Lamb is a 2021 Icelandic film from A24 (the studio behind, among many others, Hereditary, Minari,Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, and Ex Machina). It is directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason. It is in Icelandic. It was released in October and is currently on premium video on demand.
What is Lamb about?
Lamb is about two farmers who discover a baby that is half-sheep, half-human. The couple begins to raise the creature as their own child, but strange occurrences threaten to tear the new family apart.
What genre is Lamb?
The film is a slow-paced drama with some horror elements. I’m a real wimp when it comes to horror movies, but I could handle Lamb, as it isn’t full of jump scares or gore. There are a few disturbing images, but the real horror comes from the tense atmosphere and disquieting premise. It’s quietly terrifying, leaving the bulk of the story’s implications up to the imagination. The anticipation of what could happen next is the scariest part.
Does the movie have a good payoff?
I believe so. Now, this is a fable– this isn’t the kind of film to try to logically break down with “well how exactly did the sheep-baby come to be?” or “why don’t they act more surprised at discovering the sheep-baby?” It’s a metaphor and examination of grief. It’s fantasy-realism, so just go with it. I think the reveals in the film are 1) brilliantly understated so they’re even scarier, and 2) just enough to tease you into imagining something worse, and 3) never going the direction you imagine they’ll go, which makes them both satisfying and frustrating (in the best way).
How’s the acting?
Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason are absolutely mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. With barely any words you believe their characters have had a long history together and you understand their bond. Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, who comes in in the middle of the film to shake things up as an unwanted visitor and audience surrogate character, is also excellent, bringing an unsettling dynamic to the film.
Will this make me want to be a farmer?
After seeing all the gorgeous landscapes, yes. After seeing the evil sheep? No.
Yeah, you heard me.
Will this movie make me feel weird about sheep?
Probably. If possible, I recommend restraining from interacting with sheep until at least 30 days after seeing this film. By then you should be okay.
The real thing I’m scared of is subtitles. Will I like Lamb?
There’s not much dialogue, so there’s not much subtitle-reading required! However, if you need something fast-paced or talkative, you might struggle with Lamb. I saw this in theatres and was engrossed, but I know that if I had been watching it at home, I would have probably picked up my phone multiple times. I think Lamb is a rewarding watch, but it will definitely take more discipline and effort than most other movies require.
Should I watch this with my kids or relatives?
No. Kids definitely would not enjoy it and would probably be scared by it, and it’s rated R for a sex scene with some female nudity, along with brief violence.
Are there any valid critiques of Lamb?
Some have said the film is not substantive, just atmospheric, without any actual deeper messages. I disagree; I think the grief the characters experience is conveyed through the melancholy atmosphere and the ambiguity allows you to work through your own interpretations. It’s not a movie that is going to tell you anything; it invites you into an emotional experience. But I can understand the frustration some will have with that style.
So…should I see Lamb?
If you want to see one of the wildest, most original films of the year, be deeply unsettled but oddly touched, and meditate on nature and grief, then yes.
Hello, friends! I’ve been on a little hiatus due to a big move and a new job, but I’ve still been watching movies and I want to recommend a few to you. Today we’ll take a look at a few Oscar-hopefuls, movies which have begun to generate award buzz and you might be seeing on some best of the year lists. But do they make my list?
Last Night in Soho
2021 has been a big year for director Edgar Wright. In the summer, he released a documentary The Sparks Brothers, which got critical acclaim. This fall he released his newest fictional film, which is following up his biggest and most mainstream hit yet, 2017’s Baby Driver. Last Night in Soho is a thriller with homages to the Giallo Italian horror genre. It stars Thomasin McKenzie (incredible here, go see her work in Leave No Trace) as Elle, a young country girl who moves to London to study fashion and begins having dreams about Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), the woman who once lived in her room. The lives of the two women become entangled as the line between Elle’s visions and reality blur.
There’s so much to admire about this film. It has Edgar Wright’s characteristic energetic cinematography, a perfect soundtrack, and great performances from the whole cast. While he is a director who can come dangerously close to style over substance (see Wes Anderson), here he is still quite stylized, but it all serves the story. His directing draws attention to the story, not to himself.
And it is the story that impressed me most. I think Last Night in Soho could appropriately be compared to the likes of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby or Jordan Peele’s Get Out as sociological horror. Like both of those films, Last Night uses conventions of the horror genre to explore real-life societal horrors. Get Out examined racism by putting a Black protagonist in a horror situation, and the story of Rosemary’s Baby explores abusive relationships, rape, the loss of bodily autonomy during pregnancy. Here, Last Night explores how young women can get trapped into sex work, and the broader rape culture we live in, seen through the eyes of its two female protagonists. The movie is also remarkable in the way it captures the feeling of being a young woman from a small town who has just moved into a seedy big city, and the paranoia that can come from this heightened danger.
The ending is the only weak part of the film. I think to have a “gotcha!” ending, Wright sacrifices thematic consistency. I’ll speak broadly, as I don’t want to give anything away since I think it’s a movie best gone in without spoilers, but I think the ending undercuts both Sandie’s story and Elle. By trying to empower Sandie at the last minute, Elle’s agency is taken away and the tragedy of Sandie’s story is undercut. The film then ceases to be insightful about the way women are preyed on, and loses its critique of nostalgia, simply becoming a revenge story.
