Saturday, December 30, 2023

Creative Confidence and Emma Stone's Masterful Acting Make Poor Things a Must-See

Have you ever wanted to plunge yourself into a movie? Just grab the edges of the frame and dunk your entire body inside? That's exactly how I felt watching Poor Things, the latest movie from the delightfully sick mind of director Yorgos Lanthimos. Like his seminal film Dogtooth, Poor Things is about an isolated soul with no knowledge about the wider world. Like his 2016 motion picture The Lobster, Poor Things is about how ridiculous "normal" social routines are. In the vein of his 2018 film The Favourite, Poor Things is rife with sexual tension and brought to life through an outstanding Emma Stone performance. However, simultaneously, Poor Things feels like a whole new era of the filmmaker's career. The intentionally subdued color palette of The Lobster and realistic locales of The Killing of the Sacred Deer are eschewed for luscious vibrant imagery that feels akin to everything from the works of Powell & Pressburger to episodes of The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. It's like the earlier (already superb) works of Lanthimos were a foundation being built for the glorious house that is Poor Things.

Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) isn't like other girls...she's been brought back from the dead. How did that happen? Well, Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter (Willem Dafoe) found the body of a pregnant woman dead in a river after an apparent suicide. Naturally, this scientific mind decided to take this lady's corpse, put her baby's brain inside her head, and then revive the organism. The result was Bella Baxter, who now has an entirely new consciousness and, as she ages mentally, is growing more and more enamored with the outside world. Jerk supreme Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) promises to show Baxter the world and take her everywhere she wants to go, a trip that inspires Poor Things to switch from monochromatic colors to a wide array of hues utilizing every shade in the rainbow. This voyage also leads to Baxter figuring out nuances of the world and discovering just who she is as a person.

Confidence courses through every vein of Poor Things (an adaptation of the Alasdair Gray novel of the same, with the script penned by Tony McNamara). That's always been key to why Lanthimos movies work so well, they execute outlandish premises and inexplicable human behavior with nary a wink to the camera. However, Poor Things is an especially assured achievement from this filmmaker. Best of all, that conviction manifests throughout the feature in such proudly overt ways. The outstanding costumes are colorful creations full of bold flourishes and poofy sleeves, for instance. Richly detailed sets stretch out to the heavens and revel in their artificiality, they remind one of colorful versions of backdrops from vintage expressionistic films! Meanwhile, the score by Jerskin Fendrix is a masterfully brash creation that isn't afraid to get noisy. Discordant instruments (like strings on a harp getting plucked strangely or the harsh clanging of a triangle) and deep-pitched wailing sounds dominate the sonic landscape of the film. A track like "Reanimation" is full of appropriate momentousness (not to mention a blaring organ and an ominous high-pitched wail) to accompany the sight of Bella Baxter being brought to life. There's so much pomp and circumstance in these compositions and the entire film is all the better for that grandeur. Ferndrix's score functions as a great musical extension of Bella Baxter's personality (we truly feel her pain with the aid of these music cues) while these qualities also coalesce into a score unlike any I've ever heard before.

Bella Baxter doesn't hide her true feelings or's great that elements like Fendrix's compositions or those sets are similarly proudly prominent. Many filmmakers may be wary of coming off as "silly" or "not serious" by embracing the absurd, but Lanthimos and crew always opt for the stylized when it comes to realizing the world of Poor Things. The result is a movie overflowing with so much infectiously endearing creativity that it's impossible not to get soaked up in all the twisted mayhem. Poor Things encapsulates many of the sights and images that could only be accomplished in cinema, the sort of glorious spectacle that the big screen was made for. If you're going to make a story this bizarre, you should really lean into all of its most preposterous possibilities. Poor Things, with its endlessly creative visuals and score, does just that.

Best of all, Poor Things does one of my favorite things any story in any artistic medium can do: give us a protagonist worth caring about in the middle of confines divorced from reality. Bella Baxter may travel to real-world locations like Paris in Poor Things, but they sure don't look like any destinations you could travel to in the real world (that's a compliment!) Her surroundings are intentionally at odds with normalcy, yet Bella Baxter is a lead character who's endlessly compelling. Everything from the writing to Robbie Ryan's cinematography and especially Emma Stone's performance renders Baxter with a sense of humanity. She's an oddball, but she's not a punchline nor are we meant to gawk at her "weirdness." On the contrary, Poor Things invites us to view the world through Bella Baxter's eyes and realize just how moronic normal conventions of everyday life (particularly when it comes to gender roles) are. Mesmerizing sequences like Baxter wandering around Lisbon on her own (the first time she's ever been truly independent in her life) touch one's soul as we bear witness to just how much the outside world means to this lady. There's a beating soul to Poor Things, a movie that often casts off reality to the wind to hysterical results.

Much of that soul does come from Stone, who once again indulges in her chops for weirdo comedy by inhabiting Bella Baxter. What's immediately striking about her on-screen work is her physicality, specifically the way she portrays Baxter as someone who is still getting the hang of the finer nuances of walking. For the rest of the movie, Stone keeps masterfully contorting her body language to reflect Baxter's growing knowledge of the wider world. It's a tour de force performance just in physicality alone, the fact that she always nails such precise pieces of outlandish comedy just makes Stone's work all the more amazing. Plus, it's downright remarkable how much Emma Stone sheds her movie star image for this role. When I was watching Poor Things, I truly felt like I was watching Bella Baxter, I wasn't just watching Stone taking on a role or reminder of this leading lady's many other roles from the last 16 years. Bella Baxter is a totally idiosyncratic creation and much of that uniqueness emanates from Stone's total commitment to such an unusual role.

Stone is backed up by a totally game-supporting cast who are also unforgettable in such transfixing ways. Mark Ruffalo has been getting a lot of hype for his enjoyably despicable work as just the worst human, but I also want to throw some roses towards Hanna Schygulla and Kathryn Hunter in their key supporting roles. Neither performer sticks around on-screen for long, but they each leave an enormous impression with the screen time they do get. Schygulla makes for a great understated but confident counterpart of Stone's Baxter, while Hunter's unpredictable work as a brothel owner consistently keeps viewers on their toes. Of course, the MVP of the supporting cast has to be Willem Dafoe, who brings such interesting levels of lived-in reality and nuance to a character (the mad scientist playing God) that has existed in cinema for nearly a century. You've seen this archetype before, but you've never seen a character quite like Dr. Godwin "God" Baxter thanks to Dafoe's tremendous performance.

For both movie geeks and just folks looking for a good time at the movies, Poor Things is a scrumptious cinematic feast. You'll want to gorge on the cinematography, request seconds of all the great comedy beats in the script, roll around in the costumes, stare in awe at the performances, and send your compliments to Yorgos Lanthimos for crafting something so original and daring. When the COVID-19 pandemic first shut everything down, I truly wondered if movie theaters would even exist anymore. I didn't dare to dream that one day somebody could once again wander up to a movie theater and spend a few hours in the dark immersed in something they've truly never witnessed before. Thankfully, that day has come. Poor Things is here and it's just the kind of movie you too will want to plunge head-first into.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom isn't interesting even with a heroic octopus

You can spend all the money in the world on a movie but you can't automatically make it compelling. No matter how many dollars and cents you throw at a motion picture, it will not suddenly transform into something memorable or fun. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, like so many expensive American blockbusters, encapsulates this beautifully. Warner Bros. has tossed a king's ransom at this title in the hope of replicating the enormous box office success of the initial Aquaman. In the process, they've lost the zest that made that original feature work. Though better than fellow 2023 DC Extended Universe titles like The Flash and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom just isn't very interesting. The money is on the screen, but it might as well be burning in real-time.

Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) doesn't much like being the ruler of Atlantis, especially since he has to split time between aquatic royalty duties and taking care of his son on dry land. All of this gets thrown for a loop when the villainous Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) resurfaces and begins a nasty plot involving burning Orichalcum to raise the temperatures of the planet. This climate change scheme involves melting a lot of ice and is connected to ancient trident that's giving Black Manta a lot of power. To stop this foe, Curry will have to team up with his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) by breaking him out of prison. Now it's a buddy/cop movie where people keep saying Orichalcum (emphasis on those last three letters) a lot.

