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Film Reviews

THE LOST DAUGHTER

First-time feature director Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter premiered at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the best screenplay prize. Gyllenhaal adapted the script from Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel. Now, lead actor Olivia Colman has received an Oscar nomination for her utterly enthralling performance. 

Colman plays “Leda,” a professor of comparative literature living in “Cambridge, near Boston.” We meet her on vacation on a small Greek beach which she appears to have to herself. Slowly, the idyllic setting reveals previously hidden irritants that Leda regards as minor. She’s visibly ruffled, though, when a large extended family with some loud individuals arrive. Leda does manage to make an emotional connection—albeit one with blurry boundaries—with a young mother in the boisterous clan. The mysterious “Nina” (played by Dakota Johnson) and her toddler daughter catalyze Leda’s troubling, vivid memories of her behavior as a young mother of two daughters. 

Her memories are depicted in effective, well-edited, third-person flashbacks in which she’s played by Jessie Buckley, deftly, smartly (Buckley is also nominated for an Academy Award, for supporting actress). We witness Leda as a young mother, struggling—with only the lousy parenting skills she learned in her own troubled childhood—to bring a semblance of order to her home. We also see her in her element—the world of academia and philosophy. Not just a respected author in her field, she parlays her status as a talented mind into unstoppable seductive, sexual prowess.  

But, present-day Leda haunts as much as she is haunted, and that duality is key to The Lost Daughter’s cringingly effective, immediate intimacy. It’s the type of intense psychological drama that makes it look easy. After seeing it, I was left with a bunch of adjectives floating in my brain—all pointing to a movie of remarkable power: “creepy,” “freewheeling,” “hard-to-watch,” “lusty” (at least four supporting characters—young and old, men and women—seem to want to take the latter-day Leda to bed). Full of bold, satisfying symbolism, unflinching, and pleasantly unhinged, it’s clear why it received a four-minute standing ovation on opening night at Venice. 

As I watched it, I noticed myself squirming at times and covering my mouth with my hand (as if trying to keep the nastiness on screen from crawling inside me). In the end, Gyllenhaal wildly weaves a big-brimmed bonnet of psychological pain around your head. Then she plunges an enormous, steely hat pin into it, so it stays put. 

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Categories
Film Reviews

PARALLEL MOTHERS

Set in pre-pandemic Madrid, Parallel Mothers, by veteran Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, marks the high point in his collaborations with Penélope Cruz. 

“Janis” (Cruz), 40 years old, and “Ana” (Milena Smit), 19-ish, are on the verge of giving birth. Strangers, they share a room in a maternity ward. Her kindhearted motherly instincts compel Janis to help Ana with the emotional and physical pain of labor. Ana’s own mother is less attentive, preoccupied with her own late-blooming career as a stage actor. A bond is forged between Janis and Ana. They agree to stay in touch after they’re discharged. Soon, baby “Cecilia” and little “Anita” head home with Janis and Ana, respectively. 

A subplot here deals with missing bodies—some of Janis’ ancestors and others—victims of the fascist forces of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The scenes in which Janis is aided by a renowned archeologist in finding and excavating a mass grave are well-integrated in the overall film, if lacking somewhat in depth. Also notable, the score by Alberto Iglesias—modern, classical, unmistakably Iberian, and beautiful in its own right—evokes appropriate suspense and nuanced moods.  

Almodóvar shows a love for human beings that’s almost peculiar in its authenticity, delicate depth, and insight. His steadfast muse, Cruz, is miraculous in her ability to exude emotional pain, fragility, resilience, strength, and vulnerability (the list goes on indefinitely) making characters like Janis utterly real. Thus does she allow us to really fall in love with them. Together, writer/director and actor might be today’s greatest filmic depicters of platonic and romantic love. 

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Categories
Film Reviews

ANNETTE

French director Leos Carax (Holy Motors, 2012) has staged a new film—a comical, magical, rollicking, sprawling rock opera—chosen as the opening night feature at Cannes 2021. 

