documentary

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Whose Streets?”

Whose Streets? (2017; Dir.: Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, August 11, at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark California in Berkeley.

A portrait of activism captured by activists, mostly focusing on street-level views of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which were held in response to the police murder of African-American teenager Michael Brown.  The sickeningly violent and dehumanizing police and military actions against peaceful protesters in Ferguson eventually sparked riots, but they also galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement into a literal life or death cause.  Naturally, the compliant mainstream media stood behind the lines and reported on looters instead of investigating police brutality, but Whose Streets? was largely assembled through various cell phone videos, giving us a powerfully intimate look inside a city under occupation and a people under siege.  Black Lives Matter leaders are understandably wary about their portrayal in the media, and even though the activist credentials of the directors allowed them unique access, background details and personal arcs are still reduced to a bare minimum.  While the result is less coherent and lacerating than last year’s Do Not Resist, as a horrifyingly immediate compilation of battle footage from the American war on black people, and as a snapshot of activism in flux, Whose Streets? is utterly indispensable.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Dawson City: Frozen Time”

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017; Dir.: Bill Morrison)

GRADE: B+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, July 14, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

A stunning work of curation from documentary filmmaker Morrison, a story of fortune, folly, film and fire preserved in permafrost.  When the Yukon Gold Rush struck in the last 1890’s, the remote Alaskan town of Dawson City boomed to a population of over 40,000, and numerous theaters sprang up to entertain idle stampeders.  Dawson City’s population dwindled when the gold rush skipped town, but enough residents remained to support a couple of silent movie houses.  The outpost became the last stop along the theatrical exhibition trail, often receiving films years after their release, and the studios refused to pay to have the highly flammable nitrate prints shipped back.  Instead, discarded film stock was dumped under an ice hockey rink and forgotten for decades, when the treasure trove was unearthed during renovation and hundreds of presumed lost silent movies were found.  Morrison does dramatic justice to the Dawson City story, a rise-and-fall epic that weaves in enough turn-of-the-century celebrities to satisfy E.L. Doctorow, without overindulging in precious recreations.  Many assemblage documentaries of this sort strike me as obtusely opportunistic and reductive (e.g., it was the 1930’s, so insert any random shot of jitterbugging flappers), but Morrison creates something wistfully beautiful from the material, and his respect for both cinema and history shines through.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Nowhere to Hide”

Nowhere to Hide (2017; Dir.: Zaradasht Ahmed)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, June 30, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Politically charged, video vérité war documentaries have been appearing so frequently (and so similarly) in recent years that it becomes too easy for formalist aesthetes to callously dismiss their depictions of pain and suffering as genre cliches.  Few if any of these films boast distinctive cinematic values, and most aim for a simplistic, middle-of-the-road message, so even a highly personal story of life during perpetual wartime like Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere to Hide seems strangely distant.  The film follows Nori Sharif, a big-hearted medic from the Iraqi town of Jalawla, as he treats the beleaguered villagers and protects his adorable family in the years following the American withdrawal.  An initial sense of uncertainty in the region quickly descends into the chaos of sectarian violence, and Nori and his family are finally forced to flee when ISIS takes over their town.  Incredibly powerful scenes and images abound, but Nowhere to Hide is ultimately too concerned with brushing broad strokes to stand out in this sadly crowded field.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Miss Sharon Jones!”

rsz_misssharonjonesMiss Sharon Jones! (Dir.: Barbara Kopple)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, August 11 at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

The 60s soul revival band Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings built a worldwide reputation largely on their electric live shows, gaining a devoted following without ever recording a hit song.  At the center of the Dap-Kings sound and stage is Jones, a powerhouse belter once labeled by a Sony rep as “too fat, too black, too short, too old” for stardom, a tornado onstage and an Ellen-binging sweetheart offstage.  But in June 2013, just as the band was finishing work on their 2014 album Give the People What They Want, Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which required an extremely invasive surgery and six months of chemotherapy.  Kopple’s intensely personal documentary chronicles Jones’ treatment and long recovery, and while the filmmaking is fairly conventional on a formal level, Miss Sharon Jones! feels just as intimately embedded with its subject as Kopple’s 1976 calling card Harlan County U.S.A.  This is hardly the first time Kopple has helmed a musical doc – she followed Woody Allen’s band around Europe in Wild Man Blues and directed the 2006 Dixie Chicks documentary Shut Up & Sing – and it helps that the Augusta, Georgia-born Jones makes for such a thoroughly likable subject.  Kopple understands that any smart and compassionate audience will be engaged by Jones, no matter what she does – Jones is such an unstoppable dynamo that it seems impossible anything could ever get in her way, not even cancer.

