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Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz reunite for ‘Parallel Mothers’

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

Even as Hollywood winds down for the holiday — out-of-office replies seem to come earlier every year — there is still lots happening. The Critics Choice Awards — about which The Times published this fascinating look at the business of awards season written by Stacy Perman, Josh Rottenberg and Glenn Whipp — announced the postponement of its awards ceremony. Numerous other January events, including the Academy’s Governors Awards, also were postponed. The Sundance Film Festival announced there will be increased health protocols for its in-person events.

This week the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. — of which I am a member — announced its winners, recognizing Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” as best film and Jane Campion as best director for “The Power of the Dog.” Penélope Cruz won best actress for “Parallel Mothers,” while Simon Rex was named best actor for “Red Rocket.”

Times colleagues and fellow LAFCA members Justin Chang and Jen Yamato had a lively conversation about the voting. Taking note that the production design award went to Steve Saklad for “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” Justin said, “I’ve always felt that our finest moments as an organization are those when we shake off whatever Oscar-narrative obligations people like to saddle us with and just … vote for what we love.”

On The Envelope podcast, I spoke to Halle Berry about her directorial debut, “Bruised,” in which she also stars as a mixed martial arts fighter struggling for another chance in the ring. When the script was initially sent to her, Blake Lively was attached to star; Berry felt changing the main character brought some crucial differences.

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“By changing the fighter from a young white fighter to a middle-aged Black fighter, what that said to me was this was about a woman fighting for a last chance, not another chance,” Berry said. “And when you’re 21 and you fail and you get another chance, that’s inspiring, sure. But it’s even more inspiring and I thought more relatable for someone fighting for a last chance. The stakes were higher.”

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Author, essayist and screenwriter Joan Didion died this week at age 87. She and husband John Gregory Dunne wrote the screenplays for several notable films, including “Panic in Needle Park,” the 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born” and the adaptation of her novel “Play It As It Lays.”

As a person who writes about film, I frequently reflect on Didion’s line, “Much of what is written about pictures and about picture people approaches reality only occasionally and accidentally.”

Didion was well known for her reflections on life in Los Angeles and, as timing would have it, another notable writer on Los Angeles, Eve Babitz, also died this week at age 78. Babitz, in her first book, “Eve’s Hollywood,” took a dig at Didion and herself when in the dedications she thanked “the Didion-Dunnes for having to be who I’m not.” While both of these essential voices have gone quiet, the insights of their work remain with us.

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‘Parallel Mothers’

Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Parallel Mothers” reunites the filmmaker with actress Penélope Cruz, an ongoing collaboration that brings out the best in both of them. Cruz won best actress when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and, as noted above, was recognized by the L.A. Film Critics Assn. Cruz plays Janis, who befriends teenage single mother Ana (Milena Smit) while both are in the hospital having babies. Their lives become increasingly intertwined; at the same time, Janis attempts to have a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War, which likely holds her ancestors, excavated. The film is in limited release.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Like any Almodóvar heroine worth her salt, Janis can be irritable, selfish and magnificently unruly, qualities that make her relatable and interesting. But Cruz has a rare ability to make goodness compelling, and Janis is never more magnetic than when we see her extending decency and kindness to the women around her: to a guilt-ridden Teresa and, most of all, to Ana, who soon becomes a regular in Janis’ apartment. Here, amid delectable culinary interludes and gorgeous backsplash tiles, Almodóvar sets a cozy domestic scene in which the women’s ever-deepening friendship is balanced by a steadily mounting tension.”

For the Playlist, Jessica Kiang wrote, “Motherhood; Rossy de Palma; the joys and sufferings of women (exclusively so: Janis’ ‘We Should All be Feminists’ T-shirt is entirely redundant — considering how sidelined they are, ‘Men are people too’ would be the more provocative slogan in this context); the chopping of vegetables; luxuriant costuming; Penélope Cruz delivering the outstandingly vivid kind of performance that only Almodóvar has ever gotten out of her and that only she has ever given Almodóvar — none of these elements is new news in the director’s canon. What is new is the entirely unexpected sidebar about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, a subject the filmmaker has never tackled before — at least not overtly, and Almodóvar only ever does things overtly.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “‘Parallel Mothers’ is a movie of infinite tenderness, that rare ode to motherhood that acknowledges mothers as women first and mothers second. Women are Almodóvar’s world, and the movie worlds he writes for them are rich and affectionate too. … There are no villains in ‘Parallel Mothers,’ beyond political ones: Almodóvar is interested in extreme drama, with its inherent joy and emotional turmoil, but he also makes room for forgiveness. There is no future without it.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “‘Parallel Mothers’ might not be as transcendently cinematic as his last, ‘Pain & Glory,’ and perhaps part of that has to do with the fact that it was filmed during a pandemic, but its emotional core is no less powerful even if it’s a little more subtle. This one takes a beat to sink in, but it’s worth it.”

