REVIEW: “Parallel Mothers” (2021)

Even at 72, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is still churning out his unique brand of movies at a strong and steady rate. It’s clear the two-time Oscar winner still relishes the opportunity to tell specific stories stamped with his own distinguishing marks. His films often revisit the same handful of repackaged themes, and they often feature the same stylistic flourishes, both narratively and visually. Reoccurring motifs, vibrant colors, and creative indulgences are key ingredients to the veteran filmmaker’s mise-en-scène.

Almodóvar’s latest is “Parallel Mothers”, a percolating melodrama about motherhood that once again echoes much of the style and many of the interests from the writer-director’s past projects. As someone who tends to be ambivalent towards his films, I feel this is easily one of Almodóvar’s more accessible features, with characters and a story audiences should immediately connect with. Yet it’s a movie with pieces that don’t always click into place. One with a sublime first hour that’s among the filmmaker’s best work, but a spotty second half where some of Almodóvar’s storytelling choices makes things needlessly messy.

Shot in just one month during the pandemic, “Parallel Mothers” stars Penélope Cruz, a terrific actress who seems to do her best work under Almodóvar’s direction. This is their seventh film together and the two possess an almost symbiotic chemistry as filmmaker and performer. Here the sure-footed Cruz takes on a meaty role and turns in an emotionally rich performance – one that won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Cannes.

Image Courtesy of Sony

Cruz plays Janis, an accomplished professional photographer living in Madrid. Single and approaching 40, Janis longs to start a family but worries her window for having children is closing. We first meet her at a photo shoot for a handsome forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde). After the shoot she approaches Arturo about helping her with a personal matter. Janis tells him about her great grandfather and several other men from his village who were killed in a state-sanctioned slaughter during the Spanish Civil War. She asks if he would lead an excavation of an unmarked mass grave where the victims are believed to be buried.

As Janis and Arturo work through the details of the potential excavation, it’s pretty obvious there’s a spark between them. Before long the two begin an affair, and shortly after that Janis learns she’s pregnant. The problem is Arturo is married and doesn’t want a child (go figure). But Janis chooses to have her baby and frees Arturo of any obligations.

In the first of several leaps forward in time, it’s suddenly nine months later and Janis is in a maternity ward about to give birth. She shares a room with Ana (Milena Smit), a much younger soon-to-be single mother. “I don’t regret it”, an enthusiastic Janis tells Ana. “I do,” replies the frightened teen whose pregnancy we learn was the result of a traumatic encounter. The two new mothers bond as a sympathetic Janis comforts and assures the apprehensive Ana. But they quickly fall out of touch once they leave the hospital with their newborn daughters.

As Janis settles into single motherhood, Arturo pops back into the picture, casting doubts on whether the baby is his. Meanwhile Ana has went from an insecure teenager to a responsible mom. Her scenes unpack her backstory which includes a troubled family life. We hear about her vindictive absent father and see her tense relationship with her mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who can’t let something like her daughter’s pregnancy hinder her acting career.

Predictably Janis and Ana’s paths inevitably cross again, but to say much more would undermine the big soapy twists the story hinges on. Some of them work well and add layers that feels rooted in real world truth. They’re helped by Cruz who’s as assured as she is luminous. She shrewdly portrays every facet of Janis, from her sophistication to her vulnerability. And despite her character’s seemingly dubious choices, Cruz still captures our empathy. Smit’s performance starts strong, especially as she conveys Ana’s fear and doe-eyed naïveté. But later, as the story takes some unusual turns, Smit can seem stiff and cold, especially when next to Cruz.

Image Courtesy of Sony

But not every twist works. Well into the second half, Almodóvar wedges in an out-of-the-blue romantic angle that never fully rings true. Aside from being woefully underdeveloped, it needlessly complicates an already compellingly intricate relationship. Even worse, the movie all but forgets about it almost as quickly as it’s introduced. Clearly Almodóvar wants there to be a lingering affect, but it’s handled so casually that it comes across as superficial.

And then there’s the jarring transition back to the excavation storyline. It doesn’t return until the very end where it feels like an afterthought. It’s a shame because the prospect of Almodóvar digging into Franco’s reign of terror is a fascinating one. And the notion of not only exhuming loved ones, but exhuming a country’s painful past – a past that has yet to be fully reckoned with – is riveting. But those final scenes, though really good on their own, don’t connect to the rest of the film quite the way Almodóvar wants. Nor do they haunt the overall story as effectively as they could have with just a little more attention.

