Ferrara harbors no doubts that Devereaux/Strauss-Kahn raped a maid in his posh hotel room, if only because men of his stature can only regard people as possessions, be they servants or sex workers.  That lack of doubt inspired the film’s producers to re-cut the film against Ferrara’s wishes, and to date this bastardized version stands as the only “official release.”  I would have preferred to watch Ferrara’s intended cut, but you can only review the film you see, and the film I saw was pretty damn good.  The intensity lags after an excellent first hour, where we see Devereaux dehumanize everyone in his path before eventually experiencing a process of dehumanization all his own, and an overacting Jacqueline Bisset gets too much screen time as Devereaux’s neurotic wife.  Still, the contrast between Ferrara’s seething hot rage and the cold, clean gloom of his images remains compelling throughout.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Tab Hunter Confidential”

indexTab Hunter Confidential (2015; Dir.: Jeffrey Schwarz)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Landmark Clay Theatre in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

A 1950s heartthrob sold to the public as “six feet of rugged manhood” and chaste, Dobie Gillis-ian heterosexuality, Tab Hunter remained “very closeted” away from the cameras. Now 84 years old and still the embodiment of sun-kissed All-American-ness, Hunter opens up about his life and career in the intimate and entertaining documentary Tab Hunter Confidential. The film sticks close to a well-worn formula of talking heads and clips and pics, but the talking heads are sincere and the clips and pics are brilliantly curated, and Hunter makes for a warmly engaging tour guide. Hunter takes us from his difficult childhood to his overnight successes in film and music, framing the studio system from the perspective of a closeted actor, and finally touches on his later resurgences in 1970s dinner theater and 1980s cult movies. For the most part, Tab Hunter Confidential assumes the personality of its own subject – much like Hunter’s onscreen persona, the film is handsome and uncomplicated and easy to like – but it finds about ten to fifteen minutes of aching dramatic crescendo when Hunter talks about his stormy relationship with Tony Perkins. It’s a story of love and betrayal that could stand on its own, and this otherwise friendly and sedate documentary revs to life in these sequences.