Review: Charlatan

Charlatan (2021)
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Marek Epstein

Charlatan is the third Agnieszka Holland movie to be released in the U.S. in the past year, and I feel like she’s been my special discovery. Although Holland is one of Poland’s most prominent directors, and has worked extensively in American film and television, I had no awareness of her until last summer, when I watched Mr. Jones, an absorbing biopic/thriller about Gareth Jones, the Scottish journalist who first reported the Soviet famine to the West. Then, a couple of months ago, I screened Spoor, an adaptation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, and I loved it for its scrappy cast of characters and environmental themes. Holland has a knack for finding good stories, both from real life and fiction, and Charlatan is no exception, as it focuses on the healing talents of a botanical expert who can diagnose people by examining their urine. Yep, that’s pee in the jar above. There’s a lot of uroscopy in this odd biopic about real-life Czech herbalist Jan Mikolášek, who was something of a celebrity in his time.

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Review: Fully Realized Humans

Fully Realized Humans (2021)
Director: Joshua Leonard
Writers: Joshua Leonard and Jess Weixler

I’m pretty sure I’ve worn Jess Weixler and Josh Leonard’s deflated, slightly glazed expressions in the above film still. They’re all dressed up for their baby shower — and these are possibly the nicest clothes they’ve worn in weeks — but instead of getting encouragement from their friends, they are forced to listen to a litany of complaints about parenthood. If you’ve been a first-time parent, you’ve been in this etiquette-defying situation. It’s one of the details this low-budget indie gets right as it tries to capture the mood of the final weeks of pregnancy: the anxiety, the mania, and the last-ditch efforts to prepare for the unknown. I also appreciated how this film don’t overstay its welcome. At 76 minutes, Fully Realized Humans is just the right length for a comedy with a somewhat thin premise. But I have to admit that it didn’t feel like a fully realized movie (sorry, couldn’t help myself). It felt more like a pilot for a new series, or maybe a missing episode from Joe Swanberg’s Easy.

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Movies I Watched on Vacation

I’m back from a two-week vacation in Maine where I swam in the ocean every day, ate lobster rolls, hiked through moss-covered forests, and, on the nights when it was too cloudy to look at the stars, I watched a few movies. Here are a few quick thoughts, and I’ll be back to full reviews next week.

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Review: Lorelei

Lorelei (2021)
Written & Directed by Sabrina Doyle

Lorelei is a well-meaning film set in rural Oregon about a man trying to start his life over after a 15 years in prison. Despite solid performances throughout, and a well-researched story, the movie never really rose above its earnest intentions. I see this a lot in debut features — and debut novels, too — especially when the director is trying to work in a realistic mode. I give writer and director Sabrina Doyle credit for creating complex characters and for a certain optimism at the core of her storytelling. But even though I was rooting for the film, it got bogged it down by its many plot elements, and lacked a certain wit and levity. There was an overall lack of cohesion that made it slow going, especially in the final act.

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Review: An Easy Girl

An Easy Girl (2019)
Written & Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski

Right before I watched An Easy Girl, I happened to be listening to the late Anthony Bourdain on Terry Gross. He read a snippet from his most recent memoir, describing how restaurant workers often see the worst of people—when they are drunk and misbehaving, rude and oblivious. I thought of Bourdain’s words during a scene that came about halfway through An Easy Girl, when the teenage protagonist, Naïma (Mina Farid), finds herself at a dinner party at a fancy restaurant; she’s the much-younger guest of her wealthy host, who is presiding over a group of drunken and rowdy guests. They are the last people in the restaurant and the servers and chefs are standing nearby, bored and irritated. They want to go home. Naïma glances at them in sympathy, because her mother works at this very hotel as a cleaner. And yet she’s enjoying the party, and this glimpse into the life of the very rich.

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Review: My Zoe

My Zoe (2021)
Written and Directed by Julie Delpy

My Zoe is a strange, unclassifiable movie. It doesn’t fit any genre but contains elements of domestic realism, medical thriller, and sci-fi. It takes place in a speculative future, but the futuristic setting isn’t immediately obvious. Small details in costuming and prop design let us know we’re in a world with slightly advanced technology. And when the movie takes its final twist, it’s clear that we’re in uncharted territory. Even though Delpy’s drama is absorbing and suspenseful, and grounded in real-life details, there was something theoretical about it that made it hard for me to find my footing, emotionally. I felt like I was watching a parental nightmare made real and then righted with dreamlike logic.

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Review: Spoor

Spoor (2021)
Directed by Agnieszka Holland and Kasia Adamik
Written by Agnieszka Holland and Olga Tokarczuk

We were about halfway through Spoor when my husband remarked, “this movie is right up your alley, isn’t it?” This was shortly after the main character, an animal-rights activist/English teacher/retired engineer, is invited to a costume party hosted by mushroom foragers. It’s high summer, and she’s up late sitting in front of campfire, sharing a joint with her neighbor—he’s the one invites her to the party—and a traveling entomologist who specializes in the study of insects who feast on the dead. Both men are a little in love with her. She’s in her sixties, with wild gray hair. When she’s invited to the forager’s costume party her reply is, “I have a wolf costume.” Life goals!

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Review: Holler

Holler (2021)
Writer & Director Nicole Riegel

In Tara Westover’s bestselling 2018 memoir, Educated, a wildly intelligent young woman finds herself stuck working in her family’s junkyard, unable to leave her isolated Idaho town even as she longs to go to college. Public school is forbidden by her fundamentalist Mormon father, so she is homeschooled with her siblings and forced to scrap metal in illegal and unsafe conditions. Westover’s gripping story of escape captivated readers across the country, and I found myself thinking of it as I watched Nicole Riegel’s directorial debut, Holler, which concerns a young woman facing similar challenges.

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Review: Land

Land (2021)
Directed by Robin Wright
Written by Jesse Chatman and Erin Dignam

Robin Wright’s directorial debut, Land, is interesting for the way it seems to be in conversation with several recent films that explore the urge to isolate in the wake of trauma. Land follows Edee, played by Wright, a middle-aged professional-seeming woman who abandons civilization to live off the grid in Wyoming. She finds a spartan hunting cabin to rent, and stockpiles it with canned goods and survival gear. Her goal is to learn to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and growing her own food. It’s a lofty ambition for someone who appears to have very little experience in the wild, but she’s determined, going so far as to hire someone to drive her car away so that she doesn’t have the option to leave except by her own two feet.   

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Review: Joyce at 34

Joyce at 34 (1972)
Directed by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill

A friend recommended this documentary to me after I wrote about Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends in my monthly newsletter. Joyce at 34 is a short film, a little over a half-hour, about director Joyce Chopra’s transition to new motherhood as she tries to balance her professional and home life. She began filming when she was eight months pregnant at the suggestion of a friend, who said she was in a unique position to make a documentary about her life. Chopra at first thought the movie would be about her mother, and how her relationship with her mother might change after having a baby, but the documentary turned into an inter-generational story about how difficult it is for women to balance work and childcare. Chopra is about the same age as my parents, and her struggle to continue working after having a baby is all too familiar to women in my late Gen X/early millennial cohort. Even as Chopra is shown to have a supportive partner with a flexible work schedule, the burden of childcare falls on her and her mother. I left this movie feeling as if nothing has really changed for women, and nothing will until there is some kind of universal childcare in place, although this isn’t something that anyone in the documentary suggests. It’s not prescriptive or overtly political in its tone. Instead, its power comes in its straightforward depiction of a woman who continues to work after having a baby.

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