Review by Tatiana Miranda
Movies and shows set in the 1970s have existed since, well, the 1970s. Yet, even with the acclaim of a few recent '70s-based pieces of media, such as Licorice Pizza and Daisy Jones and the Six, they have the same aesthetic representation of the era as a tacky Party City costume. This is not the case with Alexander Payne's film The Holdovers. Set in 1970, the movie centers around a group of students residing at the prestigious boarding school Barton Academy over winter break. Chaperoned by the widely hated history teacher Paul Hunham and cook Mary, there is eventually only one student remaining, the outspoken but compassionate Angus Tully.
Paul, played by Paul Giamatti, is the kind of role one would expect the late Robin Williams to portray. This is probably a result of the movie's similar setting and plot to beloved films such as Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society. Much like the younger leads of those films, Dominic Sessa's character, Angus Tully, is rebellious and perhaps a bit emotionally stunted due to his family issues. Because of this, The Holdovers seems a bit cliche at first, yet the film's adherence to '70s aesthetics and film techniques makes it clear that its simplicity is meant to be an ode to the emotional dramas of the past — not a replica.
While The Holdovers is pretty standard in terms of its characters and emotional drivers, its commitment to embodying a movie both filmed and set in the 1970s makes it a masterclass in effective world-building. From the period-accurate costumes to the grainy visuals, which are thanks to it being shot on 35mm, there is not a moment where the film comes off as cheesy and unrealistic — even with the soundtrack featuring songs from modern artists such as Damien Jurado and Khruangbin.
The Holdovers feels like a classic emotional drama in so many ways, namely its comedy. The characters' deadpan deliveries and outlandish actions inject personality into an otherwise dismal film. Still, the funny interactions don't diminish the seriousness of some of the subject matter. In something that tackles subjects such as racism, classism, and mental health, humor is much needed to balance out the dramatic aspects.
Out of the three lead performances, Sessa is perhaps the standout as he breaks into film with his performance in The Holdovers. He perfectly portrays a wisecracking, tenderhearted teen dealing with the disappointment of being stranded over the holiday break. This is not to say his character isn't sometimes contradictory, as it's sometimes unclear whether he wants to excel at Barton or get kicked out. Still, his emotional outbursts cause the other characters to reevaluate their own emotions and grow as the film progresses.
Just in time for the holiday season, The Holdovers is an entertaining slice of nostalgia that is bound to be a favorite among Thanksgiving Day moviegoers. Even more than that, though, it's a testament to the creativity of Alexander Payne, and that sometimes simplicity is key.
The Holdovers releases in theaters on October 27.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
When it comes to queer cinema, stories tend to focus on the youthful side of LGBTQ+ identities. Often, they feature a sense of coming-of-age and scenes of coming out to friends and family. While All of Us Strangers doesn't *not* do those things, it does them in a re-inventive way that says more about the cultural understandings of queerness, rather than one personal identity.
Based on the film's promotional images and beloved leading men, All of Us Strangers might seem like your average sad gay romance. Although the movie is both sad and gay (How could it star Paul Mescal and not be a little depressing?), the romance aspect is probably the least moving part of the film. Even with Mescal and Andrew Scott's undeniable on-screen chemistry, their characters' love story plays second fiddle to the main plot at hand.
Loosely based on the 1987 Japanese novel Strangers, the movie centers around 40-something-year-old screenwriter Adam (Scott), as he routinely revisits his childhood home in an attempt to reconnect with his long-deceased parents. Although he starts this routine as a way to gain inspiration for his writing, it slowly turns into a mode of therapy, as he communes with the imagined versions of his mother and father.
Even though All of Us Strangers is probably one of the more hopeful queer films to come out of late, it is still intensely emotional and full of a sense of loneliness that is both personal to the characters and also a reflection of the realities of being gay without a community to share that revelation with. As Adam grows closer to Mescal's character, Harry, he reveals his identity to his parents, imagining how they might react to him coming out.
The differences in Harry's and Adam's individual gay identities are also incredibly significant. Due to his age and personal trauma, Adam is more reserved when it comes to romance. Meanwhile, Harry is perhaps overly flirtatious. For Harry, his outward sexuality comes easy to him, a sign of the times changing and his ability to have properly come out to his family, even if they no longer talk to him.
Although All of Us Strangers is touching as a romance with incredible performances by both Scott and Mescal, as well as Claire Foy and Jamie Bell as Adam's parents, its emotional aspects come from its unorthodox and refreshing look at navigating sexuality and coming out past your youth. Director Andrew Haigh's well-thought-out adaptation, paired with editor Jonathan Alberts's masterful blending of the "past" and present, makes it an unforgettable film.