Why is the music in a blockbuster like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom so bad? This thing took years to produce, countless souls burning the midnight oil to realize this, and the best anyone could think of for needle drops were "Born to be Wild" and "Spirit in the Sky"? The latter song was already in a DC Extended Universe movie! Please, superhero movies, learn that other songs exist beyond Dad Rock from the 70s and 80s. The score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is also a wash, save for some interesting electronic flourishes in a scene where Arthur and Orm entertain a crime region known as the Sunken Citadel. Otherwise, Gregson-Williams leans on generic music cues, especially when it comes to emphasizing punchlines like Orm's befuddlement at Arthur knocking down a giant statue. A veteran of Happy Madison comedies and animated children's films, the sensibilities of Rupert Gregson-Williams as a composer just never fit with Aquaman as a movie. You need a rousing old-school sensibility in the music, not somebody who treats the most outlandish plot elements with sonic indifference.

Then again, perhaps the score by Rupert Gregson-Williams is just a byproduct of the ambivalence soaking Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom down to its bone. To be fair, there are some enjoyable Saturday Morning Cartoon flourishes in here (like an evil lair located in a volcano or an octopus sidekick) that at least keep the proceedings from being dreary. Some of the practical sets and costumes look neat, but these are anomalous qualities in a film that's too busy to ever commit to one thing to its fullest potential. Aquaman's fatherhood woes, for instance, vanish for nearly 2/3 of the movie. This kid seems so important in the initial half-hour of the Lost Kingdom before getting sidelined quite easily.

Worst of all are the attempts to wring buddy/cop humor out of Arthur and Orm, a dynamic that Jason Momoa is just not equipped for as an actor. The endearing performer has a great grin and a physical presence to die for, but he's just not good at witty banter. His poorly-written punchlines especially land with a thud in Momoa's hands. Worst of all, this dynamic never goes anywhere fun or interesting, it's just another disjointed piece of the wonky puzzle that is Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. The first Aquaman's willingness to shift genres on a dime felt like an infectious imaginative creative team at work. Here, attempts to be An Inconvenient Truth, The Lord of the Rings, and 48 Hrs just reek of indecision over what an Aquaman follow-up should look like.

I did have to laugh, though, at how the climax of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom eventually involves Arthur and Orm staring down the ghost of an ancient underwater ruler, an entity brought to life through CGI. Yes folks, the DC Extended Universe, in its final installment, managed to squeeze in one more digital bad guy before the lights went out. In the tradition of Ares, Doomsday, Sabbac, and so many others, this undead foe concludes a pricey blockbuster with CG ripped straight out of The Mummy Returns. Some things never change, including how no amount of money can make your movie entertaining...not even if that movie briefly involves Topo the octopus (who, per Nicole Kidman's Atlanna, is quite good at musical instruments!)

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

The Color Purple Provides a Disjointed but Frequently Engaging Reimagining of a Familiar Tale

The 2023 movie incarnation of The Color Purple is this year’s Doctor Sleep. Both are extensions of 1980s Warner Bros. movies built on conceptually paradoxical creative aspirations. Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan aimed to adapt a Stephen King novel, be a sequel to the most famous King adaptation of all time, and address that horror author's criticisms of The Shining. Similarly, director Blitz Bazawule wants to make sure this new Color Purple film restores key elements of Alice Walker’s original book (namely the queer material involving the film's protaganists), properly adapt a stage musical, provides a big Christmastime spectacle movie for Warner Bros., and be a loving tribute to the original 1985 movie. Being pulled in so many contradictory directions ends up resulting in a disjointed feature, but the best moments of The Color Purple do capture why this particular story has endured for so many decades (beyond Warner Bros. executives wanting to capitalize on familiar brand names).

The Color Purple, for those unaware, concerns the life of Celie Harris-Johnson (played as an adult by Fantasia Barrino), who initially navigated the trials of everyday existence with her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey). The two are separated after Celie is forced to be a wife to Albert "Mister" Johnson (Colman Domingo), an abusive man with evil in his heart. As the years wear on, Celie endures endless strife but is also given glimpses of a wider, more beautiful world beyond the walls of Johnson's house Many of these peeks come from traveling singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson) as well as the outspoken personality of her friend Sofia (Danielle Brooks). Through her bonds with other women, Celie clings to the truth that there is more to life than the torment she's suffered.

Bazawule's approach to filming The Color Purple is to have the performances pitched in a manner evocative of classical mid-20th-century musicals. This influence also extends to the fantasy backdrops of certain musical numbers, such as a lovestruck Celie singing about a bathing Avery on a gigantic record player or those same two characters harmonizing on a glitzy 1920s dance floor. These digressions away from reality harken back to similar sequences in Oklahoma! or Singin' in the Rain, where stylized sets and fantastical backdrops encapsulate the vivid emotions of key characters. Even scenes firmly set in "reality" often feature crowds of extras ready to go to start dancing at a moment's notice, even if all everyone is doing is nailing up advertisements. Considering modern musicals like The Little Mermaid tend to strip away all bombast in favor of "realistic" musical numbers of a guy just singing on a hill, such homages to classic musicals in The Color Purple are more than welcome.

However, the visuals of The Color Purple, unfortunately, betray those old-fashioned tendencies. Bazawule and cinematographer Dan Laustsen have opted to shoot this title with digital cameras and exceedingly bright lighting that just makes everything look too plastic and artificial. Classic mid-20th-century musicals tended to make the spectacular feel like something you could reach out and touch. This new Color Purple oddly contradicts its vintage influences with imagery that feels distractingly modern. There are lovely touches in the camerawork of The Color Purple, including one scene that clearly functions as a homage to one of the visual motifs of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust. However, the sterile digital look of things does undercut the film's commitment to realizing this story in a manner evocative of vintage musicals.

Marcus Gardley's screenplay, meanwhile, also struggles to satisfactorily balance out classical and modern impulses. Whatever incarnation of The Color Purple you're watching, it's going to be a brutal story that puts its characters through endless hardship. Gardley's script preserves that but it also wants to evoke mid-20th-century musicals in its very arch depictions of human emotions (a quality carried over in Bazawule's direction of the actors). Harrowing displays of anguish are rapidly followed up by people dancing while nailing up signs and vice versa. Some of these intentional shifts in tone do work nicely in communicating ideas like how often joy in Celie's world can vanish in an instant or, in the case of Sofia's storyline, how white people can make everything worse in the blink of an eye. Still, too often Gardley's script seems to be caught between a desire to engage in emotionally raw material and the spectacle impulses innate in musical numbers. The result is a film that sometimes feels disjointed in tone rather than intriguingly nuanced.

The greatest saving grace to this version of The Color Purple, though, is quite simple: the actors are great and when it comes time to put on a show, the movie delivers. The connective tissue getting there is wonky, but performers like Fantasia and Danielle Brooks belt their hearts out whenever their big numbers come up. If there's anything that helps save a messier musical movie, it's simply delivering when it's time for people to harmonize. Plus, the best tunes in The Color Purple really lend a bullhorn to the inner voices of these characters, in the process showcasing the humanity that the world wants to erase from women like Celie. These grand sequences, then, function as an interesting new interpretation of Alice Walker's original work. This 2023 The Color Purple looks towards music to reaffirm the enduring spirit of the downtrodden, which is a sense of perseverance that's always defined this yarn. That's an interesting way to utilize the language of musical cinema to make an old story feel new, even if The Color Purple's execution of its musical impulses (particularly visually) leaves a bit to be desired. But hey, it’s unspeakably tough to make a remake/sequel built on so many contradictory artistic impulses. Just ask Doctor Sleep director Mike Flanagan!

Monday, December 18, 2023

Lisa Laman's Top 25 Movies of 2023


TFW you saw a lot of good movies in 2023.

Well, here we are once again. The end of another year. On a personal level, 2023 was both an exciting year (yay, I finally got to come out as a trans lady!) and an exhausting 12 months (living with depression will do that). Life is complicated. It's rarely one thing for long, for good and for ill. But one constant across the year was movies. There were lots and lots of new features to see this year and it was difficult to whittle a list of the standout movies from this year to just 25. Still, after much work, I've plucked 25 standout titles selected from the 219 (and counting) new releases I saw in 2023. Movies were unspeakably helpful in making this year a lot more bearable and exciting...I hope this list opens up your eyes to certain films and reminds you of the wonders this medium of storytelling can provide.

