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 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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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: 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: Never Gonna Snow Again

Never Gonna Snow Again (2020)
Directors: Malgorzata Szumowska and Michal Englert

This haunting, meditative movie got under my skin even as I wasn’t totally sure what it was trying to say, and sometimes felt that the filmmakers were also unsure. More often than not, scenes seemed to exist to establish a certain mood rather than to advance a story. But I didn’t care. The images were strange and beautiful, tinged with magic and sci-fi, and posing questions about life after death, the nature of healing, and climate change. Written and directed by Malgorzata Szumowska and her long-time DP Michal Englert, the film was Poland’s entry for the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture. The story centers on a masseuse, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff), a Ukranian immigrant whose work takes him to a gated suburb on the outskirts of a large city. Zhenia goes from house to house carrying his folding massage table and getting an intimate look into the houses that all look the same from the outside, but whose occupants each carry their own specific pain. In its simplest telling, it’s a story about upper-middle class suburban life, with Zhenia as the all-seeing narrator who draws connections between the families’ shared spiritual malaise. But beneath that structure is a darker and more mysterious tale about humanity’s relationship to a dying planet.

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