Category Archives: 2023

Movie Review: Rustin (2023)

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.

Movie Review: Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

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:

Movie Review: Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (2023)

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.

Movie Review: Nyad (2023)

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.

Photo Gallery: DA’PARTMENTS Premiere

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.

Movie Review: Dicks: The Musical (2023)

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.

Movie Review: Totally Killer (2023)

If Halloween and Back to the Future had a love child, it would be Nahnatchka Khan’s Totally Killer (C+); and in terms of radical surprises, this comic horror movie has very few flux (capacitors) to give. The contemporary teen protagonist, played by a funny deadpan Kiernan Shipka, must go back in time to the 1980s to avert a killing spree affecting her loved ones. Olivia Holt is effective as the heroine’s teenage version of her mother, and Julie Bowen is entertaining as mom in the modern day. There are some clever time travel conceits, nifty needle drops and funny asides about what passed for acceptable a generation or two ago, but there’s not quite enough here – including few scares – to warrant a strong recommendation. The “Sweet Sixteen” murderer clad in a Max Headroom style mask won’t likely enter the pantheon of killer classics, but the acting skills of Shipka portend more opportunities for uncanny comedy ahead.

This film is now available on Prime.

Movie Review: The Exorcist: Believer (2023)

The latest tepid incarnation of the half century spanning Exorcist movie saga is doubly damned in that it purports to change the course of a flimsy franchise that has never once matched the shocking original film and that David Gordon Green, fresh from his diminishing returns directing of a Halloween series reboot, is somehow up to the challenge of staking a claim of this devilish house of hellfire horror tropes to captivate a new generation. With the leaden The Exorcist: Believer (D), he neither serves up any nifty nostalgia nor provides any relevant new hot take. Frankly, the reason for this story’s existence is about as clear as pea soup. In the room where a few supernatural things happen, Leslie Odom Jr. makes insufficient impact as a widowed dad in a rural Georgia town whose tween daughter (Lidya Jewett) goes missing and comes back hissing. After almost building a credible amber alert procedural, Green bides time in the second hour with rubbery demon effects and little sets of deadened eyes that would make Polar Express characters’ heads spin. The filmmakers employ the notion that it takes an interfaith village to cure the tween and her similarly possessed friend (Olivia O’Neill) by throwing a cowardly priest (E.J. Bonilla), a holistic healer (Okwui Okpokwasili), a wannabe nun (Ann Dowd), another parent (Jennifer Nettles) and a parade of grassroots DIY warriors at the possession problem. None of the cast makes much impression, and even having O.G. star Ellen Burstyn burst in to the proceedings can’t penetrate the pall that’s hanging over this dull episode. Unanswered questions ranging from why the movie’s opening takes place in Haiti to ultimately why any of it takes place at all, are in abundance. Lousy effects and a plodding pace set the stage for the realization it’s not even scary. Banish this curious cash grab from your must-see queue.

Movie Review: Fair Play (2023)

It’s Trader vs. Trader in the consistently watchable but ultimately off-the-rails dramatic thriller Fair Play (C+), a Sundance  sensation written and directed by first-time filmmaker Chloe Domont and debuting on Netflix. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich portray the compelling central couple secretly dating while working together at a ruthless NYC hedge fund firm managed by a terrifying character played by Eddie Marsan. An unexpected work promotion pushes the lovers’ workplace relationship to the brink while simultaneously shifting the balance of their romantic domestic life. This brisk and buzzy film is gorgeously shot in the contemporary hues and tones of modern Manhattan and spends its running time blurring gender and power lines in an intriguing game of brinksmanship up until the machinations of the plot become fully preposterous. There’s a more subtle story here about gender dynamics in the workplace and a more entertaining erotic thriller afoot begging to break free from the confines of the film structure that’s actually presented. Dynevor is especially effective in her characterization  until it seems she is trying to deliver some ludicrous lines and making strange character decisions. Ehrenreich too gives his all but is defeated at times by the words and actions of the script. Side characters have scant development, and it becomes unclear who’s actually the protagonist at times. The film ultimately has less on the mind than it seems at first. Ultimately nobody gets off scot free including the audience.

