Rumble (2021)

No more and no less than exactly what you’re expecting, Rumble is a giant monsters wrestling movie that’s cute enough to entertain young kids and pass the time agreeably and not much more. The world isn’t exactly fleshed out and the characters are very archetypal and the plot is entirely predictable, but I found it mostly fun and low-level escapism. It’s nothing that will wrestle with the better animated films of the year, but if you have little ones that are fans of wrestling or giant monsters then that might be enough to keep their attention for 90 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Titane (2021)

What’s the point of a weird, gonzo movie when it stops being weird? That’s my takeaway from French director Julia Docournau’s (Raw) Palme D’Or winning oddity, a movie that has been nicknamed, “That film where the lady gets impregnated by a car.” That does inexplicably happen, and I was waiting for more bizarre interludes, but then Titane becomes a completely different movie. The first half hour involves the car copulation and then becomes a slasher movie, as it’s revealed our heroine has been killing locals for months. We watch her kill her friend, on a whim, and then her roommate walks downstairs, a witness needing killing, and then another and another, and this for me was the darkly comic high-point of the film. From there she goes on the run, poses as a man’s missing adult son, and the movie becomes entirely about hiding her real identity, whether this grieving father fully suspects or even cares, and learning the ropes of fire department protocol. To say the second half of the movie is a creative letdown is an understatement. Titane feels like Docournau was combining different stray story elements from half-finished scripts and trying to, through sheer force of will, cram them together. The car fetish is never quite explained, which is fine, but once she’s impregnated, the movie becomes more of a standard drama about hiding her burgeoning pregnant belly to keep her cover. It seems quite strange for me to say that a movie about a woman impregnated by a car isn’t strange enough, and yet there it is. Titane will appeal to fans of David Cronenberg’s body horror and the French noveau horror scene, but I found its exploitation excess to be short-lived, and the creativity on display felt more stuck in neutral than as advertised.

Nate’s Grade: C

Encanto (2021)

2021 has been quite a year for Lin-Manuel Miranda who has provided the musical accompaniment to three movies, Vivo, In the Heights, and now Encanto, Disney’s latest animated musical (Miranda also has the live-action Little Mermaid, though that’s 2023). It would be unfair to expect a generation-defining Hamilton-esque masterpiece every time Miranda sets pen to paper; I’d happily settle for even a lesser Moana, as far as quality goes (to be fair, Moana is also brilliant). With Encanto, the musical numbers have interesting tone/melody shifts and the hip-hop syncopation we’re used to from Miranda’s style, but none of them will be able to be hummed by the end credits. They evaporate from memory pretty quickly. They seem on par with Vivo and less than In the Heights. With that being said, I found the remainder of Encanto to be quite charming and emotionally resonant. It’s set in Columbia and follows a magic home to a magic family where at a certain age the children are blessed with a unique magic power with a ceremony and celebration. Except for Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz) who was denied a power and is looked at with skepticism by her Abuela, who insists on sticking to their family traditions no matter if her children and grandchildren chafe from her expectations. This is a much more insular and contained musical, almost taking place entirely on the family grounds. Its great quest is much more about repairing family relationships and actually listening to another person rather than making assumptions about their life because of their status. Because of this story design, it leads to plenty of catharsis and reconciliation, and it made me blubber like a baby at points. I bought into the emotional stakes of the family, of Mirabel feeling like an outsider, and the pressure to conform. I enjoyed that near everyone in this extended family gets a chance to share their own perspective. The story felt very empathetic to its supporting players while still remembering to be entertaining and funny. The conclusion feels a bit rushed, with happy endings being doled out rather hastily, but quite satisfying. I found Encanto to be colorful, rich in feeling and theme, and delightful to experience. Also, the animated short with the raccoons beforehand hit me hard too.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Petite Maman (2021)

There are two things to know about the deeply heartfelt new French movie, Petite Maman. The first is that it’s the follow-up by Celine Sciamma, the writer and director of one of 2019’s absolute best movies, the sumptuously romantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was reason enough to watch this relatively short movie. The next is a twist that I’ll save for the body of this review but that makes this childhood examination on loss, grief, and the future far more compelling and emotionally striking. It’s further proof to me that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount; just as I was enveloped in the romantic swell of Portrait, I was charmed and enchanted by this wholesome movie that’s so winsome that you could watch with the whole family, that is, if you can convince children to watch a 75-minute French drama with you, and if so, congrats.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is mourning the recent loss of her grandmother. She and her mother and father have camped to grandma’s old home to pack it up. Everyone is sad and one day Nelly’s mother leaves without warning. She doesn’t know when mom is coming back. In the meantime, Nelly makes a friend with a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s living with her mother and nervous about an upcoming operation to fix a genetic malady. However, in the meantime, these two little girls find solace in playing with one another, building a fort in the woods, and creating role play scenarios that allow each to hone their acting skills. Over the course of a few days, Nelly learns to understand her family more while learning to say goodbye on her own terms.