MVFF38, The Weekdays (Mon-Thurs)

indexBy Daniel Barnes

I’ve reached the point of #MVFF38 where the buffet line of cinematic options that once seemed so appetizing has come to feel more like an indigestible eating challenge. Going into the final weekend of the festival, I have screened eighteen #MVFF38 films, and it feels like between 90 and 100% of them centered on murdered, molested, or otherwise abused children (and I haven’t even seen Spotlight or Beasts of No Nation yet!). My plate runneth over with misery, to the point that the terrible has become almost indistinguishable from the merely mediocre.

Thank God then for Jafar Panahi, whose masterfully flexible Taxi drives to the rescue as the unquestionable highlight of my festival so far. Taxi is the third film that Panahi has made since the Iranian government banned him from making films, so good job on that one Iranian government. Panahi stars here as himself, but the lines between documentary and drama and biography become so blurred that they’re practically irrelevant. This is “sordid realism” at its most bittersweet, urgent and sly, a street-level commute through the lives of Tehran, a touching meditation on artistic powerlessness in an age of omnipresent cameras, and a prankster’s ode to the creative spirit. Don’t miss this one – it screens again Saturday night in Larkspur, then opens throughout the Bay Area on October 30.index

Meanwhile, the Colombian drama Alias Maria swims through that aforementioned sea of baby tears, telling the story of a girl guerrilla tasked with escorting her commander’s infant son to safety, all the while protecting the secret of her own unplanned pregnancy. Like a lot of these films, Alias Maria builds slowly and quietly, using simple camera setups, long takes, long silences, and occasional bursts of violence to convey the helplessness of its characters. It’s striking and admirable but only intermittently compelling as entertainment, and a smattering of strong scenes can’t overcome the overall air of ennui.

Much more sustained wallowing comes in writer-director Batin Ghobadi’s nearly unwatchable Mardan, a Kurdish-language crawler about a policeman whose haunted past affects his handling of a missing person case. While investigating the disappearance of a worker who never made it home with his pay, corrupt police officer Kak Mardan dredges up memories of a childhood sexual assault, but still finds it difficult to do the right thing. Most of the film consists of lead actor Hossein Hasan staring meaningfully into an off-camera middle distance, his baggy-eyed gaze almost comically gloomy. It’s as though someone adapted coverage shots from Only God Forgives into its own feature-length film.

indexWe go from rape to incest in The Automatic Hate, Justin Lerner’s curious dramedy about a struggling chef who falls for his long-lost first cousin. Lerner takes a yucky-cute premise and almost makes it work, somehow finding a feasible tone but never making a solid impact. The film gets a huge lift from seasoned character actors Ricky Jay and Richard Schiff, playing estranged brothers protecting a very predictable family secret. Another likeable near-miss: the rigorously deadpan Icelandic film Virgin Mountain, which takes the Apatow-ian premise of an overgrown virgin stoner and depletes it of any self-congratulatory cuteness.

Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming might be the most punishing film of this bunch, if only for its utter refusal to engage the audience. A middle-aged British woman (Nadine Marshall) appears strangely ambivalent about her unplanned pregnancy, keeping it a secret from her husband (Idris Elba) and adolescent son for as long as she can. This is a resolutely observational and non-narrative film, and yet you still get smacked with all the leaden symbolism you can handle. Tucker Green uses some shock cuts and unexpected silences to break up the monotony, but while a third-act reveal briefly pulled me back in, this one barely connected at all.index

The brooding continues in the divisive The Assassin, a languorous wuxia deconstruction from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers of Shanghai; Flight of the Red Balloon). Embarrassing admission alert: this is the first Hou Hsiao-hsien film that I’ve seen, so I’m open to believing that The Assassin is just the wrong place to start, because aside from a few lovely compositions, this never felt like more than an indifferent experiment. Notions of a decipherable narrative are eschewed (somewhat ironically, since the central conflict is directly explained several times) in favor of an all-encompassing narcoleptic dread, as a trained female assassin contemplates killing her cousin and former intended husband (more cousin love!).

