Saturday, October 24, 2020
Movies Screen Grabs Screen Grabs: A major director quietly remakes the Western

Screen Grabs: A major director quietly remakes the Western

Plus: New films about the horrible toll of the gig economy, gay love in Guatemala, the future of genetic technology, more.

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Austerity is not a quality greatly prized in commercial filmmaking. While we may revere them now, it’s worth remembering that such leading cinematic minimalist auteurs as Dreyer and Bresson had great difficulty raising funds for their projects, which duly repaid investor skepticism by seldom turning a profit. Thus it’s particularly impressive that Kelly Reichardt has managed to make eight features and even cultivated a growing (if still limited) audience over the last quarter-century.

None of this work has been “easy” in any conventional sense, and though she’s employed one more-or-less bona fide movie star (Michelle Williams) several times, her quiet, stripped-down, often somewhat cryptic narratives do not pander to the kinds of acting histrionics that win Oscars, let alone to predictable beats of laughter, tears and thrills. Her most accessible film, 2013’s Night Moves (not to be confused with the 1975 Arthur Penn film), was an ostensible “eco-thriller” that did have tension and (mostly off-screen) violence, but was really another low-key character study like her prior Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy or Meek’s Cutoff. Even working in the short-story idiom of 2016’s Certain Women, which was essentially three separate tales set in one small-town Montana community, Reichardt offered slices of everyday life rather than neatly contained miniatures.

I confess her no-frills naturalism can sometimes feel a little arid, even dull, in a “worthy” way that makes you feel guilty for wanting a tad more melodrama, plot resolution, anything. But her new First Cow—based on a novel by co-scenarist Jonathan Raymond, though apparently quite loosely—provides a case of a filmmaker’s particular sensibility finding an ideal subject. Like their prior collaboration Old Joy, this is a story of male friendship. But where that slight film provided just a platonic relationship’s closing chapter, this period piece charts its entire course. And while that course may finally be tragic (I’m not spoiling anything—the film starts with the discovery of two corpses in a shallow forest grave nearly 200 years later), First Cow has a warmth unusual amongst Reichardt’s features to date. Its protagonists simply enjoy each other’s company, and we enjoy theirs.

In the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, amiable Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is having a rough time of it trying to keep fed and pleased the rough group of fur trappers he’s joined as grub-wrangler. But by chance he meets someone much worse off: King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese emigre fleeing from vengeful Russians. Cookie hides the fugitive, and though they’re soon parted, they are overjoyed to reunite some time later at a trading post, when both are free agents.

Pondering how to make their fortune as a team, they stumble upon a great scheme: Surrounded by frontiersmen desperate for any scarce creature comfort, they put Cookie’s East Coast pastry training and King’s natural salesmanship to work in hawking “oily cakes” that are like a taste of long-lost home for many. There is, however, a catch. The secret ingredient is milk stolen from the region’s first dairy cow, owned by its government overseer (Toby Jones), who would no doubt have them shot if he discovered their theft.

As already demonstrated in the bleaker Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt has a knack for credibly portraying frontier life as it most likely was, as opposed to the action-packed fiction of most “Westerns.” We’re immediately absorbed here by the simple, all-consuming details of everyday life, in which everything must be hand-made, usually by oneself—there are no stores, let alone any Amazon. Our heroes are so likable, and so well-suited as a duo (being two kind-hearted strays of above-average intelligence if little formal education), that suspense arises simply from our beginning to worry about them. They may be smart, but they may be too nice to survive in this rather brutish, barely “civilized” environ.

First Cow may still strike some as too leisurely, and not nearly plot-driven enough. However, if you go in with the proper expectations for a low-key, almost meditative experience—in line with Reichardt’s prior endeavors—this may seem not only her personal best to date, but likely one of 2020’s best films. It opens Friday at area theaters including Embarcadero. More info here.

The director will also be in town this weekend, appearing for a Q&A at a screening of Certain Women this Saturday amidst the Roxie’s short Kelly Reichardt Country retrospective.

