IN THEATERS (SF) – “Nowhere to Hide”

Nowhere to Hide (2017; Dir.: Zaradasht Ahmed)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, June 30, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Politically charged, video vérité war documentaries have been appearing so frequently (and so similarly) in recent years that it becomes easy to callously label their depictions of pain and suffering as genre cliches.  It feels grossly cavalier to dismiss films with such seemingly noble intentions, but it’s also impossible to categorize an anonymous brand of cinema as a credit to the artistic medium.  Few if any of these films boast distinctive formal values, and most aim for a simplistic, middle-of-the-road message, so even a highly personal story of life during perpetual wartime like Zaradasht Ahmed’s Nowhere to Hide seems strangely faceless and distant.  The film follows Nori Sharif, a big-hearted medic from the Iraqi town of Jalawla, as he treats the beleaguered villagers and protects his adorable family in the years following the American withdrawal.  An initial sense of uncertainty in the region quickly descends into the chaos of sectarian violence, and Nori and his family are finally forced to flee when ISIS takes over their town.  Incredibly powerful scenes and images abound, but Nowhere to Hide is ultimately too concerned with brushing broad strokes to stand out in this sadly crowded field.

“Okja”

Okja (2017; Dir.: Bong Joon Ho)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Premieres Wednesday, June 28, on Netflix.

More high-energy genre subversion from South Korean writer-director Bong Joon Ho (SnowpierecerThe HostMemories of Murder), who this time uses a Spielberg-ian children’s fantasy template to bluntly satirize issues related to animal rights, environmental destruction and corporate greed.  Just imagine a more politically engaged E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial combined with a more action-oriented My Neighbor Totoro, only in this version the magical creatures get brutally raped by much larger and scarier magical creatures while animal rights activists watch on a webcam feed.

***cough***

Snowpiercer supporting player Tilda Swinton gets a Co-Producer credit here, and a plum part as the CEO of a Monsanto-like conglomerate (as in Hail, Caesar!, Swinton also plays her own twin sister), but its Jake Gyllenhaal who delivers the biggest, broadest deal-breaker of a comedic performance in Okja.  Squawking like a strangled clown, sporting Michael Medved’s mustache and flapping about in your dad’s cargo shorts and black crew socks combination, Gyllenhaal plays Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a fading TV star and the public face of the Mirando Corporation.  In an entrancing prologue, Swinton’s Lucy Mirando announces an international competition to grow the biggest and tastiest Superpig, a new breed of animal engineered in the Mirando labs, and so they send Superpiglets to respected farmers across the globe.

Ten years later in South Korea, a self-aware Superpig named Okja has grown to remarkable proportions, traipsing through the woods with the farmer’s granddaughter Mija (An Seo Hyun) like a Studio Ghibli creation come to CGI life.  When Dr. Johnny and the rest of the Mirando stooges come to collect the Superpig, Mija chases them to Seoul and then to America, becoming a viral sensation in the process.  Okja offers a lot of the same elements that made Snowpiercer so successful, but it misses that film’s irrefutable narrative progression, especially in an out-of-control second half.  The film finally lands on an incredibly beautiful final shot, albeit one that feels divorced from the previous hour of tonal and thematic chaos.  If nothing else, Okja makes for an interesting anti-“kids movie” double feature with My Life as a Zucchini.

The Barnesyard’s Sacto/SF Now Playing Power Rankings (June 23-29, 2017)

* = SF Bay Area only

OFFICIALLY BUMPED

*1) Your Name
*2) Get Out
*3) Kedi
*4) Harmonium
*5) A Quiet Passion
6) Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

MIXED-POSITIVE

*7) Norman
*8) I, Daniel Blake
9) Alien: Covenant
*10) The Women’s Balcony
11) Beatriz at Dinner

MIXED-NEGATIVE

*12) My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
*13) Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
14) Wonder Woman
*15) The Hero

OFFICIALLY DUMPED

16) Transformers: The Last Knight
17) Paris Can Wait
18) The Mummy
*19) The Wedding Plan
20) Letters from Baghdad
21) Everything, Everything
22) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
23) Beauty and the Beast
24) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
25) The Book of Henry

