Netflix Instant Movie of the Week

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.

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.

Netflix Instant Review – “Strange Days”

images2Strange Days (1995; Dir.: Kathryn Bigelow)

GRADE: C

By Daniel Barnes

One of the fascinating and unfortunate things about director Kathryn Bigelow is her easy and often exploitative appropriation of the male gaze. As I wrote in this 2010 SN&R column on Bigelow, “Her great cinematic obsession is the volatile group dynamics of violent, male-dominated environments, but beyond that, she has a way of eroticizing and exploiting women that feels very masculine.”

In her 1995 cyber-punk thriller Strange Days, Bigelow’s camera slobbers over every inch of Juliette Lewis’ body, and even has the gall to turn a disgusting POV rape scene into a cheap plot twist. Strange Days has some amazing and audacious setpieces (always a Bigelow trademark), and a central hook that would get refurbished in Spielberg’s much better Minority Report, but for the most part this is an ugly, silly, unformed, and heavily dated film.

imagesBigelow and screenwriters James Cameron and Jay Cocks (he also helped pen the terrible script for Gangs of New York, and did uncredited rewrites on Cameron’s terrible script for Titanic) envision the Los Angeles of late 1999 as a crime-filled war zone where tanks roam the streets, gas costs $13 a gallon, PJ Harvey cover bands rule the club scene, and socially conscious rap artists dominate the hip-hop industry. Nailed it!

In Bigelow’s vision, there is also a black market that has sprung up around memories, thanks to new technology that allows people to record and sell their experiences “pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex.” Several different subcultures have sprung up around this new technology, including thrill-seeking criminals looking to sell their memories for a big price, as well as scuzzball dealers like Ralph Fiennes’ unwashed Lenny Nero.

Lenny is a disgraced former cop reduced to selling illicit memories, and also a junkie addicted to the memories of his former lover, a punkish pop star played by Lewis. Bigelow indulges Lewis in several long musical numbers, but her character’s torrid past with Lenny, while crucial to the story, is never believable.

There is a similar air of fraudulence in Lenny’s relationship with his ass-kicking best friend/love interest/limo driver/ conscience played by Angela Bassett, a character that feels trucked in from a different film and mutates to fit the particular needs of each scene.

There are a lot of issues broached in Strange Days, and besides a few great action scenes, the film is most worthy as an catalog of early-to-mid 1990s paranoid fantasies. Police abuse is a constant theme, as are millennium-centric apocalypse fears, while it is the murder of a politically charged rapper named Jericho One that sets the story in motion. Unfortunately, none of these ideas are intelligently developed, and the film gets very repetitive and draggy between the showpiece  sequences.

indexAt 145 minutes of inane ugliness, Strange Days staggers towards a silly conclusion filled with deus ex machinas and monologue-ing villains. Bassett’s character is savagely beaten by police officers, sparking a massive race riot just as the clock strikes midnight, but the violence magically stops when an old white male figure of moral authority strides into the scene. It is the nadir of Bigelow’s compulsion to appropriate and assimilate with the male gaze, and although the film’s lack of box office success has reflexively spawned a league of defenders, Strange Days is easily her worst film.

Netflix Instant Review – “Black Girl”

a Ousmane Sembene Black Girl La Noire de DVD Review PDVD_005Black Girl (1966; Dir.: Ousmane Sembene)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

Black Girl is not a great film, but it is a film that should be seen.  Directed by Ousmane Sembene in 1966, it became the first film made by a black, sub-Saharan African to make an appearance on the international stage.  Like a lot of groundbreaking films that deal with heavy issues, Black Girl is easy to admire, despite the flaws inherent in a filmmaker’s first microbudget feature.

The story concerns Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), a lovely, free-spirited young woman from Senegal who serves as the maid for a wealthy white French couple, referred to only as “Madame” (Anne-Marie Jelinek) and “Monsieur” (Robert Fontaine).  In a series of flashbacks, Diouana reveals how she was brought to France – her Madame picked her among a group of other women on a street corner, impressed that Diouana was the only one who wasn’t begging.  The position Diouana sought was a nanny, though the job turns out to be nothing more than a maid.  Once in France, the illiterate Diouana becomes a slave to her masters, who control her money and transportation, and read and write her letters for her.

Clearly inspired by the French New Wave movement, Black Girl was independently made on a shoestring budget, and some of the production limitations actually serve the film well.  The audio in the film, comprised mostly of Diouana’s narration, is noticeably the product of postproduction recording, but the resulting dissonance between the location shooting and the studio recorded voiceover often enriches the sense of Diouana’s isolation, her thoughts resounding in a vacuum from the world around her.  Likewise, the enclosed space of the apartment that Diouana cleans comes to feel both tightly enclosed and utterly bland.  The apartment is a study in chic, urban sterility, a place where sunshine constantly floods in through the skylight, but from which there is no exit.

black_girl_Sembene_1966_esp.avi_snapshot_55.16_[2010.10.31_10.38.22]However, in other respects the inexperience of the filmmakers can be distracting.  The performances are pretty stiff, certainly compromised by the lack of on-set audio.  While the narration feels ethereal, the dialogue comes off as stodgy and inexpert.  Invoking so much voiceover to move along the narrative does allow us direct entry into Diouana’s perspective, a perspective hardly ever granted to a Western audience, but there are times when it feels more monotonous than unique.

Despite the imperfections, though, Black Girl remains a powerful indictment of post-colonial relations between France and Senegal.  Though the story of Diouana can be heavy handed at times, the film finds sharp insights in some smaller moments.  The best, and probably most famous, piece in the film deals with a mask that Diouana’s young brother gives her as she leaves Senegal for France.  Once there, the French employers find the mask, claim it, and hang it on their wall as art, seizing ownership not only of Diouana’s culture but of her very identity.

Diouana’s tragedy is inevitable from the start.  A new kind of slave in modern France, we know she will not find a way out.  But those small, biting moments inside her story are what make her tragedy so painfully relevant.