I’ll save the spoilers for the next paragraph because I feel like they are unavoidable to truly get at what makes this movie special. One non-spoiler merit of this movie is how persuasively it is told from the perspective of childhood. Our little eight-year-old heroine is the protagonist, and we see the world from her understanding. That doesn’t mean the movie ever leans on narration or a reality-bending imaginative framework; it’s simply told with the understanding of what it’s like to be a child with questions and emotions that you don’t quite know how to handle. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Nelly is forlorn because she didn’t know her last exchange with her grandmother would be their final interaction, and that ache is relatable no matter the age. Nobody knows when their last interaction with a loved one could be, so it’s easy to feel that same lament that more wasn’t made to achieve a better sense of closure. There’s a sweet moment between Nelly and her mother where they role play what that final exchange could have been, and all Nelly wishes is to say goodbye one more time but with more forceful feelings behind the words, and it was a moment so pure and innocent. The entire movie is like this moment, a lingering earnest sensation that is universal and expertly delicate.

Here comes the spoilers, so dear reader be aware if you still want to remain as pure as this movie, although I would argue knowing this spoiler ahead of time will improve your movie-going experience by giving you a necessary part of the puzzle. Petite Maman translates to “Little Mother” and it’s more than simply little kids pretending to be adults. It turns out that Marion is actually the eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, and her house they retreat to after playing in the woods is an older version of Nelly’s grandmother’s home. There are clues early, like the same distinct wallpaper and interior design of the house, but you might be able to dismiss that as maybe there are just similar houses being built in this neighborhood. After a while, though, you start to realize there’s more going on here, and the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Nelly flat out tells Marion that she is her child from a future. From there, the movie becomes a fully felt inter-generational bonding experience, where daughter gets to talk to her mother on her own level, answer questions for her curious young mother, and they talk about dealing with sadness as they know it. When Marion asks if Nelly was planned, she says yes, and Marion says, “That makes sense. I can’t stop thinking about you already,” and tears come to my eyes even typing the words. This twist brings so much more meaning to everyday activities; instead of Nelly staying one last night to make pancakes with her new friend, now it’s Nelly having only one more opportunity to bond with her mother when they’re both at the same age, saying goodbye while telling her how much she loves her, not knowing if when they part that she may even see her adult mother again. Wow, that is so much going on. Nelly even gets another shot to find that closure with her grandmother.

The two young actresses are twin sisters, and both are terrific. Given the gentle nature of the movie, neither is given any great moment where they tearfully break down, shout their feelings, or chew the scenery in general. These feel like real kids dealing with real emotions under some unique circumstances. Each of the Sanz sisters is a delight and realistically subdued and not just poor actors incapable of effectively showing emotion. When Nelly and Marion are play acting a scene, with one pretending to be an investigator interrogating the other as a suspect, they both have a twinkle to them as they admire each other’s acting ability, saying they should become an actress. It’s a nice moment for each of the Sanz sisters because they’re living their own dreams in the scene.

Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and our relationships itself. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh returns to his boyhood home with Belfast, a coming of age story set during the Troubles in 1969 where Protestant mobs were targeting Irish Catholics. The movie is partly autobiographical as we follow young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) and his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Cirian Hinds, Judi Dench) dealing with life as their neighborhood block more resembles a war zone. There are dangerous influences and dark intentions on the peripheral, but we’re mostly at kid level, where his days are preoccupied with sitting closer to his crush in school and wanting to impress his older cousin and be accepted. The parental perspective is kept to offhand whsipers and weighty conversations about moving away or staying behind. The black and white photography is gorgeous and exquisitely composed, looking like old family photos come to rich life. The actors are charming and heartfelt, and when called upon deliver emotional fury. The problem with Belfast, and it feels mean to even cite it as such, is that everything is just a little too nice, a little too clean, a little too safe. The childhood perspective doesn’t quite jibe with the political instability at hand. It’s not a Jojo Rabbit where that disconnect is the point for reflection. It’s clearly Branagh’s love letter to his family and native land. It feels like entire scenes have been plucked directly from Branagh’s nostalgic memories. It also feels like the characters are more sweet-smiling composites than real people. It’s all been romanticized with Branagh’s personal nostalgia, reshaping the odd angles and dangling conflicts into something more sentimentally safe, easy, and inoffensively digestible. Belfast is a perfectly enjoyable movie but it feels like a simple TV movie-of-the-week, crowd-pleasing version of a complex story worthy of greater nuance and scrutiny.

