Category Archives: 2023

Even a Fairy Godmother Couldn’t Save Disney’s Wobbly “Wish”

Disney’s centennial emerges as its animation division experiences an awkward crossroads. Do animators lean into princesses, swashbucklers or steampunk? Do they focus on hand-drawn or computer generated animation? Tried and true Menkens and Mirandas or other new voices? Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn’s Wish (C+) is evidence of creative inertia, compromise and the wrong kind of recycling as its makers craft measures of vintage atmosphere but draw too heavily on fan service origin stories over forging interesting new paths. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: that’s actually a mixture of watercolor and CG, a literal tug-of-war for tone in cartoon compositions before you even fixate on the film’s undercooked but byzantine story. It’s all a mallet to the palette. The plot focuses on Asha (voiced by a spirited Ariana DeBose), who makes a passionate plea to the stars after sensing a darkness in her kingdom led by Magnifico (Chris Pine, all snark and bark). The so-so music by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice (frequent Selena Gomez collaborators) is a nod to contemporary sensibilities but feels overwrought against the frilly imagery; they feel like stand-ins for something more hummable. There are indeed some creative flourishes: the notion that the deepest wishes of a country’s citizenry live inside precious bubbles within a royal repository and must be rescued and returned to their rightful owners feels like the stuff of Pixar pop psychology fusing into Disney proper. Buck and Veerasunthorn have delivered a pleasant enough fairy tale with heart, but it’s not quite emotional or funny enough to score classic status. They don’t even score with funny sidekicks. For all the building blocks assembled in the service of a Disney formula, it rarely reaches its higher yearning.

“Thanksgiving” Puts the Ritual Killing in a Formerly Horror-less Holiday

In a cinematic year filled with logline leftovers based on Air Jordan sneakers, Blackberry devices and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, moviegoers can express guilty pleasure and gratitude for a film adapted from its own Grindhouse mock trailer. Expect to preview coming attractions for a surefire franchise-in-the-making because Eli Roth’s latest scrappy, schlocky and overstuffed horror movie is certain to become a perennial feast: this first Thanksgiving (B-) film with a Final Girl delivers a multi-course cornucopia of clever kills. The movie’s cold open foists viewers into the mayhem and satirical delirium of a Black Friday sale riot that ends in a bargain-hunting bloodbath; a year later, in a related revenge storyline, a sextet of precocious Plymouth Rock teenagers try to avert a mysterious serial killer intent on creating a carving board of the Massachusetts town’s denizens. Nell Verlaque is a bright and nuanced lead actress supported by an ensemble of familiar faces such as Patrick Dempsey (yikes, that terrible Boston accent!) and Gina Gershon (mercifully muted) in supporting roles. The film is exactly as advertised – a Scream-style thriller mystery festooned in harvest season accoutrements, from pitchforks to parades. In the film genre of splatter films set on gory days, this is much more mid-tier slasher à la Happy Birthday to Me than rising to Halloween masterpiece levels. The story contains genuine jump scares, grisly murders of the bloody disgusting variety and ribald belly laughs. The film’s veritable turkey trot of graphic violence is so mercilessly cartoonish, it makes Cocaine Bear look downright avant garde. There’s an inspired moment when the heroine hides from the masked “John Carver” among mannequin heads in a beauty school classroom and employs hairspray as impromptu mace. Roth paces the film with finesse and fury and continually raises the stakes; he never mistakenly confuses his film with high art. Sure some elements are undercooked, but it’s ultimately a cavalcade of communal gasps. Buckle up, pilgrims, for high-camp, high-stakes, horned-up plenty.

Emerald Fennell’s Stylish “Saltburn” Loses Grip on its House of Cards

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 Rosamund 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.

“May December” Turns Satiric Eye to Tabloid Scandals and Method Acting

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.

Three Characters In Search of a Christmas: “The Holdovers” is a Triumph

Behold the island of misfit goys stuck together over the 1970 Christmas break at a New England prep school campus in Alexander Payne’s snappy and sentimental The Holdovers (A-). A grumpy instructor brilliantly inhabited by Paul Giamatti, a brainy student troublemaker beautifully portrayed by Dominic Sessa and the school’s head cook, a grieving mother flawlessly played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph are among the sterling ensemble of this seriocomedy about the unlikely bonds formed between surrogate families. Payne is a preeminent chronicler of the American experience, and he finds pockets of marvelous introspection in the seeds of the Me Decade as the cynical denizens who populate his story reflect on loneliness, loss and the lies people sometimes tell themselves to cope. That said, the film is often riotously funny amidst the piercing insights. This is the curmudgeon role for which Giamatti was born to play, as viewers watch the blowhard soften up over time. Sessa and Randolph provide the lead actor magnificent foils at two different generations and are vital contributors to one of the most endearing trios to share the screen of late. The skillful production design and mellow music capture a lovely innocence juxtaposed with the movie’s smartly sketched characters. The story could have used some tightening in a few key passages, and there are times when Randolph’s glorious character gets mildly sidelined and missed; but Payne’s picaresque with indelible characters is one for the history books. 

“Priscilla” is All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go – and No Elvis Music in the Tri-State Area Near Graceland

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.

Brisk Running Time and Yet It Still Feels like “Five Nights at Freddy’s”

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.

“Anatomy of a Fall” is an Exhilarating Domestic Puzzle

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. 

Fincher Returns to Lean, Mean Form with Fassbender as “The Killer” (2023)

Now on Netflix…

Who better to deliver both the deliberate and the deadpan than director David Fincher, who finds his match in phenomenal actor Michael Fassbender as the titular assassin of The Killer (B+)? A master of meticulous procedurals, Fincher places his latest antihero at the helm of tidy chapters in successive global cities with a droll voice-over narrating the nuances of what it means to be a hitman. After an intriguing inciting incident, the main man must maneuver through an episodic series of entertaining gauntlets to untangle a violent labyrinth. There’s a consistent tone of the unexpected in both the action and the humor, and although there’s not a lot of straight-up dialogue, there’s a wonderful sequence opposite the splendid Tilda Swinton that crystallizes the film’s themes. The protagonist’s creative techniques are met with marvelous camera work and music. If the noirish film suffers from any fault, it’s a little too cold and consistent (imagine that from Fincher!) but it’s never tedious or boring. In fact this gritty, graceful feature film is as efficient as a bullet in making its mark.

“Rustin” Reveals the Man Behind the Movement and Colman Domingo at the Top of His Craft

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.

Scorsese’s Epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” Examines Culpability in Being Our Neighbor’s Keeper

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:

Pop Music Phenomenon Gets Big-Screen Treatment in “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour”

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.