Review by Tatiana Miranda
Nearly thirty years post its literary release, Karen Cushman's Catherine Called Birdy has its theatrical debut thanks to Amazon Studios and director Lena Dunham. Set in medieval England, Catherine Called Birdy is the fictional account of 14-year-old Lady Catherine, who is only a lady in name and not in spirit. Often inventing curse words and longing to become a saint, Catherine is the 13th-century version of Anne Shirley, equally headstrong, ill-tempered, and loyal as the other beloved children's book character. Like many of the characters Dunham writes about, Catherine is not the most likable, but she is full of personality and, more importantly, comedy.
Alongside Bella Ramsey as Catherine is a star-studded cast including Joe Alwyn, Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, and Isis Hainsworth. Due to Scott's character, Lord Rollo, and his excessive spending, Catherine has to be married off as she is his only living daughter. This, of course, is much to Catherine's dismay, so she sets to foil any of her father's plans. Between her many hijinks regarding potential suitors, Catherine also navigates some familiar teenage problems, such as starting her period and having her first kiss. These seemingly ordinary moments are paired with comedy as the setting is anything than normal since it takes place in a time likely unfamiliar to its target audience.
Although some recent adaptions that include modern problems in historical settings have seemingly gotten it wrong (e.g. Netflix's Persuasion), Catherine Called Birdy treats its historical elements with fascination and fun, not necessarily accuracy. The film also strays away from the typical portrayals of medieval England, trading the usual dull backdrops for lavish courtyards and whimsical home decor. While the costumes are nothing spectacular, each is tailored to the character and full of elements representing their priorities. This is especially apparent with Rollo's costuming, as he is often seen wearing detailed, embroidered robes and necklaces that show off his exuberant habits.
While most of the film stays true to its literary counterpart, there are several elements changed somewhat surprisingly for the better, both narratively and cinematically. Perhaps most glaring is the ending, which, without spoiling anything, is even more heartfelt and compelling than the one Cushman wrote originally. Catherine's Fleabag-style narration keeps some of the first-person narrative elements from the source material, as the novel is written in diary format. Her witty remarks and musings are paired with the usual cheesy coming-of-age tracks, which are honestly the only downside to Dunham's masterpiece.
As Dunham's passion project, Catherine Called Birdy is representative of everything her work is known for: female empowerment, family, and humor. Her voice perfectly matches the underlying themes of the novel, and they come together in a fantastic blend of the exotic and relatable.
Catherine Called Birdy is released in theaters September 23 and on Prime Video October 7.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
If Patti Smith has her novel, Just Kids, and the Beatles have A Hard Day's Night, then David Bowie has Brett Morgen's latest documentary Moonage Daydream. While Bowie wasn't alive during the creation of this documentary, his pensive voice and imaginative perception are at the forefront. Consisting of archived interviews and live performances from various points during Bowie's career, Moonage Daydream is more of a creative interpretation of Bowie rather than a detailed account of his life.
Morgen's ode to Bowie's many personas and various exploits, whether in music or otherwise, comes from around five million pieces of archived material from the Bowie estate. With these previously unseen pieces of footage, Morgen spent years crafting the perfect rockumentary, one that gives voice to the star at hand yet also takes creative liberties that only the director can be thanked for.
While watching Moonage Daydream, it's not unlikely to see bouncing heads or the fingers of the audience tapping to the rhythm of some of Bowie's most iconic songs. This is precisely what Morgen intended, as he stated, before even beginning production, that he came up with a new genre called the "IMAX music experience," where the films are "anything but biographical, allowing the audience to have an experience with an artist." Morgen's own words are probably the best to describe what Moonage Daydream is, as it is not a typical documentary filled with talking head interviews and grainy footage but instead a collage of culture, color, and Bowie's enigmatic world.
