Category Archives: 2021 Movies
Here comes my shocking cinematic admission that lowers my standing with my critical brethren: I don’t see what the big fuss is with Drive My Car. The three-hour Japanese movie has bewitched most critics, won several Best Film of the Year designations, and was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, something only ten or so films have achieved in the Academy’s history. It’s a guaranteed winner for Best International Film, something only one other Japanese film has earned, and no, not anything from legendary Akira Kurosawa. All this is a protracted way of saying this is a very well regarded movie across the globe… and I just couldn’t get into it. Part of this is that the length is overly indulgent and meandering. The three hours feel far too leisurely, and structurally, the entire opening 45 minutes could have been cut and begun with our grieving actor/theater professional restarting his life two years after the sudden death of his wife. Everything you would need to know in that pre-credit beginning is covered later in the movie, which made me wonder why not leave some of the elements as mysteries to be filled in later such as the character’s complicated relationship to his unfaithful wife, what he knew or didn’t know, who is the voice on the tape he’s listening to running lines for the Chekov play Uncle Vanya in his car, and his personal connection to the leading man in the play he’s directing. A whole hour of this movie might be listening to actors say lines from Uncle Vanya, or just hear lines from Uncle Vanya, and then applying the 1898 Russian play to these modern characters and their lives. It’s clever but this kind of stuff works better as subtext. With Drive My Car, it’s the text, the literal text of the story for long portions, and that comes across as frustrating because it’s setting up characters, having them read a famous play, and then telling the audience, “Well, you find the connections.” Again, this works as layered subtext and metaphor in addition to a compelling story, but so much of Drive My Car is at this level of artistic interpretation. Did we need a dozen subdued scenes of them practicing the play in order for the ending to have its impact? That’s the power of art, a tool we can use to relate our fears, hopes, and identities with, sympathizing with the struggles and triumphs of people from other times and places. The core of this movie, for me, was the relationship between the main character and his younger driver assigned to him by the university. This character unfortunately doesn’t get her due until much later. Drive My Car has some beautiful moments, like a graceful family dinner, like the trip to the garbage site in Hiroshima, like a backseat monologue about, what else, decoding a story for meaning as it applies to character insight. This isn’t a bad movie. I can certainly appreciate the big swings at big ideas about grief, the human condition, and the reflective power of art. It’s just structured in a way that doesn’t allow those core elements to shine. Eliminate many scenes of play rehearsals, eliminate many scenes of driving, and even eliminate the opening 45 minutes, and you have a better paced, better emphasized human drama, at least to my mind. There are plenty of people who have fallen in love with all three hours, but I found myself more listless than lovelorn. I really wanted to like Drive My Car better but I found too much of it to be meandering, redundant, and frustratingly cold and opaque. In the end, after three dragging hours, I could at least say, yes, that woman certainly did drive that man’s car.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I genuinely forgot that I had supported Straitjacket, a new Ohio-made indie thriller filmed in the Dayton area several years hence. I know some people involved in the production and remember seeing a teaser trailer years ago asking for further editing donations. I could not remember if I had actually donated to its post-production costs and sure enough, in the end credits, there is my name under the thanks section for financial assistance. We’ll see if writer/director/co-star/editor Phillip Wiedenheft feels like listing my name was a mistake after this review. Straitjacket is a moderately successful thriller that entertains as long as it keeps things unbalanced.
The first thing we know about Wolf (Wiedenheft) is that he’s getting wasted in the woods. He awakens the next morning and loads a rifle and shoots at glass bottles. Except his shot goes beyond the bottle. He hears screaming and discovers his shot hit an old man walking through the woods. The man’s granddaughter, Lola (KateLynn Newberry), chases after Wolf, who hops into his car and drives away. Wolf is desperate to escape but he doesn’t have enough money for a plane ticket. He also might have left behind more than a few incriminating items in the woods after he quickly ran off. Wolf tries to take refuge with his dealer, the few family and friends who may still speak to him, while Lola languishes in despair and wonders if she can find the killer.
