Monthly Archives: January 2022
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released January 25, 2002:
Call it swash without the buckle. While The Count of Monte Cristo does an adequate job of telling the Alexander Dumas story (heavily editing chapters and making the leads friends in this version) the whole experience feels very rote. The sword fighting scenes are nowhere what they were billed as and the direction is surprisingly lackluster. Only the actors allow this film to arise mediocrity particularly with a devious turn from Guy Pierce (Memento). Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) directed this film and proves he doesn’t need Kevin Costner to screw something up. Somewhere Costner is laughing. Actually, somewhere Costner is likely crying in his beer wondering what happened to him. “I was the king of the cinema…”
Nate’s Grade: C+
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I think 2002 is going to be my potential apology tour year when it comes to reviewing my initial film criticism of twenty years hence. The Count of Monte Cristo is my first entry for the new year and I already cringe re-reading my initial review. I think some of my early film reviews went overboard on snark, trying to establish a cool, chipper-than-thou attitude, but this was the early 2000s writing default for many. It was better to make quips, take some cheap shots, and sprinkle in some actual film criticism on top, and it’s a style of writing I’ve tried to grow out of as I’ve aged. I began writing film criticism back in 1999 as a means of expressing myself and showcasing my cinephile knowledge, and in many ways it was like learning to crack a puzzle, why a movie worked or didn’t work and what decisions lead to this eventual outcome. In some ways, early on, it was showing off and exploring my evolving writerly abilities, and sometimes that meant prioritizing cleverness over sincerity. I know I’m going to be reliving this with Crossroads but I’m reminded already with my first movie re-examination for the year 2002. So, to the filmmakers of The Count of Monte Cristo, on behalf of my then-19-year-old self, I apologize. Your movie is actually pretty good and, strangely, even makes some deviations from the book for the better.
Based upon the famous novel by Alexander Dumas (1802-1870), it’s a classic tale of vengeance and it’s plenty fun to watch because it feels like a movie that is giving you so many different turns at once. It’s almost structured like 30-minute episodes, and while being deemed “episodic” is usually regarded as a negative for a film story, I think this is an improvement. The beginning segment establishes how Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) gets into trouble, and he might just be the biggest idiot in the world. The opening features him and his best pal, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), seeking assistance for their ailing ship captain on the island of Elba during the time of Napoleon’s exile. Edmond agrees to deliver a letter from the deposed emperor to “an old friend” of his and then Edmond gets charged with treason in France. His shocked, incredulous response is absolutely hilarious (“What? Napoleon… USED me? I’m starting to rethink my whole appraisal of this man who tried to conquer the European continent.”). There’s a conspiracy by a government official to cover up his father being a Napoleon loyalist, the intended recipient of the letter, but it almost feels like Edmond deserves to be in jail for being this naively stupid. The first half hour sets up the villains, Edmond’s BFF betraying him to covet Edmond’s attractive wife, and the starting point for vengeance to be had. It’s economical storytelling and works well, and each thirty minutes feels like they are defined by a “very special guest star” who comes and goes.
The next thirty minutes explores Edmond’s life and routines in prison, lorded over by a cruel warden (Michael Wincott), and where he finds his mentor and salvation with an old priest, Abbe Faria (Richard Harris). Again, screenwriter Jay Wolpet efficiently establishes the routine, the passage of time, the means of how Edmond might escape, and his growing relationship and tutelage under a new unexpected friend. It’s kind of funny to watch old man Richard Harris (Gladiator) teach the considerably younger Caviezel how to sword fight, especially knowing that Harris would pass away later in 2002 at the age of 72. He needs the training because our first impression of this man is not favorable. Once Fernand betrays him, Edmond engages in what might be the most pathetic excuse for sword fighting I have ever seen. I know the classic character arc of starting inexperienced and weak and coming into experience and strength needs to be laid out, but man this guy just sucks. He runs around like a lame animal, crashing into furniture, meekly pushing glasses off a table and flopping like a soccer player trying to score a penalty card. However, the crucible of vengeance will temper this man into a dashing fighting machine. The prison segment establishes rules, develops a central antagonistic and mentor relationship, develops a prison break, and then provides Edmond with his first victory, first villain to topple, and shows his new cunning.
The next thirty minutes is almost a buddy movie between Edmond and Jacopo (Luis Guzman), the “best knife fighter in the world,” a smuggler whose life Edmond saves before joining the gang. Together they seek out the island of Monte Cristo, find a bountiful fortune thanks to Faria’s confiscated treasure map, and then Edmond reinvents himself as a mysterious count. He makes quite a flamboyant entrance, almost like a dapper nineteenth-century Great Gatsby, flaunting his extravagance and theatricality to make his mark with the upper social classes. His calculated social graces reminded me of any number of costume drama series that are predicated on operating within a rigid system of social manners and expectations. It’s about establishing his new reputation and working his way back into a position that he can tear apart whatever advantages Fernand has gotten used to. His former friend has married his wife, though he flaunts his infidelity, and he also is raising a son, Albert (Henry Cavill), that may or may not belong to Edmond. It’s through this son that Edmond sees his way back into the good graces of this family, staging a kidnapping and his rescue that gives him the standing he needs. Naturally, Edmond’s wife recognizes her former husband instantly, though he tries to deny her claims. This segment establishes the new normal, Edmond’s traps being set, and then it heads into its fitting climax.
Much of these plot points are from Dumas’ original novel, which is so tailor-made to make for an engaging adventure with a thirst for blood. It’s such a sturdy structure that provides satisfaction, as revenge stories often will; they are so easy to root for because it’s so utterly primal. There’s a reason there is an entire sub-genre of exploitation films is nothing but revenge (and yes, sadly, too often including rape as the inciting wrong to be avenged). It’s an easy hook for an audience to get onboard and root for. Wolpert’s adaptation makes some smart changes to better transform the story for the visual medium. By making Edmond and Fernand friends, it does make the betrayal feel even more bitter. Also, the means of vengeance is simply more engaging here. In the novel, Fernand’s bad deeds are exposed publicly and he’s humiliated and kills himself. He’s not even the final villain that Edmond gets vengeance upon. The 2002 movie improves a classic novel and makes the ending feel even more climactic. Watching a villain like Fernand just slink away would not be as satisfying as a finale (that’s not even the story’s finale). Wolpert, who is also credited with the screen story for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, died very recently as of this writing, on January 3, 2022.
