By Anne Brodie
First Cow is a deceptively simply told fable that gets under the skin and lingers. Two men in the Klondike have vague dreams of cashing in on the 1896 gold rush. Kelly Reichardt whose films I deeply admire takes us back in time to the brutal unforgiving north full of dreamers and dangers. John Magaro and Orion Lee play a cook and a trapper, whose journey leads them to something infinitely more valuable than gold. The region’s first cow arrives, the property of the stern and punitive factor (Toby Jones). They milk it under the cover of darkness and make “oily cakes” which sell like hotcakes at the local market and yield a small fortune; they are rich beyond their timid dreams. If their theft is discovered, they will suffer extreme consequences; its risky business. This wonderfully plain, nature bound tale is beautifully not of our time, as Reichardt once again creates a rich tapestry of human experience. These men, lost in the wilderness traverse morality, character, classism, economic instability and reveal Reichardt’s profound respect for nature, woodsy and human. The score is a dream.
Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, which flows from the rich landscape of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, is given the ultimate 2020 horror update merging a deep political divide and some poor suckers who make themselves targets. Actual targets. Emma Roberts who looks for all the world like Ivanka Trump wakes up in a field gagged and under fire. She’s not alone, a terrified group of hostages is in the same boat. Another blonde (Betty Gilpin) emerges, cool as a cucumber, a warrior capable of battling the invisible threat. We don’t see much of star Hillary Swank, but when we do, we see her dish out the pain. It’s not often that at a press screening you hear seasoned critics gasp when someone is violently dispatched but yup, they went there. Cool, fun satire.
In certain regions of the world exist whistling languages meant to communicate over long distances. Such a language is at the heart of Cornelio Porumboiu’s crime caper The Whistlers. A woman pays a reluctant Romanian police officer to travel to the Canary Islands to release her beau from prison. She teaches him the whistling language used for centuries by gangsters to evade the law; comes in handy when a missing cache of 30M Euros enters the picture. Criminal factions including corrupt cops are on the trail. Our policeman falls in love with the woman, endangering himself and his mother – the gangsters have been to her house. This twisty, dark drama about our consuming lust for money reminds us that greed can overtake everything we believe to be good in ourselves, and morality is fluid.
The Irish black comedy Extra Ordinary, from Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman, pits Irish villagers against a washed-up American rock star Christian (Will Forte) slash warlock living in a nearby castle. Maeve Higgins and Barry Ward meet at an alleged driving lesson; he’s fed up with the ghost of his dead wife constantly pestering and judging him and heard the woman has powers to help. Soon they learn that Christian is about to sacrifice her daughter to Satan in a pact to reboot his career. It’s all hands on deck, alive, dead or in-between with moments of deadpan humour and outright hilarity in the ages-old battle against Satan. Odd and disarming.
The melancholy character study Red Snow filmed in Yellowknife and Dettah is the story of Dylan (Asivak Koostachin), a young Gwich’in soldier from the Canadian Arctic, taken captive in Panjwayi, Afghanistan. Under a Taliban Commander’s brutal treatment, he’s flooded with memories of his Inuit life and traditions, visions of his adoring grandmother (Tantoo Cardinal) and the vocabulary of snow. He escapes with his translator and his family and hazards unfriendly landscapes and enemy gunfire, but he’s protected and encouraged by these memories. In English, Gwich’in, Inuvialuktun and Pashto languages, written and directed by Metis playwright, director, producer, and screenwriter, Marie Clements.
Antiquarian booksellers have a vital role in preserving our cultural and art history. The Booksellers produced by Parker Posey looks at the obsessives, intellects, eccentrics and dreamers whose lives are given meaning by physical books. Fran Lebowitz and Gay Talese celebrate the importance of millennia of book culture, and the resurgence of book reading. We see Da Vinci’s The Codex Leicester, jewelled bindings, human flesh bindings, and a book on polar expeditions containing real woolly mammoth fur. It’s a wonderfully sensual experience and heartening for paper book lovers, with news that the small independent bookstore appears to be making a comeback. D.W. Young shows us a world of knowledge, pleasure and history with his appealing style and statement defending books. By the way, Lebowitz doesn’t own any kind of device, computer, cell phone, nothing.
HULU’s adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel, Little Fires Everywhere may be a soap opera but it’s a worthy one. Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington and Joshua Jackson star in this eight-parter. A suburban wife and mother who strives for perfection and dominates those around her. She hires a homeless black woman, but their relationship is comfortable. Then she has a new hobby – helping a Chinese waitress who was forced to give away her baby. Reese steps up and helps everyone if they want help or not and holds her family on short leads. Her curse is destructive nervous energy and superficial charm and surprise, surprise, one night her mansion burns down. This is all about white privilege and the cult of personality in a world of harsh division, middle America. It’s engrossing and takes no prisoners because everyone is to some degree, corrupt. Reese Witherspoon’s cunning and manipulative character is a knockout. Kerry Washington, Joshua Jackson and Rosemarie Dewitt c0-star.
More than a dozen women’s bodies have been found along Ocean Parkway on Long Island since 2010. They were young women, some connected to the sex trade; their families rallied for support from the local police for years, to no avail until one mother, activist Mari Gilbert forced them to do better. Amy Ryan plays Gilbert in the Netflix movie Lost Girls a mighty character with a murdered daughter and two surviving, determined to find the body and bring the killer to justice. Gilbert is rebuffed repeatedly but finally finds someone to listen, the Police Commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) on the eve of his retirement. Neighbours who saw something, someone who called police, anonymous tips and a solid citizen suspect about to vacate the area makes for an intriguing piece. It’s no spoiler to say the murderer remains at large, but one thing we may not be prepared for is the burden on the shoulders of the grieving mothers and families. Directed by Liz Garbus.
It’s tough going too long without a good Agatha Christie yarn, and I am happy to report that the Amazon Original The Pale Horse should hold us over. Not only is there a vexing murder mystery afoot there are three witches interfering with our hero (Rufus Sewell). A London woman dies under mysterious circumstances; a list of names is found in her shoe and Sewell’s Mark Easterbrook’s is on it. The others are dying one by one. He doesn’t trust police so launches his own investigation, gets onto the dead woman’s apartment and a clue takes him to The Pale Horse pub in the village of Much Deeping. The witches (one of them Rita Tushingham!) appear to have a connection to his late wife. Easterbrook’s a skeptic but he’s being sorely tested, like those who died, his hairs falling out in hanks. Is he next? Diverse characters, all sketchy, make for a fun and fascinating whodunnit. This Agatha Christie at her most modern, but with that comforting English rural mystery charm. Directed by Leonora Lonsdale.
They don’t call themselves immigrants, oh no, they are ex-pats! An English family vacates Old Blighty to find the American Dream and here they are running a trailer park in Kissimmee Florida wondering if they’ve made a huge mistake. Lesley Sharp and Philip Glenister are Jen and Mal parents to two troublemaking high schoolers doing their best to fake it till they make it in Living the Dream S2. Nary a moment to enjoy the Sunshine State, they face never-ending challenges, a shootout, visa threats, the kids’ chosen hobbies (political agitation and suspected drug dealing), Mal’s regularly sent to sleep on the couch and an irritatingly cheerful new hire doesn’t help. Mal becomes hopelessly lost while hog hunting in the everglades and instantly reverts to some sort of childhood place. It’s original and amusing especially Mal’s pathetic self-doubts (relatable!) but Jen holds them all together until he fires her. On BritBox.