However, this ending doesn’t ruin the movie, and I still think it’s one of the best films of the year. I don’t think it will have a lot of award chances outside of costume design, original screenplay, and production design, but perhaps if it’s a weak year Wright might be able to snag a best director nod.
Last Night in Soho is now on premium video on demand
Passing, adapted from the novel of the same name by Nella Larsen, is a gorgeous, measured piece of filmmaking, and an impressive directing debut by Rebecca Hall. The story centers on two Black women in 1920s New York City: Irene (Tessa Thompson), a demure and discontent mother and wife, and Clare (Ruth Negga), a mysterious and wild woman who has made her way through the world passing as white and is married to a white man who doesn’t know she’s Black. As Irene watches Clare leverage her ability to be both white and Black, Irene wrestles with feelings of jealousy, hatred, and repressed desires.
I studied this novel extensively in college and loved it, so I was thrilled to see the way the film adapts the novel perfectly and teases out some of its subtexts. It is, most obviously, an insightful commentary on race and “whiteness.” It shows how race is a social creation– we assign meaning to each race and give it abundant shorthands to classify who does or does not belong to that group, regardless of actual heritage or skin color. But the novel is also about the burdens of motherhood, the limited options for women at the time, and class struggles, and it has enough implications to allow for a queer reading. The film doesn’t bring this queer subtext to the forefront or commit to it, but it allows it to be present and ambiguous, mostly through the work of the actors.
Speaking of the actors, Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga are both excellent. Thompson gets to play a much more restrained character than she is often asked to play in her bigger films, and Negga is able to be both naively waifish and quietly sinister.
At a tight 90 minutes, there’s not a wasted moment in this film. If you’re ready to enjoy a meditative drama and perfect performances, please watch Passing. While the Academy has a fraught relationship with Netflix films, I would love to see it get nominations for directing, supporting for Negga, and cinematography.
Passing is now on Netflix
King Richard, which tells the story of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams’ rise through the coaching of their father Richard (Will Smith),hits all the beats of a classic, feel-good sports film. But there are enough twists and unique angles to make it stand apart.
First and foremost, this is a star vehicle for Will Smith. This is the perfect role for him, an amalgamation of all of his strengths as a star and a capstone on his career. The role requires his comedic chops, underrated dramatic skills, overflowing charisma, and ability to be unlikeable without ever actually being unlikeable. He’s going to get plenty of due awards praise, but this is also an excellent ensemble film, so don’t sleep on Aunjanue Ellis as mother Brandi Williams, who is excellent here, and both Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton (Venus and Serena, respectively). It’s a movie of powerhouse performances and everyone pulls his or her own weight.
Critic Grace Randolph points out in her review of the film that King Richard can be seen as an inverse to 2009’s The Blind Side, which won Sandra Bullock a best actress Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture. The Blind Side has been criticized for upholding a white savior narrative, where the white Tuohy family saves and uplifts Michael Oher. In King Richard, the Williams family is celebrated for uplifting themselves. This narrative (awarding King Richard can help atone for the ignorance of the Academy in awarding The Blind Side) could help its award chances, but it is also simply a major appeal of the film. The Williams family is shown as a tight-knit family that loves one another and fights for dignity despite challenges thrown at them. It’s rightly inspiring and sweet (even though the reality is more complicated). In addition, it’s nice to see a movie focusing on the relationship between fathers and daughters.
Because of the focus on fathers and daughters, while watching, I thought of the film Infinitely Polar Bear, based on director Maya Forbes’s own father Cam (played by Mark Ruffalo). Cam is much like Richard Williams- a charismatic, passionate, artistic man who wants to give his children the world but has a host of personal flaws and failings in the way. But throughout Infinitely Polar Bear there is the sense Forbes is holding back, and never quite telling the full truth about her father. Even in his worst moments, the movie seems to never fully acknowledge the pain his actions must have caused.
It is the same with King Richard. It is wonderful Venus and Serena, who executive produce here and were heavily involved with the filmmaking, clearly love and respect their dad and want to pay tribute to him. But their protection of him means that whenever the film is trying to be honest about the negative parts of Richard, it always pulls back from being too real. But this is a common issue in biopics, not at all original to King Richard. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a movie too harshly for what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does. And what it does do is give us a well-made, winning story about family, personal dignity, and triumph.
King Richard is in theaters and is streaming on HBO Max
A warning: Spencer is not a biography of Princess Diana. Do not expect, like I did, to come out with new knowledge and insight into Diana or her life or the royal family. Instead, Spencer is a surreal dark fairy tale, with fable logic, which imagines the Christmas before Diana and Charles’s divorce. Spencer is primarily interested in exploring the possible emotional life of the Princess, often using elements of psychological horror and dreamlike sequences to capture her depression and mounting frustration.
Here, Diana is a tortured gothic heroine, roaming mansions and the moors in her nightgown, talking to ghosts and envisioning and predicting her own demise, her moments in the real world detached and unsteady, her body and mind falling apart at the seams. You spend the movie entrenched in Diana’s perspective of feeling trapped, like a mouse in a labyrinth, searching for a way out. I felt this acutely throughout the movie, and then even more so when I left the film and spent thirty minutes wandering lost in a parking garage.