All of Us Strangers screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Todd Haynes is best known for his campy (Velvet Goldmine and Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story) stories about forbidden love (Carol and Far From Heaven), and in his newest flick, May December, both themes are present. Or are they? Probably his most experimental film of recent years, May December teeters the line between serious drama and parody.
The movie follows actress Elizabeth Berry as she visits married couple Gracie Atherton-Yoo and Joe Yoo in preparation for a movie role about their life. As is eventually revealed, in the '90s, 36-year-old Gracie had an affair with 13-year-old Joe. Even after making national headlines and Gracie having Joe's children while in prison, the two got married and attempted to move past their infamous history. That is until Elizabeth arrives and causes the family to rethink the facts of their relationship.
Compared to comedy films about similar subjects — such as Adam Sandler's That's My Boy -- May December understands the seriousness of the situation and instead relies on the absurdity of the characters and their actions as a form of comedy. The first note of this is when, after a mundane statement from Gracie about not having enough hot dogs for their cookout, a dramatic piano score by Marcelo Zarvos interjects. This continues throughout the film, as several inane moments are treated as if they're shocking revelations in a true crime drama.
It takes a while for viewers to determine whether this absurd directorial decision is meant to be taken seriously or not. Long after the credits roll, some are still left wondering whether May December was meant to be a dramatic story about the inhumanity behind true crime biopics or a satire thriller piece similar to the Netflix series The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window.
More than a critique of Gracie's extramarital and extremely illegal relationship with Joe, May December highlights the ridiculousness of how Elizabeth treats the couple for the sake of her career. Similarly to how the main characters never quite condemn Gracie's — or even Elizabeth's — actions, Haynes never gives a decisive answer as to how the audience should feel about the movie as a whole, and what it has to say about the epidemic of true crime biopics and intense method acting.
Due to the film's upcoming release on Netflix, it's likely it will reach an audience affronted by how unseriously it takes itself and its sometimes confusing tonal shifts. While May December is unlikely to become a beloved classic like Carol for this reason, it provides an interesting and experimental critique of the modern Hollywood phenomena of true crime biopics.
May December screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
With hits like Oppenheimer and Tetris and highly-anticipated movies like Priscilla and Maestro, 2023 is a big year for biopics. The Netflix film Rustin is another addition to that list. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground Productions, Rustin tells the story of Bayard Rustin, a gay Black civil rights activist who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
When most think of the March on Washington, they immediately remember Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech. While Rustin doesn't discredit King's involvement in the creation and outcome of the march, it instead focuses on the development of the march, which was spearheaded by Rustin. Even more so, though, the film focuses on Rustin's identity as a semi-openly gay man in the '60s.
Throughout the movie, he faces prejudice and criticism from those of his own race and others regarding his sexuality. Even though the movie follows his work in the civil rights movement, the conflicts of Rustin's sexuality are frequent. Because of this, Rustin is a queer liberation film, as well as a Black liberation one. Co-writers Julian Breece (known for the series When They See Us about the Central Park 5) and Dustin Lance Black (who wrote the film Milk) ensure Rustin's gayness is just as prevalent as his Blackness.
While it is a movie with lots of personality and filled with humor and heartfelt moments, Rustin does have its flaws — namely the performances. Colman Domingo leads after having starred in mainly supporting roles in shows and movies such as Euphoria and If Beale Street Could Talk. Unfortunately, in what should be an Oscar-worthy performance, his portrayal of Rustin comes across as a caricature of the influential figure.
Other performances, such as Chris Rock as NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and Jeffrey Wright as U.S. representative Adam Clayton Powell, feel equally stagelike. Some of this might be a result of director George C. Wolfe's prominent work in theater. Yet, other roles, like Audra McDonald as activist Ella Baker and Aml Ameen as Martin Luther King, feel more realistic and less cartoonish.
Even with its shortcomings, Rustin is a powerful and moving film that gives voice to an otherwise forgotten hero. It is also an unflinching portrayal of the historical and modern problems that face non-white members of the LGBTQIA+ community. In a time when more and more civil rights leaders are being erased from textbooks, Rustin is a reminder of the instrumental work done by a then-controversial figure who deserves to be remembered.
