Thursday, December 31, 2020

It's safe to say that 2020 will be a year few will miss. It was an especially unusual year for film, with theaters shut down for most of the year, many films were either delayed or released directly to streaming, or via special "virtual cinemas." While this year has doubtlessly been hard for many, the future of cinema remains in doubt. But despite the troubles facing exhibitors and distributors alike, 2020 was actually quite a rich year for cinema, with barriers between what constitutes a film being broken down and leveling the playing field with the major studios often sitting on the sidelines. For those stuck at home, there was plenty to love on the small screen, and even though many of us long for the the theatrical experience to return, these are the films that I most want to carry with me from a year I'd prefer to leave behind.

1. FREE TIME (Manfred Kirchheimer, USA)

Manfred Kirchheimer's city symphony, shot in 16mm between 1958 and 1960, recalls Ivens' Regen(1929), Sheeler and Strand's Manhatta (1921), and Ruttman's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) in equal measure, beautifully capturing the electrifying immediacy of the great silent avant-garde artists that brought their cities to life in a very specific time and place. At once vibrant and melancholy, Free Time is teeming with life, every frame crackles with energy, capturing small moments of spontaneous humanity that feel like a window into a bygone era. This thing is a stone cold masterpiece.

2. TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)

Kurosawa has woven a deeply incisive tale of a woman who would supposedly go to the ends of the earth for a story, but is never allowed to probe the depths of her own dreams. Constantly second-guessed, patronized, and marginalized, surrounded by men who we always suspect of talking about her in Uzbek behind her back, Yoko reclaims her voice and her agency in one of the most cathartic denouements of 2020; beautifully meditating on femininity, patriarchal power structures, and finding your joy in a world that is constantly trying to put you in a box. Part fish-out-of-water comedy, part media satire, part feminist manifesto, To the Ends of the Earth is a quiet wonder of a film, a perceptive and lyrical interrogation of alienation and loneliness that lands like a depth charge.

3. AMMONITE (Francis Lee, UK)

Lee has a nearly unparalleled eye for finding beauty and pain in the spaces between words. There's something achingly liminal about his cinema, where the emotions exist in in the in between spaces, between words and glances, never fully expressed in words but keenly felt just the same. AMMONITE is a deeply beautiful film, economical in its storytelling and yet filled with a boundless sense of emotional depth. It explores so much with so little, where two lovers manage to plug small holes in each other's hearts but can't quite stop the bleeding on their own. It's an altogether astonishing achievement.

4. NOMADLAND (Chloé Zhao, USA)

Based on the book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" by Jessica Bruder, which examined the phenomenon of elderly Americans who lost everything spending their twilight years wandering across the country looking for work in lieu of retirement, Nomadland is at once loving and heartbreaking, an aching portrait of Trump-era malaise that centers some of the truly forgotten men and women who live in the margins of the most prosperous nation on earth. That Zhao captures it all with such quiet dignity, never descending into miserablism or exploitation, is a testament to the assuredness of her craft. She's quickly established herself as one of the foremost ethnographers of life in the American west, and Nomadland is an astonishing experience that demands our attention at every turn; often playing less like a narrative film and more like an elegy for a lost and wounded nation trying to find its soul.


Charlie Kaufman's confounding whatsit in a snowglobe is as insular and obfuscating as anything he's ever made, but I'm Thinking of Ending Things is perhaps one of his most personal and prismatic works yet. Ostensibly a film about a woman pondering breaking up with her boyfriend over a weekend visit with his parent, the film slowly begins to reveal itself as something much deeper and more sinister, slowly pulling back the layers of the facade of not only the relationship, but of her very existence. Where does she end and the idealized vision of her in her partner's head end? It's a tantalizing question, one that Kaufman doggedly refuses to answer, but the result is one of his most mind-bending trips inside the human psyche, but also one of his most painfully heartfelt. Do we ever really know who we are in the mind of someone else?

6. LOVERS ROCK (Steve McQueen, UK)

The second installment of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology for Amazon, Lovers Rock takes place at a reggae party in 1970s London. Deeply rooted in a very specific time and place, featuring a style of music very specific to London's black culture, Lovers Rock feels like beat poetry come to life. While it follows the meeting of two lovers who begin a tentative relationship over the course of one night, the film is consistently kinetic, moving, teeming with energy and life. It's a swirling smorgasbord of sensual energy and - sweat, music, smoke, heat, bodies moving in unison and to their own rhythm, as if McQueen took the opening dance scene of Climax and stretched it out into a feature all its own. No other film this year was so rich or intoxicating.

7. CITY HALL (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Frederick Wiseman has a way of using his subjects as a microcosm of something bigger, but his latest film, City Hall, is one of his most indelible works in years. Focusing on the inner workings of Boston's city hall, the film is a sprawling, 4.5 hour examination of the turning wheels of American government as it grapples with the seemingly humdrum day-to-day business of running a city. It's one of the year's most strangely intoxicating, satisfying, and even moving experiences, as city official tackle big issues of racial and economic justice while overseeing the minutiae of governance. In a year like 2020, there's something strangely hopeful about City Hall, where the government may not always be efficient, but is nevertheless a comforting paragon of competence. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Our government may be in disarray, but Wiseman, ever the curious optimist, finds something beautiful in its evolution.

8. FIRST COW (Kelly Reichardt, USA)

A buddy movie, a western, an interrogation of capitalism, Kelly Reichardt's haunted tale of the American west is many things at once, but it is always extraordinary. Hushed and observant as her films usually are, First Cow explores manufactured scarcity through the eyes of two men, a migrant worker and an immigrant, whose secret ingredient to their wildly popular treats is milk from a local baron's prized cow (the first in the region). The premise almost seems laughable, but Reichardt uses it as a jumping off point for a disarmingly tragic deconstruction of the American dream, and the exploitation upon which it is built.


