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Drive My Car (2021)

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-

The Worst Person in the World (2021)

Joachim Trier is a filmmaker that dazzled me with his debut feature Reprise, which I placed as my number three film of 2008. The Norwegian filmmaker has amassed a small collection of quirky, introspective, bohemian dramas exploring the growing pains of being young in Oslo. His movies tend to be deeply empathetic and refreshingly free of judgment, which then allows the audience to empathize with the characters even when they are failing or floundering in life and in love. In some ways, Trier’s open approach to building character over time reminds me of Richard Linklater, and it’s easy to find a loose thematic connection between Reprise, 2011’s Oslo, August 31st, and now this new movie, besides the same actors he returns to again and again. It’s more a humanist spirit that pervades the films, capturing life’s moments, big and small, that formatively alter who we are. The Worst Person in the World is a pretty straightforward character study of an impulsive, indecisive woman trying to live her life and having a challenging time of things.

Julie (Renate Reninsve) is a conundrum of a character. She’s far from the titular worst person in the world but she’s certainly flawed, a young woman in Oslo turning thirty without a clue about what she wants from life. She drifts from one job to another, one academic pursuit to another, and one man to another, growing restless whenever stability seems to be materializing. She’s the kind of person who is always looking ahead but unsure of where ahead even lies. At first her boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) seems alluring, a successful underground cartoonist known for his boundary-pushing work. But the man is fifteen years her senior and more eager to start a family than Julie is. Then one night she crashes a wedding and meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a carefree barista, and they hit it off while trying not to cheat on their respective others. Julie keeps thinking about this other man, her other possibilities, and wonders what if.

Each of the twelve segments feels like a new version of herself Julie is trying on, feeling out the edges to see if it fits well. With each segment, we can learn a little bit more about her in different contexts. The format makes the moments feel like formative memories more than just scenes driving the story forward to the next. Often there are great leaps of time in between, and some segments are relatively short, like a few minutes. Some of them are comical, some of them are heavily sexual and/or sensual, and many of them are unrepentant for Julie. Then as the movie continues the chapters get longer, becoming more reflective and remorseful. Every now and then, Trier’s sense of style, something more explicitly pronounced in his earlier films, will seize the moment to better illustrate the internal life of Julie. When she’s making a significant choice to leave her current boyfriend, time literally stands still as she runs through streets and frozen pedestrians to leap into the arms of her new lover. When Julie is tripping on magic mushrooms, the depths of the world dip, and she’s in rapid free fall away from that same lover. My favorite stylistic flourish is when Julie is reflecting upon what she has accomplished by age 30 and how this compares to her mother, grandmother, and so on, going back to her deceased great-great-great grandmother, who died before getting to thirty as the average life expectancy of her era was tragically only 35 years old.

I think Julie represents a certain generational “buyer’s remorse/FOMO,” a restless spirit that is always thinking about what she doesn’t have as opposed to what she does have. This is evident in what we see in her romantic relationships. Each of the two suitors that Julie bounces between offers different experiences, one more akin to her carefree and aimless sensibility, and the other more focused, certain, and forward-looking. As she settles into a routine with one man, her restless nature kicks back in, and she starts thinking about what the other has to offer. It’s a constant push-and-pull that will sabotage any potential long-term romantic relationship. This leads to Julie making rash decisions, never really allowing herself to get comfortable, and hurting the people she cares about, even professes to love, and yet she’s far from hateable. She may even be relatable for some.

During the more morose final act, this is where the movie slows down and Julie perhaps realizes that settling down is not the same thing as settling. I say “perhaps” because I don’t know by the end if Julie has really changed as a person through these dozen chapters. I’d like to think so, hopeful that our experiences and challenges reset our nascent thinking and broaden our perception. By the end, Aksel has had some very dramatic and negative turns, forcing him to re-evaluate his limited time on this planet and his personal actions, always looking ahead when he wishes he had more appreciated the moment. He says he doesn’t want to live on through his art and would rather simply live in his apartment. It’s all too little by the time it comes to a finite end. He wishes he and Julie had never broken up, that they had raised children, and he simply had more time with the person he knew was the love of his life.

