New movies: a great week for docs

Pub date November 15, 2013
SectionPixel Vision

This week, doc lovers are in luck: not only is Chris Marker’s seminal 1962 Le Joli Mai making a return to theaters (Sam Stander’s take here), but Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney delves into cycling’s greatest scandal in The Armstrong Lie (my review here).

Plus! The moving American Promise, filmed over 13 years; the latest from Lynne Sachs, Your Day Is My Night; and more, after the jump.

American Promise This remarkable look at race, education, parenting, and coming-of-age in contemporary America is the result of 13 years spent following African American youths Seun and Idris (the latter the son of filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson). At the beginning, the Brooklyn pals are both starting at the exclusive Dalton School, where most of their classmates are rich white kids. This translates into culture-clash experiences both comical (a 13-year-old Idris estimates he’s been to 20 bar mitzvahs) and distressing, as both boys struggle socially and academically for reasons that seem to have a lot to do with their minority status at the school. Culled from hundreds of hours of footage — a mix of interviews and cinéma vérité — Brewster and Stephenson’s film captures honest moments both mundane and monumental, sometimes simultaneously, as when Seun’s mother, driving the kids to school, discusses her battle with cancer as his younger siblings trill a Journey song in the back seat. (And even this seemingly light-hearted aside takes on heft later in the film.) Extra props to Brewster and Stephenson, who clearly made a conscious choice not to edit out any of their own foibles — for the most part, they’re caring, involved parents, but be warned: strident homework nagging is a recurrent theme. (2:20) Roxie. (Eddy)

The Best Man Holiday Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan lead an ensemble cast in this seasonal sequel to 1999 hit The Best Man. (2:00)

The Book Thief One of those novels that seems to have been categorized as “young adult” more for reasons of marketing than anything else, Markus Zusak’s international best seller gets an effective screen adaptation from director Brian Percival and scenarist Michael Petroni. Liesl (Sophie Nelisse) is an illiterate orphan — for all practical purposes, that is, given the likely fate of her left-leaning parents in a just-pre-World War II Nazi Germany — deposited by authorities on the doorstep of the middle-aged, childless Hubermanns in 1938. Rosa (Emily Watson) is a ceaseless nag and worrywart, even if her bark is worse than her bite; kindly housepainter Hans (Geoffrey Rush), who’s lost work by refusing to join “the Party,” makes a game of teacher Liesl how to read. Her subsequent fascination with books attracts the notice of the local Burgermeister’s wife (Barbara Auer), who under the nose of her stern husband lets the girl peruse tomes from her manse’s extensive library. But that secret is trivial compared to the Hubermanns’ hiding of Max Vandenburg (Ben Schnetzer), son of Jewish comrade who’d saved Hans’ life in the prior world war. When war breaks out anew, this harboring of a fugitive becomes even more dangerous, something Liesl can’t share even with her best friend Rudy (Nico Liersch). While some of the book’s subplots and secondary characters are sacrificed for the sake of expediency, the filmmakers have crafted a potent, intelligent drama whose judicious understatement extends to the subtlest (and first non-Spielberg) score John Williams has written in years. Rush, Watson, and newcomer Schnetzer are particularly good in the well-chosen cast. (2:11) (Dennis Harvey)

How I Live Now As 16-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) arrives to spend the summer with cousins she’s never met, England is on the brink of war with an unnamed adversary. Daisy wants nothing to do with her new family and their idyllic countryside home — she’s too caught up in self-loathing image and diet obsessions, which manifest in the movie as overwhelming voiceover chatter. Her eldest cousin, Eddie (George MacKay), begins to draw her out of her shell, but everything changes when a nuclear explosion hits the country. At first, the cousins’ post-apocalyptic life is a charming bucolic, soundtracked by British folk-rock. But the horrors of war soon find them, and the movie’s latter half takes on a quite different tone. Adapted from Meg Rosoff’s YA novel, How I Live Now is almost eager to tackle the ugliest aspects of wartime existence — mass graves, prisoner abuse, work camps — and this unflinching approach is compelling, despite some flaws in the acting and character development. (1:41) (Sam Stander)

Your Day Is My Night Multidisciplinary artist Lynne Sachs returns to SF with this feature set in the world of NYC’s Chinatown “shift bed” apartments — ones whose crowded tenants take turns using sleeping space, a phenomenon that exists in many US cities and immigrant communities. An experimental mix of documentary and staged narrative, Day’s cohabiting protagonists are primarily older émigrés from China with diverse current jobs and divergent memories of life back home — from fond family reminiscences to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. The individual stories told here are related not just in verbiage (both scripted and improvised), but song, dance, theater, poetical imagery, and composer-sound designer Stephen Vitiello’s collage soundtrack. At Other Cinema, Sachs will also present several of her short film works, including 2006’s Three Cheers for the Whale, a collaboration with the late Chris Marker that revised his 1972 Viva la Baleine, which was co-directed with Mario Ruspoli. In addition to its ATA screening Sat/16, Your Day Is My Night also plays the Pacific Film Archive Nov 20. (1:03) Artists’ Television Access. (Dennis Harvey)