documentary

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.

2014 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part IV

last_days_in_vietnam_-_h_-_2014My attempt to post a mini-review for every film I watched or re-watched in advance of the SFFCC awards and my top 10 list petered out in early December, as I got flooded by screeners and ballots.  But I want to put a bow on the year 2014, so I will dole these out over the remaining days of December.

Saturday, November 29

Snowpiercer (Dir.: Bong Joon-Ho; GRADE: A-) [REWATCH] I reviewed this when it played in Sacramento last summer, but I appreciated this thinking-person’s blockbuster a lot more the second time around.  It injects intelligence and weirdness into the apocalyptic-action genre without sacrificing any of the film’s relentless forward momentum.

Last Days in Vietnam (Dir.: Rory Kennedy; GRADE: B+)  Powerful and personal documentary about heroism, regret and tragedy in the chaotic final days of the American occupation of Vietnam.

indexWild Tales (Dir.: Damien Szifron; GRADE: B+) Reviewed for the SN&R on March 26, 2015, and reprinted in the San Antonio Current.

Inherent Vice (Dir.: Paul Thomas Anderson; GRADE: A) [REWATCH] Reviewed for the Colorado Springs Independent on 1/7/2015.

Sunday, November 30

The One I Love (Dir.: Charlie McDowell; GRADE: B-) A trojan-horse indie comedy that slowly reveals itself to be an unsettling examination of marital expectations and frustrations.  Elizabeth Moss is up to the challenge of those tonal shifts, but co-star Mark Duplass doesn’t quite match her.  This film won the San Francisco Film Critics Circle Special Citation for underrated independent cinema.

Tuesday, December 2

Maleficent (Dir.: Robert Stromberg; GRADE: D-) Disney Hell.  Blobby CGI, incomprehensible acting choices, a dead-end narrative, and a lead actress who only comes to life during her de rigeur jagged crying scenes.  Unwatchable.

index2A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Dir.: Ana Lily Amanpour; GRADE: C+) An interesting but underdeveloped twist on the vampire movie, shot in America but set in Iran, and spoken in Farsi with English subtitles.  The premise is provocative, and Amanpour shows a lot of promise, but the film is so padded it feels like an 80-minute short.

Mistaken for Strangers (Dir.: Tom Berninger ; GRADE: A-) Ostensibly a behind-the-scenes concert documentary about the breakthrough indie rock band The National directed by the lead singer’s metalhead schlub brother, but actually a hilarious and observational look at the strains of competition and modeling in sibling relationships (almost unwittingly, it also becomes an American Movie-style sendup of bad filmmaking).  The long, final tracking shot of Tom holding his brother’s microphone cord as he tears through the concert crowd beats anything in Birdman.

In Theaters – “The Green Prince”

6463529_origThe Green Prince (2014; Dir.: Nadav Schirman)

GRADE: B

By Mike Dub

Earlier this week, in his review of Kill the Messenger, Daniel Barnes echoed a common complaint about a great deal of films that are based on true stories: “It only shows how much more interesting an intelligent documentary… would be than this weak and warmed-over biopic treatment.” Biopics – at least the ones that aren’t obsequiously handed Oscars (Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, ladies and gentlemen) – have rightfully been criticized for their myriad shortcomings. These problems are not so much inherent in the “genre,” but instead seem to be product of a kind of compulsion on the part of filmmakers to adhere to a style of biopic that was cemented in the 1930s. Biopics tend to span too great a period of time, and yet focus too myopically on the development of the central character at the expense of all others; they prefer to turn drama into action, rather than the other way around; at times, they package a person as an ideology. In short, they are burdened by their audience’s (perceived) expectation of palatable entertainment in a way that most documentaries are not.

For precisely those reasons, though, Nadav Schirman’s fascinating but un-enthralling espionage documentary The Green Prince could very well become a good narrative thriller, whenever Kathryn Bigelow gets her hands on it. It tells the story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, a high-ranking player in Hamas (and son of one of the founding members) who in his twenties became a spy for Israeli Intelligence against the terrorist organization he grew up with. Over the course of a decade, he provided valuable information to his “handler,” Israeli Intelligence officer Gonen Ben Yitzhak, and was responsible for the capture of dozens of Hamas leaders and soldiers.

The-Green-Prince-1The documentary is based on Yousef’s memoirs and is told through direct-address interviews with Yousef and Yitzhak, who couldn’t fit their roles better if they had come from Central Casting. Yousef is lean and good-looking, and talks spiritedly of his adventures with an easy charisma that you would expect more from a former quarterback than a retired spy. Yitzhak, on the other hand, is broad, officious, and speaks with the careful experience of a professional interrogator. If real life had trailers, surely at some point  a disembodied voice would have declared, “The only thing they had to rely on… was each other.”

