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The unexpectedly funny Brazilian horror comedy “King Car” comes to America with two strikes against it. For starters, “King Car” will be released during the first weekend in January, so adventurous/curious viewers might not be looking forward to a dark satire about a sentient, megalomaniacal car. It’s also hard to talk up “King Car” without acknowledging up front that yes, this is the other 2021 genre hybrid where a human protagonist has sex with a car. “Titane” may have won the Palme D’Or last year, but “King Car” was mostly a word-of-mouth hit among film festival attendees. “Titane” was a cause celebre, but “King Car”? Who knows what that is, let alone how to sell it?
Written and directed by Renata Pinheiro (and co-written by Sergio Oliveira and Leo Pyrata), “King Car” mostly concerns teenage car buff Uno (Luciano Pedro Jr.) and his relationship with the title character, a talking car (voiced by Tavinho Teixeira). Uno and King Car share an unusual relationship, as you might expect: Pedro’s character refurbishes (and gives a literal voice-box to) King Car after a new local law prohibits Pernambucan motorists from driving any car that’s more than 30 years old. A pre-restoration King Car also used to telepathically—and exclusively—communicate with Uno (played by young Alexandre Lima in early scenes). And in an establishing scene, King Car also saves Uno from a life-threatening vehicular accident; unfortunately, King’s intervention inadvertently results in the death of Marileide (Ane Oliva), Uno’s biological mom.
You might be wondering: is “King Car” one of those movies where a talking car and his human companion inevitably clash because, as in “Christine,” they have an unhealthy parasitic relationship? Yes and no. Like David Cronenberg’s earlier features, “King Car” is most enjoyable when its creators are developing their movie’s world and not its story. Because “King Car” eventually stops being about Uno and King Car’s relationship and, through a series of loosely connected narrative episodes, starts concerning various supporting characters.
There are some familiar romantic and domestic power dynamics throughout. Uno looks up to his reclusive inventor/mechanic uncle Zé (Matheus Nachtergaele), and therefore inevitably clashes with love interest Clara (Pinheiro), a young agro-ecology student who doesn’t understand Uno’s fascination with King Car. Meanwhile, Zé not only helps to re-build cars, but also co-leads a cultish group that’s managed by Zé, but is really organized by the insidious and obviously insecure King Car. Pinheiro and her two co-writers deserve credit for making their characters both compelling and engaging throughout, especially whenever their movie switches gears from a high-concept programmer to a broader satire that suggests political trends—even a gearhead revolt led by a talking car—often look smaller and more ridiculous once you know their underlying social/inter-personal causes.
“King Car” is and isn’t the sort of pop art provocation that boils down to its figurehead image: somehow, King Car has sex with Mercedes (Jules Elting), Zé’s girlfriend. As she’s stimulated off-camera, Mercedes’ pleasure is emphasized through a series of overlapping close-ups of Elting’s face, front-lit by the trippy rainbow lights of King Car’s mattress-like canopy. There’s also some welcome post-coital dialogue: King Car asks Mercedes, a feminist conceptual artist, if that was her first time, too. She laughs; it wasn’t. He clarifies: was that her first time with a machine? More laughter; also, no. Mercedes then tries to reassure her mechanical lover—such “potency”!—but by this point, the scene is clearly not just about messing around with a car—“King Car” also makes time for pillow talk.
It’s tempting to say that Pinheiro and her co-creators have made a movie that was always bound to be limited by its more gonzo conceits and metaphors. This is, after all, a movie where several young people are mysteriously brainwashed by a car after they huff and then drink a phosphorus-infused motor oil (it doesn’t make much more sense in context). Then again, “King Car” is also generally more composed and thoughtful than you might expect: cinematographer Fernando Lockett’s particular emphasis on wide blocking and dark surface colors (especially metallic blues and turquoise greens) often makes you feel like you’re seeing the world through a tinted windshield.
The thriller “See for Me” seems to have been created in order to answer the question “What would you get if you crossed the Audrey Hepburn classic 'Wait Until Dark' with a 'Call of Duty'-style video game?” As concepts go, that is certainly attention-grabbing and it will most likely lure viewers to Randall Okita’s film who are curious to see how it all plays out. What they'll get is a movie that never quite manages to live up to its intriguing concept, thanks mostly to a couple of key creative decisions that undercut any chance for real emotional involvement and render it as little more than an exercise in only moderately inventive style.
