IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Ornithologist”

The Ornithologist (2017; Dir.: João Pedro Rodrigues)

GRADE: C+

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, June 7, at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

Un-tethered weirdness for the sake of weirdness from Portuguese writer-director Rodrigues (The Last Time I Saw Macao), an alternately hypnotic and slumberous hike deep into a wacky jungle of death, madness and religious symbolism.  Paul Hamy headlines as the titular bird expert, a handsome cipher named Fernando whose expedition gets waylaid first by kayak-crushing rapids, and then by the pair of psychotic Chinese pilgrims who both save and threaten his life.  Lost and on the run, the ornithologist’s escape turns episodic in the Conrad/Coppola mold, only with a thick dollop of sleepy surrealism on top.  Along his journey, Fernando encounters a forest of taxidermy predators, a band of marauding jungle spirits and a down-to-clown sheepherder, and the action only gets more drowsily impenetrable from there.   The Ornithologist doesn’t lack for singularly strange moments, using a darkly atmospheric score and the lush, liquid fire images of cinematographer Rui Poças to great effect, but I mostly felt as frustrated and adrift as the protagonist.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Little Hours”

The Little Hours (2017; Dir.: Jeff Baena)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, July 7, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

More high-concept comedy from Life After Beth director and I Heart Huckabees screenwriter Baena, this time an oddball adaptation of a single story from Boccaccios’s 14th-century literary keystone The Decameron.  Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci play lusty young nuns in a remote Italian convent run by Molly Shannon’s repressed mother and John C. Reilly’s drunken priest, while Dave Franco plays a refugee Lothario hiding out as a deaf-mute handyman.  Bawdy encounters abound, and similar to The Beguiled, the mere presence of Franco’s seasoned but repentant lover drives these cloistered women into a heretical heat, leading to an unexpectedly intense scene set during a witches’ ritual.  The deadpan “gag” here: no one from the cast makes any attempt to hide their American accents or potty-mouthed contemporary vernacular, while the warm, burnished images of cinematographer Quyen Tran misleadingly suggest a more traditional take.  There’s not much notable about The Little Hours beyond that irresistible premise,  and yet I was tickled almost the entire time, largely thanks to an ensemble cast utterly committed to making their moments work.

The Year in Barnesyard – 2017 Mid-Year Review

TOP 10 FILMS OF 2017

1) Your Name.

MY TAKE: “It’s the rare work of art that can base an extraordinarily powerful moment of emotional catharsis on a recurring joke about compulsive boob-squeezing, but that’s the miracle of this movie.”

2) A Ghost Story

MY TAKE: ***COMING SOON***

3) Get Out

MY TAKE: “Writer-director Jordan Peele’s Get Out is a smart and stylish sociological horror movie more akin to recent revisionist genre entries like The Babadook and It Follows, albeit with a healthy helping of What We Do in the Shadows-level belly laughs.”

4) Kedi

MY TAKE: “Part God-mode Cats of Instagram story stream, part sly travelogue of modern-day Istanbul, Kedi follows about a dozen different street cats and the lives that they have touched. ”

5) John Wick: Chapter 2

MY TAKE: “Good acting is good acting, however you get there, and Reeves is flat-out great in John Wick: Chapter 2.  Every line of dialogue gets strangled in his throat, every life-loathing emotion scars his face, every gesture suggests a ghost who doesn’t realize he’s dead yet.”

6) The Little Hours

MY TAKE: ***COMING SOON***

7) Logan

8) A Quiet Passion

MY TAKE: “Get pumped to loiter over the sumptuous anti-sumptuousness of Terence Davies’ meticulous yet ethereal Emily Dickinson biopic.”

9) Harmonium

MY TAKE: “A borderline unbearable bummer at times, but also quietly captivating, with smart and evocative framing and a trio of excellent performances.”

10) Free Fire

MY TAKE: “The hard-boiled, insult-comic dialogue might sometimes lean a little closer to Guy Ritchie than Quentin Tarantino, but the energy and momentum are undeniable—the film has a way of relentlessly slicing forward every time you expect it to stagnate.”