“Parallel Mothers” shines brightest as a female-centric examination of motherhood, complete with all its joys and heartaches. Single parenting, absent fathers, family history – they all factor in. Yet Almodóvar’s scattershot second half wastes time tacking on half-baked layers to the melodrama rather than connecting us to the more serious story that bookends the movie. It left me admiring what he was going yet frustrated by his inability to fully convey it. “Parallel Mothers” is now out in limited release.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Petite Maman” (2021)

French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to her highly acclaimed “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” isn’t the big audacious next film you might expect after a big success. In fact the beautifully intimate “Petite Maman” couldn’t be more different. With its small scope and Sciamma’s delicate touch, this warm and aching fable examines coping with loss and mother/daughter bonds in a voice that should speak viewers to all ages.

The movie opens in a nursing home with an eight-year-old girl named Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) walking from room to room saying goodbye to each of the elderly residents. As she enters her grandmother’s room near the end of the hall she sees her mother (Nina Meurisse) removing pictures from the wall. We learn that Nelly’s grandmother has passed away and they’re there to collect the last of her things.

Image Courtesy of NEON

Sciamma wastes no time earning our empathy as we watch this young girl try to process everything she’s seeing. You can practically see her mind at work as she quietly lays on her grandmother’s bed or as she watches her parents’ sorrow-drenched embrace. And then we get one of the film’s most beautiful scenes as the camera hones in on Marion’s sad face as she’s driving down the road. A little hand from the back seat comes into the frame and feeds her a chip, then another. The hands return with a juice box and finally a warm heartfelt embrace. It’s a sweet child’s effort to comfort her hurting mother.

These small but meaningful touches can be found all through Sciamma’s swift and compact 72 minutes. Her simple yet full-hearted mothers-and-daughters story may have death as a central ingredient, but it blossoms into a beautiful and poignant blend of reality and fantasy. This fully comes into focus when Nelly and her parents travel to her grandmother’s rustic country home for the unenviable task of clearing out her things. After a couple of days it becomes too much for her mother who suddenly heads back to the city. That leaves Nelly and her father (Stéphane Varupenne) to finish things up.

Image Courtesy of NEON

While walking in the nearby woods, Nelly notices a little girl about her age dragging a large tree limb. She asks Nelly for help and two carry the limb to a hut the girl in building. The next day Nelly heads back into the woods where she meets the girl again. They strike up a conversation and we learn the little girl’s name is Marion. That name is significant, but I’ll let you discover why for yourself. Sciamma soaks us in the girls’ budding friendship, offering a number of charming scenes that are sweet and tender on the surface, but that also explore their deeper relationships with their mothers.

It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the film’s low-key yet enchanting twist. The movie itself doesn’t wait long to show its cards, but it’s still better left for you to discover on your own. Me? I was swept away by the genuineness of its emotions which range from heartwarming to heartbreaking. The simplicity of Sciamma’s storytelling and her unfussy presentation may not stand out in a crowd. But they serve this story perfectly and show us a filmmaker with a grounded, true-to-life vision – one that penetrates your soul and sticks with you for days after watching.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Power of the Dog” (2021)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” is a crafty anti-Western with all the visual flavor of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, or Delmer Daves. But at its core Campion’s film (she both writes and directs) is a slow-boiling psychodrama that seeks to explore the darker shades of human nature. It’s a master-class of tone management and the patient steady rhythm of Campion’s storytelling keeps us glued to every frame even as the story butts heads with itself later on.

With New Zealand posing as Montana, the movie is set in 1925. The Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), run a profitable cattle business off their sprawling family ranch in the heart of beautiful Big Sky Country. While they’re good business partners, they couldn’t be more opposite. George is the gentlemanly sort; mild-mannered and soft-spoken but with a deceptively fervid aspiration to climb up the social ladder. He’s sensitive and gentle, tending to the business side of the ranch while brushing off his brother’s relentless insults.

Phil is a hardened cowboy whose cauterized emotions have turned him into a cold calloused brute. With thick brown chaps, a thick layer of grime caked on his face, and a constant scowl, Phil moves with a stiff-shouldered gait as if forcefully projecting a distinct image. His ranch-hands follow him like disciples, listening close as he recalls the wisdom of his late mentor and friend Bronco Henry. His men also channel their alpha-male leader’s bullish antagonism towards anyone who doesn’t meet their hyper-masculine standard.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Phil and George live on a slippery slope. But the tension between them reaches a simmer while taking a herd of cattle to market. The brothers and their cowhands visit a restaurant owned by a young widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her awkward teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Repulsed by what he perceives as weakness, Phil pounces on the shy lanky boy, viciously mocking his slight lisp and burning an intricate paper flower Peter made as a centerpiece. It’s an unsettling sequence, but also one that highlights Campion’s remarkable control.

