IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Commune”

The Commune (2017; Dir.: Thomas Vinterberg)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza in SF and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

An unexpected, Ang Lee-like pivot from Dogme 95 refugee Vinterberg, who follows up the blistering The Hunt and his vital version of Far from the Madding Crowd with this weightless and unworthy drama about Copenhagen communal living in the 1970s.  When frustrated architect Erik inherits a giant house from his father, he’s ready to sell, but his bored anchorwoman wife Anna wants to turn the place into a post-hippie commune.  Erik agrees, if only to appease Anna, and he generally behaves like the landowning autocrat that he is, but eventually finds that the wishy-washy moral relativism of communal life provides perfect cover to move in Anna’s much younger replacement.  That sexist discrepancy among self-defined social outcasts – the way that Erik can behave however he wants on his path, while Anna’s emotional needs are considered tacky and bourgeois – is the most interesting aspect of the film, but it only amounts to an obvious observation embedded in shapeless scenes that are embedded within a flighty narrative.  Ultimately, this feels like Vinterberg’s misguided attempt to recapture the fluttering chaos of his overpraised breakthrough The Celebration.

IN THEATERS: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017; Dir.: Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg)

GRADE: C-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens everywhere Friday, May 26.

First, don’t get snookered by that misleading title – dead men monologue almost nonstop throughout this fifth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.  Everywhere you turn, some ghost or ex-ghost starts blathering about their tortured and confusing backstory, while also providing answers to questions that you couldn’t possibly be boring enough to ask.  One of the major reveals in Dead Men Tell No Tales: the origin story of Captain Jack Sparrow’s disgusting dread jewelry.  Seriously.

Of course, Johnny Depp returns as Captain Jack, still a shambling alcoholic with a surprising zest for derring-do, still barely hanging on to his ragtag band of snarling idiot pirates.  Let this sink in for a second: Depp was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the first Pirates film.  As recently as early 2004, this effete drunk shtick felt not only fresh…it felt like good acting.  That’s shocking, especially given Depp’s utterly mirthless and obligatory turn in Dead Men Tell No Tales.

But islands aren’t going to pay for themselves, and so here’s Depp-as-Jack falling face first in mud, getting pooped on and taking repeated punishment to the groin.  Since Depp is the star of a billion-dollar franchise and theme park attraction, and because he’s made the right people a ton of money, we’re all supposed to politely forget that his abusive behavior towards ex-wife Amber Heard became public knowledge last summer.  Depp probably made a mint to sleepwalk through this dud, but he clearly hates every second of it, so cool.  No amount of CGI can disguise his dead eyes.

Not that Dead Men Tell No Tales lacks for annoying CGI.  Far from it!  CGI-smeared Javier Bardem enters the Pirates-verse as Captain Salazar, a cursed ghost captain whose swirling hair and charred skin makes him look like he’s simultaneously underwater and aflame.  Salazar needs Jack Sparrow’s magical compass (don’t ask, it’s super lame), and he’s joined on the Sparrow hunt by Henry Turner, who seeks to lift the curse keeping his father Will (Orlando Bloom) chained to The Flying Dutchman.

Brenton Thwaites plays Henry, and boy, if you thought Bloom defined skin blemish-free callowness for a generation of automatons, wait until you get a load of this kid.  He makes Bloom look like Dog Day Afternoon-era Pacino.  Every character is ultimately after Poseidon’s trident, which serves as both a McGuffin and a deus ex machina, although all that matters here is the nonstop chaos and the occasional twinge of Iraq War-era nostalgia.

In its ability to spin mindless fun into heavy-handed bombast, the Pirates franchise is matched only by the Transformers films.  Until Depp’s next major legal settlement, we’re probably done with this franchise, saving us from such abominations as Pirates of the Caribbean: Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum, Pirates of the Caribbean: Shiver Me Timbers and Pirates of the Caribbean – Arrrrrrrrrrrrr!!!: International Talk Like a Pirate Day, Presented by Dave Barry.  New pirate law: tell no tales unless you have a tale to tell.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Hounds of Love”