Movie Review: Flora and Son (2023)

John Carney’s music-infused films – Once, Begin Again and Sing Street– chronicle lost souls tuning into one another via the art of song, and his latest, Flora and Son (B), sticks close to his finely tuned formula. Eve Hewson and newcomer Orén Kinlan are fabulous as the titular characters, a single mother and a troubled teenager looking for meaning in hardscrabble Dublin. Flora, estranged from her bassist husband (Jack Reynor’s charm makes him hard to hate) and in search of a higher calling, finds a California-based virtual guitar teacher, the roguish and rhythmic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and soon the central quartet of characters gets its groove back through common craft. Despite the strength of the performances, the story and song quality aren’t quite up to the Carney measure of excellence, and the brisk tale somehow feels awkwardly truncated. Still, the way these characters connect has mountains of magic in it. Full of acerbic wit and Irish sting, Hewson is singular in her role and quite irresistible. She and Gordon-Levitt have undeniable chemistry. It’s now abundantly clear what to expect from a Carney film, and fans of the auteur should have plenty of humor and harmony to enjoy. (Sept. 29 on Apple TV streaming service)

Listicle: Ten Directors with Buzzy Films This Fall

There are many anticipated movies being released in Fall 2023, but these ten stand out because they also feature lauded artists in the director’s seat. Be on the lookout for these feature films by some of the great auteurs, being released in coming months and generating awards season heat:

10. The Holdovers by Alexander Payne (Election, Nebraska) made a splash at the Telluride Film Festival and is expected to release Nov. 10 in theatres everywhere. Set in the early ’70s, this Focus Films dramedy pits a disliked private school teacher (Paul Giamatti, reuniting with his director of Sideways) and a troubled student (Dominic Sessa) against one another over an extended holiday break. Both male leads plus Da’Vine Joy Randolph are being touted for acting awards; and even though Payne didn’t also write the film, his direction is being praised and compared favorably to droll comedies from the ’70s (think Harold & Maude). Many moviegoers are hoping it’s a return to form after Downsizing, which seemingly only I liked!

9. May December by Todd Haynes (Carol, Far from Heaven) is a romantic drama starring Natalie Portman as an actress who travels to the American South to study the life of a woman she is set to portray on film. Julianne Moore plays the subject of a two-decade old tabloid romance that gripped the nation because her character dated someone substantially younger. The talk from the film’s premiere at Cannes Film Festival was that Haynes has once again proven himself one of the best directors of women. It’s the opening night film of the New York Film Festival and is slated for distribution in select theatres Nov. 17 before streaming on Netflix Dec. 1.

8. Priscilla by Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, On the Rocks) is an American biopic starring Cailee Spaeny as Priscilla Presley and Jacob Elordi as Elvis. Expect Coppola, a master at chronicling the lives of women coming of age, to have a singular take on Priscilla’s memoirs as well as a distinctive soundtrack collaboration by Coppola’s husband Thomas Mars and his band Phoenix with music by the band Sons of Raphael (Elvis music is not featured in the film). After premiering at Venice International Film Festival, this A24 feature is slated for Nov. 3 in theatres.

7. Saltburn by Emerald Fennell is the acerbic director’s sophomore directorial follow-up to Promising Young Woman and caused quite a lot of interest at Telluride leading up to its limited theatrical release Nov. 17 before going wide Nov. 22. This psychological thriller/drama stars Barry Keoghan as a young Oxford University student who becomes infatuated with his aristocratic schoolmate, played by the ubiquitous Jacob Elordi, who invites his classmate for a summer he won’t forget at his eccentric family’s sprawling estate (namesake of the movie). Expect devilish details by this visionary director. Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant co-star.