Later, a sympathetic George returns to the restaurant to see Rose and apologize for his brother’s cruelty. It sparks a sweet romance that eventually leads to marriage. With Peter off to medical school, Rose sells her restaurant and moves to the ranch. This triggers a jealous and embittered Phil who makes it his goal to crush his brother’s newfound marital bliss. To Phil, Rose (and later Peter) are threats to his manly order of things. That conflict drives the remainder of the film and sends the movie careening down a path with no happy ending in sight.

While some find a critique of masculinity in nearly every movie these days, Campion provides one of the most vivid and clear-eyed examinations yet. She uses Cumberbatch’s commanding and at times terrifying performance to not only reveal what warped manhood looks like, but to also show the destruction it can leave in its path. Cumberbatch’s Phil is a blunt force with a domineering aura and his methodical psychological assault can be hard to watch. Dunst gives a devastating portrayal of a woman who is both a victim of Phil’s unyielding harassment and of the era’s oppressive societal norms.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Things only intensify once Peter arrives to spend the summer at the ranch. Smit-McPhee’s poker-faced presence and (again) Campion’s confident control keeps the character at an arm’s length. This makes Peter impossible to read; every bit as enigmatic as he is peculiar. It also makes him a prime target for Phil’s abuse. With a tormented Rose withering away from depression and alcoholism, the story shifts towards Phil and Peter. Meanwhile Plemons gets the short end of the stick as George (sadly) all but vanishes for much of the second half.

While the film’s exploration of masculinity is a good one, it’s undone a bit by the implications of another theme that comes fully into focus late in the story. I won’t spoil it for those unfamiliar with Savage’s book, but it’s a “twist” that adds a new layer to Phil while inadvertently giving him an excuse for his emotional savagery. I doubt that’s the intent and it won’t play that way for some, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Campion’s attempt at adding richness to her story ends up undermining one of its biggest strengths.

Tangled themes aside, “The Power of the Dog” ends on a strong note as the movie’s Psalm-inspired title clicks firmly into place. It’s a finish that again showcases Campion’s deft management of her scenes and her audience. Accompanied by the painterly beauty of Ari Wegner’s cinematography (among the year’s best), the simple yet haunting Jonny Greenwood score, and superb performances top to bottom, Campion has crafted a striking Western with all the leathery textures of the genre, but with the assured and probing touch of an auteur. “The Power of the Dog” is now showing in limited release and streams on Netflix starting December 1st.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” (2021)

Confession time: I have no real attachment to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. I haven’t seen any of the films past the first two. I couldn’t tell you anything about the timeline or how any of the six movies connect (if they connect). Even more, the entire found-footage phenomenon ran its course for me years ago. It was cool for a movie or two, but like many I grew tired of it pretty quick.

So what on earth would entice me to watch “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin”, the seventh installment in the supernatural horror franchise? First, producer Jason Blum announced that the film would be a reboot of the series rather than a direct sequel. So no attachments needed. Next, I was intrigued by the premise and the setting, both of which actually fit well with the whole found-footage thing.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

“Next of Kin” sees the PA franchise remodeling itself, using some of the series’ usual techniques but telling a new kind of story. It begins at a Denny’s in Scottsdale, Arizona where a young woman named Margot (Emily Bader) is about to meet her “first biological relative”, a young man named Samuel (Henry Ayres-Brown). He’s around Margo’s same age and recently left the Amish community where her family originated. Adopted as a baby, Margot is anxious to find out where she came from and more specifically what happened to her mother who disappeared years earlier. Videoing the occasion is her friend Chris (Roland Buck III), who is collecting footage for a “prestige documentary” she’s making about her experience.

Samuel agrees to take Margot, Chris, and their goofball (because there always has to be a goofball) sound guy Dale (Dan Lippert) to the snowy secluded Baylor Farm. Once there the crew is greeted by the community’s cautious elder Jacob (Tom Nowicki) who reluctantly allows them to stay and shoot for a couple days. The aggressively private farm folk are leery of the outsiders but slowly warm up to them.

