Netflix Instant/Criterion

VIDEO ON DEMAND/IN THEATERS (SF) – “E-Team”

imageseE-Team (2014; Dir.: Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Premiering today on Netflix Instant; opening October 31 at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco.

The solid documentary E-Team is a mix of bold, verite intentions and TV news-style slickness, a slightly too superficial telling of a complex and fascinating story.  It follows the Human Rights Watch “Emergencies Team,”  an international group of intensely dedicated individuals who often go undercover into hostile countries to investigate and document human rights abuses.  Their ultimate goal is to gather enough evidence to push the case to a mainstream media too busy checking Twitter to do their own legwork, thus creating international pressure to intervene.  They are an intelligent, courageous and diverse group, but the heart of the film is the fierce Russian investigator Anna, who crosses the Syrian border while pregnant with her second child, and her partner and husband Ole.  Some of the most memorable scenes involve Anna conducting conference calls while preparing dinner, or Ole delivering a live news feed from his hotel room – moments of domesticity and desensitization in between the stories of torture and rooms full of charred remains.

June NETFLIX INSTANT REVIEWS – “20 Feet from Stardom”

53966_38e5f603f4085f24d4a0b82934869943_194c0351f9aae66208af9dd312dc345820 Feet from Stardom (2013; Dir.: Morgan Neville)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

There seem to be two kinds of films that win Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, particularly in recent years.  First, there are the hard-hitting, didactic, social activist films that hope to engender political change by making us all feel really bad: films like Bowling for Columbine, Born into Brothels, Taxi to the Dark Side, and The Cove.  Then there are the feel-good stories about redemption, perseverance, and talent: Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man and Undefeated.  This year’s winner, 20 Feet from Stardom, not only falls into the latter category, it provides a bright new sheen to the subgenre.  In fact, if I were reputable enough to be a quote whore, I’d write something like, “The most purely entertaining musical documentary Oscar winner since Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got.”

4009910517727-e1371153657619Not that there is anything wrong with being entertaining, but director Morgan Neville (no relation to singer Aaron Neville, in case you were wondering) concentrates so much on proving just how wonderfully his subjects can sing, the film never reaches beyond the attractive, waxy coating of its musical performances.  Early in the film, there is the prospect of depth, especially in its discussion of the early career of the great Darlene Love, who recorded several songs under Phil Spector in the early 1960s that would be credited, unbeknownst to her, to the popular girl group The Crystals.  The movie showcases her singing in early sound and video clips, but through a series of interviews she also describes hearing her song for the first time, credited to someone else, decries Spector as a controlling egomaniac, bemoans her poor business skills.  In this early section, Love begins to reclaim a voice that she was denied for so long.

However, before long the film loses itself in a lackluster structure that focuses more on inclusivity than depth.  The film’s primary focus resides on three singers: Love, Merry Clayton, the iconic female backup on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” and Lisa Fischer, a powerhouse from the following generation.  It also features interviews with about a dozen other backup singers.  Neville tries to weave all their stories together, but rather than creating a common voice among the women, the film feels more like partially written chapters in disparate narratives, leaving stories half-told and questions unasked.  After all, am I the only one who wants to know what happened to Darlene Love in the handful of years between leaving Phil Spector and becoming a house cleaner to earn a living?  Or, for that matter, how backup singer Claudia Lennear, former Playmate and reported inspiration for the song “Brown Sugar,” wound up a high school Spanish teacher?

stardomAlongside the stars of the film, various veteran backup singers pop up to discuss their own trials and tribulations in the industry.    A few seconds of the film covers the objectifying sexuality that backup singers are expected to indulge in.  Another couple of seconds features the perfunctory “the-60s-was-a-crazy-time” montage, followed by a few seconds of equally obligatory regret over rampant drug use in the 1970s.  A few more seconds lament the advances of technology that make everything “easier” for these young kids today.  Even a segment that attempts to discover why so many backup singers fail as solo artists seems rushed and even superficial.  At one point, the film features a sequence in which backup singers express their ambition for stardom while Judith Hill, a young phenom who sang backup for Michael Jackson before he died, actually plays a song about determination and following your dreams.

