In Theaters

“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.

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.

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.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “God of War”

God of War (2017; Dir.: Gordon Chan)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, June 2, at the AMC Van Ness 14 in San Francisco.

Hong Kong-born yeoman Chan delivers this war epic about Japanese pirates battling with Chinese armies in the 16th century.  An unholy alliance has formed between scurrilous pirates and honor-bound samurai looking to assert Japan’s dominance, with the much larger Ming Army getting beaten back time and again by the entrenched invaders.  Enter General Qi (Wenzhuo Zhao), an innovative warrior who remakes the militia by forging a deal with a scrappy band of small-town street fighters.  The battle scenes in God of War are more influenced by the nonstop, scale-bursting thrust of Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings films than by the spatial elegance of something like The Seven Samurai.  It’s not necessarily a beautiful film – there’s no One. Perfect. Shot. to single out, and a lot of the shots that come close are compromised by lame CGI explosions – but the sustained intensity of the action is thoroughly thrilling, even if the narrative often feels cut up and compacted.

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 submerged and smoldering.  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.