Director Kevin Reynolds was two movies removed from 1995’s Waterworld, an expensive post-apocalyptic action movie set mainly at sea, and a movie that does not deserve its disastrous reputation. It’s a pretty fun sci-fi action movie with a great Denis Hopper villain and plenty of splashy, big screen spectacle. It was turned into a longstanding and well-received Universal Studios stunt show if it’s any consolation. Reynolds hasn’t really made much of a career after the long shadow of a supposed costly flop (only two movies since Monte Cristo), but if Renny Harlin, he of the also super expensive, studio-killing flop Cutthroat Island, can continue churning out genre dreck, why can’t Reynolds? The man has a natural feel for big screen spectacle, and with 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he’s proven that he can capture traditional settings and make them feel in keeping with modern tastes, and he can capture futuristic settings while making them feel grounded.
I’m sorry, Mr. Reynolds, because you did not “screw something up” with this movie (fun fact: Reynolds was the screenwriter for Red Dawn). However fair or unfair, the man is defined by his relationship to Kevin Costner, most recently with the 2012 Hatfield and McCoys miniseries and beginning with 1985’s Fandango, which began as a student film that Costner lost out on a role for. None other than Steven Spielberg recruited Reynolds to make a feature version of his short.
It’s strange to go back to The Count of Monte Cristo because of Caviezel’s god and martyr complex. I’m speaking of his 2004 portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s biblically successful Passion of the Christ, but he’s gone even further now, fully adopting the QAnon conspiracy of a cabal of liberal elites harvesting the blood of children, possibly while trafficked in Wayfair furniture, for Satanic rituals. His persecution complex was already alive years ago, saying he was made a “pariah” in Hollywood after Passion of the Christ, despite its international success, and ignoring the fact he starred in a TV series on CBS that ran for five seasons. I guess that’s what he means when he stars in QAnon-related biopics that nobody wants to release (Sound of Freedom is slated to have been released in January 2022, but I cannot find any evidence this has happened). It’s just sad to recall an actor before they so thoroughly declared themselves to be dangerous and/or crazy, but I’m sure to those who knew him, these uncomfortable impulses and proclivities and conspiracy leanings were already there.
The best reason to watch The Count of Monte Cristo is the supporting cast. Pearce is delightfully wicked and enjoying himself. Harris has such weathered gravitas to him. Guzman is hilarious and his modern acting approach just does not fit with the overall vibe of the movie, but that disconnect is part of his amusement. Even Cavill is fun to watch, especially since he was only 18 years old at the time (Dagmara Dominczyk, who plays his mother, is only seven years older). You’ll see the early indications of the swagger and presence that will define him as a square-jawed leading man. The Count of Monte Cristo is a well made, exciting, and satisfying revenge thriller, as well as a smart adaptation of a classic work of literature that actively finds ways to improve upon it, insofar as a big screen movie. I’m sorry I was so snide twenty years ago (the Costner jab was an unnecessary cheap shot). It’s certainly swash, with the buckle, and deserves a better grade and better appraisal after all these years apart.
Re-View Grade: B
The 355 (2022)
The most interesting part of The 355 is its inception and the reference of its title, a reveal that doesn’t come to light until the literal final minutes of this clunky two-hour spy thriller. I don’t know why this clarifying detail was withheld so long, as if it was its own spoiler or twist; the title is in reference to a female spy that reported to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the identity of whom is still a mystery to this day. Maybe co-writer/director Simon Kinberg was afraid explaining this historical spy fact would make the audience envious of the story of Washington’s secret female spy being the movie they watch instead. The other point of interest is that The 355 began when actress/producer Jessica Chastain pitched Kinberg on the set of 2019’s Dark Phoenix to develop a female-lead Mission: Impossible-style spy team. It seems like a no-brainer of a concept, enough so that Universal bought the pitch for $20 million in May 2018, but the question I have is what about the production of Dark Phoenix, the woeful final whimper of the X-Men franchise, made Chastain want to re-saddle with Kinberg as a genre-action director? The 355 is a thoroughly mediocre spy thriller that recycles every trope and cliché imaginable, but this time it’s got a badass gang of women leading the charge. Is that considered genuine progress by most standards?
Mason “Mace” Browne (Chastain) is a secret agent still mourning the loss of her partner/best friend/possible lover (Sebastian Stan) during a mission gone bad in Paris. Her department director has told her, in coded terms, that he has to ground her, but if she went off on her own to seek vengeance, then he would understand. Mace recruits her old pal Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o), a retired agent trying to live a normal life as a professor of technology. Together, they butt heads against Marie Schmidt (Diane Kruger), a German secret agent targeting Luis Roja (Edgar Ramirez), a Colombian officer who came into possession of a world-destroying device and attempted to sell it to the highest bidder. Graciela (Penelope Cruz) is a psychologist hired by Roja’s agency to bring him back and return the dangerous device. She gets swept up into the mission after becoming the only key to opening the device. She joins Mace, Khadijah, and Marie, along with a Chinese national (the previously incarcerated by the Chinese government Bingbing Fan), to retrieve the device at all costs.
The 355 isn’t the worst movie by far to ever bear the spy thriller label, it’s just so disappointingly rote and predictable, even down to the double-crosses and secret villains. If anyone has watched more than one spy thriller, they will recognize so many familiar elements and settings. Why not throw in a missile silo and factory warehouse that doesn’t seem to produce anything other than sparks? The McGuffin is treated as essentially meaningless, and the fact that it’s a program only on one hard drive would make you think any villain with an iota of sense would at least make a copy. The opening prologue of how the McGuffin got into a Colombian officer’s hands is entirely superfluous. Apparently, the genius son of a Colombian cartel boss has created the world’s most dangerous technological weapon, and nobody seems to think this is worth a conversation. If this kid can develop a super weapon at this age, what more could he do? If I was his morally corrupted father, I would hug the boy, let him know how proud I was, and rather than sell it to the first scuzzy villain who will obviously murder you, I would place my son in a fortified palace nobody knows and tell him to just keep creating technological marvels that could improve the world. All of this is my way of saying the mechanics of how this came into being are unneeded and just another complication. Speaking of complications, if you cannot guess who the surprise villain is going to be immediately, then congratulations, this must be your first spy thriller, and you could do better.
