documentaries

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)

GRADE: B

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)

GRADE: B-

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)

GRADE: B-

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.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Harold and Lillian”

Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (2017; Dir.: Daniel Raim)

GRADE : C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, July 21 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, the Rialto Elmood in Berkeley, the Rialto Sebastopol in Sebastopol and the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

When Andy Warhol opined that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” he forgot to mention that even those that never achieve fame will still get kid-glove documentaries made about them.  The latest over-inflated trifle is this cutesy “love story” about storyboard artist/production designer Harold Michelson and movie researcher Lillian Michelson, a married couple that put their thumbprints on a number of Hollywood classics.  A film about their respective processes, an examination of the way that minor contributors make a mark on another person’s work, could have been fascinating, but writer-director Raim seems content to equate Harold and Lillian’s contributions with authorship, which is insane.  It’s an easy watch, and there is the occasional intriguing glimpse into the inner workings of a long-lasting Hollywood marriage, but Lillian’s open refusal to discuss difficult aspects of her past limits any potential for insight, and makes you wonder why this movie even exists.  Crazy thought: if the subject of your soft-pedaling documentary refuses to talk about her own life, you probably don’t have enough material for a feature.

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part I

rsz_rightnowwrongthenOnce again this year, I am devoting the entire week of Thanksgiving to catching up with the 2016 films that I missed, as well as re-watching some of my favorites of the year so far.  We begin this annual cinematic orgy with an invocation to our deity:

All hail, Awards Season!  Tyrant of all she surveys!  Oppressor of cinephiles!  Scourge of the pudgy and bespectacled!  Defiler of evenings and weekends!  Obvious Billy Crudup fan!  Long may her tastefully bland mediocrities occupy our otherwise presumably intelligent thoughts!

But enough of this palaver, let’s get this show on the road.

Thursday, November 17

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Michael Bay; GRADE: B+)

Nothing new to report, this is still terrifying and awesome, and the best thing that Bay has ever done, with literally dozens of memorably haunting images.  A tactile action clarity only tantalizingly teased at in Bay’s earlier work comes to full fruition in 13 Hours – it’s as though you can feel the impact of every bullet and the heat of every explosion.  Benghazi became a political football for alt-right, neo-fascist liars, so naturally most critics responded by pre-judging and dismissing a work of art, makes total sense.rsz_i-daniel-blake-3

Right Now, Wrong Then (Dir.: Sang-soo Hong; GRADE: B+)

I’m fairly new to the world of South Korean shoegazer Hong, but Right Now, Wrong Then feels like the apotheosis of his aesthetic, thoroughly refined and perfectly detailed while remaining true to his Rohmer-meets-Linklater-meets-Spike Jonze world of doubled action, unattainable attractions and all-night sake bar hangouts.  A Hong-like director (Jung Jae-young) and an aspiring artist (The Handmaiden star Kim Min-Hee) spend the same day together twice, the first time ending in blustery disaster, the second time still awkward but more honest and meaningful.  It’s strangely lovely.

I, Daniel Blake (Dir.: Ken Loach; GRADE: B-)

Ken Loach won his second Palme d’Or for this lion-hearted but logy slice of working-class life, and it wasn’t even one of the top 5,000 most annoying things to happen in 2016.  Stand-up comedian Dave Johns plays Daniel, a crab with a heart of gold stumbling through a cold, cruel, Internet-automated health care system in search of justice.  Johns is quite good, but there’s not much here that you haven’t seen in dozens of other quirky indie issues dramas.rsz_sully

Friday, November 18

Manchester by the Sea (Dir.: Kenneth Lonergan; GRADE: B+)

Reviewed in the 12/1 issue of the SN&R.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Dir.: Ang Lee; GRADE: C+)

Reviewed in the 11/23 issue of the SN&R.

Sully (Dir.: Clint Eastwood; GRADE: B)

A sturdy retelling of the 2009 Miracle on the Hudson from inside the bubble, and focused like most of Eastwood’s recent work on American perceptions of heroism and unresolvable conflict.  Tom Hanks gives a tutorial in kinetic understatement as the hero pilot, but the supporting performances are a lumpy mixed bag.  It’s certainly well-mounted – the cinematography, production design, special effects, sound and editing are all top-notch, although Eastwood’s jazz piano score feels extremely out of place.

Saturday, November 19

rsz_kateplayschristine02The Eagle Huntress (Dir.: Otto Ball; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed in the 12/15 issue of the SN&R.

Kate Plays Christine (Dir.: Robert Greene; GRADE: B+)

The other 2016 Christine Chubbuck movie, not the comparatively traditional biopic of Antonio Campos’ Christine, but a highly original meta-documentary that follows indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Chubbuck.  Anyone discomforted by the exploitative nature of Christine (the Sarasota-based TV journalist Chubbuck committed suicide on the air in 1974) might appreciate Greene’s more meditative approach, as the entire film is dedicated to Sheil empathizing with and understanding Chubbuck, literally trying to get under her sun-tanned skin.

13th (Dir.: Ava Duvernay; GRADE: C+)

Commendable on a conceptual level, and impossible to disagree with any of the broad stroke arguments, but Duvernay’s flashy and provocative documentary feels more designed for high school students than for cinephile adults.  Almost all of the best documentaries are focused on discovery, on unrepeatable or unrelated moments adding up to some kind of revelation, but the clips, graphics and talking heads-heavy approach of 13th is all about disseminating known information in a digestible package to an uninformed and potentially unreceptive audience.  Like I said, students.rsz_1ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-crop

Certain Women (Dir.: Kelly Reichardt; GRADE: B)

Give Reichardt credit: the closer she edges to the mainstream, the more austere and arid her movies become.  Certain Women adapts three Maile Meloy short stories into a tenuously connected anthology about the struggle and strength of small-town Montana women.  Laura Dern gives the best performance as a lawyer whose client takes her hostage; Michelle Williams plays a dissatisfied wife who covets a pile of reclaimed brick; and Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand who develops something like a crush on Kristen Stewart’s neurotic night teacher.  No major complaints – it’s honest, well-acted and thoughtful, but I can’t tell you how many times my mind drifted away during this thing.

Peter and the Farm (Dir.: Tony Stone; GRADE: B)

Intense, deeply personal and unusually minimalist documentary about Peter Dunning, a gruff, alcoholic, long-time Vermont farmer rapidly reaching the end of his rope, and beginning to fashion that rope into a noose.  Peter and the Farm doesn’t shy away from the realities of farm life (Dunning butchers a lamb from start to finish in one of the film’s first scenes), and it manages to capture both the ethereal, borderline surreal beauty of farm life and the lonely, difficult, often ugly realities of Dunning’s everyday existence.

Sunday, November 20

rsz_things-to-come-reviewThings to Come (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Love; GRADE: B)

French filmmaker Hansen-Love’s previous film Eden failed to enchant me during last year’s Cramfest, and I wasn’t that much higher on this similarly low-pulse, narrative-lite, character piece about a sixty-ish philosophy teacher who re-evaluates her life after losing her mother and her marriage.  The difference maker: the great Isabelle Huppert, incapable of playing a false note, a geyser of strength and complexity, even in the midst of Hansen-Love’s disaffected long nod.

The Edge of Seventeen (Dir.: Kelly Fremon Craig; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed in the 11/23 issue of the SN&R.