But with all that being said, the film exists in order to show off the talent, and on that level it cannot help but succeed.  All the performances, whether they be archival footage or scenes shot specifically for the film, showcase the extraordinary talent of true professionals who have spent decades perfecting their craft.  Even if the movie isn’t necessarily profound, the strength of the music and the sheer charisma of nearly everyone in the film makes for an enjoyable, if light, experience – sort of like driving around, listening to the oldies station on a sunny afternoon.

CRITERION COLLECTION REVIEW – “CAPRICIOUS SUMMER”

indexCapricious Summer (1968; Dir.: Jiri Menzel)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

For some reason, I watched Capricious Summer with the impression that it was the cluttered but raggedly beautiful predecessor to writer-director-actor Jiri Menzel’s more polished Closely Watched Trains , an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film of 1967. In fact, this bawdy comedy was Menzel’s follow-up to Closely Watched Trains, and while the provincial river bathhouse setting might feel minor in comparison to Nazi-occupied Czechslovakia, Capricious Summer establishes its own mood of existential dissatisfaction and effervescent gloom.

The film is about a trio of paunchy, middle-aged Czech archetypes – a priggish military man, a florid and pretentious priest, and a slovenly laborer named Rudolf who spits a lot and yearns to cheat on his wife.  Their mundane routines and familiar arguments are interrupted by the arrival of a gawky magician played by Menzel (who was an actor before becoming a director). They are especially transfixed by the magician’s beautiful blonde assistant Anna (Jana Preissova), who they regard with a Madonna v. whore duality of awestruck worship and dehumanizing carnality. “She lacks for nothing at all,” whispers Rudolf, as he watches her panhandle from poor people

index2At night, Rudolf immediately sneaks out to court and bed Anna, while his wife dreams of the magician’s cheap tricks and awkward “feats” of physicality. Rudolf is unable to go through with it, but his wife finds out anyway and runs to the magician.  Much like the players in a bad sex joke, the priest (“The Canon”) and the military man (“The Major”) each take their own futile cracks at bedding Anna.  All the while, they return again and again to watch the magician’s performances, which despite their mediocrity, seem to cast a strange spell over the entire town – much of the magician’s audience is huddled into shadows, shyly transfixed.

A comedian by nature, Menzel fills the margins of nearly every frame with local color and sight gags, often weaving bits of slapstick into the scene. The narrative here is as flimsy and incidental as it was in Closely Watched Trains – it feels like a stage play enlivened by glorious slashes of cinema – but Menzel has a knack for Wes Anderson-style costuming-as-characterization, creating magical sequences, and changing tones on a dime. Capricious Summer alternates from the lyrical to the ridiculous and back again moment by moment, as moody and unpredictable as bad weather or the human heart.

June CRITERION COLLECTION REVIEW – “Time Without Pity”

Time_Without_Pity_FilmPosterTime Without Pity (1957; Dir.: Joseph Losey)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

By the time Joseph Losey released Time Without Pity in 1957, the “named” communist had been living in exile from HUAC for five years, and had made four films that were released under pseudonyms.  His previous directing credit, The Big Night, details the wounds suffered by a confused teenager (played by John Drew Barrymore, son of legend John Barrymore) over the public humiliation of his meek father.  After four pseudonymous features, Losey picks up right where his last official credit left off, though from the opposite perspective.

While the story of The Big Night is told through the eyes of its young protagonist, Time Without Pity centers on the story of a father, David Graham (Michael Redgrave), a recovering alcoholic whose son Alec (Alec McCown) awaits a death sentence.  Alec has been convicted of murdering his girlfriend, a crime he didn’t commit – we see the murder occur in beautifully harrowing shadows in an opening pre-title prologue that reveals the killer.  David, who has spent the last stretch of time secluded in a sanitarium to dry out (“They wouldn’t allow me to receive any mail”), arrives from Canada with 24 hours to save his son’s life.

cGFmOujnFBgBoqWfaQQtGTnlGtaThe plot may sound somewhat preposterous, but Time Without Pity is a tight, frenzied “B” movie that doesn’t mind sacrificing some narrative logic for thematic and dramatic impact.  Losey’s gripping visuals and the incessantly explosive performances are enough to distract his audience from the mediocre script to create a tense, entertaining, and quietly complex film about family, responsibility, and redemption.

