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Ned Rifle
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Fool Me Three Times"
4 stars

Most movie sequels get made for one reason and one reason only--the previous film made a lot of money and the producers feel as though they can make a few more bucks by getting audiences to pay again to see a slight variation on what they enjoyed the first time around. To be fair, some excellent films have emerged from such crass commercial considerations--and I can only pray that the upcoming "Mad Max: Fury Road" is one of them--but for every good one, there are four or five that are little more than filmed deals in which things presumably came to life only during the contract negotiations. A far rarer beast, on the other hand, is the sequel that comes about not because of a desire to make more money but because the filmmakers legitimately had more of the story to tell. For example, Richard Linklater's 1995 film "Before Sunrise" was hardly a blockbuster but it nevertheless inspired two sequels--"Before Sunset" (2004) and "Before Midnight" (2013)--that offered fascinating further developments to the story and its two main characters that would eventually result in one of the finest cinematic trilogies of our time.

Now comes "Ned Rifle," the latest film from maverick independent filmmaker Hal Hartley and the conclusion of an unexpected trilogy that began in 1998 with his cult favorite "Henry Fool" and which continued in 2006 with the follow-up "Fay Grim." From a purely mercenary perspective, making such a film is a questionable endeavor at best--even by arthouse standards, the previous films were not exactly hits and by opening it on the same weekend as the behemoth that is "Furious 7," even those who would be curious to see such a thing may not even learn of its existence until it has already disappeared from theaters. As a viewer, and as a long-standing fan of Hartley's oddball oeuvre (which also includes such fascinating works as his electrifying debut "The Unbelievable Truth," "Trust" and "Flirt"), the arrival of "Ned Rifle" is a bit of a godsend in that it is not only a more than worthy successor to "Henry Fool," which I still feel is Hartley's finest work to date, but the most consistently entertaining and provocative work that he has done since he began this particular saga.

For those unfamiliar with the predecessors of "Ned Rifle," perhaps a brief recap is needed. In "Henry Fool," a nerdy garbageman named Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) is befriended by Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a roguish bon vivant who carries around a literary epic that he calls his confessions and who inspires his new friend to try his hand at poetry. While Henry is revealed to be a supremely untalented writer, Simon becomes a controversial and celebrated poet--a development that causes a schism between the two former friends that is exacerbated when Henry gets Simon's sister, Fay (Parker Posey) pregnant and marries her. However, when a dark secret from Henry's past is revealed, Simon lends a hand to help his former friend flee the country before he can be arrested. In "Fay Grim," Fay is raising her son, Ned (Liam Aiken), by herself when she is forced by the CIA to embark on an international quest to track down the allegedly deceased Henry and retrieve his confessions, which supposedly contain embarrassing secrets that could damage the security of the United States. This leads to a series of misadventures involving various secret agents from around the world and culminates with her coming face to face with an infamous terrorist with ties to Henry that leads her to a life-altering decision.

Picking up the action a few years later, "Ned Rifle" begins with Henry still nowhere to be seen, Fay serving a life sentence with no chance of parole after being found guilty of being a terrorist and Ned has been living with a pastor (Martin Donovan) and his family under the name of Ned Rifle. Although he has become devoutly religious along the way, Ned still harbors resentment towards the man he believes destroyed his mother's life and when he turns 18, he decides to set off on a quest to track down and kill Henry. After visiting his mother in prison (who has just sold her ghost-written memoirs for a huge sum and who is shocked by his turn towards religion) and Uncle Simon, who has chosen to abandon the esoteric world of poetry for the more audience-friendly medium of stand-up comedy via the Internet, a vocation he insists on pursuing ("I want to be popular and liked") despite evidently not being very good at it despite going so far as to hire a comedy coach (played, oddly enough, by trash film legend Lloyd Kaufman, which might explain it), Ned learns that Henry may be holed up in Seattle and goes off to confront and kill him.

He is joined on his quest by Susan (Aubrey Plaza), an oddball grad student whom he meets hanging out in the lobby of the hotel where Simon is living--having written her thesis on Simon's poetry, she has been loitering about in the hopes of meeting him and showing it to him. As it turns out, Susan is also the person who is ghost-writing Fay's memoirs. The two eventually track down Henry in a mental hospital, where he is once again gaming the system and behaving like a boor to practically everyone who comes into contact with him. It is around this time, however, that Susan is more than just your typical intense literary groupie--she has a few dark secrets of her own that kick off a series of unexpected events which have shocking repercussions for all three of them.

With their deader-than-deadpan attitudes and formally challenging narratives, Hartley's films have always been an acquired taste and while I don't think that he has ever made a flat-out bad movie (even his lone stab at semi-mainstream acceptance, the weird "Beauty and the Beast" riff "No Such Thing," at least had the decency to be an interesting failure), I will concede that most of his post-"Henry Fool" output has been somewhat uneven, especially in comparison to his earlier works. Happily, "Ned Rifle" proves to be a return to form for him, both as a straightforward narrative and as an examination of the shifts in American culture, both political and popular, in the years since the release of "Henry Fool." The dialogue is smart and funny throughout and the storyline manages to find an interesting balance between continuing the journey with the characters we have known for all these years and bringing new people into the narrative fold as well. From a directorial standpoint, he keeps everything moving along in a stylish and entertaining manner without resorting to gimmicks like the over-reliance on Dutch angles that made the simple act of watching "Fay Grim" a sometimes painful experience.

Aiken (who was just a little kid when he appeared in "Henry Fool"), Posey, Urbaniak and Ryan have been living with these characters for a long time now and it is an undeniable pleasure to see them slipping back into these familiar roles--Aiken more than holds his own as the film's center, Posey and Urbaniak are fun in their brief scenes and Ryan is still a joy to behold (among other things) as one of the most cheerfully appalling characters in recent cinema. (Among seeing Ned and Susan for the first time, he remarks "Who's the winsome tart with the humorless youth?") Fans of Hartley's films will also be amused to see a number of people from his stock company, such as Martin Donovan, Karen Silas and Robert John Burke,in small roles. The major addition this time around is Aubrey Plaza as Susan and she is pretty spectacular throughout--her deadpan comedic approach is perfectly in tune with Hartley's and she also possesses the necessary dramatic chops to handle the shift towards a darker and more serious tone towards the end.

"Ned Rifle" was clearly made on a very low budget (even after factoring in inflation, there is a possibility that it may have actually cost less to produce than "Henry Fool" did in 1997) and the only real problems with the film are when the budgetary seams begin to show--the ending is abrupt enough to suggest that a longer and more intricate finale was originally planned and then scrapped because Hartley lacked the time or budget to pull it off. Other than that, the film marks a welcome return to form for one of the more distinctive talents to emerge from the American independent film movement of the 1990s and while it may not win over too many new converts to the cause, it will leave his fans more than satisfied and if we are lucky, it will help inspire a new commitment to filmmaking that yields future films as strong and sure as his finest efforts.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=27621&reviewer=389
originally posted: 04/02/15 21:53:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Berlin Film Festival For more in the 2015 Berlin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hal Hartley

Written by
  Hal Hartley

  Parker Posey
  Liam Aiken
  Aubrey Plaza
  Robert John Burke
  Martin Donovan
  Lloyd Kaufman

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