IN THEATERS (SF) – “78/52”

78/52 (2017; Dir.: Alexandre O. Phillippe)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, October 27, at the Alamo Drafthouse at New Mission; now playing on VOD services.

Superficial cinephilia from The People vs. George Lucas director Phillippe, a wide-ranging non-examination of the infamous shower scene from Psycho (the title of the documentary refers to the 78 shots that comprise the 52-second sequence).  Bloviating dude after bloviating dude gives their mostly unnecessary takes on Hitchcock, naturally leading to spurious claims about how Psycho was the first film to ever do everything.  Obviously, I’m interested to hear what film scholars and qualified experts like Janet Leigh body double Marli Renfro and ex-critic/contemporary Peter Bogdanovich have to say about Hitchcock (although Bogdanovich appears especially grumpy here, possibly the victim of an overly tight ascot), but not narcissistic windbags like Eli Roth and Richard Stanley.  Not Bret Easton Ellis.  Not Elijah Wood.  Not Danny Elfman and not even Amy Duddleston, the editor of the Psycho remake (although this does lead to a marvelous story about a tense moment in the editing room, when she and Van Sant realized their version of the shower sequence wasn’t working, even though they were following the original film shot-for-shot…that was the only time this concern came up?!).  Most irritating: Phillippe’s overuse of shoddy re-enactments and chintzy black-and-white cinematography, while actual clips from Psycho are sparingly seen.

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.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The New Girlfriend”

indexThe New Girlfriend (2015; Dir.: Francois Ozon)


By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco, the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.

Popular and prolific French auteur Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool; In the House) has always used genre subversion as a means of exploring other types of subversion, whether sexual, moral, or in the case of The New Girlfriend, gender. After her lifelong best friend Laura dies following childbirth, Claire (Anais Demoustier) learns that Laura’s grieving husband David (Romain Duris) is a closet transvestite finding comfort in his dead wife’s clothes. Claire agrees to keep David’s secret from her own husband, discovering new pangs of extramarital desire as David assumes the female identity of Virginia; but is Claire attracted to David/Virginia or to the ghost of Laura? From its opening closeups of a costumed bride slowly revealed to be an embalmed corpse, The New Girlfriend wants to keep you unbalanced and curious, but like a lot of Ozon films, it never quite gets out of its own head. Adapting a short story from mystery writer Ruth Rendell, Ozon offers the set-up for an old-school, door-slamming French sex farce, but instills the material with a swooning romanticism and overtones of Hitchcock-ian kink. Unfortunately, nothing in The New Girlfriend ever matches the operatic emotion and locomotion narrative of its own prologue, a laser-fast outburst of girlhood obsession, blood oaths, repressed desire, and sudden switches of fate – it’s like the opening montage of Infernal Affairs reconfigured for romantic comedy.

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R – 6/26/2014 issue


*The highlight of the opening weekend of the Sacramento French Film Festival was Alain Gauraudie’s quietly spellbinding Stranger by the Lake, which is like Hitchcock distilled down to his purest form.


index2*In the lovely but empty The Immigrant, director James Gray carves away genre trappings to expose the small-time chintz and chicanery at the heart of the American Dream, but what’s left is just a carcass of clichés.

*For all of the delicately structured character arcs and hushed visual poetry in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, his cinematic reserve often makes it feel arid and passionless.


*David Michod’s The Rover is the work of a talented and ambitious filmmaker with nothing to say.