Review: The Novice

The Novice (2021)
Writer & Director: Lauren Hadaway

Great athletes have to be obsessive and push themselves past their physical limits but they also must stay grounded and mindful of injury. Finding the balance between these two states is the tension that many athletes struggle with, especially early in their careers. Like Black Swan or Whiplash, The Novice is a portrait of an athlete whose competitive nature gets the better of her. As an emotional thriller, The Novice didn’t really work for me, but as a sports movie, it’s distinctive for the way it takes the shine off of winning. In her debut feature, Lauren Hadaway explores the dark side of athletic training, and the way it can easily tip over into self-laceration.

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Review: El Planeta

El Planeta (2021)
Written & Directed by Amalia Ulman

In Amalia Ulman’s debut feature, El Planeta, which she wrote and directed, Ulman and her real-life mother (Ale Ulman) play a mother and a daughter awaiting eviction. Ulman’s character, Leo (short for Leonor), has returned home after the death of her father, whose sporadic alimony payments barely supported her mother when he was alive. Leo is jobless and so is her mother, María. The two women spend most of the film in their narrow galley kitchen where the sunlight is abundant, and they aren’t tempted to waste money on electric lighting. Their refrigerator is empty, save for the tiny slips of paper María places in the freezer, each one bearing the handwritten name of an enemy. Atop the refrigerator are multiple glasses of water, which have something to do with María’s witchcraft—a practice that seems more like a distracting hobby than a coherent belief system. Leo sews bizarre yet fashionable clothing by hand, having sold her sewing machine for cash. They drink coffee, cook pasta, and, when they are really hungry, dress up in designer clothing and run up large bills in restaurants and stores, promising to pay later or claiming that Leo’s boyfriend is a local politician who will pick up the tab. They live in Gijón, a small city on Spain’s northern coast, a place hit hard by the global recession, with shuttered shops and empty tourist districts. It’s no wonder these two women are more at home in their delusions of grandeur. 

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Review: Freeland

Freeland (2021)
Written & Directed by Mario Furloni and Kate McLean

The late-blooming actress Krisha Fairchild anchors Freeland, a wispy slice-of-life movie that never really gets going, despite its timely subject matter and Fairchild’s compelling lead performance. Set in Humboldt County, California, Freeland focuses on a marijuana farmer, Devi, whose business has been adversely affected by the legalization of pot in California. Her under-the-radar business is suddenly getting a lot of competition, and she hasn’t obtained a permit to sell her product legally, because of fees and bureaucratic red tape. At the beginning of the film, Devi has some hope that she’ll be able to keep afloat with out-of-state sales, but when one of her biggest clients bails, she realizes she’s going to be stuck with a lot of unsold product. She asks her small staff of three to work unpaid during the harvest period, promising a bigger payout later. They reluctantly agree and the tension between Devi and her increasingly disgruntled workers is what drives the story.

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Review: Bergman Island

Bergman Island (2021)
Writer & Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

Bergman Island is a movie for Bergman fans, and so I’ll lay my cards on the table: Fanny and Alexander is one of my all-time favorite movies, something I like to put on every year around the holidays. I also love Scenes from a Marriage, and recently watched the new gender-swapped HBO adaptation, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. HBO’s version, directed by Hagai Levi, is a Very Serious Homage, an attempt to make something as wrenching and honest at the original. Mostly, it feels like a showcase for the two leads, and while I appreciated it, I didn’t necessarily look forward to watching it. Bergman Island is a much more enjoyable tribute, one that questions Bergman’s legacy and even pokes fun, but doesn’t denigrate it. Directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, it zooms in on a filmmaking couple, Chris and Tony, (Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth) who attend an artist’s retreat on Fårö, an island off the coast of Gotland, Sweden, where Bergman lived and which he often used as a filming location. It’s a movie about filmmaking, marriage, and the relationship that female artists have with the Great Men who have inspired them. I loved it for its playfulness, for its honest grappling with Bergman’s filmography, and for Vicky Krieps’s restless, mischievous portrayal of a female artist trying to break free of her male influences.

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Review: Our Friend

Our Friend (2021)
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Writers: Brad Ingelsby and Matthew Teague

This movie has to be one of the most underrated of the year, but I’ll admit that I’m not the most impartial critic when it comes to stories about mothers dying of cancer. I lost my own mother to the disease twenty years ago, and I appreciate movies that look at the experience honestly. I felt that this movie did, which surprised me, because the reviews from film festivals described a film that was a weepie, overly sentimental mess. As a result, Our Friend was released in January, dumped in the theaters before anyone was really going back, and placed on streaming at a premium price. Now it’s streaming on Amazon Prime and I hope it will get a second chance on the platform. I started watching it on a whim, thinking I would turn it off after twenty minutes, but instead I found myself immersed in a beautifully acted and directed ensemble film about friendship, ambition, marriage, and dying.

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Retro Review: The Piano

The Piano (1993)
Writer & Director: Jane Campion

I’ve been meaning to watch The Piano for almost thirty years. It came out in 1993, when I was fifteen, a shade too young to see it — by my parent’s estimation, at least. It was deemed too sexually explicit, which only made me more curious about it, especially since it didn’t look like a particularly sexy movie, with its poster featuring a lady in a bonnet and a piano on a beach. I became even more intrigued when Anna Paquin won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. I wondered how a little girl could give a big enough performance to win an Oscar. But I guess my curiosity wasn’t that strong, because I never tried to sneak to it in a second-run theater. I don’t remember it as something that teenagers were especially interested in, at the time. It was regarded as art-house movie for grown-ups, maybe a bit snoozy. Horrifyingly, I am now about the same age as my parents when they first saw it.

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Review: How It Ends

How It Ends (2021)
Written and Directed by Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein

Zoe Lister-Jones is at the center of her third directorial effort, an apocalypse comedy about a woman trying to get to a party on the last day on Earth. The twist is that she’s accompanied by a younger version of herself, a spirit who is suddenly visible on this final day, when everyone has a heightened sense of reality. In a recent interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Lister-Jones explained that the plot was partly inspired by all the inner child work she’d been doing in therapy. That might sound cringeworthy and at best heavy-handed but this little indie is buoyant and goofy, and gently sends up L.A.’s wellness culture, COVID-deniers, and even the existential anxiety many of us are grappling with as the climate crisis becomes more obvious. Shot entirely outdoors in L.A. during the pandemic, How It Ends is also a record of life under lockdown, showing the eerie stillness of the streets and skies.

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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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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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