Interspliced between several clips of cultural artifacts (such as popular movie scenes) and kaleidoscopic pops of colors seemingly dancing to the beat of Bowie's songs are the expected television interviews and grainy concert footage. Yet Morgen doesn't just leave these clips the way they were initially filmed. Instead, he overlays Bowie's live lyricism with videos of screaming fans at concerts during the height of his career. His carefully thought-out editing and audio mixing come together like one of Bowie's dance routines while on stage, meaning that everything has its purpose and correlates in a wild and inexplicable manner.
Moonage Daydream doesn't attempt to share anything new about the world-renowned musician. Instead, it honors his creativity and represents the role it has had and will likely continue to have in the cultural eye. As Morgen states, "it's Bowie in quotations." Moonage Daydream is a film displaying one perception of Bowie, which is the most that any director can ever do, as he was notoriously deliberate in the way he presented himself, routinely taking on different personas and consistently acting upon them.
Even though Moonage Daydream isn't necessarily a linear overview of Bowie's inspirations and creations, it is a cinematic experience that any creative—or even the everyday person—should experience. Beyond the captivating visuals and catchy tunes is the underlying message that life is short, but creativity lasts forever.
Moonage Daydream comes to theaters on IMAX September 16th.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Netflix's newest teenage feature-length film, Do Revenge, is star-studded and an ode to classic high school movies. The movie is filled with a cast of young Hollywood's most well-known stars, including Riverdale's Camila Mendes, Maya Hawke from Stranger Things, Euphoria's Austin Abrams, Alisha Boe from 13 Reasons Why, and Sophie Turner even makes an appearance. With a cast full of actors from popular modern media, it makes sense that the movie would also consist of references to the last decade's cultural artifacts and moments. Similar to this year's social media-driven film Not Okay, Do Revenge is ultimately a campy story about cancel culture.
Do Revenge's director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson states that the film is inspired by the high school movies she grew up loving. Its dark comedy elements are representative of movies such as Jawbreaker and Heathers. Aesthetic influences are clearly tied to Clueless, with the high school's preppy uniforms and the over-the-top, colorful everyday outfits. The best word to describe Do Revenge is camp. From the clothing to dialogue choices, it's clear that the film is a love letter to previous tales of what it's like to be a teenager. Yet, even with the film's '80s and '90s influences, it takes place modern day and tackles the teenage struggles posed by social media.
The movie opens with a party hosted for Camila Mendes's character Drea, a scholarship student at the fictional private school Rosehill. Despite her alleged poverty, she is part of the most popular group in school, has a perfect, loving boyfriend, dreams of going to Yale, and just got featured in Teen Vogue. Everything seems to be going great for her until her nudes are leaked, and chaos ensues. From there, Do Revenge is full of the actions of angsty teens trying to make the world right again, at least their version of "right." The plot is clever and filled with the types of betrayal one would expect from a movie whose plot nods to She's All That.
With its makeover sequences and one-liners, Do Revenge is the ultimate teen movie, yet it prohibits itself from becoming a parody. Although the influences are notable and well-received, the film's modern elements get lost and feel lackluster. Compared to similar recent teen-based shows and movies, such as The Politician and Bodies Bodies Bodies, this film just narrowly misses the mark on either existing outside of a hyperspecific time or capturing modern culture in a way that feels natural. Even with its few flaws, Do Revenge is an entertaining dark comedy that any high school movie fan is bound to enjoy.
Do Revenge begins streaming on Netflix September 16th.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
After The Story of Film: An Odyssey's release over a decade ago comes director Mark Cousins's sequel, The Story of Film: A New Generation. Nearly three hours long, The Story of Film: A New Generation is a documentary analyzing a variety of films from the 21st century.
Whereas The Story of Film: An Odyssey depicts the early years of film and the basics of the medium, in A New Generation, Cousins looks at films from this century that are expanding the boundaries of filmmaking. The documentary is narrated by Cousins and interspersed with clips of movies ranging in various genres, such as horror and comedy. With a critical eye, Cousins makes comparisons of films one might have never expected and opens the audience to analyze the media they consume more critically.
