More Film Reviews of 2021

Undine
Christian Petzold is the master of methodical cinema and with the conceit for Undine, he proves he’s more than up for imprinting his style onto a modern-day mythical fairy tale. He reunites again with Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski from Transit. Once more it’s a world from a distant past somehow planted in contemporary society. There are successive moments that feel so mundane it makes the scenes breaking the mold all the more startling.

They shatter an aquarium and lie sprawled on a coffeehouse floor. Undine pays a wordless visit to her former boyfriend as he does laps in his outdoor pool. The diver resuscitates her to the beat of “Stayin Alive” even as she resurrects him through some mystical romantic force. It borrows some visual language from underwater love stories like Creature from the Black Lagoon and Splash, but it’s also sculpted by the director’s unmistakable outlook from post-modern Berlin. What a pleasure it is to watch a filmmaker who doesn’t find a need to explain all his choices. We must watch them unfold and wait to be enchanted.

The Power of The Dog
The Power of The Dog is a fine film, and Jane Campion’s touch is deft in bringing her version of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel to the screen. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a role almost antithetical to the image he’s slowly gone to work dismantling since the days of Sherlock and impeccably British dramas like The Imitation Game.

There’s something leathery and caustic about Phil Burbank, a man who has learned to lead the demanding life of a cattle rancher. And even as he remains skeptical of his brother (Jesse Plemons) marrying a new bride (Kirsten Dunst), and he openly belittles her tenderhearted son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), his persona continually erodes and shifts before us. It is a movie about a neutered form of masculinity. Although there aren’t too many pulse-pounding interludes, this element alone feels almost startling given the general conception of the western genre.

If there is any issue with the picture, it’s really no fault of its own. It’s simply not what I was expecting. But I don’t want that to totally sour my expectations. There’s a quiet tension to the picture as it goes through its paces. There’s no murder, no perpetual row of histrionic Oscar-worthy scenes of drawn-out drama, and it seems to continuously bend away from what is expected toward more nuanced observations.

It has the vistas one might expect from the West, set on a family’s ranch, and yet it’s strangely contained like it was perfectly suited for the Covid age despite being a 1920s period piece. Mostly it’s a film doled out in relational dynamics – this is its currency – the emotional and relational psychology that governs how people exist with one another. In The Power of The Dog, the evolution occurs gradually, over time, and it might just surprise you if not totally gratify your want for catharsis.

The French Dispatch
The French Dispatch is less of a narrative film and more of a clockwork cinema machine where we have the pleasure of watching Wes Anderson orchestrating his preferred world with its myriad of players. It’s an ode to the art of writing – the journalistic form – and its best spurts boast comic objectivity with a perfectly calculated and colored intricacy. The initial French milieu of Ennui-sur-Blase blended with this perspective feels almost Tatiesque.

It’s not so much a story as a style, and it’s an extraordinary style. Anderson is so singular in his aesthetic, and it seems so specific by now that it never wavers for a moment. We always know intuitively that we are existing fully in an Andersonian world as he splits his homage (or pastiche) into three distinct stories. Anderson’s stock company, which keeps ballooning while retaining all his own usual consorts, ensures the frames are full of familiar and eminent faces (even if some have next to nothing to do). There’s a trolly ride into a prison asylum that feels like it’s literally sagging under the weight.

There’s a droning literary nature to The French Dispatch as it dabbles in all sorts of creative whims. There’s Bill Murray as an avuncular editor. Benecio Del Toro and Lea Seydoux as a crazed artistic genius and his prison guard-turned muse respectively. Timothee Chalamet becomes a college-aged dissident plucked out of Godard’s Masculin Feminin (or David’s Death of Marat). The black and white mimesis and Lyna Khoudri are compelling if not the vignette itself. Jefferey Wright gives an amusing turn recounting a food column devolving into a kidnapping thriller. Oddly, there’s nothing to be taken too seriously in Anderson’s French Dispatch, which gladly gives itself over to ligne claire animation before writing its own editor’s obituary.

As an artistic achievement, it’s extraordinary though it lacks any true narrative absorption. We must appreciate the individual accents and moments, not a centralized sense of comedy or drama. By now Anderson’s vision is so well-attuned and everything is humming just as he likes it. He’s trusting his audience knows what they like too. Anderson connoisseurs should and for others, it could be a mixed bag.

King Richard
If King Richard were merely a rags-to-riches sports movie, I would hold issue with the fact there seems to be so little adversity on the road to professional success. However, to its credit, in an age where biopics need an angle if they’re ever going to see the light of day, here is a version of the familiar story that feels more like a character piece than your typical insurmountable sports story defying all odds. To be sure, it has all of that, but Will Smith, as Richard Williams, helps bring life to a deeply stubborn, idiosyncratic visionary, who helped cultivate his two daughters into the greatest tennis players ever.

