Kacey Rohl in White Lie (2020)
White Lie is an unsettling and disturbing portrait of a persona built on dishonesty. Filmmakers Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas craft a claustrophobic story based around the idea of a lie spiraling out of measured control. The story follows Katie Arneson (Kacey Rohl), an undergrad who fakes having cancer and takes advantage of a supportive community which includes her caring girlfriend Jennifer (Amber Anderson). On the verge of exposure after forging medical records to receive academic bursary, Katie sinks deeper and deeper into the world of lies she created. She has an exhausting commitment to maintaining this fake persona, which gives the film a sinking feeling at every turn. An eerie opening sequence immediately lets in on the protagonist’s delusion and the fact that she does not believe she’ll face repercussions for her actions.
From the moment Katie is introduced, shaving her head before showing up at a small school fundraising event held in her name, she is completely immersed in maintaining a charade to the point of no return. The more she faces questioning and potential accountability, the more she fuels a self-portrait of dishonesty. For Katie, the backbone of her persona is a lie. She would rather build lie upon lie than express any semblance of wrongdoing and untangle the brazenly deceptive role she created for herself. Insight into what lies beneath this persona isn’t explored fully in the film. There are hints to a traumatic experience Katie went through with her parents some years prior. The film often works in interpretive spaces and avoids explanations as to why she continues down this disastrous path.
A tremendous performance by Kacey Rohl carries the powerful intensity of this film. The detailed commitment she brings to her character gives the story a lingering gravitational pull. She does a wonderful job playing Katie’s disturbing sense of entitlement and determination to live a lie. This character is completely consumed by a self-made falsehood, and Rohl is an enigma to watch as her performance descends with a lack of awareness for how much harm she is causing. For Katie, a world without lies is distant; she feels an unwavering urge to continuously manipulate everyone around her in order to get what she wants. The supporting cast of characters each represent various perspectives on Katie’s actions. When she visits her father Doug (Martin Donovan) in need of money, he shows an instant apprehension and ultimately claims not to believe she’s ill. When she’s put in touch with Dr. Jabari Jordan (Thomas Olajide) to forge medical documents and he sets his boundaries, she retaliates. Each time Katie is met with doubt, she pushes back in a manner of hurt and betrayal. The one relationship she is determined to keep is with her girlfriend Jennifer. Katie and Jennifer met when the former started this charade; there is a connection Katie makes between maintaining the lie and keeping the relationship. If she’s not ill, she fears Jennifer will leave her. Katie’s unwavering ability to keep secrets from the person she loves most drives the film to a searing final act that tests Jennifer’s trust and patience in who she thought she knew.
White Lie is a solid drama that explores the mental exhaustion of maintaining a charade for personal comfort and gratification. The story maintains an incredibly tense pulse and invests a lot of time in showing how the protagonist is living in two different worlds: reality, and a warped version of it that she controls. While the story is planted in her perspective, there is still a lot of unexplored potential for a deeper character study, which ultimately hinders the final act. But it is Kacey Rohl who elevates the material and maintains a constant feeling of dread. One of the most startling lines in the film happens when Katie insists that she “won’t be sick anymore,” as if she can evaporate the rippling effect of her actions at the drop of a hat. It’s a deeply unsettling moment that speaks to Rohl’s steadfast commitment in bringing this character to a point of no return.
White Lie is now streaming on Amazon Prime: http://bit.ly/WhiteLieMovie
3 out of 5 stars
Leslie Odom Jr., Eli Goree, Kingsley Ben-Adir, and Aldis Hodge in One Night in Miami (2020)
Based on Kemp Powers’ award winning play of the same name, One Night in Miami is an outstanding stage-to-screen adaptation brilliantly directed by Regina King. The clarity and attention to detail King brings to her film gives an immensely talented ensemble cast wonderful moments to shine. Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke), and Eli Goree (Cassius Clay, who’d soon take the name Muhammad Ali) each step into iconic roles of cultural significance and take a grounded leap of inspiration. They deliver such remarkable performances and together help create an immersive ‘fly on the wall’ experience. King’s directorial debut is incredibly dialogue-driven with a focus on inner personal conflicts and the heightened responsibilities each of these men feel in representing Black voices. Kemp Powers brings his original stage play onto the screen through compelling conversations and urgency.
One Night in Miami is a fictionalized account inspired by a night in 1964 where Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay gather in a hotel room after Clay’s championship win over Sonny Liston. While the city of Miami celebrates, the four men are in deep discussion with each other. Working with a limited number of sets as the majority of the film takes place in one room, Regina King does a phenomenal job establishing a sense of place. Her direction is seamless and works wonders with the pacing of this story. There is so much room for the performances and the words to truly soar through how the actors play off each other. The film shines as a dialogue-based story, and the conversations are absolutely riveting to watch from start to finish.
Prior to bringing the men together, King and Powers first establish where they are in terms of setting and timeline. The early moments in the story are so insightful to each of the men’s lives beyond being historical figures, and what we see at the beginning of the film plays out through their conversations in the hotel room (particularly with Malcolm and Sam Cooke). All four men have contrasting positions regarding their power and the weight of the responsibilities that come with it. One of the most engaging relationships in the film is between Malcolm and Sam Cooke; their electric conversations set the stage for two particularly remarkable moments, a flashback to Cooke’s impromptu performance and the stunning ending sequence.