Straitjacket owes a creative debt to the films of writer/director Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room, Hold the Dark), the man who worked nervy tension to a breaking point in his elegantly constructed indie thrillers (I immediately re-watched Green Room following this movie too). The tone and visual palate of this movie reminds me plenty of 2013’s Blue Ruin, a superb movie that follows a bearded vagrant on the run after an act of vengeance places a target on his head. It’s a revenge story stripped to the bone and free from the bombastic spectacle of bigger movies exploiting the same territory. The hero in that film, a drifter, wasn’t particularly skilled at killing, or defending himself, and was clumsy and all-too human as he brought a maelstrom of pain onto his life. It’s easy to make these same connections with Straitjacket, where it almost literally begins with a literal bang, a very easy to follow starting point stripped of exposition. Before the five-minute mark, our main character has killed someone in an accident and is now on the run. There’s a pleasingly frantic nature to the plotting, going from one desperate gamble to another, trying to figure out a possible escape as well as covering up his culpability. Wolf, just like the protagonist of Blue Ruin, is not particularly excelled when it comes to crime. He screws up. He has to correct his mistakes. He gets into debt to people who hold leverage over him. He has to scrounge up money in order to secure the things he needs to flee. The screenplay connects the dots in a way that doesn’t feel overly contrived even when the final act involves the ironic crossing of paths of all the necessary characters. That is a common occurrence in tragedy, the nature of inescapable fate and so we allow it, and Straitjacket is a tragedy disguised as a runaway thriller. If anything, it’s about people trying to escape from their mental and physical pain.
At the half-hour mark, the narrative switches perspectives, and we now see things from the victim’s point of view. In the hours before the fatal accident, we see Lola and her grandfather going about their day before he is taken permanently from this Earth. They discuss her process of recovering from addiction and share a small but heartfelt moment planting a tree mingled with the ashes of loved ones, Lola’s mother and grandmother (I think?). The old man says Lola is the only family he has left and he doesn’t want to come out here and plant another tree. Just with that line, with that moment, the filmmakers have managed to say everything they need to say in a meaningful and character-centric fashion. From there, much of the next half hour is Lola trying to make sense of her sudden loss. I thought perhaps the narrative had flipped and we were going to follow Lola as she tracked down Wolf and enact her own vengeance, but the movie doesn’t really do that either. She stumbles upon him again just because he returns to the scene of the crime and she recognizes his car, but her agency stops at calling for help from an ex. That’s disappointing because she could have been the right participant for the audience to root for.
And therein lies one of the issues holding back Straitjacket from real gut-churning dramatic greatness, the fact that you don’t really root for any character to achieve his or her goal. While streamlining the narrative has made the plot relatively tight and quick to start, we also don’t really get much in the way of fleshing out Wolf as a person. We know he’s self-destructive, we know he’s struggling, and a caravan of interactions with minor supporting players fill us in on the myriad ways he is disappointing others (he has a son he never sees, he’s stolen from family before, he’s gotten into trouble with his dealer, etc.). He’s just sort of a screw-up but we aren’t given redeeming qualities, we aren’t given moments that allow a personality to shine through, where we can see his hopes, maybe a glimmer of his time and who he was before his addictions. He’s less a character and more a walking Tragic Symbol with antsy legs. The same with Lola. She’s suffering, she’s hurting, she wants to find her grandfather’s killer and bring them to justice. But does she do anything to actively achieve this? Not really. She lucks into attending the same drug house that Wolf does, and this sets up a finale that tries to have it both ways, ultimately ending on redemption and closure but not quite managing the catharsis of either. That’s because the limited characterization made the later emotional investment limited as well.
Take a look at Blue Ruin for comparison on how it could have been done effectively. It’s established why the main character’s life has been in shambles, he finds the person responsible for murdering his parents, takes his clumsy vengeance, and the rest of the movie is him outrunning the mounting and bloody repercussions. That movie works because the act of violence that kicks off the scramble is eventually revealed to be justifiable from the character’s perspective (his own sister, whom he initially hides with, congratulates him). He’s also the underdog as the forces coming after him are armed, dangerous, and larger, so then the movie becomes how this one man can use his few resources and lead time to outsmart his eventual attackers. It becomes naturally engaging because the odds are stacked against him and every time he surprises or beats them back is another victory and satisfying to watch. Straitjacket doesn’t afford similar satisfaction for a viewer. That’s the difference between a thriller and a tragedy, not that Blue Ruin was absent its own stark sense of tragedy as revenge was deemed ultimately as self-harm. There isn’t that push with Straitjacket. Lola isn’t actively looking for her culprit, and her path toward vengeance isn’t taking a toll. Sure, you could argue it’s what causes her to consider relapsing back to addictions but even that struggle is kept very generalized.