Nate’s Grade: B

Don’t Look Up (2021)

A scorched Earth satire that flirts with a literal scorched Earth, Don’t Look Up is writer/director Adam McKay’s star-studded condemnation of everything stupid and myopic in media, politics, and pop culture. Jennifer Lawrence plays a doctoral student who discovers a comet heading for direct cataclysmic impact with Earth, and she and her astronomy mentor (Leonardo DiCaprio) are trying to sound the alarm but nobody seems to be listening. Not the president (Meryl Streep) and her inept chief of staff/son (Jonah Hill). Not the greedy CEO (Mark Rylance) of a tech company. Not the media where morning TV co-hosts (Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry) are more compelled by music star breakups than pressing science. It makes a person want to stand up and scream about priorities, and that’s McKay’s point, one that will be bludgeoned again and again. This movie is animated with seething rage about the state of the world and the cowardice about facing obvious problems head-on. It’s fit as a climate change allegory but COVID-19 or any scientific crisis could be applied as well. It’s about choosing ignorance and greed, about deferring to our worst instincts, and those in power who profit from inaction. I laughed at several points, some of it good cackling, and the movie is dark to its bitter end. This is the bleakest movie of McKay’s foray into his more sober, activist movie-making (The Big Short, Vice). It’s less Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, exploring the foibles of humans reconciling their last moments of existence, and more Idiocracy, where there is a lone voice of reason and the rest of the population are aggravating morons that refuse to accept reality even if it literally means just looking up with their own eyes. In some ways, the dark laughter the movie inspires is cathartic after years of COVID denials and mask tirades and horse medicine. The satire is bracingly blunt but also one joke on repeat. If you’re the right audience, that one joke will be sufficient. I don’t think the movie quite achieves the poignancy it’s aiming for by the end of its 138 minutes, but the anger is veritably felt. Don’t Look Up wants us to save the world before it’s too late, though the people that need to see the movie the most will be the ones fastest to dismiss it. Still, congrats to McKay for making a movie this depressing and relevant for the holidays.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Vanilla Sky (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 14, 2001:

Talk about a film’s back story. Tom Cruise signed on to do a remake of the 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes) which was directed by Alejandro Amenabar. During the filming the romance between Cruise and Penelope Cruz (no relation) got a little hotter than expected onscreen and broke up his long-standing marriage to Nicole Kidman. At the time she was finishing filming The Others which is the second film by Amenabar. This, by the way, is much more interesting than Vanilla Sky unfortunately.

Cameron Crowe’s remake starts off promising enough with Tom Cruise running around an empty Times Square like a Twilight Zone episode. Afterwards the film begins to create a story that collapses under its own weight. David (Cruise) is a rich boy in control of a publishing empire inherited through his dear old deceased dad. He has the time to throw huge parties where even Spielberg hugs him, and even have crazy sex with crazy Cameron Diaz, whom he tells his best friend (Jason Lee) is his “f*** buddy.” David begins to see a softer side of life with the entrance of bouncy and lively Sophia (Cruz) and contemplates that he might be really falling in love for the first time. But this happiness doesn’t last long as jealous Diaz picks up David in her car then speeds it off a bridge killing her. Then things get sticky including David’s disfiguration, his attempts to regain that one night of budding love and a supposed murder that he committed.

Crowe is in over his head with this territory. His knack for wonderful exchanges of dialogue and the perfect song to place over a scene are intact, but cannot help him with this mess. Vanilla Sky is an awkward mish-mash of science fiction. The film’s protagonist is standoffish for an audience and many of the story’s so-called resolutions toward the end are more perfunctory than functional. The ending as a whole is dissatisfying and unimaginative. By the time the wonderful Tilda Swinton shows up you’ll likely either be asleep or ready to press the eject button yelling “cop out!”

Seeing Vanilla Sky has made me want to hunt for Amenabar’s Abre Los Ojos and see what all the hype was about, because if it is anything like its glossy American counterpart then I have no idea why world audiences went wild for it.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Movies have long resorted to being interactive puzzles, inviting audiences to unravel the mystery and hunt for clues as detectives. That’s essentially what Vanilla Sky is at its best, a messy mishmash of a movie that aims a little too high and pins its hopes with a generally unlikeable lead. This psychodrama is meant for dissection, not in a dreamy, obtuse way that David Lynch films invite but more in a canny re-calibration of pop-culture homages and fantasies. The big twist of the movie is that David (Tom Cruise), a rich publishing scion recovering from a savage accident, has elected to live in a simulation, a lucid dream that has been his home for the last hundred-plus years (how kind of the multiple generations of knob-turners to keep things operating). Other stories have followed a similar Twilight Zone-esque twist on the same territory, including the beloved “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror (that’s right, spoilers, spoilers all around for older sci-fi). Writer/director Cameron Crowe has stated there are over 400 pop-culture connections and references to be had with this movie. The movie is wall-to-wall cultivated jams, as expected from a Crowe picture, but the homages and recreations go beyond simply placing a piece of music to a scene or name dropping an artist. The visual language of the movie is intended to be deconstructed, built upon twentieth-century album covers, music, movies, and plenty more. It’s a dense artistic gamble and, ultimately, I question who is even going to care enough to dive into this movie? Who is going to want to watch Vanilla Sky as a detective?