Regina King’s seamless direction, in collaboration with a talented ensemble cast and Kemp Powers’ compelling screenplay, give One Night in Miami a continuous energy. The film takes a little while at first to gain traction, but King’s storytelling at the beginning adds another layer to the hotel room setting that follows. The actors carry the conversation forward with remarkable fluidity, each working so well together and delivering what are easily some of the most resounding performances of recent years.
One Night in Miami releases January 15th on Amazon Prime Video.
Celia Imrie, Shannon Tarbet, and Shelley Conn in Love Sarah (2020)
Writer-director Eliza Schroeder’s debut feature, Love Sarah, has flickers of potential that shine sporadically through its central characters. The story brings together three women sifting through the grief of losing someone they all loved. Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) wants to fulfill her mom’s dream of opening a bakery in Notting Hill; needing help, she asks her grandma Mimi (Celia Imrie) and old friend Isabella (Shelley Conn) to pitch in. The prospect of this bakery gives each of them the opportunity to patch up strained relationships and make up for lost time. Their dynamics give the story warmth, but the film as a whole goes in the route of uninspired and questionable choices. With resonating moments few and far between, Love Sarah feels like a slight slice of life with not very much to say.
The film opens with the aftermath of losing its title character. Sarah was the star chef of a once-popular bakery; now that she’s gone, investors have pulled out, the place is sitting empty, and her close friend Isabella is unable to get out of a lease agreement the two of them signed. Meanwhile, Sarah’s daughter Clarissa has just gotten out of a relationship; with nowhere else to go, she breaks into her mom’s bakery to sleep and shows up at her grandma Mimi’s house the next day. Mimi, who hadn’t seen her granddaughter in some time, questions this unannounced visit. As it turns out, Clarissa proposes opening up the bakery again in honour of Sarah. Mimi would pitch in financially, and Isabella would bake. By working together, they gain a newfound opportunity to reignite their relationships and do what they feel Sarah would have wanted.
Love Sarah tries to capture moments of triumph and finding a sense of purpose by way of reconnecting with people. The relationship dynamics between Isabella, Clarissa, and Mimi give the film some heart, but the characterization is not there. Without really scratching the surface of who these characters are, it’s a stretch to feel connected to them. The film misses an opportunity to explore how their relationships came to be undone, and how their experiences of loss bring them to the point that they’re introduced in the story. The bakery itself is plugged in as the glue that holds them all together, and as the film goes on, more time is spent on how the shop is to succeed.
After a series of failed interviews conducted to fill Sarah’s baker position, a guy named Mathew (Rupert Penry-Jones) walks into the shop having heard about the job. Tension is immediately noticed between him and Isabella, who have baking history as they used to train together. The introduction to this character feels completely sudden and as it turns out, he becomes an unnecessary addition to the story. The love interest angle is one of a few uninspired and questionable choices in the film, another being desserts of different cultures. After a quiet first week of the family’s bakery opening, Mimi gets the idea to start making desserts that apparently cannot be found anywhere else in London. She asks everyone she meets where they are from and what dessert they love, intending to cater for people from around the world. Intended as a reflection of multiculturalism, the portrayal feels like a missed opportunity with questionable focus on this bakery shop being the only place in London to provide treats from different parts of the world.
For Eliza Schroeder’s debut feature, what resonates most albeit sporadically is an optimistic response to the aftermath of grief. It is sweet that the central characters find a new way of bonding and learn more about their strengths in the process of losing a loved one. The performances are also charming enough to carry the film throughout, particularly Shelley Conn as Isabella. But the growing bond between the characters is sugarcoated by slight characterization and a series of uninspired plot points scattered along the way, holding back what makes Love Sarah work.
Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Youn Yuh-jung, Yeri Han, and Noel Cho in Minari (2020)
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is a beautifully told story about a Korean-American family of immigrants on the move in search of a fresh start in the 1980s. For Jacob (Steven Yeun), a fresh start means turning his dream of 50 acres into a reality. “Daddy’s going to make a garden,” he promises his seven-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim). In pursuit of the American dream, he moves their family from California to a house on wheels in rural Arkansas. Monica (Yeri Han), mom to David and his sister Anne (Noel Cho), has doubts living in the middle of nowhere. “Now we have a lot of land…isn’t that good? Tell mommy you like it,” Jacob urges to their son, hoping to win her over. But she’ll need a little more than complimentary words to smoothen the move. When the children’s grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea to lend support, David’s curiosity is awakened by her personality, and the two slowly bond through stealthy playfulness. In the bigger picture of this film, Jacob’s garden dream becomes an active goal of starting a farm, for which his unwavering dedication puts the family’s future prospects on shaky ground.
For his fourth feature film to date, Chung shaped the narrative around his own memories as a kid growing up on a farm in America. The weight of memories shine particularly through the character of David, whose perspective full of wonder and curiosity feels like a docent for the story at times. Though even with a guiding character, Chung’s storytelling is a remarkable reflection of the entire family unit at the heart of this film. Everyone’s perspectives are seen and heard with such clarity. The performances gel like magic, and make it so easy to get completely lost in this story where intricate family dynamics play at the core.
