The Unknown Girl (2017; Dir.: Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, September 22, at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco.
The Dardenne Brothers, those Belgian purveyors of austerity and despair, have always been a tough sell for mainstream audiences. Their films are so raw, so pure, so devoid of artifice and often so hopeless, it’s hard to explain how the act of watching them can be such an engrossing, white-knuckle experience. Still, even the auteur geeks shrugged their shoulders at Luc and Jean-Pierre’s latest effort when it premiered sixteen months ago at Cannes, and for good reason – this disaffected, by-the-numbers effort feels more like the work of the filmmakers they influenced than the real McCoy. Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a talented doctor who goes into a liberal guilt tailspin when an unidentified young woman denied late-night entry into the clinic winds up dead. In an attempt to determine the dead woman’s identity, Jenny obsessively pursues the case, crossing one professional line after another while maintaining a strangely strict confidentiality policy. All of the Dardenne Brothers elements are in place, including regulars Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier in key supporting roles, but the film never manages to build tension, and we don’t get emotionally involved in Jenny’s journey. A sleepy lead performance from Haenel certainly doesn’t help, but the bigger problem is that much like the lead character in Lorna’s Silence, Jenny’s only defining trait is her kamikaze self-sacrifice. I’m sure there’s a Christian allegory that I’m missing here, but a blandly sturdy, stutter-stop drama is a blandly sturdy, stutter-stop drama in any denomination.
The Girl Without Hands (2017; Dir.: Sébastien Laudenbach)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, September 15, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
In this woozy adaptation of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale, a young girl is sold to the devil by her poor father in exchange for a river of gold…with sexy results! She is protected by her cleanliness and leaves her family for the forest, where she meets a water goddess and marries a prince, but the devil’s persistent schemes eventually drive them apart. It always kills me when I have to lambaste a hand-animated passion project, but French director Laudenbach’s half-drawn watercolor images largely left me unmoved. Even at a mere 76 minutes, the muddy pacing, vague designs and muted emotions of The Girl Without Hands make it a bit of a chore. To its credit, the film feels like a more faithful version of the Grimm Brothers than we usually get from the edge-sanding Disney adaptations, but it ultimately cares more about splashing around in a pool of hippy-dippy aloofness than developing strong characters.
I Do… Until I Don’t (2017; Dir.: Lake Bell)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, September 1.
Oh, wow, no.
Writer/director/producer/lead actress Lake Bell follows up her underwhelming but affable 2013 debut In a World… with this shockingly unfunny film. The embarrassing ensemble comedy I Do…Until I Don’t revolves around three utterly revolting couples – Bell and Ed Helms as a childless duo who have lost the spark; Mary Steenburgen and Paul Reiser as her parents, hostile and hurtling towards divorce; and Amber Heard and Wyatt Cenac as self-identified swingers coming to terms with their monogamy. They’re all distinctly unlikable characters with the shrill performances to match, but none of them compares to Dolly Wells as Vivian, a documentary filmmaker who manipulates the couples to prove a point about abolishing marriage. Right down to that insipid, cutesy-poo title, I Do…Until I Don’t feels like a succession of bullet-point cliches about love and sex and marriage that no one ever bothered to develop, connect together or base in any kind of reality.
Gook (2017; Dir.: Justin Chon)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, August 25, at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
When Martin Scorsese combined Cassavetes’ methods with the beloved crime films of his youth and filtered it through his own pseudo-biographical religious hangups in his excellent Mean Streets, did he have any clue just how much bad cinema he had unleashed? Scorsese fell out of critical favor in the 1980s (great job again, critics!) but got rediscovered by the VCR generation, with the gritty and masculine Mean Streets becoming his most readily regurgitate-able property. Every other independent film from the 1990s felt like a half-assed clone of Mean Streets, and Justin Chon’s Gook, a black-and-white day-in-the-life set in 1992 Los Angeles just as the riots are ready to explode, attempts to recapture the raw intimacy of the independent films from that era. Gook does capture some of the visceral qualities of those films, but a lot more gets caught in the net – the shoddy narratives, the inconsistent pacing, the amateur-hour dream sequences, the woefully unrestrained actors, the over-reliance on out-of-control melodrama, the method of allowing every emotional scene to devolve into a chaotic screaming contest. Writer-director Chon also stars as Eli, a Korean shoe store owner dealing with racism, cultural alienation, financial instability and a host of contrived, interlacing, ticking-clock story threads. The cacophonous result comes a lot closer to recapturing the spirit of Crash than the spirit of the 1990s.
Whose Streets? (2017; Dir.: Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, August 11, at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark California in Berkeley.
A portrait of activism captured by activists, mostly focusing on street-level views of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, which were held in response to the police murder of African-American teenager Michael Brown. The sickeningly violent and dehumanizing police and military actions against peaceful protesters in Ferguson eventually sparked riots, but they also galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement into a literal life or death cause. Naturally, the compliant mainstream media stood behind the lines and reported on looters instead of investigating police brutality, but Whose Streets? was largely assembled through various cell phone videos, giving us a powerfully intimate look inside a city under occupation and a people under siege. Black Lives Matter leaders are understandably wary about their portrayal in the media, and even though the activist credentials of the directors allowed them unique access, background details and personal arcs are still reduced to a bare minimum. While the result is less coherent and lacerating than last year’s Do Not Resist, as a horrifyingly immediate compilation of battle footage from the American war on black people, and as a snapshot of activism in flux, Whose Streets? is utterly indispensable.
Columbus (2017; Dir.: Kogonada)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, August 11, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
An auspicious but arid directing debut from video essayist Kogonada, with a rare showcase role for John Cho and a potential breakout performance from Haley Lu Richardson (she played Hailee Steinfeld’s best friend in The Edge of Seventeen, as well as one of the kidnapped teens in Split). The film takes place in Columbus, Indiana, a small mid-western town with an unusual concentration of modern architecture landmarks, and Kogonada makes stunning (if annoyingly on-the-nose) visual and symbolic use of the buildings. Cho plays an American-born man living in Korea who travels to Columbus to attend to his estranged father, a world-renowned architecture expert on the verge of death; Richardson plays a teenage dropout and architecture buff still over-caring for her ex-addict mother. These two lost souls connect over their mutual alienation, leading to long nights spent discussing architecture, ambitions, families and cultural differences, and there are superficial resemblances to Lost in Translation and Before Sunrise. Unfortunately, the novelty of actors posing in front of architectural marvels evaporates fast, leaving us with an all-too-familiar festival film about a messed-up adult returning home to deal with family problems, and a privileged teenager summoning the courage to accept a paid internship at Yale. Kogonada shows some promise, but the film is positively listless by the end, and fairly lacking in substance given the intelligentsia trappings and novel-like tone.