Happy new year! I’m wrapping up some lingering reviews from 2021 releases this week with a batch of mini reviews of films that debuted on streaming services in December, from Adam McKay’s controversial satire “Don’t Look Up” to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s stellar directorial debut “The Lost Daughter” to a pair of intriguing sci-fi films. You can read my thoughts on those movies below. Also now streaming on Amazon is Aaron Sorkin’s portrait of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, “Being the Ricardos;” you can read my full review of that movie here.
“DON’T LOOK UP” (Netflix)
How do you make effective satire in a world that has become so absurd, it’s difficult to make fun of it anymore? Maybe in different hands, “Don’t Look Up,” which uses a meteoric impact on Earth as a substitute for climate change to examine the apathy exhibited by so many politicians and citizens, could have been both a sobering and humorous wake-up call. But writer/director Adam McKay’s film is too long, too heavy-handed, and a little too chaotic for its commentary to land. The story concerns a pair of astronomers, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a student working on her PhD, and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing against type as a man with a wife his age and two adult sons), who discover a new comet. Their excitement over their find is quickly quelled when Dr. Mindy realizes that the comet will impact Earth in six months and cause an extinction-level event. But when he and Kate try to tell the world that the end is near, they are met with indifference, from everyone from peppy talk show hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) to the President of the United States, Janie Orlean (Meryl Street) and her son and Chief of Staff Jason (Jonah Hill). While Mindy basks in having the public’s approval for a while, Kate—the only one who appears seriously disturbed by the threat for the entirety of the film—is mocked for her end of the world rants. Lawrence is very good, and really, the whole cast—which also includes Mark Rylance is perhaps his strangest role to date as a tech billionaire, Ron Perlman as a general tasked with trying to divert the comet’s course, Timothée Chalamet as a scruffy loser who starts up a relationship with Kate, Ariana Grande as who else but a pop superstar—is doing the most, but even their whole-hearted attempts to sell the material don’t work. Perhaps “Don’t Look Up” could have been more effective with a tighter script—in its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime, it examines everything from social media campaigns and celebrity to politics and public relations to the social and economic divides between those who have power and those who don’t—but even as it stands, it isn’t very clever or funny, coming off as too busy and noisy, particularly in its editing. “Don’t Look Up” is bleak, but that isn’t the problem. Its ending does resonate emotionally, in large thanks to Lawrence and Melanie Lynskey, who plays Mindy’s wife June, but that ounce of heart comes too little too late—and is immediately trod over by a truly strange and atrocious mid-credits scene. Runtime: 138 minutes. Rated R.
“ENCOUNTER” (Amazon Prime Video)
“Encounter” is not the sci-fi movie you’re likely expecting, and that’s by and large a good thing. Directed by Michael Pearce, “Encounter” stars Riz Ahmed as Malik Khan, an ex-Marine who believes he has discovered alien parasites that are taking over human bodies, using them to reproduce. Believing that his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar) has been infected by one of these bugs, Malik comes in the night and takes away their two young children, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). They go on the run, but soon, questions about Malik’s true motivations are raised. Is he whisking them away to safety, or into further danger? With a premise that flips itself on its head and turns what looks to be a typical alien invasion movie into an interrogation into veterans’ PTSD, “Encounter” comes close to being great, especially with an emotionally powerful performance from Ahmed and solid support from the young actors playing his children. But the script, especially in the second half, becomes a little too heavy-handed, and the frequent flips from Malik and the kids on the run to Malik’s parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer) don’t really work. But the actors’ charged performances at least make us care about what happens to them, even where the story lags. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated R.
“THE LOST DAUGHTER” (Netflix)
There have been plenty of movies made over the years about the trials and joys of parenting, but few interrogate the hardships as specifically as Maggie Gyllenhaal does in her directorial debut, “The Lost Daughter,” an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel that Gyllenhaal also penned the screenplay for. That’s in large part because “The Lost Daughter” focuses primarily on motherhood, stripping down the conception that many people continue to hold that all women want to or enjoy being moms. We open with Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged professor on a seaside holiday in Greece alone. Her quiet trip is disrupted by another family vacationing in the area, including a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose experiences with her little girl seem to mirror ones that Leda had with her own daughters when she was raising them. Younger Leda is played in flashbacks by Jessie Buckley, revealing how Leda often lost patience with her children, becoming increasingly exasperated with her family and drawn further into her work. In the present, Leda is also confronted by an occasionally antagonistic pregnant woman, Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), and by her apartment’s caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) and a resort worker, Will (Paul Mescal), both of whom show some interest in her. Through all of these characters, Gyllenhaal peels away the layers to motherhood slowly but surely, revealing the hardships in the moment and the regret that comes later on. None of these characters are entirely likeable, but they are all empathetic thanks to the deeply moving performances that every actor delivers. Buckley and Johnson portray the struggle to engage in the selfless act of raising a child, while trying to maintain a piece of yourself. Colman, in perhaps her greatest performance to date, punctuates the frequently still moments of a woman fighting to hold herself together with explosions of emotion. Gyllenhaal’s direction is assured, both in deriving these performances from her actors and striking the right balance between flashbacks and the present day to paint a complete portrait of her protagonist. “The Lost Daughter” is a film that will resonate most strongly with parents, but there’s still plenty to admire here, even if you can’t personally relate. Runtime: 121 minutes. Rated R.
“SWAN SONG” (Apple TV+)
What if there was a way you could let yourself live on after your death, so your loved ones would still have you around—would you do it? That’s the moral quandary posed by writer/director Benjamin Cleary in his film “Swan Song.” Set in the near-future, Mahershala Ali stars as Cameron Turner, a man diagnosed with a terminal illness but who is given the option to try some new technology that would allow him to have his place taken by a clone. Cameron has a wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), a young son, and another child on the way to think of. But of course, a clone of him still isn’t him. Ali never disappoints, and his performance is quiet but strong. When he is playing both Cameron and Cameron’s clone, he does well delineating between the two. “Swan Song” is best when it centers around the relationship between Cameron and Poppy; in fact, the film opens with their initial meet-cute, two strangers on a train tearing bites off the same chocolate bar. But “Swan Song” is often too hushed and plodding to generate as much interest as its humanity-interrogating premise should, refusing to let any big emotions burst forth. The world-building of this future is spare, and Glenn Close and Awkwafina don’t really register in their supporting roles. I’m not saying “Swan Song” isn’t worth a watch, but it is a rather slow disappointment. Runtime: 112 minutes. Rated R.