When the movie attempts to connect to larger social and political issues, it feels more grasping than edifying. Both of the main characters are struggling with drug addictions, and there’s even passing reference to the opioid crisis happening nationwide, but the drug problems are more scant characterization than anything thematic. I suppose one could be generous and talk about people being haunted by their past mistakes, enthralled to addiction, and working to become better people in control of their own lives, but that’s a generic plot foundation that any nominal drug addiction movie traffics within. Likewise, the Army vet who is coping with his PTSD through drug addiction seems like it has the potential to make larger statements, but even this aspect of the movie is curiously underplayed. I thought the filmmakers would tie more trauma together with the past and present for Wolf, even indulging in certain triggering sounds or images. I suppose Straitjacket’s title is meant to reference the bind that these characters find themselves in due to drugs and other socioeconomic circumstances (no one literally wears a straitjacket). I just thought the movie would have more to say than drug addiction is rough.
I also think it was a mistake for Wiedenheft to have played Wolf. I don’t know if this decision was born out of necessity of keeping the crew small and moving, not having to contort around another actor’s schedule when the writer/director could just step in, or if this was a part that Wiedenheft really wanted to portray. I assume it’s more the former than the latter. In that case, this might be why Wiedenheft the writer kept things minimal on Wiedenheft the actor. There are a few challenging scenes to play, like drug highs and the lows of desperation, but the performance is much more reactive and kept at a distance. Maybe he’s meant to be more a cypher, a stand-in for countless others struggling with the cost of addiction, but if this was the case I figure more attention and specifics would have been placed thematically.
The acting shortcomings of Wiedenheft are more noticeable when compared to his co-lead. Newberry is a familiar face in the realm of Ohio-made indies (The Curse of Lilith Ratchet, Dark Iris, The Wager) and gets the big emotional moments. Newberry sells the grief and shock with ease. A notable standout is JoAnna Lloyd (Brimstone Saint) as a park ranger. She’s only in the movie for two brief scenes but she leaves a favorable impression as a woman struggling to even compute the tragic events that she is now meant to serve as an authority for. Her loss of words, awkward articulation, and sense of bewilderment trying to comfort another is deftly played.
From a technical standpoint, Straitjacket is marvelous and impressive, and the level of its professional presentation in no way betrays the fact that the movie’s budget was only $15,000. The cinematography is extremely polished and moody, again reminding me of how Sauliner uses his sleek images and compositions to make even unnerving anxiety appear oddly beautiful. There’s a clear and clean visual talent here. I can see how a thriller would be appealing for this artist. When things are on edge and in movement, that’s when Wiedenheft is at his best as a director. It’s when things slow down that we start to see faults with the limited characterization and themes. Still, this is one Ohio-made indie that doesn’t feel like it’s stretching to a breaking point simply to get to a feature-length running time. There feels like even more could have been explored, maybe a third character perspective to open things up even more and examine the long ripples one devastating mistake can have on many lives. It’s tragedy served up as chase movie, but when things slow down that’s when you’ll notice how Straitjacket could have used more knots to tie itself into an even more tantalizing and emotionally grueling film experience.
