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Indie Focus: Almodóvar and Swinton speak ‘The Human Voice’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

This week saw awards nominations from the Producers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America and British Academy of Film and Television Arts, bringing into clearer focus what films are truly competitive in this unusual awards season. Oscars nominations are out Monday, and Glenn Whipp has a complete list of predictions.

As Glenn wisely points out, instead of heading out to theaters, you will need to subscribe to four streaming services to see all the likely nominees, and still shell out a little extra for a couple more titles.

This week on “The Envelope” podcast, I spoke to Shaka King, director, co-writer and producer of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” which stars Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield in the story of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and William O’Neal, the FBI informant who betrayed him. (You already know this if you get The Envelope newsletter.)

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This week King, Charles D. King and Ryan Coogler became the first all-Black producing team to be nominated for the top prize from the Producers Guild of America. The film is leaving HBO after this weekend, so if you haven’t seen it yet, now is the time.

On the podcast, King spoke about why it was important to include Hampton’s powerful speeches and political ideology. “That was a big reason for making the movie,” he said. “There’s no other reason to make the movie. When you read Fred Hampton’s words and you see these ideas that are his ideas but really the Panthers’ platform as an organization, you see how much sense they make and you realize that a lot of these ideas have just been withheld, this idea of what the Panthers really stood for.”

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‘The Human Voice’

I don’t know that we’ve ever spotlighted a short film here before, but it’s still pandemic-time, so anything goes. Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar makes his English-language debut with the 30-minute short, “The Human Voice,” adapted from a play by Jean Cocteau. Tilda Swinton plays a woman grappling with the emotional fallout from a breakup. The film is playing locally at the Vineland Drive-In.

For The Times, Carlos Aguilar wrote, “Undoubtedly, Almodóvar is one of few visionaries who can succeed at enthralling through self-referential nods. With this 30-minute visual morsel he further evolves the nesting dolls of stories he’s built around the same French monodrama. For an artist so set in his stylistic and thematic ways, it’s always riveting to see how he maneuvers his tropes. … In the interim between 2019’s masterfully personal ‘Pain and Glory’ and his upcoming new full-length effort, it’s glorious to receive a concentrated shot of Almodóvar’s genius worth every minute in acting gold.”

For rogerebert.com, Odie Henderson wrote, “Swinton plays a range of emotions as she pleads with, terrorizes and occasionally submits to the voice on the other end of the line. Almodóvar frames her for maximum effect, sometimes close to us and sometimes so distantly that she feels unreachable. … While she is fantastic here, I’m not completely sure what to make of ‘The Human Voice.’ I do believe it depicts a haunting, though not the kind we were originally led to believe. No matter. As usual, Almodóvar hit all my melodramatic sweet spots with a vengeance.”

For Polygon, Karen Han called the film “the most straightforward adaptation, and in its unmistakable Almodóvar-esque execution, it feels like a distillation of the director’s four decades of work thus far. … An extended monologue might not sound like a sustainable concept for a film, but The Human Voice is no longer or shorter than it needs to be. Just as it seems like the film’s gimmick might be overstaying its welcome, Almodóvar introduces a last dramatic flourish before bringing the proceedings to a close. It’s a delight no matter how you slice it; for fans, it’s a reminder of what makes Almodóvar such a great director, and for neophytes, it’s an unforgettable introduction.”

For the Wrap, Alonso Duralde wrote, “There’s perhaps no actress on Earth more suited to shepherd the director’s first go-round in English than Tilda Swinton, and she’s an ideal creative partner. Her work finds that balance between understated empathy and grand theatricality that marks so many of the great performances in Almodóvar’s work, and as a physical being, she’s practically an architectural presence, much like one of his earlier muses, Rossy de Palma. (Not to mention Swinton’s prior track record as a muse to queer auteurs Derek Jarman, who launched her film career, and Luca Guadagnino.)”

Tilda Swinton, in "The Human Voice," applies makeup at a mirror in a cluttered bathroom.
Tilda Swinton in “The Human Voice.”
(Iglesias Mas / Sony Pictures Classics)

‘Cherry’

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, “Cherry” is adapted by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg from the semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker. In the story, a young man (Tom Holland) returns home from serving as a medic in the Iraq war with severe PTSD, which leads to a life of drug addiction and bank robberies. The movie is playing locally at the Vineland Drive-in and in limited release where theaters are open and is streaming on Apple TV+.