Kristen Stewart, as we have discovered in her post-Twilight days, is a talented actress in the right role, and this is the right role. Her portrayal of Princess Diana wouldn’t make sense if superimposed onto any other project about Diana, but here she carries the movie’s vision with her shuddered, nervous physicality, some of the best hand acting I’ve ever seen, and an undercurrent of fierce fortitude.
I don’t think you will remember Spencer for its plot or the whole of the movie, but a few specific images and sequences have lingered in my mind. If you go in with the correct expectations and enjoy moody dramas, then I think you’ll appreciate Spencer. Overall, I don’t see the film having many Oscar chances outside of a best actress nomination and costume design, but depending on its award campaign it could be a dark horse contender for best picture.
Spencer is in theaters and on premium video on demand
*Technically* this came out at the end of July but I’m roping it in here. I was unabashedly excited for Jungle Cruise. With my vaccine, mask, and uncrowded theater, I was ready to get back to the big screen and set to like this movie (the film is also on Disney+ with premier access). I love fun adventure movies like Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure, andTomb Raider. I’m as charmed by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt as the rest of America. I love Jesse Plemons playing unhinged weirdos. And I firmly believe the addition of a boat makes any movie better.
Jungle Cruise delivers all of these elements. None of these elements are played up to their fullest potential, but they’re all there. The movie has a big, dumb, mad-libs-style plot that you don’t need to pay close attention to because, in the end, the real Amazonian magic healing flower is the friends we made along the way. The action sequences are exciting and make great use of the setting, even though there is an over-reliance on CGI. Johnson and Blunt are charismatic enough to make you believe their overdone, stale, bantering dynamic, and while I could always use more, Plemons does get to be weird and great in the role of the villainous Prince Joachim. The jungle cruise boat itself is well utilized and fully realized.
Jungle Cruise gives you exactly what it promises, and absolutely nothing more. It’s not going to be remembered as being as inventive as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (when it first started), or as beloved as The Mummy, or as ridiculous fun as National Treasure. It’s like much of Dwayne Johnson’s career– sturdy, reliable, earnest, get the job done. It’s a fine time at the movies. But I can’t help but wish it had been a little more.
The Suicide Squad
The first Suicide Squad movie, directed by David Ayer and released in 2016, was almost universally disliked and critically panned. But the IP was too valuable to lose, and the film made $746 million at the box office, so how do you solve a problem like Suicide Squad? According to Warner Brothers and DC, you hire the recently fired (later rehired) Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, change up the casting, make it unclear whether this is a sequel? Prequel? Reboot? and you try again, letting Gunn run with an R rating and promise a level of naughtiness and provocation that would maybe be edgy for a fifteen-year-old boy.
I did not like The Suicide Squad, but I will admit that is probably more due to taste than the film itself. The Suicide Squad is stylistic, visually inventive, and the screenplay is actually coherent, which is an improvement on the 2016 film. It’s the work of an auteur and I admire that Gunn’s distinct vision is realized. For people who enjoy Gunn’s work and other movies in this vein, I think The Suicide Squad is worth seeing, and I’m always a proponent of superhero movies being experimental.
Ultimately, I just dislike Gunn’s sensibilities as a filmmaker on display here. I didn’t think the excessive gore added anything to the story. I found the characters flat, with all attempts to humanize them undercut by their irredeemable and unexamined actions. The jokes and dialogue are unfunny, often because of their over-reliance on crudeness and shock-value. It just wasn’t for me, but that’s okay. It’s for some people, which, again, is a step-up from the first film, which was for no one.
The Suicide Squad is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
CODA, streaming now on Apple+, is being heralded as one of the best films of the year. But what makes this coming-of-age story so special?
The story follows many tried-and-true story beats as it follows Ruby, a high school senior who spends her days working for her family’s flailing fishing business and trying to make it through all the normal mortifications of high school– bullying, being unnoticed by her crush, and trying out for choir. When Ruby’s choir teacher recognizes she has talent, he encourages her to audition for the Berklee College of Music. But Ruby’s family needs her at home, and they don’t fully appreciate her talent. Ruby struggles with identity and forming her own path. It’s pretty standard stuff.
But there’s a twist to all of this. The reason why her family doesn’t appreciate her talent is because both of her parents and brother are deaf. Ruby is a CODA- child of deaf adults- and that’s also why they need her to stay and help out the business by interpreting for them. Ruby must decide between sacrificing her own dreams and her family’s needs.
What is so special about CODA is that Ruby’s deaf family is not presented as a twist. The representation of deaf people and the way they navigate the world feels natural and lived-in. Each character is complex and has their own motivations and interior life. They aren’t a plot device, they are central to the story and the emotional core of the film. The tropes of coming-of-age stories here are made fresh by both the unique angle of framing it with deaf characters, which is a rarity on screen, but also by just how well these story beats are executed and the way they all crescendo to an emotionally satisfying ending. These reasons make CODA the best kind of heartwarming drama, and a must-watch for this year.