This American remake of a 1997 Spanish movie was, in hindsight, the beginning of the end of Crowe’s career as a major director of studio movies for adults. Crowe had just experienced the apex of his career with 2000’s luminescent Almost Famous, a warm hug of a movie, and he had won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It makes sense to try for something big, reunite with his Jerry Maguire star, and go outside his comfort zone with a wide artistic berth of freedom. The 2001 movie just did not work, though not strictly because of Crowe’s game efforts. This is not a miscalculated folly, an artist flying too close to the sun and getting burnt by their arrogance. I think the major flaw comes down to pinning the mystery on the recovery of the romantic and social life of a disagreeable lead character. Early on, David is established as rich, careless, and smug. He keeps his responsibilities as fleeting as his relationships with women. When his on-again-off-again paramour, Julie (Cameron Diaz), drives off a bridge with David inside, part of you might be thinking he deserves what he got for being so callously indifferent with other people. That’s harsh, I realize, but people will not like David, and this is amplified by the general public’s diastase for Cruise himself. Therefore, watching a movie where he tries to overcome him disfigurement and disability and stop being a jerk to everyone in his life is not a journey that invites the viewer to come aboard. He’s just not that interesting as our centerpiece. What’s happening to him can prove interesting, especially as the movie plays with our mind, but at no point will the extended pity party for poor rich David feel compelling as its own drama.

This is the problem with movies that are built around Big Twists: limited replay value. After you know the super twist, very often these movies fail to justify another two-hour investment. Take for instance 1997’s The Game, the forgotten David Fincher movie. It’s a thriller where Michael Douglas is on the run and doesn’t know who is responsible for chasing him. Then the movie says, “Surprise, it’s [blank],” and then it ends. Not every twist unlocks a new and exciting prism of how to view the preceding hours, like a Sixth Sense or Fight Club. Most movies built upon a big reveal as their conclusion tend to deflate immediately. There’s no real reason to watch The Game a second time if you already know what is happening. There’s no real reason to watch 2003’s Identity again once you know all the ridiculous secrets. There’s no real reason to watch Vanilla Sky once you know the explanation for all the strange little hiccups along David’s fraying mental state.

Look, tons of movies are built around extended mysteries, from Agatha Christie to Knives Out, but the pleasure goes beyond simply solving of the puzzle. It’s the characters, the red herrings, the inspectors or detectives or chief solver of mystery. There is more there for entertainment. With Vanilla Sky, what we’re left with is a lackluster romance of a former pretty boy moping over his slightly adjusted privilege. It’s not like David’s character arc is illuminating or insightful. It’s not like we’re watching the battle over his soul here. He’s just kind of an affable jerk, and then David becomes a scarred jerk, and then he decides to wake up and be a jerk in real life. Progress?

There is a discussion to be had about how much of the movie is a dream, or where real life ends and the dream begins, and apparently even Crowe has determined there are six general interpretations, from the movie’s true and when Tech Support (Noah Taylor) says he switches over is when the dream occurs, to the unfulfilling “it was all a dream” interpretation. I suppose this could be fun for others but again I don’t think there are enough enjoyable components in the movie to incentivize the debate.

In some ways, this is one of Cruise’s most vain-free performances, yet there is an undercurrent that only seems even more vain. First the obvious; he plays a womanizer who also wears a mask for half of the movie to cover his scarred Phantom of the Opera visage. There’s a lack of vanity playing an annoying, arrogant, unpleasant person, something Cruise has done before and quite well, especially in his extraordinary Oscar-nominated turn in 1999’s Magnolia. He’s even played characters with physical disabilities before, like 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. However, this “lack of vanity” really plays out as a vain attempt to be even more impressive as a respected thespian. The movie was positioned for a mid-December release, and with Crowe and Cruise on board, it seemed like a legitimate awards contender, until that is it opened wide. While Cruise’s performance is fine, his time under the mask doesn’t proverbially unmask his character for our better consumption.

Vanilla Sky is mostly known as the big American debut of Penelope Cruz. She was already a muse for Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and known well in the indie circuit, but from here she became Hollywood’s newest It Girl, only to be stranded in mediocre studio movie after mediocre studio movie (Does anyone remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?). It wasn’t until Almodóvar’s 2006 film Volver that studio execs seemed to finally understand how best to utilize her great talent. She won an Oscar for 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona and was nominated the following year for the musical Nine. She recently reunited with Almodóvar for 2021’s Parallel Mothers and again is wowing audiences. From early on, she definitely has a spark, an effervescence to her performance in Vanilla Sky. She’s also fighting against being forcibly elbowed into the swampy Manic Pixie Dream Girl category, a term that was originally coined for Crowe’s follow-up film, 2005’s Elizabethtown. Crowe loves writing women under these quirky conditions, however, the movie is told from a flawed male dream perspective, so it also makes sense if its portrayal of David’s idyllic dream woman happens to flatten her down.

It’s true that the story behind the scenes of Vanilla Sky proves more intriguing than the film itself. Cruise and Nicole Kidman were the Hollywood power couple. The ensuing tabloid feeding frenzy over their breakup and Cruise/Cruz relationship outlived the legacy of Vanilla Sky. This was the most ambitious and experimental movie in Crowe’s tenure as a writer/director, and he would never again return to science-fiction as a genre, keeping to the familiar lane of prestige dramas declining in prestige with each new film. My original review in the closing weeks of 2001 was pretty minimal in analysis. I knew this movie didn’t quite work then and it still doesn’t work now. If you’re eager for a dissertation-level analysis on its pop-culture fantasia, then God’s speed to you and your infinite free time.

