THE MOTHER (2023)
Hold up. Hold up. So Jennifer Lopez is supposed to be some kind of super-duper over-the-top elite killing machine soldier who got into a black-market arms deal with two shady guys Álvarez (Gael García Bernal) and Lovell (Joseph Fiennes), but then, because of some piece of information she couldn’t stomach, she turned them into the the FBI, which obviously really pissed them both off. So, while she’s being questioned by the FBI in a supposedly safe house, and trying to broker a deal for herself, almost all the agents get killed by these baddies and she only manages to escape by the skin of her teeth and barely protecting her unborn child, which may or may not be fathered by one of these nefarious men. And all of this means that as a punishment (basically) the FBI insists that there is no possible way she can keep her newborn daughter safe and therefore must turn her over to witness protection (which is also adoption), because the FBI has a long history of caring deeply about the infant offspring of witnesses they are NOT keeping under their protection? I mean, come on. They’re basically saying she’s not fit to be a mother because she did shit the FBI didn’t like and they won’t play nice with her now. Wouldn’t she be the MOST fit to keep her safe? Didn’t she just prove that by getting them both out alive of a place where nearly no one else survived? And, actually, the only FBI agent who did survive only did so because of Jennifer Lopez’s intervention. I mean, I might let this woman have custody of me in a pinch. Obviously, not how it works here. She’s punished and gives up all rights to her daughter, but convinces the FBI agent she saved to give her annual updates and let her know if the girl is ever in danger.
Twelve years later, Jennifer Lopez, whose character, of course, does not have a name, gets word that her daughter Zoe (Lucy Paez) is in danger. Álvarez and Lovell are planning to kidnap her because of reasons and things. Why now? Who knows! Probably because twelve is a good age to do all the things that come later in the movie! Anyway, Jennifer Lopez (I refuse to refer to her as The Mother) tries to intercept Zoe before she’s kidnapped, but fails, so she and Cruise (Omari Hardwick), the Genetically Blessed FBI Agent, head to Cuba to track her down. There’s a whole weird moment between Jennifer Lopez and Álvarez where it seems like he’s gone in a bit of a Howard Hughes direction with his life? But then she kills him, so we never really get to explore that. Anyway, after some more action and a lot more killing—just phenomenal numbers of faceless men are offed in this movie—Jennifer Lopez ends up absconding to the Alaskan wilderness with Zoe to teach her all the survival skills she thinks she could ever need in life. Some mothers teach you to knit. Some mothers teach you how to set mines in a forest. Some mothers teach you to draw. Some mothers teach you how to kill another human with a knife. It’s all coming from a place of love. That seems to be the message of this movie. Also something about wolves, which is pretty murky if you ask me.
Look, this movie feels really long (and it’s already two hours), but there is some joy in watching Jennifer Lopez confidently run around and take men down in order to save her daughter. It just could have been more enjoyable if Jennifer Lopez would perhaps consider relaxing some of the iron-clad clauses I’m assuming she has in her contracts regarding hair and makeup and how perfect she needs to look in any given scene. It would have added a lot to this movie if her character could have looked slightly more careworn throughout the action, instead of slightly ruffled with natural matte makeup. Also, I get that her character was supposed to be tough and unflinching, but the Tin Woodman expressed more varied emotions than this woman did. In addition, someone felt very attached to a fisheye sort of lens for many scenes in this movie, which made me feel downright queasy. I’m not sure the cinematic advantage, but I hope it outweighs the swaths of people who want to lie down with a cool compress on their head upon seeing it.
Anyway, at the end of the movie there is a very pointed close up of a statue of an angel bearing a cross on her shoulder, and I’m very glad I watched the movie long enough to see that. It absolutely made me snort. I would like someone to explain to me exactly how Jennifer Lopez is a martyr, though? What exactly is she sacrificing for the greater good? Because it’s still not clear why it’s better for anyone at all that her daughter is with other parents, especially when Jennifer Lopez proves that she can effectively dispatch a bajillion men without breaking a sweat while parenting her kid. So, is the message just that it’s dangerous for children to be with extremely capable, morally ambiguous women who are reticent to express their emotions? Because, um, that’s just a wee bit problematic, right?
