I watched so many films in preparation for award voting, I almost forgot I had written other capsule reviews at the end of last year. As this year’s award cycle comes to an end, I thought I might as well share my thoughts on some of 2022’s other releases.
Elvis is a schizophrenic biopic full of decadence and a giant performance from Austin Butler. He’s cast as an atomic individual with gyrating hips and supernatural energy imbibed by Black spirituals – the Holy Spirit as transcendent superpower. Likewise, homage is paid to inspirations like B.B. King and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and a bit like The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann develops this cultural collage with the nostalgia given a contemporary facelift via Eminem and Doja Cat. The cradle-to-grave blueprint almost feels too monumental with the biggest leap coming between Elvis’s enlistment in the military in 1958 to his cultural nadir in 1968.
I’m intrigued by the decision to frame the story through Colonel Powers, though I didn’t entirely appreciate the execution. Tom Hanks seems to pull us out of the movie in a disconcerting way. The images themselves can feel plastic albeit underpinned by Butler’s sympathetic moodiness. Somehow this seems to work well, and he goes for it in all manner of ways from the vocals, to the costuming and the fluctuating register of his voice.
I have one primary qualm: although we tear through so much territory with Luhrman’s quintessential panache, we get very little time to actually appreciate these characters, nay, even get to know them. Elvis and Priscilla share a few solitary scenes of heartbreak and tenderness. Still, the rest of the movie feels more like an aesthetically pleasing clip show or montage projecting the aura of Elvis. Because he was such a gargantuan figure. The film gets that right.
But it never demystifies him in a way where we can get to know him and fully empathize. The most gripping moment might be right at the end when Butler fades out, and we suddenly realize we are looking at the real Elvis in his last performance of “Unchained Melody.” He gasps for air, he looks like an incoherent wreck on stage, and yet when he starts to belt out his song, we are reminded he was touched by something sublime. Perhaps Luhrmann wasn’t far off the mark after all.
Women Talking has a powerful theme at its core – a noble theme – and it takes it on with quietude and immense consideration. It is based on Miriam Toews’s novel dealing with a Mennonite enclave in the aftermath of a revelation: the men in their religious colony have been drugging and raping the women, and attributing it to the supernatural. The title somehow makes an implicit suggestion: men should be slow to speak and quick to listen – at least quicker than we normally are. And Sarah Polley creates this arena for all sorts of personalities and viewpoints to chafe against one another. It can be painful, but there’s also some catharsis found in this space up in a dimly lit grain silo.
Although its tone is different, the nature of the material reminded me of last year’s Mass. These are self-contained dramas; they could have easily been performed on the stage instead of celluloid, and yet the breadth of the performances wields immense power. If you run down the gamut of Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jesse Buckley, et al, there are innumerable emotions – piousness, vengeance, and hurt. There is no easy way to parse through the trauma.
In one scene, a young girl questions the excommunicated man, August (Ben Whishaw), if his family was cast out because his mother questioned God. He makes a distinction: She did not question God; she questioned the power and the rules made in the name of God. These are the accoutrements Kierkegaard might have labeled Christendom, and many of them are rancorous having nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Aesthetically I’m still trying to parse through its washed-out color palette, and while I understand what it’s trying to accomplish, somehow it detracts from the film. It’s not just ugliness for uglinesses sake, but it feels like a visual faux pas or at least a missed opportunity. In Women Talking a sense of scenery and landscape comes out most in the final minutes as we recognize we are watching an exodus to a land they do not know. The resplendent scoring does leave a sense of anticipation and hopefulness in a film offering very little optimism otherwise.
“I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle” – Nahum 3:6
The meta-irony of the movie should not be lost on us. Jordan Peele has created a spectacle movie about our collective obsession with spectacle. I’m certainly not the first to notice, but it’s telling he names his sibling duo OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer). He effectively weaves together allusions to OJ Simpson’s trial and car chase with the Emerald City out of Frank Baum’s beloved fantasy. Somewhere in the mix, we’ve found the perfect cultural touchstones for what we end up witnessing.
But the best part of Poole’s films is how he gives us what we desire as an audience with the genre expectations and still, he finds time to grapple with deeper thematic ideas. It morphs into a kind of Sci-Fi revisionist western as OJ looks to maintain his father’s Hollywood stunt riding and horse business under mysterious circumstances. Poole grafts them into history – including the images of Edward Muybridge – even as he begins to redefine images of Blacks in the West, if not necessarily the representation of the western in cinema itself. Still, if you look closely, you’ll quickly spy the very intentional posters of Duel at Diablo and Buck and The Preacher, two westerns both starring Sidney Poitier, in a genre that otherwise lacked black heroes.
The movie’s horrors come at the cost of gut-wrenching voyeurism over gruesome tragedy, and I appreciate how the director creates an entire matrix for his story to swim in with a history paralleling our own. He also recognizes the imperative need for pervasive tension and not just jump scares. In fact, it can almost be said the film is slow in patches, although it’s all about creating this world. It involves a child star-turned-family attraction man (Steven Yeun) and a tech whiz who works at the now-defunct Fry’s electronics. It’s big and ambitious, and yes, a bit messy, but somehow all these disparate pieces build something in front of us.