Onto the list, which, for once, I've arranged in an actual ranking instead of just alphabetical order! Let's start with...

25. Oppenheimer

Christopher Nolan made the apotheosis of a Christopher Nolan movie in 2023 and it was fantastic. A devastating horror film about man’s capacity for evil, Oppenheimer had bold filmmaking to spare. Oh, and Cillian Murphy crushing it in the lead role didn’t hurt either!

24. Cannibal Mukbang

Tired of stale cinematic exploits? Chow down on this horror/comedy that isn’t always easy to watch but boy is it creative. Cannibal Mukbang wears its cinematic influences (ranging from 2000s rom-coms to the heaven scenes in The Exorcist III) on its sleeve, but it's all in service of a twisted bit of fun genre entertainment that will undoubtedly influence future generations of grindhouse cinema homages. It's all held together by a masterful lead performance of April Consalo, who channels the energy of Amy Adams and Jennifer's Body with equal levels of aplomb. Dig into this one folks, it's a feast for twisted souls like yours truly!

23. A Thousand and One 

The walls of the past are depicted with such care by writer/director A.V. Rockwell in A Thousand and One. Her deft touch as a filmmaker is a key reason this story is so richly compelling. Teyana Taylor’s unforgettable lead performance doesn’t hurt either.

22. Godland

The cinematography of Godland alone earns it a place on this list. A plethora of breathtakingly composed images set against the relentlessly undaunted landscapes of Iceland define this feature’s visual style. It’s a glorious motion picture to witness, especially since all those frames are in service of a story vividly chronicling the folly of man’s desire for control. 

21. Fallen Leaves

Some of the movies on this list stood out in the realm of 2023 cinema by being gargantuan cinematic accomplishments. Others, like Fallen Leaves, were so great because they were so streamlined, so relaxed. Sometimes, all you want out of a movie is to follow a quiet romance and two people navigating working-class woes. Small joys of everyday existence often provide such essential serotonin in reality...movies like Fallen Leaves recognize and build on this truth beautifully. 

20. Joyland

Whether we realize it or not, we're all confined by restrictive societal expectations. Director Saim Sadiq movingly captures how widespread those suffocating gender, economic, familial, and other expectations can be within Joyland, a terrifically rendered feature that makes great use of a claustrophobic aspect ratio and a terrific ensemble cast. Alina Khan especially stuns in a performance rich with personality and authority, she grabs your attention so effortlessly whenever she comes on-screen.

19. The Zone of Interest

There's not much to say about The Zone of Interest, but not because the film is lacking in substance or virtues worth clamoring about. It's just that writer/director Jonathan Glazer's harrowing depiction of normalized complicity in genocide really is just one of those movies that needs to be seen to be truly understood. One can talk about the power of its measured camerawork or its avant-garde filmmaking accentuations, but the strikingly chilling images making up The Zone of Interest say so much more than any descriptions ever could.

18. Godzilla Minus One

From the moment Godzilla just shows up out of nowhere in the prologue of Godzilla Minus One and begins tearing up everything in sight, it's clear this movie is going to deliver the goods. Godzilla is thoroughly terrifying in this sequence, a relentless creature of incalculable might. Meanwhile, the human drama surrounding this iconic beast in this scene is actually interesting!! These qualities carry over into the rest of the motion picture, which turns into a story about working-class souls recovering a passion to live in the face of immense horrors. One of the longest-running franchises in history felt brand new with Godzilla Minus One.

17. Nimona

N.D. Stevenson's graphic novel Nimona came to life this year in a vibrant computer-animated feature of the same name that touched the soul by embracing such a fascinating complicated tone. Veering between anarchic fun and intimate explorations of what it's like to exist as a societal outcast, Nimona captured how queer existence can go from laughs to tears in a matter of seconds. It also looked sharp as a tack in its imaginative animation and contained no shortage of memorable voice-over performances. A movie deemed unsuitable for release by Disney turned into one of the most heartfelt cinematic accomplishments of 2023.

16. Ear for Eye 

There are images, editing choices, and stirring pieces of writing from Ear for Eye that will never leave my brain. Writer/director debbie tucker green adapted her own play of the same name for this feature, but anyone expecting a straightforward recording of a stage show will be astonished by green's ingenuitive filmmaking. Impressionistic backgrounds, sharp cuts between shots, and vividly penned testimonies from the characters bend the mold of what a "conventional" film looks like. A blend of the claustrophobic scope of a play with the intimate visuals only a film can provide, Ear for Eye was nothing short of a stunning accomplishment.

15. Monica 

I can't stop thinking about Trace Lysette's performance in Monica...maybe I never will. The way she communicates years of internalized thoughts with her eyes. Her delicate interactions with Patricia Clarkson speak volumes about the fractured dynamic between their characters. Lysette's gift for playing unbridled joy during a scene where she's portraying a lady just getting ready for a fun night out. Trace Lysette's work on-screen is a is the rest of Monica.

14. Anatomy of a Fall

It's always a treat to watch a movie that quietly takes a sledgehammer to audience expectations of how a certain genre "should" play out. So it is with Anatomy of a Fall, which constantly zigs when you expect it to adhere to the norms of a typical courtroom drama. Its bold deviations from the likes of A Time to Kill (especially in its quiet, haunting ending) encapsulate a sense of wild creativity that made Anatomy of a Fall one of the year's most gripping titles.

13. All of Us Strangers

Even if you've heard ad nauseum about how All of Us Strangers is going to make you cry, you're not prepared for just how emotional this feature is. Quiet longing permeates every frame of the proceedings and Andrew Scott's lead performance just aches with unresolved emotional angst. The allure of the past defines writer/director Andrew Haigh's work here, with this man especially excelling in realizing such quiet yet deeply moving interactions between the lead character and his dead parents. All of Us Strangers will leave you sobbing, no question, but it will also leave you astonished at the gifts of artists like Haigh and Scott.

12. Showing Up

Kelly Reichardt movies are such wonderful quiet gems and Showing Up is no exception. In the hands of a master filmmaker like her, a wounded pigeon and an impending art exhibition are far more absorbing than the biggest stakes of this year’s largest blockbusters. It’s also a riot packed with terrific performances, including yet another outstanding turn from Michelle Williams in a Reichardt movie. The quiet triumphs of Showing Up speak louder than words! 

11. Asteroid City

Wes Anderson went to the desert with Asteroid City for one of his most challenging and boldest works yet. Shifting between two narratives and a slew of different perspectives across an expansive ensemble cast could’ve resulted in a disjointed mess. Instead, Asteroid City was one of Anderson’s best explorations yet of searching for meaning that can never be obtained. Plus, it’s jam-packed with memorable characters and performances, right down to a quirky alien that doesn’t need to say a word to capture your heart. Achingly vulnerable and so darn funny, Asteroid City was quintessential Wes Anderson and all the better for it!

10. The Battle

Writer/director Vera Egito plops viewers right into the middle of an October 1968 skirmish between a Left-Wing Student movement and fascists in the transfixing motion picture The Battle. Divided up into 21 chunks, all captured in lengthy single-takes, Egito's camera never blinks away from these lives that the Brazillian government is trying to erase. This saga is told with such magnificent camerawork that straddles that tricky line between being impressive as a filmmaking technique without distracting from the characters. Instead, the unwavering eye capturing The Battle just makes the proceedings so intense that you won't be able to exhale until long after the credits finish rolling.

9. May/December

Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Samy Burch really keep audiences on their toes in May December. Scenes like Charles Melton’s character smoking weed for the first time Dan alternate between humorous to devastatingly sad in the blink of an eye, with neither emotion getting undercut by this complicated tone. On the contrary, May December’s nuanced atmosphere just made it all the more distinctive and offered even more juicy material for its two leading ladies to sink their teeth into. Was there any other movie this year that could shatter your heart and then make your sides hurt laughing at the sight of a High School boy trying to impress Natalie Portman by touching the ceiling?