A spy thriller lives and dies depending upon its action set pieces. The reason I have adored the Mission: Impossible films, especially since 2011, have been their eye-popping set pieces, stunt work, and masterful action orchestration. I’m not coming back for the characters. Good action sequences can redeem a fairly rote and predictable story with lackluster characters. Unfortunately, there is nothing on display in The 355 that will make you forgive its flaws. I’m unconvinced that Kinberg has a real feel for how to stage action. He’s written action sequences for decades as a high-concept Hollywood screenwriter but filming them in an exciting manner is another matter entirely. There are foot chases, fist fights, and shootouts galore, but none of them are ever filmed in an exciting or surprising way. Kinberg has adopted the shaky handheld Bourne-style camerawork to juice the sequences but to no avail. There’s one action scene that takes place in the dark broken up by the strobe of gunfire, and it doesn’t feel so much stylish as a quick fix around poor fight choreography. The editing and composition of the action will often deflate the action tension. It’s not in the ADD-drenched Michael Bay realm, but the editing and arrangement just feels so perfunctory. Some moments are even a little embarrassing, like punches that are wildly oversold that needed to be cut around better. It’s no better than what you might get from any run-of-the-mill direct-to-DVD effort, and if your movie cost $70 million and it plays no better than Bruce Willis’ fifth movie of the month, that’s bad. There’s a notable absence of fun like the movie was taken too seriously to be allowed fun.
The “girls can do it too!” vibe of the production is laudable but also feels stagnant and dated, not that we have it our threshold of exciting and capable women in action roles, but that’s its entire reason for being is to take a script and replace [generic male character] with [generic female character]. For some viewers, that might be enough to satisfy their genre cravings, and for some it might even prove empowering, which I assume was Chastain’s intention when developing the project. However, these powerful women feel less like human beings than gender-swapped one-note action staples. They will make quips about women having to clean up the messes men make, but these are no better than the quips in a 1990s action movie trying to earn cheap back-pats for being feminist in the least meaningful ways. The goons in the movie make fun of one another for losing fights to women. I guess in the opening mission, the fact that Mace is running around in a long sundress is meant to break the mold, but I also just kept wondering how much she would have preferred pants. The women of The 355 are routinely defined by their relationship to men. Mace is looking for vengeance because her best friend/lover was killed in the opening mission. Marie is bossed around by a glowering superior who explains, to the benefit of the audience, that she’s “good at everything except taking orders.” Graciela and Khadijah are defined by their familial connections and the one skill they have; one of them is the tech guru, the other is an agency psychologist. The male love interests are threatened, and even seriously harmed, as no more than a means to provide further motivation of Act Three vengeance. It’s bad storytelling when it’s featuring men, and it’s just as bad when it’s featuring women. If the movie was going this route to be satirical or even critical of the treatment of women in these kinds of genre fare, that would be something laudable and interesting. Atomic Blonde went there with gusto and pulled it off. This movie has nothing really to say. Taken together as a whole, it all makes any feminist aims of The 355 feel halfhearted.
There was a way to make this movie better and it was so obvious: making Cruz the lead. Her character is the only one not familiar to the world of spy craft and action, so she would serve as the best entry point for the audience. Why not make her perspective the main one? If the ensemble of characters is an ensemble of one-note stock characters, without personality to engage, then why not limit them further? Why make it an ensemble of bland characters? The character of Graciela has by far the most potential on paper, the woman pulled into a world she doesn’t understand and feels ill-equipped to survive within and then her learning to acclimate. This would have improved the screenplay by giving us more attention on a central character that has more clear vulnerabilities and points of empathy and intrigue. She has a family, she was never intended to be in this life, and she has to adapt quickly or there will be severe consequences. That is far more of an interesting start and arc than watching a group of grim-faced girl boss robots.
Formulaic to a fault, The 355 reminded me of 2017’s The Great Wall, a $150-million Chinese-set action movie directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon. It was a suitable action spectacle but I concluded with this question: “It’s not much better or worse than other empty-headed big-budget action cinema from the Hollywood assembly line, but is that progress? Is making an indistinguishable mediocre B-movie a success story?” That same question hangs over my analysis of The 355. It’s indistinguishable from other bland spy thrillers but this time with a group of lead characters played by women, several of them in their 40s at that. Maybe that’s progress considering the budget and representation, or maybe we can expect more than what we got here, a movie that recycles the same dated and tired tropes but now – with women! The action is middling, the characters are dull, the villain is predictable, and it finds itself in a frustrating middle-ground where it takes itself too seriously but doesn’t have the substantial material to cover. The 355 wastes its fab cast, possible points of intrigue, and proves that tropes without comment or exception are still as boring no matter the gender, race, or identity of those involved.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Worst Person in the World (2021)
Joachim Trier is a filmmaker that dazzled me with his debut feature Reprise, which I placed as my number three film of 2008. The Norwegian filmmaker has amassed a small collection of quirky, introspective, bohemian dramas exploring the growing pains of being young in Oslo. His movies tend to be deeply empathetic and refreshingly free of judgment, which then allows the audience to empathize with the characters even when they are failing or floundering in life and in love. In some ways, Trier’s open approach to building character over time reminds me of Richard Linklater, and it’s easy to find a loose thematic connection between Reprise, 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, and now this new movie, besides the same actors he returns to again and again. It’s more a humanist spirit that pervades the films, capturing life’s moments, big and small, that formatively alter who we are. The Worst Person in the World is a pretty straightforward character study of an impulsive, indecisive woman trying to live her life and having a challenging time of things.
Julie (Renate Reninsve) is a conundrum of a character. She’s far from the titular worst person in the world but she’s certainly flawed, a young woman in Oslo turning thirty without a clue about what she wants from life. She drifts from one job to another, one academic pursuit to another, and one man to another, growing restless whenever stability seems to be materializing. She’s the kind of person who is always looking ahead but unsure of where ahead even lies. At first her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) seems alluring, a successful underground cartoonist known for his boundary-pushing work. But the man is fifteen years her senior and more eager to start a family than Julie is. Then one night she crashes a wedding and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a carefree barista, and they hit it off while trying not to cheat on their respective others. Julie keeps thinking about this other man, her other possibilities, and wonders what if.
