Tag Archives: Matt Weiner

Poor Cow

Cow

by Matt Weiner

There’s nothing in the rulebook that says a cow can’t be nominated for Best Actress, right? Because Luma, the bovine star of Andrea Arnold’s mesmerizing new documentary, deserves to be the most improbable frontrunner of awards season.

The filming for Cow took place over about four years at a British dairy farm. There is no voiceover, no reassuring David Attenborough nature narration… Just an unsparing look at Luma and the daily existence for cattle on a modern farm.

For Luma, that means a life built around providing milk through high-tech milkers. In one of the film’s more arresting images, Arnold shows Luma entering what the industry whimsically calls a milk carousel—but takes on the foreboding look of a milk panopticon each time Luma trudges into place.

Arnold and her director of photography Magda Kowalczyk capture everything through Luma and the cattle. When farm workers appear, their presence is in the background, guiding the animals or performing routine examinations but never the focus of the action.

It’s a powerful effect that lays bare our relationship to modern farming without being proscriptive. Cow shows just how much these animals do for us—Luma cannot even nurse her calves. Instead, it’s right back to the milk carousel so no sellable product goes to waste.

And this truly seems like one of the more favorable options for modern farms. The cows get some seasonal pasture time, although the sense of calm it provides them makes the limited time outside the pen all the more depressing.

Luma may not have a voice, but Arnold’s masterful direction makes her as complex and compelling as any Arnold protagonist. Luma deals with birth, sex, sadness, grief. Arnold makes the case that we are connected to these animals. These animals may not have any agency beyond capitalist utility in life, but Cow demands that we at least take the time to reflect on this relationship and what we might owe the things in life that give us so much.

In Sickness and in Health

7 Days

by Matt Weiner

We likely have years of pandemic-related movies ahead of us. And while 2022 may seem a bit soon to look back on the early days of Covid-19 (much as this country seems ready to declare mission accomplished no matter what), here’s some good news: You’ll be hard-pressed to watch anything more winsome and heartening than Roshan Sethi’s 7 Days.

A pre-arranged first date in March 2020 between Ravi (Karan Soni, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Sethi) and Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan) goes for much longer than either one was expecting when Covid grinds the country to a halt. Unable to get back out of town right away, Ravi hunkers down with Rita.

As the world outside Rita’s house falls apart, the two opposites—traditional, marriage-minded Ravi and freewheeling, drinking and partying Rita—slowly get to know each other on a deeper level than their disastrous first meet-up.

Sethi’s romantic comedy might be the first to use shelter in place as a meet cute, but the film earns its medical bona fides. This is Sethi’s feature debut, perhaps because he is also a practicing oncologist who wrote on medical dramas while finishing Harvard Medical School.

The film is set not only in quarantine but almost entirely within the confines of Rita’s house—save the occasional video call for Ravi, who keeps to his arranged dating schedule even with Rita sitting just feet away. So it falls entirely on Viswanathan and Soni to make these people we genuinely want to be trapped with, even as their perfectly opposite foibles drive each other mad.

And sure, their relationship follows the usual romcom course. (No spoilers, but you will get an answer to the question of whether opposites attract.) But both leads bring an impressive level of charm and depth to their roles, with a chemistry that feels natural and earned even within the formula.

Ravi and Rita have more in common than they first think—not just their traditional families urging them to settle down, but also the struggle of forging their own identities and paths in life.

Of course, the shadow of Covid looms over all of their conversations, especially the early days when so much was unknown and a cough could be the harbinger of weeks on a ventilator—or worse. The way the film works these concerns into the third act is inevitable but no less affecting.

Nothing about the phrase “Covid romcom” should play out as well as everything does with 7 Days. For that alone, the movie is a surprising gem. But to also get an incisive look at love and dating, thoughtful cultural commentary and genuine laughs is a pandemic miracle.

Tinker Tailor Stylist Spy

Huda’s Salon

by Matt Weiner

Western political thrillers have taken a big hit since the Watergate era and the fall of the Soviet Union. Not that there’s anything wrong with our homegrown paranoid style, but then a film like Huda’s Salon blows that all up with a shocking blend of tight suspense and cogent—and immediate—politics.

