Our video series exploring the deeper meaning within major films continues this month with an examination of Killers of the Flower Moon.
Like a triangle of sadness refracted through the lens of a glass onion, “eat the rich”parables have become played out parasites on the multiplex menu. Emerald Fennell’s curious sophomore outing, Saltburn (C+), is a mid-2000s set vodka stinger of a black comedy imploring viewers to examine the motivations of two Mr. Brightsides, the yearning nebbish Oxford scholarship recipient Oliver portrayed by Barry Keoghan and his half-hearted golden boy aristocrat schoolmate Felix played by Jacob Elordi. Pauper and prince become fast friends against the backdrop of a cruel summer of parties and people as playthings amidst the eccentric dynamic of the film’s titular palatial estate, home of much style and little substance. The characters’ motivations remain murky throughout the proceedings, leaving only two definitive takeaways: that the pulpy puzzle box of a production design is often absolutely divine and that Rosalind Pike is camp genius in her role as the rich family’s oblivious mum, Lady Elspeth Catton, whose blithe asides are bliss. In between MGMT and Arcade Fire needle drops and kinky sequences filled with body fluids rivaling Babylon, the story is feckless when it should be reckless in its drift toward a decadent denouement. Both wily leading men display ample charms but to diminishing returns. Fennell’s folly ultimately swirls and almost drowns in tepid bathwater evocative of the similarly plotted and far better thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. Swim through this film’s sick lullabies and choke on its alibis at your own risk.
A rambling Rorschach Test of psychological perceptions takes the spotlight as characters experience the twisty limits of Method Acting in the peculiar new Todd Haynes dark comedy May December (A-). Natalie Portman plays an actress visiting Savannah, Georgia on an indie film research mission to study a real-life woman played by Julianne Moore and her much younger husband portrayed by Charles Melton the details of their notorious tabloid romance which started when he was underage. The movie presents an escalating series of off-kilter sequences, bombastic music and brazenly theatrical conceits ranging from melodramatic monologues to acting in front of mirrors to speaking about technique to acting classes. Portman’s character finds herself going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of intrigue and investigation, with increasingly thorny and unnerving results. She gets an iconic moment when she describes what filming an intimate scene in a movie is like and loses herself in the notion that sometimes it’s highly technical and sometimes you don’t want to admit you felt a little chemistry. All three primary actors are fabulous with the women trading secrets and lies and an increasingly similar appearance and relative newcomer Melton providing an object of unusual sympathy. Moore plumbs great depths of her sex offender character loosely based on the true story of Mary Kay Letourneau the audience may think it knows. Haynes has built a career on opulent domestic stories often with subtext of social persecution, and his latest is a brilliant remix of some of his most austere and audacious themes. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will undoubtedly keep viewers guessing where one person’s scandal starts and another’s art fills in the gaps.
After Baz Luhrmann’s maximalist telling of the life of the king of rock ’n’ roll, there was little choice for someone else showcasing aspects of the Presley legend but to swing the pendulum the other direction for a version of Elvis lore from a different point of view. Unfortunately, writer/director Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla (C) loses something in translation. The actress Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley is the film’s main saving grace, playing the ingenue from ages 14 to 27 and not missing a beat with a tender, affecting and quiet performance. With a nostalgic gaze of loving pinks and lace, it’s clear Coppola is depicting a girl emerging into a world of which she’s never conceived, and there’s something fascinating about the delicate depiction of that optimistic wonderland. But opposite a low-energy, rather charisma-free version of Elvis, played with brooding mystery by Jacob Elordi, the chemistry just isn’t there; and watching the “14-year-old meets 24-year-old” courtship origins followed by abuse and adultery makes for a slow-burn descent into nightmare. It’s not enough of a barn-burner to present a compelling alternative memoir nor plot-driven enough to demand rapt attention. There’s also no Elvis music, with the bands Phoenix and Sons of Raphael adding whatever creative flourishes they can to the soundscape more to dramatize the title heroine’s interior life than to replace the iconic songbook. It’s a noble experiment of tone poem as feature film but doesn’t truly plum much depth out of its central characters or give them much to do once the shock of the age gap is handled. The auteur’s precious snow globe filled with home, hearth and an unconventional relationship is rather inert on its mantle and rarely gets all shook up.
