More Film Reviews of 2021

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.

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.

Favorite Films of 2021

This has felt like a strange year in movies, and I’m not even trying to make reference to the pandemic. 2020 had a bounty of great movies, and 2021 did as well, but it somehow felt different. Still, here are a handful of films that I enjoyed for various reasons. I want to go ahead and highlight them now as our new (old) year runs ever onward.

Some minor spoilers ahead…

Drive My Car
Ryosuke Hamaguchi is well-aware of what he’s doing when the title credits show up 40 minutes into a 3-hour movie. Because without this opening prelude about a husband and wife, the film, while never a dramafest, would lose a dose of its quiet power dispelled over time. It does take some time to hone in its ambitions since it never feels like the characters have an agenda in a movie sense. They have jobs and relationships, but they just seem to exist, share conversations, and slowly over time we get to understand them better, even appreciate them.

Our protagonist is a theater director and so we spend our time observing the mechanisms of a multilingual stage production of Uncle Vanya he hopes to put on in Hiroshima. His Korean assistant is a fascinating individual fluent in Korean, Japanese, English and throw in some Korean sign language. He’s indicative of an entire cast who connect through their art form.

Kafuku-san directs the production but opts to give the lead role easily earmarked for himself to a young man who is very familiar. It comes out later he had his reservations because “Chekhov is terrifying. When you say his lines he drags out the real you.” They might be the words of Chekhov, framed by a story from Haruki Murakami, but the fact that we struggle and cry and God has pity on us is a message of some hope. That we will look back on our current sorrow with rejoicing and finally find rest…

In a movie about many things, it becomes a story about how we replay our deepest regrets, and they stay with us, gnawing at our insides. If they lay dormant and generally unspoken in most of us then it’s even more common in Japanese culture. Living in Japan, I very rarely hugged people, and so Drive My Car has one of the most tender embraces I recall in recent memory. It takes so much, means so much, and the moment itself plays like an understated exclamation point if there can be such a thing. If you sit with the movie long enough perhaps you’ll know exactly what I mean.

The Tragedy of Macbeth
I have a fear of Shakespeare on par with anyone else who’s ever looked at the bard’s work with trepidation. His words can be as witty to the ear as they are mystifying. However, in watching Joel Coen’s latest adaptation of his work, it felt like we were given something new and formidable without making a total mockery of the text. For lack of a better word, it didn’t feel stagy or at least it blended the forms of the stage with elements that make it deeply cinematic because this is the language that Coen knows best.

It’s suffused into his very DNA as a filmmaker and cineaste. You never want to overstep your bounds, but there’s a cavernous immersion and at times claustrophobic drama to the picture. It’s a bit like watching some of Welles’s European works: The Trial was literally made in a giant hangar and Chimes at Midnight provides his finest adaptation of the Bard full of his own artistry. Coen resolves for black and white, but he also shoots entirely in these manufactured and measured interiors.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand fill up the spaces to great effect. We see their age, but also the intent behind their eyes. It’s fierce before devolving toward the crazed and maniacal. We see the fruit of such fateful decisions as portended by the baleful Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter).

There’s thumping sound design, murders of crows, whirling cauldrons, an army of trees, and gorgeous mise en scene reminding me ever so briefly of monochromatic De Chirico paintings. But most importantly, beyond the artistry and the performative qualities is a film quaking with ready-made danger. Because it’s a crime movie. It’s about treachery and paranoia in the name of power. I’m not a foremost mind on Macbeth, but this is something that stays with me.

Petite Maman

I couldn’t help thinking how the title made so much sense in retrospect and yet Petite Maman quietly ambushed me. Here is a film about a little girl and in the wake of her grandmother’s death, she helps her mother sort through effects. She winds up going off into the forest and befriending a young girl, who’s her spitting image. It’s no coincidence. In fact, this little girl winds up being her mother!

Given the premise, it would be easy to take this film in either one of two ways: Either we’re befuddled by this development or we accept it unabashedly. Employing literalism doesn’t aid the cause. And yet if we embrace what’s laid out before us, we’re opened up to all sorts of cinematic magic. Celine Sciamma chooses to do the latter. It is a quiet fairy tale without special effects – a modern-day incarnation like Pezold’s Undine – though even more simplified.

Still, where so many other movies have plot points and reversals to move the story toward a specific destination, Pettite Maman is one of the lucky few that just seems to happen in front of us, and we can experience the minor revelations as they come unhurriedly. Two young girls acting out their story or making pancakes together in a fit of giggles. There’s so much palpable satisfaction in experiencing these moments and part of this is borne in the adorable performances of the twins.

However, there’s also a level of kinship in the movie that feels infectious, and it’s given a deeper level of meaning in that this is a mother bonding with her daughter in some form. They are equals and they can meet each other on equal footing. What a gift this is, and I’m sure all parents would love for such an opportunity. It does feel a bit like a miracle of a film.

There’s an idiosyncratic way in which Mass functions; I couldn’t help reminiscing about the free-flowing ensemble in Patrick Wang’s Bread Factory though this is even humbler in scope. The staff of the church with their particular foibles effectively prepare the table for the main attraction.

Mass has the sensibilities of the stage. It plays like a mini 12 Angry Men where you have this petri dish of two couples, one still together, and one we believe might be split up. We have four folks in a room navigating emotional space in such an excruciating scenario, dancing around the tension wedged between them by circumstance. They both had sons implicated in a mass shooting: one a victim, the other the perpetrator.

These are characters clearing their chests (and their minds) as they debate and discuss, slowly beginning to open up and let their own private hurts come to the fore. What I appreciate about Mass the most is how it doesn’t feel like a monumental drama, and it would feel like a lesser film because of it partially because any grandstanding would not fit the humble intimacy of the space or its budget.

Like Lumet before him, Fran Kanz, who utilizes some quicker cuts and an active camera nearing an hour in, is not about manufacturing drama. He trusts his material and his cast. These are theater actors so they know how to carry themselves. We witness forgiveness manifested in excruciating seemingly insurmountable circumstances. It’s fragile and imperfect.

There’s no clear mark of clarity or complete healing. This can never be achieved. What matters is the incremental steps that have taken place in this back room. But these events themselves are cushioned by the surrounding moments reminding us life is continuous; it keeps on moving. Even as our hurt lingers and grief waxes and wanes, we must find a way to muddle through as best as we can.

Bergman Island
When the name of Bergman comes off the lips of the locals it initially sounded unidentifiable to my ear, but over time it becomes familiar and like this film, the entire world begins to suffuse into our consciousness. The island of Faro just happens to be where one of the great masters of cinema made his home. It’s hallowed ground albeit idyllic and unassuming.