Annette, written by American pop duo Sparks (Ron & Russell Mael), offers sharp twists amidst a comedy of egos in meta mode. “Henry McHenry” (Adam Driver) is an entertainer—two-thirds stand-up comic and one-third performance artist. “Ann Desfranoux” (Marion Cotillard) is a fast-rising star of world-class opera. They meet in a heady whirlwind of paparazzi and favorable reviews. Youthful, successful, and accelerated, they’re soon married. Baby Annette arrives. Now parents, Henry and Ann begin to change in strange ways. The father, in particular, seems to lose his footing. His grasp on morality loosens. 

Director Carax is a master of perspective—of camera, yes, but also of dialogue—moving quickly from first person to second to third. The benefit therefrom is a pleasantly jumbled feel that amplifies Henry’s stream-of-consciousness self-absorption particularly well. Perhaps flowing from the fact that Henry and Ann both perform on stage to live audiences, compositions and staging throughout evoke live theater; an off-Broadway musical, one might say. Carax keeps the story moving along quickly, without sacrificing detail, insight, or mood. 

Both lead actors perform phenomenally, but Cotillard’s skills are subtler. Driver’s Henry is the tour-de-force of his career. As the arrogant comedian losing his marbles on stage, Driver single-handedly performs an argument between Henry and his wife. It’s a magnificent feat of acting, alternating between the overflowing emotions of the two characters. 

Ultimately, the film satisfies in myriad ways, not the least of which are Sparks’ clever lyrics and catchy music. Annette is also a cautionary tale for young lovers who might beget a child only to treat her/him/them as a marionette. The turpentine tears will flow, as Saint Geppetto is my witness. 

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Categories
Documentary Film Reviews

Quick Look: PRAY AWAY

Coming off a Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary Feature nomination in 2020, director Kristine Stolakis’ Pray Away has quickly become the definitive film on the dangerous and phony religious practice of attempting to “cure” people of being gay. 

While it doesn’t catalog the (many) suicides subsequent to immersions in anti-gay “conversion therapy,” Pray Away doesn’t shy away from showing the pain and damage done by the arrogant leaders of these misconceived programs. 

The historical and ever-draped veil of the church facilitates all kinds of abuse, of course. Through Stolakis’ focus on the Orlando-based, Christian interdenominational entity branded Exodus International, we see pastors and other congregation members practicing psychology—more accurately pseudo-psychology—without licenses or training. Their motivations are older than scripture: money, power, and sex. 

Access-wise, the filmmakers impress with interviews of six former Exodus executives. All have renounced their former organization and its practices. Their voices convey the fascinating dynamics by which they went from passionately promoting conversion therapy to adamantly advocating against it. 

The documentarian’s strategy of building the film around the half-dozen ex-Exodus leaders is a wise one. What else could set the two sides in contrast clearer than the stories of those who have converted away from conversion? 

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.
Categories
Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Two-Film Review: I’M NO LONGER HERE & MINARI

REAL AMERICAN STORIES

Two new movies—one in Mexican vernacular Spanish and the other in Korean—use realism to depict the hearts and lives of the newest arrivals to the United States. Fernando Frías’ I’m No Longer Here and Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari are films that delve deeply into the lives of American immigrants—real people, not soundbites on the evening news.

Both artworks explore culture and family, how these people dance, how they talk, how they deal with conflict in their daily lives. The result is a feeling that you really know them, which serves viewers better than movies that rely on simplistic caricatures.

I’m No Longer Here is the story of a young man who finds himself in the crosshairs of an ambitious drug cartel in Monterrey, Mexico. He flees for the U.S., but becomes homesick for his own small-time gang and their adopted, music-rich lifestyle called kolombia. Gritty and handsomely photographed, the film satisfies on both intellectual and visceral levels.

Minari is a delicately observed and efficiently realized movie about a young family of four from Korea. They move to Arkansas determined to farm their way to financial independence. Mom and dad work at a chicken hatchery while dad slowly develops the crops. The conflicts and obstacles along the way help reveal the filmmakers’ philosophy on the true meanings of family and home. Fine performances, led by Steven Yeun as the father, combine with a smart script full of symbolism to form this picture of quiet power and unusual insight.

