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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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: 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: 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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Review: Together Together

Together Together (2021)
Writer & Director: Nikole Beckwith

For a movie about the impending birth of a baby, Together Together is oddly lifeless. Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith, it tells the story of a friendship between a middle-aged single man, Matt, and his surrogate, Anna, a young woman who has agreed to bear his child for a fee. The film opens with Matt (Ed Helms) interviewing Anna (Patti Harrison) about her qualifications for surrogacy, and we quickly learn that the main requirement is a previous successful pregnancy. Matt is confused because Anna has no children of her own and in an awkward exchange, Anna reveals that she had a child in college but gave it up for adoption. This event, we later find out, was so disruptive that it completely threw Anna’s life off course and left her estranged from her family. She is pursuing surrogacy so that she can pay for college and finally finish her degree. Matt’s reasons for single parenthood are less clear, except that he seems to be a profoundly lonely person. Once, he was in a long-term relationship, but it didn’t work out–he never explains why, and Anna never explains why she decided to bear a child in college and give it up for adoption, although they haltingly ask each other these questions. It’s a script full of half-asked, half-answered questions, one that left me feeling very frustrated and sometimes bored.

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Review: By the Sea

By the Sea (2015)
Writer & Director Angelina Jolie

I will forever associate this movie with my vaccine convalescence, that brief period after your booster shot when it feels like you’re coming down with the flu. Yesterday morning, I got my second Moderna vaccine and I felt fine until around dinnertime. Then I got hit by a wave of fatigue that reminded me of the first trimester of pregnancy. I knew I had to get in a supine position immediately so I retired to my bed with the ipad. I was too tired to even read. I chose By the Sea mainly because I knew my husband had no interest in ever watching it. It got fairly withering reviews when it came out in 2015, and I had pretty much written it off, too, until a couple of weeks ago, when some scenes from it were included in the first episode of the Criterion Channel’s miniseries Women Make Film. I was dazzled by the location and the glamour in those images. I wanted to see more. How bad could it possibly be with Jolie and Pitt starring?

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