Emphasis on tight: After a few brief explanatory cards recapping what life in occupied Palestine is like for West Bank residents, director Hany Abu-Assad jumps right into an opening confrontation between two women that starts the clock on a lethal game of cat-and-mouse that brings together resistance fighters, spies, the Israeli secret service—and the women in society who are fighting a war for full independence on multiple fronts.

Salon owner Huda (Manal Awad) blackmails her clientele into sharing information with an Israeli secret service handler. Her latest victim, Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), has the same qualifications as Huda’s other unfortunate choices: her husband “is an asshole.” Reem spends her days taking care of her baby daughter, while her nights seem to be spent tolerating the boorish Yousef (Jalal Masarwa), who treats her more as an object of ridicule than an equal partner.

Where Huda is aloof and fatalistic about her small part in the broader conflict, Reem’s emotional range is played to great effect by Abd Elhadi. From vulnerability and terror to rage and her own fight for dignity, Abd Elhadi’s Reem is a remarkable woman—victimized by both the occupation and the events Huda and the men in her life have forced on her, but unwilling to stop fighting to be free from it all and simply live her own life with her daughter.

It becomes an urgent fight for her life when Huda’s treason is uncovered by a band of resistance fighters, with Huda taken in for interrogation and Reem trying to keep her identity (and compromising photos) secret, lest she be considered a traitor as well. As Huda and her interrogator Hasan (Ali Suliman) come to a begrudging mutual understanding, Hasan’s men fan out to track down Reem based on her cell phone location.

Abu-Assad, who also wrote the film, pulls off a delicate balance between intrigue and message. As a heart-pounding espionage thriller, Huda’s Salon is a contemporary heir to vintage le Carré, with the Berlin Wall giving way to the West Bank barrier. The constant hum of helicopters and jets provide an omnipresent soundtrack of anxiety, along with the tight framing around Reem as her world starts to collapse.

But the personal, as anchored by the two lead actresses, is just as engaging as the political. The film’s point of view isn’t subtle, but it’s not heavy-handed either. As Huda says of events during her own interrogation, it is what it is. If that reflection makes you uncomfortable in the current moment, so be it.

The Desert of the Surreal

The Other Me

by Matt Weiner

It’s understandable that The Other Me leans heavily on its David Lynch connections. Lynch receives top billing as executive producer, and writer-director Giga Agladze also chairs the Caucasus arm of the David Lynch Foundation. It’s unfortunate, then, that the movie’s allegory on identity and gender ends up being more ponderous than meditative.

It starts with a promising enough mystery. An architect (played by Jim Sturgess and credited as Irakli, although most of the characters go nameless in the film in suitably allegorical fashion) is slowly losing his sight. As his condition in the regular world deteriorates, he begins to sense a deeper reality to the people and things in his life in a series of visions that range from illuminating to terrifying.

So far, so Lynchian enough. The Other Me unfolds as part fairytale, part metaphorical odyssey, so the stilted dialogue can get a pass. But Irakli’s visions and flashbacks never rise to match the sense of awe we’re supposed to be taking away from them.

Irakli finds himself drawn to a mysterious woman in the woods (Andreja Pejic), while drifting more and more apart from his wife (Antonia Campbell-Hughes). These women are given the thankless tasks of trying to convey a lot of emotional angst in short, inane conversational bursts.

Buried somewhere deep down in the film’s philosophical journey is the germ of a mystery that might have worked. A romcom setup that turns into a nightmare when seeing the nonstop revelations of people’s souls takes an untenable psychic toll instead of getting you laid? Now that’s a surreal thriller.

But that isn’t this film. Agladze opts for a more redemptive tone—and far more muted visuals. As far as allegories for sexual identity go, this one lacks the coherence and conviction to deliver anything more provocative than that. Inscrutability by itself is a poor substitute for depth.

