The Little Hours (2017; Dir.: Jeff Baena)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, July 7, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
More high-concept comedy from Life After Beth director and I Heart Huckabees screenwriter Baena, this time an oddball adaptation of a single story from Boccaccios’s 14th-century literary keystone The Decameron. Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci play lusty young nuns in a remote Italian convent run by Molly Shannon’s repressed mother and John C. Reilly’s drunken priest, while Dave Franco plays a refugee Lothario hiding out as a deaf-mute handyman. Bawdy encounters abound, and similar to The Beguiled, the mere presence of Franco’s seasoned but repentant lover drives these cloistered women into a heretical heat, leading to an unexpectedly intense scene set during a witches’ ritual. The deadpan “gag” here: no one from the cast makes any attempt to hide their American accents or potty-mouthed contemporary vernacular, while the warm, burnished images of cinematographer Quyen Tran misleadingly suggest a more traditional take. There’s not much notable about The Little Hours beyond that irresistible premise, and yet I was tickled almost the entire time, largely thanks to an ensemble cast utterly committed to making their moments work.
Les Cowboys (2016; Dir.: Thomas Bidegain)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Clay Theatre in San Francisco.
Long-time Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain makes his directorial debut with this steely-eyed odd duck, and it’s exactly the kind of terse tangle of cultural collisions and overwrought genre tropes that you would expect from the man who co-wrote Rust and Bone and Dheepan. Les Cowboys opens on the French prairie, establishing a seemingly contented, pre-9/11 world of bow-legged, Tennessee Waltz-ing weekend cowboys and then almost immediately destabilizing it. When his daughter goes missing at a country fair, possibly following her radical Muslim boyfriend out of the country, determined dad Alain (François Damiens) begins a years-long, globe-spanning search that costs him his marriage and possibly his sanity. The first half of Les Cowboys unfurls as an almost beat-for-beat contemporary analogue of The Searchers, with Alain’s more emotionally measured but equally obsessive son Kid in the Jeffrey Hunter role. But just when it feels like the film is starting to write itself, another huge twist at the halfway mark completely flips the script, and not necessarily in a good way. There’s a lot of unique atmosphere in those early scenes, but that gets tabled for a broader and more common take on global politics, and Les Cowboys gets messier the more it tries to fit in its mouth. As with a lot of the Audiard films, though, it’s hard to dismiss something this visceral and ambitious, even if it doesn’t necessarily work.
Tale of Tales (2016; Dir.: Matteo Garrone)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, May 13 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Bizarre but oddly restrained gory fantasy from Gomorrah director Garrone, an intertwined anthology inspired by the fairy tales of Giambattista Basile. Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly play a childless queen and king in the opening chapter, perfect casting in that those are literally the only two people that this staunch patriot could ever imagine revering as royalty. A hooded mystic influences the unhappy queen to send her husband to steal the heart of a sea monster, the first in a series of practical-effect beasts that lumber throughout this luxuriously stiff oddity. Devouring the sea monster’s heart instantly causes the queen to become pregnant, but the female servant who prepared the meal also gives birth to an identical albino twin. Sixteen years later and Hayek looks exactly the same, just like in real life. The queen takes the hand of a debauched king but fixates entirely on her son, frowning on his friendship with his serf-class double, while the boys hatch a Prince and the Pauper-style scheme. Other arms of this beast involve cave ogres, giant fleas, lonely princesses, witches, tightrope walkers and performing bears, but most story threads wrap around power struggles of truth vs. deception and freedom vs. control in familial relationships. Viscous and tactile, Tale of Tales feels like David Cronenberg hijacked the set of Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre with an EXistenZ gristle gun. If only there was some more shape to this thing! Too many scenes struggle on awkwardly, like a slain animal that doesn’t know it’s dead yet.