Other local openings this Friday include Bloodshot, a new comic-book-adapted action fantasy starring the inimitable Vin Diesel; “faith-based entertainment” biopic/romance I Still Believe, which dramatizes Christian music star Jeremy Camp’s first marriage and his wife’s terminal cancer; prison-set crime drama The Informer, starring Joel Kinnaman as an ex-con sent back “inside” to infiltrate mob operatives for the FBI; and (at the Roxie) a revival of 2003 anime favorite Tokyo Godfathers, which lifts its narrative conceit from a much-remade western tale that was filmed by John Ford twice.

Getting released at last is The Hunt, which you may recall was pulled last fall in the wake of several mass shootings, and because conservatives who hadn’t seen it howled that it apparently portrayed “liberal elitists” hunting down Trump supporters for sport. It turns out, that is indeed the plot gist. You may wonder why Compliance director Craig Zobel and two writers from the Watchmen series would make what amounts to a paranoid conservative fantasy, in which sympathetically caricatured “rednecks” are forced to flee for their lives from unsympathetically caricatured, privileged, literally murderous “progressives.” And having now seen it, I couldn’t tell you why. The Hunt has a jokey tone, but its broad (and gory) ersatz satire isn’t ironical or nuanced enough to justify a claim that it’s anything but reactionary. If the makers intended something else, they sure blew getting that message across.

We did manage to see two sorta-kinda thrillers in advance, both of which were somewhat disappointing. Giuseppe Capotondi’s The Burnt Orange Heresy adapts cult author Charles Willeford’s novel about an art critic (The Square’s Claes Bang) who’s introduced by a wily rich collector (Mick Jagger, who still can’t act) to a famously reclusive artist (Donald Sutherland). Intrigue ensues, yet somehow never ignites, or convinces.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow has Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train) as the blank, passive new wife of a privileged junior-executive bro (Austin Stowell). Left alone in their intimidatingly luxe home, her insecurity and ennui generate a dangerous addiction: Swallowing hazardous objects. Billed as a “genre-bending feminist thriller,” and sold as quasi-horror, Swallow is in fact closer to Todd Hayne’s Safe as a portrait of neurotic discontent within stifling gender roles. It does attain some depth and punch in the end, yet the character writing is so thin these people seem like paper cutouts rather than recognizable, dimensionalized human beings.

Entrapment of a different sort is the theme of 83-year-old Brit social realist Ken Loach’s latest, Sorry We Missed You. Its protagonists are a working-class Newcastle family who seem to be working ever-harder only to sink deeper in debt. Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen) gets a new job delivering for an Amazon-type company that promises independence and high returns. But what that really means is that the company makes crippling demands on its “franchise” workers without providing any benefits, base pay, or insurance.

Wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is a home health-care provider who is similarly worked to the bone running from one elderly and/or disabled client to another. They depend on her, yet the company she labors for treats her as a disposable cog in a machine. Long hours leave the Turners little time for parenting, which becomes an issue as teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) drifts into mild delinquency.

This is a vivid fictive depiction of how the “gig economy” increasingly asks more from low-end workers as it gives them less in return, and as such, it’s an important movie. (It’s the labor of new-style peasants like the Turners that make Jeff Bezos the richest man on the planet.) But the more self-defeating aspects of Loach’s stubborn neorealist non-style are on full display here: A story that should be hard-hitting and suspenseful only gets partway there thanks to its drab, almost artless presentation and often stilted acting by non-professionals. It’s like a movie made by a political advocacy committee—undeniably well-intentioned, but also something of a chore to sit through. It’s at Opera Plaza.

Fear not, there actually are some movies this week besides First Cow that we recommend (all opening Friday unless otherwise noted):

Jose
Like other countries that have spent years wracked by civil war and additional extreme hardships, Guatemala hasn’t developed much of a film industry—something that is pretty low on the priority list when more essential elements of a stable society are still just coming together. Perhaps surprisingly, two among the rare Guatemalan features we’ve seen in U.S. theaters lately were gay-themed narratives. Late last year there was the very good Temblores aka Tremors, about a married upper-class man’s tumultuous coming out in Guatemala City. Now there’s the equally strong Jose, which is set in the same locale, albeit way down the socioeconomic ladder.