Could it be an enchanted space where the muse comes down to christen men and women in their creative endeavors? More likely the battle rages as per usual as a filmmaking couple (Vicki Krieps and Tim Roth) look to work on their latest projects. It becomes a landscape fit for this kind of pensive cinema, a meditation on love, art, and the creative process.

There’s a certain dissonance when the artists we love don’t behave well in real life. Strangely the lot we are given as human beings, having our fractured souls reflected back at us through a glass darkly, doesn’t make it any easier to come to terms with the outcomes.

Certainly, there are layers to be appreciated to the movie if you are familiar with the shadow cast by Bergman and his work, and yet I imagine there’s a different kind of mystifying quality of you don’t know him because it is a bit like he is floating around the edges of this movie like a spectral presence. We get to know him somewhat – see the spaces he frequented – and yet although this is intimate, it’s still rather like we’re trespassing on someone who is no longer with us.

Instead, it becomes about inspiration and conceiving movies. What holds us back and makes us anxious. We come to have life mimicking art or at the very least becoming the launching pad for stories. There’s a level of magic even seeing Chris’s movie materialize before us in the flesh. But it goes deeper than that where the creator gets to see her creations materialize before her. If there was something morose and at times oppressive about Bergman’s cinema, the film acknowledges these by sheer proximity, and yet Mia Hansen-Løve makes a dreamy film full of longing and warmth. It feels much more like the beginning of My Summer Monika than the end.

It seems like every filmmaker has a personal story inside of them, and it’s a pleasure to receive Kenneth Branaugh’s latest offering Belfast. My face lit up immediately because from the first note I knew intuitively we were being blessed with the voice of Van Morrison. As we fall back into the late 60s, we appreciate the rhythms of a close-knit community nevertheless embroiled in The Troubles and the faultlines of Catholic-Protestant conflict.

The corollary to High Noon throughout the film including Tex Ritter’s ballad felt deeply moving. Because as someone who has cherished that film in my youth, it feels almost more universal to me than hearing Morrison. It has to do with those boyish inclinations – to want to see the world through the black and white mentality of the West. There’s a fork in the road and two obvious directions toward good and evil. Of course, rarely is it that easy to delineate.

Through the chipper, innocent eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), we see events as only he can. His parents are not perfect, and yet to him, they are larger-than-life heroes, beautiful, beloved, and strong. Likewise, movies are revelatory, life-changing experiences like flying cars in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I’m not sure if the black-and-white images were something I necessarily needed, but the choice to put the scenes in the movie theater in color almost makes it worth it. Because it is in this space where Branagh suggests we can find magic, wonder, and sustenance to take back into our lives. This is a film where the little moments speak the loudest.

Kirsten Stewart has grown steadily in my esteem thanks to her evolution from movies like Adventureland and then Cloud of Sils Mar. She continues to venture out into a territory fit for a consummate actor who looks to stretch herself and take on new and varied roles with worthy collaborators. Spencer is no different and she proves herself, not unsurprisingly, game for the task of taking on Princess Di.

I have to keep on getting my early notions of Stewart out of my head because with each new role she seems to exert herself as an ever-watchable performer and even walking the tightrope of the part that might so easily have pitfalls. Given the subject’s public persona, somehow it’s easy enough to buy her, and she falls seamlessly into the world with her mannerisms and the intonations of her voice.

It also helps Pablo Larrain’s film is a fable and not a biopic. Normally this term leaves room for Hollywood license and interpretation, but here the limits have been stretched even further as Spencer becomes more and more a character piece inside one woman’s splintering isolation on the eve of Christmas.

She begins to relate with Anne Boleyn, who had her head cut off for another woman; Diana can see the dissolution of her own marriage and her impending divorce before them with her own husband all but absent and Camila just off at stage right. Her relationship with her two darling boys is warm and affectionate. It only puts the rest of her royal world in sharp relief. If you don’t recognize the suffocating circumstances at first, it becomes supremely evident as we follow Diana at the hip. This is not a life we would wish on anyone.

Test Pattern
Test Pattern showcases a filmmaker with a level of bravery, and I don’t mean that primarily because of subject matter, although that is part of it. Because this is a film about an interracial couple (Britanny S. Hall and Will Brill). It is partially about the perplexing bureaucracy getting in the way of a resolution – the woman goes through a traumatic sexual assault – her boyfriend wants to get her answers. It leads to chafing, anxiety, and a relational tiff not because they don’t love each other but precisely because they do.

But the level of bravery comes with a filmmaker who is willing to hold their camera; it stretches out moments to the point of excruciation. It makes us uncomfortable and nervous waiting with the characters, breeding another form of empathy as we exist in the scenes alongside them caught up in their personal drama.

There’s nowhere to hide, and Shatara Michelle Ford doesn’t try to. What’s most petrifying is the fact we are left with no obvious resolution. Our couple, once so united and for one another, now feels listless and uncommunicative. Given the context built up for them at the beginning of the movie, it feels like the most troubling place to leave them. Again, this is brave. It’s not a giant send-off with a fight, but we feel this helpless sense of isolation even as they share the same space together. There’s no easy fix for what we have witnessed. It’s a sobering reminder for us all.

Coming of age films are a recurring pleasure of mine. They often traffic in very familiar ideas and tropes. CODA is no different, and it comes out of the East coast lineage of Mystic Pizza. It stars a young heroine (Emilia Jones) looking to find her voice, whether that’s by literally joining her school’s choir or sharing her feelings for the boy who doesn’t know she exists (Ferdia Walsh Peelo).

She has an impish best friend and a demonstrative teacher with a heart of gold as two primary talking partners. However, what sets the movie apart is her family life. The pun of the title becomes evident in this space. Because she is a child of deaf adults (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kosur).

She’s ashamed of how shameless her parents seem and also frustrated with how tied down she is to them. She lives by the lie that they are helpless without her that she can’t go off to college and leave them. Ultimately, she wants to protect them. The movie’s at its best not forcing conflict and leaning into these relationships.

Her budding boyfriend points out just how much he envies her because her parents actually love one another and their ramshackle abode is actually a home. CODA’s mixture of fishing milieu and glossy glee club covers don’t cater to my whims, but there is so much surrounding these nominal cliches making CODA wholly worthwhile. And any passing chance to get an earful of Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, or Joni Mitchell is something to be appreciated.

Sing Street (also with Walsh-Peelo) was a favorite of mine. This is yet another movie where music becomes such a vital life force, and it can lead teenagers in pursuit of remarkable dreams. It’s the family in this movie that feels even tighter and altogether more extraordinary because we see very few like them put to film.