9. THE FATHER (Florian Zeller, UK)

Anthony Hopkins has delivered so many performances that could be referred to as "career best" that it seems almost redundant to speak in those terms here, but Florian Zeller's The Father (adapted from Zeller's own play) has to rank very near the top. A haunting, fractured narrative that treats Alzheimer's almost as a horror film as much as a tragedy, The Father puts us directly into its protagonist's shoes, unable to discern reality from fantasy. Zeller transposes characters, mixes up situations, casts the same role with multiple actors, and combines disparate pieces of Hopkins life, allowing us to experience his mental decline first hand, to the point that we begin to question whether or not our own memories are failing us. The changes from scene to scene are often subtle but extremely effective in consistently muddying the waters so we never really know what the truth is from moment to moment.  It's a haunting, heartbreaking film, made even more so by the towering performances of its two leads.

10. YOURSELF AND YOURS (Hong Sangsoo, South Korea)

Rather than a fractured, elliptical narrative, as is typical with Hong Sangsoo's usual interrogations of time and space between people, Yourself and Yours hinges on a fractured, elliptical character, a woman struggling to overcome addiction and alcoholism, who is trying desperately to become a better person. In essence she really is two different people, and Hong deftly explores her attempts to reconcile her past with the future she wants to create. It's one of Hong's most beautifully nuanced works, a film filled with longing and regret that finds great beauty in the in-between moments, the lingering glances and subtle changes in expression that exist between the deceptively mundane dialogue and jaunty score. 

11. SOUL (Pete Docter, USA)
13. DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD (Kirsten Johnson, USA)
14. DA 5 BLOODS (Spike Lee, USA)


  • WOLFWALKERS (Tomm More, Ireland)
  • 76 DAYS (Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, China)
  • TIME (Garrett Bradley, USA)
  • MINARI (Lee Isaac Chung, USA)
  • THE INVISIBLE MAN (Leigh Whannell, USA)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “WONDER WOMAN 1984,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

If 2020 had anything going for it, it was the first year over a decade without a major release from Marvel or DC, but Warner Brothers opted for a last minute theatrical/streaming hybrid Christmas Day release for Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman 1984, the long awaited follow up to her 2017 hit starring Gal Gadot in the title role. But in true 2020 fashion, it's more akin to a lump of coal in our collective stocking than a shiny new Christmas gift.

Despite its somewhat weak ending (a popular sentiment echoed by Jenkins herself), the original Wonder Woman remains one of the strongest films in the new post-Dark  Knight DC lineup, so it should come as no surprise that like Icarus, the inevitable sequel flies too close to the sun. Wonder Woman 1984 is an odd bird indeed, somehow too ambitious for its own good and yet remarkably low stakes, despite the usual world-ending premise. The film finds Diana Prince (Gadot) alone, decades after the original, WWI-set film, working at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. It is there where she encounters a strange stone, brought in by the FBI for identification after an attempted jewelry heist foiled by Wonder Woman at a local mall (it's the 80s - mall scenes are obligatory). 

The stone, it turns out, is some sort of ancient wishing stone (are we really still doing magic stones?) that grants any wish made while touching it - but for a price. Diana wishes to have her lover, Steve (Chris Pine), back; and he returns in someone else's body. Her nerdy coworker, Barbara (Kristen Wiig) wishes to be like Diana, and suddenly finds herself with superpowers. But a ne'er do well wannabe oil magnate (Pedro Pascal), whose image of wealth and success isn't what it appears, is desperately searching for the stone, and he will do anything to get it and make all his dreams come true, by taking what he wants from everyone else.

It's a rather convoluted premise, and the weak script does it no favors by pool explaining the logistics and mythology behind it, none of which are particularly clear or consistent. This has the unfortunate side-effect of making the entire conflict borderline incomprehensible, with the motivations of the villains frustratingly amorphous. At 151 minutes, the already thin plot is stretched past its breaking point with seemingly endless action set pieces that add little to the story and almost seem half-heartedly constructed, featuring lots of quick cuts but very little stakes or suspense.

It's not a total loss; Hans Zimmer's score fires on all cylinders, expanding beyond the now famous Wonder Woman theme form his Batman v. Superman score in ways the film never really earns. Wiig is also terrific as the mousy scientist turned sultry villain, even if the role is painfully underwritten. That's really the film's biggest weakness, with so much going on, the script simply just does not step yup the plate, falling back on lackluster dialogue that's filled with lame platitudes about truth and love that resolves everything far too easily. They really expect us to believe, after the last four years, that all it takes to stop someone from making selfish and destructive decisions is to...ask them not to? Jenkins is a strong filmmaker, but Wonder Woman 1984 is a mess, a muddled and ponderous blockbuster that is somehow both overstuffed and undercooked that leaves the audience wanting more because it never really got anything in the first place. 

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

WONDER WOMAN  1984 | Directed by Patty Jenkins | Stars Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen | Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence | Opens in theaters and on HBO Max on December 25.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Pixar has been around long enough that they've had a few valleys between some of their highest peaks, but there are few studios with quite such a sterling track record. And while their formula has been established for quite sometime, its good to know that they can still surprise and delight so that their films feel as much like acts of discovery as they do familiar comfort food.

Their latest effort, Soul  directed by Pete Docter, was originally planned as a theatrical release before being relegated to a Disney+ streaming premiere due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it's a shame that it will never get the theatrical release it deserves, but it is quite frankly one of Pixar's finest achievements, and its most bracingly original offering since 2008's WALL-E. The film centers around a musician named Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) who dreams of touring with the biggest names in jazz, but instead finds himself picking up part-time work as a middle school band teacher in between gigs. When the chance of a lifetime finally comes knocking, Joe's life is suddenly cut short, and he finds himself whisked away to the afterlife before he gets his chance to fulfill his dream. Determined to get back into his body, he gets mistaken as a guide by the caretakers of the great beyond, and is assigned a young soul to help them develop the passions that will guide their lives once they're born. 

Joe is assigned 22 (Tina Fey), a consistent drop-out whose lack of a spark has flummoxed everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Albert Einstein. With 22 refusing to be born and Joe desperate to return to life, the two form a pact to find a spark for 22 that will be his ticket back to earth. But a mixup leads them both back to earth - with 22 in Joe's body and Joe's soul in the body of a cat, leaving them to find a way to switch back so that Joe can at last achieve his dream of playing on stage with his idol, Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett).