Leave it to Poole to conjure up a predatory UFO using our rubbernecking against us. We are inundated with wreckage and upheaval that comes at the cost of our collective obsessions. So Nope serves up the writer-director’s genre thrills while never shirking the broader social commentary. It’s this combination making his movies into what can only feel like cultural events. Only the audience can determine if he’s feeding into the spectacle machine or not and how you would like to respond to it. A faceless spectacle seeker chides OJ to make a name for himself, and it’s difficult not to hear this as an evocation of babel. It feels almost like the temptation on the flip side of the oracle in Nahum. Because we make a spectacle out of everything: TV show tragedies, carnival attractions, and certainly UFOs.
Everything Everywhere All At Once
I was hesitant about The Daniels thanks to their pedigree gleaned from twerking music videos and Swiss Army Man trailers. Still, they have grounded their outrageous proclivities in something I can appreciate, and EEAAO is their broadest film yet by its very design. In a generation swimming with multiverse movies, this outrageous creative tandem has conceived their own spin with a choose-your-own-adventure of a different sort starring a Chinese-American immigrant family front and center.
As Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and James Hong are framed in an elevator together, I recognized this is the movie I always wanted to see and never get the chance to as a kid. It feels like a kind of much-awaited wish fulfillment within the Asian community: A beloved star taking on a role initially envisioned for Jackie Chan only to lend her own heartfelt and butt-kicking presence. A former child star who disappeared from in front of the screen thanks to the dearth of roles only to make a triumphant return. And a journeyman, utterly ubiquitous icon who finally garnered his due. And here they all are together cast as a family of genuine action heroes. And yet within these parameters of the family unit and what that means within this very specific context. We have stories like Crazy Rich Asians or The Farewell, and I continue to yearn for more and more of them.
What the Daniels bring to this space is an inexhaustible imagination taking creativity to its zenith with its share of gross-out scatological humor. Their sensibilities are not always to my liking, but it is a tall order to be all things to all people even with the aid of a multiverse. The movie pings through time and space with a wacky abandon flinging our heroine Evelyn into all sorts of circumstances before becoming an existential meditation on life. We only have one life left to lead: This one.
Family turmoil sends her spiraling and The Daniels evoke the impending nihilism with two rocks sitting next to the edge of the abyss, then pinatas swinging without self-determination, or finally a scribbled drawing without defined form or context. Surely the world is collapsing around us. But I can’t get away from this cast and how happy I am to see them together and how they fight mightily for some kind of solace and personal restitution. Because this is the film’s battle – a battle familiar to any of us with family. My final thought is only to consider the film’s sense of language and even how the end credits are written out with each actor’s family characters (along with the English). I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that before. Movie aside, these small recognitions feel like mini revelations.
“I keep asking myself why is this happening. Why did he take my child from me? What am I supposed to do?”
There’s something classical in Chinonye Chukwu’s techniques. For anyone familiar with the killing of Emmett Till, it could be a gruesome story, and yet in the moments where she could go for the visceral jugular, she goes for tact and a level of forbearance. Tension and the ache that comes with our own imaginations and the empathy welling up inside of our hearts are more than enough. In fact, it’s probably more potent.
In making it a mother’s story about Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler), it doesn’t strip away any of the power or detract from the focus. Instead, it’s made supremely evident Mamie has such a stalwart moral constitution and an unwavering faith. Her son’s horrific death at the hands of southern racists was not something to cripple her. Instead, she carried his mantle with bravery so the whole world might be opened up to the despicable hate still festering in American society. What’s more, Emmett’s funeral – honoring an irrepressible boy lost far too soon – was met with the resoluteness of the old hymn: “It is Well with my Soul.” It could easily sound like religious folly unless you have a deeper understanding like Mamie about what her purpose was.
Sadly, it’s hard for the film to climax after the egregious moments surrounding Emmett’s death, with a court case that feels all but inevitable in its conclusions. Still, the closest thing to a revelation might be when Mamie turns and sees the image of her son in the flesh smiling in front of her again. To her, this was not wishful thinking but a galvanizing belief that she would one day see her boy again. I don’t know any other way you could move forward and keep from being inconsolable. There must be a groaning even a yearning that the aberrant hatred of this world is not the final word. Justice will ultimately roll down, and she vowed to fight for it on this side of eternity until she saw her boy again.
Emily The Criminal
If you’re a 20-something saddled with debt or trying to make a go of it in a gig-driven economy, Emily The Criminal might hit home. It’s centered on an L.A. that does seem to exist under the surface and still somehow exhibits a very specific milieu riffing off the focused austerity of someone like Michael Mann.
It’s a modern-day neo-noir in a sense as we watch a young working professional live two parallel lives leading her deeper and deeper into one of the dark underbellies of the city. Although she aspires to be an artist, Emily currently works for a catering service, and when a coworker gives her a tantalizing tip – $200 for an easy hour of work, it sends her on her dramatic journey. For all those with fond memories of Aubrey Plaza as the misanthropic Parks and Rec intern, she upends expectations once again driven by a sense of listlessness and desperation. The world of credit card fraud mills and dummy shoppers is so tantalizing to the outside observer and depending upon your station in life, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump away from our own experiences.
