With various critics groups’ nominations and winners announced, it’s another week of films with the potential to go a certain distance, give or take a couple. This set of reviews includes a meditative drama, a coming-of-age story, a sci-fi drama, a sports thriller, a Netflix drama about grief and reform, and a sci-fi paranoia thriller. The following features reviews for The Lost Daughter, The Tender Bar, Swan Song, The Novice, The Unforgivable, and Encounter.
The Setup: A woman (Olivia Colman), while on a summer holiday, finds herself becoming obsessed with another woman (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, prompting memories of her own early motherhood to come back and unravel her.
Review: This feature directorial debut from Maggie Gyllenhaal is the kind of low-action, leisurely-paced drama that ends up lingering a lot more than one may expect. A lot of that is due to the command seen from Colman. She plays a middle-aged woman holding many repressed feelings inside of her. One wonders how she would have decided to go on vacation, given all that was bound to come spilling out, given the secrets of her past. Of course, this is a movie that requires things to happen, even if the stakes are decidedly low.
Effectively shot to play down the luxurious aspects of taking a summer holiday at a beach-adjacent resort, there is still plenty of visual splendor in how it captures the architecture of the Greek island location. There’s a 70s feel to this film, which adds to the psychodrama of it all. We also see pauses in the current narrative to spend time back with a younger version of Colman’s character, Leda (Jessie Buckley), who slowly works up to whatever horrible thing that must have happened.
Strong performances run through this film, playing off of Colman. Whether it’s a curious and flirtatious Ed Harris who wants to connect with Leda or Johnson as someone who can see through the smiles, the effort done to build a compelling character study pays off for those with patience.
I can’t say it all culminates in the most effective of ways, as a somewhat ambiguous ending is not as satisfying as it could have been. However, for a film bent on depicting the challenges of motherhood and putting out specific questions meant to provoke, The Lost Daughter does well to blend its dramatic, thrilling, and darkly comedic tones together for something profound.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting December 17, 2021. Available to stream on Netflix starting December 31.
The Setup: Based on the memoir by J.R. Moehringer, a bright, Long Island boy seeks a replacement for his father, who disappeared shortly after his birth, and bonds with his uncle (Ben Affleck) and the patrons at a bar.
Review: Not to put down the system, but what gets me about The Tender Bar is that it’s just a movie. It’s a warm film, occasionally charming, and certainly worthy of a certain level of praise for Affleck’s performance, but there’s nothing else to it. I think about this because it’s arriving in time for award season, and it brings with it nothing to suggest it deserves to be automatically considered among the years’ best films, aside from its release date.
Directed by George Clooney, who would have seemingly run out of clout as a “prestige director” were it not for the fact that he’s George Clooney, this material finds him in the comfortable zone of period coming-of-age drama. It’s not an overly showy film, and it’s really at its best when the characters are allowed to just hang around (generally at Uncle Charlie’s bar) and wax poetic (or crudely discuss) the things one learns about becoming an adult.
The film’s main thrust focuses on college-aged J.R. (Tye Sheridan) dealing with his life as a Yale student with daddy issues and a Long Island sensibility. How Yale becomes the center of so many life stories apparently worthy of a cinematic adaptation, I’m not sure. Still, the best version of this film would serve as an excellent feel-good movie. The Tender Bar is not that, but it’s agreeable enough.
If there is a reason to see it, that’s due to the very comfortable performance from Affleck as Uncle Charlie. Portraying a wise mentor figure who is just complicated enough to be believable, he’s gunning for awards through the opposite route of what he delivered last year with The Way Back. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially because of how effective he is in a film that suffers when he’s not around.
Where To Watch: Available in select theaters starting December 17, 2021. Available to stream on Prime Video beginning January 7.
The Setup: A college freshman, Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost.
Review: There’s something about these dramatic thrillers framed around obsessive college kids that really clicks. Looking at films like The Social Network and Whiplash, it’s the combination of determination and emotions from a particular age group that allows for great cinematic tension. Add to that a level of stylishness that comes through in the direction, and it’s what puts Lauren Hadaway’s directorial debut, The Novice, in line with those films.
Right away, it’s clear the film has plans to go beyond the basic plot. The editing, repeated motifs, and scribbled text on the screen attempt to push the viewer inside the mind of the obsessive Alex as she digs into putting all she has into rowing. Allowing this to work is a strong and demanding performance by Fuhrman.
Making it stand out is how she’s not just playing a robotic character with one function. We watch Alex attempt to have a social life, showing that she’s not some social outcast or misunderstood genius. While pushing herself physically, she can still be sloppy and make mistakes unrelated to how good a job she does on the boat.
Still, for all of the efforts to show a student dealing with college life from a heightened perspective, The Novice does not often stray from its dark tone. Tension is maintained because of the various filmmaking choices, along with a score that pushes the film towards horror at times. The heavy use of shadow and atmosphere further adds to the sensory experience Hadaway is attempting to hold onto. It all amounts to quite the raw portrait of obsession.