25 for 2021

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Looking back, what will we remember about the 2021 year in film? Musicals, black and white palettes, smoking, ensembles and impressive debuts are the trends we’ll think of first. But more specifically, we’ll remember these 25 favorites:

1. Licorice Pizza

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is loose, forgiving, and along for the ride as 15-year-old entrepreneur Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) woos life, Hollywood and, in particular, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), his much older paramour.

Danger edges but never fully punctures the sunshine of youth that brightens every scene of the movie. But that darkness is there, looming like the creepy guy staring at your office window, or the cops who arrest you mistakenly, or the volatile Hollywood producer who may or may not smash your window (or your head) in with a crowbar. (Thank you, Bradley Cooper, by the way, for that brief but unforgettable performance.)

It’s nostalgic. It’s uproarious, dangerous, just-this-side-of-innocent fun. It’s a near-masterpiece.

2. The Power of the Dog

Even if you haven’t read the celebrated source novel by Thomas Savage, director Jane Campion’s adaptation unfolds with enough subtle poetry to convince you that it must be a wonderful read. Onscreen, the Oscar-winning Campion (The Piano) contrasts the vast majesty of the American West (kudos to cinematographer Ari Wegner) with delicate details that shift the nature of love, trust and strength within a family.

Kodi Smit-McFee, Jesse Plemmons, Kirstin Dunst and a particularly brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch bring her story to life. The Power of the Dog finds its own power in what it shows but never truly tells. It’s a film that is hauntingly lyrical and masterfully assembled, with a beauty that lingers like an echo in the Montana wilderness.

3. The Tragedy of Macbeth

Coen brother Joel delivers a vision that’s both decidedly theatrical and profoundly cinematic with his solo directorial effort. Filmed in Bergman-esque black and white to glorious ends, Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand play the Lord and his Lady and this, friends, is a dream team. Two of the most celebrated and talented actors of modern cinema square off, and the veterans give an inconic relationship a depth that tinges the eventual madness with touching grief.

A uniformly brilliant ensemble (kudos in particular to Kathryn Hunter’s inspired turn as the witches) gives this dreamy take on the Bard its life.

Coen’s venture into Shakespeare, though it strips away the humor and quirk you may associate with Coen Brother filmmaking, stands as a strikingly Coen film. And that has never one time been a bad thing.

4. Summer of Soul

According to director Amir “Questlove” Thompson, the first time he saw some of the digitized footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival concerts, he nearly wept.

You might, too.

From the gospel of Mahalia Jackson to the blues of B.B. King, from the 5th Dimension’s smooth pop to Sly Stone’s psychedelic funk, the musical styles blend gloriously in the summer sun and the goosebump moments mount. But even more impressive than Thompson’s musical direction is the way he frames the entire festival through a deeply effective context of time, place, and population.

5. West Side Story

Right from the opening minutes, Steven Spielberg’s camera seamlessly ebbs and flows along with the street-roaming Sharks and Jets. From one musical set-piece to the next, Spielberg’s touch is smoothly precise, starting wide to capture the breadth of Justin Peck’s homage to Jerome Robbins’s iconic choreography, zooming in for intimacy, and then above the dancers and rumblers for gorgeous aerials set with pristine light and shadow.

It just looks freaking fantastic.

And in bringing his own vision to a classic story, Spielberg gently adds a perspective that makes Tony and Maria’s quest soar with a renewed, more universal vitality.

Just like most everything else in this West Side Story.

Christie Robb’s favorite film of 2021: Luca

Pixar/Disney’s Luca fosters self-acceptance and bravery in kids who were in the process of transitioning back to in-person school.

6. Flee

Like so many other headlines of numbing enormity that we regularly scroll past, stories of the worldwide refugee crisis rarely come with an intimacy that makes the stakes feel palpable. Flee brings an animated face to the discussion, using one man’s incredible story to re-frame the issue with soul-stirring humanity.

Using that man’s actual voice in the conversations with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen adds startling depth to the reenacted memories, and as our childlike comfort with animated scenes clashes with the uncomfortable scenes depicted, Flee‘s bracing resonance only intensifies.