The romance between Emily and her general enabler and guide Youcef (Theo Rossi) feels like one of the most unlikely pairings of the year and still, it works to feed the film’s drama and lend it an emotional credibility. Because it feels like the film teeters perilously on the precipice of easy stereotypes, and yet it somehow comes out intact. Like all great neo-noir films, there is a grittiness to the picture where we feel and sense the danger; it is tactile and yet we can’t bear to look away because it has a grip on us.
I recall Christopher Nolan’s advice about finding ways to hide your budget with the weapons you use. Guns are pretty important for a crime picture, but they also come with their own production pitfalls. Nolan used hammers in his debut, and to that point, I’ve never seen Exacto knives and tasers used to such stirring effect as they are in this picture. They act as a practical extension of the world and the everyday menace ever-present. Plaza continues to show her abilities and no doubt will earn a new following from those who never conceived her as this kind of crime hero. She’s good and somehow her reputation for darkly comic sensibilities is given an even more incisive edge. What’s more, it looks to be just the beginning.
At first, RRR seemed like a package of shoddy pyrotechnics, CGI, and over-embellishment, but about an hour in I began to rethink these cursory perceptions. There’s a sense that S. S. Rajamouli is effectively rejuvenating the epic biopic with newfound energy in a way Hollywood hasn’t managed for some time. Perhaps we’ve been too afraid to try for some time with Marvel acting as such a comforting safety blanket for the industry coffers.
Still, RRR, one of the priciest Indian productions ever, has gone for the fences and proved itself to be a lucrative international sensation without quite caving to the lowest common denominator. It maintains its own very specific identity as a Tollywood film albeit dressed up with all the aforementioned action and special effects. But out on the dance floor with our two heroes leading the charge with “Naatu Naatu” and a host of women in 1920s ballroom dress, there’s something dynamic and alive about how brash and rambunctious it is tearing through conventions.
I’m by no means an expert on this cinematic space. Until recently I didn’t know there was a Tollywood to go with Bollywood; I’ve seen Lagaan, some of the films by Ray, and a few others. What’s excellent about RRR is that you don’t need a specific pedigree. You just have to open up your arms and enjoy what it has to offer. I found myself initially unmoved and bored with the tedium of its swooping and exploding action.
I can get this from the western shores of Hollywood. And it’s easy to acknowledge these characters are hardly realistic, and yet our own industry sustains itself on a steady diet of comic book characters so it seems quite unobliging not to welcome two more onto the world stage. Beem and Raju are capable heroes, and they work as an exercise in contrast – not only as physical specimens but also with their personal histories and how they manifest in their interlocking journeys.
The opening and climax of the film feel overwrought with action spectacle, and it wasn’t of particular interest. It’s for those with their popcorn looking for this kind of thrill. I was much more compelled by the middle of the picture with Beem bursting into the British compound and having to face his brother now cast as his utter antagonist. Because not only does he exhibit a Robin Hood-like daring, going into the enemy’s midst, but we can also sense the import of each of their arcs.
Initially, it’s about their growing relationship and the tension because their secret is separating these two friends. But then it becomes physical, and it’s impossible to untangle the action from the emotion. Because at its very best RRR is able to speak into our universal longings for brotherhood and seeking out justice in a world often dominated by violence and blatant disregard for the vulnerable. Folk heroes like these somehow tap into our deepest longings since they are capable of doing everything we long to do but can’t.
Marcel The Shell with Shoes On
As a PBS-bred kid, there’s kind of a no-frills stability and general integrity coming with the name PBS. And although 60 Minutes had its lightning rods, there’s something almost solace-like about how it features in this snail-sized story. Marcel The Shell is the kind of benevolent content we need more of in our news stream. I use content because this is the parlance of the new millennium as we have the proliferation of stimuli trying to capture our eyeballs and constantly vying for our attention. Watching Marcel the little Youtube sensation my sister introduced to over a decade ago feels like a bit of a marvel. The brainchild of Jenny Slate and Dean Fleischer-Camp feels positively quaint by today’s standards, and it reflects how rapidly internet years speed by.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure if there’s enough here for a feature, and yet…I’m not angry because in bringing Marcel to the fore again, we get a quiet meditation on the simpler things in life. As Slate becomes the little guy’s mouthpiece, the faux documentary gives us innumerable fresh pearls of wisdom. For instance, an audience is not a community. One feels vulgar the other involves personal investment. Likewise, by some obscure paradox, Marcel notes it’s easiest to rest when you have a party in your home and you go upstairs to a quiet room knowing there are people around you. As a raging introvert who acknowledges my need for people, I know this to be true.
Lesley Stahl feels like one of the unsung stars of the year and Isabella Rossellini is the consummate professional. How a film about a pretend shell with googly eyes could become one of the year’s most heartfelt explorations of losing loved ones is beyond me. But with “Amazing Grace” playing in the background and the methodical rhythms of the movie, it offered a lot more than I was expecting. Sometimes the unassuming packages become all the more meaningful.