For Julie, this somber final stretch allows her to contemplate her own naivete and what drives her away from others, that no matter what career path she takes, what man she chooses to shack up with, what goal she prioritizes, that little will change unless she focuses on resolving her own internal issues and hangups first (if you guessed emotionally distant father, congrats and collect your prize). She’s so scared of missing out on something better, of being denied her true self, but in pursuing this aim at all costs, she’s missing out on other experiences that can be just as rewarding and fulfilling. Making a choice does not mean you are burdened with the unmet possibilities of the myriad of choices you did not make. It’s about committing to a person, a vision, a possible version of yourself, and giving it a real chance.

Much of this hinges on the shoulders of the lead actress, and Reinsve shows why she earned a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival. Reinsve had a small supporting part in Trier’s Oslo, August 31st but is best known as a Norwegian theater star, and here she makes quite a lead film debut for herself. Looking like a dead ringer for a Nordic Dakota Johnson, Reinsve gets to showcase an impressive variety of emotions as a constantly evolving, self-sabotaging individual. At every point, she feels like a genuine human being, even as she’s losing interest in her current situation or lover, and even when she’s struggling you can appreciate how committed Reinsve is to being as honest and messy as Julie turns out to be. Another standout is Danielsen Lie (a constant in Trier’s films) who gets the biggest emotional arc and has the saddest moments. Aksel’s late epiphanies will hit but the character’s troublesome nature might blunt the depth.

I’m undecided whether the twelve-chapter (plus prologue and epilogue) structure of the narrative actually helps or hinders the impression of Julie. Some of these moments feel far less important than others, or examine a hobby or side-step that Julie takes before abandoning again. There’s a certain frustration that’s going to be inherent in watching a serial quitter. You might even yell at the screen to pick something, taking on the silent yet exhausted expression of Julie’s mother whenever she mentions her next life direction. The addition of an off-screen narrator that drops in and out for some wry commentary seems like something Trier should have committed to more to provide some observational distance with the on-screen antics or ditched entirely. The concluding epilogue is open-ended enough to allow the viewer to be pessimistic or optimistic; has Julie learned about herself enough to settle on a career and allow herself to be happy? Can she ever be happy? It’s enough to keep the viewer guessing, which is appropriate for the ambiguity of the characterization, but it misses out on feeling like an ending. It’s more a pause at this juncture of Julie’s life, and maybe that was the design all along. It’s not a journey of one continuous climb to self-actualization but a series of starts and stops and unfortunate missteps.

Julie is far from what The Worst Person in the World might lead you to believe. She’s confused and struggling and searching for what will eventually click, some sense of herself that rings true that finally gets her to stop and enjoy her present rather than fretting about what she may be missing. Ultimately, only focusing on what you do not have will never allow you to appreciate what you do, but life and learning is a process and everyone comes to these realizations from a different path, if they ever come to it. Trier’s movie is a little meandering, a little lopsided in structure, and I don’t quite know if the pathos is earned by the overly somber conclusion. It is another observational, funny, and occasionally melancholy tale from Trier, a filmmaker who still has deep feelings for his characters and their all-too human foibles.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Hand of God (2021)

For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Parallel Mothers (2021)

There is little else like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. The famed Spanish writer/director has been making movies since the 1980s and across an eclectic array of tones and genres. He can make a sexual farce, an unsettling thriller, a moving character-based drama, or a movie with elements of all three in harmony. Almodóvar has found ways to take some of the strangest story elements and make them feel real. Watch a movie like 2002’s Talk to Her, which he won his only (!) Oscar for, or 2011’s The Skin I Live In, or 2006’s Volver, and marvel at how seamlessly Almodóvar can combine any element, any genre, any twist, and turn it into genuine emotional pathos. He’s a witty man but rarely is he flippant, especially as he matured throughout the 1990s. He genuinely cares about his characters and treats their dramas as serious business no matter the content. Parallel Mothers is another example of Almodóvar, even in his seventies, operating at the top of his unique artistic capabilities. This is definitely one of the best movies of 2021. Find it when you can, dear reader.

Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are both recent mothers in Madrid; Janis is pushing 40 and planned on having her first child, and Ana is in her late teens and her pregnancy was an accident. They share a hospital room, bond over their ordeal, and exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Months later, both women are acclimating to the growing demands of motherhood, except for a gnawing doubt that has taken hold of Janis. Her boyfriend and the reported father of her baby, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), believes he is not the baby’s father and wants a DNA test. Janis is outraged, but the more she begins to think about it, the more she cannot let this nagging doubt go.