7. Nightmare Alley

What director Guillermo Del Toro brings to this remake of a 1947 noir classic, besides a breathtaking cast and an elegantly gruesome aesthetic, is his gift for humanizing the unseemly. As usual, Del Toro wears his feelings proudly on his sleeve, with unmistakable but organic foreshadowing that ups the ante on the stakes involved. Anchored by another sterling performance from Bradley Cooper as Stan, the journey rises to biblical proportions. An actor whose gifts are often deceptively subtle, Cooper makes sure Stan’s pride always arrives with a layer of charming sympathy, even as it blinds him to the pitfalls ahead.

For Del Toro fans, the most surprising aspect of Nightmare Alley might be the lack of hopeful wonder that has driven most of his films. As the title suggests, this is a trip to the dark corners of the soul, where hope is in damn short supply. As much as this looks like a Del Toro film, it feels like a flex just from taking his vision to the sordid part of town. But what a vision it turns out to be – one of the year’s best and one of his best.

8. Drive My Car

Adapting a short story into a three-hour class on screenwriting, writer/director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi turns a seemingly simple premise – a visiting theater director begrudgingly accepts a chauffer from festival organizers – into a sprawling study of the human soul.

As secrets are revealed and burdens lifted, Drive My Car becomes a soaring testament to grief, forgiveness, moving on and the unending lure of a fine automobile.

9. Riders of Justice

Men will single-handedly gun down an entire biker gang rather than go to therapy. That’s the premise from prolific writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen, as he reunites with Mads Mikkelsen in this dark comic revenge fantasy.

But Jensen isn’t nearly as interested in the physical mayhem as the emotional wreckage his oddball characters are all coping with. Riders of Justice treats its characters with such forgiving empathy that it’s easy to forget that the group is also almost certainly responsible for the most murders in Denmark since the Vikings.

Matt Weiner’s favorite film of 2021: Riders of Justice

It’s the feel-good Christmas comedy that brings the whole family together with good cheer, redemption, philosophical detours on the meaning of life and a body count that puts Die Hard to shame.

10. Wild Indian

As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikeable man onscreen.

Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the central performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa (a stunning Michael Greyeyes) is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, God forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.

It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actor Greyeyes the opportunity to command the screen and he more than rises to the occasion.

11. Pig

This touching film—a tale of love, loss, authenticity and a good meal— is essentially the anti-John Wick. And we are better for it.

Nicolas Cage is almost always the center of attention in every film he’s in. It’s tough to look away from him because you’re afraid you’ll miss some insane grimace or wild gesture, but also because filmmakers love him and never pull away. Here, co-writer/director Michael Sarnoski asks you to wait for it. He gives Cage time to pause, breathe, and deliver his most authentic performance in ages.

Brandon Thomas’s favorite film of 2021: Pig

Pig is a beautiful commentary on grief while also serving as a reminder that Nicolas Cage never stopped being one of our finest actors.

12. Passing

Making her feature debut behind the camera, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about women unable to find a place to truly belong. Hall mines Larsen’s insight and longing to produce a visually stunning, melancholy period piece.

The languid beauty and comment on class play like a more delicate take on Gatsby, Hall subtly drawing attention not only to the racial divide but to the socioeconomic divide within Irene’s (Tessa Thompson) home and life. Never showy, never heavy-handed, the film’s themes prick at the audience just as they slowly, cumulatively wound Irene.

Thompson delivers an introspective performance unlike anything thus far in her impressive career. Likewise, Ruth Negga is superb as Irene’s friend/nemesis Clare, just incandescent and haunting as a damaged, elegant survivor.

13. Belfast

Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Director Kenneth Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. 

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy (a magnificent Jude Hill) trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

14. The Green Knight

Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight. The story itself may be more than 700 years old, but credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.

His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with a never-better Dev Patel and an exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.

Cat McAlpine’s favorite film of 2021: The Green Knight

The Green Knight is a visual spectacle that matches the scale of journeying within oneself, masterfully portrayed by a wide-eyed and constantly wet Dev Patel.