The entire cast of Minari are brilliant to watch. They each play such fully realized characters and interact with each other in the most mesmerizing of ways. One of the most heartfelt dynamics is the relationship between David and his grandma Soonja. These two characters have remarkable arcs that play out powerfully. The majority of their interactions are playfully fractious; David’s clever pranks and inquisitiveness competes with his grandma's quick witted humour and fiercely protective nature. David has a heart that could stop at any moment, and when faced with the fear of death in one of the best scenes of the film, his grandma advises him what to say. “No thank you, heaven,” she tells him wholeheartedly. Youn Yuh-jung gives a stunning performance as Soonja; she is a force of nature to watch. Her comedic timing is wonderful, her lines are gold, and she has such a tenderhearted journey in the film’s emotional last act. David’s arc is also moving to watch, and Alan S. Kim’s remarkably perceptive screen presence gives so much heart to the story.
Adding to this gentle story of relationship dynamics are wonderful performances by Steven Yeun and Yeri Han, playing partners and parents who have conflicting hopes for their family. Jacob and Monica work in a factory as chicken sexers, which sees them separate male chicks from female chicks. Jacob in particular is known for being fast; he made a lot of money in California before moving his family to a house on wheels in Arkansas, a decision that understandably left Monica with a lot of hesitations. “We’re not staying long,” she tells her children when the family first sets eyes on their new home. The longer they adapt to their surroundings, the more cracks appear in Monica and Jacob’s marriage. They have their own dreams for the future of this family, particularly when it comes to doing what’s best for David and giving him an environment good for his heart. It’s moving to watch their arguments, especially from the children’s point of view.
Chung does a wonderful job of showing how one aspect of the family affects everyone; he holds up a mirror to family members as well, as they look to themselves for answers. “All we did was fight…is that why [David’s] sick?” Monica asks Jacob. Yeri Han beautifully portrays her character’s uncertainty, hopefulness, and thwarted inner dreams of her own. She also shares perfect chemistry with Steven Yeun, who gives a vividly lived-in performance as Jacob. Yeun brings to life his character’s contemplative nature and incredibly strong will in such a hypnotizing way. Jacob wants the absolute best for his family, and at the same time, is determined to carry the weight of this responsibility entirely on his shoulders. It’s something he feels he has to do, and this firm will trickles down to his family.
Beyond the outstanding ensemble, direction, and writing are beautiful technical marvels complimenting the film. Emile Mosseri, who composed the impeccable score for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, adds another jewel to his career with a dreamy score for Minari that echoes the tenderhearted quality of this story. Harry Yoon’s editing moves the film along at an incredibly tranquil and dreamy pace. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography captures such a specific setting and gives gorgeous weight to the simplest of moments. There are so many scenes that appear simple on the surface while, underneath, carry meaning for the characters and add layers to their identities.
Minari is a deeply resonating American story that portrays the hopes and dreams of a family at its core. Jacob works tirelessly to build his family a thriving future among American culture (which we see welcoming and non-welcoming sides of in the film). Throughout the story, Jacob feels a mounting responsibility to be a provider, and in many ways the farm becomes tied to his measure of personal success. Working outdoors makes him feel alive, a sentiment he shares with his children especially. Underneath this work is a desire for new familial beginnings where his children see him succeed and where everyone can thrive.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman (2020)
The trailer and premise of Promising Young Woman tell a story of revenge. Righting wrongs, giving people a taste of their own medicine, making them pay. While these elements are very much incorporated in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s startling debut feature, what ruminates most about this film are a severe lack of justice and the aftermath of derailed grief. The tragedy that the story goes where it does, that toxic masculinity is perpetuated constantly, is what Fennell sits with…to an engaging and devastating extent. Promising Young Woman turns the tables on the men and women who are complicit in rape culture, while also exploring through the story's protagonist a woman so utterly consumed by grief and the frequent memories of who she lost.
Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (Carey Mulligan) feels distant from the world she lives in, understandably so. Everyone said she had promise; with a bright future ahead, she was on course to becoming a doctor until an incident derailed the course of her life. Having dropped out of med school, Cassie now works at a coffee shop by day. She also lives with her parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown), which causes them much worry. One morning she sees a gift in the family room, forgetting that the occasion is her 30th birthday. As she unwraps a large pink suitcase, her mother wonders why her daughter is still under their roof. If Cassie wanted a house/marriage/kids, she’d have done it, she assures her friend and boss Gail (Laverne Cox). What consumes Cassie so intensely, to the point where it interferes with her everyday life, is complicated grief. She carries the pain of what happened to her best friend, Nina Fisher. She is consumed by grief at every waking moment, which sees her not only heartbreakingly demand justice from ghosts of the past but also step into dangerous scenarios. By night, Cassie goes to different clubs and acts like she’s too drunk to stand. Every night, a “nice guy” goes over to see if she’s okay. They take her to their homes, where she reveals her soberness when they force themselves onto her. Cassie confronts their behaviour by inflicting the absolute truth upon them, fueled by a persistent yearning for them to actually see the error of their ways.
