Tag Archives: B

SHOWING UP

Producers: Neil Kopp, Vincent Savino and Anish Savjani   Director: Kelly Reichardt   Screenplay: Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt   Cast: Michelle Williams, Hong Chau, Maryann Plunkett, John Magaro, André Benjamin, James Le Gros, Judd Hirsch, Heather Lawless, Matt Malloy, Amanda Plummer, Theo Taplitz, Orianna Milne, Lauren Lakis, Daniel Rodriguez, Jean-Luc Boucherot, Ted Rooney, Ben Coonley, Chase Hawkins and Izabel Mar     Distributor: A24

Grade: B

Perhaps there’s a bit of self-portraiture in Kelly Reichardt’s new film.  Reichardt makes small-scaled, acutely observed, deliberately paced pictures that attract critical attention but few viewers; the protagonist of “Showing Up,” Lizzy (Michelle Williams, a frequent collaborator), is something of her mirror image. She’s a Portland sculptor living in an insular artistic community (the film was shot at the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts) who’s doggedly putting the final touches on pieces for an upcoming gallery exhibition–finely crafted though rough-edged little statues of women in varied poses that are striking but unlikely to attract broad notice. (They’re the work of artist Cynthia Lahti.)  The picture is another skillful example of Reichardt’s minimalist style, but no likelier to appeal to a wide audience than her previous work (or Lizzy’s creations).

The writer-director has described her films as nothing more than glimpses of people going through their lives, and it’s a description that fits this one well.  Unassertive and rather mopey, Lizzy seems to brighten slightly when doing her art, yet responds with only meek protest when one of her statuettes gets overheated and discolored in the kiln run by perpetually upbeat Eric (André Benjamin), for whom every piece an artist brings him for treatment is “great.”  She lives with a cat that pretty much has the run of the apartment she rents from another artist, extrovert Jo (Hong Chau), who’s also preparing an upcoming show and exhibits no urgency about repairing Lizzy’s broken water heater.  One of our heroine’s main obsessions is finding a place to get a hot shower.

But another incident further interferes with her work.  A pigeon has been attacked by a cat, and Lizzy is enlisted by Jo in tending to the injured bird, even taking it to a vet.  It’s not the money, which the more successful Jo is willing to bear, that’s a bother; it’s the time the pigeon takes from Lizzy’s work, especially since she becomes attached to the pigeon and protective of it. 

Then there’s Lizzy’s family.  Her mother Jean (Maryann Plunkett), a brusque, businesslike woman, is Lizzy’s superior at the office of a small art magazine, and her gregarious father Bill, a potter separated from his wife, has allowed a wandering couple to decamp in his house; Lizzy thinks they’re freeloaders and is annoyed by the fact that he has happily welcomed them to stay indefinitely. 

More worrisome still is Lizzy’s older brother Sean (John Magaro), a troubled man who lives a reclusive life in an unkempt house.  Jean offhandedly calls Sean a genius, but Lizzy seriously doubts that when she finds him digging a huge hole in his backyard and describing it as a work of art.  As her show opens, Sean disappears, though both Jean and Bill seem less concerned than Lizzy, even as she tries to interest the small crowd that gathers in the tiny gallery in her work.  Amidst the modest hubbub, with Bill trying to connect with a couple of much younger women, Sean appears and begins wolfing down the cheese Lizzy’s put out for the guests, explaining that for him it’s dinner.  Meanwhile a couple of kids begin playing with the pigeon Jo’s brought with her and unwrap the bandages, letting it fly free.  It’s Sean who intervenes to catch and cradle it, and then release it into the street, in a gesture of liberation.

Though this ending will probably be embraced by viewers as somehow cathartic, it’s actually symptomatic of the most problematic part of the film. The subplot regarding the pigeon is inevitably rather cloying, just as a similar one about an injured bird restored to health was in the recent “Empire of Light.” And it’s apparently meant to reflect to some degree Lizzy’s hard-won expression of creativity, which is really the essence of the film.  It would arguably have been better had Reichardt avoided even the hint of mawkishness the whole endangered bird motif, with its allusions to both Lizzy’s tenacity and her fragility, represents and hewn more closely to the observation Sean, whether genius or not, makes, “You have to listen to what isn’t being said”–a practice Reichardt adhered to more exactingly in her previous films than she does in this one.

Yet “Showing Up” is extraordinarily successful in expressing, in its low-key way, the ambience of the community in which Lizzy is soldiering on—a group of artists and artisans determined to express themselves through their work, however little notice the outer world might give it.  (Indeed, many viewers might well see them as a smugly self-centered lot, happily inhabiting a protective bubble.)  Once again Williams, who has collaborated with Reichardt before, brings her most subtle instincts to the lead character, never breaking the mood even when Lizzy, in a rare moment of exasperation, confronts Jo about the water heater (only to retreat after being told off, though he does rip up a few of Jo’s flowers before retiring from the field).  The other members of the cast are similarly committed, with Magaro (who also worked with the director before, in “First Cow”) and Hirsch, obviously relishing another high in his octogenarian career renaissance, standing out, though Chau is effortlessly convincing in her matter-of-fact indifference to others’ opinions.

Technically the film evinces Reinhardt’s belief in simplicity, with Anthony Gasparro’s production design and April Napier’s costumes free of frills, as is Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematography and the lapidary editing by Reichardt herself.  Ethan Rose’s understated score features solo work from flautist Benjamin.