8. The Teachers’ Lounge

One of my favorite things about movies is how they can get you invested in an environment, sport, occupation, or anything else you may have never given much thought to before. In the case of The Teachers' Lounge, a middle school becomes the perfect backdrop for a  tale of betrayal and the limits of being a "good apple" in a corrupt system. The claustrophobic rooms and hallways of this center for education become appropriately suffocating in this story while the performances by the main cast (especially leading lady Leonie Benesch in one of the year's best turns) are all the more compelling in such intimate confines. I never gave much thought to the backdrops of The Teachers' Lounge before this movie started...but now I'll never forget them.

7. Killers of the Flower Moon

It's easy to take for granted just how good Killers of the Flower Moon is. Of course, a new Martin Scorsese movie would be something special. Yet, much like Silence, Flower Moon is a towering epic that reaffirms how Scorsese hasn't lost his touch as a filmmaker after decades of being in the game. He's still capable of producing images that hit you right in the heart and make you question the world you inhabit. Oh, and Lily Gladstone...even with the deluge of praise she's received, we still haven't appreciated her richly detailed work here enough.

6. Barbie

How insane it is that we finally got a live-action Barbie movie and it was great? What could've been a two-hour commercial instead was another terrific Greta Gerwig directorial effort that also felt like it was crafted in a lab to make me happy. A gorgeous-looking feature that combines absurdist humor with homages to filmmakers like Jacques Tati and contemplations of how we figure out who we actually are. Barbie was a joy to watch, a melting pot of tones and bold creative swings that perfectly matched how many different meanings Barbie dolls have taken on over the years. Needless to say, this was one movie that was more than Kenough.

5. Bottoms

Bottoms accomplished a lot of feats that many modern comedy movies can't even begin to nail, including delivering cinematography that felt like it belonged on the big screen. Most importantly, though, it delivered the kind of hysterical laughs and sharp writing that you just want to quote to your friends endlessly. Writer/director Emma Seligman channeled cinema's dense past of sex comedies in crafting Bottoms and ended up creating something way funnier than any of its thematic predecessors. Of course, in the defense of those earlier films, how could they possibly compete with Bottoms given that none of them were anchored by actors as gifted as Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri? Two outstanding actors fully committing to relentless horny that's how you make a new comedy movie classic!

4. Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

They did it, somehow. Miles Morales got another outstanding adventure after Into the Spider-Verse with Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. The animation was bolder than ever, but what really clicked with this installment was how much humanity coursed through every vein of this feature. Voyages across a variety of multiverses were always in service of the intimate struggles of Morales and Gwen Stacy, ditto a barrage of instantly iconic action sequences. Oh, and this title also gave the world Peter Parked-car. This really was a miracle movie.

3. Trenque Lauquan

A woman has gone missing at the start of Trenque Lauquan. Why? Was she unhappy? Did she get mad at her job? This initial mystery soon gives way to a sweeping four-hour-long saga that reveals that Trenque Lauquan isn't a straightforward mystery movie so much as a meditation on how women can possibly establish their own personalities detached from society's judgemental gaze. Director Laura Citarella demonstrates such impressive control in handling this epic yarn, which earns every minute of its expansive runtime. Nothing is quite as it seems within Trenque Lauquan and 2023 cinema was all the better for those unexpected qualities.

2. Kokomo City

What does it look like to be a trans woman in cinema? The D. Smith documentary Kokomo City offers countless depictions of trans existence through its interviews with a slew of Black trans women sex workers. The scope of this project solidifies that there are endless ways to be a trans person, contrary to the norms of on-screen depictions of trans lives throughout the history of cinema. Even beyond the way it subverts toxic standards in movies, though, Kokomo City is still a tremendous accomplishment in filmmaking. Its monochromatic color palette and dream-like digressions make it a stunning visual exercise while the various interviews are rife with unforgettable anecdotes that range from emotionally raw to downright hysterical. There's no shortage of amazing people in the trans community. How fitting then, that, Kokomo City would also be jam-packed with amazing qualities.

1. Past Lives 

At the end of the excellent 2023 book Burn it Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood, author Maureen Ryan references Samwise Gangee's "there some good in this world, Mr. Frodo" speech from The Two Towers as an example of "the magic trick" the best movies pull off. "Why does it move?" she ponders, "I could list the reasons, but they wouldn't fully explain it." Sometimes, Ryan posits, art produces emotions in viewers that can't be properly communicated in words. It just is magical, moving, and wonderful. That's how I feel about Past Lives. I've written so much about this feature since its June 2023 debut, yet I haven't scratched the surface of its joy nor have I come close to fully capturing what a meaningful gem writer/director Celine Song crafted here. No rambling run-on sentences I could conjure up can fully communicate why it's such a joy to see Greta Lee's character swinging her arms with excitement on a New York street as she prepares for a Skype session with a childhood friend. Nor could anything I say capture how utterly devastating that quick cut from the present to the past is in the final scene of Past Lives. This movie endlessly delivers the kinds of emotions, filmmaking, performances, and so much else that defies description. Something as good as Past Lives is, as Maureen Ryan put it, magic. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Wish is a Walt Disney Animation Studios Fan-Film That Gets Lost in Its Lore

 “What would Walt do?” It was a phrase that gripped Walt Disney Animation Studios in the wake of the passing of Walt Disney in 1967. The response to this figure’s demise was to just make new animated features mimicking the greatest hits of past Disney classics. Though the era of The Fox and the Hound and Robin Hood is in the distant past, Wish, the latest Walt Disney Animation Studios feature, harkens back to that query. As an animated feature debuting in a year when Disney is celebrating its 100th anniversary of existence, Wish wants to be to animated Disney movies what Margot Robbie's Stereotypical Barbie was to Barbie's. "You close your eyes, think of an animated Disney movie, it's me!" Meanwhile, its animation style, which uses CG to emulate tentpoles of hand-drawn artistry, also clearly indicates that the phrase “What would the Spider-Verse movies do?” loomed large over the production. Oh, and Wish comes courtesy of the key creative team members behind the Frozen movies (including director Chris Buck and writer Jennifer Lee), so also throw in the phrase “What would Elsa do?” into the cinematic stew. 

The creative influences of Wish are apparent. Less clear once the credits begin to roll are the qualities that would make this feature so idiosyncratic that future Disney titles would want to imitate it. 

Hailing from directors Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn, Wish concerns Asha (Ariana DeBose), a 17-year-old girl living in the Kingdom of Rosas. This is a seemingly idyllic paradise ruled over by the magical King Magnifico (Chris Pine), who has the power to grant wishes. Everything seems perfect in this domain until Asha discovers the wicked secrets behind Magnifico's rule. Distraught over the darkness that's been lurking in plain sight all along, Asha, in a moment of desperation, makes a wish upon a night star that gives actual shooting star by the name of Star. This charmingly designed critter from the cosmos has some magical abilities of its own, including making Asha's pet goat Valentino talk with the smooth voice of Alan Tudyk. Star could be the key to taking down Magnificio...but can an ordinary girl really challenge a master of dark magic?

Between this and Frozen II, screenwriter Jennifer Lee seems to be way too fascinated with overcomplicated lore that feels clumsily improvised. Awkward key plot beats related to King Magnifico’s corrupt rule (namely that you forget about your wish after he “takes” it) are hurriedly introduced in lyrics or throwaway pieces of dialogue that are easy to miss. The mechanics of the wishes themselves seem to fluctuate in a way that doesn't feel like organic extensions of a whimsical fairy tale but rather a byproduct of sloppy writing. It’s also hard to grasp a discernibly real-world parallel to all the fantasy tomfoolery that Lee and company want audiences to be deeply invested in. This isn’t just supposed to be a classical fairy tale, like Sleeping Beauty, where everything's meant to be heightened and removed from our world. Wish wants to elicit tears from viewers and have its fantasy world remind moviegoers of their own. That’s hard to do when this entire realm feels so vaguely defined and aloof from the discernible reality. Compare that problem to the stories of Moana and Encanto, which effortlessly interwove recognizable real emotions and experiences into unabashedly fantastical stories. This balance between the preposterous and emotionally tangible can work…Lee’s script for Wish just gets too lost in lore, explanations, and obvious metaphors to get that balance right. 