Rustin screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
While Natalia Dyer is most well-known for her role in Stranger Things, she's been a lead in indie films such as Yes, God, Yes and I Believe in Unicorns. Now, she leads the queer coming-of-age film Chestnut. The film derives its name from the historic street in Philadelphia, where the movie takes place and was shot. The premise centers around Dyer's character, Annie James, who is a recent college graduate with plans to move to LA at the end of the summer. Then, while at a bar, one night she crosses paths with friends Tyler and Danny and finds herself reluctant to leave.
Alongside Dyer, Danny Ramirez (On My Block and Top Gun: Maverick) and Rachel Keller (Legion and The Society) portray the alluring Danny and Tyler, respectively. With a cast of established and talented actors, it's surprising how disappointing their performances are in Chestnut. In an attempt to be understated and contemplative, the film comes across as dull and uninspired. For a movie that feels very personal to the director, Jac Cron — as she also attended college in Philadelphia — there isn't a lot of personality in the film.
As a movie that attempts to tackle the complexities of bisexuality, it doesn't have a super nuanced take. Chestnut is most comparable to Princess Cyd, a film about a girl who falls for people of the same and opposite sex over the course of a summer. While Princess Cyd centers more on the realization of being bisexual, the protagonist of Chestnut has already established her queer identity by the beginning of the film. This does feel refreshing in a sea of LGBTQ+ films that tend to focus on the coming out portion of being queer. Still, the queer aspects of the movie get lost in the underdeveloped portions of the story, including Annie's relationships with Danny and Tyler.
It's clear what the movie attempted to focus on, such as Annie's conflicting feelings toward Danny and Tyler, and her jealousy of both, along with her introverted nature and hesitance to relocate to a new city. Yet, it feels like Chestnut is telling us these things are important to the story, rather than properly developing these topics and letting them evolve as the film goes on. Instead, the movie is about an hour and a half of jealousy, longing looks across bars, and Annie's discussions with a friend about her relationship with Tyler and Danny.
Overall, Chestnut has potential, with the stellar cast and interesting conflicts of allowing yourself to fall for someone (or some people) even if it's temporary, but it falls short in giving these conflicts a unique voice.
Chestnut screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest, which runs October 12-24.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
In early 2019, American Renee Bach and her Ugandan medical nonprofit Serving His Children gained international media attention after an advocacy group filed a lawsuit seeking retribution for two mothers whose children died in Bach's care. While Bach's story is still fairly new, the underlying idea of a "savior complex" and "white savior" has been brought up regarding Christian missionary work in underdeveloped countries since before Bach even started Serving His Children. In the three-part HBO docuseries Savior Complex, Bach's organization is examined, along with the lawsuit that followed. On top of that, the discussion of the ethics of missionary work is interwoven in the series, leaving the viewer much to consider once the credits roll.
Despite the name of the documentary, Savior Complex doesn't try to persuade its audience of Bach's innocence or lack thereof, instead presenting the progression of her organization and its eventual downfall. Initially started as a program for free meals in southeast Uganda, Serving His Children turned into a medical clinic for malnourished children after Bach saw how malnourishment affected the community. As Bach herself states, she had no prior medical experience, yet she hired nurses through her organization and worked with the local hospital. It wasn't until an American nurse came to volunteer with the organization that Bach's potential malpractice came to light.
Along with interviews with Bach and her mom, who was part of the board for Serving His Children, the documentary also tells the story through the lens of Constance, who was the head nurse for Serving His Children from Uganda, as well as American nurse and former Serving His Children volunteer Jackie, who eventually called out potential malpractice in the organization. Other members of the community, such as a doctor at a local hospital and the leaders of the advocacy group No White Saviors, also detail their interactions with Bach and why her organization went the way it did.
While Bach continues to defend herself and deny accusations from No White Saviors and Jackie, contradictions are also shown through evidence from her blog at the time, as Constance tells the same story — albeit a bit differently. Still, the docuseries doesn't set out to paint Bach as the villain. Instead, it allows her to state her case and ultimately shows that she didn't set out to do harm, regardless of what members and followers of No White Saviors might believe. Although the documentary doesn't end with conclusive evidence of Bach's actions and the resulting justice, it brings up the topic of white saviors. It aso shows even though the work you're doing may be beneficial for the community, it might ultimately be the wrong way to go about it.
Savior Complex is a thoughtful and informative depiction of Serving His Children and Renee Bach, which also focuses on the bigger picture of neocolonialism and race relations in countries like Uganda. For those unfamiliar with Christian mission trips, this documentary will be eye-opening, and for those familiar with them, it will likely be a point of contention or introspection, much like Bach's reality.