Each of the twelve segments feels like a new version of herself Julie is trying on, feeling out the edges to see if it fits well. With each segment, we can learn a little bit more about her in different contexts. The format makes the moments feel like formative memories more than just scenes driving the story forward to the next. Often there are great leaps of time in between, and some segments are relatively short, like a few minutes. Some of them are comical, some of them are heavily sexual and/or sensual, and many of them are unrepentant for Julie. Then as the movie continues the chapters get longer, becoming more reflective and remorseful. Every now and then, Trier’s sense of style, something more explicitly pronounced in his earlier films, will seize the moment to better illustrate the internal life of Julie. When she’s making a significant choice to leave her current boyfriend, time literally stands still as she runs through streets and frozen pedestrians to leap into the arms of her new lover. When Julie is tripping on magic mushrooms, the depths of the world dip, and she’s in rapid free fall away from that same lover. My favorite stylistic flourish is when Julie is reflecting upon what she has accomplished by age 30 and how this compares to her mother, grandmother, and so on, going back to her deceased great-great-great grandmother, who died before getting to thirty as the average life expectancy of her era was tragically only 35 years old.
I think Julie represents a certain generational “buyer’s remorse/FOMO,” a restless spirit that is always thinking about what she doesn’t have as opposed to what she does have. This is evident in what we see in her romantic relationships. Each of the two suitors that Julie bounces between offers different experiences, one more akin to her carefree and aimless sensibility, and the other more focused, certain, and forward-looking. As she settles into a routine with one man, her restless nature kicks back in, and she starts thinking about what the other has to offer. It’s a constant push-and-pull that will sabotage any potential long-term romantic relationship. This leads to Julie making rash decisions, never really allowing herself to get comfortable, and hurting the people she cares about, even professes to love, and yet she’s far from hateable. She may even be relatable for some.
During the more morose final act, this is where the movie slows down and Julie perhaps realizes that settling down is not the same thing as settling. I say “perhaps” because I don’t know by the end if Julie has really changed as a person through these dozen chapters. I’d like to think so, hopeful that our experiences and challenges reset our nascent thinking and broaden our perception. By the end, Aksel has had some very dramatic and negative turns, forcing him to re-evaluate his limited time on this planet and his personal actions, always looking ahead when he wishes he had more appreciated the moment. He says he doesn’t want to live on through his art and would rather simply live in his apartment. It’s all too little by the time it comes to a finite end. He wishes he and Julie had never broken up, that they had raised children, and he simply had more time with the person he knew was the love of his life.
For Julie, this somber final stretch allows her to contemplate her own naivete and what drives her away from others, that no matter what career path she takes, what man she chooses to shack up with, what goal she prioritizes, that little will change unless she focuses on resolving her own internal issues and hangups first (if you guessed emotionally distant father, congrats and collect your prize). She’s so scared of missing out on something better, of being denied her true self, but in pursuing this aim at all costs, she’s missing out on other experiences that can be just as rewarding and fulfilling. Making a choice does not mean you are burdened with the unmet possibilities of the myriad of choices you did not make. It’s about committing to a person, a vision, a possible version of yourself, and giving it a real chance.
Much of this hinges on the shoulders of the lead actress, and Reinsve shows why she earned a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Reinsve had a small supporting part in Trier’s Oslo, August 31st but is best known as a Norwegian theater star, and here she makes quite a lead film debut for herself. Looking like a dead ringer for a Nordic Dakota Johnson, Reinsve gets to showcase an impressive variety of emotions as a constantly evolving, self-sabotaging individual. At every point, she feels like a genuine human being, even as she’s losing interest in her current situation or lover, and even when she’s struggling you can appreciate how committed Reinsve is to being as honest and messy as Julie turns out to be. Another standout is Danielsen Lie (a constant in Trier’s films) who gets the biggest emotional arc and has the saddest moments. Aksel’s late epiphanies will hit but the character’s troublesome nature might blunt the depth.
I’m undecided whether the twelve-chapter (plus prologue and epilogue) structure of the narrative actually helps or hinders the impression of Julie. Some of these moments feel far less important than others, or examine a hobby or side-step that Julie takes before abandoning again. There’s a certain frustration that’s going to be inherent in watching a serial quitter. You might even yell at the screen to pick something, taking on the silent yet exhausted expression of Julie’s mother whenever she mentions her next life direction. The addition of an off-screen narrator that drops in and out for some wry commentary seems like something Trier should have committed to more to provide some observational distance with the on-screen antics or ditched entirely. The concluding epilogue is open-ended enough to allow the viewer to be pessimistic or optimistic; has Julie learned about herself enough to settle on a career and allow herself to be happy? Can she ever be happy? It’s enough to keep the viewer guessing, which is appropriate for the ambiguity of the characterization, but it misses out on feeling like an ending. It’s more a pause at this juncture of Julie’s life, and maybe that was the design all along. It’s not a journey of one continuous climb to self-actualization but a series of starts and stops and unfortunate missteps.
Julie is far from what The Worst Person in the World might lead you to believe. She’s confused and struggling and searching for what will eventually click, some sense of herself that rings true that finally gets her to stop and enjoy her present rather than fretting about what she may be missing. Ultimately, only focusing on what you do not have will never allow you to appreciate what you do, but life and learning is a process and everyone comes to these realizations from a different path, if they ever come to it. Trier’s movie is a little meandering, a little lopsided in structure, and I don’t quite know if the pathos is earned by the overly somber conclusion. It is another observational, funny, and occasionally melancholy tale from Trier, a filmmaker who still has deep feelings for his characters and their all-too human foibles.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Hand of God (2021)
For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Pete Ohs is an Ohio-born filmmaker who has met some level of success in the Hollywood indie scene. He’s mounted movies that got limited releases, including one starring multiple Emmy winner Julia Garner (Ozark, The Assistant). According to Ohs’ own admission, writing a script, finding the money, getting talent attached, and pitching to gatekeepers had somewhat drained the fun out of the creative process of being a filmmaker. He wanted to go back to the days of being kids, just rolling with an idea and chasing it wherever it may lead. So Ohs decided to turn a vacation into a possible movie. His childhood friend, producer Jesse Reed, begged him to come to Youngstown, Ohio and make a movie, so that’s what Ohs did. He would fly out with his two lead actors with no script, no crew, no permits, and film over the course of two weeks during the summer of 2019. For Ohs, it was an attempt to go back to something fun, the appeal of filmmaking before it got so complicated and pressure-packed, and even if things didn’t work out, they still got a two-week vacation. Youngstown is their finished result, a 75-minute trifle of a movie, light and meandering, and admittedly stretched thin.