Judas and the Black Messiah is one of the most anticipated movies of 2021, and it doesn’t disappoint. Outstanding performances by Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry To Bother You) ground the story of Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), an informant who infiltrated the Black Panther Party in Chicago and helped the FBI kill chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya) in 1969.
As an alumnus of the Oklahoma educational system, I was never taught about the Black Panthers other than they were on the “wrong side” of the civil rights movement and were diametrically opposed to Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent approach. This, of course, not only neuters King, who was quite radical, but also ignores the complexities of the Black Panthers and erases the good they did.
So I went into Judas and the Black Messiah knowing very little about anything. If you are more familiar and educated on this subject, you may find more things to take issue with, especially when it comes to Fred Hampton’s portrayal. As my first real introduction to the subject, though, I was riveted. The movie balances the politics and violence with tender moments which humanize Hampton to flesh out the story and create a three-dimensional look at this period in Hampton’s life and career. The story honors Hampton, but it does not completely heroize or villanize him and the Panthers.
However, the film struggles between being a straight biopic of Hampton or an FBI crime movie, and caught in the middle is O’Neal, who as a result, is not fleshed out very well. O’Neal’s motivations as a character feel weak and under-baked, but Lakeith Stanfield mostly overcomes these problems with the script through his sheer charisma and expressiveness. And speaking of Stanfield, the best part of Judas and the Black Messiah are the performances, and all three leads are excellent. Daniel Kaluuya brings a feverish intensity and equal vulnerability to his role, and Jesse Plemons as an FBI agent continues to nail the role of creepy “nice” guy. Kaluuya and Stanfield have both been nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and I think either would be deserving of a win (although it makes more sense for Kaluuya to be in the Best Actor category).
It’s hard not to speak of the film as being “timely” in light of the reignited national conversation about police brutality over last summer with the killing of George Floyd (and the upcoming trial of officer Derek Chauvin). Yet maybe the most effective part of the film is reminding us these events were not part of the distant past, a history we are repeating. Fred Hampton’s son and Hampton’s fiancée Deborah Johnson appear at the end of the movie. This was 52 years ago. It’s not the past, it’s the present that we continue to wrestle with.
Judas and the Black Messiah is currently in theaters
The White Tiger, based on the 2008 book by Aravind Adiga, tells the story of Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a driver for a wealthy family in India who plots to escape his poverty and low-caste status. The White Tiger has been compared to Slumdog Millionaire, and it even references Slumdog Millionaire in the movie. The White Tiger poses itself as a corrective, a real look at India and the lower class, from a distinctly Indian gaze, not sanded down or whitewashed for Western audiences. Like 2019’s Best Picture winner Parasite, The White Tiger brings class politics and a story of poverty into sharp focus with a satirical bite. Balram wins our sympathy as we witness his abuse, yet his methods to free himself are deeply disturbing, but there are seemingly no other options for him. As he fashions himself into the kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” entrepreneur that we all but worship in America, the movie becomes deeply unsettling. While the film doesn’t always perfectly balance the tone, the politics, and the commentary, it mostly succeeds, especially with Gourav’s performance. It’s worth the watch, even when it’s hard to swallow.
Malcolm & Marie
In Malcolm & Marie, starring John David Washington and Zendaya as the titular couple, Malcolm, a film director, has two lengthy monologues about critics- pointedly, at liberal white critics who try to impose a racial reading onto all films created by Black filmmakers. Malcolm reads one of these reviews of his film and eviscerates it. This puts me, as a critic, in an awkward position. The review Malcolm reads is a lot like the stuff I have written on this very blog. Or, at least, what I’ve wanted to write here, in an effort to imitate other reviewers I find to be thoughtful and insightful.
As an aspiring critic, I found it fascinating and humbling to watch Malcolm & Marie. As a viewer, though, I’m not quite as sure of its appeal. It’s two hours of straight arguing, where Malcolm and Marie don’t so much embody people as they do warring ideological stances. At one point Marie calls Malcolm an “emotional terrorist,” and honestly, I feel a little terrorized watching these two people try to destroy each other in hateful words. It’s incredibly sad, and I can’t say if there is anything really redemptive about watching these arguments. But that’s my perspective as a single person; it may play differently to people in relationships.
Malcolm & Marie has similarities to Locked Down. Both were made in quarantine, are about a troubled couple, and are very theatrical through their use of monologues and limited staging. Malcolm & Marie is better made and acted, but both are wearying to watch.
To All The Boys: Always and Forever
Netflix’s juggernaut young adult romance series To All the Boys I Loved Before comes to a close with the third installment, Always and Forever. In it, our high school sweethearts Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) are seniors looking towards college and the future, and whether the other has any place in it.
After three installments, the conflicts between Lara Jean and Peter can feel contrived. Even in its most hokey moments, though, Condor and Centineo’s chemistry elevates the material. But it’s all of the story elements outside of the romance in Always and Forever that make the film interesting and real.One of the subplots has Lara Jean’s father getting remarried, and Lara Jean struggles to be happy for him while also sad at the disappearing traces of her mom. The struggle to choose a college is all very real for high school seniors, as is the struggle to determine what is worth holding onto and what you have to let go of. Peter feels like going to college means abandoning his family, and when his absent father wants back into his life, Peter must wrestle with his anger towards him. There are pieces of nuance here that cut through an otherwise slightly-overcooked melodrama of a relationship that feels one miscommunication away from ending. However, I think fans of the series, or people who love rom-coms, will enjoy To All the Boys. But no matter how hard it tries, it can’t beat the classic movie it’s obviously based on: High School Musical 3.