Savior Complex premieres on Max on September 26. All three episodes reviewed.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
When the raunchy British teen comedy Sex Education premiered on Netflix in 2019, most probably wouldn't have expected it to launch the careers of many of its stars. While a few members of the cast — such as Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson — were previously recognizable names, newer stars like Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, and Connor Swindells will likely view their time on Sex Education as their breakout role that landed them work on Greta Gerwig's hit Barbie. Due to the cast's success beyond the series, it was announced that Season 4 would be the final season.
The series centers around students in the fictional English town Moordale as they navigate their sexuality with the help of fellow student Otis Milburn, whose mom is a famous sex therapist. While the series has its fair share of dark moments — with a main character experiencing sexual assault and another dealing with a drug-addicted mother — it is ultimately a show that pokes fun at the wacky scenarios the cast of characters get themselves into. In previous seasons, sex musicals have been performed at school, and students have shared their craziest, almost comical, sex horror stories.
Even with such a large cast, previous seasons have worked well in balancing the comedy and the drama, yet Season 4 comes across as extremely rushed, and many of the comedic beats don't hit right. With the announcement of this being the final season and the busy schedules of most of the main cast, this resulted in a disjointed season that is never sure of what story it wants to focus on.
As with the previous season, Otis and his mother Jean's stories were the less interesting ones of the group. Meanwhile, recurring characters such as Maeve, Aimee, and Eric have more intriguing plotlines. Other characters like Cal, Ruby, Adam, and a new character, O, are also interesting narratively but don't feel as fleshed out as their counterparts.
With the series ending, many loose ends needed to be tied up this season, yet this season also decided to introduce new characters with their own share of personal growth. By the end of the final episode, any growth from Otis, Jean, Aimee, or Maeve comes across as rushed or unwarranted because the rest of the episodes were focused on conflict that wasn't relevant to the main characters. While it's great to finally see some of these characters learn from their mistakes (ahem, Otis), it comes too late in the series for it to be properly enjoyed.
Sex Education will likely live beyond its four seasons as it tackles awkward conversations around sex and being a teenager that other teen shows have yet to discuss, yet the final season is a disappointing conclusion that is devoid of any charm the rest of the series had.
Sex Education season 4 premieres on Netflix on September 21. All eight episodes reviewed.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Many YA romance fans might already be familiar with the source of Netflix's latest rom-com, Love at First Sight. Based on the book The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, the film version sports a stacked cast including Ben Hardy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jameela Jamil, Sally Phillips, and Rob Delaney. Netflix previously adapted another one of Smith's books, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between, which is another rom-com full of stars such as Jordan Fisher and Ayo Edebiri. Similarly to Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between, Love at First Sight falls flat even considering the talent involved.
Love at First Sight centers around Hadley Sullivan, a disorganized girl living in New York who just narrowly misses her flight to London. While waiting for the next flight, she meets Oliver, who seems to be the complete opposite of her. Oliver is a British math student at Yale who refuses to leave things to chance, and is also heading to London. The two instantly connect as Hadley laments about her father's wedding that she is heading to. When they lose each other after the flight, it's up to chance to reconnect them.
There are elements about the film that work, or at least have the potential to do so. Namely is the plot, which features a chance encounter at an airport, which turns to romance as they spend the flight together. Similarly to the book, this section of the story is rushed through, and the only glimpse the audience gets into their connection is through cheesy one-liners. Yet, for two people who seemingly have trouble letting themselves fall in love, their relationship quickly turns from friendly to flirtatious via these cliché interactions. While both Richardson and Hardy portray their respective characters well, there is a disconnect when it comes to chemistry between the two.
Still, there are a few things that feel unique and well-developed throughout the 90-minute runtime. Although the movie is primarily focused on Hadley, Oliver is easily the more interesting character as he interacts with his family and parents' relationship. His storyline even features a Shakespeare-influenced memorial full of costumes and performances, which is one of the film's highlights. In comparison, Hadley is a more standard child of divorce with a strained relationship with her dad, which doesn't quite get the screen time it deserves.
One of the film's downfalls is that it tends to tell rather than show the character's emotions or how their perceptions of love affect their interactions. While most modern rom-coms don't pride themselves on their depth, this one attempts to give its characters more of a background that reflects their quirks. Unfortunately, it comes across as half-thought-out due to the inconsistency of their characteristics. Although Love at First Sight stays true to its source material, it is ultimately a run-of-the-mill YA rom-com to add to Netflix's library.