Parallel Mothers is an unpredictable drama that also has a surprising heft to it when it comes to emotional substance. When I read the premise of this movie, I erroneously thought it was going to be a two-hander of a story about two different mothers, one older and one younger, connecting over their new babies and sharing their experiences, hopes, and fears about raising a child at their respective ages. That is a fraction of the movie, but Almodóvar’s deft storytelling is refreshingly nuanced and unexpected. There were several turns in the movie where I audibly said, “Ohhhhh,” or, “Did not see that coming.” Instead of resting on his plot turns, Almodóvar makes sure that the aftermath is given its due time. I really appreciated that; here is a writer who knows throwing sensational elements or twists is not as important as focusing on how they affect the characters and narrative. When Janis begins to doubt whether her child is hers, that’s when Almodóvar is just getting started. There are several twists that are so well staged and developed, and each one brings added intensity and another chance to revise everything we know. I loved watching the movie because I genuinely could not anticipate where things would go next, and each additional turn was organic, meaningful, and would compound the guilt or fears of the main characters. It might seem like a soap opera when you distill all these outrageous elements to their essence, but Almodóvar has always excelled at taking the outrageous and making it sincere.

The movie explores motherhood but also generational connections and understanding the past to better understand the present. Janis and Ana have different though distant relationships to their mothers. For Janis, her mother died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 when she was only five years old. She was raised by her grandmother and has no picture of her biological father (the only thing she knows about him is that he was a Venezuelan drug dealer). By having a child, a goal she’s wanted to do for some time before 40, it allows her a chance of bringing her father’s genetics back into the world, to potentially see what he may look like, to bring back life that has been absent. It’s such a beautiful idea, and also articulated in 2009’s Away We Go to poignant effect. For Janis, having a child is a way for her to reconnect with her past, her parents she’s never known, and honor her grandmother. For Ana, her own mother left her when she was younger to purse her acting career, and now that she’s having a baby history is repeating as she’s once again leaving to tour with a theater show. Janis thought she knew who the father of her baby was, and insists she was only intimate with Arturo, but this ends up being another point of connection between the two mothers. Ana is unsure whom the father is of her child, though hopeful it’s a select person she had feelings for at the time. These babies mean different things for each woman but they both love them completely, no matter what devastation happens later. These beloved children are means of connecting to their past.

Another aspect that Almodóvar includes strengthened this movie as great for me, and initially it seemed like an odd fit until the thematic richness becomes realized. Before she was pregnant, Janis was determined to secure an exhumation of what is believed to be a mass grave in a small rural village from the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco’s regime. Using modern technology and careful attendants, they can uncover this crime of the past and provide closure and dignity to generations of family members still left with unanswered questions. The movie returns to this storyline again late, as if Almodóvar is putting a fine point on bringing home his message of reckoning with our past and the importance of uncovering painful truths. Janis and Arturo return to this small village and interview descendants about what they can remember about their departed loved ones, the men whose remains may be found. It’s such a sincere expression of empathy and generosity, and the short snippets of interviews allow the movie to broaden its scope, adding different mothers and daughters to the sphere and creating even more spokes of human connection. What Janis is doing is a legitimate kindness, an act she hopes to better understand her own history and family ties to the worst that her country had to offer under Franco. One villager recounts how her grandfather had to dig his own grave, then was sent home for the night, only to be reclaimed and never return the next day. “Why didn’t he run if given the chance?” Janis asks. The descendant relates he couldn’t be without his wife and daughter, even for a night, even if it meant his certain doom.

Cruz has never been better than when she’s collaborated with Almodóvar (2006’s Volver was her first Oscar nomination). She goes through some emotional wringers here, the details of which I will not spoil, but it is an understatement to say that Janis is presented with a very complicated scenario. Each scene, especially in the second half once Almodóvar’s box of twists has been unpacked, has so much conflicted emotion for Cruz to cycle through on her face, swallowing guilt and hope and desire and dread. She’s fully deserving of another Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking work with the messiest of material. Smit (The Girl in the Mirror) is a screen partner equal to the challenge but her character is more in the dark by narrative necessity.

