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?

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Evolution”

rsz_evolution-lucile-hadzihalilovic-torontoEvolution (2016; Dir.: Lucile Hadzihalilovic)

GRADE: B-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.

An unusual, fairly original entry into the horror genre, blending together Lost-style intrigue, Cronenberg-ian body horror and European neo-miserable disaffection.  Unfortunately, despite a truly disturbing core and some nightmarish moments, I often felt disconnected from and unmoved by French director Hadzihalilovic’s icy approach and occasionally indifferent style.  Even though the first significant plot reveal comes less than fifteen minutes into the film, Evolution is fairly impossible to write about without digging into spoilers, if only because the entire story could be described from start to finish in a couple of well-worded sentences.  I’ll ladle out this much soup: it’s set on a remote island run by fish-faced women who dote on their sons with a little too much intensity.  And I’ve said too much already!  Bizarre and singular enough to maintain your interest, with some potent images and icky ideas, but the film’s long, terse tease proves equally enticing and frustrating.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “Daughters of the Dust”

rsz_daughters-of-the-dust-630x330-2_lgDaughters of the Dust (1991; Dir.: Julie Dash)

GRADE: B

By Daniel Barnes

*Now playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.

It took Julie Dash fifteen years to make Daughters of the Dust, and although it’s raw and occasionally impenetrable, it’s also the sort of breakthrough low-budget movie that should have been the stepping stone to a grand cinematic career.  Twenty-five years later and Daughters of the Dust is still Dash’s only theatrical feature, although she has made numerous shorts, TV movies and music videos, and written two books related to the film (a biographical making-of and a literary sequel).  Daughters of the Dust has become a compromise-free cultural touchstone in the interim, a guiding light for aspiring African-American and female filmmakers and artists, liberally referenced in Beyonce’s long-form video Lemonade, and selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 2004. Narrated by an unborn child, the film tells the story of a Gullah family (descendants of slaves who lived in relative isolation on islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina) in 1902 as they prepare to move north, while the matriarch beseeches her family not to forget their way of life.  The film has a flowing, lyrical structure that slowly envelops you, immersing you in a lost language, culture and time, and the images of African-American women in long, white dresses and starched collars playing on a lonely beach are worthy of their iconic status.

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part II

rsz_film_hero_demon_01_1Monday, November 21

I Am Not Your Negro (Dir.: Raoul Peck; GRADE: B+)

Do not open until 2017.

Demon (Dir.: Marcin Wrona; GRADE: B-)

An admirable but only fitfully successful arthouse horror movie about a Polish wedding disrupted by a “dybbuk,” an angry and dissatisfied Jewish spirit that attaches itself to the Israeli groom.  As the groom’s behavior grows increasingly erratic and dangerous, exhuming not just ghosts but long-buried secrets of atrocities against the Jews, the father of the bride plies his guests with more and more vodka, and soon enough their bacchanal merges with the supernatural suffering.  Wrona favors disturbing compositions and shock cuts over long-winded explanations, but the final act still falls into a navel-gazing tailspin.

The Thoughts That Once We Had (Dir.: Thom Andersen; GRADE: B)

Another wide-ranging, thought-provoking documentary intersecting cinema, politics, philosophy and personal taste from the director of Los Angeles Plays Itself, only far less enveloping and focused an experience.  Andersen crafts a personal history of cinema through the lens of Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher who often wrote about film.  I honestly can’t say that I grokked much of what Anderson laid down here, but I dug his rap all the same – it’s a pungently intellectual and marvelously curated cinematic journey.rsz_unsun

Jackie (Dir.: Pablo Larrain; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until December 21.  Check out my updated MVFF39 Power Rankings HERE.

Julieta (Dir.: Pedro Almodovar; GRADE: B-)

Do not open until 2017.  Check out my updated Pedro Almodovar Power Rankings HERE.

Under the Sun (Dir.: Vitaly Mansky; GRADE: B+)

Unbelievable.  When Ukrainian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky was given government permission to make a documentary about a typical North Korean family, he was followed round-the-clock by bureaucrats who monitored the production and tailored the script to glorify the country, but the b-roll footage smuggled out and fashioned into Under the Sun tells a different story.  North Korea is fascinating not just because it’s a Lynch-ian nightmare parody of fascism, but because it makes us think about how our own country is run in a subtly similar way: like a flashy cult filled with mindless rituals, spotlighting heroism and prosperity while the poor and exploited are rendered invisible.