Hounds of Love (2017; Dir.: Ben Young)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, May 12, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Well, that was unpleasant.  A stylish, squirm-inducing thriller from Australian first-timer Ben Young, Hounds of Love stars Ashleigh Cummings as Vicki Maloney, a rebellious teenager abducted from the suburbs by a couple of Mickey and Mallory-style sickos.  Young shows us the m.o. of these slimy abductors (capture, cage, rape, kill, bury) in the opening scenes, so we know exactly the wringer that awaits Vicki, a revelation that only adds to the eventual icky horror.  Set in Perth 1987, perhaps as a nod to the Ozploitation films of the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps as a pointless nostalgic indulgence, the film is gripping but stomach-turning, “effective” in largely the worst possible ways.  The bulk of the film involves the evolving relationship between Vicki and her female captor, a deeply damaged woman turned murder spree accessory by a master manipulator, and Vicki’s attempts to drive the two apart.  That dynamic is fitfully interesting, and Cummings makes for a strong scream queen, but it mostly feels like Young is working out ways to make rape and torture seem badass and suspenseful, which I found extremely grating and gross.  Young’s most recent directing credit comes from a 2012 Australian reality show called Prank Patrol, so…mystery solved?

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki”

rsz_thumb_1492_film_film_big-h_2016The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2017; Dir.: Juho Kuosmanen)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opening Friday, May 5, at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Shot in a hazy and washed-out black-and-white, and so slight and unassuming that it barely qualifies as a movie, this true story about the titular Finnish boxer training for the fight of his life is mostly notable for what it’s not.  It’s NOT a sports movie; it’s NOT a love story; it’s NOT interested in biopic beats; it’s NOT even that interested in its own protagonist, an introverted pugilist distracted from his upcoming 1962 title bout with American pugliist Davey Moore by the loves of a blonde.  The Happiest Day in the Life…is NOT a lot of things, and is seemingly more influenced by wispy, shoe-gazing indies like Tu Dors Nicole and Baden Baden than by traditional demands for conflict, context, emotional catharsis, and all the other elements of drama that were good enough for Hawks and Ford but are somehow offensive to the contemporary sensibilities of  disaffected hacks.  Instead, The Happiest Day in the Life… is more of a dithering hangout movie – warm and enveloping like the afternoon sun, luxuriating in gliding bike rides and long walks through the woods, easily digestible and easily forgettable.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “My Entire High School…”

rsz_1032542-gkids-releases-new-clip-my-entire-high-school-sinking-seaMy Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2017; Dir.: Dash Shaw)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Now playing at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Jason Schwartzman voices another Max Fischer-esque high school fabulist in this singular but strangely aggravating animated feature, an odd blend of crude hand-drawn animation and sophisticated Photoshop.  Like the 34 year-old debut feature director, the protagonist is named Dash Shaw, a high school sophomore and fledgling journalist prone to printing fantasy as fact.  The lengthy title should be taken literally – after Dash uncovers a real conspiracy involving fudged environmental impact reports, the entire high school sure enough sinks into the sea.  Dash and his nerdy friends scramble up the floors to safety, while their classmates and teachers die horrible deaths all around them.  It’s meant to play like the sketchbook fantasies of a 15 year-old outcast, and the characterizations of high school archetypes are Daria-level broad (the lunch lady knows kung fu, etc.), but it feels more like an extended, not funny version of a Community gimmick episode.  My Entire High School… is deadpan to a fault, with monotone line readings that feel unnaturally disconnected, a tone that lacks command and a story that feels feckless and bored.  Better things are surely ahead for Shaw, so just file this one  under J for “juvenilia.”

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Assignment”

rsz_the_assignment_michlle_rodriguezThe Assignment (2017; Dir.: Walter Hill)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Now playing at the Presidio 4 in San Francisco.

The devolution of the Hollywood mainstream from a relatively low-frills genre film factory into soulless purveyors of perversely over-branded pap cleanly overlaps with the career arc of writer-director Walter Hill.  Over the course of forty-plus years in the industry, Hill went from invigorating tyro to beleaguered A-lister to old-school washout, and now he’s moved on to feisty outsider.  His latest independent film is The Assignment (originally titled (Re) Assignment when it  premiered last year at TIFF), the story of a scuzzy hitman (Michelle Rodriguez) forcibly gender re-assigned into a woman by a wealthy, weirdo doctor (Sigourney Weaver) who seeks revenge for her brother’s death.  It’s vintage meat-and-potatoes Hill – gritty and funny, brusque and stylishly economic, with a fun streak of fuck-it trashiness throughout.  Unfortunately, any sense of low-brow, comic book fun continually crashes against a concrete wall made of one-note performances (the casting of Weaver and Rodriguez is so on-the-nose that it’s borderline parody) and a lunkhead, monologue-heavy script.