Our heroine is Sophie (Skyler Davenport), a downhill skier whose once-promising career fell to pieces after she went legally blind. Now bitter and withdrawn, Sophie ignores her mother’s well-meaning suggestions about returning to the slopes and instead elects to take a series of jobs housesitting mansions that will allow her to filch a couple of expensive and easily missed items she can sell for some quick cash. As the story begins, she's heading up to the inevitably remote mansion belonging to Debra (Laura Vandervoort) for a couple of days to cat-sit and hopefully make off with a bottle of wine worth a few thousand dollars. She has hardly arrived when she accidentally locks herself outside and winds up utilizing See for Me, an app that connects her with volunteers who will help guide her around via her phone’s camera. Her aide is Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a former soldier turned round-the-clock gamer who utilizes her skills in both areas to quickly get Sophie back inside.
That night, three men—Otis (George Tchortov), Dave (Joe Pingue), and Ernie (Pascal Langdale)—break into what they think is an unoccupied house in order to bust open a hidden safe and liberate its contents on the orders of a fourth man (Kim Coates) on the phone. Once the two parties become aware of each other, a game of cat-and-mouse ensues throughout the mostly darkened mansion as Kelly tries to get Sophie to safety, even as Sophie herself contemplates throwing in with the thieves in exchange for a cut.
The initial idea for “See for Me” is undeniably gripping—the kind of audacious concept that someone like the late, great Larry Cohen might have transformed into a nifty exercise in B-movie ingenuity. But the screenplay by Adam Yorke and Tommy Gushue makes two key conceptual stumbles—one perhaps unavoidable—that prevent it from living up to its promise. The unavoidable problem is that while the idea of a home invasion thriller in which a blind person is guided with help of an app sounds clever, it does not add up to much because it puts Sophie on equal footing with the thieves way too early, considerably diminishing the threat potential. Perhaps this could have worked in the hands of a more visually inventive filmmaker like Brian De Palma, someone who could have still milked the concept for maximum suspense, but Okita never quite finds that next level of inspiration. We instead are left waiting impatiently for the presumably inevitable moment when Sophie’s phone will die and she will be forced to fend for herself without her high-tech advantage.
“Margrete: Queen of the North” is a historical epic from Denmark that contains almost everything that one might want from such a thing—palace intrigue, familial conflict, sex, violence, jealousy, betrayal and so on. What it doesn’t really have is much of anything in the way of a point or purpose. Although it's undeniably well-made, it lacks the kind of energy that might have helped make it truly come alive, and seem like more than a historical reenactment.
Loosely inspired by actual events, the film is set in 1402 and as the story opens, the ambitious Queen Margrete (Trine Dyrholm) has managed to establish a peaceful union between Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that she rules through King Erik (Morten Hee Andersen), whom she adopted as young boy years earlier following the mysterious death of her own son, Oluf. To further solidify her position and to help stave off a potential invasion from Germany, a marriage has been arranged between Erik and England’s Princess Philippa that will help create a new alliance. On the eve of the wedding, just as negotiations regarding the dowry have kicked into high gear, things take a turn when a man (Jakob Oftebro) arrives in court proclaiming that he, in fact, is the real King Oluf and therefore the true ruler of the land.
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At first glance, the claim appears to be preposterous—it cannot be mere coincidence that he should turn up just as the all-important wedding is about to commence—and Margrete believes that he's an imposter. However, other people in power are convinced the newcomer is actually who he says he is, threatening to throw both the wedding and the fragile alliance between the countries into doubt. When Margrete learns that no one actually saw Oluf’s body after his alleged death, she's forced to confront the possibility that his story is true. With only a few days before everything that she has worked for collapses around her, Margrete sends off a couple of trusted advisors to look into the story and does some nosing around on her own. Meanwhile, the increasingly frustrated Erik lets power go to his head and finds himself unwittingly being manipulated by a number of people who wish to seize control for themselves.