Wednesday, November 23

Elle (Dir.: Paul Verhoeven; GRADE: B+)

rsz_the-waveDo not open until 2017.  Check out my updated Paul Verhoeven Power Rankings HERE.

Nerve (Dir.: Henry Joost and Ariel Schuman; GRADE: B-)

Reasonably entertaining idiocy, with Emma Roberts and Dave Franco as “players” in a game controlled by anonymous online “watchers” who push the participants into ever more embarrassing and dangerous stunts.  Think Pokemon Go meets truth or dare meets murder, directed by the “brains” behind Catfish.  It’s breathless and salacious enough to hold your interest, and while the film seems to shed IQ points as it hurtles towards a truly stupid finish, it’s still better than probably half the films that will get nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year.

Finding Dory (Dir.: Andrew Stanton; GRADE: B)

Thoroughly unnecessary piffle, with a lot of narrative structural integrity issues and some obvious 11th-hour tinkering, but like last year’s similarly strained The Good Dinosaur, it’s pushed over by the usual expert Pixar craftsmanship.  The chameleonic octopus voiced by Ed O’Neill is the one element that unquestionably works, so he gets repeatedly shoehorned into scenes where his presence makes little sense, presumably filling in for excised storylines.  There are a few memorable setpieces, solid voice work and the usual cleverness and beauty you expect from Pixar – this isn’t a Cars 2-level embarrassment, but it’s pretty far from great.  Check out my updated Pixar Power Rankings HERE.rsz_les_saisons_galatee

Lion (Dir.: Garth Davis; GRADE: C)

Do not open until December 21.

Thursday, November 24

The Wave (Dir.: Roar Uthaug; GRADE: B-)

I’m obviously running low on viable screener options when I pop in a Norwegian disaster movie on Thanksgiving morning, but you go to war with the army you’ve got.  This was actually a pretty watchable facsimile of American disaster movies, with the emphasis placed on characters rather than carnage, even better than San Andreas if not for the absence of Alexandra Daddario.

Les Saisons (Dir.: Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud; GRADE: C+)

Perrin and Cluzaud previously collaborated on nature documentaries like Winged Migration and Oceans, and their strength has always been their ability to get close to their wildlife subjects without superimposing a contrived human narrative on the creatures.  That appreciation for beauty and persistence, and that restraint in the face of DisneyNature aggression, comes across once again in Les Saisons, although a heavy-handed framing device about man’s intrusion into the world’s timeline drags the film down.  There are some gorgeous individual images, but they all feel disconnected from the didacticism at the heart of this thing.

Friday, November 25

rsz_close-up_red_1The Love Witch (Dir.: Anna Biller; GRADE: C+)

This deliberately retrograde horror satire mimics the clothes and colors of 1960s Technicolor movies (even though the characters use cell phones), and the acting is extremely mannered and bad in a way that I can only assume is meant to evoke the same.  Biller’s film is getting a lot of love from critics, but I felt as alienated and annoyed by this cinematic re-appropriation as I have felt in the past about some of Guy Maddin’s movies…there’s an element of contemptuous superiority and intentional shittiness that I just can’t hurdle.

High-Rise ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Ben Wheatley; GRADE: B+)

No significant insights or changes of opinion from my initial viewing of this pitch-black adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s satire on 1970’s capitalism and convenience.  In a weak year for award-worthy male acting performances, Tom Hiddleston’s sleek showing as the social-climbing Dr. Laing has a good shot of making my SFFCC and Indiewire ballots, while Luke Evans’ highly physical performance as the working-class Wilder still has an outside chance in the supporting actor category.

20th Century Women (Dir.: Mike Mills; GRADE: C)

Do not open until Xmas.rsz_hero_krisha-2016

Krisha ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Trey Edward Shults; GRADE: A-)

Again, no real changes from my first viewing of this sucker-punch domestic drama.  Either cruelly compassionate or compassionately cruel, Krisha feels like the family dinner scene from Punch-Drunk Love developed into a full-length feature – the film practically vibrates with a nervous energy.  Shults shot the film in his parents’ house and used friends and family as actors, including his aunt Krisha Fairchild, who gives a devastatingly desperate performance in the title role.  Shults landed a two-picture deal with Krisha distributor A24, so it will be exciting to see what happens once he leaves the nest.

Look for Part III of my 2016 Cramfest Capsules sometime next week. You can read Part I of the 2016 Cramfest HERE, and check out my frequently updated 2016 Power Rankings HERE.

