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Indie Focus: Friends, frontier and commerce in ‘First Cow’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

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Now playing in a new restoration at the Laemmle Monica Film Center, the 1985 Russian film “Come and See,” directed by Elem Klimov, is a devastating look at war and its impact set during World War II. As Justin Chang wrote for The Times, “It remains one of the greatest of war films and one of the most unshakably damning. … Know that what awaits you is more than just another meticulously choreographed spectacle of war. This soul-scarring movie unfolds as though under a trancelike spell of its own making, one that disorients as much as it hypnotizes.”

Kenneth Turan wrote about the new release “The Way Back,” which in its story of a small-town basketball coach overcoming his drinking problem and calming his inner demons plays as a bit of autobiographical psychodrama for its star, Ben Affleck. As Turan wrote, “It’s not just that, at age 47, Affleck’s history is visible on his face, it’s that he has the ability to convey through his acting the deep pain his drinking has caused him as well as the savage, seething anger he feels about the way his life has gone.”

The 22nd year of American Cinematheque’s “Noir City: Hollywood” series starts on Friday, March 6, with special emphasis on international variations on the film noir, with rare titles from Argentina, Germany, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Sweden. On Monday, writer-director David Mamet will appear at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a screening of “House of Games.”

For information on upcoming L.A. Times screenings and Q&A events, visit events.latimes.com/screenings.

‘First Cow’

Kelly Reichardt is one of the best filmmakers currently working in America, full stop. Seamlessly blending emotional concerns, political awareness and social realities, her films are impeccable jewels. Her latest, “First Cow,” is set in 1820s Oregon, as Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) strikes up a bond of friendship and commerce with King-Lu (Orion Lee), making the frontier a less lonely place for both of them. With Cookie’s abilities as a baker and King-Lu’s ambition and knack for prototypical all-American salesmanship, they launch a successful hustle with the help of a little stolen milk from the first cow to arrive in the region.

In his review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Suffice to say the plot’s every unfolding development is a deft and delightful surprise, and it may be the most suspenseful and entertaining demonstration yet of Reichardt’s rigorous attention to detail — her patient, genuine and remarkably cinematic fascination with the workings of process and minutiae. All of which makes ‘First Cow’ both a captivating underdog story and a brilliant demonstration of the pluck and ingenuity of American enterprise in action.”

I spoke to Reichardt — as well as Magaro, Lee, author Jonathan Raymond and filmmaker Todd Haynes — for a story that will be publishing soon, and I asked her what the movie is about to her.

“It’s just a funny thing, because you make a film and you’re being so careful about what you’re getting across, that you’re not explicitly pointing a finger or anything and trying to create this world of being articulate and having ambiguity. And then it’s like, ‘OK, go and tell everyone exactly what you were thinking,’” Reichardt said. “If anything, I guess I’d just say that we were like, ‘Wow, from the start a country of immigrants,’ like everyone was an immigrant except for the Chinook and all the tribes that were there before, the First Nations people. But I guess just some look at the question of: Can capitalism work with the natural world? Can those two things coexist?”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott described the movie as “if Robert Altman were directing an episode of ‘The Odd Couple’ written by Samuel Beckett,” and called it a “deceptively simple and wondrously subtle new film. A parable of economics and politics, with shrewd insights into the workings of supply and demand, scarcity and scale and other puzzles of the marketplace, the movie is also keenly attuned to details of history, both human and natural.”

For The Wrap, Elizabeth Weitzman wrote, “What gives the movie its ultimate power, though, is not the tension that comes from wondering what might happen in the forest but from what we already know will unfurl beyond it. Reichardt and her outstanding team ensure that we are fully invested in her striving heroes and equally anxious for their promising young country, as well.”

A scene from the movie “First Cow.”
A scene from the movie “First Cow.”
(Allyson Riggs / A24 Films)
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‘Saint Frances’

Directed by Alex Thompson and written by its star, Kelly O’Sullivan, “Saint Frances” follows a woman named Bridget (O’Sullivan) in her early 30s who is struggling to get her life together. Not long after taking a new job as nanny to a precocious 6-year-old named Frances (Ramona Edith-Williams), Bridget is also dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.

Reviewing for The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “This utterly poignant and beautiful tale of human connection opens with a candid discussion of postcoital menstrual blood, a topic that is rarely broached in polite conversation despite the commonality of its occurrence. Bringing these taboo, specifically feminine experiences out into the open is the intention of ‘Saint Frances,’ which tackles relationships, sex, abortion, birth, postpartum depression and homophobia with an unflinching sort of grace.”

For IndieWire, Kate Erbland wrote, “O’Sullivan (who makes her feature screenwriting debut while also leading the film, appearing in every scene) is a real find, the kind of ‘voice of a generation’ talent who spends less time talking about her genius insight and more time simply delivering on it.”

For rogerebert.com, Sheila O’Malley wrote of the film’s story, “Admittedly, this is a pretty well-trod path, and so the eccentricity comes from the feeling that every character — not just Bridget, but everyone — is in just a little bit over their heads. So many films offer up prepackaged, easily digestible ideas, with risk-averse empowerment messages. It’s truly refreshing to watch a film where nobody has anything figured out, where life proceeds messily and imperfectly. ‘Saint Frances’ is unpredictable in a very human way.”

Ramona Edith Williams and Kelly O’Sullivan in a scene from “Saint Frances.”
Ramona Edith Williams and Kelly O’Sullivan in a scene from “Saint Frances.”
(Oscilloscope Pictures)

‘Swallow’

Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, “Swallow” follows a young woman, Hunter (Haley Bennett, winner of the best actress prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival for the role), who seems to have an idyllic life — newly pregnant with a wealthy husband and beautiful home. But dissatisfied and suffering from past trauma, Hunter soon begins swallowing objects — a marble, a pushpin and on to larger and more dangerous things — as a way to reassert control over her body and herself.

In a review for The Times, Kimber Meyers wrote, “Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has made a feminist film that lodges deep in your throat, taking up residence in your chest as you struggle to breathe. At times, you’re unable to believe what you’re seeing and yet unable to look away. ‘Swallow’ is difficult viewing at times, but it’s psychologically rich and always feels genuine, even in its gorgeously stylized approach to the interior life of its complex protagonist.”

At the New York Times, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim wrote, “Mirabella-Davis, whose crew was largely made up of women, avoids pure body-horror sensationalism as he traces Hunter’s need for control to a trauma in her past. But given how nauseating it is to watch Hunter perform increasingly perilous acts of self-harm in her prison of a mansion, neither the payoff nor the psychology behind her actions makes ‘Swallow’ an illuminating enough addition to the woman-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown genre.”

For The Wrap, Candice Frederick wrote, “The horror genre is ripe for exploring the intricacies of the #MeToo experience in a very visceral way, as we’ve seen most recently in films like ‘The Invisible Man’ and ‘The Perfection.’ But when the theme is shoehorned into a narrative seemingly only in an effort to comply with the cultural dialogue, it becomes an uncomfortable and awkward viewing experience. … There are really two contending films inside ‘Swallow’ that, if given the opportunity and the space to do so, could have been fascinating as separate entities.”

Haley Bennett in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow.”
Haley Bennett in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow.”
(IFC Films )
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