By comparison, Kent Jones’ spry but minor documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut feels like an exuberant musical comedy. The film is basically an adaptation of Truffaut’s legendary book of Hitchcock interviews, fleshed out with audio recordings from their sessions and given credibility by the appearance of auteur acolytes like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Olivier Assayas. It’s a film of questionable necessity, but it’s also pretty irresistibly entertaining, and this week in Mill Valley that was good enough.index

Check back here on Monday morning for a recap of the second and final weekend of the 38th annual Mill Valley Film Festival, with capsule reviews of Palme d’Or winner Dheepan, the Romanian drama Aferim! and James Franco in Yosemite. Follow my constantly updated MVFF38 Power Rankings on Letterboxd. You can read my #MVFF38 Weekend 1 coverage HERE, and read my #MVFF38 preview piece for EatDrinkFilms HERE. Also, be sure to check out my SFFCC colleague Bernard Boo’s Mill Valley coverage over at Way Too Indie.

Pilgrimages – Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival

23.Brando-cr-Maysles-FilmsMeet Marlon Brando (1965; Dir.: Albert and David Maysles)

Grade: B

By Mike Dub

*Meet Marlon Brando screens Friday night as part of the Albert Maysles Memorial Film Festival, which runs from May 8-14 at the Vogue Theatre in SF.  Click HERE for tickets and program information.

In the introduction to last year’s ESFS Festival about the “Dark Ages” of Marlon Brando, we discussed the unrelenting stream of box office bombs that afflicted Brando throughout the 1960s.  Hamstrung under a difficult contract with Universal, Brando would turn from the man who dethroned John Wayne as America’s biggest box office draw to an overweight has-been with a reputation for being a problem.  The Maysles Brothers’ short documentary, Meet Marlon Brando, finds its eponymous subject smack in the middle of that decline in 1965.  Following Brando over the course of a day of press junkets at a New York hotel, ostensibly to promote the release of his latest dud Morituri, the Maysles capture Brando’s idiosyncratic interviews in all their quirkiness.  As a narrator states at the beginning of the film, “The questions were predictable, the answers were anything but.”

Despite the decline in critical and commercial success, the Brando we see in the Maysles’ film is still very much a star.  Though a middle-aged, cosmopolitan regality has replaced the bristling sexuality of his youth, the actor is no less captivating.  In his presence, reporters act like giddy schoolchildren, awed by the refreshing irreverence of a star who refuses to promote his own film, makes fun of his weight, and asks as many questions of his interviewers as they do to him.  When one reporter vapidly asserts that Morituri is an excellent picture, Brando scoffs, “Where’d you hear that?”

cdn.indiewire.comBut this is not Don’t Look Back (filmed in the same year as the Maysles’ film), where Bob Dylan wields irreverence and absurdity like they’re his only weapons in a neverending war with the press.  Brando is above all an entertainer, and his easygoing charm belies a deep love of being loved.  He is never as bright-eyed and at ease as when he is getting a laugh from a crew member, or when he coerces reporters into talking about themselves.  It’s not exactly a coup when he gets a reporter to confess to playing flamenco guitar, but you get the distinct feeling that it’s a rare occasion for a person who spends his life plugging material for richer and more famous people.  The reporter seems flattered by the novelty, and Brando is amused at having turned the tables.

Through the eyes of the Maysles brothers, though, exchanges like those illustrate the delicate and symbiotic relationship between Hollywood celebrities and the entertainment press.  From Charlie Chaplin’s lavish industry parties to Tom Cruise mauling Oprah’s couch, Hollywood has always needed the press to sell movie tickets, and the press has always needed stars to sell their media.  In the opening shot, Brando himself speaks earnestly of the press junket charade, although it’s hard to take his convictions too seriously when he turns into a wolf in the presence of any pretty woman.

678.originalConsequently, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that his effusiveness and impropriety are just forms of gamesmanship.  He engages with reporters like he is playing chess, and exhibits himself a true master of controlling the conversation.  Try to promote his film, and he will lightheartedly rebuke you; passively mention a social cause, and he will turn dourly intellectual (the plight of the Native American “is a subject I can’t be flippant about”); and if you’re a woman you are simply playing defense.  To Brando, the consummate Method actor, everything is an improv game – as such, there may not be a lot of weight to his his interviews, but it does make for a fascinating glimpse into his star power.