Category Archives: Chicago Critics Film Festival 2023

Master Gardener Review

The opening credits of Master Gardener include segments of different plants growing with disturbing music playing in the background. The environment in the film’s tense and eerie introduction displays the brilliance of writer and director Paul Schrader. After this setup, the film transitions to the main character elaborating on plant types and the history surrounding them. The mind of someone who has a fascination with plants is just the beginning of the unexpected in Master Gardener.

The movie’s main character is Narvel played by Joel Edgerton. Narvel is an expert of horticulture and gardening. His boss is Norma played by Sigourney Weaver. Norma asks Narvel to mentor her niece, Maya, who is played by Quintessa Swindell. The garden is called Gracewood Gardens. Narvel is the king and the guide to the operations of this beautiful environment. Narvel even narrates about plants and their background during sporadic moments in Master Gardener.

The enthusiasm of Narvel and is work at Gracewood Gardens is calculated and extremely accurate, but the gardening and plantations are not the sole focus of the story. The story is about Maya, the one doing the apprenticeship with Narvel. Gracewood Gardens is Narvel’s sanctuary, and it offers a landscape of potential knowledge and necessary patience for Maya.

There are tensions to consider as Master Gardener goes deeper into its character studies. Schrader always finds a way to stir the pot in his projects. Maya and Norma are related and there is a past conflict between them. Narvel has a bad track record as well and with his involvement, there is more depth to the film’s eerie continuity. As conflict arises, Narvel’s narration regarding gardening continues and begins to get more personal. Then Maya begins to grow more comfortable with Narvel. Is it appropriate, however, for them to have a close bond?

Narvel’s past is unsettling, haunting, and unexpected. Master Gardener is poetic in its approach to Narvel advocating for Maya due to problems in her life with individuals she can’t dismiss. This creates boundary problems as Narvel and Maya grow closer which in turn lead to problems with Norma causing hatred and disgust to linger.

Narvel’s knowledge of gardening begins to serve a deadly purpose. There is a moment where he mentions to some shady people that his sheers can do more damage than pruning. Schrader finds the right time to have the evilness rise in Narvel. As Maya is Narvel’s new responsibility, he must consider how both their lives could be impacted. There may be a point where neither can go back to a life where the darkness was once put behind them.

Schrader is a true auteur as a writer and director.  I felt the brilliance of his invigorating concepts throughout Master Gardener. What came to my mind as I watched this movie were previous films Schrader has written ranging from Taxi Driver (1976) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  All these films are masterpieces directed by Martin Scorsese. I have come to realize that the personalities of Schrader’s characters make his projects so amazing. No one can go wrong with the mind of Schrader.

Beneath all the troubles, the love of Narvel’s gardening has surreal moments. The pasts of both Narvel and Maya are painful. Narvel’s love for gardening symbolizes a craft which allows one to leave the past behind. This proves to be a daunting challenge due to the circumstances in Master Gardener. The writing and directing of Schrader, as always, allows the audience to develop a better understanding of the unexpected tensions and their eventual outcomes. Three and a half stars for Master Gardener.


The Unknown Country Review

As The Unknown Country opens, the audience will feel its eerie vibe blended with vast lighting of majestic cinematography. It delivers the feeling that its main character is looking for resolution. The film also displays thriving moments of optimism. The Unknown Country is a portrait of illumination and the emotions throughout the movie dazzled me. There is a light to be found in The Unknown Country which makes its audience feel that it is imminent.

The Unknown Country gears on Tana (played by Lily Gladstone). She is depressed and trying to find positive redemption. Tana is on a journey to rejoin her family, so she drives from the Midwest and goes through the border of Texas to Mexico. Her journey is a harsh and tiring adventure. As she travels through the different towns and states, she passes through moments of real-life events ranging from the post-2016 election social climate to places that struggle with challenging economic impacts. Many of the people she visits are in turmoil due to scarce resources. Her realization is that she is not alone in feeling disconnected, but she appreciates the mountains and the landscape around her are positives in life. The many landscapes invigorate her mind and open her up for more change.

The Unknown Country is one of the best films about a fictional story because of how fiction is blended with true historical events. These real-life situations made me think back to the days of 2016. The film helped me realize that during hard times we need to learn to embrace the little things that make us feel alive. In The Unknown Country Tana gets better as her journey continues. As she learns from her own narrations, the audience will feel a sense of encouragement regarding a new life for Tana.

The trail for Tana is long and challenging. Her loneliness is on and off, but as she experiences new faces and places, the narrative continues to be compelling. It is a film that reminds us that sometimes escaping to new worlds of reality can have meaning and improve empathy. Audiences will feel Tana’s heartache and they will have faith in her. The turmoil is just the beginning for Tana, but it is not forever. The Unknown Country portrays a meaningful ride.

Finding the light in hard times can cause mixed emotions. It creates anxiety and can cause us to overthink our own errors. While it is painful to think about persona failures, it is important to remind ourselves that making mistakes is natural. Learning from mistakes is most important.  The Unknown Country is a representation of Tana starting fresh on her road to reconnecting with her estranged family. It is not so much about focusing on her family, it is focused on the positive vibes that slowly come her way on her road trip. I absolutely loved the scenery, and I loved the writing. It is a story that is unlike any other. Four stars for The Unknown Country.

Blue Jean Review

The beginning of Blue Jean rolls with a contemporary tempo. The year is 1988, and the subject matter involves an individual whose sexuality is closeted. The film moves forward with the foundation of the main character just wanting to maintain her normal everyday life. Set in the United Kingdom, Blue Jean is an artistic portrayal of the value of one’s privacy, but also of one’s choices. Blue Jean is fascinating both in its poetic achievements and its empathetic journey towards the conflict that arises.

Blue Jean focuses on Jean who is played by Rosy McEwen. She is a gym teacher with a secret. She is a lesbian with a normal and uneventful life. It takes place in the year when Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government is going to pass a law which stigmatizes gays and lesbians. Jean is in a situation where she must be careful because of her sexuality. She visits LGBT night clubs and maintains a relationship with another woman. The situation comes to a challenging place when a student of Jean begins visiting the same nightclub. This student is Lois who is played by Lucy Halliday. Lois is a troubled student who is also closeted during a time when being attracted to the same gender is not accepted everywhere. The tensions rise for Jean because Lois makes choices that become alarming and even continues to be persistent with Jean outside of school. Jean does what she can to establish boundaries, but Lois is the type who will act out of spite. Blue Jean is a tale of emotion and sadness in an era when it’s hard to feel accepted for what the heart desires.

With the LGBT romance vibe being interrupted for Jean, Blue Jean possesses engrossing tensions that will shock audiences to the core with emotions. It is a film that involves an array of questions that weren’t unusual for the late 1980s. Why does Jean feel at a loss with herself? Why is Lois obsessed Jean? Is Jean disconnected? Is Lois disconnected? Is it even about feeling connected? Blue Jean is a realistic portrait of how it hurts to not feel accepted. The film’s artistic captivations are triumphant and fascinating. The power of wanting to feel loved and accepted is a universal feeling that audiences will experience in the eyes of Jean and Lois.

Blue Jean may start out slow, but this pacing gives audiences the idea of how a life of solitude may have seemed for those who were closeted back in the day. Jean is not a bad person; she just wants to live her life without impact. Lois on the other hand wants attention, but she cannot get it from acting out of frustration. As Jean has her escape in the nightclubs and her drives through the evening, audiences will sense how her solitude hurts sometimes. The movie is gut-wrenching, but it is also a poetic achievement in terms of how the director taps into factors of sexuality and people’s feelings of attraction. Four stars for Blue Jean.