Love at First Sight premieres on Netflix on September 15.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Even with the widespread popularity of Neutral Milk Hotel's album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, most don't know about the band's relationship to other 90s indie bands, The Olivia Tremor Control and The Apples in Stereo. All three are connected through their music collective and label known as the Elephant 6 Recording Company. In the documentary The Elephant 6 Recording Co., the origins of the collective and its bands are brought to light for members and fans alike to reminisce on the DIY nature of the label.
Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo, Bill Doss and Will Hart of The Olivia Tremor Control, and Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel all met in high school in Ruston, Louisiana. Each formed their own band but collaborated routinely in terms of instruments and production. Over time, this collaboration became known as the Elephant 6 Recording Company, which was spearheaded by the original four friends. Eventually, Elephant 6 moved from Ruston to Denver, Colorado and Athens, Georgia, where other artists like Elf Power and of Montreal joined the collective.
More than its members, Elephant 6 represented a creative, psychedelic, do-it-yourself approach to music that differed from the Seattle grunge scene and the other genres of the period. The collective gained inspiration from 1960s psychedelic pop artists such as the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and the Zombies. They inspired the Elephant 6 in more ways than just the genre but also through production. Robert Schneider, in particular, used the four-track to record songs from The Apples in Stereo. As he says in the documentary, "My ear needed to hear something on the quality of 1966, 1967. And nothing more slick than that."
Besides Bill Doss, who passed in 2012, and Jeff Mangum, most of the original members of the Elephant 6 are interviewed in The Elephant 6 Recording Co. These interviews are paired with archival performance footage as the documentary recounts the bands involved with the collective and the motives behind their collaboration and creative process. With the music industry's competitive nature, the Elephant 6 stands up to say that it can be more than that.
While the documentary isn't very linear and tends to shy away from certain topics, such as Jeff Mangum's rise to fame and lack of involvement with the doc, it showcases the magic of the collective in its prime. Although The Elephant 6 Recording Co. might not be the best music documentary of all time, it is perfect for aspiring musicians or Neutral Milk Hotel, Olivia Tremor, and Apples in Stereo fans who want to know more about the creation of their favorite bands.
The Elephant 6 Recording Co. releases in select theaters on August 25.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
During the rise of musical artists such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin, San Francisco became a hub of experimentation in all forms. From music to drugs to sexuality, San Francisco in the '60s and '70s defined the hippie movement and a new wave of creative freedom. Compared to its Southern California counterpart, music in San Francisco was often genre-bending and accompanied by drug-induced performances. In MGM+'s San Francisco Sounds: A Place In Time, directors Alison Ellwood and Anoosh Tertzakian go beyond the height of this musical movement, instead chronicling the beginnings and endings of pivotal musicians in the scene.
The two-part docuseries opens as the San Francisco scene starts to develop with strangers connecting via rehearsal spaces and later forming revolutionary bands. Bands such as Sly and the Family Stone, Steve Miller Band, and Big Brother and the Holding Company got their start at local venues like Bill Graham's Fillmore and the Avalon Ballroom. At the end of part one of the series, we see these musicians reach new levels of fame at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967.
Part two of San Francisco Sounds begins with hoards of young adults and teenagers flocking to San Francisco to join the hippie, free love movement. As the docuseries points out, the "Summer of Love," in some ways, killed the progress of San Francisco artists as crime spiked and drug use became more prominent.
Mirroring the acclaimed performances at the Monterey festival is the 1969 Altamont Free Concert's outbreak of violence that signaled the decline of San Francisco's musical community. The infamous Altamont festival was then followed by Janis Joplin's untimely death a year later and Jefferson Airplane and Sly and the Family Stone's breakups.
While the docuseries features voiceovers from band members such as Steve Miller, Mickey Hart, and Jack Casady, they are only shown in archival footage from some fifty years ago. Meanwhile, non-musicians and authorities from the scene are seen reminiscing on the rise and fall of San Francisco's creative height. Radio DJ Dusty Street, former San Francisco Mime Troupe actor Peter Coyote, retired Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong-Torres, and poster artist Victor Moscoso lend their perspectives on the musical and artistic developments in San Francisco in the '60s and '70s.
San Francisco Sounds features plenty of previously unseen footage and exclusive interviews with band members recounting pivotal moments of their careers. One of the docuseries' best features is the choice to go beyond just one band or the widely known "Summer of Love." Instead, the series captures the beginnings and endings of the creative movement in the Bay Area and the interlocking musical community that defined the movement.
While many documentaries have tried to capture the entirety of San Francisco music in the '60s and '70s, none have done so as decisively as San Francisco Sounds: A Place in Time.
San Francisco Sounds: A Place in Time releases on August 20 and 27. Both episodes reviewed.