6. All of Us Strangers by Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Weekend) is a romantic fantasy that premiered at Telluride starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Jamie Bell and Claire Foy. This Searchlight Pictures film is getting an Oscar-qualifying run late this year, with a Dec. 22 release. A chance encounter between those who are living and those who died three decades before provides an unlikely premise for Haigh’s latest journey into the human psyche.

5. Origin by Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) is an ambitious biographical drama about a writer played by Aunjanue Ellis grappling with personal tragedy, who embarks on a global exploration of discovery. This Neon film premiered at the Venice festival and is slated for late 2023. It co-stars Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Blair Underwood and Broadway belter Audra McDonald. Expect multiple story lines across various dimensions of life on earth in this intriguing entry.

4. Boy and the Heron by Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle) is rumored to be the final film by the animation master behind Studio Ghibli. This Japanese fantasy follows a boy who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town and enters a fantastical world with the talking bird of the title. The director draws heavily from his own childhood and explores conflict and loss in this hand-drawn epic slated for theatres Dec. 8 following special preview engagements Nov. 22.

3. The Killer by David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network) is a neo-noir action thriller based on a graphic novel series starring a deadpan Michael Fassbender as the titular assassin who gets embroiled in a global manhunt after a hit goes wrong. This too premiered in Venice and has been lauded for its acting and style. It co-stars Arliss Howard and Charles Parness with a small part played by Tilda Swinton. Music by The Smiths is featured prominently. Expect a limited theatrical run Oct. 27 before the film streams Nov. 10 on Netflix.

2. Poor Things by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite) is a steampunk black comedy fantasy film and all the rage in Venice, capturing that festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. Emma Stone plays “Bella,” an initially naive woman brought back to life by a scientist, Willem Dafoe. Bella’s desire to learn more about the world takes her across continents in search of equality and liberation. Mark Ruffalo plays her debauched lawyer companion. Expect wry comic highs and imaginative visuals. Stone is said to give her best performance yet. This Searchlight Pictures film also played Telluride and screens at the New York Film Festival among other prestigious competitions before coming to a screen near you Dec. 8.

1. Killers of the Flower Moon by Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas) is the sixth feature film collaboration between the director and Leonardo DiCaprio and the tenth between the filmmaker and Robert De Niro. Based on the novel of the same name, the story depicts members of the Osage tribe in northeastern Oklahoma murdered under mysterious circumstances in the 1920s, sparking an investigation. DiCaprio plays the nephew of De Niro’s character and courts a Native American woman played by Lily Gladstone, who is said to be the film’s spiritual center. This epic saga premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has garnered momentum all year. This Apple Original Films/Paramount Pictures production is slated for wide release Oct. 20. Like most of Marty’s works, this promises to be dark and demanding with a three-and-a-half-hour running time. It also features a propulsive score by the late Robbie Robertson and supporting turns by Jesse Plemons and Brendan Fraser. Expect powerhouse acting and a compelling story line that shows the cynical underbelly of America as it pertains to indigenous people.

Preview: Taylor Swift The Eras Tour: Next Interactive Cinematic Phenomenon?

[Update: Here’s the film review.]

Not since perpetual screenings of 1975’s cult musical indie The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for which costumed moviegoers with ritualistic call-backs literally bring rice, newspapers, frankfurters, squirt guns and more and break out into “Time Warp” choreography in unison, has a movie theatre event been so poised to prompt audiences into a frenzy of interactivity. I am hereby dubbing Taylor Swift The Eras Tour, the indie concert movie coming October 13, 2023, The Taylor Swiftie Picture Show and bring you some perspective and tips to prepare for the full bejeweled majesty of the interactive experience (and you know I love musicals!)