BOTTOM 5 FILMS OF 2017

1) Baywatch

MY TAKE: “Almost every shot is framed to appease corporate sponsors. The only exception is a seemingly endless sequence toward the beginning of the film that involves a plucky slob who gets his genitals stuck in a beach chair — according to recent Pentagon leaks, that scene was created to torture prisoners of war.”

2) Bitter Harvest

MY TAKE: “The supporting cast mixes abashed slummers like Barry Peppers and Terence Stamp with equally abashed no-names, and as the wishy-washy protagonist who learns to love the saber, 30-something “adolescent” Max Irons gives a performance that can only be described as bad.”

3) The Book of Henry

MY TAKE: “A first half of magical treehouses, Rube Goldberg contraptions, brassy best friends and half-witted intelligence is bad enough, but a midpoint twist flips The Book of Henry into a Manic Pixie Rape Revenge movie.”

4) In Dubious Battle

MY TAKE: “Director and star James Franco clearly called in every favor he was ever owed to fill the cast of this John Steinbeck adaptation, especially since this punishingly literal film feels like a low-budget, heart-on-sleeve vanity project. ”

5) Beauty and the Beast

MY TAKE: “This latest incarnation is a high-gloss recycle job, designed to do nothing more than massage your nostalgia sensors for two interminable hours – this is a film that wants to stand on the shoulders of giants, while still acting like it’s winning the dunk contest.”

TOP 10 2016 RELEASES THAT I STILL NEED TO SEE

Baby Driver

Contemporary Color

Frantz

Graduation

In Transit

It Comes at Night

The Lost City of Z

The Lure

Personal Shopper

Song to Song

AWARD WORTHY PERFORMANCES

Michael Fassbender and Katherine Waterston, Alien: Covenant

Tony Shalhoub, The Assignment

Salma Hayek, Beatriz at Dinner

Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell, The Beguiled

Nick Kroll, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Anne Hathaway, Colossal

Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm, The Commune

Sharlto Copley and Cillian Murphy, Free Fire

Catherine Keener, Daniel Kaluuya, Bradley Whitford and Allison Williams, Get Out

Rooney Mara and Johnny Mars, A Ghost Story

Mariko Tsutsui and Tadanobu Asano, Harmonium

Sam Elliott, The Hero

Emma Booth and Ashleigh Cummings, Hounds of Love

Melanie Lynskey, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore

Keanu Reeves, John Wick: Chapter 2

Allison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and John C. Reilly, The Little Hours

Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen, Logan

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, The Lovers

Jason Schwartzman, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Richard Gere, Norman

Ahn Seo-hyun, Okja 

Cynthia Nixon, A Quiet Passion

Damien Bonnard, Staying Vertical

Steve Zahn, War for the Planet of the Apes

Avraham Aviv Alush, The Women’s Balcony

Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman

RELATED LETTERBOXD LISTS AND LINKS

2017 New Release Power Rankings

2017 Catchup list

Top 25 “Discoveries” of 2017

2017 Letterboxd stats

The Barnesyard’s Sacto/SF Now Playing Power Rankings (June 30-July 6, 2017)

Click the links to read Daniel’s reviews.

* = playing in 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
*7) Maudie

MIXED-POSITIVE

8) The Beguiled
9) Cars 3
10) Alien: Covenant
*11) The Women’s Balcony
12) Beatriz at Dinner
*13) Nowhere to Hide

MIXED-NEGATIVE

*14) My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea
*15) The Big Sick
*16) Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
17) Wonder Woman
18) The Hero

OFFICIALLY DUMPED

19) Transformers: The Last Knight
*20) Paris Can Wait
21) The Mummy
*22) The Wedding Plan
23) Letters from Baghdad
24) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
25) Beauty and the Beast
26) The Book of Henry

HAVEN’T SEEN

All Eyez on Me
Baby Driver
*The Bad Batch
The Boss Baby
*Buster’s Mal Heart
*Chuck
*Dean
Despicable Me 3
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
47 Meters Down
Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2
The House
*It Comes at Night
*The Journey
*Like Crazy
*Manifesto
Megan Leavey
*Moka
*My Cousin Rachel
Rough Night
*Slack Bay
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) – “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 too easy for formalist aesthetes to callously dismiss their depictions of pain and suffering as genre cliches.  Few if any of these films boast distinctive cinematic 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 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.