FilmWatch Weekly: Parenting tips from ‘Lamb’ & ‘Little Girl’; Italian thrillers and–oh, yeah, James Bond

It's their baby (but is it human?); a feel-good film about a transgender child; Daniel Craig's final go-round.

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Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Noomi Rapace in “Lamb.”

Parenting is hard. After all, there’s no surefire instruction manual (apologies to Dr. Spock and his ilk), and the stakes are impossibly high. The risks, physical and emotional, to both child and adult, are profound. But, as a pair of films opening this week testify, there are a couple of reliable guidelines. First, always support your kid, even if society doesn’t. Second, make sure it’s human.

The parents in the riveting, dark fable Lamb are Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), sheep farmers in a remote stretch of the stunning Icelandic landscape. They go about their daily chores in something of a daze, and from the opening moments director Valdimar Jóhannsson conjures a mixture of foreboding and tedium; not a word of dialogue is spoken until 10 minutes into the film. Those chores often involve serving as ovine obstetricians, and one day one of their sheep dies while giving birth. With wordless reverence, Maria and Ingvar bring the newborn into their home and begin to raise it as their own.

It’s a lamb, of course, but something more. (Yes, that’s right, Maria has a little lamb.) Nurture gives nature more than a run for its money, at least morphologically speaking. Jóhannsson is appropriately coy about showing us too much of Ada (as they name her), but eventually it becomes clear that she’s some sort of hybrid. As Ada ages, she learns to walk upright and wear clothes, but, through very clever visual effects work, maintains the head of a lamb. So far, so good, right? There’s no reason this threesome can’t live their isolated lives in peace.

Well, there are a couple of things. One is the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a ne’er-do-well who shows up at the farmhouse broke and needing a place to stay. You might almost say he’s the black sheep of the family. The other is a more mythic menace, one that the family’s sheepdog can sense on the wind before the humans have a clue. Each threatens to disrupt the delicate idyll that has brought these taciturn, wounded spouses back to marital life.

The source of those wounds is revealed in a brief, unshowy scene that you’d miss if you took a restroom break, and it’s the one reductive flaw in what is otherwise a spellbinding meditation on human (and animal) relationships and the thin veil that separates parental love from obsession. Rapace, who first made her name in the original, Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, excels at portraying women whose formidable fronts hide deep-seated trauma. And Lamb is a remarkable showcase for Jóhannsson, making his first feature and co-writing, with the Icelandic author Sjón (a frequent collaborator of Björk in the past). In the best spirit of twisted Scandinavian folk tales, it shifts between creepy restraint and legitimate pathos, with a wallop of an ending. (Opens Friday, October 18 at Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, the Laurelhurst Theater, and other area theaters)

***

A HEALTHIER DEPICTION of dedicated parenting comes in the French documentary Little Girl, which sympathetically but non-polemically follows the challenges of a family whose youngest member, eight-year-old Sasha, was born biologically male but has known, since as long as she could communicate the fact, that she was a girl. These challenges don’t come from within—this isn’t a film about parents struggling to come to terms with their child’s gender identity. On the contrary, Sasha’s mother, father, and siblings never waver in their support of Sasha being her true self. (Only first names are used in the film, and the town where Sasha’s family lives is never identified, presumably to retain some level of anonymity.)

Sasha, the subject of the documentary “Little Girl.”

What conflict there is in Little Girl comes courtesy of Sasha’s school, which resists the efforts made to have her classified as a girl. The principals, teachers, or administrators responsible are never seen, presumably because they refused to be interviewed, but the anxiety their refusal causes is clearly evident on the face of Sasha, who is ordinarily a fresh-faced kid with an easy grin and a healthy gleam in the eye. The steadfastness of Karine, Sasha’s mother, is invaluable, as is the encounter they have with the empathetic counselor who diagnoses Sasha with gender dysphoria and provides a scientific legitimacy to her experience.