HAVEN’T SEEN

All Eyez on Me
*Band Aid
*Born in China
The Boss Baby
Cars 3
*Churchill
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
47 Meters Down
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2
It Comes at Night
*Like Crazy
*Manifesto
*Maudie
Megan Leavey
My Cousin Rachel
*Ripped
Rough Night
Snatched

These rankings are updated every Thursday, and are only intended to reflect the opinion of Daniel Barnes. All films playing in Sacramento area theaters are listed, as well as most films playing exclusively in the S.F. Bay Area.  Repertory showings are excluded, because they are obviously the superior option.  Underlined films are on my catchup list.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Harmonium”

Harmonium (2017; Dir.: Kôji Fukada)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, June 23 at the 4 Star Theater in San Francisco.

Over one year after winning the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes 2016, this repressed and implosive Japanese tragedy finally receives a limited stateside release.  Mariko Tsutsui stars as Akié, unsatisfied small-town wife of a withdrawn machinist named Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) and mother to a harmonium-dabbling young girl.  Into their lives glides the ghostly Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a white-shirted ex-con with an unspoken connection to Toshio, something significant enough to warrant a steady job and a room under the family’s roof.  Still resenting Toshio for leading the life he felt he belonged to him, Yasaka slowly proves himself a better father and a more attentive husband than his old friend and new boss, until a sudden and shocking act of violence turns the narrative on its head.  Eight years later, pressed in by an overwhelming wall of guilt and grief, a new machine shop melodrama plays out, one that may finally provide some catharsis for all involved.  Harmonium is a borderline unbearable bummer at times, but it’s also quietly captivating, with smart and evocative framing and a trio of excellent performances.

The Barnesyard’s Sacto/SF Now Playing Power Rankings (June 16-22, 2017)

* = SF Bay Area only

OFFICIALLY BUMPED

*1) Your Name
*2) Get Out
*3) Kedi
*4) A Quiet Passion
5) Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

MIXED-POSITIVE

*6) The Lovers
*7) Norman
*8) Alien: Covenant
*9) The Women’s Balcony
10) Beatriz at Dinner

MIXED-NEGATIVE

*11) Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
12) Wonder Woman
*13) The Hero

OFFICIALLY DUMPED

*14) Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent
15) Paris Can Wait
16) The Mummy
17) The Wedding Plan
18) Everything, Everything
19) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
20) Beauty and the Beast
21) The Book of Henry
22) Baywatch

HAVEN’T SEEN

All Eyez on Me
*Band Aid
The Boss Baby
Cars 3
*Churchill
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul
The Fate of the Furious
47 Meters Down
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2
It Comes at Night
*Letters from Baghdad
*Like Crazy
Megan Leavey
My Cousin Rachel
*Past Life
Rough Night
*Slack Bay
Smurfs: The Lost Village
3 Idiotas
*Wakefield

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Hero”

The Hero (2017; Dir.: Brett Haley)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, June 16, at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

After I’ll See You in My Dreams and this soft-edgy, sunset-gazing ensemble piece, writer-director Brett Haley has proved adept at the sort of spiky yet sensitive explorations of old age that dominate art house theaters these days.  Sam Elliott, after playing supporting parts in Dreams and the similarly themed Grandma (J.K. Simmons played the Sam Elliott part in The Meddler), stars in The Hero as Lee Hayden, a washed-up western star reduced to doing BBQ sauce commercials.  A working actor…how demeaning!  Lee learns that he has a virtually unconquerable form of cancer, forcing him to reevaluate his relationships in a methodical, repetitive, one-by-one process that only highlights the limitations of name-heavy indie filmmaking (i.e., you’re forced to incorporate the limited availability of in-demand supporting cast members like Nick Offerman and Krysten Ritter into the narrative).  Elliott is as magnetic as ever, but very little here feels authentic, especially not a drug-addled lifetime award speech that turns Lee into a viral star.