I’m loath to reveal too much more when it comes to the potent central drama of Parallel Mothers, because it’s so well developed and so well performed that you should really experience it for yourself. Knowing ahead of time the added complexities won’t ruin the movie, but I had more appreciation for how Almodóvar was so nimbly able to keep upending my expectations and my sense of understanding as it pertained to the two mothers. It’s a delicate drama, nourishing with empathy and also heart-rending in the dread of what Janis may choose to do next. Thank you, filmmakers of the world, for lifting the 2021 year in cinema for me. Parallel Mothers is one of the best films you’ll see this year and an affecting examination on reconciliation.

Nate’s Grade: A

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

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-

Another Round (2020)

In one of the best lines in The Simpsons‘ history, Homer Simpson makes a summary toast: “To alcohol, the cause of –and solution to—all of life’s problems.” This edict populates the Danish comedy Another Round, written and directed by Dogme 95 co-founder Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd), who recently earned a surprise Academy Award nomination for Best Director. The movie follows a foursome of middle-aged school teachers trying to reclaim their lost mojo, chief among them Martin (Mads Mikkelsen), a history teacher who feels adrift as a husband, father, and an educator. A friend mentions a theory from an obscure academic that human beings are born with a .05% blood-alcohol deficiency, and to operate at peak performance, a person should regularly imbibe a serving of alcohol to maintain a buzzed feeling. Martin and his three friends agree to live this experiment, sneaking booze onto school premises, and then pushing further, raising the blood-alcohol minimum to see if they can keep up.

In some ways, Another Round feels ready-made for the kind of wacky ensemble comedy territory on the peripheral of drama, something the likes of a new Judd Apatow comedy (Knocked Up), and I wish that this Danish film had followed a more mainstream and crowd-pleasing approach. I know that sounds sacrosanct, the American film critic decrying the foreign film and wanting it to be filled with more dick and fart jokes, but this is because I see the true comedic potential at play, and I know an artist with the sensibilities of an Apatow or even a Greg Mottola (Superbad) could crush this. Labeled as a comedy, Another Round is more “comedy” in broad theory than execution. You would think a group of middle-aged school teachers testing a theory about operating at peak efficiency while being buzzed from booze would lend itself to all kinds of amusing, hilarious exchanges and set pieces where the men cause trouble and get into unexpected shenanigans while trying to keep their secret. The appeal would be watching this group of men cut loose in a way that feels liberating, pushing them outside their comfort zones and discovering something about themselves and their capabilities before, of course, the dark side and going too far, chasing an increasing high. I feel like many readers can picture the Apatow comedy right there. The problem with Another Round is that nothing is ever really funny. There’s the brief occasion of physical slapstick and even briefer encounters of the men behaving goofy, caught up in their feel-good vibes. But mostly the movie is devoid of recognizable comedy, even awkward, cringe-inducing comedy. It feels like the filmmakers said, “Let’s tackle a premise that seems like an Apatow comedy but let’s play it mostly straight and see how it goes.” Well, it went.

As far as a drama, I also found Another Round to be promising but ultimately lacking. We don’t really know the supporting characters before they begin their experiment, particularly what is holding them back or what obstacle they seem to perceive is holding them back. This is a movie about drastic change and how it affects these four men, and yet we barely know where they are starting off to contrast how the experiment affects them, good or bad. The men all seem to have succumbed to a general malaise and the joy of teaching has left them. Once they begin the experiment, they find that joy has emerged and they are more engaged in their classrooms, more adept at connecting with their teen students and keeping their attention, and more likely to make the learning meaningful and impactful as it relates to their dreaded high-pressure finals. Really, it sounds like, on paper, that these men use this opportunity to simply become better teachers because they allow themselves to put more of themselves into their teaching. The men don’t seem beholden to superstition, feeling they need the alcohol to be the most effective teachers, so one would think they could take the experience and learn lessons about how they can reclaim that feeling of purpose, of being an effective educator without the catalyst of alcohol to get them there. Without a more meaningful picture of these characters and their personal ennui, it makes the experiment feel inconsequential, as if it could have been anything else that shook these men from their general malaise. It takes away from the drama of what these men went through and what it might have cost.