I Care a Lot
Like White Tiger, I Care a Lot desires to deliver a scathing commentary on capitalism through its ruthless antihero. Here Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson, a legal guardian for senior citizens. Marla is running a powerful scheme: she bribes medical professionals to identify rich elderly clients, then falsely report that the client is sick or otherwise unable to take care of themselves. Marla then swoops in and takes legal custody of them by sending the victim to a care facility and seizing hold of all of their assets and making bank.
Inspired by real-life cases of elder abuse, this compelling premise makes for an excellent first act, which shows Marla enact her plot on the seemingly meek Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Weist). I was physically sickened watching Marla’s crimes. This first act offers observations into how Marla is able to get away with her scheme by using her privileges as a white woman, with her self-styled “girlboss” business-savvy, and how she is able to exploit bureaucracy and the indifference of the legal system.
All of this promise, packaged into a fast-paced, stylish film, is lost in the second and third acts, which devolve into a mob-movie that tries to paint Marla as sympathetic and is simply not as unique as the film’s initial premise. I Care a Lot is an entertaining watch, but it doesn’t add up to anything. When it was over, all I felt was numb and disgusted.
Over the Moon is a cute animated film about a young girl in China who believes in a traditional Chinese myth about a goddess who lives on the moon. When the girl’s father introduces her to her future stepmother, the girl builds a rocket to go to the moon goddess for help in breaking up the marriage.
Over the Moon is best when it takes place on Earth, telling a tender story about grief and blended families. Once the characters get to the moon, the pacing becomes more frantic and the story more silly. Still, through it all, the animation is cartoonish but stylized, and the musical sequences are catchy. It’s the perfect choice for a family film, and I think will be entertaining for older viewers as well.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a lot like 2016’s Fences,beyond both being adaptations of August Wilson plays. Both star Viola Davis in mesmerizing performances. Fences was directed by and starred Denzel Washington, and Ma Rainey is produced by him. Both films never utilize the film medium enough to ever feel like anything other than a play, yet both are so incredibly acted and written it doesn’t really matter. Like Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom delves deeply into the specifics of the Black American experience while still exploring universal emotions, even in a period piece. Here, it depicts the struggle of trailblazing Black musicians like Ma Rainey to gain respect and maintain power. The film is worth watching on multiple accounts, but it is especially resonant as Chadwick Boseman’s last film, and he doesn’t disappoint in his intense, soulful performance.
The Prom is based on the 2018 Tony-nominated musical about Broadway actors going to a small town in Indiana to advocate on behalf of a young lesbian, Emma, who is denied the ability to go to prom with her date. While the actors, played in the film by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, and Andrew Rannells, go for selfish reasons, over the course of their stay they become less self-absorbed and genuinely helpful in bringing about change in town.
This Ryan Murphy-directed musical has received blowback for James Corden’s performance (I didn’t find it horrendous, but at best, it’s grating and tired), the lack of development for most of the characters, and leaning less into the satire of famous people and more into just focusing on famous people. The film has also been criticized for certain adaptational changes, which is what I find most revealing. One of the key adaptational changes is that Barry (Corden’s character) ends up reuniting with his mother, who kicked him out of the house as a teen. The film also has Kerry Washington’s character redeemed, accepting her gay daughter at the end of the film.
Neither of these story beats are in the musical and seem to me strange choices by Murphy. The LGBTQ+ community has a strong tradition of found families, yet The Prom prioritizes reunion with biological families, even families that treat their children terribly. The Prom is preaching to the choir but doesn’t really represent the diversity and core values of the LGBTQ+ community. In trying to be super palatable for straight people, it ends up feeling mushy and shapeless, like an overly-long musical number.
From its initial reviews to its Thanksgiving-week release on Netflix, Hillbilly Elegy, the film adaptation of the 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D Vance, has been a polarizing film. Critics widely panned it- some of them from Appalachia, many not. The film has been received better by audiences, but still remains divisive. The movie and memoir tell the story of Vance’s upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, his family’s struggles with alcoholism, abuse, and drug use, and his escape to go on to be a Yale graduate and successful venture capitalist. The memoir (which I haven’t read) goes into Vance’s thoughts on the strengths and failures of Appalachia culture and of poor working-class white Americans.
Director Ron Howard’s movie strips away much of Vance’s commentary to focus on just the family drama. Since the backlash to the film, he and the rest of the cast have emphasized this point, that it’s not a political story, but a personal one (and how can you argue with the authenticity of one person’s life experiences?). Yet it’s hard to view the film as only a singular family’s drama, as the book was quickly lauded as a way to “understand Trump voters” and as a broader sociological study. The movie’s focus on Vance and him “pulling himself up by his bootstraps” means that it doesn’t quite do enough to divorce from that political narrative either.