In terms of surface details, “Margrete: Queen of the North” is certainly of interest. Director Charlotte Sieling has given the production (filmed in the Czech Republic) a handsome mounting, while still honoring the grittiness of the period. The film also benefits from a strong, convincing performance from Dyrholm as Queen Margrete, a ruler who has devoted everything to bring peace to the land and will go to any lengths to ensure that all that she has worked for is not lost. Queen Margrete could have easily been reduced to little more than a cliché but she makes her into a real and compelling character.
Too bad that the same cannot be said for the film as a whole. While the basic outline of the story is intriguing, the screenplay by Sieling and co-writers Maya Ilsee and Jesper Fink never quite figures out how to make it compelling in cinematic terms. Outside of Margrete herself, the other characters have not been developed especially well, and it becomes hard to work up much interest in all of the intrigues and betrayals on display. By the time "Margrete" gets to its grand finale, what should have made for a shocking and powerful moment will inspire little more than a shrug from most viewers.
Penny Lane's new documentary "Listening to Kenny G" could have just as easily been titled "Citizen G." It takes a prismatic, every-possible-angle approach towards its subject, saxophone superstar and top-selling instrumentalist Kenny G, but never quite figures him out in a fully satisfying way. Of course it's possible that there's nothing to "figure out" in that sense.
It's a bit strange watching the title subject being so seemingly open and transparent with Lane and her crew, letting them into his house and studio and taking them to visit his old high school in Seattle, only to arrive at the halfway mark in the movie and realize that he hasn't really shown us much of anything at all, and isn't likely to. Listening to him talk about music is like listening to some guy talk about how he taught himself to play blackjack and got to the point where he could go to Atlantic City every weekend and come home with money in his pocket. He makes it sound as if success in the music industry comes from a code that certain people can crack if they have the right combination of talent, connections, and work ethic. He might be right, but exhilarated isn't the word for how you feel after he takes you through his thought process.
He's an icon of can-do confidence, for sure. He talks a lot about how Arista records founder Clive Davis, another of Lane's interview subjects, listened to him play in Seattle and immediately signed him and tried to turn him into a rhythm and blues star by pairing him with vocalist Kashif and hiding his ethnicity through photographic and design tricks on the packaging. ("They wanted to make sure nobody knew that I was white," he says.) We also learn about all the other things he taught himself how to do superlatively well, including piloting planes, playing golf, and raising his two sons. (G tells us that he wanted to be the greatest father of all time, and the movie rightly realizes that there's no point trying to blow the lid off the assertion.)
As presented by Lane, Kenny G (born Kenny Gorelick, a self-described Jewish kid from Seattle) radiates a bit of Tom Cruise's bland yet undeniably effective relentlessness. He is formidable because of all the things he's done (some of them unlikely), and because he seized control of his image early in his career and never had to let go because there was no arguing with success. His own stewardship produced more and bigger instrumental hits than anyone had seen before, starting with "Songbird" and continuing through "Silhouette," which was just as big, and on and on.
An array of critics and scholars and industry figures try to analyze exactly what it is about Kenny G that makes him so popular. His high school mentor, composer and performer James Gardiner, speculates that it's his virtuoso long-note playing that did it, while Ben Ratliff, a music and film writer for the New York Times, speculates (in a roundabout way) that Kenny G is a success because he's managed to divorce himself from every tradition that might reflect poorly on him if he were judged in relation to it. He's not playing jazz, exactly (it's more easy listening with pinch of jazziness), and he's not a bandleader in the way that many of the heroes of jazz were (if anything, G is like another of Davis' technically masterful discoveries, Whitney Houston, a superstar performer who needed to be placed in front of the band and mic-ed as the dominant element to be fully effective—although at least Houston could demonstrate soul whenever it was called for).
There are points early in this documentary where you might wonder if it needed to be a feature (you can imagine a cut-down "60 Minutes" piece doing the job just as effectively), but when Lane gets away from the man and focuses on the details of the business of music, a new frontier of understanding opens up. Kenny G recognized himself as a product early, embraced it, connected with his audience, and never looked back.
Whether his music actually qualifies as any sort of jazz is beside the point. And even if it were germane to the conversation, you still gotta picture Kenny G reading the takedown piece from a raft in a kidney-shaped pool, behind one of however many mansions he's bought with the fortune he amassed giving the people what they didn't know they wanted.