Soul has been criticized in some circles for its lack of a strong story, but its lightness of plot actually works to its advantage. This isn't Pixar's first foray into the afterlife (Coco went there in 2017) or its first brush with mortality (Up confronted it head on in 2009), but it is perhaps the most existential film they animation house has yet produced. As 22 seeks her spark, and Joe clings to something that he thinks is the meaning of his life, the film examines the simple beauty of life itself. That may be a hard pill to swallow in a year like 2020, but SOUL feels like a balm at the end of a year of almost unending tragedy and pain. It finds beauty in life's smallest moments - in the wind rustling through the trees, in sunlight streaming onto a city sidewalk, in leaves soaring through the air; and it does so in almost avant-garde fashion. 

The film's post-modern evocation of the afterlife, set to a nearly transcendent score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the wistful jazz stylings of Jon Batiste, is unlike anything Pixar has done before - at once clever and subversive, eschewing trappings of specific faiths for something more cosmic and unknowable. But what really sets Soul apart is its dedication to finding beauty, indeed the real spark of life, in life's in-between moments. A more complicated plot would have distracted from its message - and the message here is that one doesn't necessarily have to have a set purpose in order to live a fulfilling life. While most of Pixar's films have had elements meant to appeal to both children and adults, Soul feels like their most grown effort, a bittersweet and contemplative tale of finding one's place in a world that expects you to have everything laid out advance. In that way, it makes an interesting companion piece to Tyler Taormina's Ham on Rye, a film that satirizes society's arbitrary milestones designed to govern the direction of the rest of our lives. And while Soul isn't quite so cynical, it finds a sense of hope, community, and even peace in the unknown, both in this life and the next. Docter has helmed some of Pixar's most emotional and incisive works (Up, Monsters, Inc., Inside Out), and Soul just might be his most penetrating and deeply felt film yet.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SOUL | Directed by Pete Docter | Stars Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Daveed Diggs, John Ratzenberger, Richard Ayoade, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Angela Bassett | Rated PG for thematic elements and some language | Streaming exclusively on Disney+ on Dec. 25

Monday, December 21, 2020

Tyler Taormina's curious feature debut is a coming of age story unlike anything I've ever seen. 

Centering around a strange ritual at a small town deli where local teenagers gather to partner up and decide their fates - whether they will escape their small town and find happiness or remain behind forever, Ham on Rye slyly satirizes society's arbitrary measures of success and the psychological toll on those who don't meet them, creating a fully realized world of accepted idiosyncrasy. It meanders a bit in the back half once the ritual is over and the humdrum existence of those left behind sets in, but it's just so bracingly original and beautifully shot by Carson Lund that it's hard not to be enthralled by its peculiar rhythms and droll observations on the absurdity of life's milestones. 

Its peculiar starkness is reminiscent of Ricky D'Ambrose's tales of urban alienation, but there's an unusual warmth here, even as the film grapples with some difficult subject matter. Taormina has a keen eye for the bizarre and unusual, and so fully commits to the unusual concept, that it takes on a kind of life of its own, ebbing and flowing through the unique cadences of the world it creates. It begins with such a sense of hope and possibility, only to end with such a sense of melancholy and loss, tweaking American society's concepts of success and self-fulfillment with a real sense of empathy for those who don't quite fit the mold, but feel the pressure from all sides to live up to standards they never signed up for anyway.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

HAM ON RYE | Directed by Tyler Taormina | Stars Haley Bodell, Cole Devine, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Luke Darga | Not Rated | Now playing in select virtual cinemas.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan in AMMOTIE. Courtesy of NEON.

Not content with delivering one of the best queer love stories of the 21st century in God's Own Country (2017), actor/writer/director Francis Lee has returned with another haunting tale of gay lovers in Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan as 19th century women whose love for each other awakens a spark within them they didn't know they had. 

Winslet stars as Mary Anning, a real life paleontologist who was considered by many scholars to be one of the finest fossil collectors who ever lived - spending her days on the beaches of Lyme, England collecting remnants of ancient sea creatures who lived in the area millions of years before, her incredible discoveries often credited to her male contemporaries. Winslet's Mary is insular, quiet, and often stand-offish, far more comfortable amongst the fossils than among the living. Ronan plays Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a wealthy amateur fossil collector who comes to Lyme on doctor's orders to cure her "melancholia." The cure, it turns out, isn't the sea water but Mary; and the two forge a tentative but passionate connection - bridging Charlotte's depression and Mary's anti-social isolation. But the two are ultimately on different paths - rather than be torn apart by societal convention as one may expect in a lesbian romance set in the 1840s, the divide between them is their disparate life goals. Mary's true love is her work, the ancient creatures buried in the mud by the sea, while Mary desperately seeks a lifelong companion in London to rescue her from her lobeless marriage, and even their passion may not be strong enough to bridge the gap.  

While God's Own Country was notable for being a rare gay romance that doesn't end in tragedy and heartbreak, Ammonite is somewhat more ambiguous. Ammonite certainly hasn't enjoyed the same rapturous critical reception as God's Own Country, but I found it to be just as aching a tale of love between two people who can't quiet articulate their own feelings. This is about a fleeting connection, a brief and powerful spark, that you can't make work. The gulf is too wide, two people who want different things heading in opposite directions who are what each other needs for a very limited time. Mary and Charlotte are not not soulmates, at least not in the conventional "meant to be" sense. Maybe they could have been in another time if circumstances were different; and therein lies the film's inherent tragedy. This isn't about two women torn apart by society, they're torn apart by their own inability to communicate.

Saorise Ronan and Kate Winslet in AMMONITE. Courtesy of NEON.