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
ALONE TOGETHER (2022)
Uh, look, I really gave the early-pandemic romantic drama Alone Together (2022) my full attention, and absolutely wanted to like the melancholy pace of the drama, which is punctuated by close-ups of nature—rain falling heavily on grass, flowers tilting in a spring breeze, turkey gobbling in early morning mist—but ultimately I just couldn’t get into it. I don’t know, for a movie that spends what feels like hours—but is actually just shy of 1 hr. 40 min.—talking intimately about emotions and relationships—the entire endeavor feels oddly unemotional and detached.
June (Katie Holmes, who also wrote and directed the movie) is a food critic living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When the pandemic first causes things to shut down, her boyfriend John (Derek Luke) rents them an Airbnb somewhere way the hell out in Hudson, so they can escape the city and feel safer for a time, but then, citing concerns about his parents, he bails at the last minute, leaving June to go to the country by herself. Complicating matters further, when she arrives at the house she finds it’s been double booked by Charlie (Jim Sturgess), a laid back, beer drinking, bearded guy, getting over a nasty breakup, who doesn’t seem to have much patience for June and her white wine and Upper West Side airs. They’re supposed to be opposites that attract, but pretty soon June drops the hyper-privileged act and Charlie proves to be a very capable, skilled guy with plenty of his own privilege, and they just attract. Or meld. Or blur. There isn’t really physical heat that builds between them. Or intellectual longing either. They have long conversations that seem to largely say not that much about relationships and maintaining your sense of self. And then there are very specific details about these otherwise still largely nebulous characters, which are hard to know what exactly to do with and where to put. The characters themselves don’t seem to know either. They share their stories of past familial trauma like it’s a year-old grocery list they found crumpled in their pocket—a curiosity, a relic, but hardly relevant anymore. None of this is enough to convince me that they would just fall into bed or a relationship together after just a few days without more lead up or build up, so the whole premise teeters on the precipice of unbelievability. Plus, there isn’t nearly enough backstory about June’s boyfriend John for us to understand why she feels so unsettled. She says to a friend that she’s not sure if she wants to be with someone who doesn’t want to “spend the pandemic with her,” but she also never takes the time to speak with him about why he didn’t come. She never reaches out to him to express her frustration, her anger, her dismay, or even the fact that there is another person living in the house with her. Is the message that their relationship was already broken beyond repair? Then why even insert him into the movie as much as he is?
Once, driving cross country, the seeming unending flatness of the plains brought me to unexpected sobbing tears. I felt the same way about large chunks of this movie. I will say, the ending was pretty sweet, but even that was ruined by too much chattiness. But maybe I’m watching the whole thing wrong? Maybe it’s all supposed to be a dystopian take on people’s incessant need to talk, even when they don’t have anything to say?
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
First of all, Stromboli (2022) should come with a very clear and obvious content warning for discussions and depictions of rape. Consider this yours. Second of all, the movie is much weightier and more serious than the trailer makes it appear, which is probably good given the previous content warning. I found it an unexpectedly interesting and touching movie that maybe didn’t quite reach the depths I was hoping for and left some questionable ideas unchallenged, but I mostly enjoyed more than I expected. I think.