The Worst Person in The World
The title of Joachim’s Trier latest film is easily misconstrued to mean “bad” whereas the suggested hyperbole is more about failure. We’ve all been there feeling like we’ve flunked out of life. Chris is in her quarter-life crisis, pondering her career outcomes, her current relationship status, and the lukewarm feelings she has about having children at the moment. It feels a bit like The Graduate without a Mrs. Robinson. She has two men in her life, first a comic artist, older than her, who brings stability, and then a more carefree barista who she meets quite by chance.

There are times where it is scatological, moments where it’s downright trippy, but there’s also some serendipity sprinkled in. I think of the sequence when the world seems to stop – humanity is at a standstill, and we see two lovers existing together totally present with one another in the expanse around them. It shrinks their world down in such a romantic way. Still, life goes on. It becomes about so much more than a romance or even the arc of one character. It’s about the men in her life too.

Trier said, “The films George Cukor made, like The Philadelphia Story, were films not only about finding the right partner but existential films, films that dealt with important life choices.” It’s hard to totally dismiss the inspiration because The Worst Person In The World becomes a film about insecurities, about how we become petty, and even as people leave our life, the memories of them are never completely gone.

It’s progressively all the more evident that being the worst person in the world is simply a marker of being human. That is to say, we have all been there; we can all relate in some capacity. We’re all the worst person in the world. This is the greatest gift of Trier’s film, and Renate Reinsve gives a performance worthy of this superlative.


If Summer of Soul was one of the most joyous discoveries of 2021 — a piece of Harlem’s culture all but relegated to a historical waste paper bin, then Attica has to be one of the most devastating. In some ways, they seem to run parallel. Whether it’s my own ignorance or 50s years of mild suppression, my only inkling about the uprising is the famed evocation of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t live through those current events, but seeing them excavated in this documentary was deeply unnerving, and rightfully so. It brings together many of the eyewitnesses from all sides who were present during those days. Prisoners took control and found hostages, they brought their demands before prison leadership and waited only for negotiations to break down. Finally, everything spiraled toward premeditated chaos

I can’t explain what happened exactly and even though this event is notorious somehow the gravity and atrociousness of this third act of history still scalded me. It highlighted this uneasy gulf between the sides. You had discontented prisoners, the majority black, being subjugated and just wanting some human dignity — the rights Americans are supposed to be accorded. Their requests were not all unreasonable. Then, on the outside you have families worried sick over husbands, uncles, fathers being held hostage. It’s possible they might never see them again. The consequences are steep and racial tension is magnified.

We are forced to reconcile these spaces as viewers and come to terms with this void between them full of unrest and entropy that no one could have foreseen; not the news cameras or the mediators. And yet we cannot deny the facts. Something horrible happened, beyond belief, and we are forced to grapple with it. It makes me hope and pray for empathy and true justice even as I question the inevitability of violence sometimes. If there is so much humanity within the frames of this documentary, how did it still culminate in Attica? Each of us must point the question back at ourselves.

More Film Reviews of 2020

A Brazen Riff On 'Groundhog Day,' 'Palm Springs' Is Better Suited For The Small Screen | The ARTery

Since I watched more contemporary films than I usually do for award season, I put together some capsule reviews. There’s not too much rhyme or reason to these, but I thought I would include them here. Let me know what you thought of these movies. Thank you!

Palm Springs

In some serendipitous twist of fate, Palm Springs feels like the film made for the year of the pandemic — where the days are recycled and we are besieged by all the existential questions the world has to offer. It’s not just Groundhog’s Day redux because while Andy Samberg and Cristin Miloti spark romantic chemistry, the key is how they are stuck in a wedding day time loop together.

There are two ways to go about it: either accept the status quo or rage against it in the pursuit of something better. It speaks to love and intimacy and marriage in a way that wades through the refuse and the raunch and comes out with a resolute optimism. Life’s not just about finding your “Irvine.” It’s also made better when you find someone to walk alongside, especially when it’s for an eternity. 

The Way Back

If you’ve seen Hoosiers or any of those sports movies of old, there’s nothing particularly new about The Way Back. In spite of this, there’s something compelling; it’s borne on the performance of Ben Affleck — the inner demons of his character and this fractured road to redemption. It means something genuine and true to people who have played sports — been filled with that indescribable elation — and those who have been subjected to tragedy. It’s not just Affleck, but there’s a quiet and reserved profundity to many of these performances. I appreciated it a great deal more than I was expecting. 

Promising Young Woman

It grieves me that a film like this is deemed relevant in our contemporary society and of course I have no argument to the contrary because it’s true. Although the pieces of plot and fluctuating tone never totally gel with me, Carey Mulligan gives an evocative showing as per usual. I’m particularly fascinated by Fennell’s use of the thriller genre as a commentary, which feels perhaps more incisive than a one for one based on a true story expose might be.

All the pieces are there, the twists and turns, and the stings to a misogynistic society. But rather like last year’s Joker, I still rue the fact we’ve come to such a place in contemporary cinema — another discomforting representation of man’s inhumanity of man — much less man’s inhumanity to woman. It’s not like we were totally unaware of it before. However, we’ve given ourselves over to the vindictive nihilism of it all. I hope and pray for restoration. 

Mank' Official Trailer: Netflix Brings David Fincher Back to Theaters | IndieWire


The film itself boasts a bounty of Classic Hollywood references and the kind of mimesis that might well turn moviegoers into black and white junkies. Alas, for me it had the opposite effect and despite any amount of technique and artistry by David Fincher, there never was a sense of true suspension of disbelief. Like Trumbo or Hitch, and other films before it, regardless of some notable performances, it all felt a bit like play-acting. And of course, such material cannot be taken as gospel. It’s a movie about movies after all.

But somehow the picture also lacks movie magic. I never felt truly captivated. For a film that took a closer, more personal look at one of the architects of that grand monolith Citizen Kane, somehow I wished the film had taken a more intimate even mundane scale. Oldman is winsome, but I couldn’t help flashing to Seyfried and Collins. Somehow their characters proved his most fascinating talking partners, though many have all but forgotten them in the shadow of Orson Welles and others.

Wonder Woman 84

Although it’s slow to get going and the pieces don’t always feel totally cohesive, there’s still a modicum of relish to be had from Patty Jenkins’s latest actioner. The 80s are not simply set dressing and eye candy, but they provide the perfect apex of consumer culture. Beyond hairstyles and workout regimens, it’s the emerging generation of instant gratification. Comfort and easy fixes are the world’s salve for any number of discomforts. But society still manages to splinter at its seams into an unfathomable entropy.