Emerald Fennell has an incredibly clear vision from the start, opening her film with an energetic pop song in contrast to the disturbing “nice guy” encounter that follows. Fennell has a confident level of storytelling that raises challenging conversations in the form of a pastel aesthetic and a pop soundtrack on surface level. The film is an engaging blend of genres and subverts expectations from one moment to the next. It’s astonishing how these contrasting elements are handled in the film to reflect the protagonist, who is sorting through grief as a shadow of who she once was. When Cassie meets Ryan (Bo Burnham) at her coffee shop, and he recognizes her from med school, the two seem to match each other’s forthright energy. For a tiny moment, a sugar rush of potential romance opens up. The film morphs with elements of romance genre, complete with a pop song sing-along and couples' montage, while also addressing Cassie’s hesitance to start a relationship when all her energy is put towards the case of Nina. Throughout the film Cassie confronts people of the past in relation to her best friend, from school friend Madison (Alison Brie) to former dean Walker (Connie Britton) to case lawyer Jordan (Alfred Molina), all of whom are complicit and meet the anger of a woman who wants justice served. One of the most remarkable scenes in the film sees Walker, far more concerned with a man’s reputation and giving him “the benefit of the doubt,” met with the power of perspective that Cassie wields in front of her. The film feels incredibly honest in its depiction of culpability and the toxic environments that continuously protect sinister behaviour.
While it is captivating to watch Cassie serve the truth in obliteration of those who are complicit, what resonates beyond these moments is the devastating grief that sees her fight for justice on behalf of Nina, partly in response to a grossly unjust system that allows rapists like Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) to move on without a care in the world. In a powerfully revealing scene where Cassie visits Nina’s mom Mrs. Fisher (Molly Shannon), the two discuss Cassie’s regrets and Mrs. Fisher urges her to finally move on with her life. She tries to put the past behind her, and is met with yet another example of ingrained toxic misogyny which catapults the film into its fourth chapter. What makes this chapter of Promising Young Woman so devastating is its conversations around justice and remorse (specifically the lack thereof). The truth with which the protagonist confronts everyone in her path is met with the sinister reality of the world she distanced herself from. That the emotional, mental, and physical ripples of distress are unwavering is a tragic watch that has opened so many necessary conversations. Perhaps this is the direction Fennell intends to go in, encompassing feelings of rage and portraying it on screen to show a harsh reality. Her storytelling in this moment has such an emotional, angering, and wincing effect.
On board with the writer-director every step of the way is the film’s star Carey Mulligan, who delivers a tour de force that will continue to resonate for years to come. She’s outstanding in an immersive and harrowing way, as she portrays Cassie with a haunting truthfulness that broke me. Her acute ability to embody all the candy coated tonal shifts and also maintain a grounded approach is truly remarkable to watch. She carries the film powerfully, and shares compelling screen time with a supporting cast of characters who mostly represent a societal smoke screen of sinister behaviour and toxic misogyny. During an interview Emerald Fennell gave at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, she commented on how evasive these topics are culturally and how so much is sugarcoated to be made “tolerable”. She turns this on its head in her devastatingly compelling debut feature, making a crystal clear stance in challenging toxicity and never wavering from her ambitious approach.
Promising Young Woman releases on demand January 15th.
Home is a place of inspiration and community in Phyllida Lloyd’s emotional new film, Herself. The story follows Sandra (Clare Dunne) in search of a new place to live, having just escaped from her abusive partner Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson) with her two young daughters Molly (Molly McCann) and Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara). Fighting against the housing crisis in Dublin, she stumbles onto the inexpensive idea of building her own home. Determined to prevail, Sandra sets her mind to rebuilding a new life for herself and her children, while reliving the long term trauma of past incidents. The story originated from one of the film’s co-writers and stars, Clare Dunne, who gives a stunning performance of resilience and pours her heart into bringing a meaningful journey onto the screen.
The effective little universe that Sandra has created between her children is clear from the first scene of this film. As a self-protective mechanism in a toxic environment of domestic abuse, the three of them live in their own bubble of love, trust, code words, and secrets that Sandra teaches them to keep. After she and the girls escape from a violent incident, she finds a temporary home with Peggy (the great Harriet Walter), a doctor she cleans for. Peggy had formed a strong friendship with Sandra’s late mother, and this bond leads to a generous offer of land for Sandra to build her home on. Along the way, Sandra runs into and enlists help from Aido (Conleth Hill), a building contractor who agrees to supervise and then brings a group of volunteers on board. It’s heartwarming to watch these characters rally around Sandra and lift her spirits with a powerful sense of community. But while Sandra is rebuilding her life, she’s also having to deal with challenges brought upon by her possessive ex, who insists he’s getting help and wants them to be a family again.
What resonates most about Herself is that the screenplay transcends in portraying Sandra as a woman who determines her own fate as a survivor. The film addresses the aftermath of escaping an abusive partner and how Sandra is left to essentially put her life back together, piece by piece. The power of teamwork and resilience shine through the screen, particularly in the second half of the film which lays the foundation for a reaffirming chapter in Sandra’s life. Dunne and co-writer Malcolm Campbell bring such care and thoughtful focus to the character of Sandra. The film shines an introspective light on the strength she is rebuilding within herself; after each setback she experiences, there’s an immediate feeling of hopefulness for her to rise again. Phyllida Lloyd’s strong direction compliments a heartbreaking performance by Clare Dunne at the center. As much as Sandra pushes forward, what resides within her are painful flashbacks to a particularly brutal moment that happens early on in the story. It’s an emotional rollercoaster to watch this character regain her sense of self and shield her children from increasingly challenging moments, one of which sees Sandra at a hearing where custody of her children is under review. The judge asks why she didn’t leave her ex, never asking why he didn’t stop. Dunne’s performance reaches new heights in this devastating moment and leaves such a lasting impact.