15. C’mon C’mon

A man’s changing relationship with his young nephew mirrors his deepening bond with his estranged sister. That man, Johnny, is played by Joaquin Phoenix, particularly endearing in this film. Nine-year-old Woody Norman soars as the nephew, his chemistry with Phoenix couldn’t be more charming or genuine. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as well as Norman’s mom, Johnny’s sister Viv.

C’mon C’mon wraps the messy, awkward, disappointing realities of being human in a blanket of hope. As cloying as that sounds, the film is so sincere it’s hard to deny its warmth.

16. The Lost Daughter

Unnerving intimacy marks Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as a feature director. Luckily for all of us, Gyllenhaal’s uniformly subline cast meets the challenge.

Adapting Elena Ferrante’s novel, Gyllenhaal challenges romantic preconceptions about motherhood (sometimes quite bitingly, thanks to lines delivered with acidic precision by the remarkable Olivia Colman). The film acknowledges what is given up, what is lost, when you essentially transfer ownership of yourself—your time, your attention, your future—to someone else, to your children. The theme is deeply and honestly felt, and that, too, is unnerving.

17. The Humans

Two of 2021’s most prominent film themes – impressive debuts and stellar ensembles – come together in rookie writer/director Stephen Karam’s The Humans.

Adapting his own stage play, Karam displays wonderful instincts for how his story of a family reunion could move from stage to screen with relevant new layers. Buoyed by a first-rate cast including Richard Jenkins, Steven Yeun, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein and Jayne Houdyshell, The Humans slowly revels itself as a domestic horror show, with familiar tensions and deep-seeded fears becoming more frightful than anything going bump in the night.

18. The Worst Person in the World

Led by a revelatory performance from Renate Reinsve, the latest from Norwegian writer/director Joachim Trier effectively fuses coming-of-age sensibilities and romantic drama.

As one woman navigates what she wants in a career, in a relationship, and ultimately what she wants out of life, Trier crafts small, indelible moments that bind together for a refreshingly honest look at how, as John Lennon once said, life happens when you’re busy making other plans.

19. Zola

Is it surprising that movies are now born from Twitter threads? Maybe, for a minute. But you’ll find good stories on Twitter, and with Zola, director/co-writer Janicza Bravo tells a ferociously good story, even if some of it may not be exactly true.

Bravo, Taylor Paige and Riley Keough (with solid support from Colman Domingo, Nick Braun and Jason Mitchell) all bring indelible talent to Zola, and the sheer buzz of this wild ride becomes irresistible.

Is it truth? Fiction? A bit of both?

It matters only in that it doesn’t matter at all. Because whatever truth still exists in the digital age, Zola speaks it.

Rachel Willis’s favorite film of 2021: Adventures of a Mathematician

Adventures of a Mathematician offers devastating insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in history.

20. Spider-Man: No Way Home

This third installment of Jon Watts’s Spidey franchise showcases the naïve optimism and youthful sweetness that has made his first two episodes such a great time, that are so perfectly embodied by star Tom Holland.

Rather than feeling like those Marvel overreaches in defining their own universe, No Way Home uses the opportunity of pulling in other movies to celebrate the hero, his roots, and what he stands for as an icon of comics, heroes, and childhoods the ‘verse over.

Oh, sure, it’s nostalgic. It panders. It also spills over with joy.

21. Spencer

The opening credits of Spencer include a declaration that the film is “a fable from a true tragedy.” Indeed, this look at the final weekend in the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles is draped in sadness and longing, but it’s one that uses what you already know about its subject to its advantage, completely enveloping you in an otherworldly existence.

If you haven’t been keeping up with Kristin Stewart’s string of fine performances since the Twilight films, don’t be surprised when she starts collecting the award nominations this performance richly deserves.

Filmmaker Pablo Larrain chooses the word “fable” at the start for a reason. This film is no fairy tale, but Larraín’s committed vision and an achingly poetic turn from Stewart make Spencer a completely fascinating two hours of story time.

22. Saint Maud

Maud (an astonishing Morfydd Clark) has some undefined blood and shame in her recent past. But she survived it, and she knows God saved her for a reason. She’s still working out what that reason is when she meets Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former choreographer now crumbling beneath lymphoma. Maud cannot save Amanda’s body, but because of just the right signs from Amanda, she is determined to save her soul.