Diana (Gal Gadot) is once more a mighty protector of the nations, but the absence of Steve (Chris Pine), leaves a void in her life. This is her version of discontentment. While it never delivers the emotional import of its predecessor, it does attempt to synthesize some moderately intriguing thematic ideas. The ultimate temptation comes with the devil telling her she can have everything she wants. It becomes a tension of trading out selfish gain for a kind of utility, even personal sacrifice in service of truth. Wonder Woman’s greatest strength once again is her perceptive empathy. This doesn’t fail even when the blockbuster does. 

The Truth

While it provides a radically new context for Koreeda’s cinema, the quietly meditative quality that pervades his work is still present. The content feels foreign to us, but the form is familiar. Logistically, you can only imagine how the principal members were able to pull it off without a shared language. Still, cinema prevails. It’s steeped in this history, real and imagined, as the real-life legacies of Deneuve and Binoche, in particular, provide a richer backdrop for the film. Within the context of this tenuous mother-daughter relationship, it’s hard not to consider aspects like the tragedy of sister Francoise Dorleac or the missed opportunity to work with Hitchcock.

However, as Deneuve has her granddaughter brush her hair, we see the actress’s face in the mirror, and it must give us pause. She’s older but poised and immaculate as she has been for generations.  It’s so easy to impart our own desires of what the movie might be. After all, we have some of the greatest talents in French cinema. In comparison, Koreeda’s picture feels slight and deliberate. But for the gracious viewer, all these elements might just play to its advantage. 

Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' Hopes to Kick Off Moviegoing Again - Variety


Christopher Nolan is a director with unparalleled ambitions in the realms of narrative. It’s true Tenet is firmly entrenched in the traditions of Memento and Inception as he sculpts with time, in this case inverted, like we’ve rarely seen it before. It brings together many of his fascinations and folds them into a globetrotting spy thriller. There is so much here. We sit back, our minds racing as we take in the spectacle and look to play catch up with the story.

Because it is a puzzle and cipher for us to break as John David Washington, Robert Pattison, and Elizabeth Debicki are all implicated. There’s only one problem; it seems like comprehensible emotional stakes are missing altogether because we spend the whole time trying to crack Nolan’s code. There’s room for nothing else. If you’re contented with the perplexity of it all, the pincers through time might be enough, but I have an inkling a myriad of people will be dissatisfied. Still, others will feel he’s outdone himself. He’s a director always up for a new challenge.  

Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods stands at the crossroads of Vietnam and the black experience carved out across a tumultuous half-century of American history. There can be no other soundtrack than Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Spike Lee is made to tell this story and he uses the tableau of newsreel footage to lay the groundwork for our story if it’s not already inculcated within our collective consciousness. It’s an impassioned collage of history, culture, and the like from Apocalypse Now’s “Flight of the Valkyrie” to John Huston’s Treasure of The Sierra Madre.

There are moments where the scripting feels corny and even the special effects feel abruptly unpolished. However, it revels in these moments of b-grade thrills creating a vehicle for a band of brothers to reunite in one last mission.  As our Bogey stand-in, Delroy Lindo positively seethes. Although when he marches off into the woods bellowing out the words of Psalm 23 or embracing his long-lost comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), there’s a semblance of healing rising up through his veins. He aids in making the movie about something substantive.

My Top Films of 2020

These are some of the films that I enjoyed from 2020. Because I watched more new releases than is typical in the last few years, I went ahead and wrote capsule length reviews to keep it more manageable. Enjoy!


Minari plays as another perspective on the American Dream. It’s an immigrant story insulated by the family unit. You have a melding of cultures born across a smattering of languages and cultural references from Mountain Dew to the resilient minari plant. I can’t think of anything more resolutely American. Any conflict comes from within and there are real decisions to be made, whether it’s in service of a father’s compulsion to provide for his family or a mother’s commitment to stay together at all costs. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri are wonderful, but it’s just as much a story about their children or about the spirited grandma who comes to live with them.

These are living, breathing folks inspired by Isaac Lee Chung’s own experience and colored with the deep affections of personal filmmaking. There’s a tranquility about the film that feels like some sort of balm for the world we live in — if not this entire year — because hardship besets them as it does us. It’s taxing and dire. This is all but inevitable. This is life. Our only true sustenance comes from bringing family together, holding onto our loved ones, and praying for God’s daily mercies as we push forward. Though our experiences all differ, they converge at this one vital crossroad of understanding. Notice there is no “ending” to Minari. The fact that this lowly water wort flourishes, only after hardship, provides a symbolic glint of hope. 


There’s a reassuring shorthand that comes with Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” familiar to anyone who has ever trekked across America or been on a road trip. Chloe Zhao’s film is cinema, travelogue, and National Geographic all rolled into one with spectacular images of both intimate and indescribable beauty. Because they are snapshots of life imbued with a resolute empathy. What an incomparable and honest treasure Frances McDormand remains fully humanizing this itinerant lifestyle. There’s a striking a cadence between Fern and the flora and fauna of the world around her. It joins the lineage of meditative, hypnotic moviemaking that’s come before it — films collaborating with nature — and thus blending God’s green earth and the human experience. By the end, we come to realize how unified they really are. 


Draped in folklore and armed with long-held political division, Tomm Moore’s latest with Ross Stewart is as visually resplendent and verdant as ever with its golden hues of green. The fact that the local city is the picture of Cromwellian drudgery and repression only puts the adjoining forest in sharp relief. The populous is made to fear it and the wolves that live there, but it’s also a space of unimaginable magic.

Myth is effectively brought down to its most relatable and intimate. It becomes a war between worlds and ideologies made tangible through the trials of an intrepid girl and her hunter father. There’s a debilitating fear in the face of the powers that be and religious faith is militarized. Life is man vs. wolf. And yet in the face of this unyielding landscape, something extraordinary is born. Fairy tales become fact. Resurrection is real. Grief is ultimately supplanted by newfound joy.

Sound of Metal 

Riz Ahmed proves himself to be thoroughly committed to his role as a drummer who is impacted by a sudden loss of hearing. The premise is immediately intriguing, but he busts the story wide open as it becomes far more than a handy idea. We get so much in the realm of performance and sound, existential weight, and deep wells of human empathy. Olivia Cooke is in a symbiotic relationship with him — his fellow bandmate and lover — and as the movie evolves what a revelatory thing it is to see them both change. He finds a community that he can grow into even as he comes to terms with his hearing and the distant hope of regaining his senses through the latest technology.

She also has facets of her character and background that we only understand when they reconvene overseas. But we also witness how lives can go in different directions, and that’s not always a bad thing — it can somehow be cathartic even in the waves of ambiguity. The same might be said of silence in the face of noise. That stillness can be the Kingdom of God for some people. It’s not a deficiency or a tragedy, but an entirely new beginning. Sound of Metal also featured one of my favorite extended cameos of the year. 