The plot beats that do work in Wish are effective enough to make one wish this whole movie was better. If only the screenplay trimmed down the avalanche of comic sidekick characters (why does Asha have seven additional wacky human friends plus two “critter” companions?) in favor of fleshing out its better narrative impulses. That tug of war between impressive details and derivative elements also carries over to the animation of Wish. The backgrounds here are glorious creations, downright perfect recreations of the kind of painterly sights Eyvind Earle and the like made their bread and butter in the mid-20th century. Establishing shots in Wish devoid of any characters actually look like they could’ve been lifted from a hand-drawn movie from the 50s, it’s an astonishing merging of animations past and present. 

Unfortunately, those backgrounds and other lovely visual qualities (like the welcome emphasis on bright colors that make even nighttime scenes easily visible) are paired up with humans and animals who look no different than standard CG Disney humans from the last 15 years. This time, though, those humans have extra rubbery-looking skin (a byproduct of the unique lighting schemes of Wish) while the often stilted facial expressions seem extra lifeless compared to the old-school backgrounds. Imagine the emotions that could be conveyed if these figures were rendered in good old fashioned hand-drawn animation. The dissonance between environments from Sleeping Beauty and characters lifted from crowd shots of Big Hero 6 never coalesces into something interesting and instead just remains eternally annoying.  It’s very odd Wish showed so much ambition in its backdrops, yet opted for human designs that look so familiar. If you want to truly follow in the footsteps of modern CG animation achievements like The Mitchells vs The Machines, Nimona, and the Spider-Verse movies, you have to embrace distinctive visual impulses in every department, not just with backgrounds!

A similar mixed bag is the music of Wish. Given that this is the "ultimate" Walt Disney Animation Studios movie, it shouldn't be a surprise that Wish is also a musical, with an array of tunes written by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice. The best of these tracks are the ones that lean into being the kind of songs you could only do in a musical like Magnifico's deliciously wicked "This Is The Thanks I Get?!" or the rousing battle tune "Knowing What I Know Now." Weaker on the soundtrack are tracks like "This Wish" and "At All Costs" that are more in line with songs you'd find in a Pasek & Paul musical in that they just sound like generic pop ditties. The former track is especially disappointing since DeBose is fully committed in her vocals in this take on the "I Want" song, but the forgettable lyrics let her down. Also underwhelming is the score by Dave Metzger, a veteran of Disney's music department (he worked as an arranger and orchestrator for countless scores in the studio's past). His compositions aren't bad, but they're often lifeless and fail to demonstrate much of a personality, particularly in the instruments they employ.

More consistently successful than the visuals and music in Wish are the vocal performances. The actors assembled here do perfectly cromulent work with the writing they've been handed, with DaBose especially working overtime to inject more personality and life into Asha compared to how this figure is written in the script. A committed novice cast, undeniably cute elements (that Star character is clearly made to spawn stuffed animals, but I wanted to give him a hug all the same), and utterly stunning backgrounds can't erase the nagging feeling, though, that Wish leaves a lot of potential on the table. In trying to create a "celebration" of Disney's past, Wish just feels like a hodgepodge of the studio's greatest hits. It lacks the wit and heart that helped give an extra sense of personality to previous Mouse House homages like Enchanted or Tangled. "What would Walt do?" was clearly a question weighing heavily on the minds of Buck, Veerasunthorn, and company when it came to making this animated musical. However, just as that query drove Walt Disney Animation Studios into the ground in the 70s and 80s, so too does such adherence to the past weigh down Wish.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Marvels Is A Disjointed Superhero Movie Buoyed By Its Lead Performers

Despite being connected to so many previous Marvel Cinematic Universe properties (Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, WandaVision, Guardians of the Galaxy, they all get referenced here), The Marvels is at its best just being a breezy good time. Whenever writer/director Nia DaCosta just settles for making a wacky comedy, this is an amiable feature. Unfortunately, the impulse to go big that's plagued nearly every Marvel Cinematic Universe feature in the wake of Avengers: Endgame is on display here again. The Marvels is torn between the two wolves inside of itself: one that wants to be silly and one that wants to be a spectacle-driven blockbuster. The tug-of-war across those ambitions results in a disjointed movie largely buoyed by its lead performances.

Outer space superhero Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is working solo in the deepest corners of the cosmos when she is alerted to the evil machinations of Kree warrior Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton). This baddie has secured a bangle that gives her immense power and entangles Danvers with the abilities of two other superheroes. Now, whenever Danvers, astronaut Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), and New Jersey teenager Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) use their respective superpowers, they trade places with a member of the trio. This situation has ensured that these three have to work together to stop Dar-Benn, who is targeting a slew of planets as part of a deeply personal mission. It's time for another Marvel team-up, which excites superhero devotee Khan to no end. 

I'm sure Marvel Studios executives are reading a review written by a humble Texas bimbo, so let me say this to everyone in charge of these movies and TV shows: please stop treating the Kree and Skrull stuff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with such seriousness. The former group especially is so boring in this and Captain Marvel, yet their lore is treated with such stone-faced rigidity. Anytime The Marvels cuts back to Dar-Benn and her generic revenge mission (plus a backstory meant to make her the umpteenth MCU villain who is "actually right"), one is bound to roll their eyes. Please, either make these alien races more compelling or stop returning to them so often. Despite a committed performance from Zawe Ashton, Dar-Benn's whole presence in The Marvels is a massive problem in the proceedings. She just feels disconnected from the rest of the feature, a UPN sci-fi show baddie inhabiting something with sillier inclinations. Plus, her eventual villain plot in the third act gets so big in scope that it's impossible to get dramatically invested. 

If the villain of The Marvels is a massive weak point, at least its three heroes are a treat to watch. In a happy surprise, Larson, Parris, and Vellani have terrific chemistry together. Who needs large explosions when you can just watch the three of them try to juggle or jump rope together? Their interactions are lots of fun, even when the third act gets swallowed up by half-hearted character arcs and muddled dramatic beats. Best of all, the heavy emphasis on Kamala Khan turns out to be an inspired choice for the film as a whole. She's such a delightful creation, full of infectious enthusiasm, and an opening scene cribbing from the visual aesthetic of the Ms. Marvel TV show that puts audiences into one of Khan's hand-drawn fan-fictions is lots of fun. Plus, Iman Vellani's performance is endlessly charming. While fellow 2023 Marvel Studios title Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania was disappointingly devoid of personality, Kamala Khan's presence in The Marvels alone gives this feature a pulse.

Almost as entertaining as Vellani's performance are the handful of sequences where The Marvels really cuts loose and embraces its silliest impulses. Specifically, a set piece where our three leads arrive on a planet extremely familiar to Danvers and a key climactic sequence involving Goose the Cat/Flerken provide the creative high points of The Marvels. The former sequence also allows one to appreciate both the terrific costume design work on display here and the fact that much of The Marvels has actually been shot on nicely detailed sets. Yay for not just leaning on The Volume in shooting blockbuster movies! DaCosta and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lend a polished look to this tentpole that helps make it as digestible as it is. 

Such visual details, along with some well-realized hand-to-hand fight scenes, are unfortunately often marred by choppy editing and restrictive camerawork that often won't let individual shots breathe for too long. Several gags in The Marvels are undercut by an unwillingness to let jokes play out in extended unbroken images, with the cuts between shots disrupting the comedic rhythm of these gags. Unfortunately, The Marvels can't outrun its strongest drawbacks, particularly when it comes to an overstuffed story hinging on dramatic stakes one just can't get invested in. Thankfully, whenever it leans just on the silly gags and chemistry between its three leads, The Marvels recovers some of its footing.  If nothing else, it solidifies Iman Vellani as one of the great discoveries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please make her the centerpiece of these movies going forward.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Holdovers Is a Melancholy Yet Deeply Movie Exploration of Holiday Season Grief


Who doesn't get a little sad at Christmastime? Though it's often called "the most wonderful time of the year", Christmas can also be a challenging experience. There are often toxic relatives you've got to deal with at parties. The emphasis on "unity" and "togetherness" in all those billboards or holiday-themed passages can exacerbate your loneliness. Plus, the holidays coinciding with the end of the year can lend an innately wistful reflective quality to one's mind at the end of December. Thoughts can turn to looking back on the preceding 12 months and contemplating the future rather than living in the Yuletide joy of the moment. The end of the year can be a tricky thing to navigate. The Holdovers, a new film from director Alexander Payne, fully runs into those hurdles to make a bittersweet Christmas movie that's also oddly comforting. Any reminders that one isn't alone in experiencing severe emotional problems can be unexpectedly reassuring despite the heavy subject matters being broached.