2016 End-of-Year Cramfest Capsules, Part I

rsz_rightnowwrongthenOnce again this year, I am devoting the entire week of Thanksgiving to catching up with the 2016 films that I missed, as well as re-watching some of my favorites of the year so far.  We begin this annual cinematic orgy with an invocation to our deity:

All hail, Awards Season!  Tyrant of all she surveys!  Oppressor of cinephiles!  Scourge of the pudgy and bespectacled!  Defiler of evenings and weekends!  Obvious Billy Crudup fan!  Long may her tastefully bland mediocrities occupy our otherwise presumably intelligent thoughts!

But enough of this palaver, let’s get this show on the road.

Thursday, November 17

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi ***REWATCH*** (Dir.: Michael Bay; GRADE: B+)

Nothing new to report, this is still terrifying and awesome, and the best thing that Bay has ever done, with literally dozens of memorably haunting images.  A tactile action clarity only tantalizingly teased at in Bay’s earlier work comes to full fruition in 13 Hours – it’s as though you can feel the impact of every bullet and the heat of every explosion.  Benghazi became a political football for alt-right, neo-fascist liars, so naturally most critics responded by pre-judging and dismissing a work of art, makes total sense.rsz_i-daniel-blake-3

Right Now, Wrong Then (Dir.: Sang-soo Hong; GRADE: B+)

I’m fairly new to the world of South Korean shoegazer Hong, but Right Now, Wrong Then feels like the apotheosis of his aesthetic, thoroughly refined and perfectly detailed while remaining true to his Rohmer-meets-Linklater-meets-Spike Jonze world of doubled action, unattainable attractions and all-night sake bar hangouts.  A Hong-like director (Jung Jae-young) and an aspiring artist (The Handmaiden star Kim Min-Hee) spend the same day together twice, the first time ending in blustery disaster, the second time still awkward but more honest and meaningful.  It’s strangely lovely.

I, Daniel Blake (Dir.: Ken Loach; GRADE: B-)

Ken Loach won his second Palme d’Or for this lion-hearted but logy slice of working-class life, and it wasn’t even one of the top 5,000 most annoying things to happen in 2016.  Stand-up comedian Dave Johns plays Daniel, a crab with a heart of gold stumbling through a cold, cruel, Internet-automated health care system in search of justice.  Johns is quite good, but there’s not much here that you haven’t seen in dozens of other quirky indie issues dramas.rsz_sully

Friday, November 18

Manchester by the Sea (Dir.: Kenneth Lonergan; GRADE: B+)

Reviewed in the 12/1 issue of the SN&R.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Dir.: Ang Lee; GRADE: C+)

Reviewed in the 11/23 issue of the SN&R.

Sully (Dir.: Clint Eastwood; GRADE: B)

A sturdy retelling of the 2009 Miracle on the Hudson from inside the bubble, and focused like most of Eastwood’s recent work on American perceptions of heroism and unresolvable conflict.  Tom Hanks gives a tutorial in kinetic understatement as the hero pilot, but the supporting performances are a lumpy mixed bag.  It’s certainly well-mounted – the cinematography, production design, special effects, sound and editing are all top-notch, although Eastwood’s jazz piano score feels extremely out of place.

Saturday, November 19

rsz_kateplayschristine02The Eagle Huntress (Dir.: Otto Ball; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed in the 12/15 issue of the SN&R.

Kate Plays Christine (Dir.: Robert Greene; GRADE: B+)

The other 2016 Christine Chubbuck movie, not the comparatively traditional biopic of Antonio Campos’ Christine, but a highly original meta-documentary that follows indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the role of Chubbuck.  Anyone discomforted by the exploitative nature of Christine (the Sarasota-based TV journalist Chubbuck committed suicide on the air in 1974) might appreciate Greene’s more meditative approach, as the entire film is dedicated to Sheil empathizing with and understanding Chubbuck, literally trying to get under her sun-tanned skin.

