Archive | March, 2020

Resistance

31 Mar

‘Resistance’: You know mime Marcel Marceau, but this is when clowning stopped to kill Nazis

 

Resistance

Many know Marcel Marceau as one of the greatest mimes who lived, but he also was also part of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France, helping hundreds of orphaned, mostly Jewish children escape to Switzerland. His father was Jewish and as the film “Resistance” has it, none too keen of his son wanting to be like Charlie Chaplin, calling him “a useless bum who wants to be a clown but has the muscles of a ghost.” His father, a butcher, would end up being put to death in a concentration camp, and Marcel would change his last name as he and his brother joined the fight.

Jonathan Jakubowicz’s self-important film is framed with Gen. George S. Patton (Ed Harris) citing Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg) for his heroics to a crowd of U.S. soldiers after the liberation of France. It’s an awkward, out-of-place device – as is much of the film awkward. Harris, normally dead-on in his male bravado, is a mouse stepping into George C. Scott’s shoes, and Eisenberg, while game, struggles with the subtlety of mime and the nuance of an actor feigning composure under the masochistic boot of Klaus Barbie (a scene-chewing Matthias Schweighöfer, a pleasing, malevolent distraction) trying to shake down an escape plot. The film’s told with a Holocaust thriller edge, yet it never quite thrills nor enlightens, especially given the rich historical material at hand.

Just what drives Marcel – or Jakubowicz’s plot – is hard to say. He’s so enamored with Chaplin and breaking out as a performer, it’s hard to know if protecting children or a way of life is more important. Then there’s the sullen but determined Emma (French actress Clémence Poésy), who’s in on the cause and a romantic interest; many of these seeds never fully sprout, leaving the realization of Marceau and his legacy as something of a muddled miss.

Jakubowicz’s choice of title is austere but irrelevant. Yes, Marceau served in the Resistance, but the movement and his time in it are not the film’s major thrust, making it another aspect of the film that raises more questions than it ever answers. One of the very best films (if I may suggest) about the French Resistance is Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark and daunting “Army of Shadows” (1968). Due to the famous May 1968 civil rebellion against the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, the film, with its favorable portrayal of de Gaulle, was not widely embraced; it didn’t get a theatrical release in the United States until 2007. It’s well worth seeking out.

Blow the Man Down

22 Mar

‘Blow the Man Down’: Sisters in a small town share secrets, but small town outdoes them

 

tmp-blow-the-man-down

With the Covid-19 state of emergency and shutdown of movie theaters, we’re highlighting new streaming options for people stuck in their homes by social distancing.

“Blow the Man Down” is something of a noirish whodunnit set in a sleepy little fishing village in Maine by the name of Easter Cove. In look and feel Easter Cove has the small-town intimacy that buoyed “Manchester by the Sea” (2016), but the plot that unfurls upon its docks, dark country roads and placid bays is something else, far darker and more akin to a Coen brothers offering – say “Blood Simple” (1984) or “Fargo” (1996).

The movie begins with the funeral of Mary Margaret Connolly, whom we quickly learn has left her two daughters with a meager fish market, the house they grew up in and a mountain of debt. Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor of “Homeland”), the sassier, redheaded younger of the two, had to drop out of college to help care for her mother, while Pris (Sophie Lowe), the dutiful one, pretty much lives up to her overtly wholesome name. Later that night, to drown her miseries, Mary Beth takes up a stool at the local watering hole and ends up throwing back a few pints with a dubious yet good-looking ruffian named Gorski (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). The two share a few snorts of coke, a car crash into a cherished town landmark – and then there’s the discovery of human hair and blood in the trunk of an old beater as the evening takes some very fateful turns. After it all, there are two bodies floating in the harbor, with Mary Beth and Pris both victims as well as in power to provide the police with details, though the police in this case are totally out in left field and no one is interested in them solving the crimes, let alone the fact that the police chief (Skipp Sudduth) is corrupt and on the take. A critical bag of cash and scrimshaw knife bob around as well.

The film, directed by the first-time tandem of Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy, is driven by the kind of female outside-the-law energy that propelled “Thelma and Louise” (1991) and is further embossed by the women dominating the ensemble beyond the Connollys (Saylor and Lowe form a palpable sisterhood invaluable to the film’s success). That includes the intimidating Enid Nora Devlin (Margo Martindale, so perfectly unassuming at first), who runs the Oceanview Inn, your classic New England quaint spot that’s a veneer for bordello operations, and a moralistic trio of harpies (June Squibb of “Nebraska,” Marceline Hugot and Annette O’Toole) at odds with Enid and all having something to do with the Connolly matriarch back in the day. Not to mention, the most at stake in the ever-shifting tides of Easter Cove is Alexis (Gayle Rankin), one of Enid’s girls who’s always looking over her shoulder – and with just cause. The score by Jordan Dykstra and Brian McOmber is sets the mood well, and there’s a reoccurring chorus of fisherman singing sea shanties that comment on the action. It’s a worthy little thriller that hits some swells of credibility here and there, but overall the ebb and flow holds us captive.