The Holdovers focuses on Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a legendarily stern teacher at the prestigious school Barton Academy. Nobody on the campus, across the teachers and students, likes this curmudgeon who prefers to spend his days hidden away in this school rather than exploring the wider world. Screenwriter David Hemingson (impressively making his feature film screenwriting debut here) makes the wise decision to establish Hunham's crankiness in a fashion that establishes the character's abrasiveness without totally alienating viewers. We see this man's off-putting personality on full display in his interactions with his students, but most of those students are rich male jerks. Having a teacher (a job that notoriously pays little) wielding a little power against these nepo babies isn't exactly "noble" behavior, but it's also a very entertaining way to cement Hunham as an unlikeable soul. Rather than going the expected route of showing Hunham as "bad" by being explicitly ableist, homophobic, or racist, The Holdovers opts to make him more complicated. His grievances against these wealthy kids are somewhat warranted, it's just his way of communicating those frustrations (and his unwillingness to let anybody in emotionally) is deeply flawed.

After making it clear that we're watching a very detached academic soul living as a shell of himself, The Holdovers proceeds to its central conflict. Hunham is spending the final weeks of December watching over students who have nowhere to go for the holidays. Eventually, he only has one such student to look over: Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a kid who's not quite a jock, nerd, or any other easy High School archetype. He's just messy (Tully has so many family issues) and is unwilling to roll over for Hunham. Also on the campus? The head of Barton Academy cafeteria, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). She gets along nicely with Hunham and is grieving the recent death of her son in Vietnam. 

What if The Browning Version was directed by Hal Ashby? It'd look a lot like The Holdovers, which is a compliment. This Payne feature can't hit the highs of Version or Ashby's greatest movies, but leaning so much on cinematic magic of the past leads to The Holdovers scoring its own cinematic highs. For starters, the entire motion picture is a three-hander acting exercise between Giamatti, Sessa, and Randolph, and on that front, it's an exceptional experience. It's so good to see Giamatti in a major motion picture again and his skillful work at making Hunham so unabashedly irascible is consistently engrossing. There's a believable level of authority to Giamatti's line deliveries and physicality, but also a sadness beneath those expressive eyes that exude vulnerability even in the character's most unlikeable moments. Meanwhile, Dominic Sessa is an incredible find in his acting debut as Angus Tully. I especially liked the messy way he portrays a teenager navigating emotional quandaries beyond his years. There's such an authenticity to Sessa's depiction of Tully in turmoil that you feel like you're watching an actual teenager out of their depth rather than a cozy cinematic depiction of people in that age range.

As for Da'Vine Joy Randolph, well, those of us who watched Dolemite is My Name four years ago always knew she has incredible chops as an actor. She's absolutely riveting here on all fronts, including her terrific chemistry with both Giamatti and Sessa. Especially unforgettable is a key dialogue-free scene involving Lamb visiting her sister's house. Randolph doesn't need words to grip your eyeballs, she proves captivating so effortlessly. She and the other actors here are framed through a visual sensibility established by Payne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld that's meant to make The Holdovers look like a movie that would've been produced in the early 1970s (the era in which the story takes place). I wish more of the second half of The Holdovers leaned into interesting visual flourishes rooted in the filmmaking norms of this decade, but there's still an engaging and cozy lived-in quality to its imagery that's hard to resist. Extra bonus points too for how The Holdovers was captured with digital cameras, yet various post-production processes gave it all the delightful imperfections (like film grain) of something shot on 35mm. Some movies that go down this road of shooting digitally and then adding in the 35mm visual qualities later just look strange, but The Holdovers totally fooled me into thinking it was shot on vintage Kodak film.

Payne and Hemingson's approach to The Holdovers doesn't so much rewrite the book as it does build on cinema's past to make an enjoyable and effectively melancholy new feature. That's perfectly fine by me when the final product is both actually engaging to watch and such a drastic improvement on Payne's last movie, Downsizing. Keeping the scope of this story so intimate doesn't just let one appreciate the outstanding trio of performances anchoring The Holdovers. It also gets you so comfortable with these characters that even the most conceptually schmaltzy moments in the third act feel totally earned. What a nice gift for the holidays to see a feature like The Holdovers handle that sort of material so nicely. 

Monday, October 30, 2023

Priscilla paints a humanizing portrait of its titular subject

Both a sense of entrapment and a disconnect from reality permeate the directorial career of Sofia Coppola. The Virgin Suicides, for instance, was all about a collection of teenage girls withheld from experiencing the real world. The Bling Ring was a story about ordinary teenagers searching for an exciting escape from their lives by breaking into the houses of celebrities and taking their possessions, in essence believing owning these items will make them like their famous idols. Meanwhile, Marie Antoinette recalls the life of the titular royal figure as someone totally detached from the reality of her subjects as she enjoys an existence of luxury in her lavish domicile. Even Coppola's low-key yarn 2020 On The Rocks continued these themes by following Rashida Jones as a woman trapped by the thought of her husband having an affair and bamboozled that everyone else finds her unreliable father so charming. How come nobody else can see the man she's known all her life?

These qualities, as well as a penchant for glorious production design, lending urgent verve to period pieces,  and an overall empathy for complicated women characters, have made Sofia Coppola's career incredibly fascinating to watch unfold. Coppola continues her biggest thematic fascinations with Priscilla, a motion picture that chronicles the relationship between Priscilla Presley and Elvis. Much of the discussion around Priscilla will inevitably center around comparisons between it and Baz Luhrmann's 2022 feature Elvis and understandably so given that they're both distinctive creative visions about one of the most prolific American musicians of all time. However, in the middle of all that discussion, let's also not forget to appreciate Priscilla as a standalone piece of art and another triumphant feather in Sofia Coppola's artistic cap.

Priscilla begins in 1959, as a fourteen-year-old Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny) is invited to attend a party involving Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi). At this shindig, Elvis begins to immediately express a fondness for Priscilla, a relationship that Coppola frames from the start as incredibly creepy. The exchanges between a grown man and a 9th-grader are usually rendered by Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd through these wide shots that go on and on. The lengthy nature of these images, particularly one chronicling the duo's first Christmas together, emphasizes the incredible awkwardness and stiffness between these two people. These are not starstruck lovers, this is a relationship built on an incredibly inappropriate and off-balance power dynamic from the start. This concept is impressively rendered in Coppola's hands while the emphasis on Elvis as a self-infatuated guy with a tendency for murmuring provides a great contrast to typical hagiographic pop culture portrayals of "The King."

From here, Priscilla chronicles its titular lead getting swept up in the life of Elvis Presley and becoming his go-to lover, to the point that she's asked to come stay at Graceland. This location is one we've all seen on postcards, in films, everywhere imaginable. Its go-to visual aura is one of cozy Americana, it's a depiction of lavish living that we're supposed to wish we could have. Within this story, though, Graceland is quickly transformed into a prison. It isn't long before Priscilla Presley finds that her life as Elvis's spouse is endlessly constrictive. She can't even play with her dog outside without being told not to "make a spectacle of yourself" while she's forbidden to have a job or bring any of her friends over. "No outsiders at Graceland," she's told. It's classic abusive behavior, cutting off your partner's external life so that they can only find value in you.

Its truly impressive how well Coppola and company transform the interior of Graceland, a place we've seen all our lives in media as so ritzy and glamorous, into feeling like such a suffocating nightmare. The emptiness of this vast space (captured in haunting wide shots) serves as a visual extension of how hollow Priscilla feels inside navigating this toxic relationship. An especially harrowing depiction of how draining and insulting this experience is for Priscilla comes in an early sequence showing her sitting down at a dinner table with Elvis and his cohorts. At this bustling meal, the camera lingers on just Priscilla's face as nobody asks her any questions about herself or even really acknowledges her existence. Cailee Spaeny does remarkable work communicating with the gentlest twitches of her face this sense of unease, of recognizing that she's being ignored. There are so many people around her, she's sitting next to one of the most famous singers of all-time...yet she's never felt so alone. It's a heartbreaking moment that offers such a subtle but moving window into Priscilla Prelsey's soul.