For The Times, Noel Murray wrote, “‘Cherry’ is far from a disaster. … But this particular story needed a defter touch. When the Russos moved from absurdist sitcoms to ‘The Avengers,’ they brought a fresh new energy to the superhero genre by emphasizing the little grace notes within the actors’ performances. With ‘Cherry’ they do the opposite, applying the bombast of a Marvel action sequence to a slice-of-life drama. It’s a miscalculation — like using Thor’s hammer to build a bookshelf.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote that “as commendable and even brave as much of ‘Cherry’ is, it suffers from diminishing returns as it becomes clear that what made Walker’s book great wasn’t the plot and characters, but the writing itself. … The result is a movie that feels like many films being shoehorned into one, here evoking ‘Jarhead,’ there evoking ‘Requiem for a Dream,’ but always keeping its emotional essence at a distance, obscured by ever more arresting technical flourishes.”

For the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “What is very interesting about the robberies here is that they show that in the moment-by-moment confrontation with the bank teller, there is a kind of negotiation, or bargaining. The teller might decide to offer a single wad of cash, but the gun-brandishing robber might angrily demand another wad before making a run for it — and all the time the clock is running down; the robber fears the police arriving and the teller fears being shot. It is a game of chicken in which the robber always loses in the end. ‘Cherry’ is a fervent movie, corn-fed with drama and action, but maybe a little less than the sum of its parts.”

For Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson wrote, “There is, perhaps, too much adornment, the film an overly effortful attempt to do something big and nervy and relevant. It’s fascinating, as it often is, to watch populist filmmakers go for prestige glory — but that curiosity only carries us so far into ‘Cherry’s’ 141-minute run. There’s a sort of bell curve of tolerance; the film begins loud and over-egged, gradually settles into a sad and gnarly bildungsroman, and then burns itself out with an operatic finale. It’s an exhausting experience, which I realize may be the point.”

In "Cherry," Tom Holland, wearing dark sunglasses, shows a bank teller a dollar bill on which "I have a gun" is written.
Tom Holland in “Cherry.”
(Apple TV+)

‘The Inheritance’

Artist Ephraim Asili makes his feature-length debut with “The Inheritance,” a formally bold movie that mixes elements of documentary, memoir, cultural ephemera and fiction. In the film. a group of young Black activists form a collective in West Philadelphia after one of them inherits a house from his grandmother. The movie is available now via Laemmle Virtual Cinema.

For The Times, Sarah-Tai Black wrote that the film “is a natural realization of many of filmmaker Asili’s ongoing stylistic and thematic occupations. It is didactic without losing its sense of organicism; it is radical without losing its sense of humor; it is intentional in its visual and formal design without flattening itself to the status of aesthetic image emptied of its politics. It is, in all ways, a reminder that any radical future must trust in the transformative potential of the communion between past and present.”

For the New York Times, Lovia Gyarkye wrote, “‘The Inheritance’ feels like poetry visualized. Asili remixes Jean-Luc Godard’s style in the 1967 film ‘La Chinoise’ to examine how people form or expand the scope of their own politics and the realities of shared responsibility and communal living. … And although viewers shouldn’t expect easy resolutions, they should anticipate more than one viewing of Asili’s striking film.”

For Variety, Lisa Kennedy wrote, “If that dense pack of influencers doesn’t make you nervous, ‘The Inheritance’ is worth the tussling. (A second viewing may even offer surer glimpses of the joy undulating beneath the cerebral.) Brainy, mannered, dryly amused, ‘The Inheritance’ can appear willfully inexpert; the self-conscious acting feels both deliberate and the work of a director who hasn’t spent much time working with actors. But Asili dives confidently into big ideas — ideas as ideology, as wondrous inspiration, as both.”

In "The Inheritance," Aurielle Akerele prepares fruit and vegetables. Behind her: a poster of Godard's "La Chinoise."
Aurielle Akerele in “The Inheritance.”
(Grasshopper Film)


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