A woman with dark hair hugs a woman with short blond hair in a kitchen.
Janis (Penélope Cruz) hugs Ana (Milena Smit) in “Parallel Mothers.”
(Iglesias Más / Sony Pictures Classics)

‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’

“The Tragedy of Macbeth” is directed by Joel Coen, working for the first time without his brother Ethan. His adaptation casts Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand as Lord and Lady Macbeth, placing their drama of domestic and political power amid a spare, dreamlike setting. The cast includes Brendan Gleeson, Corey Hawkins, Stephen Root and Kathryn Hunter as all three Weird Sisters. The film is in theaters and will begin streaming on Apple TV+ on Jan. 14.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Washington and McDormand are both in their 60s, which is older casting than usual for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and it adds a poignant dimension to their diabolical scheming. From the start, their murderous plot against Duncan has an air of tragic futility. Macbeth, you sense, has spent the better part of his life being passed over for higher leadership. This is his last stab at greatness, and any such greatness will be short-lived. There is no child to carry on his legacy; that’s always been true of Macbeth, but here it feels like more than just a present-tense misfortune. His heirlessness carries the weight of a lifelong deprivation.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “The director Joel Coen’s crackling, dagger-sharp screen adaptation of the play — called by its full title, ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ — conjures a landscape of appropriate desolation, a world of deep shadows and stark negative space. People wander in empty stone corridors or across blasted heaths, surveyed at crooked angles or from above to emphasize their alienation from one another. … The effect is to emphasize the essential unreality of a play that has always been, in its own words, weird.”

For Deadline, Valerie Complex wrote, “However, the production wouldn’t be as strong if it weren’t for its two main stars. Washington is no stranger to Shakespeare. … Instead of opting for a rough-and-tumble performance that actors in this role typically embrace, Macbeth is quiet, systematic and intentional about his actions. The formidable Lady Macbeth anchors Washington’s Macbeth; McDormand runs through the role with reckless abandon and commands the screen. Her character is so frightening, many of her scenes include subtle horror elements that add bravado to the character’s onscreen persona. These two people are just damn good in this.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday wrote, “Coen has retained Shakespeare’s original text, which presents challenges that only increase as contemporary familiarity decreases; Washington and McDormand demonstrate an ease with Shakespeare’s English that never feels offhand exactly, but also never feels forced or rote. … ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ becomes both a filmy dreamscape and taut documentary, of how love and loyalty, mythologizing and madness can feed into desperate acts of entitlement and self-belief. This stuff never gets old, in art or entertainment: an enduring truth to which this production attests with a dazzling combination of simplicity, poetry and unsparing insight.”

A portrait of a bearded Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
(Alison Rosa / Apple)

‘The Matrix Resurrections’

Working without sibling Lilly, Lana Wachowski takes on a new sequel as part of their groundbreaking series with “The Matrix Resurrections,” starring Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. Reeves again plays Thomas Anderson, a man with a feeling that there is more to his life than he understands, leading to adventure and philosophizing. The film is playing in general release and streaming on HBO Max.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “This isn’t just another rehash. Rather, the film asks us to question the utility of sequels, reboots and the constant churn of intellectual property, especially when the original lesson of ‘The Matrix’ was to awaken oneself to the system, and then bring the whole thing crashing down. … The result is a swift, self-reflective, often funny and always original reimagining of the material, which sees Wachowski reassessing the existing characters and lore of ‘The Matrix’ while embroidering the text with new ideas and details. It’s less of a reboot than a remix, and this time, it’s a bop.”

For the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that the new film “gets a great deal of mileage from its — and our — nostalgic yearning, appreciatively stoked by Reeves and Moss’ reunion. The actors’ sincerity and effortlessly synced performances have always been this series’ greatest special effects, and watching them slip back into their old roles is a pleasure. The movie they’re in is still as beholden to the same old guns and poses as the earlier ones, the same dubious ideas about what constitutes coolness, the same box-office-friendly annihilating violence. But it’s still nice to dream of an escape with them.”

For Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién wrote, “Teetering between a meta-reckoning with the legacy of the first trilogy and a sincere blooming of a whole new story that feels boldly romantic, Lana Wachowski’s first solo feature is a thrilling triumph. … The world has changed dramatically since Neo first bent out of the way of incoming bullets, and yet ‘The Matrix Resurrections’ easily makes a case for its own existence. After decades of audiences attempting to slot the franchise into one category of interpretation or another, the film argues against any imagined binary to show that beauty is found between such extremes. Wachowski builds on one of the greatest and most singular aspects of the original trilogy: its queerness.”

For Rolling Stone, K. Austin Collins wrote, “Much of what felt novel or prescient about the world of that first movie — with its allegorized, cyber-savvy world-within-worlds, its riffing on the idea of digital selves — has come to define human experience as we currently know it. … Lana Wachowski directed ‘Resurrections’ alone, yet the juice — familiar from the siblings’ collaborative projects — remains that peculiar genius for mixing the sentimental and obvious with the subliminal, the hyper-symbolic with the just-out-of-reach. And the central accomplishment of ‘Resurrections’ is in how deftly, even movingly, it nails the chemistry of this mix.”

A bearded man with shaggy dark chin-length hair points two fingers toward his reflection.
Keanu Reeves as Neo / Thomas Anderson in “The Matrix Resurrections,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
(Warner Bros.)


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