Small Axe: Mangrove

I’ve seen In the Name of the Father and I’ve seen Notting Hill, but what Mangrove gives us is a powerful portrait showcasing another facet of this world. That is the rich Trinidadian culture that holds its rightful place in the ecosystem of mid-century London. Steve McQueen’s film makes it more about the world than the words spoken. We have the privilege of existing in a neighborhood, frequenting a local establishment fraught with all sorts of opposition.

Mangrove is a validation that big historical events are not the only way to galvanize — though the movie does evolve into a stunning courtroom drama. Still, this only reaps fruit when the grassroots ambitions of everyday people standing up for what they see as justice, join together as one. Self-representation is a powerful thing indeed and there’s something extraordinary about McQueen bringing to life a world that is so near and dear to his own heart. 

Small Axe: Lovers Rock

It feels like such an unassuming picture. We’re accustomed to blockbusters or Oscar hopefuls with often gluttonous runtimes. Lovers Rock is nothing like that. It’s lithe and exuberant in all the best ways, identifying this universal sense of burgeoning romance. And yet it plays as such a full-bodied, deeply engaged, and present evocation of a specific moment. This specificity is key, supplying its vital life-blood and culture while allowing it to be a fitting ode to a bygone era.

However, director SteveMcQueen also allows time to flow at its own pace, capturing the vibes in a room alive with black joy and a myriad of a cappella voices. It’s so easy to get lost in it as if we are in that very room experiencing the tremors and pulses making their way across the dance floor. Far from being a mere jukebox movie, it has a kind of real-world substance about it that feels genuinely pure and honest. For the uninitiated, it’s a pleasant surprise and no doubt worthy of future viewings. 

The Assistant 

Kitty Green’s film shies away from sensationalized drama and settles into a far more harrowing and morose sense of powerlessness. I’ve had the ability to stay well outside the film industry so it’s never been able to fully envelop me. But here there is no place to hide. We imbibe the weight of depression and helplessness piled on Julia Garner. One particularly excruciating scene with an HR rep turns painfully cruel.  However, this is not only a film about sexual harassment — although this is a crucial piece — it’s indicative of a toxic culture and mindset from the top down. 

Still, in showing her plight and the network of similarly situated co-conspirators, it doesn’t so much provide them greater agency as it shifts the story away from the bosses. It also provides some much-needed empathy. In the quiet rhythms of an oppressive job, undertaken by aspirational people who feel like they’re trapped and their dreams have turned into a nightmare, suddenly we’re there with them. It’s a powerful film just as it is pressing. It speaks into our cultural moment not with a blaring megaphone, but a whisper we would do well to heed. 


This Romanian documentary exposé lays out the groundwork for the story ahead of us so there is no initial confusion. That comes later when we are enveloped in a harrowing world that feels akin to the “follow the money” moments in All The President’s Men and even takes cues from the dirty black marketeering immortalized by Orson Welles’ charismatic cad Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Here everything is current and fresh happening in front of us. First, a horrible fire and then incompetence throughout the national health system that leads to greater human tragedy. The aftermath brings out shockwaves of negligence within the government and more sinister intentions with national implications. It’s worthy of righteous anger from us all, but what’s greater and more profound is this pursuit of veracity in the face of deception. Transparency and truth are still powerful instruments for good. 

Farwell Amor

The movie begins with the kind of opening shot that makes you hold your breath. Long takes can be boring, but they can also imbue scenes with such a greater understanding. Farewell Amor is about a family living in the transitory state as immigrants reunited after many years apart. It becomes increasingly apparent that they must now cross another great divide. It’s no longer geographical but beholden to cultural differences and lost time. A husband and wife hardly know one another. Religious faith does not hold the same import in their lifestyles.

Meanwhile, a daughter must acclimate to a father who she has not seen since her youth. Through its Rashomon structure, we are privy to three empathetic points of view, and it makes for a powerful experience. How lives can be outwardly connected — sharing the same space — and somehow disengaged and aloof. You have three people living in their own worlds, coming to terms with what it means to be a family again. There’s such care and sensitivity, when it falls apart it galls me. There’s not so much a Pollyanna happy ending to the movie. Rather it’s a vow to abide and share each other’s burdens. After all, that’s what families are meant to do. 

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

The film title remains effectively obscured until a pivotal scene where the submerged depths of the iceberg are unearthed and human frailty is made fully known to us. But until that point, the movie is defined by this overarching bleakness — a high schooler’s slice of life — inundated with the numbing rhythms of work and school. Sidney Flanigan brings so much to the young woman even as she bends away from us. A pilgrimage to New York with her cousin to take care of an unwanted pregnancy makes us come face to face with her innate wounds.

Suddenly the movie unravels and becomes one of the most emotive empathy machines of the year. It breaks your heart. It’s so vulnerable. But the bottom line, the song she sings, is “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The very same issues at the core of this film are full of emotional baggage in both religious and social spheres, but here they are allowed to be fully human, and I won’t say anything more for the time being. Broken people deserve dignity. This film looks to extend them this basic courtesy even as we can still grieve the outcomes. 


Set in the context of post-WWII Russia, more so than almost any other country, you feel like these people know what hardship and tragedy engenders. There’s a matter-of-fact immediacy to everything that happens to these people — two young women who fought in the antiaircraft during the war and now serve the wounded as nurses. Of course, they have their own wounds both physical and emotional. Written on the page, moments of grief, pain, and blackmail feel like high drama, and yet here they are distilled into something both mundane and vulnerable. What a beautiful cast of characters they are and by this I mean in a way antithetical to conventional Hollywood glamor.

They feel real and honest with bodies and features that take on almost classical dimensions. Eyes say so much as do silence or an uninhibited, frenzied twirl in a dress. Against the rigidness and the jadedness of the world, there are these tiny acts of rebellion and by that I mean humanity. What does it mean to try to condone their behavior? Far more than that, it starts with beginning to understand even an iota of what they have experienced. 

One Night in Miami…

There are four men at the center of Kemp Howard’s reimagination of a fateful meeting: Malcolm X, Muhammid Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown. It’s sobering to acknowledge that only one of them is still living and only two lived into old age. It’s talky and stagy, for good reason, but it’s also a film about those core issues at the very fabric of America’s tumultuous heart. There’s a moment late in the movie where Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke sings “A Change is Gonna Come.” It signals a change in Cooke’s ambitions as an artist — more in the vein of a Bob Dylan perhaps — but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was nearly moved to tears. It’s moments like these I turn out to movies for — to be moved in unexplainable ways — but what is this emotion if it doesn’t lead to a visible change in my own life?