As most of us were about to let the proverbial month of August slip away like a bottle of wine, it was announced on the last day of that fateful month that footage captured during pop princess and prolific songwriter Taylor Swift’s Los Angeles leg of her record-breaking concert tour was actually a secret movie made outside the Hollywood studio system and would soon screen across the U.S. via AMC Theatres and other multiplexes as a near-three-hour concert movie. Here’s the trailer. What a treat for all those who couldn’t afford the live concert or get the in-demand tickets! But is the singer ready for her close-up? Swift is no stranger to the screen, all the way back to the 2009 Hannah Montana: The Movie days with fellow child star Miley Cyrus. Swift has starred in a documentary about her political awakening and has had small parts in pedigreed movies:  I am one of the few cheerleaders of the guilty-pleasure Cats but not of the smarmy drama Amsterdam, although the getaway car sequence toward the beginning will turn some heads. This new Eras concert movie will undoubtedly be the ingenue breakthrough for a woman who has already broken live concert records globally. Based on pre-sales alone, Taylor Swift, already a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will now be one of the biggest movie stars of the year, and her movie was actually lensed in L.A., it turns out, so maybe it was kinda made in Hollywood. Normally it wouldn’t be good karma to spoil the ending, but many have already followed along and know the set list, but here are ten tips to “Make the friendship bracelets, take the moment and taste it” and enhance your in-theatre experience:

  1. Costumes are a big part of the experience as fans (self-proclaimed “Swifties!”) sport clothing and accoutrements based on the various “eras” of the country crossover artist’s legendary young career, so whether it’s a glittery heart around the eye as a nod to the Lover album or an homage to the cottage-core of her mid-pandemic works, determine what you’ll wear to the affair.
  2. Some longtime fans paint a blue “13” on their hands in honor of Taylor’s favorite number (the film even premieres on this “lucky” day!) During the “Fearless” era, Swift scribed the blue 13 on her guitar-strumming hand.
  3. Friendship bracelet sharing is a thing to add to the communal experience. I found some fun ones on Etsy that I have ready to trade. My favorite has little letters spelling “Starbucks” in honor of a sometimes misunderstood lyric in the song “Blank Spaces.”
  4. There will be merch, so plan for long lines to snag those commemorative popcorn tubs and tumblers. One to use and one to collect?
  5. Plan to flash a light to honor the legacy of Taylor Swift’s opera singing grandmother during the emotional song “Marjorie” with lessons from her titular relative.
  6. There will be more call-backs than there were in Polyester by John Waters (movie with a famous Odorama scratch and sniff card). Plan on chants at the bridge of “Cruel Summer,” a double-clap during “You Belong with Me,” a triple-clap on the beat before “My ex-man brought his new girlfriend” during “Shake It Off,” the audience refrain “1,2,3, Let’s Go, B*tch!” during “Delicate” (right after “You can make me a drink…”) and much more chronicled on sites such as Bustle. There’s even a moment during “Anti-Hero,” when the audience may re-assure the songstress “Taylor, You’ll Be Fine.”
  7. It’s been a year of female empowerment, with the success of Barbie and all, so expect a loud unison of “F*** the patriarchy!” during the 10-minute song “All Too Well.” As that song is largely believed to be about a relationship with a certain Oscar nominated actor named Jake, you may also see some not-so-flattering homemade t-shirts about the thespian or even the scarf he allegedly never gave back to Taylor after their brief relationship.
  8. During the song “Bejeweled,” when Taylor sings the word “shimmer,” fans flutter their fingers. You kinda have to study TikTok for some of these!
  9. There’s a part of the live concert with secret songs surprising nightly audiences, so there are several tunes from the multi-day L.A. stint to choose from – although it doesn’t appear this will be like the movie Clue with different variations of film prints to stimulate multiple trips to the theatre. Those multiple viewings will likely happen for fans anyway!
  10. Most of all, have fun! There’s a long tradition of movie gimmickry designed to lure fans into movie houses, from 3-D and Cinerama to “The Tingler.” In this case, consider the fans already lured. This is your chance to make the next in-person sensation akin to the sing-along version of The Sound of Music or taking a page out of the customs invented by those Rocky Horror fans who have sung and danced in the aisles for nearly 50 years.

In some cases, tickets are still available for Taylor Swift The Eras Tour, the movie. Good luck to the multiplex ushers and cleaning crews, and pick up after yourself so nobody will say “This is why we can’t have nice things.”