Human Capital

22 Mar

‘Human Capital’: A deal goes bad all too quickly, and financial risks rise to demand untenable toll

tmp-human

With the Covid-19 state of emergency and shutdown of movie theaters, we’re highlighting new streaming option for people stuck in their homes by social distancing.

An Americanized retread of Paolo Virzi’s 2013 Italian adaptation of Stephen Amidon’s 2004 book about greed and small-town social politics. So it’s an American adaptation of an Italian adaptation of an American story – got it? “Human Capital” lurches out of the gates with a certain amount of swagger, and the casting is something a wonderment, even if the confluence of happenstance and direction squanders the opportunity from time to time.

The setting is a quiet upstate New York hamlet where Drew (Liev Schreiber), a middling real estate agent, drops by the manse of a hedge fund honcho by the name of Quint Manning (Peter Sarsgaard) to pick up his daughter Shannon (Maya Hawke, of “Stranger Things”), who’s dating Quint’s son, Jamie (Fred Hechinger). Quint, none too social, is in the throes of an intense doubles tennis match and irate about losing to his employees. On a whim, Quint flushes his partner and inserts Drew, an aw-shucks kind of guy who doesn’t let on that he played competitively in college. The match immediately becomes a non-contest and, as a show of his appreciation, Quint invites Drew to buy shares in his hedge fund at the reduced “family and friends” rate of $300,000 per share – nothing for even the well off to sneeze at. Drew, as we learn, is hoping for more kids with his second wife Ronnie (Betty Gabriel) and a bit tight on finances, but nonetheless jumps at the opportunity despite the high-wire entry point.

It’s clearly a bad idea, made worse when Drew takes out a loan by fudging his credentials. As if on cue, the fund takes a massive dive. Drew returns to the manse wanting his cash back, but Quint not only denies him, he shuts him out and even threatens legal repercussions. Meanwhile Ronnie’s expecting twins, Jamie develops a major drinking problem and Shannon takes up with Ian (Alex Wolff of “Hereditary”), a reclusive bad boy with a dark past. Don’t forget the opening scene, in which a young man on a bike gets blown off the road by a surging SUV, which comes back to haunt late in the game.

Yup, there’s a lot going on in “Human Capital,” but the script by Oren Moverman keeps it all grimly juggling and spinning – even if you’re given pause at how, in such a small burg, titans of industry (struggling or not) such as Quint and Drew are not acquainted, and why Drew, not being a gambler by nature, would buy in given all the upfront red flags and hurdles. The true power to Marc Meyers’ serpent-in-suburbia drama is Sarsgaard (“Shattered Glass,” “An Education”) who’s always played slippery eels with complexity and nuance. It’s hard to tell here, though, if his Quint is setting Drew up as a mark or if the timing of the deal just happens to be bad. It doesn’t much matter; Quint’s response plays like the former, as the well-heeled stockbroker moves Drew around his plate like a sprig of superfluous parsley constantly in the way. On par with Sarsgaard is Marisa Tomei, who’s not on screen nearly enough as his wife. The two are like hissing cobras dancing with each other as they look to strike, and they’re even less cordial to those who have the misfortune of getting in their way. Hawke too, as Shannon, carries a certain amount of venom that, like the other two, gets directed at Drew, a man whose fate feels predetermined from the first scene.

 

An Interview with Kelly Reichardt

14 Mar

Reichardt’s ‘First Cow’: Birthed of collaboration found on trail from Miami (with stops at Brattle)

 

“First Cow” is Kelly Reichardt’s seventh film, and second “anti-western” made in collaboration with the author Jonathan Raymond. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Kelly Reichardt’s latest, “First Cow,” an Oregon frontier saga about two outsiders trying to get ahead, marks her fifth collaboration with writer Jonathan Raymond and her seventh film overall. The film (screenplay by Raymond and Reichardt) is vastly different from Raymond’s novel “The Half-Life,” which, as Reichardt points out, “spanned four decades and two continents and didn’t have a cow in it. John invented the cow for the movie.” A fairly drastic realignment from any point of view, though the director is quick to add that the story still focuses on the bond between Cookie (John Magaro), an introverted cook, and King Lu (Orion Lee) an enterprising Chinese expat – though King Lu is a composite of two characters in the novel. The entrepreneurial endeavor the pair undertake in the book is exporting beaver oil to china; in the film, with the creation of a lone cow at a trading outpost, there’s milk and thus batter to make “oily cakes” (scones), a super hot item in a land where there is only mutton and slop.