The story revolves around “Sarah Jayne Reynolds” (Stephanie Hunt) who is in the witness protection program. She’s been relocated in Ohio but just can’t help herself and heads back to her hometown of Youngstown. Along the way, she meets a fast-talking grifter (Andy Faulkner) -literally credited as “Grifter”- who is happy to drive her to Youngstown and see the sights. She shows him her favorite restaurants and haunts, and he tries to teach her how to be a better liar for her own safety, while trying to keep his own low-level schemes going as well.
All criticisms for Youngstown need to be blunted somewhat because this movie had obvious disadvantages, a limited ambition, and was possibly never intended to even exist. It needs to be graded on a curve not because it’s low-budget (I’ve seen movies made for less), or because it’s an indie (Ohs has enough experience as a filmmaker to not deem him a novice), or even that it began life without a finished script (it sure feels like many movies, even big-budget studio tentpoles, sadly follow this route). It’s because the movie is essentially a glorified vacation video and improv experiment. The people behind it just wanted to have fun and highlight the local hot spots and town history for a dilapidated former steel city. The movie is their souvenir. Did Ohs and company, and by that I mean his two actors, pull it all off? Well, yes and no.
It’s impressive that with as many reasons going against it, Ohms is able to pull off a narrative that mostly works. The premise of a woman in witness protection returning to her hometown seems like the dumbest idea a person could do being in reported relocation. The very premise invites you not to take things too seriously, because the character of Sarah never feels like she’s in any real danger. In fact, the impression she gives is either one of blithe ignorance or perhaps limited mental acuity. Then again the government seems to have set her up with a new identity in a neighboring Ohio city. I don’t think moving a vulnerable person just across the county line is the same thing as keeping them safe. Regardless, the movie doesn’t hold Sarah to account for these rash and foolhardy actions, and she’s never placed in any real danger, so it’s the movie’s way of telling you to relax and just go with it. The core is about two odd people who are trying to learn from one another. He’s learning about her wholesome take on life. She’s learning to be more duplicitous or at least less naive. This dynamic actually works well enough to produce comedic sparks of potential, like when Sarah is learning how to lie better by faking being on crutches and her reason for needing them. It’s kind of adorable to watch a person who is really bad at lying being sweetly oblivious. More could have been wrought from this creative combination, but the fact that they never go into a romantic direction and keep things strictly platonic is admirable although perhaps not the best choice.
Another laudable aspect is that Ohs can even make up a movie on the spot without having to scout his locations. According to his account, they would find a space and come up with the scene in that space, with him studying the angles and already mentally putting together an edit in his head so he would know what angles were needed to tell the moment. The photography is crisp and the visual compositions are often well coordinated, with varied focus depth. For being made on the spot, it helps when you have somebody who knows how to shoot a movie, and considering he was the ENTIRE crew, that’s a lot riding on the talents of one man. Ohs has edited more movies than he’s directed (including 2019’s Olympic Dreams), so the editing is efficient and often smooth, evoking the same unhurried, gentle feeling of the story.
Where this movie could have been improved should be obvious to anyone who watches it, and that’s beefing up the story and scenarios to better effect. As the movie was improvised and created from scene-to-scene and day-to-day, it has a general loping quality to it; however, this feeling can become meandering quite often, and just about every conversation, even the comedic ones, feels creatively exhausted. Hunt (Friday Night Lights, The Get Together) and Faulkner (Spree) are agreeable performers, both are charismatic even in minimal, but they’re not gifted improvisers. Faulkner seems to fall back upon the “more is more” approach of Judd Apatow movies. He’ll riff on a bit for an extensive amount of time, conjuring dozens of details or phony names but not really transforming the moment. The best improvisers find new and unexpected avenues with what they’re given, making the transitions seamless. The overall effect of Youngstown is like slowly letting the air out of your patience. A scene will be established, and then it will just keep going, beating whatever joke was present into tiny particles of comedy dust.
Take Sarah showing off her town’s main street and offering commentary about all the restaurants and different locales. Like many of the comedy bits, it starts amusing but then deteriorates. It becomes three minutes of Sarah saying something about every shop and eatery she sees, and few of these observations are even funny. It’s stuff like, “Best Chinese food in the city.” It starts to feel like you’re stuck with a passenger just narrating anything they see without much helpful commentary at all, and that’s precisely what is happening. Some scenes work, like Faulkner explaining how to be better at lying, but too many scenes follow the car narration formula: they keep going longer than the joke affords. It starts to remind me of those improv-heavy additional versions of comedies, like the Anchorman bonus DVD, and even those grow tiresome and they are professionals. The extension of these comedy bits is likely a result of trying to find enough useful material to reach 75 minutes for a feature running time. Otherwise, why include three minutes of a conversation best kept at 30 seconds? It’s a film necessity dragging subpar improv.
As an experiment, Youngstown deserves recognition for even mostly working and for its enjoyable actors and amiable spirit. As a movie, it even looks and sounds professional despite its limitations. Ohs is a real filmmaker who can be trusted to make his movies look like professional movies. As a story or as a comedy, Youngstown is too lacking. The improv seams show all too often and whatever comedy momentum gets diluted and lost. Your tolerance for middling improv will be a big indicator whether or not you find the movie to be charming. Congrats to Ohs and his two actors on being able to make a movie without any significant preparation. It’s a testament to all of their skills. Now only imagine what these folks could do with an actually honed script. As a fun distraction, it can pass the time agreeably but it’s little more than meandering filler. It makes me intrigued to follow Ohs and Hunt and Faulkner in other, more polished projects.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Parallel Mothers (2021)
There is little else like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. The famed Spanish writer/director has been making movies since the 1980s and across an eclectic array of tones and genres. He can make a sexual farce, an unsettling thriller, a moving character-based drama, or a movie with elements of all three in harmony. Almodóvar has found ways to take some of the strangest story elements and make them feel real. Watch a movie like 2002’s Talk to Her, which he won his only (!) Oscar for, or 2011’s The Skin I Live In, or 2006’s Volver, and marvel at how seamlessly Almodóvar can combine any element, any genre, any twist, and turn it into genuine emotional pathos. He’s a witty man but rarely is he flippant, especially as he matured throughout the 1990s. He genuinely cares about his characters and treats their dramas as serious business no matter the content. Parallel Mothers is another example of Almodóvar, even in his seventies, operating at the top of his unique artistic capabilities. This is definitely one of the best movies of 2021. Find it when you can, dear reader.
Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are both recent mothers in Madrid; Janis is pushing 40 and planned on having her first child, and Ana is in her late teens and her pregnancy was an accident. They share a hospital room, bond over their ordeal, and exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Months later, both women are acclimating to the growing demands of motherhood, except for a gnawing doubt that has taken hold of Janis. Her boyfriend and the reported father of her baby, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), believes he is not the baby’s father and wants a DNA test. Janis is outraged, but the more she begins to think about it, the more she cannot let this nagging doubt go.
Parallel Mothers is an unpredictable drama that also has a surprising heft to it when it comes to emotional substance. When I read the premise of this movie, I erroneously thought it was going to be a two-hander of a story about two different mothers, one older and one younger, connecting over their new babies and sharing their experiences, hopes, and fears about raising a child at their respective ages. That is a fraction of the movie, but Almodóvar’s deft storytelling is refreshingly nuanced and unexpected. There were several turns in the movie where I audibly said, “Ohhhhh,” or, “Did not see that coming.” Instead of resting on his plot turns, Almodóvar makes sure that the aftermath is given its due time. I really appreciated that; here is a writer who knows throwing sensational elements or twists is not as important as focusing on how they affect the characters and narrative. When Janis begins to doubt whether her child is hers, that’s when Almodóvar is just getting started. There are several twists that are so well staged and developed, and each one brings added intensity and another chance to revise everything we know. I loved watching the movie because I genuinely could not anticipate where things would go next, and each additional turn was organic, meaningful, and would compound the guilt or fears of the main characters. It might seem like a soap opera when you distill all these outrageous elements to their essence, but Almodóvar has always excelled at taking the outrageous and making it sincere.
The movie explores motherhood but also generational connections and understanding the past to better understand the present. Janis and Ana have different though distant relationships to their mothers. For Janis, her mother died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 when she was only five years old. She was raised by her grandmother and has no picture of her biological father (the only thing she knows about him is that he was a Venezuelan drug dealer). By having a child, a goal she’s wanted to do for some time before 40, it allows her a chance of bringing her father’s genetics back into the world, to potentially see what he may look like, to bring back life that has been absent. It’s such a beautiful idea, and also articulated in 2009’s Away We Go to poignant effect. For Janis, having a child is a way for her to reconnect with her past, her parents she’s never known, and honor her grandmother. For Ana, her own mother left her when she was younger to purse her acting career, and now that she’s having a baby history is repeating as she’s once again leaving to tour with a theater show. Janis thought she knew who the father of her baby was, and insists she was only intimate with Arturo, but this ends up being another point of connection between the two mothers. Ana is unsure whom the father is of her child, though hopeful it’s a select person she had feelings for at the time. These babies mean different things for each woman but they both love them completely, no matter what devastation happens later. These beloved children are means of connecting to their past.
Another aspect that Almodóvar includes strengthened this movie as great for me, and initially it seemed like an odd fit until the thematic richness becomes realized. Before she was pregnant, Janis was determined to secure an exhumation of what is believed to be a mass grave in a small rural village from the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco’s regime. Using modern technology and careful attendants, they can uncover this crime of the past and provide closure and dignity to generations of family members still left with unanswered questions. The movie returns to this storyline again late, as if Almodóvar is putting a fine point on bringing home his message of reckoning with our past and the importance of uncovering painful truths. Janis and Arturo return to this small village and interview descendants about what they can remember about their departed loved ones, the men whose remains may be found. It’s such a sincere expression of empathy and generosity, and the short snippets of interviews allow the movie to broaden its scope, adding different mothers and daughters to the sphere and creating even more spokes of human connection. What Janis is doing is a legitimate kindness, an act she hopes to better understand her own history and family ties to the worst that her country had to offer under Franco. One villager recounts how her grandfather had to dig his own grave, then was sent home for the night, only to be reclaimed and never return the next day. “Why didn’t he run if given the chance?” Janis asks. The descendant relates he couldn’t be without his wife and daughter, even for a night, even if it meant his certain doom.
Cruz has never been better than when she’s collaborated with Almodóvar (2006’s Volver was her first Oscar nomination). She goes through some emotional wringers here, the details of which I will not spoil, but it is an understatement to say that Janis is presented with a very complicated scenario. Each scene, especially in the second half once Almodóvar’s box of twists has been unpacked, has so much conflicted emotion for Cruz to cycle through on her face, swallowing guilt and hope and desire and dread. She’s fully deserving of another Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking work with the messiest of material. Smit (The Girl in the Mirror) is a screen partner equal to the challenge but her character is more in the dark by narrative necessity.
I’m loath to reveal too much more when it comes to the potent central drama of Parallel Mothers, because it’s so well developed and so well performed that you should really experience it for yourself. Knowing ahead of time the added complexities won’t ruin the movie, but I had more appreciation for how Almodóvar was so nimbly able to keep upending my expectations and my sense of understanding as it pertained to the two mothers. It’s a delicate drama, nourishing with empathy and also heart-rending in the dread of what Janis may choose to do next. Thank you, filmmakers of the world, for lifting the 2021 year in cinema for me. Parallel Mothers is one of the best films you’ll see this year and an affecting examination on reconciliation.
Nate’s Grade: A
The Novice (2021)
The Novice could be deemed “the Whiplash for rowing,” and that is it in a nutshell but it also distinguishes itself separately from that Oscar-winning 2014 indie. Debut writer/director Lauren Hadaway was actually on the sound editing team behind Whiplash, and that’s her area of expertise with over 40 credits, and right away you can tell her attention to details as far as filmmaking being an immersive experience for the viewer. It’s been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, including Beat Feature, Best Director, and Best Actress. It’s the little indie that could right now, though it also seems like the kind of well-received indie that gets forgotten around award season. That would be a shame, because while not quite at the level of Whiplash, this is a hypnotic and visceral and disturbing portrait of competitive obsession.
Alex Dall (Isabelle Furhman) is a freshman for her East Coast university. She joins the crew team with the goal of being the best. Her coaches encourage her competitive spirit but even they try and warn her to take it easier with her relentless training regiment. Nothing else matters to her.