The film has received many comparisons to Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire, due to being a period romance about two women falling in love by the sea. But it's almost not fair to compare them, because they're very different films with only surface level similarities, and there's something about the unspoken pain lingering beneath the surface of Ammonite that hits even harder than Sciamma's critical darling.  Much of this is due to Winslet's searing performance. She's a woman who could never really be herself, spending years pursuing a singular passion for which she isn't given credit because of her gender. There's so much bottled up inside and you can see it in her eyes. It's one of the finest performances of her career; insular, thorny, wholly unglamorous and yet poignantly realized at every turn. The score by Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertelmann is also one of the year's most heartfelt works. You don't hear the first hesitant notes until the first time Winslet and Ronan are alone and then it's just so heartbreaking, two women unseen by those around them who at last see something in each other that no one else can. Yet what makes the film so powerful is that it acknowledges that even that may not be enough with which to build a life.

Lee has a nearly unparalleled eye for finding beauty and pain in the spaces between words. There's something achingly liminal about his cinema, where the emotions exist in the in-between spaces, between words and glances, never fully expressed in words but keenly felt just the same. Ammonite is a deeply beautiful film, economical in its storytelling and yet filled with a boundless sense of emotional depth. It explores so much with so little, where two lovers manage to plug small holes in each other's hearts but can't quite stop the bleeding on their own. It's an altogether astonishing achievement. 

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

AMMONITE | Directed by Francis Lee | Stars Kate Winslet, Saorise Ronan, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones | Rated R for graphic sexuality, some graphic nudity and brief language | Now playing in select theaters.

George Clooney (“Augustine” - Director - Producer), Caoilinn Springall (“Iris”) in THE MIDNIGHT SKY. Courtesy of Netflix.

Set in the not-too-distant future in the wake of a never-named disaster, George Clooney's The Midnight Sky stars Clooney himself as a scientist tasked with remaining behind at an arctic research station in order to warn a crew of astronauts returning from deep space not to come home. Out of communication range for weeks, the spacecraft is returning to earth from a mission to Jupiter's moon Titan, where they were scouting for locations for a potential new safe haven for refugees from our own dying planet. 

Clooney, the scientist who originally proposed Titan as a potential "new earth," finds himself as the last human remaining on earth's surface after the rest of the survivors have moved underground in a vain attempt to escape the planet's now poisonous atmosphere. Or so he thinks - on one of his many trips around the abandoned base, he discovers a young girl named Iris (Caoilinn Springall) who doesn't speak, but keeps him company on his seemingly doomed mission to save the human race. 

The Midnight Sky has a promising and intriguing premise, but it very much wears its inspirations on its sleeve, almost playing like a "greatest hits" of recent science fiction films, channelling everything from Gravity, to High Life, to Arrival, to Passengers, to Ad Astra, to Interstellar, and even The Cloverfield Paradox. The film features some impressive special effects, and a truly lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, but it never shakes the feeling that we've seen all of this done better before. Clooney is a strong lead, completely eschewing his star persona for a weary, haggard performance as a man who feels as though he's done everything he can to save humanity and  has nothing left to give. But the film splits so much of its time between Clooney and the returning space crew that Clooney's story often gets lost, especially in the film's final act which focuses almost exclusively on the space shuttle. Their story is far less interesting, and Clooney's absence in the final stretch leaves a pronounced void. 

Clooney tends to be a stronger performer than a filmmaker - and while his insular performance here puts aside his natural charisma in favor of something more insular, his particular star magnetism is the glue that holds the film together. So when he cedes the spotlight to his supporting cast, the film just isn't as interesting. One can't help but wonder if the film would have been a much more unique experience if it had focused solely on Clooney and his young companion rather than splitting its time with the drama on board the returning spacecraft, which feels more like standard sci-fi fare rather than the feature-length "Twilight Zone" vibe given off by Clooney's half of the story. Therein lies the film's biggest issue: its overall lack of cohesion. Its split storyline (on top of flashbacks) make for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience. There are some lovely grace notes, but it never quite rises to the next level. It's certainly an ambitious work as it explores the end of humanity by its own carelessness, but by using its influences as a crutch, The Midnight Sky coasts along through familiar territory without ever really distinguishing itself on its own merits.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

THE MIDNIGHT SKY | Directed by George Clooney | Stars George Clooney, Felicity Jones, Kyle Chandler, Demián Bichir, David Oyelowo, Tiffany Boone, Caoilinn Springall | Rated PG-13 for some bloody images and brief strong language | Streaming exclusively on Netflix on December 23.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Often pigeonholed as a director of horror films, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has also delivered some of the most finely tuned and emotionally astute dramas of the past 15 years. From Tokyo Sonata (2009) to To the Ends of the Earth (2020), Kurosawa, far from being a master of only one genre, is a deeply empathetic and curious filmmaker with a knack for exploring the liminal spaces between the said and the unsaid.

Kurosawa's penchant for burrowing beneath the surface of his characters makes him an ideal horror filmmaker, but there's something almost transcendent about his dramatic work. The way in which he invites the audience to inhabit the character, creates a unique empathetic bond between the audience and his protagonists. In To the Ends of the Earth  Kurosawa introduces us to Yoko (Japanese pop star Atsuko Maeda), a reporter traveling abroad in Uzbekistan for a series of puff-pieces for tourists. These pieces, for which she regularly gets bumped for more heavy-hitting news, turn out to be so much more than mere filler for the Instagram set, often putting her in harm's way or at the center of local ridicule. 

Alone in a foreign country whose language she does not speak, Yoko is unable to advocate for herself, and is often at the mercy of her translators, who are all men. Because Kurosawa does not translate the Uzbek dialogue, only the Japanese, much of the audience is left just as adrift as Yoko. With only her translators for guides, we are left with potentially unreliable narrators, unable to be sure if we truly understood what was being said. She is constantly expected to be agreeable, not rock the boat. When presented with options she doesn't like, she feels forced to choose one so as not to be seen as difficult. And while these expectations are never spoken aloud, you can see the anxiety in Maeda's performance. Kurosawa consistently otherizes her, putting her in difficult situations that she could theoretically get out of at any time, but outside expectations keep her from standing up for herself. "It's her choice, so it's no problem" says one of the producers when debating on whether or not a certain task was too dangerous. But was it really? Saying no would shut down the production and invite the judgment of the crew. If she feels like she can't say no, does she really have a choice? 