Because the real killer, corporate magnate and surrogate father Robert Stanford (Leo McKern, captivating as he relishes every maniacal emotional swing he is given), is revealed in the opening sequence, Losey allows the story to develop into something closer to melodrama than mystery.  For Losey, the world is a dark and crushing place, particularly so for young people.  Alec’s victimhood has been set in motion long before the film begins, first by the abandonment of his father, and then by the necessity to find a replacement.  Betrayed by both, he awaits his death with a resigned, emotionally deadened acceptance of the inevitable.  As a prison guard explains to David, “Your son has adjusted himself…. And we all feel here that it’s a great blessing.”

vlcsnap-77981Though the brilliant black-and-white cinematography by Freddie Francis intensifies every scene with a stunning blend of shadows and light, punctuated by severe close-ups and a clever use of reflections, the script often feels easy and transparent.  David rarely discovers any information in his investigation, but rather the script allows suspects and witnesses to blithely reveal key pieces of information (which they were presumably clever enough to keep from the police).  However, as David, a writer by occupation, goes through the predictable routine of solving a crime that confounded professional detectives, he also flows through waves of guilt and self-pity – the regrets of a misspent lifetime, his culpability in his son’s predicament, and his impotent fight against the justice system.

Much like The Big Night, Time Without Pity buys into the angst-ridden, ‘50s-era caricature of postwar parents as infantilized or impotent role models.  They also each conclude with a surprising, sympathetic reversal that illustrates Losey’s empathy for his characters.  Just as sons suffer the inadequacies of their fathers, the fathers also suffer – perhaps justifiably – out of love for their children.  The dynamic reveals Losey’s conception of the world as not just dark and dangerous for the young, but also cruel and unmerciful to all, one in which forgiveness and redemption are only attainable through each other.

May Netflix Instant Reviews – “Let the Fire Burn”

index2Let the Fire Burn (2013; Dir.: Jason Osder)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

Jason Osder’s powerful and disturbing Let the Fire Burn is part of a new wave of media collage documentaries that also includes Brett Morgen’s July 17, 1994 and Penny Lane’s Our Nixon. Rather than offer comforting talking-head context or forcing an agenda down our throats, these multimedia-age stories are told through an assemblage of clips from the period. The effect is more immediate and immersive, and certainly refreshing after a long string of ego-tripping “message” docs, but it is also an essential form for a film where the only “good guys” are powerless and ineffective.

Let the Fire Burn tells a largely forgotten story of abusive cops battling domestic terrorists in the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. In 1985, after a decade of confrontations that left one police officer dead (a single murder that resulted in nine convictions), the city of Philadelphia moved to evict the combative MOVE organization from their headquarters in a mostly black blue-collar neighborhood. After firing over 10,000 rounds of ammunition into a building that contained children, the police dropped a C4 explosive on the roof, and allowed the resulting fire to burn so long that it killed 11 people and reduced the neighborhood to rubble.

imagesHowever, Let the Fire Burn does not serve as a tear-streaked elegy for MOVE, who despite their unfair and abusive treatment at the hands of the cops, were clearly a cult-like public nuisance determined to force a confrontation with the city.  Of course, the police were far more willing to engage them in residential shock-and-awe than in diplomacy, and without overstating its case, Let the Fire Burn shows how police tend to respond to problems in black neighborhoods with either overwhelming violent force or not at all.

The film is structured around the investigative process of a citizen commission hearing held several months after the 1985 incident, as well as the aftermath of protests and police abuse. This process was considered so essential to civic harmony that it was broadcast on television with surprisingly high production values. As we listen to corrupt cops, still-delusional ex-MOVE members, and innocent bystanders, Let the Fire Burn becomes a sort of queasy whodunit, and we watch in sickened horror as the inevitable perversion of justice unfurls before us.

