IN THEATERS (SF) – “Rat Film”

Rat Film (2017; Dir.: Theo Anthony)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, October 27, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Director Anthony makes his feature debut with this unconventional documentary about the persistent rat problem in Baltimore, and the connections between the thriving vermin and the city’s long history of racist zoning laws.  Rather than the usual deadening context of talking head interviews, Anthony follows several different people devoted to killing and/or caring for the rats, including a laid-back city exterminator and several amateur hunters with a wide array of weapons, everything from a dart-spewing blowgun to a fishing line and a baseball bat.  Meanwhile, an omniscient female narrator intersects with historical insights on the local housing laws that segregated the black (and rat) population in unhealthy ghettoes, as the well as the connection between rats (and black people) and social/medical research, including studies conducted by Johns Hopkins University in inner-city Baltimore.  Rat Film tackles an unusual and complex subject in an original and engrossing manner, although the oversimplified [rats = black people] metaphor is somewhat offensive.  Anthony really falters when he reaches for Herzog-ian fascist-humanist fantasy-babble in the final segment, imagining a dream scenario where Baltimore-ians gather to celebrate the destruction of their city, with plans to randomly re-distribute the lots (of smoldering ash, I guess) at “corner stores.”  Whatever.


Dina (2017; Dir.: Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, October 20, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

The best documentary of the year so far, and also the most touching love story.  Directors Santini and Sickles (Mala Mala) follow Dina Buno, a middle-aged autistic woman with a tragedy-filled past, as she prepares to get married for the second time.  Her music-obsessed fiancee Scott also has autism, and although he lovingly dotes on Dina, he is unable to express his love physically, increasing tension in the relationship as the marriage approaches.  Santini and Sickles shoot and structure the film more like an indie rom-com than a documentary, and while there is a slight touch of Errol Morris-ian anthropological quirk, there is nothing condescending or cruel about Dina.  Instead we get a rich, funny, fully drawn portrait of complex people leading complex lives and dealing with complex emotions, starring characters who display a wide range of abilities and limitations (Dina is sexually mature but unable to hold a job; Scott works at Wal-Mart but recoils from physical intimacy; other friends drive cars and raise children).  There is a rare mix of raw intimacy and artifice to Dina, with obvious camera set-ups and movie-like music cues but also amazing moments of tenderness, humor and candor.

MVFF40 Wrap-Up

In recent years, I have spent the first two weeks of October covering the Mill Valley Film Festival (check out my MVFF37 coverage HERE, my MVFF38 coverage HERE and my MVFF39 coverage HERE).  The festival celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, honoring the gamut of independent film, from star-heavy productions with awards in their sights (Sean Penn,  Greta Gerwig and Andrew Garfield were among the celebs who passed through town) to low-budget local productions that might never screen publicly again.

I intended to cover this year’s festival in the usual copious detail, but quality screeners were especially scarce this year, and my plans to visit Mill Valley/San Rafael were waylaid first by work and later by my reluctance to travel into the fire zone (donate to fire victims HERE).  But I did screen a handful of films before my plans collapsed, so I’ll talk about them in this space.

In many respects, writer-director Jessica M. Thompson’s debut feature The Light of the Moon (GRADE: B-) is the sort of movie that you attend film festivals to discover.  It tells the story of Bonnie (Stephanie Beatriz), a successful New Yorker who gets raped while walking home one night, deeply affecting her personal and professional relationships.  The production values are low and the performances are amateurish, but the film is thoughtful and detailed and non-exploitative, and Thompson is clearly one to watch.

A less delicate but more striking discovery comes in the form of Alain Gomis’ Félicité (GRADE: B), a Kinshasa-set hybrid of kitchen sink drama and dreamy musical.  Molten-lava newcomer Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu stars in the title role, playing a bar singer scraping for money after her hooligan son gets in a motorcycle accident.  Save for the rhythms, this could be a Dardenne Brothers production.

Swiss director Petra Volpe is another up-and-coming auteur, and the arthouse-ready The Divine Order (GRADE: B-) shows a potential for making smart movies for the indie mainstream.  A fictionalized story about the 1971 referendum to allow Swiss women the right to vote, the film follows Nora (a wonderful Marie Leuenberger), a prim housewife unleashing her inner feminist.  There are few surprises here, and the manipulative third-act twist is unnecessary, but Volpe and her star keep the film relatively grounded and humane.

Old-school auteurs also came out in droves for Mill Valley.  I’ve only seen a handful of pictures by the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki, but he strikes me as the sort of international director who has been making endless versions of the same movie for decades.  The dour comedic tone and discarded protagonists of The Other Side of Hope (GRADE: C+) feel very familiar, and the film comes off as a forgettable chapter in a long book. 

French director/adorable woodland creature Agnès Varda, on the other hand, remains a restless fountain of creative reinvention, even as she approaches her 90th birthday.  Her latest film is Visages, Villages (GRADE: B), a collaboration with French artist JR that sees the duo traveling the countryside, bringing art to small villages while playfully examining their creative approaches.  Jean-Luc Godard makes the perfect cameo by refusing to make a cameo.

Barbet Schroeder’s stomach-turning documentary The Venerable W. (GRADE: B) continues the Iranian-born Swiss director’s profiles of evil, this time focusing on Wirathru, a Myanmar monk who became famous by vilifying the country’s Muslim minority.  This is just as pungently intimate a portrayal of evil as Schroeder’s career-defining 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada.  The most disturbing part: how easily Wirathru’s invective could be re-worded for the mouths of conservative American politicians.