We eventually discover that Yoko didn't always dream of being a travel journalist; she wanted to be a singer. In one of the film's most astonishing sequences, Kurosawa takes us inside her head, creating an entire musical number that somehow feels like it's from another film entirely. But that's the whole point, of course. Yoko wants to escape, to go anywhere other than where she is, just like the goat she conspires to liberate for the cameras, only to discover it's yet another stunt for the cameras. Nothing she does is real, it's a constant and frustrating illusion. Her mental escapes to a world on the stage are more tangible. 

It's something quite disarming and lovely; Kurosawa has woven a deeply incisive tale of a woman who would supposedly go to the ends of the earth for a story, but is never allowed to probe the depths of her own dreams. Constantly second-guessed, patronized, and marginalized, surrounded by men who we always suspect of talking about her in Uzbek behind her back, Yoko reclaims her voice and her agency in one of the most cathartic denouements of 2020; beautifully meditating on femininity, patriarchal power structures, and finding your joy in a world that is constantly trying to put you in a box. Part fish-out-of-water comedy, part media satire, part feminist manifesto, To the Ends of the Earth is a quiet wonder of a film, a perceptive and lyrical interrogation of alienation and loneliness that lands like a depth charge.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa | Stars Atsuko Maeda, Shota Sometani, Tokio Emoto, Ryô Kase | Not Rated | In Japanese and Uzbek w/English subtitles | Now playing in select theaters.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Carey Mulligan stars as 'Cassandra' in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.
Courtesy of Focus Features

WARNING: This review contains spoilers. 

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women everywhere have felt empowered to tell their stories of abuse in ways that signal to other survivors of sexual harassment and abuse that they are not alone. While this has doubtlessly been a difficult process for many survivors, it would be difficult to argue that the #MeToo movement hasn't been a net positive for the country, as abusers everywhere are finally being confronted and facing justice. 

Filmmakers have been grappling with the movement in their own ways as well, and 2020 has been an especially strong year for women filmmakers to tell their stories. Kitty Green's The Assistant, Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Maïmouna Doucouré's Cuties, and now Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman, have all dealt with what it means and how it feels to be a woman in their own unique ways. Promising Young Woman stands out by using the trappings of a genre film to tell the story of a woman named Cassie (Carrie Mulligan) seeking revenge on the men who once sexually assaulted her friend at a party in college many years ago. She has weaponized her trauma by pretending to be drunk at bars where she is picked up by strange men with the intention of taking advantage of her, only to "snap out of it" right before they do the deed in order to teach them a lesson they won't soon forget. It's an ingenious concept, made even more so by Mulligan's barnstorming, multi-layered performance, which casts her as a lone warrior taking on rape culture almost singlehandedly.

There is so much to like here - the way in which Fennell carefully avoids turning Cassie into an abuser herself - even as she delivers devastating blows, often targeting bystanders who  did nothing or looked the other way, but never actually allowing them to become victims themselves. She just wants to give them a taste of their trauma her friend endured. In that regard, she's as much a teacher as she is a warrior, brilliantly illustrating the pain and uncertainty felt by victims of rape and sexual assault. It's an often deeply uncomfortable film, dealing frankly with incredibly dark emotional material, and Fennell pulls no punches in her depiction of repressed trauma made manifest, creating an almost unbearable sense of dread where any character is a potential source of abuse, whether it be sexual, physical, emotional, or mental.

Where the film falters is in its ending, which has been the subject of much online debate even among the film's most ardent fans, which seemingly upends everything we've seen running up to it. Fennell does such a fantastic job of illustrating how even those who were not directly involved with the rape were still complicit in their silence, their laughter, or their obstruction of justice in order to protect the reputation and careers of the men involved, but the film undercuts some of its own power by suggesting that the only way to defeat rape culture is to become a victim yourself. That the film's hero also becomes a victim in the end feels somehow incongruous to what we've seen leading up to it. Sure, she reclaims her power and agency even in victimhood, which is an important thing to note, but there's something strangely contrived about the final scene, which is satisfying on a surface-level if not necessarily a narrative one. It leaves the audience with some extremely uncomfortable questions - as great filmmaking often does. But after such a thorny film, its "happy" conclusion seems somehow hollow. Perhaps that's how the MeToo movement feels in the wake of centuries worth of unchallenged Rape culture, but it's too neat a bow on an otherwise prickly, rage filled film. Promising Young Woman is a jagged little pill, to be sure, and while I'm not convinced it adds up to a fully cohesive thesis, it is clear is that Emerald Fennell is an extremely promising young talent.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN | Directed by Emerald Fennell | Stars Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Laverne Cox, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Molly Shannon, Connie Britton | Rated R for strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use | Opens in theaters on Dec. 25.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Gary Oldman in MANK. Courtesy of Netflix.

Despite its evocations of classical Hollywood and its behind-the-scenes narrative of the making of one of the greatest films of all time that (sort of) provides its backbone, David Fincher's MANK often feels more like really expensive fan fiction than a major motion picture. Fincher is a talented stylist, as he has proven time and again in films like Zodiac, Seven, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network. But rare is the film that truly captures not only the look and feel, but also the spirit of Old Hollywood, and Mank is no exception. 

Like Steven Soderbergh's The Good German (which looked to Casablanca for inspiration) before it, Mank's adherence to period detail feels more affected than authentic, with its black and white cinematography, strangely muffled-sounding mono sound (in a way that sounds nothing like the films of the period), and digitally rendered cigarette burns, all in service of a semi-true reverie about screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he navigates studio and national politics while writing the screenplay to the legendary Citizen Kane. Forget, for a moment, that none of the lead actors are particularly well cast (Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst and Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer are inspired, though), Mank's biggest issue is that there is a strange tension between Fincher's particular style and method and the methods of Classical Hollywood that (visually, at least) he's trying so hard to emulate. It's as if the film is trying to be too many things at once - an E! True Hollywood Story for cinephiles, a cynical Hollywood satire, a Great Man story about the under-appreciated artist behind one of the Great American Films, and an exploration of the unseen politics of Hollywood.

