Film Reviews


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.
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.
Film Reviews Movie Reviews



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.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Featured Article News

Dear Streaming Services: It’s About Your Menu “Design”

Yes, I am about to complain about the menus on streaming sites, and I won’t apologize. Because: America. I even let HBO Max know that I’m fed up (details below).

There’s little danger that anyone would mistake what the streaming services do as curation—they’re dumps. One need only look at the “Recently Added” tray. Something like 20 movies, new and old, no rhyme or reason, dumped onto the menu. Do the services think we get a thrill from that, because we don’t.

Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and the others probably look proudly upon their pages, beaming about the plethora of choices. On every page! Under every category! Note: The industry word for the horizontal sections/categories/genres you see on screen is “trays.”

On Prime Video, the thumbnail (for each movie) is approximately 4.5 x 7 inches, or 0.22 sq. ft. on a 48-inch television screen. That means you can fit a little more than 34 streaming-service thumbnails on a standard movie poster. If your screen is smaller, you can fit many more. And, just for the record, any given screen view on Prime Video boasts 18 movie thumbnails.

It’s all too much too look at. Worse, it diminishes the grandeur and importance of cinema. How can the streaming services make their menus better? I don’t know, it’s definitely above my pay grade. But, would making the thumbnails bigger hurt? I don’t think so, and personally, I don’t need to see 18 choices on every view—of any type of menu, honestly.

I asked WarnerMedia Entertainment’s (HBO Max’s parent company) Communications VP Chris Willard about all this on December 30th, and he told me he’d “get back to [me] after the holidays.” When he did, as promised, Mr. Willard was actually quite helpful, if unmistakably being a good PR man for his company. He relayed that a whopping two-thirds of the time, viewers look for something specific they had in mind before even signing on. “They’re going back to something they were already watching or they’re seeking something in particular,” Willard said. As for the other third, he insisted they’re in the good hands of… HBOMax “curators.” I stand corrected!

Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: Da 5 Bloods

The Jumble in the Jungle

by A.R. Solar

Wow. The latest feature from Spike Lee sees him lackadaisically dumping a bunch of ideas into an overlong-feeling two and a half hours. Not all of the ideas are bad. Some, in fact, are quite good.

Where to start, on what ultimately feels like a cheesy, ersatz tour-de-force… Four American vets return to Vietnam to recover the body of their fallen buddy, while also looking to unearth a treasure that they left behind. Those are the main plots, but there are at least three rather hefty subplots. The estranged son. The estranged lover and the secret daughter. The PTSD ghosts, and so on. It would have taken a great feat of editing to make it all cohesive, and Lee seems uninterested in even trying.

The veteran writer/director is interested in doing homage, on top of everything else. There’s archival war footage thrown in. Excerpts from speeches by Malcolm X and MLK. The tone veers from somber to mildly comedic to violent and back again, without a hint of a caring hand, seemingly random. What’s the trendy term, “a hot mess”?

But there’s one thing in particular that Lee accomplishes here. Through the character Paul (a challenging role that Delroy Lindo mostly manifests with aplomb), the auteur gives rare insight into the mind of a Trump supporter. Paul’s dialogue and soliloquies reveal a person driven, even driven mad, in a quest to be redeemed. At the outset, he tells his buddies (who balk at his MAGA hat) that he’s “done” with serving others and thinking about others’ needs and wants. “Now,” he says, “I’m voting for me!” He’s in his sixties, and he’s lost many battles—too many, in his opinion. It’s time for him to get his.

Spike Lee, in this respect, comes off as gifted, thoughtful. His Paul is the personification of desperation. He jitters, pleads, and is easily frustrated. Yes, PTSD is to blame, and we know his has gone untreated. But what makes him a bona fide Trumper is the inward intensity and outward urgency with which he works towards a singular goal: not to die a loser.

When the unseemly candidate Trump promised “so much winning,” that was a thing of real value to the Pauls of the U.S.A. That is the core Trump voter: the person who has lost so many times in their life that they themselves might identify as a loser. Trump, the false redeemer, offers redemption nonetheless. He says, in effect, “Follow me, and you won’t be a loser anymore. You’ll die a winner.” Of all the false products he’s peddled in his career, this is by far his most popular. Redemption for the American who has rarely won anything.

That is the biggest takeaway from Da 5 Bloods. The rest feels less like the films it references, like Apocalypse Now and (1979) Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and feels more like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017).

We should know by now that when Lee misses the mark he misses big. This film fails on the level of his 2013 martial arts remake Oldboy, which is merely another way of saying it’s a parade of the wildly talented filmmaker’s careless overconfidences.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Film Reviews Movie Reviews

Film Review: My Happy Family

A wholly engrossing feminist drama that verges on perfection.

by A.R. Solar

From the country of Georgia comes a taut modern tale that feels perfectly real. That’s thanks to the exciting talents of writer/director Nana Ekvtimishvili and her co-director Simon Gross, who somehow manage to stay out of the way of: 1. their brilliant star, 2. a dynamic ensemble cast, and 3. their simple but totally engaging story.

Fifty-two-year-old Manana—we see as we’re immediately immersed in the crowded family home—is independent minded and willing to think outside her traditional default role as an obedient daughter and wife. A subtle, symbolic microcosm of her general frustration, a slice of cake before dinner brings a scolding from her intrusive mother. The old woman won’t let a minute go by without reminding her husband, adult children, and adult grandchildren who the head of the household is. Through her, Manana’s conflict is magnified.

My Happy Family is a fine representation of filmcraft wherein the camera becomes “invisible.” That is, there is no distraction from its placement or movements, either to the cast or the audience. In that “forgetting” of the camera we have the first element of a filmic story that feels utterly natural. We are amidst this family, observing every humorous interaction, every nuance, and painstaking detail.

Of course, to achieve such convincing, involving realism, one must also have talented actors who are emotionally invested in the story. Ms. Ekvtimishvili and Mr. Gross have this in abundance. Ia Shugliashvili, as Manana, effortlessly evokes introspective melancholy, integrity, and a love for her family which requires no displays for the benefit of neighbors. Merab Ninidze, as her husband Soso, plays the character with minimalism and a brooding power (when required). The supporting actors are well on board with the directors, and we witness grand arguments and celebrations with the feeling that we are there.

One gets the impression that such a naturalistic work was achieved, ironically, through extensive preparation by the directors. Perhaps only then could they have the confidence to open their lenses wide and let the action flow in.

As we see the courageous Manana set up her very own apartment, leaving behind the guilt-trips and cultural pressures of her family, we feel we might somehow summon similar strength from within ourselves. We might live our lives truer to our authentic selves.

In Georgian with English subtitles.

the international CRITIQUE rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.