Re-View Grade: C

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

It is hard to overstate how influential The Matrix was upon its release in 1999. It rewrote the science fiction and action genres for Hollywood and introduced American audiences to many of the filmmaking techniques of Eastern cinema. It was exciting, philosophical, challenging, and made an instant brand out of the Wachowskis, the writing/directing siblings who had previously only directed one indie movie. The 2003 sequels were filmed back-to-back and released to great anticipatory fanfare and then, later, derision. The Matrix sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, became a shorthand joke for bloated artistic miscalculation. They were talky, draggy, and just not what fans were hoping for jacking back into this strange world, and years later I think they’re worth a critical re-evaluation. Flash forward to 2021, and Lana Wachowski has resurrected The Matrix, and with the original actors for Neo and Trinity, both of whom died in Revolutions. Why go back? I think part of this was the declining career of the Wachowskis as directors. I personally loved 2012’s Cloud Atlas but it was an expensive and messy money-loser, the same as 2008’s Speed Racer and 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, a cosmically bad movie. So now it’s back to The Matrix with an older Neo, and older Trinity, and more of the same by design. The Matrix Resurrections just made me sad. It’s a movie that feels resentful for its own inception.

Thomas Anderson/Neo (Reeves) is living out his life as an award-winning game designer. His company and business partner, Smith (Jonathan Groff), are looking for their next big hit, and they’re looking backwards at Anderson’s biggest success… the “Matrix trilogy.” It was a virtual reality program that skewered the difference between reality and fiction. Mr. Anderson might have even based the role of Trinity on Tiffany (Carrie Anne-Moss), a woman he has grown infatuated with over time at a coffee shop. Except Mr. Anderson is having trouble determining what is real and what is only in his head. That’s because a new, younger Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is telling him that he’s Neo, that he’s destined for greater things, and that he’s been kept in an unorthodox prison to keep him out of the action. Everyone seems interested in reactivating Neo, but for what purpose, and what has happened in the ensuing decades since the end of the war with the machines?

Part of my struggle with Resurrections is that it too is struggling with its own existence, and not in a meta-textual sort of identity crisis, more like a reason to carry on 18 years later. Fair warning, this movie is far, far more meta than you are anticipating. The entire first hour of the movie features characters justifying rebooting “The Matrix,” the game. It’s a movie where characters glibly talk about parent companies going forward with the IP with or without the involvement of the original creators, so better to be the one trying to staunch the bleeding I suppose. A character literally says Warner Brothers wants a new Matrix and they will not stop until they get one. There are characters that sit around a table and try and break down what made the original Matrix (the game) so cutting-edge, and every person has a different brand slogan. “It was edgy.” “It blew your mind.” “It was a thinking man’s action story.” This prolonged section of Resurrections feels entirely like Wachowski speaking directly to her audience and saying, “Look, I had no reason to be back here. They forced my hand, and I want you to know that I’m not happy about it.” There are literal moments from the 1999 film that are presented as if the characters in the matrix are watching The Matrix to recreate scenes like avid cosplayers. There is one part where a character just starts screaming the word “reboot” with profane intention, promising to get their own spinoff as a threat. The entertainment industry satire about reboots and cash-grab sequels is funny but misplaced and coming from a perspective of defiance. If this was all the movie was then it would have been a fascinating example of an artist burning the bridge to their most successful franchise out of willful spite. However, if we had our own little focus group and asked what made the original Matrix so enjoyable, I doubt anyone would list, “entertainment industry satire and meta humor.”

The Matrix movies are well known for being a smarter, more ambitious viewing experience (“A thinking man’s action story”), blending philosophy and mysticism into anime-style action and kung-fu fights. There’s an intentional repetition here, built upon delivering something familiar and safe to audiences but with a “next gen” feel. We have a new Morpheus and a new Mr. Smith here, but did we require either? When they go through the motions of patterning themselves on characters of old, it feels strained, it feels gassed, and it’s another instance where Wachowski telegraphing to her audience, “Look, the studio demanded I bring back these characters, but I’ll be damned if I know what to do with them.” Morpheus has a little more story leverage as a catalyst for bringing Neo back to his path of enlightenment. Truth be told, I don’t really know half of what was happening in this movie, which lacked the elegant connectivity of the best action movies, linking cause and effect (the Merovingian would be proud of me) and pushing the movie forward to its inevitable conclusion. Even the prior movies felt more like the creators knew what was going on, even if the audience was lagging behind. With Resurrections, it feels like Wachowski and her screenwriters, novelist Dave Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) and Aleksandar Hermon (Sense 8 finale), have just given up trying to make sense of it all.

