new york city

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Person to Person”

Person to Person (2017; Dir.: Dustin Guy Defa)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, August 4, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

A scruffy little charmer from festival darling Defa, in the form of a smart indie ensemble piece about – what else? – mixed-up New Yorkers stumbling towards some sort of personal connection.  Defa made his bones with short films (including a 2014 version of Person to Person that became his calling card), so it’s probably no surprise that the separate stories drift together and apart rather than neatly interlace: a shirt-obsessed record collector chases the punk who ripped him off; a tabloid reporter (Michael Cera) tries to impress a pretty news runner (Abbi Jacobson) on her first day; a hetero-curious teen connects with a cute boy; a watch repairman (Philip Baker Hall) tries not to get involved in his customers’ business; and a mopey revenge porn practitioner hides from his inevitable punishment.  The various story threads loosely circle around a mysterious death and a possible femme fatale, but Defa is clearly more interested in exploring the souls of his characters than in any ostentatious narrative contortions.  There are a handful of too-cute touches that occasionally make Person to Person feel more like an over-sized TV pilot, but the film has a huge heart and a sneaky sense of humor, and there is a propulsive musical energy that reminds you of vintage Alan Rudolph or Paul Mazursky.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “White Girl”

rsz_white-girlWhite Girl (2016; Dir.: Elizabeth Wood)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, September 16, at the AMC Van Ness 14 in San Francisco.

The 1990s nostalgia trend in pop culture continues with this energetic throwback to Larry Clark’s Kids, Gregg Araki’s early work, and other benchmarks of casually shocking 1990s independent cinema.  Morgan Saylor (Brody’s daughter from Homeland) gives a ferocious and fearless performance as Leah, an Oklahoma-bred college student who dives nose-first into the hedonistic opportunities and pitfalls of NYC life, barely even pausing to acknowledge when she’s been ripped off or raped.  After moving to an off-campus apartment in a particularly rough neighborhood, Leah quickly becomes involved with the charismatic but volatile Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc), a small-time corner drug dealer whose Scarface ambitions are awakened by this heedless and psychotically privileged party girl.  Leah also works an internship for a rich, sleazy, exploitative pervert played by Justin Bartha, who apparently should only be playing rich, sleazy, exploitative perverts.  White Girl is reportedly based on the real-life experiences of first-time writer-director Elizabeth Wood, and while you feel some compassion for Leah’s utter lack of self-control, as well as some grudging respect for the insane lengths she goes to get the guilty-as-hell Blue out of jail, she certainly isn’t softened into someone sympathetic or likable.  It’s all a little empty and pro forma, but Saylor is an absolute powderkeg – she’s so intense and unpredictable, it feels as though Leah is capable of anything, which is thrilling and terrifying all at once.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Margarita, with a Straw”

rsz_margaritawithastrawreview75Margarita, with a Straw (2016; Dir.: Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Cine Grand 7 in Fremont and the Camera 3 in San Jose.

Kalki Koechlin stars in this wispy but well-meaning romantic comedy as Laila, a spunky aspiring writer with cerebral palsy who leaves India to pursue an education in New York, where a newfound permissiveness kicks an already revving sexual awakening into overdrive.  After a few unrequited crushes on “normal boys” and a fumbled attempt to experiment with another wheelchair-bound classmate, Laila falls in love with a blind female student protester, tentatively coming out while still itching to explore.  Sensitivity and restraint are the greatest strengths of Margarita with a Straw – the film is firmly set against exploitation and pandering, at least until the face-palm final scene, and always meets the character of Laila at her emotional and physical eye level.  With humor and heart, it deals with subjects that most movies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, especially the day-to-day challenges and sexual needs of people with disabilities.  I just wish the movie wasn’t so feel-good perfunctory, so comfortable and comforting, so eager to ape the therapy-movie mold of drippy American indies.

VOD Review – “The Mend”

imagesThe Mend (2015; Dir.: John Magary)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

*Available now on iTunes and other VOD platforms.

Where in the wide world of fucks did this crazy thing come from? First-time writer-director John Magary makes an exhilarating debut with The Mend, an NYC-based comedy of ill manners that exudes a weird, nervous energy from the opening seconds and never relents.  I couldn’t shake this film – it persisted in my mind like an stubborn houseguest.  It recalls the Coen brothers in its singularity of voice and tone, offering not a new cinematic language but rather a new dialect, simultaneously tense and liberated, gleaming the edge between fussy and shambling, and by the end you feel as though the film has chewed its nails down to the nub. The central construct sounds like a Sundance nightmare – two estranged brothers, one a “freelance web designer”/total fuckup (Josh Lucas), the other a seemingly contented office worker on the brink of an unwanted engagement (Stephen Plunkett), stuck together in a Brooklyn apartment to hash out their daddy issues – but The Mend is one of the freshest and most invigorating films of the year.