The protagonist’s grounded journey in Herself speaks to the experiences of so many women who are affected by domestic abuse and its long term effects, in addition to the housing crisis and looking for stable environments to live safely in. Universal themes of hope, resilience, and community adorn the structure of this heartfelt story. Accompanying the film is a soundtrack of uplifting pop songs, which become a little too frequently placed in getting the message across but have an understandable intention. What shines above all else is a resonating protagonist and stunning performance by Clare Dunne, whose journey is both heartbreaking and uplifting to watch unfold.
Herself releases January 8th on Amazon Prime Video.
During a year of heightened isolation, it’s no surprise that stories of empathy and hope had the most resonating impact on me. So many of these films feature people who want to see change, people who look at the world around them with hope for something better around the corner, people who are discovering or regaining identity. Smaller films and debut features shone bright in 2020; with the shutdown of theaters, it’s been great to see a lot of these gems find an audience during festival rounds and in virtual cinemas. Here are my top favourites!
Nomadland is a stunning character study and a moving portrait of learning to live with grief. Writer-director Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand are a match made in heaven as they explore the healing power of nature in gorgeous American landscapes. The beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi gives melodic reminders that underneath the protagonist’s stoic exterior is a search of life after loss among a community of grieving people. Zhao tells a timeless story about self-sufficiency, unshared emotions, and the lonely ache in finding a sense of belonging during times of isolation.
Lee Isaac Chung writes and directs a deeply personal love letter in Minari, a beautifully told story about a Korean-American family of immigrants on the move in search of a fresh start in the 1980s. Chung’s storytelling is a remarkable reflection of the entire family unit at the heart of this film. Everyone’s perspectives are seen and heard with such clarity. They instantly feel like a family from the very beginning, which also speaks to an absolutely beautiful ensemble of actors. The performances gel like magic, and make it so easy to get completely lost in this story where intricate family dynamics play at the core.
Emma Seligman’s stunning debut feature Shiva Baby is a funny, invigorating, fully realized pressure cooker. Seligman blends comedy with drama and hints of horror, while exploring a woman coming-of-age, self-worth, anxiety, interfering family dynamics, conflicting pressures, power shifts in relationships, and traditions. The characterization is outstanding. The screenplay is quick witted. The sense of humour is a delight, providing constant laughs and lines so great you must keep up because you won’t want to miss them.
Wolfwalkers is a magical Irish saga of love, friendship, and women empowerment. Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart's mature storytelling bring environmental and philosophical themes to a beautiful fairytale adventure. The delicate watercolour animation and intricate swirling lines are gorgeous. Characters flow into and out of frames like magic. There’s a beautiful fluidity to movement and a fantastic embrace of seeing the world from the wolves’ eyes, through scent. With gorgeous animation, heartfelt voice work, and a resonating story, Wolfwalkers is the best animated film of 2020.
The Forty Year Old Version
The Forty-Year-Old Version is a funny and passionate film about a playwright at a mid-life point where she’s being “rediscovered,” even though she’s been here all this time, working and writing. Writer-director Radha Blank, who also stars in the film, is an incredible storyteller with a clear vision about artistic expression. At the heart of this story, beautifully directed in black and white, is an authentic voice who needs to be heard. The 40-Year-Old Version is a compelling film with a brilliant lead performance by Blank and a pitch perfect supporting cast, who altogether make a memorable mark.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Often times it’s the smallest everyday interactions between people that leave the greatest impact. Never Rarely Sometimes Always, the latest film by writer-director Eliza Hittman, evokes so much power and empathy in the quietest of moments. The story follows a few days in the life of two teenage girls who seek out medical help after an unintended pregnancy. At the heart of the film is a remarkable debut performance by Sidney Flanigan as Autumn, a realistically portrayed teenager who finds herself in a worrying situation.
Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed delivers an astonishing performance as a drummer who begins to lose his hearing in Darius Marder’s film Sound of Metal. What makes this story so beautifully resonating is that it’s not about fixing hearing loss or portraying deafness as a weakness. The film addresses an abundance of love and acceptance within the deaf community. We see Ahmed’s character Ruben adapting to a new way of life with the guidance of community leader Joe (the great Paul Raci). The talented cast, also including Olivia Cooke as Ruben’s girlfriend Lou, bring so much empathy to this story of hope and understanding. Sound of Metal is a powerful and emotionally absorbing film to discover.
Promising Young Woman
Review coming January 11th.
One Night in Miami
The love and care that director Regina King brings to her film, One Night in Miami, is riveting to watch. This is an outstanding stage-to-screen adaptation led by vulnerable, brilliant performances that take a leap of imagination. Screenwriter Kemp Powers brings his original stage play to the screen with depth, humour, and urgency. Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke) and Eli Goree (Cassius Clay, who’d soon take the name Muhammad Ali) each step into iconic roles of cultural significance with career defining performances. The film is dialogue-driven and shines when the four men are brought together for one night, where layered conversations of inner conflicts carry the pace.
Written and directed by Kitty Green, The Assistant needs to be heard loud and clear. This is an urgent depiction of human conflict and complicity, featuring incredible exposition and a stunning lead performance by Julia Garner. So much of the story is centered on the tense urge to say something, do something, without a safe space to do so. The film is incredibly grounded in its depiction of culpability. Green is showing us a realistic approach; we see just how easy it is for people to look the other way and knowingly contribute to a toxic environment that protects abusers.