Speaking of her, Cailee Spaney is outstanding here as Priscilla Presley. Back in 2018, Spaeny suddenly showed up in four separate movies (Pacific Rim Uprising, Bad Times at the El Royale, On the Basis of Sex, and Vice), an abrupt uptick in cinematic appearences that had me wondering what was going on. No offense to Spaney's work in any of those films (she's pretty good in El Royale), it just led me to wonder "why is Hollywood so fixated on this one actor?" Priscilla is basically a feature-length demonstration of how there's been so much hype surrounding Spaeney. Whether it's handling the subtlest yet most meaningful pieces of body language from Priscilla or accurately portraying this woman across multiple stages of her life, Spaeny crushes the assignment. Playing opposite her is Jacob Elordi, a dude from Euphoria that the gays and gals on the internet can't stop talking about as a new heartthrob. Props to Elordi then for subverting that image by communicating palpable intensity and intimidation in his version of Elvis, which is more reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis's whiny Phantom Thread character than any other version of Elvis Presley I've seen in cinema. The way Elvis is always speaking out the side of his mouth or the way Elordi delicately injects this singer's Southern twang into his vocals without lapsing into a stereotype, these are all such great details underscoring a well-realized performance. Maybe I'll also join that Jacob Elordi fan club, even after being terrified and repulsed by this man's version of Elvis Presley!

Unsurprisingly, because this is a Sofia Coppola movie, Priscilla also looks gorgeous in terms of its visuals. The color scheme of the feature is full of beautiful-looking warm colors, with those hues providing an especially interesting contrast whenever they're utilized in toxic environments like Graceland. The overwhelming utilization of bright red in a climatic scene depicting Elvis Presley's Vegas hotel domicile, for instance, is downright inspired. Similarly creative are the ways this feature indicates the passing of time exlucisvley through imagery and not through didactic dialogue, such as the depiction of endless empty plates being picked up by a housekeeper outside of Elvis and Prsicilla's bedroom. These kinds of flourishes and creative touches tend to work towards those key themes of entrapment and disconnect from reality that has always been around in the works of Sofia Coppola. Whether you explore it as a fascinating extension of that director's thematic fixations or just as a standalone piece of cinema, Priscilla is bound to impress.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon Is Another Towering Martin Scorsese Achievement

When I was in a film noir class in college, I was told of this story that Orson Welles tried to mount a major movie in the 1940s with an all-Black cast that couldn't get any financing. The chief reason for this? Welles planned to have the film's characters stare directly into the camera and studio executives thought that was too transgressive. To have Black people get close-ups and gaze into the audience, like white lead actors do all the time, was just too much. I can't find any evidence of this story existing, maybe it's just one of those showbiz legends, but it does reflect a reality of who gets photographed and how. It's also a yarn that entered my head during Killers of the Flower Moon during moments recreating real-life photographs of Osage denizens like Mollie (Lily Gladstone) staring directly into the camera. Figures brutally erased from history are center-frame, gazing into the viewer's soul. 

Such images emerge in a narrative that begins with oil being found on land belonging to the Osage tribe, a collection of indigenous people residing in Oklahoma. This discovery allows this population access to new levels of wealth and attracts the attention of some incredibly scummy outsiders. This includes Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), who travels to Oklahoma to join his uncle, William King Hale (Robert De Niro), in living in this territory. Hale puts on airs of being accepting and loving of the Osage, but he's always scheming ways to get more and more of that oil money for himself. One key part of this plan ends up involving a romance between Burkhart and Mollie, a connection that blossoms as more and more of the Osage are "inexplicably" murdered. The police (led by Sheriff King Shale) refuse to investigate. White folks are indifferent to the idea that indigenous people are dying off. Mollie and her Osage brethren feel like they're going insane. Killers of the Flower Moon is a cinematic testament to how normalized the horrors of colonialism and violence are in American history. The most unspeakable acts of brutality are just another day's work for the white characters here.

There are many unforgettable moments in Killers of the Flower Moon (penned by director Martin Scorsese as well as screenwriter Eric Roth), but one I especially can't get out of my mind is a tender moment in Killers of the Flower Moon when siblings Mollie and Anna (Cara Jade Myers) pause on a staircase to express their love for one another. The duo have a realistic sibling dynamic within Flower Moon, with the two sometimes being at odds with one another while ultimately always having each other's back. "You are my wealth," Mollie quietly reminds Anna while holding her close. There are no eyes on either of them, they just want to express their love for one another. It's such a beautifully-acted sequence accentuated by restrained but powerful camerawork.

It's also a moment that plays out as a great contrast to any instance where Ernest Burkhart and Willian King Hale are alone. Separated from others, there is no sense of fondness between these two people. Burkhart mostly seems intimidated by King Hale, while the latter character always has a crocodile grin cemented on his face around his nephew. In their exchanges, they only scheme. Whether it's funerals, town parties, weddings, or anything else, their sole focus is on hurting other people, particularly the indigenous Osage community. Mollie and Anna recognize that there is no replacement for the love between people. Burkhart and King Hale are terrifying husks of human beings driven by capitalistic desires. The way such personalities are just nonchalantly depicted on-screen is emblematic of just how chilling so much of Killers of the Flower Moon is. This is a film where racism is not a "surprising" quality, it's an element interwoven into every facet of American society.

Everywhere you look in Flower Moon, from condescending newsreels reporting on the Tulsa Massacre to the casual presence of the KKK in a local parade, one sees white supremacy and the dehumanizing of people of color. A scene shot from Mollie's point-of-view (accompanied by a powerfully written monologue told in voice-over) where we see all these white people spilling off of trains, eager to get a hold of that oil money, captures this hauntingly well. These individuals Mollie is eyeballing don't need to have Klan masks on to be intimidating, to be reminders of the entitlement of white people. The brutally frank depiction of racism and colonialism is also reflected in the matter-of-fact framing of any instance of white characters killing the various members of the Osage people. These horrific slayings are captured by Scorsese and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto in extended single-takes and wide shots, usually with no accompanying music. You just hear bullets going off and footsteps trudging through grass or gravel on the soundtrack. It's a stark and bleak way of depicting these gruesome killings, a devastating portrait of these senseless actions devoid of any sensationalism. The "normal" way they're shot (with no extra flourishes like discernible color grading or slow motion) hideously communicates how, for the white killers, this is "justified" or "untroublesome" behavior. It's an ingenious bit of filmmaking that just makes your soul ache.

As someone who went through all my remaining Martin Scorsese narrative film blind spots in the month leading up to Flower Moon (save for New York, New York, that feature's not available anywhere!), it's impressive to see how his directorial prowess hasn't budged with age. This man still has such a precise visual sensibility and a gift for using cinema to render the normalized injustices of the real world. It's also intriguing to see shots in here that echo unexpected classic entries in his filmography, like a shot lingering on Mollie being berated by an off-screen Burkhart mirroring a similar image of the unnamed female lead of Who's That Knocking At My Door being yelled at by Harvey Keitel. However, I was also struck by how Killers of the Flower Moon allows Scorsese to deliver plenty of new images or bursts of filmmaking that feel unprecedented in his visual toolkit. He's still discovering new exciting ways to tell stories in this medium and it's making for such rich cinematic accomplishments.

Another standout in Killers of the Flower Moon, though, is easily Lily Gladstone. This performer's been crushing it from the get-go with her remarkable work in the 2016 Kelly Reichardt movie Certain Women, but boy is Gladstone operating on another level here. Just the way she's able to utilize the tiniest corners of her face or even her throat to convey powerful internalized emotions inside Mollie is enough to grip your eyeballs. Gladstone's facial expressions are a gift and she proves equally adept at making Mollie's pronounced displays of emotions compelling. A moment where she wails in despair after hearing devastating news will haunt my nightmares, there's just years and years of pain in that noise. There are plenty of memorable turns in Killers of the Flower Moon, including DiCaprio reminding us all that he's best at playing weasley scumbags always in over their heads. However, this is Lily Gladstone's movie, her performance is nothing less than a towering achievement. 