Music thrusts in and out, the camera fidgets like a nervous party guest, stray shots and shreds of dialogue echo back in strange and unexpected rhymes – the film thrusts and staggers like a drunk who can’t figure out how to get out of his own apartment.  Lucas is good for the what the film needs, believably grimy and thoughtless and grossly charming, but Plunkett is the real breakout star here.  A little-known actor with a smattering of TV credits and a great screen face (he looks like Jack Black sat on Michael Shannon), Plunkett runs the gamut from pathos to deadpan comedy to bathroom door-stabbing ferocity, whether clutching his cellphone like a lifeline or drunkenly screwing with a production assistant (“He’s very hurt,” comes the crackling plea from a stolen walkie-talkie).  Plunkett’s ability to play a variety of contradictory emotional states is essential for a film that wonders if love means letting go, or if it means holding on for dear life.

VOD REVIEW – “Love Hunter”

index5Love Hunter (2015; Dir.: Branislav “Brane” Bala and Nemanja Bala)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Out now on iTunes, Amazon, and most VOD services, and available on DVD and Netflix Instant starting April 15.

Writer-directors Branislav and Nemanja Bala have fashioned Love Hunter as a semi-autobiographical star vehicle for singer-songwriter Milan Mumin. Wait, who? The Serbian-born Mumin fronted The Love Hunters, a key band in the Yugoslav War-era rock scene that never registered stateside, and for the last decade he’s been driving a New York City cab while continuing to chase his musical dreams. That’s essentially where Love Hunter picks up, with the gregarious Mumin playing “himself,” a cab-driving guitar player forced to choose between his solo album ambitions and the domestic demands of his fiancée, while soaking in the rhythms of the city and developing a crush on his pretty bassist. It hits an exact midpoint between the warming Once and the tacky Begin Again, both in terms of tone and quality, and it tends to drag considerably whenever the Bob Mould-like Mumin is forced to put down his guitar and carry the emotional weight of the film.

In Theaters – “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”

tmnt-allTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014; Dir.: Jonathan Liebesman)

Grade: D+

by Mike Dub

Michael Bay has so become his own brand of spectacle schlock that even in a film he only co-produces, he leaves behind an overwhelming array of fingerprints on the product. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, though directed by Jonathan Liebesman, overwhelms with the stale stench of familiarly baroque action sequences and cardboard performances Bay so consistently provides in his own films. In fact, if the TMNT reboot teaches us anything about the purveyor of the most commercially successful – and mindless, ugly, and boring – films of the last twenty years, it’s that his infantile video game aesthetic, his devotion to base theatricality, and his presumption of audience stupidity are most ideally suited for a film aimed directly at 8 year-olds.

This is not to shortchange Leibesman, who has a proven track record of directing hugely budgeted special effects dreck like Battle Los Angeles and Wrath of the Titans. In TMNT, he provides as much attention to digital effects work as ever. So much so that after awhile it seems he has become too comfortable with working with his computer-generated turtles, and has no idea how to communicate with human beings. Routinely, stars Megan Fox and Will Arnett appear to be completely lost, even in scenes that involve only humans. Resident evildoer William Fichtner vacillates between evil snarls and evil smiles for no apparent reason. And Whoopi Goldberg, in a mercifully minor, “I did it for my grandkids” supporting role, looks so confused and detached from her scenes that it is entirely possible she thinks she’s in a Marvel film (though, to be fair, you can’t pin that one entirely on Liebesman).

whoaThe story contrives a strange amalgam of clichés that, when mixed together, becomes nonsensical: an ambitious young reporter falls ass-backward into the story of the century; a television news cameraman runs away from sensational events; an evil genius devises the most idiotic evil plot in recent memory (it involves using a deadly toxin to poison all of New York City, so that he can then sell the antidote to the few remaining survivors, claiming domination over what would then be a hellscape of chaos and decay while, in the process, becoming “stupid rich”).

In these early scenes, the performances are so bad, the movie so dreadful, that by the turn to the second act, the emergence of computer crafted talking turtles actually offers a spark to the film. Almost immediately, it is apparent that the turtles are the class of the cast, which doesn’t say much for the cast. Despite the one-note characterizations, the sub-mental Alvin and the Chipmunks style of non sequitur catch-phrasing (Michelangelo’s “Cowabunga” war cry is given quite the buildup), and the always eerie, distancing effect of CGI characters, they out-act every human in the film.

Of course, it’s entirely plausible that the barely sentient human performances are just part of the filmmakers’ own evil plot: to showcase the “personality” of the turtles by sedating the rest of the cast. As bad as his films are, Michael Bay is a brilliant businessman, and he certainly seems willing to tank a movie in order to capitalize on merchandising rights.  Shilling turtles could potentially bring in millions of extra dollars, but, no matter how good his performance could have been, no eight year old in his right mind is running out to buy an action figure of Will Arnett.