Much of the film involves the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of socialist Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye), a candidacy that terrified the conservative studio heads and media tycoons like Hearst and Mayer, who concocted backroom deals and unleashed their propaganda arms to cut damaging newsreels to paint Sinclair as an un-American radical in order to damage his campaign. Fincher suggests that much of this was an inspiration for Citizen Kane, even though there's no real evidence to suggest that Mankiewicz was as involved as the film depicts. What's most interesting about this piece of the plot is that, despite Hollywood's rather liberal reputation, Fincher sets out to show that it is in all reality a deeply conservative place, where self-preservation is the priority for wealthy elites. There's something refreshing about Fincher's counter narrative to the modern Republican Party's characterization of Hollywood as a bastion of liberalism when it's really run by corporate capitalists, but the film is too disjointed to really hammer the point home. 

In fact, the whole affair comes across as so plastic and disingenuous that it's difficult to really settle into its particular rhythms. It's not film, it's digital. Its sound design is distractingly artificial. And while none of these things would necessarily be problems on their own, taken together, in a film that is meant to be an emulation of a very specific time period and style of filmmaking, they are constantly at war with the modernity of Fincher's aesthetic. Everything about it feels overly precious and fabricated - and while there was certainly sense of heightened reality in studio made pictures of the 1930s and 40s, what's going on here is entirely different, because Mank is pretending to be something that was already decidedly artificial - to paraphrase Tropic Thunder, it's a film playing a film disguised as another film. And none of it works, because unlike many of those studio films of the time period, it lacks soul. Mankiewicz remains (by design) a somewhat obfuscating figure, and the conflict with Orson Wells over credit for Kane seems like an afterthought  to the studio intrigue that supposedly inspired it. Fans of classic Hollywood will certainly finds lots of gripes to be had in its inconsistencies, and the uninitiated will likely be left scratching their heads. This is Fincher indulging in some extremely niche fantasies with some intriguing ideas, but without focus they're just too scattershot to be entirely cohesive - and the result is a film that doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to be or who it is even for.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

MANK | Directed by David Fincher | Stars Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Monika Gossmann, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, Tom Burke, Charles Dance | Rated R for some language | Now playing in select theaters and streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

After first emerging on the international scene with a seemingly out of nowhere Oscar nomination in 2009 for The Secret of Kells, Irish animator Tomm Moore has quickly become one of the medium's most indelible voices. Moore went on to earn another Oscar nomination for his 2014 film Song of the Sea, and has returned in 2020 with perhaps his most accomplished work yet. Wolfwalkers is the inaugural animated feature released by the fledgling Apple TV+ streaming service, which has been mostly light on content compared to the other the other major streamers, but Wolfwalkers is a major film, and seems poised to earn Moore (who co-directs here with his frequent collaborator, Ross Stewart) his third Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Set in the 1600s, Wolfwalkers follows young Robyn Goodfellowe (Honor Kneafsey), an aspiring hunter from England who travels with her father (Sean Bean) to Kilkenny, Ireland, to help the puritanical Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) wipe out a pack of wolves that are terrorizing Kilkenny. Determined to help her father slay the wolves, she continually sneaks out into the forest after him. There she meets Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whittaker), a young "wolfwalker," a mystical healer who can magically transform from human to wolf. She and her mother Moll (Maria Doyle Kennedy) lead the pack of local wolves, who only attack humans because their homes are being threatened by the wholesale deforestation ordered by the Lord Protector. When she tries to warn her father, he will hear none of it, choosing instead to adhere to his allegiance to England and the authority of the Lord Protector. Robyn soon discovers that after a tussle with Mebh, she too has become a wolfwalker, and is now trapped between her love for her father, and her newfound friends in the forest, who seek to rise up against the oppressors who seek to claim their home as their own.

Wolfwalkers often feels like an ancient fable, passed down through oral tradition and brought to life through fantastical illustrations pulled from the dreams of ancestors long past. It's a tale of independence and rebellion against oppression and colonization that perfectly fits our current moment. Moore's dazzling animation style has never felt so otherworldly or dreamlike as it does here - its swirling impressionistic colors seemingly forging a myth on screen before our very eyes. Imagine Brave but with a bigger heart and a deeper soul. Composer Bruno Coulais accompanies the breathtaking imagery with one of the finest scores of his career, which also employs songs by Kila and AURORA to thrilling effect. 

It's a shame this won't be as widely released in theaters as it may have before the COVID-19 pandemic (GKIDS gave it a limited nationwide release over the last month), because it is truly one of the most stunning animated films to come along in quite some time. It's so invigorating to see a hand-drawn work like this again, with such a fully realized emotional grounding that recalls work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. In Wolfwalkers Moore has created something that feels both ancient and modern, a bracing cross section of Irish lore and modern sensibilities (and a touch of queer subtext) that feels at once warmly familiar and electrifyingly new.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

WOLFWALKERS | Directed by Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart | Stars Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney | Rated PG for sequences of violence and peril, scary images, some thematic elements and brief language | Now playing in select theaters. Begins streaming exclusively on AppleTV+ on Friday, Dec. 11.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

If Woody Allen's last film, Wonder Wheel (2017), was an act of ham-fisted self-defense for the octogenarian filmmaker, then A Rainy Day in New York, (which has been in a state of distribution limbo in the United States since Allen was dropped from his deal with Amazon last year) feels something akin to self-reflection for the famously (infamously?) insular director. Not in regards to the accusations leveled against him, of course, you won't find Allen looking that deep here. But there's something decidedly introspective about A Rainy Day in New York that is hard to shake.

Set on a rainy day in the eponymous city, the film stars Timothée Chalamet (serving as the Allen avatar) as the hilariously named Gatsby Welles, a somewhat self absorbed college student, and Elle Fanning as Ashleigh, his plucky girlfriend who dreams of being a journalist. On a day out in the city, Ashleigh has an interview scheduled with notoriously reclusive filmmaker Roland Pollard (Liev Schrieber), leaving Gatsby to wander around the city, where he encounters Chan (Selena Gomez) and old friend, as she's shooting a student film. Taken in by Ashleigh's guilelessness, Roland invites her to an advance screening of his hotly anticipated new film (which he hates). As Gatsby keeps trying to meet up with Ashleigh, it soon becomes clear that the two of them are on very different paths, in New York as well as in life.