Plan to redeem your game tokens and exchange your skee-ball tickets for weak jump scares and inert performances as the resident animatronic mascot bear and his bandmates at an abandoned fictional family entertainment emporium are prone to murder in Emma Tammi’s horror film Five Nights at Freddy’s (D+). As if the high concept based on cult hit video game lore weren’t enough to fill the film’s running time, the night security guard (Josh Hutcherson), who sometimes brings little sister (Piper Rubio) to work, also uses dream therapy in an attempt to recall the identity of the man who kidnapped his younger brother years ago (hint to the mystery arrives in the form of there being fewer than a half dozen men in the cast). The morose story about multi-generational trauma hardly seems the stuff of an action film aimed at teenagers, but the plot doesn’t seem to be the main attraction here. Few in the ensemble seem adequately phased by the sinister supernatural activities afoot as minor themes about hero complexes and child custody seep into the fright flick’s consciousness. Most notable in the mayhem is the sturdy practical effects work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to craft the creepy-cute denizens of the plundered pizza palace, but even these vivacious vigilantes aren’t given much to do. Mr. Cupcake, a yeasty beast and patron saint of bygone birthdays, is a particularly spry killer. The plot is rather routine with a PG-13 rating likely to reward starter sets of horror movie fans. Hutcherson makes little impression as the underwritten protagonist, and Tammi never fully leverages the macabre humor of the setting nor the potential terror embodied in the mechanical animals to get much under the surface. For all the imaginative possibilities, the end result of the movie’s prolonged gestation period is a work largely devoid of scares or personality, a gateway horror movie that opens the door to a franchise with potentially more creative possibilities.
Mountains of moral dilemma loom large as the secrets of an isolated family living in the French Alps become the sprawling stuff of courtroom drama in director/co-writer Justine Triet’s gripping masterpiece Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d’une chute) (A+). In a magnificent role and meticulous performance, Sandra Hüller stars as a steely novelist trying to prove her innocence in the mysterious circumstances of her husband’s death. Samuel Theis plays her troubled spouse, largely depicted in creative flashbacks; and the talented child actor Milo Machado-Graner portrays their pensive visually impaired son. The boy and his dog were the lone witnesses to the tragedy in the snow-capped terrain. Also very effective in their roles are Swann Arlaud as the protagonist’s wily lawyer and Antoine Reinartz as the hard-charging prosecutor, and the labyrinthine particulars of the complex French judicial system prove surprisingly entertaining and insightful. Triet consistently plays with point of view, with what she shows and what she doesn’t, as she spins the plates of austere human drama and confounds audience expectations about the table stakes and motivations of the film’s unconventional family. The fact the central character is a German who speaks English and attempts to speak French further clouds the issues at hand, creating layers of confusion and complexity around her outlook. Fans of crime thrillers will enjoy the procedural elements of the story, and the voyeuristic camera work and exacting pace leave lots of room for revelations and interpretations about the trappings of matrimony and the motivations of artists. Hüller’s bravura performance in particular anchors the family drama in cerebral shades. There are also some chilling implications for the role of perspective in determining the outcome of justice; and viewers are certain to have hot takes on Hüller’s icy character. This is brilliant, twisty human drama and among the best films of the year.
