Tag Archives: Drama

Movie Review: Saltburn (2023)

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.

Movie Review: Priscilla (2023)

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.

Movie Review: Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

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. 

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: 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.

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)

Movie Review: The Hill (2023)

This biographical baseball film has three strikes against it: its acting roster is somewhat inconsistent, it fouls up some of its central notions about the limits of faith and it slides in too many familiar sports movie tropes – but even so, it’s largely a rousing run around the bases of feel-good sentiment. An earnest true-life story of a little-known sports miracle, Jeff Celentano’s The Hill (B-) is equal parts formulaic and inspirational. The central slugger who overcomes a handicap in order to try out for a chance at the big leagues is a real guy from history named Rickey Hill. He’s played effectively as a plucky child by the very talented Jesse Berry and as a twentysomething by Colin Ford, who is likable but not quite as natural. Dennis Quaid portrays his pastor father, who seems a bit world-weary in his stubborn role; the actor is powerful even if he never fully matches the age of his character (mercifully, no Indy 5 de-aging effects were employed). Scott Glenn as the legendary MLB scout and Bonnie Bedelia as the screenplay’s deus ex machina (a.k.a. the Hill family’s truth-telling grandmother) make lively impressions as the even more elder states-folk of the proceedings. The film is photographed in nostalgic tones which undergird its old-fashioned themes as the overprotective dad evokes unswerving devotion to religion as an excuse to forbid his son from a potentially disappointing career in baseball that will likely ruin the frail body behind his brawny batting arm. The script insists pop’s stalwart overprotection is somewhere beyond that of the parents in Footloose or Carrie, which gets far-fetched and tedious. Of course the staunch won’t short-change the launch. Still, when the inspirational sports and emotional moments work their magic, cheers and waterworks spring forth. There are some nice sequences of subtlety early in the film showcasing observant familial and congregational traditions which get mostly jettisoned for the inevitable montage sequences and grand finale. The movie is genial family entertainment and deftly demonstrates the majesty of both belief in a higher power and belief in a disciplined work ethic to field one’s dreams.

Movie Review: Red, White & Royal Blue (2023)

This summer’s great wish fulfillment romance is so high stakes, it just might cause an international incident. Taylor Zakhar Perez and Nicholas Galitzine play the U.S. president’s son and a British prince, respectfully, who find themselves falling in love in Matthew López’s winning romcom Red, White & Royal Blue (B+). Considering their roles as high-profile public figures, the young men who Meet Cute at a U.K. wedding party must keep their burgeoning relationship a secret at all costs. The lead actors are dashing and often amusing in their earnest roles, and López grounds the plot with enough political accuracy and contours about making history for one’s culture or community to make the cross-continental complications fairly credible. Strong supporting performances include Uma Thurman as the Texas-accented president and Stephen Fry as a smug member of the monarchy. The film, available on Prime Video, is a triumph of representation and a jolly good time in its own right.

Movie Review: Oppenheimer (2023)

Like Oliver Stone’s JFK more than three decades ago, Christopher Nolan’s epic of the so-called “father of the atomic bomb” Oppenheimer (A) examines the public life and significant trials of a misunderstood man from history buoyed by clever cross-cutting and prestigious panache. It’s perhaps Nolan’s most conventional movie to date, and yet every beat of the film is wholly original and affecting. As the title character, Cillian Murphy is mesmerizing: he’s an iconoclast, to be sure, who is equally ill at ease contemplating the morality of inventing a volatile creation and negotiating fraught relationships with the men and women in his professional and private circles. Murphy’s murky portrayal is absorbing and sometimes a little funny for a character under the gun to apply his scientific know-how to a morally dubious cause. The shades of gray factor quite literally into the director’s use of shadows and film stock as the period detail of early 20th century colors transitions to monochrome from sequence to sequence. Nolan masterfully fills in the contours and mysteries of his antihero’s dilemma and wastes few shots in advancing the story forward while zig-zagging through time. The film is packed with strong supporting performances including brittle and boisterous characters played by Robert Downey Jr. and Emily Blunt, who each get to chew considerable scenery in the final act. The film examines the toll of nuclear and psychological annihilation on the individuals bearing an unmistakable and historic burden. For a film as talky as it is, it moves briskly with deepening impact through its ample running time. It’s a blistering portrait and tough subject with high-stakes dramatic choices made throughout. It’s that rare biopic that sucks viewers in from the first frame and transports its audience into the many layers of its story. The score by Ludwig Göransson is also a stunner. This is a modern classic showcasing Nolan and his team at the top of their game. See this impressive, immersive and entertaining work on the biggest screen possible.

Watch the “Seeing is Believing” podcast for Silver Screen Capture video review and discussion of a faith-based hot take on the #Barbenheimer phenomenon:

Movie Review: Shortcomings (2023)

Adapted by Adrian Tomine from his own graphic novel and directed by first-time filmmaker Randall Park, the Sundance comedy-drama Shortcomings (B+) is an enjoyable contemporary take on being a young Asian-American male in American society. The story’s moody protagonist, an underemployed movie theatre manager and lousy boyfriend, is winningly played by Justin H. Min. His lesbian best friend portrayed by Sherry Cola is an absolute hoot and always knows just what to say. Ally Maki is also memorable as the hero’s polar opposite; the whole ensemble enjoys time in the spotlight. The cross-country, cross-cultural story transports viewers from Berkeley to New York City with wryly observant misadventures. Park plumbs heritage and hot takes for a film that feels like it’s not trying all that hard and yet still it says so much about its subjects. It’s genuinely funny and also moving at times. Expect this one to be a cult hit, a kind of Reality Bites for modern times.

Movie Review: Sound of Freedom (2023)

A B movie with an A message, Alejandro Monteverde’s Sound of Freedom chronicles an unconventional mission by real-life hero Tim Ballard, a U.S. government agent turned mercenary played by Jim Caviezel, who courageously endeavors to rescue children from sex traffickers in Colombia. The writing and acting could have used substantial polishing as much of the film feels like a prolonged PSA (down to a barcode at the end to pay it forward). But as an eye-opening expose of a major societal issue, it’s insightful and at times riveting. Sometimes this undercover thriller feels like it wants to attain the gravitas of a Donnie Brasco or The Departed but often gets sidelined with the craft of a late-season 21 Jump Street episode. There are genuine pacing issues especially in the final reel, after one of the most ingenious acts of entrapment has already taken place and somewhat bursts the momentum. The kid actors are almost roundly better than the adults as the movie relies a little too heavily on obvious tropes, overly sensationalized sentimentality and a moment or two of Rambo meets Taken ham-fisted histrionics. A pencil-mustached pedophile and a supportive wife character played by Mira Sorvino with fewer than three lines didn’t help add to the nuance. However, the film’s message is both faith-based and universal, that God’s children are not for sale. The power of storytelling is crystallized in a meta message from the lead actor in that much-ballyhooed mid-credits narrative and could have been streamlined throughout with judicious edits. But the cause to celebrate is that this movie is inspiring action to tackle a truly dark topic and promoting a global conversation. The director handles sensitive issues delicately and motivates viewers to action.