I can’t testify to whether the book and movie are “authentic” depictions or not. But I do know this: it is impossible to give a sympathetic or humane portrait of someone or a group of people if you only show their suffering. I know this movie is depicting a family in crisis, but there are no scenes of normalcy or relative peace that serves as a contrast to when there is a crisis. Instead, the constantly traumatic events of the movie feel to me, as a viewer, like I’m continually being pummeled, and I can’t get any sense of the characters outside of their worst moments and their worst mistakes. From my understanding, the book tries to paint Appalachia as a place still worth saving. But despite platitudes about the importance of family, hard work, and tradition, Hillbilly Elegy barely presents anything worth celebrating, because it’s always about the drama and horribleness, never about the potential, promise, or beauty in the rough.
That is probably because screenwriter Vanesa Taylor and Howard are not interested in critiquing anything about J.D Vance or how he presents his narrative of how he got out and surpassed his relatives because of his hard work. It doesn’t help that Vance is unlikeable, not only in some of his politics but, mainly, because there is an infuriating lack of curiosity on his part about the women in his life. Sure, the movie focuses on his mother Bev (Amy Adams) and Mamaw (Glenn Close). But except for a few vague references to the trauma they’ve suffered, the film doesn’t actually dig into examining their pain, their choices, their generational traumas, and into the specific, systematic ways women suffer in this community. This is all wrapped up in the character of JD’s sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett), who remains in Middleton. She’s doing the brunt of the care-taking for Bev. She didn’t “get out” like J.D. All signs show that she’s headed to become just like Bev and Mawmaw- embittered, miserable older women. But she barely gets any sizable screen time, except to be plot exposition and to assure J.D that she’s fine, she’ll continue to sacrifice herself to take care of their destructive, needy mother, because he needs to live his dream!
While watching, I kept thinking of 2017’s Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, as a solid comparison. This is a movie that, I… how do I put this delicately… really hated. Both Three Billboards and Hillbilly Elegy rely on characters screaming in every single scene to constitute Drama™. Of Frances McDormand’s performance in Three Billboards, I said “I never had to read [her] face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.” The same can be said about Adam’s “look, I tried to look ugly because my character is real,” performance as well. (To be clear, this is not a knock to either actress, but instead to the writing, direction, and Oscar-bait-yness of the production).
The Florida Project (2017) comes to mind as a much better example of a film that is able to depict poverty in a way that is 1) not primarily concerned with getting Oscars (and because of that humility, it didn’t) and 2) is not a non-stop pity party, but instead shows the humanity of its subject by having scenes that contrast difficulty with scenes of them finding joy, even in their circumstances. The Florida Project strikes a balance between recognizing that both personal choices and systemic failings have worked together to create the situation the characters are in, but that they aren’t to be looked at like bugs under a microscope or as New York Times profiles elites can read about to feel educated by, but instead as people who are as real and familiar as our family and friends.
Hillbilly Elegy is not a terrible watch by any means, but it had the potential to be so much more. Instead of leaning into the convictions of the memoir, it has been neutered into something shapeless, and while becoming more personal, it does so without fully realizing the humanity of its subjects.
With theaters still closed, I’m relying on my Netflix subscription more than ever. Luckily, the service keeps pumping out excellent original content. Here are six of my favorite movies, shows, and limited series they have.
I don’t usually talk about something being “well-directed,” since good directing often doesn’t call attention to itself. But I can’t think of a better catch-all term for how excellent Unorthodox is. The four-episode series, adapted from the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, follows 19-year old Esther as she flees her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York City to Berlin, Germany.
The series doesn’t coddle its audience, instead trusting that the storytelling, acting, and attention to detail will guide the audience through the probably unfamiliar world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The story is well balanced in exploring both the beauty and horror of the world Esther leaves behind, and the realistic struggles she has as she tries to build a new life. It also provides fascinating commentary into what it is like for Jewish people in post-WW2 Germany, something I hadn’t really considered before. Actress Shira Haas as Esther and actor Amit Rahav as her husband Yanky are extraordinary. Watching Unorthodox was one of the best four hours I have spent this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
2. Crash Landing On You
Don’t let the subtitles scare you! This cinematic South Korean melodrama is one of the most inventive, fun, and unabashedly weird tv shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. At an hour and a half per episode, it’s like getting sixteen movies that somehow are able to blend a handful of genres seamlessly: romance, comedy, action thriller, a political spy drama, fish-out-of-water shenanigans, and Succession-style family business power plays. Crash Landing on You tells the story of powerful-but-troubled South Korean businesswoman Yoon Se-Ri. A paragliding accident lands her in North Korea and into the arms of handsome soldier Ri Jung Hyuk, who tries to help her get back home.
3. Our Planet
For a soothing, ethereal watch with a hint of existential crisis, look no further than Our Planet. Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the series has the features of all good nature documentaries- gorgeous cinematography, awe-inspiring looks at creation, and a beautiful score. But uniquely, each episode ends with a call to action that explains how humans have negatively impacted each natural habitat and what can be done about it (first by going to ourplanet.com). The inconvenient truths that end each episode are a bummer, but are also hopeful- in most cases, it’s not too late to turn things around.