I suppose if the comedy was going to be muted, I was expecting Another Round to be more dramatic. Martin is our main character and his rocky relationship with his wife serves as the heart of the drama; he wants to reconcile after being too removed. We root for him but we’re not really invested. The bigger drama isn’t even involving Martin. One of the guys in the group becomes a cautionary tale of descent, not seeing a reason to stop drinking, and his downturn is played with such nihilistic certainty for tragedy that it seems strange how nobody intervenes. It would play more emotionally if this character was better developed. The other characters are missing clear arcs and more interesting and relatable character moments. I can envision the kinds of supporting characters under this scenario that populate the Apatow version of this premise, each a reflection of a different kind of malaise, each a different personality, and each finding room to progress on an arc where they learn lessons both good and bad but come out wiser. The start is right there, but without making the most of the shared time, it feels like we’re hanging out at a party with people we barely know and overhearing an anecdote we’re missing vital info from.

Mikkelsen is best known stateside for his intense villainous roles (Hannibal, Doctor Strange) and as the occasional flinty badass (Polar, Arctic), so there is a degree of appeal to watching him play a normal school teacher. Mikkelsen is solid throughout and really shines when the character’s inner life returns, thanks to alcohol and then, later, his own sense of self-worth. It’s sturdy but unremarkable acting, notable for its normalcy and the edges of humor we don;t usually see from the actor. Much is built upon Martin’s past jazz ballet class and this is the closest thing the movie has to a comedic payoff, finally gifting the audience with the sight of a joyful, fluid Mikkelsen prancing across the screen at the very end (the actor actually has legit ballet training). It’s a fun sight but, as the film’s biggest comic payoff, it’s not exactly one that could sustain your built-up imagination.

Another Round is a fine movie about friendship and recovering one’s lost sense of self, but as a comedy it’s not very funny, and as a drama it’s not very dramatic, and so it feels stilted, stuck between both realms and just kind of bouncing around a miscalculated middle-path. You won’t be angry by what you’re watching from Vinterberg and the actors but you might not be hooked. Given its surprise Best Director Oscar nomination, over the likes of Aaron Sorkin, Regina King, Spike Lee, Florian Zeller, and Darius Marder, I think I was expecting something more bracing, something more intellectually engaging, and something where the vision was so perfectly predicated by the precise tone of its nominated director. I’m sorry to say, dear reader, but I just don’t see it. I cannot see what on screen lead to Vinterberg’s unexpected nomination over a crowded field. I cannot see what on screen convinced people Mikkelsen was a Best Actor contender. I cannot see what on screen makes Another Round the odds-on favorite for Best International Film, especially in a category where Romania’s Collective is also competing. Maybe I’m just not the right audience for this movie. Maybe I was expecting too much. Maybe I’m just being unfair. It’s possible, or it’s also possible that this heralded foreign film has a muted identity crisis that saps away its comic and dramatic potential and my potential entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Space Sweepers (2021)

Luc Besson sci-fi opera by way of South Korea, the unfortunately named Space Sweepers is a wonderful surprise of a movie that could unfairly get lost amid the glut of Netflix. It’s immediately engaging and filled with intriguing world-building. In 2093, Earth is a garbage dump and the rich (and primarily white people) have migrated to an orbiting space station that needs protecting from space debris. That’s where the space sweepers come into play, ragtag teams competing to claim space junk to sell back to The Company, though never able to escape their crushing debt. The Company is looking to colonize Mars and put more effort into making it habitable than salvaging Earth. A little girl might be the key to a flourishing Mars or resurgent Earth. She finds her way into the custody of a colorful group of malcontents, each with a clearly defined personality, motivation, and character arc, including the snippy robot who likes to harpoon ships in space. Spending time with this world and these characters is such an enjoyable experience because it just uncovers more and more layers to the hefty world-building and history. The story itself isn’t revolutionary, and the villain is a megalomaniacal CEO (Richard Armitage), and you’ll fully anticipate that the same space scrappers that want to sell off this little girl will eventually grow close to her and will be willing to die for her. The plot itself, at least in broad strokes, might be familiar, but it’s the level of detail and imagination and especially execution that sets Space Sweepers apart. I enjoyed how diverse the depiction of this future was, where people from different languages would simply speak their native tongues and be perfectly understood thanks to in-ear translators. The action sequences are exiting and visually immersive. I’ve never seen a harpoon in space battles before. It feels like a living anime moment. The special effects are consistently impressive. The set designs are large and lived-in. The small details all manage to add up, and small character moments still resonate, like one character’s constant loss of his shoes for greater sacrifices or a robot that feels seen for the first time as they are. A late twist had me nearly applauding for the emotional impact it altered with a big standard doomsday scenario. It’s a supremely fun and imaginative setting, enough that I thought it would have sustained a whole series on Netflix. I was happy it was a movie, though, because then I got all the payoffs and climaxes in one slightly two-hour setting. I’m impressed every year at the sheer high quality of the genre movies that South Korean filmmakers have been delivering. I highly advise fans of frothy, fun sci-fi like The Fifth Element to find this movie on Netflix and give it a watch. It’s a surprise treat and proof positive that old concepts can still shine with the right effort and careful development.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Collective (2020)