Another disappointment is the lack of any signature or memorable action sequences or, in the words of the Matrix round table, moments that “blew your mind.” The use of phones as transport in and out of the matrix has been replaced with mirror portals and doorways, which initially got my hopes up. There are such playful visual possibilities incorporating portals into action (see: Doctor Strange, even Matrix Reloaded), and I felt that Wachowski was up to the imaginative challenge. It too feels like another element that barely registers. The movie takes the anyone-can-become-an-Agent threat of the original trilogy and says, “What if instead of facing deadly Agents, it was just dumb zombies?” The new machines decide to rely upon a hive-mind system of grabbing whatever humans are in the vicinity and taking control of them into mindless foot soldiers. Let’s explore what a downgrade this is. The Agents were dangerous because they had powers that ordinary humans could not hope for, like the bullet dodging. In this movie, ordinary people are easily foiled and often a pathetic excuse for super-powered adversaries. The final act involves an escalation in numbers of the hive mind, but we’ve already been here with the multiple Agents Smiths of the sequels. There is one disturbing change-up where the machines realize how humans can just serve as canon fodder that is dark but a more effective attack. Even the requisite martial arts battles and gravity-defying wire work are humdrum this round.

If there is one thing that Resurrections does well it’s staking its identity out as a romance. Much of the second half prioritizes the relationship between Neo and Trinity, which was always taken for granted in the sequels. It was a romance of more utilitarian purpose, providing Neo with a love interest to motivate him to be saved in times of great peril. With Resurrections, the movie actually takes time to devote to Neo and Trinity as people with desires and what they would find appealing about the other. He’s not the savior of mankind, and she’s not his gateway to knowledge and empowerment. They’re portrayed as people, somewhat unhappy in their lives, and just hoping they might have another chance meeting at their shared coffee shop for one more electrifying conversation. The evolution of the movie places even more importance on this human connection, so I’m glad time has finally been given to exploring what it is that connects Trinity and Neo, especially if their love story is going to play as prominent a resolution to Resurrections. If you have never cared about Trinity and Neo as a couple, then you’ll likely be in for a disappointing second half.

From a technical standpoint, Resurrections is still a feast for the senses. The photography is moody and atmospheric. The musical score is pumping. The special effects are state-of-the-art. There are a lot of talented people working on this sequel. So why then does the movie feel so perfunctory? In some regard each Matrix sequel has felt this way, adding extraneous pieces onto an already perfect standalone film. Having re-watched both Reloaded and Revolutions again, I can affirmatively declare Resurrections to be the weakest Matrix entry yet. We were all a bit too harsh on the prior two Matrix movies, which fall short of capturing the original’s magic alchemy but bring the goods when it comes to memorable set pieces, eye-popping visuals, and narrative zigs instead of zags (It was undercutting audience expectations before it was cool). They are still a bit too stuffy and talk in circles, but there are definite Major Ideas percolating underneath. In contrast, Resurrections feels more powered by resentment, by Wachowski coming back to this world against her better wishes and judgements. Maybe we should have left things alone.

Nate’s Grade: C

Mass (2021)

I can completely understand if anyone chooses to ignore the indie movie Mass for its subject matter alone. It’s heavy. I get it. It’s about two sets of parents, one pair (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) whose child was murdered in a school shooting, and the other pair (Reed Birney, Ann Dowd) whose child was the school shooter. It took me weeks to even work up the courage and proper mood to sit down and watch the movie. I’m glad I eventually watched Mass because it was so emotionally engaging and ultimately cathartic. That’s what I want more people to understand so that they give this hard-hitting indie gem a chance. It’s not all doom and gloom. It’s not all angry finger-pointing and gnashing of teeth. Mass is much more than you expect while being exactly what it sets out to be. It’s a small film brimming with big emotions and an even bigger wealth of empathy, allowing every participant to be a multi-dimensional human being struggling to make sense of the unimaginable that has dominated their life. Mass is one of the best written and acted movies of 2021 and deserves your time and consideration.

As you would expect given this set-up, it’s a lot of powerful conversations and grueling personal details. If you were unfamiliar with the premise, the movie teases out is main scenario like the key info are valuable kernels, and slowly and surely, we get a fuller idea of what has transpired years in the past and what the connection between these two groups of people is. It’s also a terrific setup to build anticipation and dread, so those first few moments face-to-face have the awkward niceties but we’re really waiting for the big subjects to be get their due, and they will, oh boy will they ever. However, if you’re going in looking for blood and easy answers, then this isn’t going to be the witch hunt you crave. I’m reminded of a Ted Talk I watched recently from Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, who was responsible for the Columbine school massacre in 1999. She talks about not recognizing signs, not of homicidal tendencies, but of suicidal tendencies, of depression manifesting as something else. It’s easy to cast blame and formulate our own assessment of parenting failures and ignored warnings, but what if the situation is far more complicated than that? What if the parents of the shooter are just another set of victims, except they never get to be honored as such by the public? They’re often looked at with suspicion, doubt, and culpability, defined by tragedy but transformed to social pariahs (the perspective illustrated so exquisitely and humanely by 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin). Where Mass excels is with its mighty empathy. Everyone in this story is a victim. Full stop.