Nate’s Grade: B-
In 2015, I was completely on board with a Kingsman franchise. Based upon the Mark Millar comics, the film was a hip, transgressive, action-packed, and refreshingly modern remix of stale spy thriller tropes. It also followed a satisfying snobs vs. slobs class conflict and a My Fair Lady-stye personal transformation of street kid to suave secret agent. In short, I loved it, and I said co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn used big studio budgets smarter than any other blockbuster filmmaker. Flash forward to 2017, and the Kingsman sequel started to show cracks in my resolute faith in Vaughn, and now with the long-delayed Kingsman prequel, I just don’t know if I care any more about this universe. It feels like the appeal of the franchise has been stamped out by its inferior additions. This one chronicles the origins of the Kingsman tailors/secret agency, a question nobody was really asking. It’s the beginnings of World War I, and a comical cadre of super villains, such as Mata Hari, Rasputin, and future assassin Gavrilo Princip, is meeting to plot doom and destruction and goad the world’s powers into war (in a goofy but appreciated comical touch, Tom Hollander plays the leaders of England, Germany, and Russia). Ralph Fiennes plays Orlando Oxford, a pacifist leading a special team trying to thwart the drumbeats of war by taking out the shadow brokers. The Kingsman movies were known for its attitude and cheekily crossing the line from time to time, but that willful perversity seems so desperate with this new movie. During the Rasputin mission, the disheveled madman literally stuffs an entire pie into his face, tongues Oxford’s wound on his upper thigh, and lasciviously promises more to come for him and Oxford’s adult son. The sequence is almost astonishing in poor taste and grotesque, and it just seems to go on forever. And yet, thanks to the sheer audacious energy of Rhys Ifans as the pansexual cleric, this actually might be the best or at least most entertaining part of the 130-minute movie. The problem is that The King’s Man doesn’t know whether it wants to commit to being a ribald loose retelling of history or a serious war drama. It’s hard to square Rasputin cracking wise and sword fighting to the 1812 Overture and an interminable 20-minute tonal detour that seriously examines the horrors of trench warfare. It jumps from silly comic book violence to grisly reality. That entire episode is then washed away with a joyless climax that feels like a deflated video game compound assault. I’ll credit Vaughn for dashes of style, like sword-fighting from the P.O.V. of the swords, but this movie feels too all over the place in tone, in ideas, in execution and lacking a dynamic anchor. Fiennes is a dry and dashing leading man, though I was having flashbacks of his 1998 Avengers misfire at points. It’s a story that doesn’t really accentuate the knowledge base of future Kingsman, and it’s lacking a sustained sense of fun and invention. It needed more banter, more subversion, more over-the-top and less formulaic plot turns. In my review of The Golden Circle, I concluded with, “It would be a shame for something like this to become just another underwhelming franchise.” That day has sadly arrived, ladies and gentlemen.
Nate’s Grade: C
Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) falls under the category of CODA, a Child Of a Deaf Adult. Her mother (Marlee Matlin) and father (Tony Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, and she is the only member of her household with the ability to hear. She’s balancing working for her family on their fishing trawler, maintaining good grades in school, and possibly pursuing scholarships to enroll at a music and fine arts college for singing. Ruby’s music teacher agrees to train her because he believes in her potential, but Ruby has to worry that her dream is something that cannot be shared with the people she loves most, and how would they all get on without her?
The framework of CODA is familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age story or family drama, but it’s the conviction and strength of character and sheer force of empathy that makes this movie a standout film for 2021. It’s based upon a 2014 French film, The Family Beller, and follows many of the same beats from other sentimental family dramas about sticking out in your family and society, chasing your dream, often in conflict with your family’s expectations, gaining that sense of inner strength and resolve, and mending differences in perspective with hard-fought and well-earned wisdom. It’s familiar, but that doesn’t mean under the right set of hands that it cannot still be resonant and emotionally gratifying. I do not hold the familiar formula against CODA, even as the family’s goal and her personal goal come into direct conflict in sometimes forced manners. That’s because the movie does an excellent job of establishing these people as characters, establishing the family dynamic as fraught but loving, and establishing a conflict that is direct and clear as far a major point of separation.
Ruby isn’t just the only member of her family who can hear, she’s also their vital lifeline to the outside world. She’s looked upon as the family interpreter, a position they cannot afford to pay for someone else’s services so the duties and responsibilities fall upon her. That’s so much pressure to bear for one teenage girl, knowing that she’s the link between her family’s poverty-treading existence and possibly breaking free into a larger hearing community. She feels ostracized and awkward within her own family and outside of her own family. To the rest of the school, she’s that “deaf family girl,” and it’s remarked that when she began high school she had an accent reminiscent of what deaf people can sound like, a point that her peers cruelly imitate. She worries she will forever be defined by her family’s disability even if she doesn’t share it. However, within her family, she feels ostracized because she’s different. She wonders if her mother wishes that she too were deaf, and during a heartfelt late-night talk, mom actually admits that upon her daughter’s birth she did feel disappointment when Ruby had hearing. While she knows sign language and has grown up with these loving figures, she’ll still always be the one who’s different, the one who hears the insults her family cannot.