Reichardt’s journey to the directorial chair is long and intriguing, with a crucial stop at The Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square. “I grew up in a cultural void as far as art goes, and in a family of cops,” Reichardt said. (The void was Miami.) Her mother was in drug enforcement and her father was a crime scene investigator, though they also opened her eyes to the arts. “My father listened to jazz and gave me a Pentax camera.” Reichardt got into photography, using expired rolls of film her father got her from the crime lab and taking lessons at a studio run by a notorious pornographer. Then the artist Christo came in 1983 to wrap his “Surrounded Islands” in Biscayne Bay. Reichardt, inspired by the grand installation, knew she’d have to go elsewhere to expand her cultural palette and find her calling. She landed with friends in Boston, where she studied art and film at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and School of the Museum of Fine Arts. “But,” she added, “my real film education came at the Brattle Theatre, which played a different repertory pairing each night.”

tmp-cow

Reichardt met Raymond early in her career, becoming fast “pals” after being introduced by filmmaker Todd Haynes (“Carol,” “Velvet Goldmine” and most recently, “Dark Waters”). Both had collaborated with Haynes (“I was the one flicking the spit in “Poison,” Reichardt says of Haynes’ controversial, career-launching film) and he’s been an executive producer on most of Reichardt’s projects. After 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” about my ancestor leading a posse across the Oregon desert, “First Cow” is the second anti-western by Reichardt and Raymond. “Westerns have alway been about a white man on a horse with all the power. This is about two outsiders finding a safe place with each other. They’re mindful and thoughtful, not physical,” Reichardt said.

Still, to prepare for the film, Magaro (who has a Bob Dylan-esque presence in the film) and Lee had to go through a survivalist boot camp to learn their characters’ skills, including lighting fires without matches and catching fish without hooks. “It wasn’t much fun,” Reichardt says, “because it rained most of the time.” To cast the two “mindful dreamers,” Reichardt interviewed and interacted with each actor via Skype, never meeting either in person until they were pretty much on set. Given the current state of things with the coronavirus spread, that virtual casting call feels eerily prescient: At the time of my interview, Reichardt had just been told her publicity tour for the film was being canceled, and the Harvard Film Archive was limiting the audience for Reichardt’s “in person” screenings on Monday and Tuesday to a max of 99 people. Then it suspended its spring schedule.

“First Cow” opens locally this Friday.

First Cow

14 Mar

‘First Cow’: Risks of frontier entrepreneurship go beyond financial, but milk it while you can

tmp-cow

For her latest collaboration with writer Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt heads back to the same Oregon frontier territory that made “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) so narratively rich and foreboding. The time’s a few years earlier than that existential traverse; it’s the early 1820s as folks spread west, hoping for land, gold and a new way of life. Those dreams are not without hardships along the way. Take Otis Figowitz (John Magaro), a cook signed on with a rugged party of uncouth trappers who hold the threat of violence over him, even though the foraging skills of their “Cookie” are the only thing keeping them alive in the Pacific Northwest wilds. Such aggression (“When this is all over, I’m going to kick your ass for real”) don’t seem to faze Cookie, almost as if he knows something no one else does.

One night, while on a foraging run, Cookie discovers a naked man hiding among the ferns. At first he believes he’s run into a Native American, but no, King Lu (Orion Lee) harks from China and is clearly in trouble. Knowing the hostile inclinations of his fellow trail mates, Cookie provides silent aide and sustenance to King along the way. Eventually the party and King make it to a trade outpost, and that’s where Reichardt’s tale shifts from a frontier odyssey to a startup endeavor and social testament of a micro crime and macro punishment (think those affected disproportionately by drug laws). The heart of “First Cow” is the bond between Cookie and King that grows from that unselfish helping hand in the wilds to the cozy shack nearby that King invites Cookie to share and, ultimately, where they cook up a scone biz.

The “first cow” is the lone bovine on an estate outside the outpost, brought in by a wealthy bureaucrat known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Where there’s milk, there’s scones. Each morning Cookie sets up a cauldron of boiling oil and drips honey on his freshly fried “oily cakes” as King takes gold ingot and other tender from the line of frontiersmen hungry for a sweet taste of civilization – but to make the treats, each night the enterprising duo furtively milk Chief Factor’s cow. They’re something of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by way of Gates and Allen, with King as the brains of the operation and Cookie as his genius creator. King knows this is a limited-time opportunity before more cows and skilled chefs make their way to the remote port of commerce. Also too there’s the prideful Chief Factor who, curious as to why his cow bears no milk, commissions Cookie to make a special cake for a visiting mucky-muck. You know something has to give, but with Reichardt behind the lens you know it’s not going to go in a pat or predictable direction. Her denouements are an art form in their own right, always subtle and never registering more then a murmur on the plot-disruption scale, yet ever resonating in their lingering emotional impact. “First Cow” is no different. It’s a classic Reichardt branding that highlights the talents of Magaro and Lee, who, like Michelle Williams after her collaboration with Reichardt on “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), should see their stock rise. What the three have achieved here is one of the most unique and palpable portraits of male bonding captured on film in recent memory.