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Denzel Washington has shouldered a sacred mission to introduce the works of August Wilson to the uninitiated such as myself. What Ma Rainey has to offer has much to do with performance and a dialogue with heady topics, nevertheless carried out in a kind of cajoling, free-flowing style brimming with life, laughs, and animosity. It’s a film born on the stage and as such, it utilizes a limited, intimate space to navigate the cultural climate of the Jazz Age for black folks in particular. Conversations of cultural clout, the arts and ambitions of blacks in a white man’s world remain pertinent to this day.

While Viola Davis feels like the obvious standout as the eponymous, irascible, unfathomable Ma Rainey, it’s equally easy to be entranced by Chadwick Boseman. His spiritual anguish is probably one of the most affecting and terrifying cinematic experiences of this year. Oftentimes we are quick to heap praise or christen a posthumous performance a triumph, and yet in Boseman’s case, it feels true. He tears through his role with relish, alive with an irrepressible vitality and plagued with the kind of demons that make the film burn with a fire far greater than its simple premise. It’s the kind of characterization that sears into your mind’s eye, not soon to be forgotten. The same might be said of him. 

News of the World

Paul Greengrass hardly feels like a director of westerns, but here he helms one that takes the grand, blustering landscapes of the West and somehow makes them feel slight and less consequential. Try as I might, this is meant to be a compliment. Because at its center is Tom Hanks and a perfect riding companion Helena Zengel. Although, as the modern generation’s Jimmy Stewart, I would love to see Hanks dip into his vengeful side out on the range, his steady candor provides a disarming uprightness.

He need not revise the West just as he doesn’t rewrite his persona. Aside from his trade, he’s no Herculean gunslinger, and there are few grandiose moments, but the bits of characterization give us something to be relished for their universal humanity. Sometimes all you need is an actor set against a cinematic panorama and being rapt up in the moment is enough. It’s not quite John Ford and hardly Anthony Mann and yet it’s still a distinct pleasure to have a western again. 

On The Rocks

What a light and marvelous film this is because it’s not trying to be anything more. It’s about the mid-life malaise, it’s about a wife’s (Rashida Jones) suspicions of her ambitious husband (Marlon Wayans), and fathers and daughters, but it never aims for anything sordid. The streets of New York feel out of reach to me, but they are magical, and Coppola looks to be in love with the world as she is with Bill Murray. He has that same winking charm, older now (aren’t we all); always incorrigible, but real and honest. When he and Jones whistle “Laura’s Theme” in the back of a limo, I knew I was invested in the ride. It’s not Lost in Translation, and I’m thankful for that. 

Recommend: Driveways, I Used to Go Here, The Personal History of David Copperfield, I’m Your Woman, Boys State, Athlete A, Apocalypse ’45,

Classic Hollywood Baseball Movies

Gary Cooper and Babe Ruth

Given its hallowed place as American’s original national pastime, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some of the best baseball movies classic Hollywood ever offered during its heyday.

I’m not sure if the industry ever made a baseball masterpiece during the Golden Age, but it did highlight some of the great talents of the era both on the field and in front of the camera.

If nothing else, they play a bit like comfort food, between fairy tale romances and warm humor, highlighting men who overcame obstacles to become world-class talents in the Major Leagues.

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

Here is, arguably, the standard-bearer of all baseball movies of a similar ilk. Gary Cooper stars as another famed All-American superstar, Lou Gehrig. Teresa Wright costars as his loving wife Eleanor. The Iron Horse became one of the most formidable ballplayers ever, despite being overshadowed by Babe Ruth. His final days, stricken with ALS, remain a stirring tragedy to this day. There’s hardly a dry eye as he “considers himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” only to walk off the field for good.

It Happens Every Spring (1949)

This unabashed comedy relies on a crackling premise: a university professor comes upon a curious new formula in his laboratory. No, it’s not flubber but methylethylpropylbutyl. It’s most noteworthy trait is its repellence of wood! Soon the bookish baseball fan is touting his pitching abilities and goes from a nobody to carrying his ball club toward the pennant. Ray Milland stars alongside Jean Peters and Paul Douglas.

The Stratton Story (1949)

Here is a picture certainly in the mold of Pride of The Yankees. This time it’s James Stewart playing Monty Stratton with June Alyson as his crush and future wife. Although Stratton is hardly as well-remembered today, the heart of the romantic drama involves his rehabilitation after he undergoes an amputation. Through grit and determination (and the support of his wife), he made a comeback from his injury to pitch another day.

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

Although it has much more in common with the other MGM musicals of the day, between Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on the ball field (making up a Tinker to Evers to Chance combo with Jules Munshin), and Esther Williams, it’s hard not to enjoy this bright and cheery Technicolor singalong. The shakeup of new female ownership is a good excuse for sparks to fly and quality entertainment to abound courtesy of Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed.

The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

There are not necessarily a lot of dramatic thrills to this feature adaptation of Jackie Robinson’s life, but unlike all these other movies, there’s something distinctly special about Jackie portraying himself. With Ruby Dee as his steadfast wife Rachael, we watch Jackie as he is signed by Branch Rickey and rises up the ranks to break the color barrier in baseball, becoming a stalwart of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ team even as he faces an onslaught of prejudice and intimidation. He’s the definition of a sports hero.

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

It plays as a slight and fluffy fantasy story with a demonstrative big league manager (Paul Douglas) receiving some angelic intervention only if he agrees straightens up his act. He goes from being universally reviled by the world to a newsworthy curio. As he starts to change, the team’s fortunes pick up, and romance flowers between him and Janet Leigh. There’s not too much more to it. Donna Corcoran gives an adorable portrayal of a young girl who can see the angels.

The Pride of St. Louis (1953)

The arguments for making a movie about the life of Dizzy Dean seem somewhat slim. Granted, he was a thoroughly colorful figure, born in the backwoods of the Ozarks only to become one of the big leagues preeminent pitchers along with his brother Paul. Dan Dailey and Joanne Dru form a chemistry of contrasts, as Dizzy learns what it is to love someone else and have his will crossed. It’s hardly on par with Gehrig’s or even Stratton’s career trajectory, at least in purely Hollywood terms, but it’s an agreeable story from top to bottom.

Fear Strikes Out (1957)

Here is a baseball biopic that takes the conventional formula while slotting in a younger star in Anthony Perkins to portray up-and-coming outfielder Jimmy Piersall. Far from having his career behind him, it was very much a current event highlighting the ballplayer’s battle with mental health problems, in this case, bipolar disorder (although it was not described as such initially). The two crucial relationships in his life are with his overbearing father (Karl Malden) and his wife (Norma Moore).