You feel Hadaway’s background in sound design, how she uses it to disorient and produce a rhythm to her movie, the inhale and exhale of pushing one’s self to their physical limit. It’s accompanied by dizzying edits that feel completely matched by their auditory components (Hadaway also served as a co-editor). It’s frenetic and places you in the mindset of our protagonist, whose single desire is to be the best no matter what. That solitary focus blurs out the outside world, so when we get into trance-like states of close-ups, repetitive edits, and slow-motion extensions, we feel trapped inside her restless state of mind. One critic compared the training montages to the drug use montages from Requiem for a Dream, and this is completely accurate. Alex would never view herself as an addict but that’s precisely what she is. Her personal addiction is at winning, and winning at all costs and being the best.
In Whiplash, Miles Teller’s protagonist was a capable drummer that wanted to be excellent. He already had talent and was pushed to the brink by his monstrous teacher/drill sergeant/abusive father figure. Alex throws herself into unfamiliar situations. She is a physics major even though she doesn’t really like or understand the subject. She joins the rowing team even though she lacks any experience whatsoever. And yet, she still sets her sights on the near impossible. She doesn’t want to be the best freshman, and she doesn’t just want to join the varsity squad; she wants to break all the individual records as soon as possible for a team sport. A normal person would view these goals as unrealistic and potentially out of reach, but that’s the point for Alex. It’s the best or nothing, and her toxic win-at-all-costs mentality is even more toxic because she expects to win even in the most unlikely scenarios. It would be like never driving a car and expecting to win the Indy 500. That adds a different dynamic for Alex but it also makes her even more self-destructive and misanthropic.
The movie becomes a tale of obsession, a downward spiral much akin to an addiction narrative. Alex gradually cuts off all other parts of herself she deems to be a distraction. It’s only small moments where we try and catch a different definition of Alex, the version of her when she might allow herself to relax, but this feels like the “weak Alex” that she’s trying to snuff out, because there shall be no other version of Alex except the one in service to her goal. When she starts having a potential relationship with her T.A. (model Dilone), you think this might be the character’s off ramp, an opportunity for her to settle and realize something else that is meaningful, building an interpersonal relationship. It becomes another distraction to remove. This achieves the artistic vision of showing the mental and physical decline of Alex. Everything in the movie is likewise in service of serving Alex’s grueling goal. However, this also makes her a less dimensional character. If all we know about her is how obsessive she can become, then we’re left to pick up whatever other scraps we’re given to piece together a fuller understanding of her. Perhaps Hadaway doesn’t want any definition beyond Alex’s obsessions. It makes the character less complicated and by extension less compelling, but there is that rubbernecking quality of just watching to see how far she will go before reaching a breaking point. Maybe even death?
This movie would not work as mightily without the committed performance by Fuhrman (Orphan, The Hunger Games). She’s been working ever since she was a child but this is a breakthrough performance for the actress. The intensity of her performance is so conveyed that you might feel like you had a workout yourself. The actress gained ten pounds of muscle over the course of the punishing film experience and athletic training. I had to imagine the movie was shot linearly so they could trace her physical transformation, but I haven’t confirmed it.
Another sound area that greatly elevates the movie is the stirring score by Alex Weston (The Farewell). This is my favorite film score of 2021. It is haunting, moody, and appropriately frantic, with jangling strings and a propulsion that echoes its main character. It has an easy presence of sliding in and out, mimicking the pace of the compulsive training, and standout tracks include the motif “Training” and “Legs Body Arms” and “Seat Race.” Listen to it, folks. Weston has put together greatness and deserves far more recognition than he is being given.
The Novice could do worse than patterning itself after Whiplash, one of the best films of the last decade. What it lacks in originality and characterization it makes up for in execution, immersing the viewer in the insane obsessions of its lead character. Film has always been an empathetic medium and sometimes it’s a trip into the dark side of the human psyche. Why is Alex this way? It’s unknown. Will she ever break free from this toxic mentality? It’s unknown. Even the ending leaves you with enough ambiguity to wonder what Alex will do now. Is she fulfilled, has she had some important introspective breakthrough, or will she never be satisfied, always finding a new mountain to climb even as her body gets painted in bruises and scars? The Novice is an impressive film debut for Hadaway. It’s not the most in-depth movie from a substance standpoint, but the packaging, presentation, and style give it something extra special.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Actress Rebecca Hall’s debut as a screenwriter and a director was snatched up by Netflix and now poised as an Oscar contender. It’s set in the 1920s and follows two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Both women come from the same neighborhood but have lived different though fruitful lives, though Clare’s fortunes hinge on a secret she hides even from her rich husband. She’s a light-skinned Black woman but she has been posing as being white, and she’s reaped the rewards. As the two former friends reconnect, Clare visits the clubs and parties of Harlem as if a tourist, and she seems to have charmed Irene’s husband to spark unrest in her home. The movie is very tasteful and stately, filmed in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, communicating the boxes these women felt trapped in by society’s racial aptitudes. The problem is that Passing has so much explosive drama at its core but it’s too demure to a fault, which leads to a lot of wheel spinning and pensive glances. The movie almost follows the “uninvited guest” plot device, where Clare makes herself more at home in Irene’s world to her chagrin. There’s a general danger of whether Clare’s secret will come out, especially since her husband is overtly racist, but she seems so blase about her situation. The movie seems to feel like it’s lacking a potent sense of dread for these women, leaving it more implied than felt. It’s a character study but the primary characters seem more like archetypes, symbols intended for a larger social debate after the film’s conclusion. Both actresses are terrific, however, and would be worthy nominees for awards. Negga (Loving) has the more locked-in performance as the woman living her facade, only offering glimpses of what the real Clare thinks about herself. Thompson (Dear White People) is the one trying to hold it all together while she tries to assess whether her former friend has figured out a social cheat code, is deluding herself, or is herself a corrupting influence. The ending is so abrupt that I had to rewind to better understand what had happened. It’s left for interpretation about culpability and intent, but it’s further confirmation that the characters are meant as symbols more than people, and their fates feel a little too tailored for study. Passing is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but one that left me checking the time a little too often to see how slowly it was passing.