Bringing a little-known real-life story to the screen, George C. Wolfe’s Rustin (B) is an effective and rousing biopic that just misses taking viewers completely under the surface. Bayard Rustin, played with virtuosity by Colman Domingo, is advisor to Martin Luther King Jr., and dedicated his life to the quest for racial equality, human rights and worldwide democracy. However, as an openly gay Black man, he is all but erased from the civil rights movement he helped build. The success of the film rests largely on Domingo’s shoulders, and he is clever and creative in capturing the mannerisms and intensity of a character organizing the historic 1963 March on Washington. Aml Ameen is also fantastic as MLK, and many of the film’s best sequences involve his engaged banter with the title character about various techniques to mobilize society and the machinery of government to see things their way. The screenplay shortchanges an exploration of Rustin’s most complex contours and instead focuses on by-the-books highlights. Wolfe is a renowned stage director and, despite overseeing a polished production, doesn’t much overcome the general talkiness of the material. Expect Domingo and Lenny Kravitz’s closing credits song to garner awards attention and audiences to rejoice in getting to encounter a tremendous historical hero.
It wasn’t “one and done” when the west was won, and a new 1920s-set historical drama unfurls across the Oklahoma terrain with an operatic ferocity exposing an underbelly of unholy history repeating. Director Martin Scorsese divines American tragedy in an epic morality tale about how greed conquers goodness in Killers of the Flower Moon (B+), bringing his thoughtful themes, genius lensing and sometimes uneven take on how white capitalists endeavored to wipe out the oil-rich Osage Indians by infiltrating their families and stealthily silencing or assassinating those blocking them from bounty to which they feel entitled. Scorsese protracts his story through a hefty running time and across the landscape of a handsome production design to show how a simmering cauldron of corruption takes root and manifests. Two of the directors’ lifelong muses Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro play the Everyman turned unwitting criminal and his cattle baron uncle and mob puppeteer (fittingly named King), respectively, and it’s powerful work from both talented actors. In a quiet, soulful and often sidelined performance, Lily Gladstone plays the woman capable of standing in the way of their toxic machinations; it seems like a missed opportunity to have not brought her front and center more often, nor was it completely clear when or if she was privy to the men’s schemes. The film is strongest in its quiet and graceful sequences of trouble seeping its way into frontier paradise, and the story and pacing are slightly askew and rushed in presenting crime drama tropes about the nascent FBI. Even some of the set pieces of jails and courthouses paled in comparison to the first and second act’s ornate boomtown aesthetic. The music by the late Robbie Robertson is a standout throughout. Several choices detracted from the central story and themes; you’ll know them when you see them. But it’s still a stirring work well suited to its perpetually pensive and powerhouse auteur.
The discussion continues on our Seeing is Believing podcast exploring the deeper meaning behind films:
The country crossover whirling dervish who has overtaken much of modern pop cultural consciousness appears to stop all space and time for an epic concert film that feels like an interplanetary transmission of what it feels like to come of age while expressing highs and lows through multi-genre sonic storytelling. Sam Wrench’s concert documentary Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (A-), filmed during the L.A. leg of her landmark U.S. tour, largely captures this sensation in action with a smorgasbord of mini-sets from the artist’s albums spanning nearly two decades; and Swift’s singing, dancing, emoting, comic asides and fan-servicing are dynamite in close-up. A Zapruder film examination of millions of cameraphone TikToks and Insta posts seen over a past year culminates in a widescreen masterclass in heavy-duty camera work and sound mixing to capture the live experience and artist/fan interaction in an urgent way. You may think you’ve seen all of this already, but it’s hardly been rendered before in any way like this supersized format. After a bit of a slow open with pleasant singles from the “Lover” album, the film gains momentum with the hit songs of “Fearless,” the crafty tunes from mellow pandemic record “Evermore” and fierce bursts from hard-slapping “Reputation.” The concert repeats a cycle of more typical concert fare with mainstream songs from albums “Speak Now,” “Red,” and ultimately “1989” interlaced with indie deep cuts from the more experimental “Folklore” and “Midnights.” The film’s storytelling succeeds most wildly when the artist interacts in Broadway style stage productions such as the heavily choreographed “Last Great American Dynasty” set in a seaside home with festooned revelers or aboard the illuminated chess board of “Mastermind” with other dancers as pawns she has slyly controlled. The depth of field in the film format also enhanced intimate narratives such as “Tolerate It” depicting a dissolving relationship between two lovers across a long dining table — with lots of glass to break. Much of the spectacle is truly like an expanded halftime show style greatest hits extravaganza as dancers joyfully move to the grooves of “22, “Love Story,” or “Shake It Off.” The zigs and zags make the through-line a little labyrinthine to follow for the casual fan, but you get your money’s worth plus there’s plenty of room for a bathroom break when non-Swiftie guests just need to calm down. Taylor also delights in confessional piano numbers like “Champagne Problems” and “You’re On Your Own, Kid,” evoking superstars who can command a Madison Square Garden type atmosphere. Some fan favorites like “Delicate” and “All Too Well” didn’t benefit as much from more straightforward staging but still provoke a reaction. The musicians and dancers shine brightly, and so do the fans, who are in an unspoken (actually sometimes spoken) dialogue with the singer on stage. This unexpected documentary is a chronicle of an artist at the height of her power and enters the pantheon of legendary concert films.