Tennis is on the cinematic menu in 2021. First, we had “King Richard.” Now we have “Citizen Ashe,” the new documentary by directors Rex Miller and Sam Pollard. These releases have some things in common. Both films look at Black excellence in a sport that, as one talking head here points out, “was so White that even the balls and the uniforms were white.” Richard Williams and Arthur Ashe were forced to practice on courts in their respective neighborhoods and had issues when trying to use or compete in Whites-only arenas. Ashe may have even been on Williams’ mind when he decided to point his superstar daughters toward tennis. Oddly enough, both movies have a societal position in their titles that describes how their subjects will be pitched to the audience; this is a much more down-to-Earth depiction befitting a “citizen” who just happens to be tennis royalty.
Before the Williams sisters, and after Althea Gibson, there was Arthur Ashe. Ashe was the first major Black male tennis star. According to Wikipedia, he’s also the only Black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open. That last event is held in the world’s largest tennis court, Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing, Queens. After retiring in 1980 due to heart issues, Ashe became a coach and a sportscaster. On the activist front, he campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and, after contracting AIDS from a blood transfusion, he started the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. Eventually, he succumbed to the disease on February 6, 1993.
Miller and Pollard show us how all of this transpired, and it’s a lot more complicated than that brief synopsis indicates. For example, Ashe’s path to activism is far from a straight line, nor is it without a nuance that, at times, is fraught with controversy. Ashe came to athletic prominence during the turbulent battle for Civil Rights in the 1960s, yet he was far less vocal than his contemporaries. “Citizen Ashe” shows how his the media crudely used his demeanor in stark contrast to “angry Black athletes” like Cassius Clay. As Clay and Lew Alcindor were becoming Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar respectively, they were also speaking out against racial injustices. When asked to add his own voice to the chorus, Ashe declined. A scene of him referring to Jim Crow treatment as being “mildly discriminated against” made me utter some choice profanities. Olympic Project for Human Rights founder Dr. Harry Edwards, a prominent figure in this documentary, says at one point “we thought he was an Uncle Tom!”
“Citizen Ashe” digs deeper, exploring the differences in sports and how they may influence a certain type of response to injustice. Like Venus and Serena’s dad, Ashe’s father insisted on tennis rather than the “expected” sports a Black person would play. Seen in old photographs and footage, the elder Ashe has a distinguished but stern demeanor. Raising his two sons after the death of their mother, he instilled in his sons a respect for authority that would keep them alive in segregated times. Big men like Jim Brown and Ali were in far rougher sports than tennis (and more integrated ones, at that), and therefore could make some noise and rattle the racists. For tennis, Ashe had to take the more docile tact his idol Jackie Robinson did for baseball. Somehow that allowed him to run the long game when it came to observing and changing things from within. Folks were more unguarded. Dr. Edwards returns late in the documentary to explain this phenomenon far more eloquently than I have.
The debut feature by the sharp Tunisian filmmaker Mehdi Barsaoui, “The Son” begins with a depiction of the Arab world that seems deliberately designed to buck the preconceptions of Western viewers. Gathered for a picnic, some cosmopolitan Tunisians laugh, drink beer, tell dirty jokes (making sure the kids there are out of earshot), and speculate on politics. It’s fall of 2011, less than a year after the democratization of that country, and social life is looser than it used to be.
But things are still dangerous. After the outing, Fares (Sami Bouajila, charismatic and slow-burning), wife Meriam (Najla Ben Abdallah, Boujilla’s equal in charisma in a role that’s more fraught, in its way) and their young son Aziz (Youssef Khemiri) head off for a weekend in Tatouine. On the road in the afternoon, their car is ambushed by terrorists and Aziz is gravely wounded. He’ll need a liver transplant if he’s to live.
And now the wreckage of the past comes calling: the seemingly blissful marriage of Fares and Meriam, two very successful professionals, wasn’t always as blissful as what we’ve seen. They both strayed years ago, and now Meriam learns that Fares is not the biological father of Aziz. His liver won’t do for a partial donation. And Meriam’s the wrong blood type.
The estrangement that follows this revelation splits the narrative. Meriam searches desperately for the old flame who is Aziz’s birth dad. And Fares ...
