The Last Duel – 7

A 21st-century morality tale set in 14th-century France that would scarcely pass the credibility threshold if it were not, somehow, “based on true events.” The plot is more a short story, elongated over two hours by being told thrice. And being an American movie (very Ridley Scott), there is not much subtlety or nuance. Conversely, the dialogue is easy to understand. Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Ben Affleck play unappealing characters, and supporting roles are even worse, so it’s left to Jodi Comer to carry the viewer’s interest. Viewed with our 21st-century eyes, she does.

A Hero – 8

Very real people–largely played, in fact, by non-professional actors–are faced with a series of moral dilemmas and almost always make the wrong choice. The remarkable Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, wants his audience to keep asking themselves questions after the film is over, and in this he succeeds. His best move is making the hero, Rahim, an open-hearted soul you have to root for, even as his mistakes mount. I would have liked a more convincing back story, covering Rahim’s path to debtor’s prison, but that’s a minor quibble. In all, this was an expertly made, low-key look into Iranian society and human nature that made us glad, for the first time, to be back at the movies.

Cry Macho – 2

Clint Eastwood has forgotten more about acting and directing than I will ever know, and based on this movie he seems to have forgotten most of it. In the twenty minutes or so we watched, every character, scene, plot point and bit of dialogue was more absurd than believable. It was amateur hour with a C cast, including the chicken. The scenery and cinematography was topnotch, but on the TV screen that didn’t amount to much. In the effort for movies to come back, this was a setback.

In the Same Breath – 9

I thought I didn’t need, or want, to see anything more about Covid but was totally transfixed by this documentary based on the outbreak as it happened in Wuhan. To have simply obtained the footage of Chinese citizens struggling to obtain medical treatment, of hospitals trying to provide care, and of officials trying to sanitize the news would be enough to make this a remarkable documentary. But director Nanfu Wang goes well beyond this extraordinary reportage by placing peoples’ reactions in the context of the Chinese police state–and then contrasting the results of that suppression with the just-as-bad results in our own land of the free. When I couple Time Magazine’s  recent report on the Chinese Communist Party’s push to create a uniformly Han country, eliminating all ethnic cultures, with this movie’s depiction of mass patriotic rallies, the Chinese threat to civilization as we know it is chilling. Our combined inabilities to deal with a global pandemic may be more immediate but ultimately no less troubling.

White Lotus – 7; Unforgotten – 8

We watched both six-parters in tandem as they were released Sunday nights on, respectively, HBO and PBS. As usual, the American series was populated by broad caricatures, while the British presented complex and real people. White Lotus can be forgiven its lack of subtlety, as it aimed for social satire, and a week at the Four Seasons Maui is not the setting you’d choose for reality. In fact, the entitled Shane Patton was such a melodramatic villain one almost hissed in enjoyment each time he appeared. On the flip side, some of the relationship subplots, of which I counted ten, were cringe-worthy, notably those involving Tanya. Pretty much all the relationships taxed the imagination, which meant that the viewing pleasure depended on how much one enjoyed a particular character, or the scenes of Hawaii. For the record, my favorites were the luscious Rachel and Armond, the general manager who seemed to have been trained at Fawlty Towers.
One thing both series shared was expressive faces of people under stress. In Unforgotten, however, they were nuanced characters, most of whom had the normal quotient of good qualities to go along with the dark secret in their pasts. And the ancillary problems they faced in their current lives were recognizable: a parent with dementia, a child-to-be diagnosed with down’s syndrome, a mortgage payment to be met. Nicola Walker’s Cass was a suitably charismatic lead detective, and her team was remarkably devoid of the drama we’d come to know with the crew in Spiral. Unlike the vacationers in Hawaii, I’d be happy to spend more time with this group.
As for the respective plots, both shows opened, per usual, with evidence of a murder, the details of which, when revealed, were rather disappointing. Coincidentally, at the conclusion of both series the lead actor had been killed, in a way that was completely tangential to the main thrust of each story. What we took away from both was our experience with the cast of characters: Mark and Nic, Olivia and Paula, Shane and Rachel; and Liz, Fiona, Ram and Dean, Cass and Sunil.

Summer of Soul – 7

I marveled at the quality of this documentary: the concert footage from 50 years ago was phenomenal, and the larger story of Black history and culture was woven in seamlessly. The crowd shots, albeit a tad repetitive, were worth the price of admission, as was Sly and the Family Stone’s rendition of “Everyday People.” In presenting the gamut of music on display, however, the film lost emotional punch. If you liked this performer, there was a good chance you would be turned off by the next. There was funk, gospel, pop, r-&-b, jazz, Latin, rock, soul, blues, Afrobeat. Maybe because it wasn’t my culture, but the film and the event were a shadow of Woodstock.

In the Heights – 6.5

Not exactly Rent, not quite West Side Story, but a clear precursor to Hamilton. The story was far too thin to support the boatload of production numbers that followed on each other’s heels–so many that, despite their individual brilliance, they became tiresome. “How about a good song, instead of another ensemble dance?,” I found myself thinking. Unless you were charmed by the actors–and only Melissa Barrera as Vanessa came close–it was hard to buy into the narrative, except as a parable celebrating Latinx culture.

Small Axe – 9

Although I gave Mangrove my vote for (co-)best film of 2021, I haven’t separately reviewed the other four installments of Steve McQueen’s five-part reminiscence of West Indian life in racist London in the ’70s and ’80s. Each film stands on its own, although all share a common venue and sensibility: Black Londoners trying to get along and make a life–indeed, improve their lives–despite being put down, intentionally or just sytemically, by the white society that refuses to acknowledge them, let alone absorb them. To learn that the stories are all based on real people, including McQueen’s, adds to the power of the message. More than anything else I’ve seen about racial discord, there was less preaching and less melodrama, although plenty of drama. By being real, the stories didn’t have to hit you over the head; the moral was plain to see.
Of the five, my least favorite was Lovers Rock, which was more about interactions among the Blacks and between the sexes than about the always lurking white presence. It was a meditation on the music of the community. Red, White and Blue, the story of a young Black who becomes a police officer, featured a starring turn by John Boyega, and like all the series presented diverse characterizations: there were good people and bad, among both races. Alex Wheatle and Education would both be depressing for the litany of hardships and prejudices young Black men are thrown against were it not for, true story, the amazing successes both heroes became. Again, if these were fictional tales produced for American TV to celebrate Black achievement, I probably would have been turned off. But by presenting the characters in convincing compexity and building a world around them–1970s London–that was foreign to me but eminently believable, I was chastened and heartened and felt the better for having shared the experience.

Undine – 6.8

More style than substance, Christian Petzold’s fourth film was a disappointment after his remarkable earlier trio of Barbara, Phoenix and Transit. The title plus a Wikipedia search clued you in to the possible water-spriteness of the female lead (the excellent Paula Beer), but the myth in question didn’t track the plot, nor was it clear why Undine was alternately at home in the water and almost drowning. Her on-land docent tours of architectural Berlin likewise may have constituted a subplot for savvy Germans but was lost over here. In short, there was little to take away beyond a conventional love story (and for that you had to believe in the appeal of Franz Rogowski’s commoner character) and the pleasure of watching a well made film.

The Father – 8

A gem of a movie, narrow in scope but enlarged by the great acting of Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. By confining the set to, basically, two rooms and a hallway, we were forced into the mind of the father, struggling absent-mindedly with dementia. The film is mercifully short, as we get the picture early on and know there won’t be a happy ending, just the chance to think about aging and elder care, for our loved ones and ourselves.