You’d be forgiven thinking Mass is based upon a stage play given its dialogue-driven story and single location setting, but it’s an original screenplay by director Fran Kraz, an actor best known for his comic relief parts in Joss Whedon projects (TV’s Dollhouse, The Cabin in the Woods). I was blown away by the immersive writing and empathy. For the first half of the movie, the parents of the shooter dominate the discussion, as they’re delivering us needed exposition on the day in question but really all the steps beforehand, the red flags that didn’t appear to be so permanent until they were. For every school shooting we read about in the news, the next question is where the parents were or why didn’t they act sooner if they had their suspicions. This is the period of the movie that answers those pertinent questions. The second half is more about the response to this news, culminating in a catharsis of tears and grace, facilitated first through anger. It’s a script structure that feels fully without manipulation, meaning the bend of the conversation occurs in a natural drift and pace. Nobody just blurts out what they want to talk about because the script is in a rush to leap to this next topical area of conflict. Franz is also very generous as a writer, able to make sure each character has their opportunity to shine and making sure we understand each character’s perspective. By the end of it, you should hopefully understand that there are no bad guys here, just victims on different sides of trauma suffering to make sense of tragedy. The monologues in this, beautifully written and performed, broke me each and every time.

Every actor holds their own but Issacs (Star Trek: Discovery) and Plimpton (TV’s Raising Hope) each get their big Oscar moment. It’s always peculiar to watch Isaacs play “normal roles” as we’re so accustomed to seeing him portray snide villains because he’s so damn good at them. Here he’s a grieving father who gets his fiery meltdown moment, and Franz has the great sense to never let his camera off the actor, allowing the full take to just derive from the live-wire emotions of the scene. It leaves the actor shaking and you just might do the same while watching. Isaacs is more the force of anger, while Plimpton is more the force of resolution, seeking an ending for all the heartache that has transformed her marriage. Her plea toward the end of the movie is an attempt at reconciliation that ends a heavy movie on uplift.

I want to also credit Dowd (Handmaid’s Tale) and Birney (House of Cards) for their performances. They’re the more subdued ones, castigated for their position, afraid to show too much emotion because of the guilt they feel that they should have done more. Both are great, and Dowd’s final monologue, a story about her son she wants to share for better understanding, also had me in tears and especially what it results in. It’s worth it, folks, so stick around through several minutes of dithering discussion over where to find a box.

Mass is a hard movie to watch by design. It’s a delicate subject matter that will prove triggering for some and simply emotionally unpleasant and crushing for most. It’s ultimately a powerful movie about understanding, about shared grief, about empathy and relationships and similarities. It’s brilliantly written, brilliantly acted, and confidently directed. It’s little more than four people in a room hashing out their grief and conflicts, but when the drama is this potent and the characters are this complex, then it’s worth the prolonged discomfort and knots in your stomach.

Nate’s Grade: A-

The Lost Daughter (2021)

As a film critic part of a credited organization, I’m used to getting goodies in what I call “screener season,” the months of October to December when studios want to court critical favor for year-end consideration of their assorted movies for awards and titles. Netflix has sent me enough heavy coffee table books that I could, in Cosmo Kramer-style, fashion a literal coffee table made from them. For The Lost Daughter, Netflix sent me quite a bundle, including the film’s source material, a 110-page novella written by Italian author Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend), which I read, and an actual bottle of sauvignon blanc wine. This was the first time a movie studio had sent me alcohol (my girlfriend drank a glass and did not like it, so thanks anyway, Netflix, but we dumped the bottle). I found the novella to be well written with plenty of poetic insights and turns of phrase, but I didn’t see the movie there. After sitting down and watching the two-hour feature film, I still don’t quite see the movie in this story.

Leda (Olivia Colman) is 48 years old, a literary professor, and vacationing on a small villa in Greece. Her time away is disrupted by a large, boisterous family sharing her resort. Leda is intrigued by a mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), and her young daughter, Elena. It makes her reflective of her own time as a mother (played in flashback by Betty Buckley) to her two daughters, now both in their early twenties and having little to do with their mother. One day, Leda picks up Elena’s forgotten doll from the beach with the intention of returning her to the child, and then she simply does not do this. Leda grows closer to Nina, disapproving of her arrogant husband, her boorish relatives, and some of her risky personal choices, and we’re left to question whether she’s relating to this young, besieged mother or judging her from afar.

This is one of those character study films that will ebb and flow on the level of the performers, and the actors elevate the material beyond what is present on the page. There are several intriguing conversations that shed light on characters and their view of parenthood, like Leda explaining how she feels that she gave the best of herself to her daughters when they were born, and now what she’s left with are the scraps. It’s not breaking new ground to view motherhood in non-glamorous terms. I thought 2018’s Tully did this with great observational detail, unsparing honesty, and great empathy. The Lost Daughter is not exactly Tully, which explored the hardships of motherhood with a put-upon woman who was valiantly struggling to keep her head above water, but it was a woman who wanted to be in the fight. With this movie, you never quite get a clear sense of Leda’s relationship with her two children, who are mostly kept to flashbacks when they are very young. Writer/director Maggie Gyllenhaal (yes, that Maggie Gyllenhaal) employs a non-linear plot to better inform the interior thinking of Leda, so we’ll have past and present juxtaposed for our ongoing evaluation. This is a smart way to follow the imprecise nature of hazy memory. There will be moments that will cause you discomfort, like when one of Leda’s young children is pleading through tears for her mother to kiss her wounded finger, and Leda withholds doing this as a power play, as an act of spite, as a knowing punishment for her wailing child. It’s also potentially relatable for others out there who too have, at the apex of their frustrations and exhaustion, lashed out at children and regretted it later, acknowledging that every parent will fail at some point over the long journey of time and to only attempt to minimize the inherent damage that will be left.