The film does a remarkable effort about contextualizing Ruby’s fears and frustrations of being held captive in two different worlds, neither feeling fully accepted or whole, and that’s why her embarking on a personal dream that her family can never fully appreciate feels so significant. Part of Ruby might feel that singing is selfish, especially if it means limiting her family’s upward mobility by eliminating their unpaid interpreter, but it’s the thing that makes her most happy, a special gift that her family will be excluded from. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the movie where Ruby’s father asks her to sing to him, and he puts his hands along her shoulders and neck to feel the vibrations, and his awed and tear-stricken face is so moving, as he so desperately wants to indulge too in the beauty of his daughter’s voice. While occasionally the film goes overboard pounding these two conflicting paths into forced collision (family vs. self), the movie is personal with its big problems and personal with its big triumphs, making it transcend the trappings of formula.
Writer/director Sian Heder got her start on Orange is the New Black, and that TV series’ hallmark has been its enormous sense of empathy for its diverse characters. This is evident in Heder’s screenplay and her observational, detail-rich simple storytelling that immerses you in this world, so even while you recognize more familiar made-for-TV plot turns, the genuine authenticity makes the movie feel like its own unique story. Heder’s direction is delicate and places the attention squarely on her performers. There is one stylistic move late in the film when Ruby’s family comes to her choir recital in support. They look around for cues when to applaud, and their minds wander as they sign about other menial topics like grocery lists, and you understand why once Heder drops you into their perspective. For a minute, the sound disappears, and you’re left studying facial expressions for cues like them. While we can imagine being deaf, it’s another matter to experience it and try and understand.
The acting is another laudable merit for CODA. I personally want three Oscar nominations for this clan, Jones (Locke & Key) for Best Actress, Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) for Best Supporting Actress, and Kotsur (Wild Prairie Rose) for Best Supporting Actor. Over the course of nine months, Jones learned American Sign Language and how to sing, which is surprising because I would have said she has a natural talent with singing. Her performance, as well as Matlin and Kotsur, feel so real, so nuanced, and so natural, like we’ve plucked these people from real life and given them this platform. It’s the best credit you can give an actor, when they seemingly disappear into the character, and the character feels like a fully breathing, flesh-and-blood person. Even the small supporting roles are well cast, well acted, and contribute to the overall authenticity of the movie. Unlike the 2014 French original movie, all of the deaf members of the family are portrayed by actual deaf actors as well.
CODA was a sensation at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, with Apple Films buying the rights for $25 million dollars, and it’s easy to see why because it’s such a satisfying, enriching crowd-pleaser and legit tear-jerker. There were several points that had me tearing up, and then fully crying, because I was so emotionally engaged with the family, their struggles, and their triumphs and outpouring of love. You might be able to see where the movie is headed because its template is familiar and formulaic, but it’s the execution, the attention to detail, and the level of observational attention that elevates CODA and makes it so winning and so heartwarming.
Nate’s Grade: A
I’ve now watched both versions of Nightmare Alley, the 1947 movie and the 2021 Guillermo del Toro remake, and I guess I just shrug at both. Based upon the 1946 novel by Lindsay Gresham, we follow an ambitious yet troubled man, Stanton (Bradley Cooper), who finds refuge in a traveling carnival, mentors as a phony mentalist, and then uses his skills of manipulation to fleece the rich and privileged while possibly losing his own soul in the process. I kept watching this 150-minute movie and waiting for it to get better, to hit another level, and I had to keep asking, “Why isn’t this playing better for me?” It’s del Toro, an early twentieth-century freak show, a dashing of film noir, and a star-studded cast (Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn), and all those enticing elements should coalesce into something special and dark and adult and transporting, like del Toro’s 2017 Best Picture-winning Shape of Water. However, for me it just feels so turgid and overly melodramatic. I wish the movie had stayed with the traveling carnival and the colorful weirdos that it ditches halfway through. I think it’s because the movie plays to your exact expectations. You expect it to be beautifully composed, and it is, with a flair for the grotesque, a del Toro specialty, and the beats of its film noir-heavy story with femme fatale and double crosses comes across so predictably but minus substantial depth to compensate. I kept waiting for the themes to deepen, to be a better reflection of ourselves, but it’s one man’s circular downfall that doesn’t play too tragic because he’s already an unrepentant scoundrel. Cooper also just seems too old for the part, especially when everyone refers to him as a “young chap.” You might not see a better looking movie from 2021. The cinematography, production design, costumes, and stylish panache that del Toro trades in are all present and glorious to behold. I just wish I could get more from Nightmare Alley besides an admiration for its framing and less about what is happening to the characters within such doting artistry.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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
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+
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 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+