Well, Fares is approached by a man who seems to be, like him, waiting for news of a patient at the hospital. Billed only as “The Businessman” in the credits, and played by a very subtle Slah M'sadak, He makes small talk with Fares at first. “This country is screwed” is one of his opening gambits. Eventually he gets down to cases. For $150,000 dinars (about 50,000 dollars), Aziz gets a new liver.
The Businessman draws Fares into his little web gradually. He shows him a state-of-the-art facility. He lies, elaborately, of where the organs come from. He presents himself and the organization he represents as do-gooders. And Fares, out of pride (wounded and otherwise), self-delusion, and other character defects that sometimes manifest themselves particularly devastatingly in males, winds up making a deal with the devil.
Whether he can extricate himself from it is one question that needs addressing in the movie’s last third. While “A Son” has allegorical parables with the political evolution of not just Tunisia but the whole MENA region, the first rate-acting, the very credible environments, and the straightforward, tight-as-a-drum direction make it hum with a directness that few social problem movies can muster.
Without checking online, can you name the first person to climb Mount Everest? If Sir Edmund Hillary comes to your mind, Nirmal “Nims” Purja wants you to know that Sir Edmund was able to reach the summit of the highest mountain in the world because of the man who reached it with him, the Nepali Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. In the documentary “14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible,” Purja undertakes a quest even Sir Edmund and Norgay might find daunting. He wants to take an all-Nepali group to the top of the 14 tallest mountains in the world, each more than 8000 meters (26,247 feet) above sea level.
There is a reason that we use mountain metaphors to speak of tasks that are beyond the realm of the achievable, describing them as “insurmountable.” Only a handful of people have climbed all 14 of the 8,000-meter mountains. The first was Reinhold Messner, and it took him 16 years to do them all. Purja decided he would do it in seven months. Usually, one of this documentary’s experts tells us, any of these mountains is a two-month project. Aside from the almost unthinkable challenge each mountain poses, the physical, emotional, and financial problems of doing them in such a short time and the unpredictability of the weather, there are the geopolitical/diplomatic challenges, with mountains in Nepal, Pakistan, and Tibet/China. And Purja almost always climbs without additional oxygen, to altitudes with just a third of the oxygen we are used to breathing. One of the mountains normally takes four days to summit. He does it in one. With a hangover.
“I was told that my project was impossible,” Purja tells us. “So, I decided to name it Project: Possible.” He is determined to do it to give Nepali climbers the credit they are due, and, he notes, to pay them more than they would get from Western climbers. It will burnish the resumes of his team and provide more opportunities. He makes a point of introducing us to each member of the team at the beginning of the film, calling them his brothers and telling us about each one’s special skill. Over the course of the film, we see his determination but also his heroic generosity of spirit, helping others who had given up to achieve the summits and stopping, at the risk of missing his deadline, to help climbers suffering from exposure or altitude sickness.
They discover one on their descent from their first peak and go back to help him. “You surmounted one of the most dangerous summits in the world and now you’re going to go back up there?” another climber asks, admitting that he was hoping the stranded climber had died so they would not have to find a way to get him to a hospital. “I have never left anyone behind,” Purja says about his time in the military. “I was not going to do that on the mountain.” Purja and his team have to stay awake all night with the critically ill climber. At 6 AM they get him to base camp where he is picked up by a helicopter. Later, another fallen climber they come across will not be so lucky.
My high school senior year English teacher, Mr. Kilinski would be proud that I remembered every single stanza and line from Macbeth he made his students memorize. As Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, and others worked through the Bard’s words as adapted by director Joel Coen, I felt myself lip-syncing under my mask. I covered the greatest hits, and lines I didn’t even realize I knew. Keep in mind that I learned these words 35 years ago, yet they were as fresh in my mind as if I’d committed them to memory that morning. The Scottish Play holds a special place in my heart, because it forced me to do a complete 180 on William Shakespeare. After my freshman year run-in with Romeo and Juliet and my sophomore year’s Julius Caesar, I was through with this dude and his fancy writing about topics that put my adolescent self to sleep.