4. The Kindergarten Teacher
Based on a 2014 Israeli film of the same name, this American remake starring Maggie Gyllenhaal is an unsettling, excellently written and acted drama about a kindergarten teacher who realizes one of her students is a poetry prodigy. As a discontented artist herself, Gyllenhaal’s teacher decides to do whatever she can to foster her student’s talent, blurring the lines of appropriate behavior. It’s the kind of film that racks up the tension without you even realizing until you’re sitting on the edge of your seat in the final act.
5. Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices
These short, 8-10 minute episodes feature Black celebrities, from Tiffany Haddish to Misty Copeland, reading children’s books that explore different parts of the Black experience. The series accomplishes several things: one, it features great books that any kid can enjoy, Black or otherwise. Two, the celebrities who read all do a great job, and it reminded me how wonderful it is to be read out loud to, at any age. And third, for white children and their families, it exposes them to Black authors and Black picture-books, which I know was sorely missing when I was growing up. I probably didn’t read a book by a Black author until I was in middle school, and none of my picture books ever had characters of color. If you are a white parent seeking to expose your child to more diversity and fight against racism early on, this is an easy and entertaining place to start.
6. The Haunting of Hill House/ Haunting of Bly Manor
I am a wimp when it comes to horror films, but The Haunting of Hill House and The Haunting of Bly Manor (two different seasons of the same anthology series) are so well-made and more creepy than scary that even I can handle it. Hill House tells the story of the Crain family as the adult children remember their strange summer at Hill House and how it tore their family apart. Bly Manor takes place in the ‘80s and follows young Dani as she becomes a governess for two strange orphaned children in an even stranger manor. Great horror isn’t about making up scary situations, but how bravely it probes the already terrifying things in this life, and this show is a rumination on death and how we are haunted by other people and by our own previous selves and actions. In a time of extremes, both politically and socially, it is refreshing to experience a piece of entertainment that has a thoughtful, melancholic tone. Season 1’s Hill House is an epic, Genesis-style family tragedy, while season 2’s Bly Manor is a slow-burn gothic romance.
This live-action remake of the animated classic from 1998 follows the same formula of “reinvention” as the other live-action remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, etc.). This includes making a poorer version of (or cutting out entirely) the musical numbers, a half-hearted attempt at retconning the things that were critiqued in the original while getting a whole host of new problems, making the female protagonists more “empowered” with a new Girl Boss paint job, and just overall becoming a duller film.
This new Mulan isn’t a complete waste of time, though. The movie infuses some classic wuxia/ fantasy martial arts styling here that not only pays tribute to Chinese cinema, but makes this Mulan retelling feel more like a myth, which gets back at the story’s roots as folklore. The sets and costumes are beautiful. Mulan is given a sister who, while extremely underdeveloped, chooses a more traditionally feminine route and isn’t shamed for it, driving home the message that just because Mulan bucked traditional roles doesn’t mean she or her path is better, it just means feminism is about widening women’s choices.
This live-action remake simply just does not use its new format to be the cool war movie we wanted (although Mulan herself does have a surprisingly high body count), and it’s hard to overcome that disappointment and not compare it to the original. But I do have to say this: I watched this with one of my best friends, who is Chinese-American (was born and raised in China until she immigrated to the US). While she had some problems with the depiction of China, she spoke to me at length about how good it made her feel to see a girl like her on-screen, in her home country, with such a powerful story. That’s not something I take lightly. Representation matters, even if there are some missteps or missed opportunities while striving for it.
Boys State – Apple TV+
This documentary follows the 2019 Texas Boys State, an annual convention where boys (there’s a separate Girls State) from across the state are chosen to participate in an educational week where they form political parties and hold elections to learn about democracy.
Personally, this is one of the most stressful environments I could ever imagine being in, and the documentary is at its best when it is able to catch a glimpse of the true wariness and vulnerability of the subjects. Sometimes the self-awareness of the documentary is a little too noticeable, like you can tell when the filmmakers are thinking, “This is going to draw a parallel to the 2016 election! We’re telling an important story here that reveals the declining state of American politics!” But, despite the self-awareness sometimes getting in the way, it’s true- there are parallels to both the 2016 election but also to all sorts of political discourses we continue to have about tribalism, slander, fake news, the values of a trained politician vs. a non-politician “draining the swamp,” and the intersections of race, class, and gender.
So like the discourse around those topics, the film can feel just as tiring, emotional, cyclical, and repetitive, and, at least to me, discouraging. Yet it’s insightful, and there are kids to root for, and entertaining, so I certainly recommend watching it. But, Boys State also reminds you that nothing is new under the sun, and politics and policies are not the ultimate avenue for change we should put our hopes in.
The Devil All The Time – Netflix
The Devil All the Time, based on the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates the film), has the midwest gothic aesthetic down to a T. Haunting landscape? Check. Evil religion and charismatic, wicked preachers? Check. Flat, midwest landscapes that grow more sinister as the sun goes down? Tortured women cast in a soft glow? Check and check.
