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How Maggie Gyllenhaal found herself as a filmmaker with ‘The Lost Daughter’

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

The latest installment in the current iteration of a venerable franchise, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” swings into theaters this week. Directed by Jon Watts, who made the previous two films, “No Way Home” again stars Tom Holland in the lead role as Peter Parker with Zendaya as his girlfriend, MJ. Although the new movie delves into a multiverse of storytelling that allows for characters from other films to appear, the movie’s truest secret weapon is the charm and chemistry of its two stars.

As Justin Chang wrote of Holland’s cycle in the role, “Like his predecessors, he’s an enormously likable screen presence, which has been crucial to making this third go-round with Spider-Man feel like more than just another retread. That’s no small thing, since every Spidey cycle must essentially trace the same arc, hit the same beats and rites of passage: the loneliness and isolation of superheroism, the all-too-relatable challenges of teenagerdom, the bittersweet ache of young love, the pain of sudden, irreversible loss. When someone here intones, ‘With great power comes great responsibility,’ it’s with a wry awareness of how often those words have been spoken before, and how often they’ll likely be spoken again. The poignant (and ultimately spoiler-proof) achievement of ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ is that, for the moment at least, it leaves you considering that prospect with more affection than fatigue.”

In the first of this year’s Envelope roundtables, actors Penelope Cruz, Kirsten Dunst, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Kristen Stewart and Tessa Thompson joined The Times’ Amy Kaufman. After Lady Gaga reflected on the lengths she went to for authenticity in “House of Gucci,” Kristen Stewart reflected on how her process had changed, saying, “I used to think: ‘I need to f— myself up so badly, or else it’s not going to be real.’ Or: ‘I need to embed every personal memory and tie it to something in this character.’ But then I found that when I actually kind of chilled and stepped back, I was more present, honest and therefore more vulnerable. It was like this reverse discovery. If I don’t try and smash my face through a plate glass window, I might actually be able to think of the scene. Also, it’s just not sustainable. “

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This week on The Envelope podcast, I spoke to writer-director Adam McKay for his new film “Don’t Look Up,” in which scientists discover a comet on a collision course with Earth. As to how real-life events kept catching up to the absurd events of the movie, McKay said, “I feel like the craziest fiction you can think of at this point is always two, three steps away. And we know that about fiction. A lot of it’s always going to come true in one shape or another. But like you said earlier, I’ve just never seen the rate of speed between the idea and it becoming a reality this fast.”

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For The Envelope Screening Series, from today through Sunday the film “Mass” is available to stream at home. It’s the story of two sets of parents meeting to talk face-to-face after their lives have been changed by a school shooting. I moderated the virtual Q&A with writer-director Fran Kranz and stars Ann Dowd, Reed Birney, Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton. You can RSVP here.

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‘The Lost Daughter’

The Lost Daughter” — actor Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut as writer-director — is an adaptation of a novel by Elena Ferrante, who writes using a pseudonym. The film recently won four Gotham Awards and picked up four Spirit Award nominations. In the film, Olivia Colman plays Leda, a woman on a holiday. She meets struggling young mother Nina, played by Dakota Johnson, which causes Leda to reflect on her own past. In flashbacks, Jessie Buckley plays the young Leda. The film is in theaters and begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 31.

For The Times, Guy Lodge wrote, “It always speaks well of actors’ humility when they make their directorial debut with a film in which they do not star. It speaks well of their gifts, however, when you sense their screen presence in the film anyway: a strength and specificity of personality that survives their absence and colors other actors’ performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes just such a debut with her slippery, sinuous, subtly electrifying Elena Ferrante adaptation ‘The Lost Daughter’: She’s never made a film before, and yet you’d already feel comfortable classifying it as ‘a Gyllenhaal film,’ the way you might name-brand Joanna Hogg or François Ozon — to name two other directors briefly (though not derivatively) reflected in this film’s glinting, angular surfaces.”

For IndieWire, Jessica Kiang wrote, “Gyllenhaal’s film is a story of self-ascribed transgression and of shame buried and turned bitterly inward, and it too, is made with such alertness to the power of cinematic language — particularly that of performance — that even as you feel your stomach slowly drop at the implications of what you’re watching, you cannot break its spreading sinister spell.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Gyllenhaal keeps this taut, intriguingly shifting story on an appropriately uneven keel, as events take their inevitable yet still-shocking course. She has also enlisted some fine supporting actors to flesh out the narrative, including Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard and Jack Farthing. But Gyllenhaal’s eyes are firmly on the women in ‘The Lost Daughter,’ which benefits immensely from the filmmaker’s own gaze — alert, sensitive and impressively uncompromising.”

For the AP, Jocelyn Noveck wrote, “‘I’m an unnatural mother,’ Colman’s Leda says at one pivotal point. Her face is contorted in guilt (or is it grief?) at the circumstances that have brought her to that moment. But it seems that she, and Gyllenhaal, are telling us something more: Perhaps there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ mother. Perhaps there’s something in this tale of two women — or really, three — that speaks to all who try to pretend that it’s unnatural to sometimes be ambivalent about motherhood. And that motherhood is not, in ways and at times, a struggle for nearly everyone.