Stylistically, this is very much Allen in his comfort zone. But there's something quite fascinating, indeed almost surreal, about the way Allen's screenplay seems to be in constant tension with the actors on screen. Allen has not adapted his particular style to fit modern twentysomethings, and it's jarring hearing Allen's singularly affected prose coming out of the mouths of college students. They wax poetic about everything Cole Porter to Hitchcock, but that dichotomy between Allen's predilections and the relative youth of the characters are part of what make the film so endearing. It's as if Allen is fully aware of how ridiculous the bourgeois pretensions sound, and he's underscoring them with a kind of winking self-awareness that has been seemingly missing from much of his late period work. Compare Rainy Day to the ponderous Wonder Wheel or the stilted Magic in the Moonlight, and it appears positively fleet-footed.

Like much of Allen's work, A Rainy Day in New York is filled with a nostalgia for a New York that never existed anywhere but in the filmmaker's imagination, a mythical land of art, culture, chance encounters, and romance that has a personality all its own, pushing characters down winding side streets away from the familiar and toward the fantastical, each turn rife with the tingling energy of discovery and possibility. Here, however, Allen seems to admit that it's all a fantasy, a sentimental concoction conjured up in the wistful reveries of an old man pining for the days of his youth. Captured with beguiling elegance by Vittorio Storaro's lovely cinematography (employed to much better use than the beautiful but turgid Wonder Wheel), the film often feels like a daydream. And while it's often familiar, playing on well-worn Allen tropes, the cast (especially Gomez and Cherry Jones, in a small but key role), throw themselves in gamely. There's a certain sense that Allen is looking back now, assessing his career and the themes he's revisited often, but rather than simply retread where's he's already been, he's exploring new avenues, turning down previously unexplored side roads to critique and re-examine his own cinematic pre-occupations. Jones' imperious matriarch with a secret is the tell here - Allen has long poked fun at his own yuppie pretensions, but here he seems to show something that's been missing from his often insular world - empathy. And that makes A Rainy Day in New York something rare and lovely indeed. It may not rank among Allen's finest films, but it plays like a  loving retrospective - no longer content to just play the hits, now he's exploring them in a new and intriguing key.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK | Directed by Woody Allen | Stars Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Jude Law, Diego Luna, Liev Schreiber, Rebecca Hall | Rated PG-13 for mature suggestive content, some drug use, smoking, language and partial nudity | Now available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and digital download.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

The haggard, careworn faces of those left behind by the Great Recession serve as the focus of Chloé Zhao's altogether remarkable new film, Nomadland. Zhao, who directed a cast of non-professionals through a semi-biographical tale of deconstructed masculinity in the American west in her 2018 film The Rider, plunks Francis McDormand and David Strathairn into a similarly non-professional cast of wanderers who live their lives as nomads, wandering across the west coast in RVs and vans, forming a unique community unlike anything else.

McDormand stars as Fern, who drives from town to town in a van, jumping from temporary job to temporary job, fulfilling orders at Amazon, washing dishes at local dives, whatever she can do for a few bucks. Fern is a victim of the Great Recession, who lost everything when the manufacturing town she called home completely folded after losing the factory that gave it life. The entire zip code was erased from the map, leaving behind an empty shell and hundreds of displaced workers. So Fern moves with the wind, looking for small bits of connection wherever she can find it. Zhao's camera wanders through sprawling RV camps on desert roads, where the mostly older denizens create makeshift markets and teach new skills to fellow travelers, helping each other survive on the road. Some choose this lifestyle in order to reject capitalist society and subsist on their own in a kind of roving commune, while others have it thrust upon them by a society without a safety net. 

They don't travel together, but their lives frequently intersect in familiar safe havens. The nomads never say goodbye, simply "I'll see ya down the road," in hopes of reconnecting once again at some lonely rest stop where the weariness of life is momentarily lifted by this improvised community. Zhao seems to instinctually understand the unique beauty of the friendship forged by these wanderers who exists on the fringes of society, wandering through the shambles of a broken nation. But she also understands the inherent tragedy of a nation that prides itself on greatness leaving so many people behind. Zhao often lingers on close-ups of faces, kind faces, weary faces, the faces of a nation that promises an golden dream on which it cannot, or will not, deliver. McDormand is a marvel, as always, but her Fern is an altogether new creation that we haven't quite seen from her before. Hardy and determined, yes, but wistful, vulnerable, a woman who has lost everything and can't quiet allow herself to trust anyone or anything again once the promise of forever was shattered. 

It's a haunting, bittersweet film, perhaps one of the most indelible and incisive portraits of the utter failure of the American dream produced in recent memory. Based on the book "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century" by Jessica Bruder, which examined the phenomenon of elderly Americans who lost everything spending their twilight years wandering across the country looking for work in lieu of retirement, Nomadland is at once loving and heartbreaking; an aching portrait of 21st century economic malaise that centers some of the truly forgotten men and women who live in the margins of the most prosperous nation on earth. That Zhao captures it all with such quiet dignity, never descending into miserablism or exploitation, is a testament to the assuredness of her craft. She's quickly established herself as one of the foremost ethnographers of life in the American west, and Nomadland is an astonishing experience that demands our attention at every turn; often playing less like a narrative film and more like an elegy for a lost and wounded nation trying to find its soul.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

NOMADLAND | Directed by Chloé Zhao | Stars Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Linda May, Bob Well,s Tay Strathairn, Swankie | Rated R for some full nudity | Now playing in select virtual cinemas. Opens everywhere February 19, 2021. 

Friday, December 04, 2020

Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend is one of those Best Pictures winners that have arguably fallen into obscurity since its release. While other winners of the 1940s have enjoyed long shelf lives - Rebecca, How Green Was My Valley, Casablanca, The Best Years of Our Lives - all some of the most fondly remembered Oscar champions in history. It's interest8ing then that The Lost Weekend hasn't enjoyed the same level of cultural capital - never showing on on AFI lists or enjoying reappraisals, because it's actually a fantastic film.

