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: 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: 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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Review: Girlfriends

Girlfriends (1978)
Director: Claudia Weill
Writers: Claudia Weill and Vicki Polon

I’d heard about this movie’s status as an under-seen classic but now, after seeing it, I have to believe it is one of the most influential movies of the 1970s. With its quirky, artsy, twenty-something female lead and documentary-style camerawork, it is strongly reminiscent of early-aughts mumblecore, even down to the set design. I can’t imagine Joe Swanberg’s films without Girlfriends, and I’m sure it informed TV shows like Sex & The City, Girls, and Fleabag. Its theme is female friendship, and it follows two roommates, Susan and Annie, whose lives go in different directions when Annie decides to get married and moves out to live with her husband. Meanwhile, Annie has to find a way to cover the rent while also pursuing a career in art photography. Frances Ha clearly borrows from its structure, so much so that I now see Frances Ha as something close to a remake of it, but that just goes to show how universal this story is. In an interview at filmmaker magazine, director Claudia Weill said she wrote it (with screenwriter Vicki Polon) because she didn’t see herself in movies, and apparently Weill had to carry around rolls of the film from studio to studio in order to sell it — just as Susan, a photographer, lugs around her portfolio from gallery to gallery.

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