Macbeth made me reconsider. Back then, I couldn’t put my finger on why it spoke to me so powerfully that it made me want to read more Shakespeare. But, as an adult, I understood. This play is like a film noir and I was a budding noirista as a teen. “The Tragedy of Macbeth” visually leans into my noirish interpretation. It’s shot in silvery, at times gothic black and white by Bruno Delbonnel, has a moody score by the great Carter Burwell, and takes place on incredible (and obviously fake) sets designed by Stefan Dechant. It also has more fog than San Francisco, the setting for so many great noirs. This makes sense, as Coen and his brother Ethan visited neo-noir’s genre neighborhood more traditionally in their 2001 film, “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” One might consider their debut, “Blood Simple” a neo-noir as well.
Like those films, this one also features McDormand as a shady lady, namely Lady Macbeth. She’s married to Washington’s Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis. As the casting indicates, this couple is older than the one the Bard envisioned, which changes one’s perception of their motivations. Youthful ambition has given way to something else; perhaps the couple is way too conscious of all those yesterdays that “lighted fools/The way to dusty death.” At the Q&A after the free IMAX screening of this film, McDormand mentioned that she wanted to portray the Macbeths as a couple who chose not to have children early on, and were fine with the choice. This detail makes the murder of Macduff’s (Corey Hawkins) son all the more heartless and brutal, an act Coen treats with restraint but does not shy away from depicting.
Since The Scottish Play was first performed 415 years ago, all spoiler warnings have expired. Besides, you should know the plot already. Banquo (Bertie Carvel) and the Thane of Glamis meet three witches (all played by theater vet Kathryn Hunter) on his way back from battle. They prophesize that Macbeth will eventually be King of Scotland. But first, he’ll become the Thane of Cawdor. When that part of the prediction becomes true, Macbeth thinks these medieval Miss Cleos might be onto something. Though he believes chance will crown him without his stir, Lady Macbeth goads him to intervene. As is typical of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage will be littered with dead bodies by the final curtain, each of whom will have screamed out “I am slain!” or “I am dead!” before expiring. Coen leaves that feature out of the movie, as you can see quite graphically how dead the bodies get on the screen.
That magical connection between Pedro Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz continues to grow stronger and burn brighter with “Parallel Mothers,” their eighth film together over the past quarter century. The Spanish maestro knows precisely how to get all the colors out of his charismatic muse, and in turn, the veteran star takes his material and makes it feel both fiery and grounded.
This time, they tell a story that’s simultaneously personal and political. It’s an intimate tale of two women and their intertwined lives, but it’s also about Spain’s troubled history, and the way strong women are linked for generations through the past, even as they help each other forge a happier future. Sounds like a lot, plus “Parallel Mothers” is indeed chock full of Almodóvar’s signature brand of melodrama. But the performances always make the film feel substantive and authentic, particularly the interplay between its two very different stars.
Cruz plays Janis, an accomplished photographer living in Madrid. On the verge of turning 40, she becomes pregnant from a fling she has with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a handsome and charming forensic archaeologist. She happens to give birth on the same day as another single mom, 17-year-old Ana (the striking Milena Smit), her roommate at the hospital. From those earliest, kindhearted conversations, the two women find themselves connecting in myriad, unexpected ways during one of the most vulnerable and thrilling times in their lives. They share all the elation and exhaustion and more. To elaborate further spoil the many twists and turns Almodóvar takes in “Parallel Mothers,” but suffice it to say, they are doozies.
But while the bones of his script may seem soapy, and the propulsive, string-heavy score from his frequent composer, the brilliant Alberto Iglesias, even calls to mind a horror film at times, “Parallel Mothers” never spins wildly into camp. Cruz is radiant and earthy, sexy and funny as Janis, and because she’s so gifted and so entirely on Almodovar’s wavelength, she maintains an emotional connection with the audience through all of her character’s extreme highs and lows. Smit, meanwhile, shines in an understated way in a more low-key role and enjoys a sparky connection with Cruz on several levels. Ana isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about becoming a mother as Janis is, but her maternal instincts evolve in ways that are warm and heart-wrenching. “It’ll all work out,” Janis tells Ana early and often, and that bright optimism extends to every element of her life, including her wardrobe and décor. The vibrant shade of red we see everywhere—from her cardigan and camera bag to her stroller and Baby Bjorn—is such an Almodovar trademark, they should name a nail polish after him. (Several of the director’s longtime collaborators return to give a “Parallel Mothers” its chic and dramatic look, including production designer Antxón Gómez and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine.)