13th (Dir.: Ava Duvernay; GRADE: C+)

Commendable on a conceptual level, and impossible to disagree with any of the broad stroke arguments, but Duvernay’s flashy and provocative documentary feels more designed for high school students than for cinephile adults.  Almost all of the best documentaries are focused on discovery, on unrepeatable or unrelated moments adding up to some kind of revelation, but the clips, graphics and talking heads-heavy approach of 13th is all about disseminating known information in a digestible package to an uninformed and potentially unreceptive audience.  Like I said, students.rsz_1ukr_9mar150186_rgb-0-2000-0-1125-crop

Certain Women (Dir.: Kelly Reichardt; GRADE: B)

Give Reichardt credit: the closer she edges to the mainstream, the more terse and austere her movies get.  Certain Women adapts three Maile Meloy short stories into a tenuously connected anthology about the struggle and strength of small-town Montana women.  Laura Dern gives the best performance as a lawyer whose client takes her hostage; Michelle Williams plays a dissatisfied wife who covets a pile of reclaimed brick; and Lily Gladstone plays a ranch hand who develops something like a crush on Kristen Stewart’s neurotic night teacher.  No major complaints – it’s honest, well-acted, thoughtful and accomplished, but I can’t tell you how many times my mind drifted during this thing.

Peter and the Farm (Dir.: Tony Stone; GRADE: B)

Intense, deeply personal and unusually minimalist documentary about Peter Dunning, a gruff, alcoholic, long-time Vermont farmer rapidly reaching the end of his rope, and beginning to fashion that rope into a noose.  Peter and the Farm doesn’t shy away from the realities of farm life (Dunning butchers a lamb from start to finish in one of the film’s first scenes), and it manages to capture both the ethereal, borderline surreal beauty of farm life and the lonely, difficult, often ugly realities of Dunning’s everyday existence.

Sunday, November 20

rsz_things-to-come-reviewThings to Come (Dir.: Mia Hansen-Love; GRADE: B)

French filmmaker Hansen-Love’s previous film Eden failed to enchant me during last year’s Cramfest, and I wasn’t that much higher on this similarly low-pulse, narrative-lite, character piece about a sixty-ish philosophy teacher who re-evaluates her life after losing her mother and her marriage.  The difference maker: the great Isabelle Huppert, incapable of playing a false note, a geyser of strength and complexity, even in the midst of Hansen-Love’s disaffected long nod.

The Edge of Seventeen (Dir.: Kelly Fremon Craig; GRADE: B-)

Reviewed in the 11/23 issue of the SN&R.

IN THEATERS (SF) – “The Handmaiden”

rsz_handmaiden_-_h_2016-large_trans-iwa83j0hzdejtjmphbxpchsfjkrlhalara5cdieerniThe Handmaiden (2016; Dir.: Chan-wook Park)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

*Opens Friday, October 27, in San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission and the Landmark Embarcadero.

The best film of the year so far.  Anyone who has followed me over the years knows my love-hate relationship with the act of taking notes during a film (my chief concern: it interferes with the act of eating Skittles during a film).  It’s valuable when writing a long review, and while it can also be a distraction, I generally find that my attention is more forensic and less reactive when I take notes.  I run hot and cold with note-taking, and I’m in the middle of a cold spell right now, which is all an excuse to say that I feel completely unprepared to discuss Oldboy director Chan-wook Park’s spellbinding The Handmaiden without pages and pages of richly annotated notes at my disposal.  But then I don’t know that any amount of notes could prepare me to wrap my arms around this bottomless well of a movie after a single screening.  After all, I probably couldn’t explain the cosmos after spending a single night under the stars.

rsz_the-handmaiden-cannesMin-hee Kim plays Lady Hideko, a shrinking violet heiress kept by her creepy collector uncle, while Kim Tae-ri plays Sook-Hee, Lady Hideko’s gawky new handmaiden.  We quickly learn that Sook-Hee is secretly a con artist working in concert with a sleazy gigolo, helping to push the virginal Lady Hideko into a quickie marriage before shipping her off to the nuthouse.  But that’s only the opening movement in a symphony of visual seduction, character misdirection and narrative double-backs, as Park weaves ideas about sexuality, performance, perversion and storytelling into something deeply, wonderfully strange and erotic.

Oh, and the aesthetics are impeccable, the performances are luminescent, the characters are rich and complex, and if that’s not enough, the film is weirdly funny in a way that few others besides Park could pull off.  The Handmaiden was adapted by Park and Seo-Kyung Chung from Welsh writer Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel Fingersmith, moved from Victorian England to Korea in the 1930s, and as with Oldboy it takes place in a real world heightened to the point of surrealism and madness.  It would be a shame to spoil any of the silky curves of the story, or reveal any of the bizarre obsessions and talismans at the heart of the tale, but sufficed to say that silver bells aren’t just for Christmas time in the city anymore.  I haven’t been so mystified and tantalized by a film, so curious to understand the spell it cast over me, since Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.