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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

4 Apr

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’: Pregnant, finding guys are manipulative jerks, Part II

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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.

Eliza Hittman’s short list of films have focused on teens involved in strange sexual relations with adults, be it a girl looking to blossom by hooking up with a ruffian in “It Must be Love” (2013) or a boy in “Beach Rats” (2017) seeking to discover himself by meeting up with older men he encounters online. Hittman’s latest, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” is something more subtle, yet equally dark in its exploration. The narrative structure here is lean and simple, buoyed by emotional depth and a pair of outstanding performances.

We meet up with teen Autumn (newcomer Sidney Flanigan), who likes to play guitar and sing and hang out with her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder,) in a podunk Pennsylvania burg. After a talent show we learn that tensions are high between Autumn and her stepdad (Ryan Eggold), who seemingly has it out for the eldest in his house, and that Autumn is pregnant and heading into her second term. The identity of the father is never laid out explicitly – there are a few possibilities, such as one boy who heckles her during the talent show, or another who makes a lewd, public sexual comment in a pizza shop; there are other less pleasant (relatively) prospects, as well. Besides her cousin and her clueless but caring mother (musician Sharon Van Etten) there doesn’t seem to be a lot of love for Autumn in the Mid-American strip mall of a town. When she goes to a clinic to confirm she’s pregnant, the practitioner plays a religious right anti-abortion PSA on teen pregnancies.

Autumn’s path takes her to New York City, where a minor doesn’t need parental permission to obtain an abortion. She’s got her cousin in tow and her mother in the dark, and you fear the city will eat them up – they don’t have much money, and the only person they know is a goofball by the name of Jasper (Théodore Pellerin) whom they met on the bus.

The meaning of the film’s wordy title: possible responses to a questionnaire at a clinic that give us insight into Autumn’s past. Hittman’s style here is so on-the-street and in-real-time, the film feels like a documentary, which gives “Never Rarely Sometimes Always“ a gritty, honest edge deepened by chemistry forged between Flanigan and Ryder (who will be in the upcoming Steven Spielberg “West Side Story” production) and their immersion into their respective characters. The unspoken bond of sisterhood and the weight of the world Autumn seems to bear go far behind the topographical anxiety in Bo Burnham’s satirically sharp “Eighth Grade” (2018).

Also this week I reviewed “The Other Lamb,” a curio about a cult of women led by an enigmatic Jesus figure. In that film, a young woman by the name of Selah (Raffey Cassidy) struggles with matters of sexuality and fertility under male-held reins. In countenance, and the intense pondering in her eyes, she’s Autumn’s kindred – trying to comply while trying to break out, fighting for her identify as she blossoms into womanhood.

 

The Other Lamb

4 Apr

‘The Other Lamb’: Lesson from cult life in woods is largely that guys are manipulative jerks, Part I

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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.

“The Other Lamb” is a twisted tale about a cult in the deep woods, dwelling in yurtlike structures adorned with pagan markings and living off the land, all female but led by a man known simply as the Shepherd (Michiel Huisman). The Shepherd lives well: His “Handmaiden” flock wash him and feed him, and the young women he selects get the can’t-say-no opportunity to “receive his grace.” The Shepherd, bearded and benevolent in countenance, evokes Jesus, but when things don’t go his way he acts like Machiavelli, relying on his divine righteousness and religiously obedient groupthink to ensure he gets what he wants. And then there’s that flock of sheep always nearby, peppered with a few anxious bull rams huffing and snorting with pent-up sexual energy, as if they want in on the fertility rites too.

In texture, the postured “Other Lamb” feels a lot like Robert Eggers’ 2015 Calvinist tale of the occult, “The Witch,” but at one point early on we get an incursion from the outside world and learn that we’re not toiling in a primitive, pre-electricity era. The main focus of the film is a young woman by the name of Selah (Raffey Cassidy, so good as Natalie Portman’s daughter in “Vox Lux” and a simmering realization here as well) whose mother had been a member of the cult and perished recently amid curious circumstance. Budding on the cusp of sexual availability, she’s eyed continually by the Shepherd, but Selah’s interested in learning what happened and stepping outside the confines of the cult. It’s such coming-of-age anxiety that gives the film a simmering tension beyond the raw sexual energy that’s heaped out there from frame one with “Wicker Man”-esque dankness.

Things meander as the group is forced to find a new Eden. The odyssey builds the character of Selah, and reveals other things at play beyond the Shepherd’s mercurial nature and the ever-present, heavy-breathing rams. Take the cult’s social order, which has the older women (Selah’s mom was one) referred to as “broken things” or “cursed wives,” both mentors and outcasts. And even though there’s the pronounced tang of Puritanism, the scene of the Shepherd baptizing young women in scanty albs would likely set the testosterone tinder of spring break bros afire once the anointed in their little-left-to-the-imagination garb are raised from the watery depths for air. It’s a weird, haunting modulation between austere religious regimentation, the Shepherd’s enigmatic id and the women’s individual freedoms offset and undercut by the power of group coercion. 

The film’s big win, besides Cassidy, is the gorgeous cinematography by Michal Englert (“The Congress”) rendering the vast Irish highlands as both foreboding and liberating. Overall, Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska delivers a confident and poised composition, crafting a spectacle of a man justifying entitlement by claims of divine right, even if feels done before.

 

Resistance

31 Mar

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

 

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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

 

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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

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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.

 

First Cow

14 Mar

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

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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

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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.