I already know the idea of watching a Romanian documentary is going to be a challenge for many, and that’s before I mention its core subject of government reforms, but this really is one of the best films of the year and worth your valuable time. Collective begins with a heavy metal band’s pyrotechnics catching fire at a club in 2015 (the title of the film), and from there the aftermath leads to journalists uncovering mismanaged hospitals, corrupt government officials, cozy relationships between big business and the mob, and preventable calamities. Collective is at turns fascinating, horrifying, dispiriting, aggravating, and always passionately compelling as a document of real-world journalism at the highest stages of moral righteousness.

I’m surprised that the filmmakers managed to get such extraordinary access during such a tumultuous time. This is not a documentary where the experts talk to the camera with the distance of time, where the leading players recount their perspectives and contributions. You’re side-by-side with them in the moment as the news is being broken and challenged. It’s am amazing example of being at the right place and the right time, and then midway through the filmmakers get even more critical access. The health minister is forced to resign and a new, younger one is appointed in his stead. Vlad Voiculescu is determined to learn why mistakes have happened and to correct them. He’s uncovering just how deep the rot goes in the layers of Romanian governmental bureaucracy, and he’s invited the Collective cameras to follow him and his staff. He really seemed determined to make lasting change, and their conversations have a deep-sigh quality of realizing how normalized corruption has become. Going back and forth between the journalists uncovering the broadening extent of the corruption, and the government health officials trying to enact meaningful reforms and regulations, it’s like a good movie just reached greatness and you have the privilege to watch different sides of the crusade.

I thought the movie was initially going to be about the fire at the Collective club but it keeps transforming and metastasizing into something bigger and more damning. Early on, there is footage from within the club that terrible night and it is horrifying. We already know the fire and ensuing panic to escape lead to 27 people dying. The initial stunned reactions build and build as the fire spreads, covering the ceiling like a glowing blanket of death. It’s one of the scariest moments of footage I’ve ever seen. People died because the fire exits didn’t exist, because there was no system of safety inspections. The fire, very metaphorically, starts small but will become something far more widespread. The survivors of the fire should have been protected by the nation’s hospitals and medical care, and yet so many more died because of the consequences of corruption. The journalist team uncovers dilution of disinfectants, meaning the hospitals are awash in powerfully resistant bacteria. The hospital managers claimed otherwise and the initial minister of health pushes back, saying these same managers tested their disinfectants and they were up to code. From there it just grows and grows, as more people in the nation’s hospital system come forward to confess abuses and coverups and kickbacks to a thriving mob presence. There are suicides that sure look like murders later in this movie and I was not expecting that from its opening.

The filmmaking is very forceful without being strident, very political without being preachy, and it’s always moving forward even when it’s constantly looking at the faults of the past. Director Alexander Nanau (Toto and His Sisters, The Prince of Nothingwood) lets the story and events do the talking, and we never break from the verité approach. A person is never directly talking to the camera, there are never any info-graphics or visual inserts. The editing is precise, and every scene gives you exactly what you need, though sometimes it might take a little while to understand the full context of the scene and the leap in time from the prior scene. The movie is 110 minutes and it feels like it’s sprinting because there is so much to cover. It doesn’t make the movie feel like it’s spread too thin, or we’re missing important deliberation and context, but it does require a viewer to stay more active to jump from moment to moment. Those 110 minutes are a clear indictment and examination on corruption and government negligence, but it lets the totality of the details and the horrors convey its message rather than overt appeals.