More importantly, their dual narration of the film provides rare insight into each man’s personal perspective, and the focus on individual experience mercifully eschews any grandiose statements on war and peace. The extent to which the film comments on the violence of that world is limited to Yousef’s own voice: the heinous acts of torture he witnessed at the hands of Hamas, violence which caused him to lose faith in the organization; the constant threat of exposure; and his desire to protect his father from being assassinated by the very people he helped. But violence, especially for a terrorist leader and an intelligence officer, is inescapable, and it is a wise, and even brave, decision by Schirman to allow his subjects to speak for themselves, without ideological ornamentation.

1280x720-ATjAs captivating as it is to peer into the world of high-stakes espionage amid the violence and chaos of the Middle East, Schirman struggles to come up with a visual design that is as compelling as the story. Most of the story’s situations are recreated through a series of dramatic interpretations that are sometimes slick, but more often just hammy. The go-to effect for much of the film is a helicopter shot (or drone shot, more likely) that looks down on a secret spy meeting, with a scope overlay to signify official surveillance footage. It’s an effect that  comes across as tacky even in a summer blockbuster.

The Green Prince may not be a great movie, but it tells an incredible story of two men who are surprisingly commanding on-screen. That energy fizzles out in the second half, when we start seeing the same shots from previous reenactments over again. But with its personal perspective, aversion toward overt political messages, and relatively short time frame (ten years is like one week in biopic-years), it could make a successful transition into a Hollywood thriller. Then again, they could just turn it into Lethal Weapon 5.

In Theaters (SF) – “To Be Takei”

to_be_takeiTo Be Takei (2014; Dir.: Jennifer M. Kroot)

GRADE: C-

By Mike Dub

*Now playing at the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco.

To Be Takei, an unfocused celebrity puff piece on actor and activist George Takei, falls into the same trap that many biopics and documentary profiles do: it tries to cover so much ground that it can only superficially investigate much of what it is trying to say. As the film illustrates, Takei is a lot of things: husband, son, actor, sci-fi legend, gay rights activist, Japanese-American rights activist, Facebook auteur, and – did you know he ran for city council in the ‘70s? Takei is so many things to so many people that the film can’t possibly cover everything with any amount of depth. So instead, filmmaker Jennifer M. Kroot allows overviews to all the facets of Takei, while trying portray the “real” person behind the fame as an everyday man and husband. However, that creates another problem altogether.

By showcasing Takei’s relationship with his husband, Brad Altman, the film comes to greatly rely on the “charm” of watching two old men bicker with each other like old hens. The idea, I suppose, is to expose the minutia of their lives, thereby normalizing their relationship, a noble endeavor and one presumably worthy of Takei’s reputation for gay rights activism over the last decade. It’s a fine conceit, but in practice we are left with not-so-thrilling sequences of Takei getting a haircut; Takei nitpicking with his husband about using the term “lifestyle”; Takei telling Will Wheaton, “You’ve gained weight”; Takei and husband discussing where they should eat; and lots and lots of driving. These sequences have all the cloying awkwardness of dinner with my grandparents, but filtered through the anxiety inherent in people who are being constantly filmed.

Aside from the personal investigation into Takei’s current life, much of the film concentrates on Takei’s childhood, during which his family was interned in a Japanese-American camp during World War II. The story is interesting, but it is told through a series of lectures by Takei to various groups around the country. Kroots constantly cuts between lectures, having Takei start a sentence in one and finish it in another. It’s her way of trying to break things up and add some life to those sequences, but it just reminds us of how pat and rehearsed the lecture is, to the point that when he is talking in an interview format to the camera, even his conversation carries the unemotional weariness of repetition.

to-be-takei-george-takei-in-star-trekThe rest of the film is an uneven exploration into The Importance of George Takei, where nearly equal weight is given to his culturally transformative appearances in positive Japanese-American roles as to his daily Facebook posts. There is a lengthy section concerning Takei’s role as a gay rights activist, the best section of the documentary, but one that would have been more interesting had the film not been pulled in too many other directions, rendering any nuanced approach to the issue of closeted homosexuality in Hollywood completely impossible. The extent of its political outrage consists of the same fish-in-a-barrel target practice we’ve grown accustomed to in activist documentaries. When Takei discusses the veto of a gay marriage bill in California, the movie cuts to a montage of people with signs that proclaim God’s hatred of gays, along with a clip in which Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pelted by an egg. So much for political discourse.

Even all of that wouldn’t have even been so terrible, had it not been for the late realization that To Be Takei is, in fact, just a publicity piece for his new play (“coming to Broadway in 2014,” the film assures us), a musical based on his experiences in the Japanese internment camp. We catch glimpses of rehearsals, a few bars from a few of the show tunes, and Takei’s sincere explanation of the catharsis of acting in it. Just before the film’s credits start rolling, we are told of the awards the play has been nominated for and the box office records it has broken. If only the movie had started with that unabashed advertisement, we could have saved a lot of time.