I was chomping at the bit for more Venus and Serena, and Venus (Saniyya Sidney) grows into the movie as she gains traction in junior tournaments and then becomes one of the most sought-after endorsements while making her professional debut. In a conventional sense, these are the beats we expect, but the movie never totally pulls away from King Richard, whether he’s butting heads with his daughter’s well-meaning coaches (Tony Goldwyn and Jon Bernthal) or getting chewed out by his wife (Aunjanue Ellis) for his own delusions.

He’s not all saint and some grievances are aired, but no matter how odd his tactics seem, he still was a man of principles and someone who seemed to genuinely love his daughters. The adage holds true that it takes a village to raise a tennis player, but King Richard did something pretty spectacular. I’m not sure if this is Smith’s best performance, but the film will definitely resonate with the intended audience who appreciate this kind of uplifting story in a year where we could always use more. The fact that Serena is still in the cultural spotlight decades later still astounds me.

Nightmare Alley
Guillermo Del Torro’s version of Nightmare Alley vows for a methodical establishment of its world and characters. We get a sense of the carnie life and the 1940s sensibilities. The cinematic antecedents could be spouted off in passing like The Uknown, Freaks, and, of course, Tyrone Power’s own iconic turn as Stan Carlisle in Nightmare Alley (1947). While I don’t dislike Bradley Cooper, he somehow lacks the wheeling-dealing charisma of his predecessor. It comes with time, and yet he seems to play the role close to the vest until the drama really starts to capitulate.

They throw around the word panache though it hardly seems to characterize the kind of performance he’s looking to achieve. Willem Dafoe feels like a standout not solely due to the craggy contours of his performance. He feels like this film’s individual creation. Cate Blanchett is much the same taking arguably the juiciest secondary role from the original and turning it into a blood-red femme fatale.

This version does have the opportunity to be more shocking and vile in where it can take the material, and since it is hardly a contemporary picture, there’s a different kind of appreciation the set dressings can garner. A world seems to be resurrected before us. Del Torro’s chooses to draw out the story to become more of a psychological mood piece that lacks the more timely pacing of the earlier rendition though it does finally spiral into a dark abyss of its own making.

It’s this final chapter that earns the moniker of noir and though it doesn’t divert drastically from the original, the vision of its maker is unmistakable. He does his very best to make Nightmare Alley his own. I must admit I maintain a fondness for the original, and I’m not sure if he’s bound to find a broad new audience.

Last Night in Soho
There’s this sense Edgar Wright has been dying for this day: to curate a British Invasion soundtrack for one of his films. For him, this is all homegrown music. It’s set up immediately with a heroine named Ellie (Thomasin Mackenzie) who holds an obvious affection for all things retro – a college-bound fashion designer infatuated by Swinging London – and “World Without Love” feels like one of the quintessential anthems of the times (along with “Downtown”).

I was fond of Midnight in Paris because it reminded us that every generation wants to return to the good ol’ days. As Petula Clark also sang, “the other man’s grass is always greener.” But Last Night in Soho takes these sentiments and gives them the chilling tinge of horror. Nostalgia can be a deadly thing too.

It morphs into a nightmare of the sixties where the rose-colored glasses are cracked and whatever an immaculate soundtrack might suggest, we’re still left ill at ease by leering men and a kind of pervasively misogynistic culture. It’s precisely why a movie like The Knack..And How to Get It feels so offputting to me. Because you feel gross. Character identification becomes so crucial as we fill Ellie’s shoes and we empathize as the horrors engulf her and her surreal double (Anya Taylor-Joy).

It might just be the presence of Matt Smith, but there is a sense this could be an episode of Doctor Who in an alternate dimension while also paying homage to the old guard like Terrence Stamp, Diana Rigg, and Rita Tushingham. Still, it’s not like we were plucked out of one world and put in another. I also can’t remember ever seeing a Wright picture where there was such an obvious theme tied with the kind of unabashed entertainment he’s always capable of providing. The only problem is that in trying to derive a twisty payoff, he somehow muddles the meaning of the movie.

House of Gucci
Trailer expectations make House of Gucci feel like a mild disappointment. There’s a hope that Ridley Scott’s latest film might lean wholeheartedly into the camp to become a bizarre story of decadence and machiavellian wheeling-dealing gone horribly wrong. We are being sold a murder in the upper echelon of the fashion industry. I’m reminded of I Tonya, a surprisingly ingenious film telling a larger-than-life story with conflicting perspectives on recent history that formerly covered the tabloids. The movie pays off thanks to the weight of the performances and the stranger-than-fiction narrative.

House of Gucci has some performances that work well enough. Lady Gaga gives her role a real go of it, but far from being just a backbiting femme fatale, there’s attempts to make her character, a woman who married into the Gucci family, more of a human being. This is not wrong, and it can be lauded as she gels with her new husband (Adam Driver) navigating the hierarchy governed by his father (Jeremy Irons) and his uncle (Al Pacino). But in trying to be a genuine relational drama while also jostling for future camp status, it’s not able to capably manage either.