Nate’s Grade: B
I did not expect the new Cyrano to be a musical at all, though it is a reprisal of a 2018 stage musical by Erica Schmidt. This fact made the movie even more entertaining and surprising, separating it from the pack of Cyrano de Bergerac adaptations (there is a 1970s Cyrano musical with Christopher Plummer in a Tony Award-winning role). This is an old story and this new version still taps into the potent recesses of unrequited love, social scorn, and the farcical angle that transitions into tragedy. You still understand why audiences from multiple generations come back to this story to laugh and cry anew (it began as a play in 1897 by Edmond Rostand). However, when modern filmmakers are tackling these tried-and-true stories of old, I expect, or at least hope for, something new to justify this latest cinematic addition. It could be an elevated point of view given short shrift before, allowing us new eyes into an old tale. There are plenty of earlier versions that haven’t been as considerate to minority positions. It could be updating or transposing the story to a different setting. It can be simply making it weird. Director Joe Wright’s 2012 Anna Karenina adaptation was an attempt to do something different, with the strange concept that it was taking place on a theatrical stage. I guess because the elites felt so obsessively observed? It didn’t really work, but I admire Wright’s game efforts in trying something different with an oft-told tale. With Cyrano, the story translates well into the realm of a screen musical, and one where Wright wants to work within that unique toolbox, letting the audience get caught in the sweep of the movie magic.
Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) is a dwarf but one of the smartest men alive in 1640 France. He’s unafraid of jousting with pompous actors, pompous aristocratic dandies, and even assassins (their pomposity is up for debate). His true challenge is telling Roxanne (Haley Bennett) that he loves her. This is made even more difficult when Roxanne falls head over heels for Christian (Kevin Harrison Jr.). She seeks out her good friend Cyrano’s help to inquire about the boy’s feelings being reciprocal. Christian does indeed fancy Roxanne except he’s unable to articulate his thoughts. Cyrano agrees to serve as the carrier of his words and write his feelings for him in order to better woo Roxanne. Letter by letter, flowing with poetic verse, Roxanne falls in love with Cyrano’s soul, thinking it belongs to Christian. This is made even more complicated by a fiendish fop, De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who expects Roxanne to marry him and give herself over to him, body and soul.
The other thing you need to know is that Cyrano is a deeply un-hip musical, and its square-ness is also part of its offbeat charm. This is not 2017’s crowd-pleasing The Greatest Showman. These songs are not manufactured to be pop ditties fit for radio airplay. These are songs written and composed by the members of the band The National, an alt rock band better known for their soulful dirges (the lead singer performed the mournful end credits cover of “The Rains of Castamere” for that infamous Game of Thrones episode). The songs of Cyrano by Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Matt Berninger are not going to be the ones you clap your hands to and sing along in the car with your friends. There are no catchy anthems here, no inspirational melodies to rise to triumphant fist-pumping crescendos. These are songs that are methodical, mournful, and, at points, atonal, like twisting the words and sounds to fit an unnatural shape. However, this is the same appeal of songs by The National, how they make uniquely composed tunes that challenge and break free of standard melody conventions. For some, they will find the songs of Cyrano to be slow and low in energy, too self-serious to the point of parody. But for people willing to take the lyrics and songs on the terms presented, there is a smoldering sense of splendor to them, something unexpected, just like the character of Cyrano. Beauty found in unexpected places.
There is one song in particular that disarmed me with how affecting it was. “Wherever I Fall” isn’t even a song sung by any of the main characters. It’s the refrain of a bunch of otherwise nameless and faceless soldiers, the ones who know they will not survive a suicide march into enemy fire during the Franco-Spanish War. This is the song for the fallen and it’s heart-breaking. We take turns with each man writing one last letter and offering instructions to the carrier, which take on the form of last rites. Each man reflects on their life and their cherished loved ones that will read their letter after their inevitable demise. The entire construction of the song is heavy with emotional weight, but I was surprised how much it got to me. I was tearing up for men who weren’t even featured as characters before, or at least served as extras in other scenes that didn’t draw my attention. Bonus points for making the first soldier Glen Hansard (Once). “Someone to Say” has a sweet and lyrical melody that comes in and out as a bountiful motif, and it’s the romantic tug for our lovers. “Every Letter” and “I Need More” have a thrumming intensity of strings and heartbeat-like percussion that reminded me of the soaring 1990s/early 2000s singer-songwriters like Tori Amos and Dido. As I adjusted to its somber wavelength, the music grew on me. It’s music for a rainy day made into an old-fashioned musical that isn’t trying to score points for being edgy.
Dinklage (I Care a Lot) is an excellent choice for Cyrano. While he might be the weakest singing voice of the cast, Dinklage is definitely the most accomplished actor and proves it again. His character’s inner struggle and true feelings consuming him is wonderfully portrayed by Dinklage. He has his big outbursts, where he inflicts his wit like a sharp-edged weapon, and others where it’s the total of years of frustration from being sidelined and overlooked and discounted, but it’s the quieter moments where Dinklage retreats behind his sad puppy eyes that got me the most. Bennett (The Girl on the Train) has a spark to her that reminds you why Cyrano would fall in love from a distance. Her light at the beginning of the movie threatens to be snuffed out by bad men, and it feels like a real loss. Bennett and Dinklage are also reprising their roles from the stage musical, so their natural chemistry and comfort with the roles improves the experience. Mendelsohn (Captain Marvel) is a pro at playing those officious, lecherous, pathetic roles, and once again he’s on target. His creepy rendition of “What I Deserve” sounds like the skin-crawling mantra for male chauvinism writ large. It might even make you retch.
Wright’s (Darkest Hour, Hanna) direction makes fine use of the big screen space, and his penchant for long takes and sweeping camera movements for verisimilitude enhance the viewing experience by allowing us to better immerse in the world and appreciate the talents of the professionals. It’s a musical that lets you enjoy it being a movie musical, and its editing is judicious without being disorienting. The movie doesn’t feel like its trapped by its stage-bound origins. The lush setting of Italy and its pristine estates adds an extra layer of enjoyment that makes the movie more transporting.
Cyrano is a sneaky movie, one that seems old and new, serious and impish, square and traditional while still making its own stamp on classic literature. Much of your enjoyment factor will likely rest upon your assessment of the music and songs, which is a fair critical point for a musical. I found them to be romantic and gloomy and so achingly serious that I found it to be adorable. The music worked for me, as a moderate fan of The National, but if you cannot click with the songs or accept that everyone is not going to be a trained singer, then your enjoyment level will certainly dip. I found this movie to be a modestly pleasant surprise that won me over by its depressing finale.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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