The Lost Daughter becomes an exercise in how long you want to spend with a pleasantly unpleasant woman. Leda is complicated, yes, but she’s also admittedly cruel and selfish, and the movie is trying to make her a case study, to shed our moral judgements and acknowledge that parenthood can be a draining experience. I understand the intention for embarking on empathy for unsympathetic characters; hundreds of movies have invited us into the minds of unlikable and downright psychopathic characters. I’ve always said that I need not like a character, I only need to find them interesting to keep me watching. Leda is an interesting woman because of where she veers from common practice. Most of us would return a missing doll to her rightful owner, especially as that child is grief-stricken and her wave of terror is affecting everyone in her family. Most of us would recognize others suffering and our ability to ease this, to absolve that suffering in an instant, and we would do so. Then the question becomes why isn’t Leda returning this doll to this child? The movie is an elusive attempt to answer, and each person’s interpretation will undoubtedly be different. I don’t know if this doll, perhaps the “lost daughter” of the film’s title, is Leda attempting to hold onto her own daughters, reclaim a version of motherhood that suits her, that doesn’t require of her. Or maybe she views the doll with derision. Whatever the case may be, have at it, dear reader, and enjoy not getting this question resolved.

I completely understand viewers growing frustrated with watching two hours of a middle-aged woman holding onto a child’s doll and refusing to return it. It’s spiteful, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe Leda wants to impart the same lessons of hardship she endured as a struggling mother at her wits end. Maybe it’s her way of trying to shake Nina to re-examine whether being a mother is a role she is cut out for. Maybe it’s simply the continuation of a sadistic rationalization, “I had to suffer through this, so then you should have to suffer too” that props up whenever sociopolitical reforms and progress are met with generational push-back. By the end of the movie, I don’t know if Leda has seriously changed her outlook or sense of self. I don’t know if anything has really changed, and I don’t know if we’ve gotten to understanding her any better. Again, maybe that’s the point; people are complicated and possibly unknowable. But as a filmmaker showing us a character’s interior life and flashbacks, maybe you should try.

There is a late revelation in the movie that is going to be a deal-breaker for many. I won’t spoil it, though I will say that this reveal is covered in the first chapter of the novella, providing you this key piece of info as a prism for your early assessment. It explains why Leda has a strained relationship with her adult daughters and why thinking back about her perceived parenting failures causes her shivers of grief and guilt. At the same time, there are plenty of feminist stories about women shirking societal demands, so others could perceivablly view this revelation as an act of empowerment or self-determination, and others may just find it as the final straw in giving up in trying to sympathize with an already difficult person.

Fortunately, if you’re going to build a movie around a challenging character, Colman (The Father) and Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) are two of the most compelling actors for the cause. Much of their performances is naturally guarded, requiring each actress to hold back and utilize more subtle acting muscles. Colman’s middle-aged Leda is more set in her perception of self, more settled though not quite self-assured, so her performance seems more like cracking through a veneer and pushing back, trying to find the real Leda’s feelings about her life and the people she is socializing with. Colman is mesmerizing as always. Buckley’s young Leda is the version that is fraught with being an attentive mother as well as a burgeoning literary academic. Hers is the role of frustration, of shutting down, of desiring an escape hatch from the perils of motherhood. When young Leda is away on an academic retreat, she’s like a completely different person, and Buckley makes it clear that she covets this version of herself. Both women are gifted actresses and provide lifelines for the viewer to better analyze and unpack Leda as a puzzle.

Gyllenhaal makes an impressively natural debut as a director. Her camera is usually very closely tied to her actors, bobbing to catch up and keep them in frame, afraid of leaving their sights. Her attention to detail is solid and her command of the actors is strong across the board. Her adaptation makes smart choices to better visualize the drama. After I read the novella, I genuinely wondered how the movie could even convey the material. It was so insular, so personal, and again, much of the onscreen drama was a woman hiding a doll from a child. I was worried the movie might become a ridiculous thriller of waiting for Leda to be caught, how she had to go to greater lengths to keep her secret, and thankfully that is not the case.

I can easily foresee The Last Daughter becoming a polarizing movie upon its Netflix streaming release at the end of the month. Some will hail it for being challenging and thorny, an indictment on the expectations of motherhood from a society that sets ambitious women up to fail. Some, and I predict the majority of viewers, will find the movie to be an insufferable character study of a misanthropic protagonist. I know the movie wasn’t trying to make an audience like its lead character, but I don’t know if by the end we are better at understanding her and her choices. It leads to a sort of, “That’s all there is?” ending that will frustrate many. The acting is strong to excellent overall and Gyllenhaal has a bright future ahead as a director, but The Lost Daughter might be too lost for too many to care. Just give the kid back her doll already, lady!

Nate’s Grade: B-

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