But it wouldn’t be an Almodóvar film if one of his favorite players, Rossy de Palma (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”), didn’t show up. Here, she plays Janis’ best friend, Elena, swooping into her hospital room in a Technicolor-plaid trench coat, generously offering no-nonsense support and advice. On the other end of the spectrum is Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a narcissistic actress who only truly lights up when she’s talking about how well she did in an audition (although her evolution is one of the film’s many revelations).
All these women and so many more find themselves interconnected as the film’s historical themes emerge. Snippets of conversation about how the Spanish Civil War interrupted and devastated countless lives, which Almodóvar had interspersed throughout, ultimately come to the fore. Decades later, these families continue feeling reverberations of the losses they suffered. It’s a big, emotional topic for Almodóvar to get his arms around, and some of the transitions may feel slightly awkward along the way. But in approaching this subject through the prism of a more personal and relatable story of motherhood and friendship, he makes it accessible.
It’s as if Almodóvar has achieved a magic trick, lulling us into familiarity with his usual performers, colors and themes before surprising us with what he really wants to say. “Parallel Mothers” may look simple at the outset with its high-concept, dramatic premise, but it eventually reveals that it has much more on its mind, and in its heart.
Marie Amiguet and Vincent Munier’s “The Velvet Queen,” opening today in New York and Los Angeles, is a calming, meditative experience. You can feel the chill in the air when you’re watching it, and it often achieves a hypnotic tone, thanks in no small part to a gorgeous score from the two geniuses Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who find the perfect compositions for a project that reaches for something greater than a typical nature documentary. “The Velvet Queen” is at its strongest when it allows for silence on this gorgeous landscape, using only its mesmerizing score to elevate the imagery into something poetic about the beauty of mother nature. But while the visuals and music are stunning, the two subjects of the film (and its co-director) have a habit of over-explaining what they’re doing not just in practical terms but remarkably self-serious philosophical ones as well. Other than a comment here or there about the hunt that these two men find themselves on, I could have discarded literally every soundbite in “The Velvet Queen,” and would have preferred to just get lost in this frigid corner of the world.
“The Velvet Queen” unfolds in a mountainous, seemingly inhospitable part of the world, on the peaks of Tibet. Here, photographer (and co-director) Munier and his pal Sylvain Tesson (a famous author who wrote a successful book about the events of this film titled The Art of Patience – Seeking the Snow Leopard) spend their days seeking wildlife that’s often unseen by human eye. Munier hunts animals in this part of the world but only to shoot them with a camera, never a gun. He has a deep, almost religious view of the natural world, and it’s made him a household name in his field, leading to the award for BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year three years in a row.
Munier narrates this journey through soundbites and conversation with Tesson. The joy he expresses over finding recent bear feces is downright inspiring. Especially as the world seems to be collapsing again, it’s comforting to see someone so thrilled by something that’s not man-made. His buddy Tesson even points out that what he’s doing—hunting wild animals—is about as old the human species itself. As they spot falcons on a cliff face that practically camouflage themselves into it or antelopes fleeing an as-yet-unseen predator, Munier and Tesson display not only a deep intelligence but respect for what they’re seeing.
Sadly, Munier and Amiguet don’t trust their audience quite enough. I wished for an almost Werner Herzog approach to the material here that didn’t spell out the philosophy or importance of mother nature as much as “The Velvet Queen” feels comfortable doing. And yet it’s never quite self-serious enough to defeat what the film does well. Every time I felt like “The Velvet Queen” was spinning its wheels, the team would stumble onto some new vista of shot of an animal living in its own habitat. There’s a calming serenity to the best of “The Velvet Queen,” especially as the team gets closer to their end goal, a shot of a rare snow leopard. The idea that we should step out of our technology-driven worlds to be reminded of the existence of creatures of such beauty, majesty, and intelligence feels valuable at the end of 2021. Maybe we should all connect with mother nature more than we have been lately. I’m bringing the music of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis with me.