The titular figure (Enrique Salanic) is a young man who’s the last offspring still living at home with his devoutly religious, widowed mother (Ana Cecilia Mota). Both just scrape by on marginal jobs in a milieu where there’s more crime than legitimate opportunity. Jose’s love life consists of random hookups until he meets Luis (Manolo Herrera), a transient construction worker. Theirs is a joyful rapport (both in and out of bed) that director Li Cheng conveys in seemingly effortless, persuasive terms. But Luis wants the two of them to have a life together—somewhere other than impoverished Guatemala—and Jose can’t bring himself to cut the cord with his needy mother.

This is film of few words, and on the rare occasion when we do get much dialogue, the inexperienced performers’ limitations become evident. But while docudrama-ish Jose may have little in the way of “plot,” in its quiet way it nonetheless adds up to a full and powerful narrative experience whose themes feel universal. Roxie. More info here. 

Human Nature
Written nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World has proved alarmingly prescient, particularly in the realm of anticipating various forms of scientific progress that are only now starting to become realities. This documentary by Adam Bolt surveys leading experts world-wide to ponder where humanity is very likely heading, and whether we really wanna go there. “Gene editing” of the DNA sequences known as CRISPR could soon make it possible to remove hereditary inclinations towards diseases or disabilities. But will this also lead to “designer babies” in which people select characteristics on the basis of racist or other cultural biases, summoning the dread specter of Nazi eugenics?

At a moment when it seems like practically every non-fiction feature is some kind of horror story—for very good reason—it is something of a relief and an anomaly that Human Nature refuses to hit the panic button that is well within its reach. The scientists here believe that mankind is too diverse (in its “likes” as well as its physical features) to encourage a new laboratory-bred bio-engineered fascism, and that the good such breakthroughs can do outweighs fears of the worst.

These authorities also explain very complicated science in layperson’s terms, which Bolt frequently illustrates via computer graphics. Human Nature is entertaining as well as highly informative, and you might be shocked to find yourself leaving the theater more hopeful than you came in. Shattuck Cinemas. More info here. (Also opens 3/20 at Roxie in SF.)

Scream for Help
In his first decade as a director, late London native Michael Winner made some good 1960s British features, and remained a solid if seldom-inspired craftsman as his career took an international turn at the beginning of the ’70s. By that decade’s end, however, he’d become one of the industry’s worst hacks, making increasingly lousy Charles Bronson movies (including sequels to the original Death Wish, which he’d directed) and other dross, seemingly more interested in his status as a Thatcherite pundit, occasional actor, and all-around media celebrity back home. (Among his self-promotions was writing a notably crass restaurant-review column, as well as something called The Big Fat Pig Diet Book.)

Possibly the most obscure amongst all his American features, the 1984 Scream for Help was not intended to be directed by him, but its unique combination of the lurid and juvenile seems to be all his. Indeed, scenarist Tom Holland (who’d already written a couple decent genre films, and would later also direct significant ones like the original Fright Night and Child’s Play) was reportedly horrified with what Winner did to his material.

Christie (Rachael Kelly) is a suburban teen whose well-off mother (Marie Masters) divorced her father to marry handsome young Paul (David Allen Brooks). But Christie is convinced he just wants to kill mom and inherit her fortune. Her suspicions are furthered when she discovers Paul is secretly shagging trampy Brenda (Lolita Lorre), who is living with her “brother” (Rocco Sisto). But he is in fact her husband, and they plan to kill Paul for his money after he’s killed Christie’s mom for her money.

Featuring actors from soap operas (as well as several who were never seen again), Scream for Help is like a Nancy Drew mystery, with Christie racing around town on her bicycle and hiding in bushes to hunt down clues. Or at least an alternative-universe Nancy Drew mystery in which our sleuthing heroine is an obnoxious brat (you actually kinda sympathize when Paul starts wanting to kill her), who is somehow forever walking in on people having sex.

The result is a sort of slick yet ultra-cheesy precursor to the greatly superior The Stepfather, which would arrive three years later. Its absurdities are only heightened by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones’ incongruously lush orchestral score, so over-the-top you may wonder if he was tacitly ridiculing the onscreen action. This is a camp classic—or it would be, if anyone knew about it. Wed/18, Alamo Drafthouse. More info here. 

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