Another Round leaves a lasting impression about the lengths that people dare go in order to pull themselves out of a midlife crisis and feel something again. Mads Mikkelsen gives a remarkable lead performance in a thoughtful film that follows four high school teachers who start a drinking experiment to liven up their lives. As much as the film plays out its dramatic beats, it’s also a celebration of life, which lays the foundation for a totally joyous ending sequence that comes out of nowhere but still feels completely in place.
The Donut King
Alice Gu’s fascinating documentary The Donut King incorporates one intriguing perspective after another in its blend of historical and economic threads. The documentary follows how Ted Ngoy built a multi-million dollar donut empire. Ngoy, a refugee who escaped Cambodia in 1975, sponsored hundreds of refugees coming to America and gave them opportunities by teaching them how to run a donut business. By the late 70s, Cambodian-owned small donut shops cornered the pastry market in Southern California. This is a heartfelt story about survival, success, and the rise and fall of a mogul.
I’m Your Woman
Julia Hart’s hypnotic new film, I’m Your Woman, brings a compelling character study to life in the 1970s world of crime. With an intriguing perspective and precise attention to detail, Hart explores themes of regaining identity and discovering newfound motherhood. The stylish opening sequence and simple recurring piano score lend sophisticated qualities to a story that stirs in moments of eerie stillness. I’m Your Woman adds a refreshing point of view to the crime boss genre and pairs Julia Hart’s directorial skill with a marvelous Rachel Brosnahan to craft a satisfying slow-burner.
On the Record
The devastating story of music executive Drew Dixon is the subject of On the Record, a gripping documentary directed by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick. In the wake of the Me Too movement founded by Tarana Burke, often missing from all discourse were (and are) Black women’s experiences which are necessary to be heard. This documentary follows Drew in the moments leading up to her decision to come forward and accuse Russell Simmons of sexual misconduct. With focus on Drew and her story, we see the emotional toll on her as well as what was lost over the course of several years.
The Invisible Man
Tense storytelling and a fully committed performance by Elisabeth Moss make The Invisible Man an anxiety-inducing experience from start to finish. Writer-director Leigh Whannell combines fantastic elements of horror, thriller, sci-fi, and drama. Through lingering camerawork and a mesmerizing lead performance, there’s a constant feeling of dread that fills empty spaces and follows the protagonist Cecilia everywhere she goes. Where the horror comes from (her frustration and hopelessness that she’s not being believed) is what resonates most.
Writer-director Kelly Reichardt has a knack for telling such quietly resounding stories. Hypnotic from the first frame, First Cow captures the tenderness and simplicity of two people who find a strong connection in unexpected ways. The story is a melancholy look at a skillful cook and a Chinese immigrant who collaborate on a business, the success of which relies on a wealthy landowner’s milking cow. Their newfound bond is brought to life with great performances by John Magaro and Orion Lee as two characters in search of fortune in life.
Writer, producer, and director Sujata Day tells an incredibly charming story in her debut feature film Definition Please. Her debut excels as a comedic and dramatic character study that comes from a place of authenticity. Day, who also stars in the film as Monica Chowdry, flexes her many talents both in front of and behind the screen. With love, she highlights family ties and bottled up conflicts that arise, which gives all the characters a sense of urgency. The film also has a refreshing representation of mental health, as Day engages in open conversation about characters in healing.
Writer-director Eugene Ashe stimulates love at first sight in Sylvie’s Love, a gorgeous sweeping romance that exudes charm in every frame. An incredibly talented cast, featuring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha in the two lead roles, soar at bringing a heartfelt narrative onto the screen with compelling fluency. Lush costumes and detailed cinematography, paired with dreamy music, depict a glamorous 50s/60s setting in Harlem. With passion, a rekindled love story is told through changing times and newfound professional heights.
By Nadia Dalimonte
Chadwick Boseman, Colman Domingo, Viola Davis, Michael Potts, and Glynn Turman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Creative tensions are rising at Hot Rhythm Recordings. This recording studio in 1920s Chicago is where the majority of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place. The film is directed by George C. Wolfe, written by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and based on August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name. Wilson wrote his 1984 play after listening to Ma Rainey, known as Mother of the Blues, sing the titular song. Wolfe’s adaptation is an engaging portrayal of Black artistry and the economic exploitation of performing in an industry that centers white people (white men in particular). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has one of the best film ensembles in recent years and features a career-best performance by Chadwick Boseman, a remarkable talent gone far too soon.
The story begins with a lineup out the door of a show in Barnesville, Georgia. Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is introduced mid performance. As Ma states later on in the film, what counts most for her is the voice inside, not what people think of her. It’s a great choice to establish this character on stage, focusing on the power of her voice, which Davis embodies so wonderfully. After getting a glimpse of Ma Rainey’s talents, the setting switches to Chicago where the four musicians in her band arrive at a recording studio and wait for her to join them. Irvin (Jeremy Shamos), who helps run the studio and constantly assures his co-worker Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne) that everything is under control, leads the musicians to rehearse in a basement room until Ma arrives. A great deal of the film takes place in this room, and the dynamics that play out are nothing short of emotionally riveting. The framing and focus on the quartet create an all-encompassing feeling of being in that room, watching the actors from up close on a stage.