As a horror film, Saint Maud is a slow burn. First-time writer/director Rose Glass and crew repay you for your patience, though, with a smart film that believes in its audience. Her film treads the earth between mental illness and religious fervor, but its sights are on the horror of the broken-hearted and lonesome.

23. Candyman

This new Candyman is the most delicious brand of horror sequel. Thanks to the startling vision of director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, it is a film that honors its roots but lives so vibrantly in the now that it makes you view the 1992 original from an urgent new angle.

DaCosta’s savvy storytelling is angry without being self-righteous. Great horror often holds a mirror to society, and DaCosta works mirrors into nearly every single scene in the film. Her grasp of the visual here is stunning—macabre, horrifying, and elegant. She takes cues from the art world her tale populates, unveiling truly artful bloodletting and framing sequences with grotesque but undeniable beauty. It’s hard to believe this is only her second feature.

By the time a brilliant coda of sadly familiar shadow puppet stories runs alongside the closing credits, there’s more than enough reason for horror fans to rejoice and…#telleveryone.

24. The Last Duel

This is a brooding, brutal, violent and sexually violent film, one that utilizes a Rashomon-style narrative to frame an often debated moment in history around a centuries-old struggle that continues today.

Director Ridley Scott presents the tale with exceptional craftsmanship and spectacle, getting big assists from Dariusz Wolski’s gritty, expansive cinematography and Michael Fentum’s detailed sound design. Scott’s remarkable cast — Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck — digs in to these old ideas to find startling relevance.

The Last Duel aims for more than just a gripping history lesson. It’s ultimately able to use that history to remind us that the way society treats women generally – and women’s sexuality specifically – has changed little since the freaking Middle Ages. 

25. No Time to Die

Opening with a tense and expansive 26-minute prologue, Cary Joji Fukunaga unveils thrilling set-pieces and gorgeous visuals that beg for a big-screen experience. Aided mightily by a soaring, throwback score from Hans Zimmer, Fukunaga infuses Daniel Craig’s final Bond film with a respectful sense of history while it marches unafraid into the future.

The one-liners, callbacks and gags (like Q’s multi-piece tea set) are well-placed and restrained, never undercutting the nearly three-hour mission Fukunaga clearly approached with reverence.

Where does James Bond go from here? Hard to say, but this 007 doesn’t care. Five films in 15 years have changed the character and the franchise for the better, and No Time to Die closes this chapter with requisite spectacle and fitting emotion.

Daniel “Schlocketeer” Baldwin’s favorite film of 2021: No Time to Die

No Time to Die is a fantastic action adventure epic, a pitch-perfect ending to the Daniel Craig era of James Bond and a wonderful modern encapsulation of the writings of Ian Fleming.

Almost Made It:

Lamb

Beta Test

The Harder They Fall

Mass

Shiva Baby

CODA

Furious George

The Monkey King: Reborn

by Matt Weiner

Stories of Sun Wukong the Monkey King have been a rich source of adaptations for centuries in China. With no shortage of options to choose from, The Monkey King: Reborn isn’t the worst place for Western audiences to start—but be prepared for an uneven journey.

The animated film directed by Yunfei Wang and written by Wang and Xiaoyu Wu introduces the immortal trickster Sun Wukong (Jiang Bian) as he accompanies his master, the monk Tang Sanzang (Shangqing Su), along with some comedic relief from fellow disciples Bajie and Yuandi (He Zhang and Lei Zhang).

Sun Wukong’s mischief sets off a chain of events that brings him into conflict with the all-powerful first demon, with the fate of the world on the line. But as far as motivation and character backstories go, there’s a lot left unexplained for a kid’s cartoon movie. Which is perfectly understandable for a familiar audience, but that coupled with the occasional adult language in the subtitled version makes the target age for The Monkey King: Reborn tough to pin down.