Sorry to say, but for all of the strong independent visions at Mill Valley, the best festival film I’ve screened so far is Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (GRADE: B+), a Netflix production that debuted on the service the same day it was released in theaters.  Wah-wah.  This is more acridly intellectual extended-family comedy from the director of The Squid and the Whale, and a powerful reminder that Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler are wasting their best years on crap.

In addition to screening those films, I joined some of my San Francisco Film Critics Circle colleagues in selecting an award for the best documentary with Bay Area ties that played the festival.  Nine films were eligible for the award, but only a few of them are worth talking about.

The winner, thank God, was Richard O’Connell and Annelise Wunderlich’s powerful The Corridor (GRADE: B), about Bay Area convicts enrolled in a GED program, a groundbreaking rehabilitation program initiated by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.  Intimate yet epic, compassionate yet unflinching and filled with raw and honest emotion, The Corridor is one of the top documentaries of the year so far.  This film desperately deserves exposure.

Narrated by Ralph Fiennes, André: The Voice of Wine (GRADE: B-) tells the story of André Tchelistcheff, a Russian immigrant who helped create the Napa Valley wine scene.  The film was directed by Mark Tchelistcheff, André’s grand-nephew, which allows for access to a treasure trove of archival material but also makes the film uncritical and purposefully vague in places.

Finally, Kim Swims (GRADE: C+) follows New Zealand open-water swimmer Kim Chambers as she prepares for one of her greatest challenges: swimming the 30-mile, shark-infested span between the Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate Bridge.  Director Kate Webber keeps the film focused on the process rather than the personalities, but I was left with unanswered questions for a woman who seems hellbent on torturing her body for no reason.  Questions like, “Why?” and “What the fuck, why?”  and “Dear God, why?”

That’s all I’ve got.  See you next year, I hope!

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Ex Libris”

Ex Libris – The New York Public Library (2017; Dir.: Frederick Wiseman)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, October 13, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Somewhere in the middle of this 44th feature-length Frederick Wiseman documentary, a typically sprawling and reflective look at the New York Public Library system, someone says the words, “Libraries are not about books…they’re about people.”  That sentiment could serve as the subtitle for just about every Wiseman film – it’s not about high school, it’s about people; it’s not about an insane asylum, it’s about people; it’s not about a welfare office, it’s about people, and so on.  As opposed to the straight-to-camera smarmy-ness of most modern documentaries, Wiseman allows ample space for discovery and digression, and over the course of 197 mostly compelling minutes, disconnected vignettes shot at various branches of the NYPL gradually form into a portrait of a community.  Wiseman’s approach is the essence of democracy, giving equal weight to packed-house celebrity interviews and amateur recitals, and allowing audiences to make personal connections rather than forcing the issue down their throats.  Ex Libris portrays the library not just as a storage space for books, but as a place where the community gathers for self-betterment and the free exchange of ideas, whether that means students doing research or seniors dancing to Kool and the Gang.  Never one for unnecessary sugarcoating, though, Wiseman also lets us see that for all its majesty and necessity, the library remains in constant danger, both from unpredictable public funding and the two-headed threat of apathy and ignorance.  The catastrophically bored faces of the children and teenagers throughout Ex Libris speak more volumes than could ever be housed in the NYPL.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Chavela”

Chavela (2017; Dir.: Catherine Gund and Daresha Kyi)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, October 6, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

An affectionate but rudimentary documentary introduction to Chavela Vargas, a singer virtually unknown to western audiences, but a groundbreaking artist in Mexico and Spain.  Vargas stood out by wearing men’s clothes rather than the flowery dresses popular with female singers of the era, using her husky and powerful voice to perform heart-breaking corridos onstage, and to seduce every woman in her orbit offstage.  Directors Gund and Kyi take a cue from Asif Kapadia’s Amy, using onscreen lyrics and old interviews with the now-deceased Vargas to direct the flow of the story, but Chavela also mixes in new talking-head interviews with her fawning friends and acolytes (including Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who helped introduce Vargas to Spain, and frequently used her music in his films).  In their aggressive attempt to contextualize and lionize Vargas (one person is permitted to make a patently false claim that Vargas was the first female performer to ever dress in women’s clothes), these new interviews only weigh the film down, moving Chavela away from cinematic lyricism and into the artistically null world of bullet-point documentaries.


VOD Review – “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille

The Lost City of Cecil B. Demille (2017; Dir.: Peter Brosnan)


By Daniel Barnes

*Premieres Tuesday, October 3, on VOD services.

An amateurish but compelling documentary passion project from Brosnan, a low-level screenwriter who spent several decades obsessing over a piece of Hollywood history buried in the California sands.  When Cecil B. DeMille filmed his 1923 silent version of The Ten Commandments, he was forced to shoot in  Guadalupe, a small coastal town situated 25 miles south of San Luis Obispo, rather than in Egypt.  DeMille compensated by constructing one of the most lavish and stunning sets of the silent era in the Guadalupe dunes – an enormous Egyptian palace complete with a couple dozen sphinxes and gigantic statues of the pharaoh.  A legend persisted that DeMille ordered the set buried after production wrapped, and the story sparked Brosnan’s imagination, beginning a long odyssey to examine and excavate the site.  Brosnan intercuts his own journey through local bureaucracy and unreliable corporate sponsorship with a somewhat dubious biography of DeMille, but despite some chintzy production values, it’s still an absorbing story of Hollywood archaeology.