Accompanying Ma Rainey is the quartet of Levee (Chadwick Boseman), Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts). As the youngest of the four, Levee is playing trumpet in the group until he can make his own way on his own terms. “I’m my own person,” Levee says. In a room full of veteran musicians who play their piece without showing critique despite all the exploitation, his rage and energetic ambition are on the rise. Levee is such a compelling character to watch; Chadwick Boseman brings an enormous spark to the film in his portrayal of ambition and trauma. In the actor’s last film, he delivers an absolutely magnificent performance showcasing his uniquely compelling talent. Boseman elevates a great film into something even greater with his extraordinary screen presence. He works beautifully with the other actors, especially when his character is in conflict with Domingo and Turman (both also excellent in this film). It’s one of the most riveting performances in some time, another example of how the legacy Boseman left behind in film (among so many more spaces) will live on forever.
The dynamics beyond the basement of this recording studio are not as engaging to watch unfold. This has more to do with the pacing and screenplay than the acting, as Viola Davis gives a brilliantly complex performance. Easily one of the most talented actors working today, Davis pours her heart into Ma Rainey and delivers with such fascinating embodiment. It would have been interesting to spend more time with her character on a deeper level; the film feels a bit fragmented when the focus switches to Ma and her relationships, not only with her band and the studio but also with Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige). Davis still opens a window to all of these dynamics and brings an immaculate level of detail to exploring her character.
With the limited number of sets and framing, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom shines as a character-based story with an incredibly talented ensemble. The actors guide the way through stunning monologues and compelling interactions, revealing more about who their characters are as individuals and in relation to the world they are living in. George C. Wolfe does a wonderful job establishing the sets and adapting the stage material in a way that feels invigorating instead of strained. Each of the performances soar in their own way and add many resonating layers to a story that explores ambition and artistic erasure.
By Nadia Dalimonte
George Clooney and Caoilinn Springall in The Midnight Sky (2020)
The stakes feel incredibly low in The Midnight Sky, a dull post-apocalyptic adventure story starring, produced, and directed by George Clooney. Clooney makes a cosmic return to the screen with a project that looks grand, but stumbles with the source material. Based on the 2016 book ‘Good Morning, Midnight’ by Lily Brooks-Dalton, the film follows scientist Augustine (Clooney) who discovers a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) left behind on his isolated observatory in the year 2049. As the two form an odd bond and find themselves weathering Arctic storms, a parallel thread follows a group of astronauts aboard the spacecraft Aether, headed home from a planet they hoped would be the future. But waiting for them on Earth is an ecological catastrophe threatening the livelihood of all inhabitants. Augustine tirelessly tries a poor radio connection to warn the Aether crew of the dangers ahead.
Lily Brooks-Dalton’s book has an intriguing premise dipped in loneliness and ambition. The story looks at the world’s end through the perspective of characters who are isolated, as their ambitions carry them to a life detached from Earth. Augustine is a celebrated astronomer who has given most of his life to observing the origins of the universe from remote outposts. The beginning of the film introduces him at his current posting, a snowy Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic Circle, of which he’s a terminal patient. Upon the news of a global catastrophe, while the other scientists evacuate, he stays behind in declining health and unrelenting dedication to his work. It’s an incessant ambition Augustine is evidently used to; in hazy flashback scenes of his younger self (Ethan Peck), his partner Jean (Sophie Rundle) urges that he take control of his life otherwise he will lose human connection. There are pangs of regret to Clooney’s character that the actor plays well; he doesn’t have to say much to get the feeling across, as his somber portrayal of Augustine has a lived-in quality to it.
The Midnight Sky has potential on the surface, particularly as a character portrait of loneliness and longing for universal truths through confessions of a lonely mind. But what makes the premise intriguing gets lost in muddled storytelling. Mark L. Smith’s adapted screenplay flickers through plot points without the patience to let them flourish. As a consequence, moments of heightened emotion and moving scenes between the characters fall flat. There are two main threads to this film, and the parallels are drawn poorly from inception all the way to a puzzling ending. Augustine and Iris have a mostly quiet relationship; her appearance in the film is a sudden revelation for him. A reminder of someone he loves dearly. The two eventually find a way of communicating that works. As they brace the blistering elements to find another radio connection, a parallel story follows the group of astronauts aboard the isolated Aether traveling back home. The Aether crew is played by a star-studded cast including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Kyle Chandler, Tiffany Boone, and Demián Bichir. With this much talent in one setting, it is especially disappointing that the screenplay (mainly the character development) are what bring the film down several notches. Each have good little standout moments throughout, but the lack of focus in storytelling trickles down to their performances as they try to elevate above an incoherent screenplay.
Moments of emotional engagement feel few and far between in The Midnight Sky. Clooney’s direction is fine; there are some lovely celestial scenes that reflect and compliment Augustine’s frame of mind in particular. He establishes a strong setting of isolation in the Arctic; interrupting the quiet atmosphere are some messy action sequences that appear on screen in mostly jarring ways, and feel strategically placed simply to incorporate tension. Alexandre Desplat, who usually delivers, adds a super sentimental soundtrack to the story. There are also some jumpy musical notes that often don’t gel with certain moments. From a technical standpoint, the film is hit or miss throughout. For every moment of spectacle, there is one of distracting visual effects.
