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: 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: 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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