Two women, one wearing a hat and in profile
Olivia Colman as Leda and Dakota Johnson as Nina in “The Lost Daughter.”
(Yannis Drakoulidis / Netflix)

‘Nightmare Alley’

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, who co-wrote the screenplay with film historian Kim Morgan, “Nightmare Alley” is an adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham previously adapted into a 1947 movie starring Tyrone Power. Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a drifter with a mysterious past. He falls in with a traveling carnival until he becomes a successful nightclub mentalist who meets the crooked psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) and they hatch a plan to fleece the wealthy. The supporting cast also includes Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, David Strathairn and Willem Dafoe. The film is in theaters.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “It’s a film noir in much the same way that ‘Crimson Peak’ was a horror movie: Feverishly and often magnificently overwrought, it treats its genre less as a template to be followed than a lavish funhouse in which to run amok. Its characters, tropes and archetypes, convincing enough on their own, take on even richer dimensions when placed alongside their antecedents. To watch Cooper’s ill-fated antihero — or, in due course, Cate Blanchett’s spectacularly malevolent femme fatale — is to see an entire cinematic history distilled into something rich, singular and knowing.”

I spoke to Del Toro and Morgan, who recently married, about their collaboration on the screenplay. Del Toro spoke about what drew him to the novel and original film and how he defines the noir style: “In the way I understand it myself it is a literature of disappointment, it is American existentialism. It is a literature that shows that between the haves and the have-nots, the only way to break that barrier, which would be class in English literature, is you break it through violence. If you’re reading Jane Austen, you break it through marriage. If you’re reading noir, you break it through violence or transgression. And it is really moving, that is a very incarnate look at a country that was founded on these pastoral ideas and has now had a literal reckoning with urban and industrial life and the brutality that it entitles.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “The problem is that this display is in service to a drama that needs narrative tension and modulation to fully work. The scenes with Lilith are particularly crucial in this respect, and also where the movie’s already logy pulse slows to a crawl. It’s no surprise that Blanchett makes quite the spectacle — she doesn’t walk and sit, she slinks and drapes — yet the performance is so mannered and self-consciously indebted to noir sirens of the past that you can almost see the quote marks framing it. In theory, Lilith should be a sharp foil for Stan. But she isn’t a character, she is a cineaste’s nostalgic plaything, and like too much of this movie she is less bathed in del Toro’s love than embalmed in it.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “There is a lot of talk of good and bad, playing God, responsibility, money and loyalty in and an ever-present fear of the fall. Stan knows what the bottom looks like, and an obsession with avoiding that will keep him clawing his way up. The themes are obvious and a bit old-fashioned and the trajectory is too. But that’s not a ding: It’s just a neatly constructed story that stays true to its genre and time. And hopefully, it’s not the last time Morgan and del Toro revive a hidden gem.”

For Vanity Fair, Cassie Da Costa wrote, “‘Nightmare Alley’ goes on for well over two hours, diminishing every ounce of mystique from the original story in the process. Del Toro takes pleasure in elegant depictions of gore and carefully timed explosions of violence, but the scenes outside of those flashy moments are inert.”

‘The Novice’

The debut feature from writer-director Lauren Hadaway, “The Novice” won the top prize at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, as well as awards for Isabelle Fuhrman as best actress and Todd Martin for cinematography, and just received five Spirit Award nominations. Fuhrman stars as a college freshman who goes on an intense physical and emotional journey after she joins her school’s rowing team. The film is playing at the Nuart and is also available on VOD.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “It’s invigorating filmmaking in service of a brutal and bloody cautionary tale, a sports movie that isn’t inspirational in the least, in which rowing does not build Alex up, but grinds her down, never offering up those easy lessons or platitudes we’re used to. … [‘The Novice’] is a startling, singular and masterful debut, introducing a daring filmmaker possessed of an unequivocal mastery of her craft and most important, something to say with it.

For the New York Times, Teo Bugbee wrote, “Hadaway has crafted a film that thematically and visually resembles Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash,’ for which she served as a sound editor. But where Chazelle’s film followed a protagonist with world-class aspirations, the modest scale of Alex’s ambitions keeps ‘The Novice’ more grounded as a character study, and helps the film steer clear of overblown statements about success. The protagonist merely wishes to be the worst rower on her team’s best boat. … If the story’s hero can only aspire to the middle of the pack, the beginner behind the camera shows no such limitations.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Jourdain Searles wrote, “‘The Novice’ is equal parts sports film, coming-of-age drama and psychological thriller. It’s a horrific tale of a young woman hurtling directly toward failure and welcoming the pain that comes with it. Hadaway — who based the film on her own experiences rowing in college — brings out the best in Fuhrman, who gives a searing, star-making performance as Dall. … Dark, unnerving and thrilling, ‘The Novice’ is poised to become a genre-breaking success. A film this raw made with such a steady, assured hand only comes along once in a while. We should take notice.”

A woman wearing sweats sits between oars on a scull.
Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex Dall in Lauren Hadaway’s “The Novice.”
(IFC Films)


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