It feels impossible to have our want of theatricality sated while getting the sincerity too, thus the movie falls into this realm of overlong mediocrity. It’s not bad in its totality, but we leave the story feeling mostly underwhelmed, especially given all the talents assembled. Like Gaga, Jared Leto, who readily “uglifies” himself for the role, looks poised to go for the fences. However, it represents some of what I dislike about this approach to acting at times. There’s very little that feels real about it, and I kept on questioning why they could not get someone else – someone older – for the role. It’s disheartening because I didn’t know what kind of story Gucci was trying to tell, and it suggests maybe the team didn’t know the best story to tell either.

No Time to Die
Daniel Craig burst onto the scene with Casino Royale as a darker, more mercurial Bond for the 21st century, and it gave the franchise a level of rejuvenation and relevance in the arena of action movies. Vesper Lynd gave Bond a bona fide relationship that did not feel totally disposable but in grappling with Hollywood expectations, demanded to be disposed of. So the fact Bond is found at Lynd’s grave marker, conveniently also setting up the film’s best setpiece, feels like an early signifier of good things to come.

No Time to Die gives Bond an inkling of a back story and the weight of a human connection (with Lea Seydoux) that almost feels incongruous with his very image where women are merely objects and enemies are to be vanquished all in a days work. It seems only fitting Bond feels more human than ever given Craig’s history with the character. Despite its runtime, it’s not a gargantuan, earth-shaking film. The villains as they are (Christoph Waltz and Rami Malik) are fine if not totally out of this world.

Still, in our restricted era, there’s something appealing about a globetrotting thriller married with a character who seems to recognize the weight of the real world. Whether it looks suave and debonair or not, sometimes it takes vulnerability and sacrifice to win the day. Bond seems to have stakes that he never had, much less cared about, before. It’s up to the viewer to decide if they embrace this or not.

The Card Counter
“Forgiving another and forgiving oneself are so much alike.”
There’s often an austere quality to Paul Schrader’s cinema, whether it’s about a priest or a card counter. A lot of it is inert and internalized. They are meticulous with composition books, deep in thought, and always ready with a drink to nurse nearby. His heroes seem to live by a certain code and more than simply being religious, they operate on a level of penance for sins, both their own and the world around them. These might seem like weighty words to describe movie characters, but then Schrader is not your typical, average, everyday filmmaker.

There are no warm and fuzzy feelings in The Card Counter nor the kind of comedy release valve we’re taught to expect in our movies. Schrader doesn’t seem to have time or patience for this as he tackles heady, more existential topics. It’s cool and brooding in tone and atmosphere, mostly shot in the fake interiors of casinos.

It’s poker as a character study rather than the crowd-pleasing sports drama of Cincinnati Kid, and Oscar Isaac is our hero, a war vet who also served a stint in military prison. Now he devotes his life to counting cards and playing poker but not for the normal reasons. His backer (played by Tiffany Haddish) pointedly tells him, “You have to be the strangest poker player I’ve ever met.”

It also doesn’t have the feel of a 2021 film, and yet the space from its historical past is probably necessary. Because it dredges up the crimes perpetrated in Abu Ghraib. Will says, “Nothing can justify what we did” And he cannot change the past so he looks to watch over a young man (Tye Sheridan) and search after the man (Willem Dafoe) responsible for all the evil in his past.
The first time I heard Pickpocket evoked in reference to The Card Counter, everything clicked into place; it all makes sense because Robert Bresson’s film was at the center of the cinematic transcendental revelation that hit Schrader in the mid-seventies. He does his best to evoke some of that here. Once it’s mentioned, you can’t unsee it.

Passing
There is no movie without the performances of Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga. There’s something delicate and tempered about the way they carry themselves through this movie only matched by the 1920s color palette. It’s a curious reference, but I was thinking how, like the black and white in Some Like it Hot, here it allows us to buy into the charade that this woman would play: living the life of a white woman.

The world conjures up images of The Cotton Club, a space where we don’t see Jim Crow segregation as much as these oddly stratified and “separate but equal” spheres of existence. Blacks build a vibrant community for themselves in Harlem out of the prying eyes of whites because it is a fragile peace. We meet Irene (Thompson) in a scene where she attempts to pass as white. The one person who catches her, Clare (Negga), does so because she has made a life of infiltration. She’s married a white man and effectively given up her past life for the preferential status she now owns.

Passing is a quiet film, and there are only a few scenes I can look back on. The opening scene could have been the set-up for a chilling race horror film. Scenes in the jazz club are alive with the energy of the age. And the ending has an anesthetized tragedy to it. As we watch the snowfall on the street, we realize this is a story formed in the silent void and not in vocal tumult. In the ever-shifting, always malleable, and confounding spectrum of human identity, there are so many adjacent conversations to Passing that I find fascinating.

Rebecca Hall must as well or she would not have undertaken this story as her directorial debut. I need more time with it, but I couldn’t help thinking I liked the idea of the story (and the book) more than I actually enjoyed the film. Then again, maybe it falls to the fact the movie was not the one I was expecting. It’s not an easily digestible message picture. Somehow it’s more nuanced and complicated. It feels like this deserves further consideration.

2 thoughts on “More Film Reviews of 2021

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