Three (2016; Dir.: Johnnie To)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the AMC Metreon 16 in San Francisco.
The best film of 2016 so far. Fresh off a failed raid, a hard-boiled Hong Kong cop (Louis Koo) brings a wounded prisoner (Wallace Chung) into the hospital for emergency surgery and an illegal frame-up, and they’re tended by a brain surgeon (Wei Zhao) with some serious ethical dilemmas of her own. Despite the fact that he’s handcuffed to the bed and slowly dying from the bullet lodged in his head, the prisoner holds all the power, refusing surgery in order to give his gang a chance to break him out. A genre-hopping blast, the anonymously named Three works as part solemn morality play and part gonzo white-knuckle thriller, part huge-hearted ensemble dramedy and part pitiless three-hander, with an almost unbearable escalation of tension that explodes into one of the most insane action sequences you’ll ever see. This is some incredibly taut storytelling by To, especially compared to the overkill of Office, yet he keeps the film grounded in his familiar theme of the vaporous boundary between power and corruption, and the human costs of both. With his constantly moving camera, square-jawed themes, propensity for action and seamless movement between genres, To recalls muscular old-school greats like Howard Hawks and William Wellman, but he also possesses the ability to gracefully juggle an infinite number of narrative balls, even in the center of a chaotic shootout.
White Zombie (1932; Dir.: Victor Halperin)
By Daniel Barnes
*Plays Sunday, June 26 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016.
From its first shot of a Haitian burial ceremony undulating under the opening credits, Victor Halperin’s 1932 indie horror film White Zombie establishes an eerie and unusual atmosphere. The corpse in question is being buried in the middle of the road in order to discourage body snatchers, delaying and unnerving the passengers of a passing coach, a white-suited schmendrick (John Harron) and his platinum blonde fiancee (Madge Bellamy). Bela Lugosi plays a creepy, black-hearted robber baron who uses an unfathomable charisma to hypnotize poor people (and his enemies) into zombies so that they’ll work around-the-clock shifts in his sugar mill and holy shit you guys, I think I just figured out Trump’s endgame. Lugosi’s legendarily mesmeric glare is used to great effect here, but literally every other actor is a stiff, and the tone and pace are incredibly uneven. For every entrancing use of shadows and era-appropriate special effects, such as the scene where the schmendrick sees his presumably dead wife in a pool of spilled booze, there is a scene that plays like a poorly blocked stage play. White Zombie is all wizard and no brains, heart or courage.
*For showtimes and more information about the festival, visit the BAMPFA website. Check out our previous UCLA Fest reviews of The First Legion and Her Sister’s Secret.
Tickled (2016; Dir.: David Farrier and Dylan Reeve)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
In a crowded marketplace for documentaries, it’s easy to to overpraise bold formal and visual ambitions, and easy to overlook a more conventional film that simply takes a juicy story and runs with it. A disposable viral video story about “Competitive Endurance Tickling” by New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier puts the story of Tickled in motion, as Farrier receives a hostile and homophobic response from the shadowy multinational company that produced the tickling footage. Unwilling to submit to “bullies with way too much power,” Farrier follows them down a “tickling wormhole” that reaches from the practically post-apocalyptic streets of Muskegon to the boardrooms of Wall Street. Much like last year’s left-field gem Finders Keepers, Tickled takes a tabloid-ready tale and turns it into something thematically rich and unexpectedly emotional. Despite the tickling fetish trappings, the film essentially touches on themes of power and pornography – the untouchable bankrollers, the vulnerable onscreen talent, the procurers and producers just trying to make a buck – and forms into a salacious portrait of obscene privilege run amok. We get the impression that Farrier’s work as a reporter generally lacks substance, but he’s smart enough to prevent Tickled from becoming the story of heroic journalist David Farrier discovering his true whatever – Farrier and collaborator Dylan Reeve chase an irresistibly entertaining story, rather than their own tails.
Les Cowboys (2016; Dir.: Thomas Bidegain)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco.