Martin Scorsese movies have always carried more than a pinch of outrage at the despicable behavior normalized in society. In Killers of the Flower Moon, though, this thematic motif is realized in an especially haunting manner, as the film's 206-minute runtime lets viewers witness the elimination of an entire society by way of powerful white people doing whatever they want. This is how genocide occurs, right in front of everyday eyes and through the actions of ordinary souls. Scorsese has taken a medium that's typically erased the hardships and humanity of non-White Americans and used it to shine a spotlight on often-ignored historical atrocities. Killers of the Flower Moon is not an easy watch, but that's precisely what makes it a staggering filmmaking achievement...along with that Lily Gladstone lead performance.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour hits glorious creative high notes


When I was on the cusp of becoming a teenager, I distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom, listening to the country music station 96.7 The Texas Twister, and hearing something unexpected on the radio. I was so used to hearing older or thirty-something dudes in this genre that the sudden presence of a voice that clearly belonged to a teenage girl took me by surprise. This wasn’t somebody singing about their “brand new girlfriend” or their desire to check ladies for ticks. This was a woman signing about romantic longing, the feeling that a single artist can take you back to memories of the past, or being invisible to somebody you can’t stop thinking about. I was raised to believe all teenage girl angst was just pointless drama, a bunch of blathering originating from how “emotional” ladies were. Hearing Taylor Swift’s voice on the radio, though, these problems didn’t sound like “blathering.” They sounded important. They sounded personal. They sounded like things I’d been through.

Save for the trials of Charlie Brown in classic Peanuts comics, I’d struggled to find pieces of pop culture that made me feel normal in being sad as a youngster. Wasn’t this supposed to be the best time of my life? It sure didn’t feel like it most days. The emotionally complicated ditties of Taylor Swift made me feel a little less alone in that moment. From there, me and this artist were inseparable. In my late Middle School years, I’d clutch my green iPod Nano loaded up with Taylor Swift songs and listen to these tunes as a way to calm me down when I got overstimulated. Yes, I’m a repellant white girl Taylor Swift fan and I have been for almost two decades. That doesn’t mean I worship everything Taylor Swift touches (the album Reputation is a total mixed bag and her working with David O. Russell on Amsterdam is a disgraceful moment in her career), but a lot of her tunes have resonated with me on a profoundly important level.

All that’s to say, the new concert movie Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour always sounded like something that would be up my alley. However, watching it (my first time watching the Eras Tour in any context), I was still blown away. I was prepared to enjoy the songs, but I was not expecting the level of visual razzle-dazzle this production delivered. For those not in the known, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour chronicles a filmed version of the Los Angeles stop of Swift’s Eras Tour, a concert experience where the titular singer delves into tunes from each one of her albums. From Speak Now to evermore to Lover and everything in between, they all get highlighted. Plus, nearly all of them are performed on stage with the same level of extreme visual maximalism, with the only restrained exception coming during a pair of acoustically sung tunes.

I found myself often being a total rube during Eras Tour, just going “woah!” or “wow!” at the sheer scale of the LED screens Swift was performing against or the quickness with which she changed into different costumes. It really does feel like some form of magic the way this conceptually limited stage space is constantly transformed into everything from a pool to an isolated cottage to a catwalk where Swift and her dancers can seductively strut their stuff. The uber-pronounced executions of the various songs, which are performed alongside everything from gigantic clouds (that initially looked like the head of the Rock-Biter from The Never-Ending Story) to people trapped in boxes, dazzle the eyes and provide great visual extensions of the assorted tunes. These are tracks that often encapsulate such BIG emotions and now the Eras Tour provides creative images that reflect the expansiveness of those feelings.

Just in terms of set-pieces and spectacle, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is a triumph, particularly in how it’s able to organically shift between so many different visual moods (like quietly ominous, sexually provocative, or cheekily playful, just to name a few) without missing a beat. But something else that I found impressive watching this film (at the risk of sounding like a press release) is how gifted Taylor Swift is at working a crowd. When she’s leading up to the introduction of the performance of the song “The Man,” for instance, it’s just so much fun to see her teasing the crowd with increasingly obvious hints about what ditty is next on the tracklist. Somehow, her displays of being emotionally moved by all the love expressed by the crowd also come off as shockingly genuine. Most impressively, though, when it’s time for her to perform sadder songs like “All Too Well,” she’s able to capture that intimate vocal quality that drew me to her in the first place.

When I was first listening to “Teardrops on My Guitar” or “Tim McGraw” in 2006, what emotionally transfixed me was that Swift totally sounded like she was singing directly to me. My mind immediately captured an image of me and Swift sitting in a room, her strumming away on a guitar and talking about her recent emotional woes. In that moment, it felt like only I was listening to these melodies in the coziest confines. Somehow, even though she’s performing in front of countless souls in the massive SoFi Stadium in the Eras Tour movie, Swift conjures up that quality again for her more low-key songs. Even as you can see endless seas of concertgoers in the background of certain shots, Swift’s vocals still make you feel like she’s singing this tune directly to you. It’s a gift that’s only more apparent when you’re watching her performing songs on a massive movie theater screen.

Speaking of which, the experience of watching Eras Tour in a cinematic setting certainly provides a stirring approximation of how sweeping it would be to watch her perform live in person. Even in my sparsely attended Saturday afternoon digital projection screening (no IMAX or Dolby Cinema flourishes!), the sound of roaring crowds came through loud and clear on the speakers. Meanwhile, director Sam Wrench and the various editors make sure the various songs are so crisply realized on-screen (no shaky or clumsy editing to undercut key emotional moments in the track list) that the sheer visual imagination of this particular concert is unmistakable. The team's versatility in terms of filmmaking chops also ensures that the unique personalities of each tune are nicely realized on the screen. More aggressive quick cuts dominate the editing of the various Reputation songs, for instance, while calmer editing and longer takes are the default visual norms for the quieter acoustic dittoes or folklore tracks. Cuts to the crowd are also used sparingly, which helps to quietly cement the idea that Swift's stage is like its own isolated world. It's sometimes nice to see the wide array of souls being transported live by the music, but the decision to keep the camera almost exclusively focused on the performers (rather than constantly cutting to the crowd or backstage material) heightens the immersiveness of all those elaborate backdrops. The simultaneously intimate and sweeping camerawork really makes viewers feel like they could get lost in all the intricate detail put into those sets!

Like the best pieces of camerawork or editing, these visual touches are so well-integrated into Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, you don't even notice them as they occur, they just work seamlessly into reinforcing the images and atmosphere on-screen. The flourishes in the editing and direction make it often breathtaking to watch Swift's musical prowess on a movie theater screen. The mind reels to imagine what it’d be like to be there in person watching this material unfold live and absorbing all that energy from the audience! Still, don't take that comment to mean that the movie version of Eras Tour, is an inferior product. Sam Wrench and company provide a fantastically rendered cinematic time capsule of this event. Their work deftly makes it clear why this specific musical shindig has become such a pop culture phenomenon.

Also, props to the folks who were in charge of whittling down what songs from the various eras of Swift’s career should be played in the concert. Inevitably, some of my personal favorites were excluded from the concert (“Welcome to New York”, “I Wish You Would”, “Picture to Burn (Homophobic Version)”, you shall not be forgotten), but that was always going to happen, they were never going to cram every single Swift classic into one concert movie. The songs they chose are a fantastic line-up of Swift hits and feature enough variety in sound and aesthetics that the concert doesn’t quickly become repetitive. The highest compliment I could offer Eras Tour is that viewers will be leaving the theater raving about their favorite performances, not grousing about what tunes didn’t make the cut.

If you’re not already a fan of Taylor Swift, I’ll be the first to admit that Eras Tour won’t be a movie that suddenly makes you a believer. Also, the nitpicky film critic in me must note that Eras Tour can’t quite stand up to the all-time greatest concert films like Stop Making Sense and Beyonce Homecoming. David Byrne and Beyonce, your concert cinema crowns are not being relinquished today. However, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is still an impressive cinematic experience providing enough spectacle to make the likes of Cecil B. DeMille grin with approving pride. It was a marvelous experience to witness the same qualities that made me immediately connect to Taylor Swift’s music on The Texas Twister in 2006 still so gloriously apparent on a movie theater screen in 2023. If you think you'd even enjoy Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour a little bit, go see it on a massive screen with friends and prepare to be blown away.