Sara (Elise Schaap), who is recently divorced and who is also estranged from her fourteen-year-old daughter, is headed to the small island of Stromboli for a vacation. It appears she plans to spend most of her time drinking clear alcohol and falling asleep on the beach, until a series of events lead her to meet a man named Harold (Tim McInnerny), lose her bag, have to break back into her rental house, drunkenly set the kitchen on fire, get evicted, end up sleeping in a church, and eventually be taken in by Jens (Christian Hillborg), the leader of “From Fear to Love,” a kind of New Age retreat on the island where Harold and several other participants are trying to conquer their past demons and fears to live fuller lives in the present. Now, Jens does say things like “fear causes cancer,” which goes entirely unchallenged and there is also a scene where he publicly outs people’s past histories of sexual assault without their consent, so I’m not at all on board with his whole program. Or, quite frankly, any program with a charismatic leader, held on a remote island, purporting to change your entire life in a matter of days through radical diet changes, spiritual awakenings, and cleanses, while draining your bank account, but that’s a discussion for another day. If you take this experience for what it is and suspend your disbelief (which can take some real doing) it can be touching to watch Sara and the others as they navigate the journey from sullen, rebellious individuals to a community of supportive, intertwined participants, who do not fully join a cult. The whole thing is a different kind of perspective on finding yourself, which I think is worth watching, even if you disagree with the premise. Please do note that, again, this approach would likely only result in more trauma in real life, so we’re really watching an entire fantasy.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
FOOD AND ROMANCE (TISDAGSKLUBBEN) (2022)
Ignore the un-enticing English title that makes it sound like you’re about to watch a PBS special on the history of food and romance. This movie is actually a wonderful thing to envelop yourself in when you need reminding that life doesn’t always happen on a particular schedule and friendship can absolutely save you.
Karin (Marie Richardson) is preparing to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary with her husband Sten (Björn Kjellman). She’s busily preparing all the foods they ate at their wedding, while he delicately picks off pieces of lettuce and discards other bits he dislikes, mindlessly ruining her carefully laid presentation. Later, while she’s preparing the cake and he’s hanging from the porch rafters demonstrating a rock climbing move to the assembled guests and their nearly 40-year-old daughter (Ida Engvoll) (who worships him and barely notices her mother), Karin sees a text on Sten’s phone of another woman’s bare breasts accompanied by some suggestive words. When she shows the phone screen to Sten, who is still hanging upside down, he falls on their grill, causing catastrophic damage to his body and her trust. In the ensuing ruckus the offending text goes unnoticed and it is some time before Karin tells anyone about it, even her best friend Pia (Sussie Ericsson).
While visiting Sten at the hospital, Karin runs into Monika (Carina M. Johansson), a long-lost friend from high-school who is back in town caring for her dying mother. At her insistent behest, Karin finally agrees to join Monika for dinner, and they go to a Swedish-Asian fusion restaurant where Monika recalls Karin’s once great dream of becoming a chef, which Karin explains she gave up when she got pregnant young and had to take care of her child and husband. (Tale as old as time. Mold as old as slime. The Patriarchy.) Monika, who is gregarious and bold, has spent her life traveling from place to place, never really putting down roots. It’s a life with many benefits, but has not resulted in strong friendships like the one that Pia and Karin have. She wants Karin to take a cooking class that the chef (Peter Stormare) of the restaurant is offering, but Karin insists she can’t because she swims with Pia on Tuesdays when the classes will be held. Undaunted, Monika crashes their swimming date and drags both women to what will become a life-transforming cooking class.
What makes the movie wonderful to watch is not so much the unexpected twists and turns, of which there are a few, but the entirely appealing and fairly well-wrought main characters as well as the delightful side characters. Personally, I was sold on this movie at three very small moments. The first is when the women are swimming gentle, straight laps in the pool and men in swim caps and goggles keep thrashing willy-nilly across their lane. The obvious perfect symbolism of it amused me greatly. The second was when Pia, Monika, and Karin are in a car headed toward their first cooking class and they begin to sing, somewhat tentatively at first and then with full-throated abandon, along with “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The third is the gentle evolution of Grizzly (Klas Wiljergård), the American obsessed, klutzy cooking class participant who finally finds his feet and ends up showing his stuff in a glorious moment of line-dancing that is life confirming. And really, that’s what is appealing about this movie, it’s like a giant affirmation that you don’t have to do life according to the plan that’s laid out. You don’t have to get it all right the first time around. You can learn and grow and finally kick out the rotten parts of your life and become who you want to be and surround yourself with people who love you for who you are. Plus, there are some really glorious shots of food.