Where To Watch: Now available in select theaters, digital, and VOD.
The Setup: When a loving husband and father (Mahershala Ali) is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he is presented with a controversial alternative solution to replace himself with a carbon copy clone.
Review: Along with the title, anyone reading this already knew they were in store for something pretty melancholy when spotting the picture featuring Ali and a distraught Awkwafina. Sure, she provides some mild comic relief, but it is a film set on making the viewer emotional. That’s not necessarily a problem, but, unfortunately, writer/director Benjamin Clearly provides too much of an interesting world and premise for me to fully latch on to the tear-jerking story at the center of this feature.
Working well in Swan Song’s favor, however, is Ali. Even with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi doing his best to set the mood to cool tones, Ali radiates with a certain level of warmth and assuredness, making his dual role quite worthwhile. His current self is scared and apprehensive, as well as understanding. The clone is inquisitive and confident. Glenn Close plays a doctor who establishes the rules of this complicated situation. Still, it’s the time spent understanding these two, together and apart, that allows the film to reveal its greatest strengths.
I only wish it was either more interesting as a whole or took some time away from its 112-minute runtime to develop more of other relationships in this film – namely the one Ali’s Cameron has with his wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris). While their first meeting is shown upfront (along with various hints about this futuristic society), the film relies on many assumptions to get across what they have together, robbing the movie of a stronger emotional balance.
Ultimately, various choices leave aspects of the film a bit too cold. And yet, Ali is a terrific center in the first leading man role of his film career. Fortunate for the two-time Oscar-winner, this isn’t his swan song for major parts, and even this one allows him to deliver the goods.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Apple TV+ starting December 17.
The Setup: Released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime, Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past. Facing severe judgment from the place she once called home, her only hope for redemption is finding the estranged younger sister she was forced to leave behind.
Review: Releasing a film like this on Netflix only helps blur the line between feature films and made-for-TV movies. The Unforgivable is not very good. It stars the likes of Bullock, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Rob Morgan, and Viola Davis, which only adds insult to injury. Sure, there are good intentions for a film like this. However, that would mean something if this was based on a true story. Instead, this cinematic version of a British miniseries feels like a story that’s been condensed far too dramatically.
While the setup is intriguing enough, particularly with Bullock being cast against type, this relentlessly grim feature moves from one contrived plot point to the next, with no time to let any of it register on a stronger level. A variety of characters played by good actors are introduced, and very few leave an impact. There’s a family living in the house where Ruth committed her crime, the sons of the victim, a sympathetic parole officer, a potential love interest, the adoptive family of Ruth’s sister, and more to keep track of.
Whatever initial plans were made when everyone signed on, it doesn’t feel like any of it landed the way it could have with a tighter, more focused narrative. Instead, The Unforgivable drags itself down to a predictable and unexciting level, with a ridiculous reliance on a finale full of guns to seemingly spice up what could have been a low-key morality tale.
Still, there are a lot of good actors here, and perhaps it’s just me being charitable by saying they at least put in the effort to make these roles feel believable. That’s a lot more than I can say for Netflix’s current “most ever streamed” movie also featuring big stars, with next to zero level of commitment. The work here, by comparison, is not unforgivable or unwatchable, but it’s unworthy of any accolades.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: A decorated Marine (Riz Ahmed) goes on a rescue mission to save his two young sons from a mysterious threat. As their journey takes them in increasingly dangerous directions, the boys will need to leave their childhoods behind.
Review: At the core of Encounter, another streaming sci-fi-ish feature with a terrific central performance, is the idea of seeing what lengths one will go to protect their own. There’s a clear metaphor driving the plot of this film, and it is so fortunate that Ahmed is on hand to really dig into how it can affect the life of someone who has seen stuff during their career that they’d rather not think about.
Looking at the lineup of recent roles the actor has taken, it’s great to see Ahmed as this reliable fountain of talent, even if this movie from director Michael Pearce doesn’t quite have all the answers. That’s not to say Encounter would be served better by the most straightforward depiction of what’s truly going on, but it does feel like there’s a lot of setup and a riveting journey undercut by a lackluster ending. Seeing another film that ends up relying on a showdown with weaponry may seem in line with the characters we are introduced to, but it also ends up feeling like a less than creative way to take the story in an inevitable direction.
However, getting to that place is exciting and intriguing. The film pushes us into the mind of Ahmed’s character, Malik, right away, but unraveling where this is coming from, his intentions, and what kind of father he is, allows the film to change shape during its runtime. Adding Octavia Spencer into the mix is never a bad thing either. Her understanding parole officer finds a certain tone that forces the film to slow down and consider the scenario from a different perspective now and again.
Encounter isn’t really close to being great, but I wouldn’t say I had any hostile feelings toward it. It’s, at times, a thrilling road movie, and it gets by on steadfast work from the stars and a reasonable amount of style.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Prime Video.