Uncategorized

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.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Staying Vertical”

rsz_staying-vertical-cannes-film-festivalStaying Vertical (2017; Dir.: Alain Guiraudie)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, March 3, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

Alain Guiraudie’s self-contained, cryptic, borderline pornographic, Hitchcock-goes-homoerotic Stranger by the Lake was a jaw-dropping breakthrough in 2013/2014, but it was actually the sixth feature film for the 52 year-old French writer-director.  Staying Vertical is his highly anticipated follow-up (it premiered last summer at Cannes), and anyone bothered by the elliptical nature of Stranger by the Lake will be driven mad by this strange and inscrutable squirm.  A fractured and scowling narrative that alternates pitiless darkness with the elements of a rollicking comedy, Staying Vertical follows Léo (Damien Bonnard), a drifting screenwriter dodging his obligations in the French countryside.  Léo shacks up with and impregnates a sheep-herding single mother, but when he can’t commit to a life together, she abandons him with the baby and her disturbed father.  Guiraudie frequently abandons the audience in the story – we drift in and out of the narrative just as Léo drifts in and out of people’s lives – but for all of the film’s self-infatuated drifting, it also offers no shortage of deeply disturbing show-stopper sequences, peaking with a scene in which Léo tenderly sodomizes an old man to death while prog rock blasts in the background.  That’s not something you simply watch and forget.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “My Life as a Zucchini”

rsz_courgette31My Life as a Zucchini (2017; Dir.: Claude Barras)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, March 3, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Spoiler alert: this film is not about a little boy who transforms into a zucchini.  That goofball title and the Pop Art-meets-Cubist character designs do nothing to prepare you for this relatively realistic and fairly dark portrait of abused and abandoned children.  Director and co-writer Barras adapts a 2002 novel from French writer Gilles Paris into a stop-motion animated coming-of-age dramedy.  It’s an interesting choice of format for the adaptation, given the subject matter – a boy accidentally kills his alcoholic mother and gets sent to a rural orphanage, where he feuds and bonds with his damaged housemates, and is frequently visited by a kindly policeman – and the movie possesses a naturalistic tone, style, sound and pace quite unlike anything else in the current world of animated film.  But that sore thumb status doesn’t always work in the film’s favor – as much as My Life as a Zucchini is French-in-a-good-way (intelligent, searching, free from repression), it’s also pretty French-in-a-bad-way (formless, meandering, pitiless yet sentimental).  Animation aficionados need to ingest this thing post haste; all others, tread lightly.

Short Reviews of Short Movies – 2017 Edition – Oscar Nominated Shorts

PIPER*The Oscar Nominated Animated and Live-Action Short Film Programs are now playing throughout Northern California. Read my 2016 Oscar-nominated shorts coverage HERE.

ANIMATED SHORT NOMINEES (arranged from best to worst)

  1. Piper (Alan Barillaro; USA)

2.Pear Cider and Cigarettes (Robert Valley; Canada)

These are the only two films in either program that rise above the squishy middle, and they couldn’t be more different.  Pixar’s wordless, 6-minute Piper is a model of visual and narrative economy, while still tantalizing your eyeballs with a stunning level of sumptuous detail.  And it’s Pixar, so naturally they know how to wring a tear from this simple coming-of-age tale about a baby sandpiper without squeezing too hard. Canadian artist Robert Valley’s 35-minute Pear Cider and Cigarettes, on the other hand, is a full-blown graphic novel come to life, a jittery yet elastic story about the narrator’s childhood hero facing his end while waiting for a Chinese kidney.

3. Pearl (Patrick Osborne; USA)

Another wordless six minutes of smart visual storytelling, but goddamn if this decades-spanning tale that views a father-daughter relationship from the inside of their automobile doesn’t feel like a long-form domestic car commercial.  Although beautifully executed, it’s an ode to innocence that feels too cynical to succeed; in other words, it’s boomer porn, so obviously it has the best chance to upset Piper, especially if the never-Pixars get out the vote.

4. Borrowed Time (Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj; USA)

5. Blind Vaysha (Theodore Ushev; Canada)

Hard to know what to make of either of these; in the same way that some films feel created for the sole purpose of winning awards, these two and Pearl feel like miniature versions of the same strategy.  Borrowed Time has some impressively vivid visuals, but the story of a cowboy reliving a painful incident from his youth is filled with a dark, empty portent worthy of Villenueve at his worst.   Meanwhile, Blind Vaysha smooshes our noses into drippy allegory – the title character lives with one eye that sees only the past, and one eye that sees only the future, and the film ends by asking, “How many of us see the world like Blind Vaysha?”  Derp!rsz_pear_cider_and-_cigarettes07.jpg

LIVE-ACTION SHORT NOMINEES (arranged from best to worst)

  1. TIMECODE (Petra Lottje; Germany)

Hoo-boy, we’re in for a slog when this pleasant trifle is the belle of the ball.  Two parking lot security guards who never speak trade modern dance moves during the late shift, directing each other to the camera and timecode that captured their gyrations.  It builds to an entertaining finale where the now-fired workers perform for their bastard boss and his off-the-books new-hire, and it closes on the most obvious punchline.  Like I said, it’s not a great group.