It’s in the concluding ten minutes that perhaps Collective reaches its most depressing and most damning point (there will be spoilers going forward with this paragraph). For the second half of the film, we’ve been following our crusading new health minister try and shake up a corrupt system and install real reforms that will improve the lives of the Romanian citizens. It’s inspiring and makes you go, “Ah, at least there are still good men in the world capable of enacting good when they are summoned to a level of power and authority.” It looks like he’s actually making real changes because there are many forces pushing against his dismantling of the status quo. Those that benefit from the graft and corruption of the old system, including criminal elements deeply entwined in the country’s infrastructure, push back through their media allies, and broadcasting personalities start questioning whether the health minister is being controlled by foreign influence. It’s familiar to those who have watched the outer reaches of conservative media over the past few decades (Romania’s own Fox News?), and it’s the same kind of slimy, nationalistic, and xenophobic rhetoric meant to alarm and distract. An election is looming in the coming weeks and our new health minister says the regulations can only be implemented if his party, the Socialist Democrats, retain power. Then they don’t. They lose by a lot. Like a historical loss. It was 2016, where nationalistic, anti-immigration forces swept into government across the world, and Collective ends on the depressing note without any silver lining of resolution. The hospital appoints a manager who is “legally unable to manage a hospital.” Just like that, all the hard work to break free from the intransigence has ended in a historical rebuke of the party literally trying to preserve life (“Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown”).

Collective is an inspiring, crushing, and compelling document of corruption, incompetence, and the difficulty of trying to turn around a system too content on not doing more. The journalistic access is stunning and the movie is quietly powerful as we follow diligent politicians and reporters putting in the hard work of trying to make a difference and expose rampant maleficence. By the end, the good guys have taken some significant lumps, though I’ve since read that Vlad is back in the Romanian government again as the minister of health. What does this say about the crusaders for reform? To me, it says it’s a lot easier to go backwards once any reform is met with opposition from those who stand to benefit from a broken system continuing to remain broken. It’s all too easy to fall back on the status quo even when it’s deeply problematic because it’s “what the people know,” but that doesn’t make it good. Change is a powerful force, but it’s still worth fighting for, even if powerful forces of the world manage to unfairly delay that change. Collective is a movie everyone should watch if they want to become a journalist or work in government, and it should be on a shortlist of 2020 films to see for everyone else too.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Beanpole (2020)

Deeply depressing but empathetic to a fault, Beanpole might just be the most artistically uncomfortable movie of the year. It’s a Russian film set in Leningrad one year after World War II and the consequences of that awful conflict. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), our “beanpole,” fought in the war until her PTSD got too bad; she literally freezes in place like a statue when triggered. She’s working in a hospital and looking after her best friend’s child when tragedy strikes. That friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), desperately wants another child but cannot get pregnant. She pressures Iya to become her surrogate womb, and Iya feels so guilty that she agrees. From there, Beanpole chronicles the pain of not just these women but a pall that hangs over the nation, as people try to return to a normal that begs questioning whether it ever existed. It’s about hurt people lashing out and hurting others, some intentional and some unintentional. A coerced sex scene (a.k.a. rape) between Iya, a blackmailed but kindly middle-aged doctor, and Masha is immediately troublesome and yet thanks to the careful consideration of co-writer/director Kantemir Balagov, you can understand the motivation that lead each to being there. Masha is setup as the villain of the second half, knowingly guilting and pressuring Iya, taking away her agency, bullying her, and then there’s an extended scene toward the end where Masha meets the wealthy parents of her fledgling boyfriend. She reveals the lengths she would go to survive life during wartime as a woman soldier in a predominantly male encampment. It might not be enough to reverse your stance on her as a person but it definitely complicates your understanding. The whole movie is about people doing what they need to in an unjust world to survive. Beanpole opens up into a larger mosaic of condemnation about how women are treated by society, and each member of this tale is a victim in their own way, with their own story and own past and own demons, even the cruel ones. Beanpole has a gorgeous use of color, a deliberative sense of pacing, and outstanding acting that feels completely natural. It’s also, as mentioned, super depressing and hard for me to fathom many that will be eager to be this uncomfortable. For those courageous enough, you might find a beauty in the dignity of these women navigating post-war trauma and resilience.

Nate’s Grade: B

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