Long-time Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain makes his directorial debut with this steely-eyed odd duck, and it’s exactly the kind of terse tangle of cultural collisions and overwrought genre tropes that you would expect from the man who co-wrote Rust and Bone and Dheepan. Les Cowboys opens on the French prairie, establishing a seemingly contented, pre-9/11 world of bow-legged, Tennessee Waltz-ing weekend cowboys and then almost immediately destabilizing it. When his daughter goes missing at a country fair, possibly following her radical Muslim boyfriend out of the country, determined dad Alain (François Damiens) begins a years-long, globe-spanning search that costs him his marriage and possibly his sanity. The first half of Les Cowboys unfurls as an almost beat-for-beat contemporary analogue of The Searchers, with Alain’s more emotionally measured but equally obsessive son Kid in the Jeffrey Hunter role. But just when it feels like the film is starting to write itself, another huge twist at the halfway mark completely flips the script, and not necessarily in a good way. There’s a lot of unique atmosphere in those early scenes, but that gets tabled for a broader and more common take on global politics, and Les Cowboys gets messier the more it tries to fit in its mouth. As with a lot of the Audiard films, though, it’s hard to dismiss something this visceral and ambitious, even if it doesn’t necessarily work.
Her Sister’s Secret (1946; Dir.: Edgar G. Ulmer)
By Mike Dub
*Plays Wednesday, June 22, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016.
Poverty row master Edgar G. Ulmer directs this 1946 melodrama not so much like a great storyteller, but like he’s telling a great story. With only a brisk 88 minutes to tell the story of a young woman of leisure who meets a soldier on leave, becomes pregnant during a one-night romance, and is forced to turn to her compassionate but not altogether altruistic sister for help, Ulmer doesn’t waste a second on periphery. A master of small budgets and quick turnarounds, Ulmer expeditiously leaps through weeks, months, and years in single cuts, bouncing us from New Orleans to the middle of nowhere to New York without any pretense of detail, or even any logic at times, quietly building momentum through character and narrative. It’s as though every scene begins with the words, “And then…” Despite the brisk economy with which the story unfolds, Ulmer is patient with nearly every scene and doesn’t force a heavy hand onto an already sensationalist premise. To be sure, the fallen woman film lends itself easily to exploitation, and Her Sister’s Secret has its share. But amidst the fractured relationships and damaged psyches, Ulmer constantly undercuts the inherent tabloid moralism of his story, creating instead a surprisingly sensitive depiction of womanhood as a cacophony of roles that can’t be reconciled, and the tacit agreement we all make to pretend that they can.
Click HERE for showtimes and more information about the UCLA Festival of Preservation 2016.
The Fits (2016; Dir.: Anna Rose Holmer)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco.
A scrappy and big-hearted brawler of a film, but one without any real fighting spirit or punching power (OK, that’s enough with the boxing metaphors). First-timer Holmer helms this half-gnawed fingernail of a narrative about Toni (newcomer Royalty Hightower), a taciturn and determined young girl who trains in a Cincinnati boxing gym with her older brother. Toni harbors a powerful desire to slide over to the dance class next door, but when she tries out for the troupe, the mean-girl older dancers start suffering inexplicable seizures, and a good deal of circumstantial evidence points back to our protagonist. The Fits is being positioned as a breakout role for 10 year-old star Hightower, and she certainly has a strong screen presence, steely and magnetic from the moment she starts counting out sit-ups, but Holmer’s trendy disaffection leaves Hightower and the rest of this largely amateur cast without much to do. In lieu of character development, we get scores of shots of people squinting into the sun and staring into mirrors, while Holmer leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks (I can do that at home). To be fair, I’m just completely over this wishy-washy, “impressionistic,” Ain’t Them Bodies Saints shit. I liked some of the Lubezki, Jr. camera moves, and a cool final musical number saves The Fits from the Dump-yard, but otherwise it feels padded even at 72 minutes.