At first Margot and her friends are drawn to the group’s simple way of life. But to absolutely no one’s surprise, she and her crew begins noticing some eerie happenings around the farm – sinister red lights glowing in the night, strange animal howls, and what’s with that creepy old church in the woods. They all lead to a messy final third that really leans into the movie’s cool blood-curdling setting. Unfortunately it also features a handful of missteps, most notably the mind-boggling decision-making from the characters that turns curiosity and investigative into glaring stupidity.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

To director William Eubank’s credit, “Next of Kin” makes for a nice change of atmosphere. I say that fully realizing that franchise faithfuls may see it differently. It shares some of the same tricks as its predecessors, but the welcomed new environment is part of what made it appealing. I also liked that (thankfully) it’s not entirely found-footage. Mostly for sure, but there are a handful of welcomed breaks that also help the look of the film. And this is a nice looking film. From the warm orange glow of kerosene lamps in the interior shots to the icy harshness of the outdoors, the visuals prove to be a real strength.

There are a few other interesting touches (such as the early references to COVID-19 that forever ties the movie to our current day). But there are also elements of film that never quite land, specifically the mystery of Margot’s mom. You get a feeling for what’s going on pretty early so it comes down to waiting for it to finally be revealed. In the meantime, the characters do one dumb thing after nothing. It’s something you find baked into too many horror movies, and it doesn’t really help Eubank and company here. “Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin” is streaming now on Paramount+.

VERDICT2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (2021)

This is no “Pig”! Admittedly that’s a strange way to start a review. But those of you who have had the pleasure of watching Nicolas Cage’s poignant and remarkably restrained performance in the movie “Pig” from earlier this year will get the reference (if you haven’t seen it, it’s absolutely worth seeking out). Cage’s latest film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is as far removed from “Pig” as a movie could possibly be.

Figuring out Cage’s recipe for choosing roles is as big of a movie mystery as the contents of the briefcase in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” or Bill Murray’s whisper to Scarlett Johansson at the end of “Lost in Translation”. There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to his process. It’s tempting to write it off as simply an actor cashing checks and maybe there’s some truth to that. But some of his choices have been intriguing and dare I say audacious. Perhaps there actually is an artistic method to his madness. Maybe he’s up to more than just amassing the biggest and wackiest filmography ever put on a Wikipedia page.

Then you have renegade filmmaker, author and poet Sion Sono. A notorious provocateur, Sono is well known throughout his native Japan but not always fully embraced. His movies are often described as idiosyncratic and subversive by fans but also perverse and divisive by detractors. Due to his transgressive style, some find his work too controversial. Others toss it into the category of ero guro nansensu, a self-explanatory Japanese art movement derived from the English words “erotic, grotesque, and nonsense”.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

When two enigmatic swirls of creative energy like Cage and Sono come together you get something like “Prisoners of the Ghostland”, a logic-defying genre mashup that’s nuttier than a can of Planters. This is Sono’s first English-language film and it sees him working in weirdness the way fine artists work in oils or marble. Screenwriters Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai give the director the narrative space to run amuck and Cage takes it on with a wild-eyed gusto that ensures things are never boring. Baffling at times and utterly absurd, sure. But never boring.

Cage plays a hard-nosed criminal who eventually takes the name Hero. We first meet Hero as he’s rotting in jail after a bank robbery with his fittingly named partner Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) goes terribly (and violently) bad. In a terrific bit of wacky tone-setting, a grime-covered Cage wearing nothing but shackles and a cheeky fundoshi (picture that image while keeping a straight face) is summoned by the Governor of Samurai Town (played by Bill Moseley sounding identical to Captain Obvious from those Hotels.com commercials). The Governor has a job and if Hero pulls it off he’ll be set free.

Turns out the Governor’s “granddaughter” Bernice (Sofia Boutella) ran away and has vanished in the post-apocalyptic wilds known as the Ghostland. Hero’s job sounds pretty straightforward – head into the Ghostland, find Bernice, bring her back. But there’s nothing straightforward about this movie, and Sono’s unbridled indulgent spirit ensures that nothing is plain sailing.

To make things even more absurd (because why not?), Hero is forced to wear black leather coveralls rigged with neuro-sensors and ‘strategically’ placed explosives. If he returns the Governor’s granddaughter “unsoiled” in the allotted five days he gets to go free. If he gets out of line or doesn’t return in time…well, KABOOM. So off he goes on what turns out to be a fever dream redemption tale.

Image Courtesy of RLJE Films

From there the story ventures into the bizarre and incomprehensible, with Sono mostly focused on building gaudy and extravagant locations and littering them with a wild assortment of extras rather than telling a cohesive story. His sets are a peculiar melding of cultures, time periods and movie genres that manage to be both fascinating and excessive. And he fills them with trenchcoat wearing cowboys, samurai, zombies (I think that’s what they were) and radioactive mutants among other groups. They’re basically there to add to the showiness.

