Films I Neglected To Review: Lambs And SlaughterBy Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/03/20 10:35:54
Please enjoy short reviews of "Clover," "Never Rarely Sometimes Always," "The Other Lamb" and "Slay the Dragon" and learn how you can help a couple of wonderful art house theaters and see some excellent movies at the same time.
With ordinary theatrical distribution currently at a standstill, a number of art house venues across the country have begun entering into partnerships with the distributors that they normally work with to offer home viewers the chance to stream the new movies that would have been playing on those screens in ordinary times and allow those theaters to get a portion of the rental proceeds to help get them through their current difficulties. In my home base of Chicago, the Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center are both taking part in these programs and offering viewers an eclectic choice of new releases that are worth checking out. At the Music Box, you can see "Bacurau," the thrilling action-drama about a remote Brazilian village that suddenly finds itself under siege from a group of outsider mercenaries (led by Udo Kier) and decide to fight back in decidedly gruesome fashion. Starting this week is "Saint Frances," a lovely locally-made gem from Alex Thompson about a 34-year-old woman (Kelly O'Sullivan, who also wrote the screenplay) at loose ends at her life who lands a job as a nanny for the precocious Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams) at just the moment when she discovers that she is pregnant. Also starting is "The Whistlers," a very funny and strange crime comedy--one that has received comparisons to the Coen Brothers that are largely earned--from Romania about a corrupt cop who is forced to go to the Canary Islands to learn a secret whistling language as part of a complex heist scheme that quickly turns weird and violent and unpredictable. Via the Siskel Center, you can now see "Extra Ordinary," a very funny paranormal comedy from Ireland that had the misfortune to begin its commercial run at just the precise moment when all the theaters began to close. "Balloon" is a German film that takes a look at the case of two East German families in the late Seventies who surreptitiously built their own hot air balloon and used it as part of a daring flight to freedom--the same story that formed the basis of the 1981 Disney drama "Night Crossing." "The Perfect Nanny" is a brilliant, disturbing and diabolically clever thriller from France, also inspired by a true story, about a harried young couple who hire the seemingly perfect person (Karin Viard in a knockout of a performance) to watch their two young children and, suffice it to say, things eventually take a turn for the worse. All of these films are definitely worth seeing and you will be able to give a hand to a couple of wonderful movie theaters in the process.
One can only hope that the items they would be offering up for consumption would be easier than anything to swallow in this hollow and ugly concoction. The screenplay by Michael Testone is a painful combination of resoundingly unlikable characters, plot developments that, save for one, can be seen a mile away (and the only reason that the one cannot is because it is so goddamned stupid that you cannot believe that any vaguely sensible person would have considered it to be a good idea) and dialogue that tries to make up for its lack of wit, insight or poetry by attempting to cram as many curse words into each line of dialogue as they can hold. Abrahams's direction is equally sloppy and listless (especially during the scenes involving the wildly unconvincing CGI bloodshed that are of a technical level usually seen only in lesser "Sharknado" sequels) and the performances run the gamut from the merely lazy to the simply awful. (The closest thing to a decent performance comes from Ron Perlman, possibly because he knows that after delivering the essentially extraneous monologue that opens the film, he gets to disappear from the proceedings for virtually the remainder of the running time.) "Clover" is little more than a squalid and brainless rip-off that will leave most viewers feelings alternately bored, annoyed and depressed beyond measure--a case of too many brains on the walls and not enough in the screenplay.
Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, the film provides an eye-opening and almost documentary-like observation of the difficulties that can arise in the pursuit of obtaining a legal abortion, even in a theoretically liberal-minded place like New York City, and how even the elements designed to make the procedure as safe as possible for the patient can have unintended consequences for those who are most desperately in need--the discovery that while you can get an abortion without parental consent, using your insurance card will result in the whole thing turning up on their statement anyway. Although Hittman's film is squarely on the side of Autumn and her right to have an abortion, she makes the smart move of not trying to stack the narrative deck in her favor in order to win viewers over in regards to the charged topic. We never learn the identity of the father nor the circumstances regarding the pregnancy and that is exactly as it should be--although this decision may frustrate those looking for soap opera histrionics, it brilliantly underscores the notion that abortion is a right for all women, not just the ones with the most dramatic backstory. The film is also blessed with an extraordinary central performance from Flanigan as Autumn--she may be a newcomer but her work here is so deeply felt that there are times when you almost want to turn away because of the way she makes you feel as if you are looking in on something deeply personal and private. This is a performance that never steps wrong for a single moment but is especially powerful during the centerpiece scene in which Autumn is required to answer a series of increasingly personal questions about her sexual history with only the answers that make up the film's title--in just a few short minutes in a single close-up and with only a few words at her disposal, she wrenchingly conjures up a series of hurts in a sequence that will leave viewers absolutely devastated. As I said before, "Never Rarely Sometime Always" is not a walk in the park and the subject matter alone is likely to keep many viewers away from it entirely (although they may be just the people who need to see it the most) but those who do give it a chance will be awarded with what is sure to go down as one of the finest films of 2020.
The film has a number of good things going for it. Visually, it is a stunner throughout as Szumowska and cinematographer Michal Englert conure up any number of striking images throughout the run the gamut from the haunting beautiful to the deeply disturbing. The performance by Cassidy, who was the sole redeeming factor of the excruciating "Vox Lux," is excellent as she charts Selah's emotional journey from subservience to self-assertion and there is also an equally impressive turn from Denise Gough as a wive who has been exiled from the group for her transgressions but who stays around because she has been so broken down that she cannot imagine having a life of her own anymore. And yet, even as I was admiring those elements, I nevertheless always found myself at too much of a distance from the story to develop any real interest in it. Granted, the screenplay by Catherine McMullen is written in a deliberately spare style and the film is clearly meant to be more of a mood piece than an standard issue narrative. I don't have a problem with that style of filmmaking--my lifetime membership in the Terrence Malick fan club should attest to that--but it never quite jelled for me in this case. Thanks to the meh performance by Huisman (who was much better in a similar role in "The Invitation") and the decision to not develop any of the other sisters or wives in any substantial way meant that I could never quite fully buy the situation being presented in the way that films like "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and the documentary "Wild Wild Country," both of which were able to suggest the slippery allure of the cult mentality while at the same time depicting its monstrous nature. "The Other Lamb" is not bad, per se, and some viewers with a taste for offbeat storytelling might get a little more out of it than I did but for the most part, I just never connected with it. The film is a near-miss but a miss nevertheless.
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