2. Enemies Within (Selim Azzazi; France)

3. Sing (Kristóf Deák; Hungary)

A couple of decent and heartfelt films undermined by their anonymous aesthetics and annoying self-righteousness.  Enemies Within feels eerily ripped from the headlines, as an Algerian-born Muslim living in France applies for citizenship, and promptly finds himself slated for interrogation and possible deportation.  It’s a Stanley Kramer sort of short, if you know what I mean.  The Hungarian entry Sing also carries a certain topical relevance – it’s about bullying and peer pressure, to an extent, but it’s largely about children rejecting the ethical laxity of their elders, as a choir teacher pressures weak singers to pantomime.  Sing ends on a perfect albeit smug note of silent protest, but I wish there was more rhythm and soul to the piece.rsz_zz1bbf4214

4. Silent Nights (Aske Bang; Denmark)

5. The Railroad Lady (Timo von Gunten; Switzerland)

Ugh.  The process of winnowing down the world of 2016 short films into five nominees is long and filled with checks and balances…and you end up nominating these two stinkers?  Silent Nights is the Dardennes Brothers sellout movie of my nightmares, a nauseatingly pious and pseudo-inspirational love story between a huge-hearted Danish volunteer and an African-born homeless man.  Even if it lands in an icky place, at least Silent Nights feels somewhat edgy and relevant – starring Blow-Up blonde Jane Birkin as a cranky widow crushing on the train driver who whizzes by her window every day, The Railroad Lady is nothing more than  The Shortest Exotic Marigold Hotel.  It’s actually pretty appalling that this film is nominated…I wish I knew the short film scene well enough to suggest several dozen alternatives, but I’m fairly certain that they’re out there.  Obviously, The Railroad Lady is the best bet to win the Oscar.

IN THEATERS – “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

rsz_160401406_7888dbRogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016; Dir.: Gareth Edwards)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens everywhere December 16.

After the joyless vapidity of the prequels, J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens rebooted the franchise back to its original settings, honoring the past while also building infrastructure for innumerable future additions.  It was a throwback and a step forward at the same time, almost pathologically rehashing visuals and story beats from the original Star Wars trilogy, but also righting past wrongs by expanding the racial makeup of the ensemble and making the female characters more active.

But it was not a great film.  Abrams tried to serve so many masters that A Force Awakens ultimately became a little faceless and overstuffed, and in the end it succeeded more as an exercise in Star Wars-isn’t-lame-anymore optics than as a fully rounded movie experience.  At best, it made the Star Wars universe feel tactile and human again, refocusing on the characters while remaining vague and anonymous enough to allow future franchise directors to make some corner of the galaxy their own.

Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first of what will no doubt be literally tens of thousands of Star Wars extended universe movies, a sort of Episode III and a Half one-off designed to fill space between Episode VII and next year’s Episode VIII.  And although Rogue One thankfully continues the trend of character-based stories, tactile visuals, active female characters and diverse ensembles, while also taking the franchise to some new and fascinating places, it definitely feels like filler.rsz_4maxresdefault

The first of several key diversions from the classic Star Wars form comes right away, when instead of a story crawl we get a shock cut, followed by a series of eerily beautiful shots tracking a single spacecraft across a lonely planet.  These early scenes establish the backstory of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones, capable but unmemorable, especially following Daisy Ridley’s breakthrough role in The Force Awakens), a prisoner and outcast haunted by her past.  Years later, Jyn joins with a shifty Rebel spy (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid (Alan Tudyk) to learn more about the Empire’s newly built Death Star.

Rogue One takes place after the fall of the Republic in Revenge of the Sith and before the destruction of the Death Star in A New Hope, but it only associates itself with the latter film, even offering creepily spot-on recreations of beloved characters from that 1977 classic.  Maybe it latches on too tight – there are a number of striking and singular shots in Rogue One, and it’s less busy than The Force Awakens, but beyond adding some interesting visual texture and moral dimensions to the Star Wars universe, it’s hard to get over the fact that the story is a foregone conclusion, with the one-note characters to match.

Ultimately, this is a film about stealing plans, which is almost as lame as the trade embargoes and Galactic Senate resolutions of the prequels.  At this rate, how long before we get an entire film built around the origin story of Chewbacca’s bandolier?