Epic odysseys featuring protagonists traversing earth’s vast waters can add another legend to maritime mythology as Annette Bening assumes the titular role of Diana the sixtysomething marathon swimmer in Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Nyad (B+). Bening is a fascinating force of nature in the role of a real-life iconoclast who harbors the dream of completing an aquatic journey from Cuba to Florida despite the incredible odds of advanced age, scant resources, wily weather and unpredictable wildlife. Jodie Foster gives a wonderful performance as Bonnie, her longtime companion and coach, a warm hug of a character opposite the acerbic braggadocio of the natator. Rhys Ifans is also wonderful as the crusty, trusty boat captain who helps the ladies keep course; he’s a marvelous grounded foil to the dogged dreamers. The film logs quite a few nautical miles showcasing futile attempts at conquering the perils of the sea; and although often riveting and gorgeously filmed, the submerged sequences are not as entertaining as the story strands depicting the central women intertwined in their own strangely codependent relationship dynamics. The highest highs and lowest lows of Nyad’s Quixotic endurance test are secondary to the power of the two superb actresses supporting and sparring with one another. This sports drama is a singular showcase of steely women with resolve; it projects power and pride. There are quibbles with how some of the flashback are handled, but mostly the filmmakers triumph with an entertaining you-are-their vibe. Audiences will be spellbound to float with this G.O.A.T.
Tip “T.I.” Harris directed and co-wrote a new film set in modern-day Atlanta and inspired by real-life events, DA’PARTMENTS explores the fine line between the everyday struggles of the underprivileged and the enchantment hidden within an apartment complex. The cast, crew and friends gathered at IPIC in midtown Atlanta to celebrate the film being released on the Tubi platform.
Making a comic film with perpetual double dares to its audience to not be shocked by its master-crass of gags is a delicate art, and these filmmakers are too loosey goosey in their dirty ditty-filled romp to consistently nail their themes or targets. Director Larry Charles delivers the mixed bag of Dicks: The Musical (C) based on work by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp who reprise off-Broadway roles as sort-of adult identical twins who meet through business and try, Parent Trap style, to cajole their single parents, played by Megan Mullally (funny but with a ridiculous accent) and Nathan Lane (funny but not much to do here), into one big happy reunited family. A sassy Bowen Yang is fine as the wry omniscient narrator, but Megan Thee Stallion is the sublime surprise as the corporate boss with a women-rule-the-world song for the ages in one of the few sequences fully realized (gay clubs will have this on loop for eternity). There are also some creative puppets standing in as allegories and private parts amidst a bunch of hit or miss songs. The costumes, choreography and production design are generally a hoot, but the scattershot story rarely gets liftoff and the takeaways from the twisted morality tale are murky at best. The South Park movie and Book of Mormon stage show were much more successful in the mature musical milieu. As actors and writers, Jackson and Sharp seem to be laughing their way through the whole enterprise, but they’ve only reached a semi.