Bonus: That Touch of Mink (1962)

While it’s not explicitly a baseball movie, this New York Rom-Com has one of the great baseball cameos with Cary Grant and Doris Day joining the Yankees’ dugout only to see their famed trifecta of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra all unceremoniously tossed from the game by the agitated umpire. Although it’s hardly as enjoyable, Jerry Lewis’s Geisha Boy similarly features cameos from some of the LA Dodgers’ ballplayers from 1958 for the west coast aficionados.

8 Underrated Screwball Comedies

theodora goes wild

Screwball comedies, like film noir, have a fairly devoted following and although they were very much of their time, they still have descendants and influences on the movies coming out today.

Many of the heavy hitters from the 30s and 40s are household names, but I thought it would be fun to highlight a few titles that fewer people might think about in conversations surrounding screwball comedies. Let me know what you think!

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Irene Dunne is a great person to start this list off with because I always enjoy her films and yet she oftentimes feels woefully forgotten. In this zany vehicle, she is the eponymous title character who, while living a life of propriety in a small town, actually moonlights as quite the titillating author. Her life gets flipped upside down when one of the city slickers (Mervyn Douglas) finds out her secret.

Easy Living (1937)

It’s true a whole movie can be born out of a fur coat dropping from the sky, and it builds into a wonderfully raucous narrative thanks to the wonky scripting of Preston Sturges. Jean Arthur and Edward Arnold make a fine pair and send the town into a tizzy when rumors start circulating about the extent of their relationship. Ray Milland also proves why he was a much sought after rom-com lead.

It’s Love I’m After (1937)

It’s a dream cast with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Olivia de Havilland in a dream scenario: a love triangle dressed up with Shakespearean theatricality. What better bedfellow for screwball comedy as Howard puts on a performance to rebuff a starstruck fan girl and earn back his jealous co-star. Eric Blore is stupendous as per usual.

True Confession (1937)

It’s courtroom drama meets screwball romance with Carole Lombard giving one of her most frenzied performances as a serial fibber who pleads guilty to an egregious crime so she can drum up some publicity for her husband (Fred MacMurray), a struggling lawyer in need of a big case. Una Merkel and John Barrymore show up to supply some added character.

Merrily We Live (1938)

Here is a movie that’s good-naturedly built out of the mode of My Man Godfrey. It’s about a family of idle rich: Constance Bennett, Billie Burke, Clarence Kolb, and Bonita Granville, of all people! They’re a constant whirlwind of ditzy entertainment around the breakfast table, and they quite unwittingly pull a passerby (Brian Aherne) into their comic vortex. Chaos ensues.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Ginger Rogers and Jimmy Stewart have a glowing chemistry. However, their recent marriage has a wrench thrown into it when they head home to meet the parents. The word never got to them, and Charles Coburn, in one of his most obstinate performances, will never approve. Ginger uses all her tricks to woo her husband’s family over and fight off any rivals with her unparalleled catfighting skills. It’s as delightful as it sounds.

The Rage of Paris (1938)

Spunky Danielle Darrieux and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. spar across social lines with your typical screwball romance riddled with conflict transplanted to Paris and the French countryside. What Henry Koster brings is his usual heart-warming tone, and with support from the likes of Helen Broderick and Misca Auer, the material receives a dose of extra comedic oomph.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

Here is the original undercover boss with the always cantankerous Charles Coburn slinking around his own department store. Not only does he come to understand his employees’ dissatisfaction with their work, through the eyes of Jean Arthur and Robert Cummings, he also learns what real friendship is. The movie is blessed with that wonderful one-two combo of uproarious antics and genuine heart.

Let me know what screwball comedies you would include!

4 Living Legends Part 5

Here is another entry in our ongoing series of Classic Hollywood Stars who are still with us. This is an effort to acknowledge living legends who are well-deserving of our appreciation.

Marsha Hunt (1917-)

Marsha Hunt is one of Classic Hollywood’s amazing centenarians. Before having her career sabotaged by the Hollywood Blacklist in the age of McCarthyism she showed surprising utility in a range of pictures including Pride and Prejudice (1940), Kid Glove Killer (1942), Cry Havoc (1943),  and most memorably in Raw Deal (1948).

Eva Marie Saint (1924-)

Aside from starring in such perennial classics as On The Waterfront (1954) and North by Northwest (1959), she was also married to her husband Jeffrey Hayden for over 60 years, until his passing in 2016.

Angela Lansbury (1925-)

With her starring lead as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, it’s sometimes easy to forget how early Angela Lansbury started her career in Hollywood. Some of her wide-ranging performances included Gaslight (1944), Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970), and, of course, Beauty and The Beast (1991).

Sidney Poitier (1927-)

There is so much to be said about Sidney Poitier’s impact on American cinema and representation of African-American masculinity. His catalog is still staggering to this day going beyond high profile successes from ’67 like In The Heat of The Night, To Sir With Love, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. No Way Out (1950), Defiant Ones (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Lillies of The Field, and A Patch of Blue (1965) are all worth searching out, among many others.

4 WWII Home Front Movies

World War II gave rise to a whole cottage industry of war films during the conflict and for generations to come. There are, of course, so many facets of the war to explore whether it’s Europe, The Pacific, North Africa, and any number of elements.

However, something that always fascinated me was life on the Home Front. Now wars feel like proxies. They rarely affect us first-hand. During the 1940s the war was a concerted effort on all fronts. It affected not only soldiers but civilians living miles away.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) chronicles the exploits of a fearless mother who holds her family together during The Blitz and the threat of German invasion. More The Merrier (1943) takes a comical look at the housing crisis that plagued Washington D.C. and other metropolis areas. Even the likes of Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Thank Our Lucky Stars (1943) give a picture into the USO and entertainment efforts put on for soldiers.

Here is a list of four other films from the World War II years that function as time capsules giving us some element of what life was like during those impactful years in history.

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Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

Certainly, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is another uproarious wartime comedy from Preston Sturges. But this other offering is equally memorable in how it takes on small-town jingoism and hero worship to outrageous proportions. Whereas most old war pictures look moth-bitten with age and overly saccharine, somehow this effort strikes a phenomenal balance between absurd satire and lucid sentimentality.

It’s not making fun of our war heroes as much as it lampoons how we try to exalt them in our own well-meaning blundering. There’s no doubt some of this was certainly acknowledged during the war although I’m not sure how the general public would have felt about the movie in that context. Now it looks prescient. Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and company are absolutely hilarious

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Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Actors Bette Davis and John Garfield of Warner Bros. famously set up the Hollywood Canteen as a haven for soldiers on leave. The perks were free and included dances with the most beautiful starlets and entertainment provided by the brightest comedic and musical personalities of the day. You could even win a raffle to kiss Hedy Lamarr.