Perhaps it's overshadowed by Wilder's more well known films like Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, and The Seven Year Itch. But The Lost Weekend stands out from the pack in 1945 due to its sheer bleakness. This is not a feel good film. And while most American films ended on at least a somewhat upbeat note around this time, The Lost Weekend pulls no punches in its depiction of alcoholism and addiction. Ray Milland's performance as Don Birnam, a washed up writer sinking deeper and deeper into alcoholism, won a well-deserved Oscar, and remains one of the most indelible depictions of desperation and despair ever put to film. The way he unravels over the course of the film is an acting marvel, and Wilder never turns away from the horror - even going into some almost surrealistic territory during the film's climax. Yet to Wilder's credit, the film never feels like it's exploiting a disease for cheap thrills - this is a hard-edged, clear-eyed examination of a man at the end of his rope told in about as close to verité style as classic Hollywood cinema gets. 

In fact, it's least truthful element is Miklós Rózsa's score. Rózsa scores the film like a science fiction B movie, and although the warbling, otherworldly sounds suggest Milland's drunkeness, it almost distracts from the film's otherwise stark verisimilitude. Otherwise, the film is a harrowing, unrelentingly bleak experience, and it's easy to see why Oscar voters fell in love with it, even if it doesn't quite fit the mold of the typical Oscar winner, especially just after the end of World War II. But this thing is sharp as nails, a dark but empathetic portrayal of addiction as an all-encompassing disease that makes it nearly impossible for its victims to escape. While Kino Studio Classics' new Blu-Ray edition may be lighter on the supplements than we're used to with an Oscar winner, the new 4K scan of the film is beautiful, capturing the stark beauty of Wilder's noir-is compositions. Oscar enthusiasts and casual film fans alike - seek this one out.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE LOST WEEKEND | Directed by Billy Wilder | Stars Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling | Not Rated | Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Studio Classics.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Sidney Flanigan stars in Focus Feature's NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.

It's an odd thing that comes along once in a blue moon at the movies - two movies with almost identical subject matter being released within months of each other. Armageddon and Deep Impact both tackled world-ended asteroids in 1998, Capote and Infamous chronicled the life of Truman Capote within a few months in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down both imagined a terrorist plot to kidnap the President of the United States from the White House in 2013. And in a strange bit of serendipity, 2020 given us two films about teenage girls traveling across the country to get an abortion against their parents wishes in the form of Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Rachel Goldenberg's Unpregnant.

Unlike many of these other films, however, there's such a wide gulf between how they tackle the material that the similarities in their plots haven't drawn such obvious contrasts in the world at large. Almost like Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda (but better),  Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Unpregnant take both tragic and comedic looks at very similar material. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is the more serious-minded of the two films, examining its protagonist's journey not only as an indictment of the patriarchal structure of the medical system, but of society at large. Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is a 17-year-old senior in high school who is counting the days until she is able to escape from her unsupportive family. When she discovers she's pregnant, the only place she has to turn is her best friend, Skylar (Talia Ryder). After an unsuccessful trip to her local clinic, where a nurse tries to convince her not to get an abortion by showing her graphic anti-abortion propaganda videos, Autumn and Skylar set out for New York City on what little money they're able to scrape together in order to seek an abortion at the NYC Planned Parenthood clinic. 

Hittman (who also directed the 2017 film, Beach Rats), frames the film in such a way that it seemingly strips Autumn of her agency at every turn. The camera lingers on every leering glance from men, quietly observing every unwanted touch (no matter how casual), highlighting the way in which Autumn has very little control over her own body. Forced to seek abortion services hundreds of miles from home, constantly being ogled, groped, or subjected to invasive examinations (both physically and emotionally), the choice in "pro-choice" often seems like an abstract, unattainable concept for Autumn, making the availability of that choice so much more important when she has so little choice over her own body in so many other ways. Flanigan is absolute perfection as Autumn. Her quiet desperation cuts deep, especially in the harrowing scene which gives the film its title, in which her medical counselor asks her a series of questions about her life, slowly peeling back the layers of trauma Autumn has experienced. Autumn leaves many of those questions unanswered, but her silence speaks volumes. Hittman leaves the father's identity out of it - but she tells us all we need to know in those ten heartbreaking minutes. 

Unpregnant, on the other hand, could not have approached the material more differently. Styled like a odd couple road movie, the film follows 17-year-old Veronica (Haley Lu Richardson), a popular high school senior and upcoming valedictorian, who sets off for a Planned Parenthood with her former childhood friend, Bailey (Barbie Ferreira), a green-haired outcast who dances to the beat of a different drummer. While the plot is similar to Never Rarely Sometimes Always, one major way Unpregnant differs is that it is as much Bailey's journey as it is Veronica's. Richardon is a joy as always, but Ferreira is a revelation, adding layers of depth to what could have easily been a one note sidekick character, and the two make for a fantastic duo that recall the pairings of Superbad and Booksmart. By taking a serious subject and turning it into a broad comedy, it makes the emotional denouement hit even harder. While the film isn't as strong as Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Goldenberg delivers some clever flourishes (including a scene with some anti-abortion activists that plays like something out of a horror film). The two films have nothing to do with each other, besides sharing a similar plot, but they compliment each other well, echoing and reinforcing each others themes.

So why two abortion road trip movies now? Coming near the end of the Trump era, these films portray the assault on abortion rights and women's bodies in general in incisive and memorable ways. That they both do so completely differently but are no less effective for their respective takes is a testament to their unique power. Both humanize the act of abortion, examining the difficult decision making process that it involves, while acknowledging that the process has been made so much harder by the increasingly draconian policies of the last four years (and beyond). What makes Never Rarely Sometimes Always especially chilling is the way in which Hittman suggests that this isn't just about anti-abortion policy, but about an objectification and degradation of women in general. It's a bleak, haunting tale (at times even recalling Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), for which Unpregnant offers a more playful light at the end of the tunnel. Both offer singular and essential perspectives into one of the most contentious issues of our time.

UNPREGNANT - ★★★ (out of four)