I’m No Longer Here and Minari are deservedly receiving nominations this awards season. They’d be worth seeking out if they were hard to find, which they aren’t. They’re streaming on Netflix and Prime Video respectively.

the international CRITIQUE ratings:

I’m No Longer Here

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Minari

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Categories
Film Reviews Movie Reviews

NOMADLAND

Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao (The Rider [2017]) sees the American West with fascinating eyes. In Nomadland, she takes source material from the non-fiction book of the same name and sets it bracingly free on screen.

With camera and cinematographer seemingly imperceptible to the actors, Zhao transports us into the midst of a group of American nomadic workers. Living in their vans and modest RVs, they travel across the West working temporary, seasonal jobs at National Parks, amusement parks, and even a sprawling warehouse of the online retailer Amazon.

The director’s third feature, it’s a gentle, but unflinching film. A true hybrid of drama and documentary, it’s form and structure are not just for the sake of combining two storytelling methods, but because it serves the story.

If you watch many documentaries, you’re familiar with the “talking head” device, used to give first-person accounts of the events at hand. You’ve probably noticed that few docs manage to get around using this typical shot. To the extent that Nomadland is a documentary, director Zhao avoids talking heads. The characters might be similarly framed at times, but they are, technically, characters and not real people testifying about what they know. At the same time, they are exactly that. The fine line between fiction and non-fiction that Zhao draws is part of the miracle of this picture.

And what more can be said about Frances McDormand? Here we see the craft and talent that put her in the top tier among living actors. Committed to her roles and to the work required for excellence, in Nomadland she takes it all to a higher level. Instead of living among the van-dwelling travelers as preparation for her performance, McDormand immerses herself into the nomadic-worker culture in the performance itself. Most of the supporting cast play fictionalized versions of themselves, which results in an unusual level of realism.

Zhao and McDormand have fully realized the concept of filmmakers as explorers, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen a film much like Nomadland. With remarkable depth of emotion, it’s a movie and a story that stay with you long after the closing credits.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.
Categories
Film Reviews Movie Reviews

JUDAS & THE BLACK MESSIAH

Writer/director Shaka King (Newlyweeds [2013]) boldly avoids the sophomore slump with his ambitious and accomplished second feature. Judas & the Black Messiah, based on real events, is a big movie in several ways. In it, King depicts the dynamic rise (and eventual demise) of the Illinois Black Panther Party and its fervent chairman, Fred Hampton, in the 1970s.

Hampton managed to, among other things, bring together disparate sides of the Chicago slums—even a White people’s club—to address the needs of the community. Among those needs are ones that still exist today, of course. Putting an end to police abuse and corruption. Providing food and education to needy youths. Director King seamlessly weaves all these many elements and stories into a cohesive, taut historical thriller.

Maybe even more impressive are the performances of Daniel Kaluuya (as Hampton) and LaKeith Stanfield (as car-thief-turned-FBI-informant William O’Neal). The latter is a complex, often-conflicted personality that Stanfield embodies with aplomb. In a scene where Hampton waits like a coiled king cobra for his introduction on stage, Kaluuya plays him with the perfect swagger, beautifully inhabiting the role. He’s a treat to watch. 

Creative editing gives the film greater grit and provides ballast for Sean Bobbit’s slick cinematography. Here we see how slick doesn’t necessarily mean glossy, as the director and his production design team have chosen a muted palette of pastels and earth tones, for day shots, and long-shadowy blacks-on-black for night. 

But it’s neo-noir sans nostalgia (Sin City [2005], this is not). Judas & the Black Messiah’s story and action pack wallops more akin to Scorsese circa The Departed (2006). It would have made a good crime movie or an excellent historical biography—lucky for us, it’s both.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Categories
Film Reviews Movie Reviews

AMMONITE

Writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country [2017]) tells a story here loosely based on the celebrated early-19th-Century English paleontologist Mary Anning. 