Kelly Reichardt’s neorealist style is an acquired taste, and many will find it too reticent, even sleepy.  But if you can tune into her wavelength, at its best the result will come across as quietly insightful and moving.

GUY RITCHIE’S THE COVENANT

Producers: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson, John Friedberg and Josh Berger    Director: Guy Ritchie   Screenplay: Guy Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies   Cast:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Dar Salim, Alexander Ludwig, Antony Starr, Emily Beecham, Jonny Lee Miller, Bobby Schofield, Jason Wong, Sean Sagar, Fariba Sheikhan, Damon Zofalghari, Reza Diako, Rhys Yates, Fahim Fazii, Sina Parvaneh, Cyrus Khodaveisi, Christian Ochoa Laverniua and Swen Temmel   Distributor: United Artists/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Grade: B

Like everything nowadays, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 has become a political football, its haste and lack of coordination widely criticized.  Though it might not be his intention, Guy Ritchie’s film, while set some three years earlier, is bound to add to the debate about the failure to ensure the extrication of all the Afghan nationals who had aided allied forces during the long conflict, including those who had acted as interpreters for the military.  A caption preceding the final credits notes that thousands of the interpreters and their families were left to the mercy of the Taliban despite pledges that they would be evacuated to safety before the country was surrendered, and “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant” (with the director’s name attached to differentiate it from other pictures with the unadorned title) will certainly be embraced by many viewers as confirmation that their abandonment represents a continuing stain on American honor.

But despite the use to which it can be put (and the title), the film is basically a personal story rather than a political polemic—a “double rescue” story that Ritchie has handled in a solid, straightforward fashion, eschewing the cinematic tricks and juvenile tendencies he’s often favored in the past.  It is, in fact, a rather old-fashioned tale of heroism and duty in war, and an effective one, though it doesn’t avoid some genre tropes in the process.

The film falls into two parts.  The first focuses on the businesslike relationship that develops between Sgt. John Kinley (Jake Gyllenhaal), who leads a squadron looking for enemy bomb-making sites, and Ahmed (Dar Salim), his newly-appointed translator.   Both are serious, unemotional types, dedicated to doing their jobs well, although Ahmed, well-versed in the area, piques Kinley’s suspicions when he takes initiatives on his own, though his intuition usually proves correct.

Wanting to be more aggressive in uncovering Taliban IED factories, Kinley presses his commander, Col. Vokes (Jonny Lee Miller), for permission to investigate sites not yet fully vetted, and one of them, in a distant mountainous area, proves the jackpot.  But after dealing with those Taliban in a cave near and old mine, the squadron comes under assault from a nearby enemy contingent, and before reinforcements can arrive, all but Kinley and Ahmed are killed.  They take off on foot and avoid being captured, eliminating some pursuers in the process. 

But eventually Kinley is seriously wounded.  Ahmed decides to transport him back to the base—a long, arduous trek he must undertake mostly on foot, dragging the unconscious American on a makeshift stretcher, dealing with checkpoints and Taliban pursuers, and putting his own life on the line.  He succeeds, and Kinley is returned to the U.S., and ultimately to his wife Caroline (Emily Beecham), who’s kept their specialized vehicle shop buzzing during his absence, and their three young children.

But once he’s recovered from his injuries, John can think of little but Ahmed, who’s had to go underground with his wife and infant son after becoming one of the Taliban’s most wanted.  Infuriated at the red tape and delays in locating him, providing the visas they family must have and spiriting them out of Afghanistan, he decides, with his wife’s blessing, to go there himself, enlisting Vokes to get the visas and Eddie Parker (Antony Starr), a skilled American contractor with plenty of staff and equipment who’s been recommended by his buddy Sgt. Declan Brady (Alexander Ludwig), to provide the logistical support he’ll need.  Despite some hiccups, Kinley locates Ahmed and his family and, with an Afghan diver at the wheel of a truck, gets them to a dam that will serve as the pickup point for Parker.  But they’re pursued by a convoy of gun-wielding Taliban.  Will Parker’s airship make it in time to save them when they’re pinned down and running out of ammunition?

The script by Ritchie, Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davie is not a dramatization of a true story, and there are moments that might give one pause—the vehicular chases along mountain roads and the way great hordes of faceless Taliban are mowed down while, apart from the initial ambush, few Americans fall have the scent of old Hollywood Westerns, and the use of slow-motion at the most desperate point in the final stand-off, interrupted by a sudden intervention, is a case in which Ritchie resorts to a musty cliche.  Nor is the banter among the Americans particularly enlightened.    

But such stumbles are relatively rare, given Ritchie’s usual proclivities; for the most part the film treats the audience as adults, even as it exalts the American military (if not the American government—and remember, the narrative is set during the Trump years).  The physical production certainly has an authentic look: though the picture was shot in Spain, Martyn John’s production design is convincing, and Ed Wild’s bleakly realistic cinematography uses the locations to excellent effect.  James Herbert edits skillfully in both the action sequences and the more intimate ones, while Christopher Benstead’s score avoids bombast.

Eve more importantly, both Gyllenhaal and Salim invest Kinley and Ahmed with real humanity; they might be fictional characters, but they don’t come across as war-movie clichés.  This is basically a two-hander, but all the supporting cast handle their roles with similar restraint, though the Taliban heavies are hardly nuanced.

“The Covenant” is hardly a revisionist film, either in terms of war movies in general or those about Afghanistan in particular; but as a tale of unlikely wartime comradeship, it’s a strong, compelling piece.