Once the battles get going and Sun Wukong’s puckishness gives way to (ever so slight) growth as a character, it’s a lot easier to go along for the ride. Even with the action, though, the movie is often hampered by the CGI animation. It’s a style that usually has two modes: alarmingly smooth or video game cutscene. Everything is bright, but the vivid coloring can’t mask a flatness that all the characters share. It’s an unfortunate mismatch for Sun Wukong’s elastic portrayal in the story.

The film does offer a deeply emotional third act, with an emphasis on sacrifice, death and rebirth that might make even Pixar think twice. It’s a shame that we got to know Wukong and friends so little within the confines of the film, or else these moments could have made even more of an impact rather than feeling bolted on. Of course, it wouldn’t be a parable without these teachable moments, so it might as well be in the form of a knockdown CGI fight. Sure, it’s entertainment with a heavy-handed message. But it’s entertaining enough.

Death Cab to Smoochy

The Rumperbutts

by Matt Weiner

It’s life imitating art for Rumperbutts, a musical comedy about a husband-wife indie band who have grown to hate their lucrative but creatively unfulfilling second act as a children’s entertainment group. Magical intervention grants the duo another chance at the music career and life they always wanted together.

Rumperbutts, written and directed by Marc Brener, is getting a second chance of its own on digital after a brief release in 2015. Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel, real-life married couple behind Mates of State, star as the fictional Rumperbutts, Bonnie and Jack. The band also wrote the songs and music for the movie.

After a delirious opening performance reflecting to an audience of children where their career and marriage went off the rails, Bonnie and Jack receive a visit from Richie (Josh Brener). Part muse and part fairy godfather, Richie helps free the couple from their Rumperbutts job and sets them on the path to making music again.

Why they couldn’t do both—or why it even matters when the Rumperbutts songs sound the same as their non-corporate songs—is the sort of logical leap we’re just supposed to accept, but it’s tough to ignore as the central premise.

There’s a sweet core to the film, propped up by the band’s infectious pop and chemistry together. The flashbacks that slowly reveal Bonnie and Jack falling in and out of love stand well enough on their own without the magical framing to muddy the plot. But those flashbacks also bring up their own tantalizing regrets. Mainly, what could the movie have been without trying to force together Once and A Christmas Carol into the same concept?

Rumperbutts is the ideal vehicle for its pop songs. The winsome earworms don’t go very deep, but just try and get through the movie without nodding along.

Day by Day

No Future

by Matt Weiner

The title of No Future also serves as an emotional content warning for a film about heroin addiction, and it’s a warning to heed if you want this kind of narrative tempered with breezy redemption.

But it’s not without hope. Rather, directors Andrew Irvine and Mark Smoot avoid sentimentality and addiction cliches in equal measure, and what’s left is a lean, emotional gut punch delivered by the small cast all turning in top performances.

When an old friend dies of an overdose, Will (Charlie Heaton), himself in recovery from heroin addiction, begins a tumultuous affair with Claire (Catherine Keener), his dead friend’s mother.

The pair are drawn together by grief and guilt, a dynamic that quickly goes from sympathetic to parasitic as the two spurn the numerous more emotionally healthy therapeutic outlets available to process their loss.

Keener and Heaton are electric together, which is no small feat for characters that veer wildly between retreating alone into their own pain while showing a convincing attraction to each other. Keener in particular shines as a woman who goes from casual fatalism to incandescent rage as she comes to terms with losing her son Chris (Jefferson White).

The film flirts with thematic shortcuts, most notably in the form of No Future—a band that Will and Chris played in together. But the more Will and Claire wax philosophical about what brought them to this point in the present, it becomes clear that it’s less nihilistic than it sounds.

The film is populated almost entirely with people who don’t allow themselves the luxury of looking any farther ahead than their open wound of the day. It’s raw and bracing to watch it all unfold, but if nothing else the impact lingers well into the future.

Once Upon a Time in the Northwest

Freeland

by Matt Weiner

While the trendy seasonal debate is about what makes for a Christmas movie, Freeland—a taut, character-driven thriller written and directed by Mario Furloni and Kate McLean—offers a fresh spin on neo-westerns. (Pacific Northwesterns, in this case.)