The biodiversity of the English Channel coast over the millennia resulted in all manner of objects of geological and archeological interest, attracting the talented scientist Anning and, eventually, tourists. It’s a wholly believable and relatable tale: a human being living daily with the crunch of stones beneath her feet, and the abrasiveness of fossils at her hands, comes to crave the softness of another’s flesh.

Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country), and James McArdle (Mary Queen of Scots [2018]) highly satisfy in the striking degree to which they inhabit their roles. The director steers Ammonite away from all things ponderous, and the actors transmit the on-location fun to the audience.

I can’t think of a recent film in which sound design was so important to the themes, or one in which it was so successfully realized—the waves lapping at the shore, the clicks and rubbing together of wet pebbles. Perfect angles and lighting from cinematographer Stephane Fontaine also contribute to the sublime atmosphere. A parade of fantastic stovepipe hats leads the way in the creative, enjoyable costume design. The movie is rich with symbolism, which works for it and, to a lesser degree, against it.

In the end, Ammonite is a lusty steampunk study in contrast and texture. One that invites the viewer to scrape away their own fossilized layers and lay themselves bare, soft, and vulnerable to love.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Categories
Documentary Film Reviews

SOME KIND OF HEAVEN

From South Florida documentarian Lance Oppenheim comes the cringiest film of the year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Some Kind of Heaven offers moments when it does feel bad. It opens with a sequence of shots that are intended to illicit this response: “Wow, look at those old people doing THAT!” Synchronized swimming, synchronized golf carts, and dancing—lots of dancing.

Later, the director turns his lens, in close-up, toward four elderly residents of The Villages, the world’s largest retirement community. This is where the surprises emerge. Some of these older folks are boozing, drugging, sexing, lying, cheating, manipulating, criminal people. All under the rather easy facades of kindly retirees.

Oppenheim’s fishbowl approach gives the film its candidness, but also feels a bit like cheating. The director keeps hidden two major parts of each subject’s life: their history and their family. So, The-Villages-as-Disney-World-for-seniors metaphor appears that much more tawdry. The residents might be doing whatever the hell they want, but watching them do it puts us in the unfortunate position of cringing voyeur.

Still, there are thought-provoking moments in “Some Kind of Heaven.” The old “What is the meaning of life?” comes to mind, but also, “How does that meaning change throughout the stages of life?” Though its strangeness is sometimes manipulated into place, the documentary is pleasantly strange. If Jim Morrison had lived and become a filmmaker, his work might look something like this.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Categories
Film Reviews Movie Reviews

THE LITTLE THINGS

The American director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, 2009) brings forth a crime “thriller” with no thrills and no fun. The plot? A serial killer is on the loose. That’s it. Seriously. With fewer twists than a landing strip, The Little Things plods along, almost dutifully presenting unlikely behaviors from its two-dimensional characters every 15 minutes.

Why does Hancock feel so comfortable asking us to make these leaps of faith? Because it’s a big-budget movie, and we should be grateful we only paid seven dollars for the privilege of beholding it? Because he’s got not one, not two, but three Oscar winners in the cast? Well, Jared Leto won for Dallas Buyers Club which, by now, most honest critics agree was a mediocre film. Leto’s performance in it was flamboyant but not great in hindsight. And Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody… what can be said? It was an absurd performance in the most laughable “serious” movie in decades. Is all this what made Hancock so sure of himself?

Along the way, the director strikes some hackneyed noir notes, like the stoic detective (two, in this case) who “has his own reasons” for obsessing over catching the killer. Hancock seems to subscribe to the idea that audiences love cliches and, having provided plenty of them, he needn’t furnish plot details or full characterizations. “The audience will fill in the blanks!” you can imagine him rejoicing. It’s a sour and cynical way to make movies, and the filmmakers ought to pay dearly for this $30-million, bona fide bomb. It all must have looked very good on paper, bless Denzel Washington’s heart.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 1 out of 5.