Meanwhile the central plot borrows from “Mad Max”, “Escape from New York” and even “Army of Darkness”. But that eclectic blend of inspiration can’t make up for the movies clear lack of depth. We do get a murky rebuke of nuclear war as well as allusions to class disparity and the tyrannical nature of time. But those handful of themes and the story itself take a back seat to the zany pomp and showmanship. Even Cage ends up on the short end of the stick. Sure, he gets a few wacky opportunities to scream “BANZAI” and utter hilariously absurd lines “I AM RADIOACTIVE”. But far too often he’s stuck watching Sono’s gonzo theatrics.

This meeting between these two cinematic wildmen ends up being equally fascinating and frustrating. It’s just a shame that Sono’s story always feels secondary and his lust for the surreal is so overpowering. Still it’s easy to be pulled in by the wackiness and there’s certainly fun to be had. And you have to love Cage’s continued willingness to buck convention. And to think, he’s delivered both his wildest and his most restrained movie all in the same year. Further proof that you never know what to expect from him. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is out September 17th in theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Protégé” (2021)

When gazing over the cinema landscape it’s hard to find anything more en vogue right now than assassins. Movies featuring assassins are nothing new, but they got a boost with the immensely popular John Wick franchise. Now they’re everywhere. And female assassins are especially popular. Just recently we had “Anna”, “Ava” and even one called “Kate” coming later this year. Oh, and then there’s “Gunpowder Milkshake”, but its title doesn’t quite fit with the others.

Next up is “The Protégé”, the Maggie Q led action thriller with a couple of other big names attached – Michael Keaton and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s a slick and stylishly made genre film that incorporates countless assassin movie tropes into its story. There’s the traumatic past event that led to the lead character becoming an assassin. There’s the quiet yearning for a normal life. There’s the violent act that sends the assassin hunting for revenge. And of course, there’s the bloody showdown where the assassin’s particular set of skills are unleashed.

“The Protégé” comes from director Martin Campbell whose résumé has its share of hits (topped by 2006’s stellar “Casino Royale”) and a few misses (sorry “Green Lantern”). Here he’s working from a script by Richard Wenk who penned the two Denzel Washington “Equalizer” movies. Both are well-versed in the action genre and for the most part stick to what they know. But there are a handful of fun and flashy flourishes that keep the otherwise buy-the-books story entertaining.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Maggie Q plays the film’s protagonist Anna. She enjoys cooking, owns an antique book store, and loves hanging out with her mentor and second father Moody (Jackson). Oh, and she’s also a lethal assassin who earns a good living killing really bad people. She’s really good at her job and Q never leaves us in doubt.

A new contract puts Anna and Moody in the crosshairs of a powerful black market broker played by David Rintoul. Moody is brutally murdered which sends Anna on a revenge-fueled hunt to find and take out her friend’s killer. Along the way she encounters a charismatic hitman named Michael Rembrandt (Keaton, always good). He’s been sent to stop her but the two engage in this weird cat-and-mouse game that’s part seduction and part murder.

Campbell’s globetrotting bullet-riddled adventure bounces from Vietnam to Romania to London and then back to Vietnam, all as Anna tries to track down the person who ordered the hit on Moody. She plows through a plethora of low-level hoodlums in an assortment of high-energy sequences that highlight Q as a legitimate action star. Even Keaton who’s pushing 70 gets to let loose in a couple of well shot and we’ll edited fight scenes. And while their relationship doesn’t always make sense, each time Q and Keaton come together, whether it’s to play mind games or tear each other apart with their unbridled physicality, it’s quite a treat.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

While Robert Patrick showing up as the thinly-sketched leader of a biker gang doesn’t quite pop, most of the other character work is good. I’ve talked about Q and Keaton, but there’s also some good supporting work from Jackson. It’s the kind of role the 72-year-old screen veteran can do in his sleep, but he’s a good presence and always worth a few laughs. Of the three main characters his storyline is the biggest headscratcher, but Jackson is rock solid.

The storytelling isn’t quite as polished. The main plot-line is pretty straightforward and done well enough. But as these types of movies often do, it tends to stray at times, with characters venturing off in search of a clue here or a particular person of interest there. In this case it’s not always easy to follow what the characters are doing in large part because there is a vagueness to some of its details that can make things a little hazy.

Despite its shortcomings, “The Protégé” makes for a palatable action movie as well as a fairly entertaining new entry into the growing assassin sub-genre. It’ll never win over anyone with its originality and its story occasionally wanders off into some needless directions. But Maggie Q is a great lead, Michael Keaton is his normal wily self and Samuel L. Jackson is as sturdy as ever. The movie is worth watching for that star power alone.

VERDICT – 3 STARS