At the heart of The Midnight Sky is a group of isolated individuals trying to find their way home. There is potential for an emotional impact here but it never reaches the surface. Clooney brings ambition to the film by drawing parallels between the two storylines. By the end of its 2 hour runtime, however, it becomes clear that not enough patience was implemented along the way for all the threads to truly come together in a coherent or engaging way.
Note: this is my second review for Nomadland. Read the first here!
Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020)
Played so seamlessly by Frances McDormand it’s a wonder where she begins and her character ends, Fern is a nomad deep inside. She has a real sense of belonging on the road, where home is not a structure but a feeling. Beautiful landscapes are her museum, and she is the voluntary tour guide. McDormand works her magic in collaboration with the phenomenal Chloé Zhao, who edited, co-wrote, produced, and directed Nomadland. Within the first few minutes of the film, a powerful story is told. Due to reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada. The shuttered town and its discontinued zip code pushed all residents to relocate. One of the residents sifting through the debris of a once thriving life is Fern. In our introduction to her journey, she holds onto her husband Bo’s jacket extra tight before bidding farewell to some belongings and starting up her trusty van. Full of personal trinkets and treasures, she built the self-named Vanguard from the inside out. Her van is her home, and has been for some time. In the aftermath of personal grief and loss, Fern is on the road in search of answers.
Chloé Zhao’s curiosity as a director is the perfect match for this story. She brings immaculate detail to the narrative and also maintains a beautiful openness in her approach. She collects human interactions like rare gems; each nomad encounter is given empathy and space for expression. Zhao introduces many of these characters in the first act of the film, as they gather around a campfire and share stories of what led them to this lifestyle. What they share in common is a gravitation towards nomad Bob Wells and his cheap RV living guide. Although brief in screen time, he takes on a nucleus role in the film as Fern (among others) visits him to share her experience in search of some guidance. As vast as all the landscapes are, it’s a small world and the people in it gravitate towards a shared connection. As Bob tells Fern in a moving scene, months or even years could pass by and he’d see the same people down the road again.
The screenplay was adapted by Zhao from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, ’Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’. The book is about American nomads, many of whom were affected by the Great Recession, who embark on the road in search of work and a new way of life. Most of the locations and people in the book made it onto the screen; staying close to Bruder’s perspective gives the film a brilliant level of world building. Zhao starts with establishing location and creates the characters from there. Real nomads come to life on screen through monologues and small everyday interactions that reveal a bit about who they are. Two nomads in particular - Linda May and Swankie - are given revealing moments where they explain why they’re on the road. Listening to their stories is like hearing their souls speak. These moments are beyond moving to watch, and are the perfect example of why the film strikes a resonating chord in my heart. Zhao’s screenplay feels incredibly intuitive and personal in telling a story about this particular nomadic lifestyle. She brings so much heart to this film, and sits patiently with the people in this world to hear their stories.
To quote Chloé Zhao, “there are not many people out there as strong as Frances McDormand looking you in the eyes.” In creating the character of Fern, who might be McDormand’s alter ego, Zhao needed someone who would fit in the environment. She needed a good listener…someone who would absorb her surroundings, go with the flow, and also be deeply invested in the people she comes across. Frances McDormand’s screen presence is one of the strongest in film history, and her familiarity works to the film’s benefit as Fern becomes a guide for the audience to explore this nomadic world with. Whether it be working at Amazon, polishing rocks, or running a badlands spa, McDormand lends herself fully to the role. There are some playful moments in the film where the actor and character mesh. “Try McD,” suggests Fern when a receptionist can’t find her name on a camper registration list. McDormand’s performance is a magnificent blend of nuances, powerful stoicism, and surprises.
The character of Fern, like many others passing through in Nomadland, lost the life she knew after the Great Recession. She and her husband had lived in Empire for many years. Empire was a town Bo loved and that loved him back, so she stayed behind because “what’s remembered lives”. The film resonates as a story of grief and finding ways to cope with loss. Fern’s search brings her to a nomadic lifestyle where her self-sufficiency is tested, but there is also an excitement in seeing what’s down the road for her. She finds a special friend in Dave (the great David Strathairn), a familiar face she runs into at various camper locations. Their dynamic is so pure and genuinely lovely to watch unfold. Similar to Fern, Dave takes the odd job here and there to keep afloat. When Fern meets up with friend Linda May in the badlands, there Dave is, working as a guide for tourists. Dave and Fern share some of the most stunning scenes in the film, from wandering off into enormous rocky terrain to gazing at the stars. In tune with Zhao’s direction, Joshua James Richards’ cinematography gives the film a beautiful cinematic lens while also maintaining the openness of their natural environments.
The feeling of being in nature can be humbling and relaxing, followed by a restlessness that rushes in when you leave such a setting. The film captures this emotion so brilliantly, and it’s infused in Fern, who finds comfort in being on the road but shifts restlessly under a roof. Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand are a match made in heaven as they explore the healing power of nature in gorgeous American landscapes. The beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi gives melodic reminders that underneath the protagonist’s stoic exterior is a search of life after loss among a community of grieving people. Nomadland is a stunning character study and a moving portrait of learning to live with grief. Zhao tells a timeless story about self-sufficiency, unshared emotions, and the lonely ache in finding a sense of belonging during times of isolation.