The Hunt

14 Mar

‘The Hunt’: Liberals don’t want to take their guns – because they really add zest to the human hunt

tmp-hunt

The film “The Hunt,” not to be confused with the 2012 Danish film of the same name starring Mads Mikkelsen, had been shelved by Universal last year because of sensitivity issues related to the film’s central plot of humans using other humans as prey – nothing new, but back in the day Fay Wray was in “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932) or Cornel Wilde was “The Naked Prey” (1965), Charles Whitman had yet to show the world what human-on-human carnage was really about.

The strategy had been to release “The Hunt” as a horror film; now the curio is being spun as a satire-cum-horror, or something “unclassifiable.” If we hadn’t seen Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) or “Us” (2019), tagging it as unique, new or groundbreaking might work, but that crossover zone has already been defined and owned. “The Hunt” begins like a “Saw” chapter with a dozen random people waking up in the kind of bucolic field you might find in “Midsommar” (2019), semi-bound and gagged and not knowing where they are. Turns out they’re in a kill zone. Once they find a key to unlock the gags, a helpful park ranger comes out bearing arms. “Why do we need these?” comes a groggy question as semi-automatic pistols and assault rifles are meted out. Before there is any real answer, the asker’s brains are splattered by a high-caliber projectile and it’s game on, with the rest of the crew scattering and taking cover.

The what and why as bullets and arrows fly pull at the minds of those on the run as well as the audience. A trio eventually gets outside the barbed wire confines, muttering something about “Mansongate.” It’s along their journey that we get an inkling of what’s going on: rich liberals hunting deplorables and rednecks for their racially insensitive online posts, denial of climate change and so on. “I bet he used the N-word a lot,” one Richie Rich says. “You fail and we pay,” another says in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. It’s cheeky irony that the East Coasters have set up their slaughter shop in Arkansas, and another wicked barb that filmmaker Craig Zobel and his writers, Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof (both of TV’s “Watchmen”), have us rooting for the “deplorables,” who in this case seem far less a threat to democracy than rich liberals who want to impose their will with dollars and cents, and, in this case, semiautomatic weapons.

It’s hard to discuss “The Hunt” more without selling the farm, and that’s the real fun of the film: the twists, pitfalls and revelations that confront the hunted as they seek safe ground. I will say that Betty Gilpin of Netflix’s “Glow” cuts a captivating presence as the unassuming waif with kick-ass can-do (think Ripley by way of “Emma”) tagged Snowball (“Animal Farm” tries to factor into the plot, but the convention is oddly inserted). She’s matched by Hilary Swank’s righteously indignant badass, who likes to discuss the delineating factors between a house and a mansion, and Amy Madigan and Reed Birney make a wonderful side dish as a pair of yokels who run a ma-and-pa gas station. The plot’s got a bunch of holes in it, but “The Hunt”’s more about the pursuit, cheeky spoofs and the notion that elitism ain’t pretty no matter what flag you’re waving.

Corona and Film

14 Mar

Harvard Film Archive is closing through April; moviegoers start strategizing for safer seating

tmp-HFAThe Harvard Film Archive will be closed and empty through April, curators said Tuesday. 

With Gov. Charlie Baker declaring a state of emergency after reported Covid-19 infection cases hit 92 on Tuesday, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology going online-only after their spring breaks and people encouraged to shelter in place as much as possible, what happens to our public cultural staples – sports, the arts and entertainment? The latest Film Ahead column of special events and local arthouse and repertory programs got halved as the Harvard Film Archive announced its screen would go dark after the Tuesday screening of “Wendy and Lucy” with director Kelly Reichardt in attendance.

The Archive will be closed through April. Films and programs will be rescheduled after a reopening in May. The closing – and suggestion of sports events being played in empty arenas – only triggers questions about other theaters’ response. Kendall Square and Somerville theaters wouldn’t comment; at The Brattle Theatre, the Archive’s neighbor in Harvard Square, executive director Ivy Moylan said it’s business as usual.

For now.

“We are taking it one day at a time. We have instructed our staff on increased cleaning and are staying up to date with city, state and [federal health] instructions,” Moylan said. “We are keeping an eye on things as they change.”

On social media, friends said that they’d be bringing Clorox wipes to the theater or, in theaters with assigned seating, pay the extra dollars for “firewall” seats that add distance from other patrons.

One thing about film: It has always been a great way to quiet the mind in trying times. It may be streaming services from Netflix, Amazon and the Criterion Channel that will more relaxing for some in the coming days. Nothing beats a trip to the theater, but the world cannot live without cinema.