Gaining the level of access necessary to capture these incredibly intimate moments in a young person’s life must have taken enormous effort on the part of director Sébastien Lifshitz, one of whose previous documentary subjects was an Algerian-born transgender showgirl famous in 1950s France. The generosity of this family in allowing us to see what unconditional love looks like is astonishing, and the movie is one of the feel-good films of the fall. (Opens Friday, Oct. 8, at Living Room Theaters)

***

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GIALLO IS ITALIAN FOR “YELLOW.” A popular series of mystery and detective novels published in Italy from the 1930s on were known for their yellow covers. Starting in the 1960s, Italian filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and others churned out lurid, stylish thrillers that gradually came to be known, to English-speaking critics and fans, as “gialli” (the plural of giallo). Like another genre named in a Romance language, film noir, there isn’t a strict taxonomy for a giallo, although bold colors, discordant scores, relatively gory violence, and outsider protagonists are common tropes.

Death wears black gloves in “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.”

The genre peaked in the 1970s, with recognized cult classics such as Deep Red; Blood and Black Lace; and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. (Another trademark of the giallo is over-the-top titling, as evidenced by Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The House with Laughing Windows, and my personal favorite, Don’t Torture a Duckling!) Many directors, including those named above, segued into horror films with similar vibes but more extreme situations.

The best gialli demand the big-screen treatment, drawing the viewer into a dreamlike state where sound and image transcend the vagaries of narrative. (Another trope, perhaps unintentional, is incomprehensible plots, although sometimes amateurish dubbing is to blame.) The Hollywood Theatre, then, does a service with its aptly named series “Death Wears Black Gloves,” which showcases four genre entries beginning this Sunday, Oct. 10, with Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. It’s followed by Bava’s Bay of Blood (Oct. 14), Sergio Martino’s The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (Oct. 18), and Argento’s Deep Red (Oct. 26). Together, the quartet presents a great, blood-soaked alternative for the Halloween season.

***

“NO, MR. BOND, I EXPECT YOU DO DIE.” Nearly fifty years since Auric Goldfinger uttered those iconic words, the world will learn the final fate of James Bond—or, at least, of the version of him played by Daniel Craig over the last fifteen years and five films. Will he drive off into the sunset in his Aston-Martin, martini in hand? Go out in a blaze of glory? Settle down with Ms. Moneypenny after all?

All eyes are on Daniel Craig as he bids adieu to James Bond in “No Time to Die.”

I’m certainly not telling. After all, I want to stay on United Artists’ good list; and, more importantly, I don’t want to spoil it for those with an emotional stake in the outcome. In Craig’s final go-round, No Time to Die, Bond is retired from British intelligence and still involved with psychologist Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), who he met in the previous installment, SPECTRE. This being Bond, however, he’s quickly drawn back into the thick of things when Swann apparently betrays him, and his old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) recruits his help in going after a (yawn) mysterious hacker (Remi Malek) who threatens to destabilize the globe and/or kill a whole lot of people.

One of the distinguishing features of the Craig era has been its grittier, post-9/11 tone. Bond is more of a masochist than he’s ever been, his attractiveness linked to his bruises and scars rather than his skill at chemin de fer. The trick is making that approach blend with the outrageous gadgetry and elaborate action sequences that, in addition to their stars’ charisma, made the character a legend. Another distinguishing feature has become the tendency to return characters from previous installments–other than standbys such as M [currently Ralph Fiennes], Q [Ben Wishaw], and the aforementioned Moneypenny [Naomie Harris]. In addition to Swann and Wright, Christoph Waltz returns as Bond’s incarcerated arch-enemy Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Not only do characters return, but plot points continue from previous efforts, something the classic Bond films almost never did. I can understand why they didn’t.

What’s new, then? Latasha Lynch is a solid add as the capable agent who has taken over Bond’s 007 code number in his retirement, but Ana de Armas is woefully underutilized as a CIA agent who pops in for a scene or two. Other than that, to be honest, No Time to Die doesn’t play like anything more significant than its predecessors. That makes it an interesting experiment in what might be called nondiegetic information—stuff the movie audience knows (this is Craig’s farewell to Bond) going in that no one in the movie is aware of. Instead of giving each scene extra emotional heft, in this case that knowledge only makes it disappointing that there’s nothing really unique about this particular escapade, at least until the climax nears. Even then, frankly, nothing really elevates the proceedings in the way one might expect. Another basically forgettable megalomaniac has been vanquished, Britain remains a bastion of global intelligence work, and, oh, by the way, we need to find a new star for this franchise at some point. Good luck with that. (Opens Friday, Oct. 8, at theaters nationwide)

About the author

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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