Atmosphere and aesthetics can only go so far, though, and unfortunately The Devil All The Time doesn’t have anything deeper to offer. Everyone in the all-star cast is game, but there is only so much that nice cinematography, shocking plot twists, and star power can give a movie. It can’t sustain it. The whole film ends up feeling bloated, repetitive, and less serious and important than it thinks it is. I agree with Justin Chang for NPR when he writes, “I also found the movie ultimately repetitive in its grisliness, and simplistic in some of the ways that it accuses religion of being.” Now I am fascinated by movies about religion and the way it can be corrupted, and complicated ministers. But, The Devil All The Time’s depiction of small-town faith is so repetitive and cartoonish that it never tries to dig below the surface as to why religion can breed such vileness and destructive patterns. The movie is similarly uninterested in digging deeper into the depictions of generational trauma and violence. We get it- evil is mundane. But why? The Devil shrugs.
Enola Holmes – Netflix
Enola Holmes is mostly a star vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown (who also produces here), and it works- she’s truly a movie star. Charismatic, expressive, and immensely talented, she carries the movie effortlessly. She has some nice help from Louis Partridge, and some star power backup from the most uncharitable and unlikeable portrayals of Sherlock (a dull Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) I’ve ever seen- and I’ve watched Sherlock! So like Enola Holmes herself, Brown is mostly on her own as she goes from one unexpectedly brutal action scene to the next, offering a promising career in action for Brown if she wants to go down the Milla Jovovich or Charlize Theron route.
Enola Holmes reminded me, more than anything else, of an American Girl Doll movie. Remember those movies, with the likes of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (a formative influence on me)? Unlike those movies, with sweet early-2000s optimism, this 2020 Enola Holmes has a little more bite, with rough action, some political commentary (don’t interrogate that too much), and a historical narrative jazzed up with modern features. But, while the film feels episodic (like a future Netflix streaming series???) it’s still charming and doesn’t feel like a television movie, but like big-screen fare, which we’re all a little desperate for.
On the first weekend of September, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet arrived to challenge the pandemic and (hopefully) save movie theaters. Meanwhile, writer/director Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things arrived on Netflix. Tenet is a sleek, imaginative, action-packed blockbuster thrill ride that has all of Nolan’s quirks: technical perfection, stiff dialogue, ponderings about reality, and Michael Caine. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is equally full of its director’s quirks: a focus on relationships, abstract, melancholy, arthouse. Both films, outside of their auteur-ness, share something in common: they are both about time, and much can be learned by comparing how the two directors approach their exploration of the subject.
In Tenet, a character ends her explanation about the central premise of the movie (objects moving through time backward) by saying, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Despite that instruction, Tenet is all about thinking. The entire film is completely plot-driven. Every single line of dialogue is plot-related. Every scene moves forward relentlessly. The momentum of the film is exciting, but there is no room for beauty or feeling. Tenet wants you to think about the possibility of going backward in time and it wants you to experience such a disorienting thrill (sometimes too disorienting, I spent an hour standing outside of the theater after the movie with my companions trying to parse the story out, and I’m still not sure I understand everything).
Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is all about feeling. There is also a lot of talking, however, it’s less about what is said (which are often long monologues about art) and more about how things are said, or why. By the time the ending rolls around and there’s a ballet dance break and Jesse Plemmons sings an entire song from Oklahoma!, you’re either on board or are probably very annoyed.
Time is warped in several ways during I’m Thinking of Ending Things. When Lucy (Jessie Buckley) gets to Jake’s (Jesse Plemmons) parents’ house, she and Jake stay the same age, but his parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) begin aging backward in forward. Every time Lucy steps into a new room, both parents are at different ages. Later, Lucy notes that instead of people being stationary points that move through time, time moves through people and she watches time move through Jake’s parents.
The scenes in the car between Jake and Lucy likewise play with continuity and time. Jake calls Lucy by several different names, she talks about being in different occupations, and her story of how she and Jake met changes multiple times. And in the ending sequence, it is revealed that Lucy wasn’t real at all, but that Jake was imagining falling in love.
Maybe. That might be one possible interpretation. But nothing about I’m Thinking of Ending Things encourages you to “solve” the movie. It is not a logical puzzle, and there’s nothing you gain from being able to pin down the movie’s timeline or narrative tricks. What you need to know about Lucy and Jake, or their feelings and relationship, are all conveyed through the acting and visuals. The confusing, metaphysical nature of the visuals and story are supposed to only teach you one thing about time: it is our absurd enemy. Our perception of time is changed by our emotions, and the only way out is through.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things treats time as a character within itself, as malleable as any of the other characters. Tenet treats time as a tool to play with. Neither approach- thinking or feeling- are inherently better or worse, of course. Both films have numerous explainer videos and articles on the internet to help people figure the films out, and both films prompt rich discussion through their ambiguous nature. I think, though, that the spectacle of Tenet (the big screen really is the only way to see it) will mean that the film won’t have much longevity. Some of Nolan’s other twisty puzzle-box movies have stood the test of time and remained in the cultural memory- I’m thinking of Inception and Memento– but those had stronger emotional cores than Tenet. Meanwhile, I’m Thinking of Ending Things will probably also be forgotten, but less because of the film itself and more from how few people will see it and how even less will submit themselves to its oddity. Yet I think that if you do give I’m Thinking of Ending Things a chance and embrace it on its own terms, you will find it worthwhile, even if you don’t enjoy it.