Humboldt County pot farmer Devi “Dev” Adler (Krisha Fairchild) finds her longstanding operation (and serene way of life) thrown into an existential crisis, not by any shock-and-awe DEA raid but rather the slow bureaucratic death of refusing to comply with the new proper legal channels.

With the state cracking down on illicit growing operations, Dev is increasingly cut off from potential buyers both in and out of state. The changing business landscape also lays bare how emotionally removed she has become. Both her seasonal staff and her ex-lover Ray (John Craven) see the inevitable, even if Dev cannot: a way of life in the Northwest is coming to an end and a new one has already started to replace it.

Dev’s desperate slow burn fuels much of the tension, with Fairchild turning in yet another career-defining performance half a decade after 2015’s Krisha. Whether it’s reflecting with Ray on what they’ve lost since their commune days in the 1970s or shooting withering stares at the new generation of harvesters and corporate players, Fairchild brings an aching vulnerability to the no-nonsense Dev.

While much of the action is from Dev’s emotional breakdown, the directors also slow down long enough to take in the northwest vistas. It’s easy to see why Dev refuses to change her way of life, even as every piece of what that used to be gets stripped from her one by one.

It would be monstrous to argue that legalization isn’t a net good for incarceration and the drug war (and congrats to drugs on the recent wins).  But Freeland throws into intimate focus another side of the legalization vs. decriminalization debate, in which the biggest winners look suspiciously like the same forces that are always ahead in every aspect of American life.

Freeland swaps 19th-century railroads for 21st-century agribusiness, but you don’t need a player piano to hear the familiar requiem.

The Specter Haunting America

The Big Scary “S” Word

by Matt Weiner

With a list of thank you credits that acknowledge the last few decades of leftist entertainment from Michael Moore to Chapo Trap House and the Jacobin set, it’s almost a minor miracle that a documentary about socialism manages to unite so many voices on the left into a united clarion call for economic justice as the only way to save America.

More surprising is that The Big Scary “S” Word, a new documentary from filmmaker Yael Bridge, manages to press its case while forgoing the more combative antics of Moore. Which isn’t a knock against Moore’s style, but Bridge’s staggering array of leftist academics, authors and politicians creates the atmosphere of a lively college course with your favorite professor. The academic-heavy roster, including professors Eric Foner, Cornel West, Vivek Chibber and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, often tilts toward more education than inspiration—but it’s a compelling education.

An education for which audience, though, is a trickier question. It’s hard to imagine the nation’s right-wing uncles coming together this Thanksgiving to bond with their dirtbag nieces and nephews over how everyone can get behind sewer socialism.

But Bridge seems to be aiming her sights (wisely) at the MSNBC left—the well-educated, professional set that might not realize they’ve watched half a decade of “left-wing” cable news peppered with more retired generals and contrite Republican operatives than capital-s socialists. And with barely a mention of labor unions, let alone hosts making a passionate case night after night for how the history and future of labor are inseparable from a successful liberal project. Bridge provides a much-needed counterbalance to the corporate vision of liberalism, and she makes the case without the vitriol of Twitter fights.

The film’s thorough focus on the history of socialism doesn’t leave as much time to go out on a practical note. (And it’s unfortunate, although not the film’s fault, that one of the main politicians they follow flamed out spectacularly in 2021.) Other times, the film’s prescriptions seem at odds with the title mission. Should the left be destigmatizing socialism, so it’s no longer the big, scary “s” word? Or should politicians focus on policies that improve people’s lives, and let the pundits argue over whether we are becoming Venezuela just because people shouldn’t face bankruptcy when they get cancer.

In fairness to Bridge, the documentary doesn’t demand an all-or-nothing answer. That’s up to those who respond to the film’s message. (If you like your state-owned bank, you can keep it.) What’s not left in doubt, though, is the looming crisis of climate change. It might be a loaded question, but it’s still a fair one: Is a wholesale restructuring of society really more radical and unrealistic than continuing down our current path? It’s a question everyone will need to answer at some point, hopefully before it’s too late.