Although the film is slight, sentimental propaganda, it does give at least a hint of what this group endeavor was all about. For old movie aficionados, it also provides a convenient opportunity to see just about every person Warner Bros. had on the lot in 1944. They all come out to the party to pitch in on the morale-boosting effort.

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The Clock (1945)

Whirlwind romances feel almost commonplace in the war years. Imagine the scenario. You’re longtime beau or the eligible man or woman you just met is going off to war. Miles will separate you. All you have are letters. There’s an uncertainty of whether or not you will ever see them again. The only thing that does seem permanent (even if it’s not) is love.

The theme would crop up in any number of pictures from The Very Thought of You to I’ll Be Seeing You as the situation undoubtedly resonated with a contemporary audience. However, another favorite is The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. It encapsulates the moment in time so well with heightened emotions, an unceremonious courthouse wedding, and the open ending. We don’t know what the future holds.


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If Since You Went Away was David Selznick’s WWII epic, this was certainly Samuel Goldwyn’s entry. Its title plays with this ironic ambiguity. The best years of our lives would seem to be ahead of us. The war is over. The Allies have won. The soldiers return home victorious. And yet even in their victory, there is so much to navigate in the civilian world.

Wyler’s effort is such a perceptive picture in how it makes us feel the growing pains and relational tribulations of an entire community. It might be the fact you barely know your wife because you’ve been away for the majority of your marriage. Maybe your kids have grown up in a different world and there’s a corporate job waiting for you to reacclimate to. It might be PTSD or tangible physical injuries totally changing your day-to-day existence. As such the movie is indicative of a certain time and place and a tipping point in American society.

What is your favorite WWII film, whether it depicts the war or some aspect of the home front?

4 Star Double Feature – Coming of Age Flicks

Starter for 10 (2006)

The cast boasts the likes of James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve, and even James Corden all in one film together! The year is 1985 and Brian is off to his first year at university which turns into a formative moment in his life of new experiences, romantic entanglements, and, yes, even trivia. He’s really good at trivia. But sometimes being good at trivia still cannot prepare you for the things that life throws at you. That’s what makes life, life and not a game show as he finds out.

Sing Street (2016)

Also set in 1985 but in this case in Dublin, Sing Street is a high school coming of age story about a boy who forms a band to get a girl. It’s a simple premise but John Carney’s film explores much of the turbulence as well as the glories of that time in life. It’s about love and music and personal exploration. It also happens to be a darn good musical with a steady stream of catchy 80s tunes both real and fictional.

10 Films to Watch if You Like Classic Bond


North by Northwest (1959): It’s no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock was offered the chance to direct Dr. No because he had singlehandedly propelled the spy thriller into the public eye through such classic as The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and Notorious. It’s also no surprise that he turned down the chance because had essentially made the greatest spy thriller ever. There was no reason to attempt to make another. Cary Grant. Eva Marie Sainte. Bernard Hermann. Ernest Lehman. Mt. Rushmore. Cropdusters. Just a few of the things that make this film awesome. It’s a must for all Bond fans.

That Man from Rio (1964): So there’s no doubt that Philippe de Broca’s film was made in a world conscious of the James Bond phenomenon but it’s also a charming blend of Tintin-esque action serials and wild humor that’s anchored by the charming pair of Jean-Pierre Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. Its mixture of lavish location shooting, fun-filled action, and consistent humor makes it a must for all Bond lovers.

Charade (1963): By now we’ve all heard that this picture from Stanley Donen was the best Hitchcock film that he never made. Sure, that’s probably true if you want to put any stock in such an assertion but beyond that, we have Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn starring opposite each other in a spy comedy romance. It sounds like an absolutely delightful proposition and it is. It’s funny as a rom-com but still exhibits enough intrigue to pass as a compelling thriller.

The Ipcress File (1965): Sir Michael Caine as British spy Harry Palmer should be enough to pull audiences into this franchise. But if not that then consider this. Although it was made by some of the minds behind Bond, this franchise was supposed to be its antithesis in its representation of the spy life. It’s the anti-Bond if you will. Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain would follow in the subsequent years.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965): However, if you want something completely different from Bond with a sense of stark realism matched with a cynical edge you probably couldn’t get closer to the mark than watching this thriller based off the work of John Le Carre. Richard Burton is as disillusioned as any spy in the history of the movies and you get the strange sense that he has the right to be. If you looking for another tonal shift in the realm of spy thrillers look to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It’s demanding but certainly worthwhile.

Casino Royale (1967): We’re about to enter the territory of less demanding fare and the epitome of that is this initial Casino Royale (please don’t dare confuse this installment with Daniel Craig’s. Please don’t). All you need to know is that Peter Sellers plays Evelyn Tremble (ie James Bond), Ursula Andress is Vesper Lynd (ie James Bond), Orson Welles is Le Chiffre, Woody Allen is Jimmy Bond…must I go on or do you get the idea? If you had any preconception that this was a Bond movie you were mistaken.

Our Man Flint (1967): James Coburn the tough guy from such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape landed his own headlining gig as a spy in his own right. See him in Charade (previously mentioned) and the continuing installment In Like Flint.

Murderers Row (1966): Dean Martin as super spy Matt Helm. Need I say more? Is it any surprise that he’s a dashing ladies man who also seems to like the high life and hitting the sauce. It grabs hold of the Bond phase like any good (or mediocre copycat) although it was based on a number of novels by Donald Hamilton. A number of sequels followed including The Silencers, The Ambushers and The Wrecking Crew.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997): Mike Myers as Austin Powers the most ludicrous, wacky, grooviest, and strangely perverse spy you’ve ever known. But his arch nemesis Dr. Evil is far worse. Pit them off against each other and you’re bound to have a stupid good time amid all the outrageous bits of parody. Oh yeah, check out The Spy Who Shagged Me and Austin Powers in Goldmember too. Groovy Baby!

Get Smart (2008): This is a public service announcement. No offense to Steve Carell or Anne Hathaway whatsoever, but please just go ahead and watch the TV show with the iconic duo of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon with Edward Platt. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were comic geniuses and they knew a good fad when they saw one. Spies might come and go but “Shoe Phones” and “Cones of Silence” will never die. Would you believe? Because you should.

Bonus – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) et al: It might not feel exactly like Bond and Indiana Jones is a big enough star in his own right, but there’s no doubt that the special mixture of thrills, humor, and iconic status also falls on the mantle of Dr. Jones. Of course, it doesn’t hurt either that his father is played by none other than Sean Connery the guy who was in Marnie, The Hunt for Red October, and, yes, a few other movies.

This is only a few options so please don’t think you have a license to kill me for leaving something off. But hope you enjoyed this assortment of 10 classic flicks for every Bond lover.