At the beginning of the film, we see a flame-scarred child named Birdie, one of the only two survivors of the fire, getting sworn in for a deposition. When he is asked what happens to people who don’t tell the truth, he replies, “They get hurt.” The brilliance of Jason Osder’s documentary lies in the way that it both confirms and undermines that child-like notion. A multiracial commission of level-headed and respected citizens was convened and carried out its charge with dignity and intelligence. That’s inspiring, but this “public self-appraisal,” which found the police, fire department, and Mayor to be negligent, did not result in a single conviction.  The only people who get hurt are the ones whose entire lives go up in flames.

May Netflix Instant Review – “The Piano Teacher”

589479-the-piano-teacher-gallery-landscape-650x488-The Piano Teacher (2001; Dir.: Michael Haneke)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

Throughout his well-regarded and controversial career, Michael Haneke has specialized in disturbing violence.  With unnerving precision, Haneke unfurls stories that build delicately to sudden, shocking explosions of blood and death.  In The Piano Teacher, based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, Haneke has found source material right up his alley.  However, while it is a good film, there seems to be something lost in his adaptation, which, in the end, may fall closer to pleasure than pain in watching the title character’s slow crawl into despair. 

The Piano Teacher stars Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, a former piano prodigy who is now a middle-aged spinster teaching at a well-respected conservatory.  She seems to be the most respected teacher there, but she is also the most demanding, callously deriding her students until they are all but incapable of playing, or even until they break down crying.  “A concert pianist must have nerves of steel,” she admonishes one particularly sensitive student, though we can easily sense the sadism underlying her sternness. Erika is a flower that has never blossomed.  Her father died in an asylum just after the Second World War, and her mother (Annie Girardot), a vile and domineering tyrant, has kept her under such lock and key, emotionally as well as physically, that Erika is mired in a confused, middle-aged, virginal adolescence.  Most of the first half of the film is occupied with unveiling Erika’s extraordinarily neurotic adventures.  She sleeps in the same bed as her mother.  She visits a viewing booth in a porn shop and smells the used tissues of men who were in the booth before her.  She cuts herself high on the thigh with a razor.  She wanders a drive-in movie parking lot until she finds a couple having sex in their car, and when she kneels down directly next to them to listen, she allows herself a different kind of pleasure than we are expecting. file_0Then into her life comes Walter, young, good-looking, and a magnificent piano player.  Without much motivation, as is often the case in movies about middle-aged women’s sexuality, he falls in love with Erika when he hears her at a recital.  Admonishing typical genre conventions, Haneke enlists Walter as an ironic Pixie Dream Guy, a beautiful admirer who seems to enter Erika’s life to instill in her a sense of his own breezy, youthful, carpe diem lifestyle, to help her awaken sexually and blossom into the complete women she should be.  Instead, she drags him down into an abyss of sadism, deviance, and repression. Everything in The Piano Teacher is handled with Haneke’s typical visual austerity.  He loves to shoot long scenes, which carry the wonderful quality of unpredictability.  Shot in available light, with limited editing and only diegetic music, his scenes have the fresh, almost rambling sensibility of a Dogma film; however, as each scene unfolds, they reveal a visible, logical, and effective structure.  Several key scenes go on for what seem to be ten minutes or more, respectively building a peculiar sexual tension, from which Haneke, like Erika, denies any kind of release. That visual objectivity may be compelling in the first half, but it is difficult to reconcile it with the sensationalistic violence of the second hour of the film.  With the same visual distance, Erika undergoes a series of humiliating, devastating, and physically brutal experiences, culminating in a scene of shocking violence that Haneke seems to objectively consider as merely the logical, inevitable conclusion to Erika’s twisted sexual journey.  Despite the early sympathy toward Erika’s Freudian nightmare, the climax of the film feels less like ambivalence than comeuppance. That being said, the difficulty of watching The Piano Teacher, like Haneke’s other films (including Funny Games and Cache), is a kind of reward in itself.  Like an erudite Lars von Trier, Haneke seems to take pleasure in the pain he causes his characters.  At times, his approach is effective, alarming, jarring.  Other times, it can feel like he is too proud of himself for going somewhere that movies don’t go – and often don’t need to.  But whatever else they are, his films are controversial, stimulating, and above all else, worth watching.