The Story of Film: A New Generation opens with a comparison of two movies that could not be any more different: Disney's Frozen and Todd Phillips's Joker. Cousins takes note of the similarities in dance sequences between the two, commenting on how the lines from Frozen's song "Let It Go" could apply to Joker's Arthur Fleck as he dances down steps during a pivotal point in the film.
While Cousins is clearly analyzing the similarity in structures here, underlying are also the cultural elements that made these films so notable. This is perhaps the most significant defining factor of the movies Cousins mentions in this documentary, as most have had some sort of societal impact outside the filmmaking sphere.
An underlying theme of Cousins's analysis comes from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic in cinema and society. Even within movies that came out before the pandemic, during rewatches, one can find a new interpretation based on the global experience of lockdowns and mask mandates. The scarves used as masks in Portrait of a Lady on Fire hold new meaning in a post-pandemic world, whereas the closeness of the 2020 film Small Axe: Lovers Rock causes the audience to mourn the lost days of large house parties filled with dancing.
Beyond the structural and plot-based advances in filmmaking, The Story of Film: A New Generation harps on the technological advances from the past twenty years. In particular, Cousins points out the CGI and practical effects used in movies such as The Irishman and War for the Planet of the Apes. As he notes, these advances have changed the future of filmmaking; whether for better or for worse is up to the viewer.
In The Story of Film: A New Generation, Cousins approaches this century's films with reverence and a scholarly outlook. Ultimately though, he is just presenting the movies, critically choosing scenes of note and allowing the audience to make their own conclusions on what they mean for the future of cinema.
The Story of Film: A New Generation releases in theaters on September 9.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Nearly eleven years ago, only a week after the September 11 attacks, came the first of the 2001 anthrax attacks. Spanning about a month, from September 18 to October 12, five people were killed and seventeen injured due to mailed letters containing traces of anthrax. Initially considered a terrorist act connected to Al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks, the case would remain open until 2010.
With its long case history full of mistakes and the rampant panic in society at the time, the anthrax attacks seem to be a prime documentary subject. Writer-director Dan Krauss proves this to be the case in his new Netflix documentary The Anthrax Attacks: In the Shadow of 9/11.
The Anthrax Attacks presents itself not unlike a police procedural drama, first presenting the progression of the attacks and the fear that ensued from postal workers and civilians alike, then slowly building on the FBI's work as they spend years working to find the culprit of these attacks. Spliced between interviews of FBI agents and postal workers impacted by the attacks are reenacted scenes centered around one person: Dr. Bruce Ivins. Portrayed by Clark Gregg, best known for his role as Phil Coulson in the MCU, Ivins was a microbiologist specializing in anthrax and gave the FBI his assistance during the investigation.
While this technique can sometimes feel cheesy and inaccurate, in The Anthrax Attacks, Gregg's version of Ivins utilizes the microbiologist's own words from interviews and writings. Although the case's conclusion and FBI officials' opinions are public, the pacing of the movie makes it seem as if the case is a mystery the audience is watching unravel in real-time.
Andrew Cohen, an executive producer alongside Krauss, stated that "Delving into the biggest investigation in FBI history is no simple task, but...we've been able to create a powerful and provocative film that blends drama and documentary to reopen our understanding of one of the most shocking terrorist acts in U.S. history." Even though the case went cold for years and still ended up relatively unsolved, The Anthrax Attacks presents it in an interesting light that critiques the officials that handled the case, some of whom are interviewed throughout the documentary.
From the careless decisions regarding biological weapons expert Steven Hatfill to the inconsiderate treatment of postal workers, by the time the credits roll, the audience might begin to wonder who the true "villain" of the story is.
The Anthrax Attacks: In the Shadow of 9/11 begins streaming on Netflix September 8.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
After his success in The Umbrella Academy, Tom Hopper makes his Netflix feature debut in Love in the Villa starring alongside Kat Graham. Love in the Villa is a Hallmark-type romance set in Verona, Italy. The structure is simple enough: two polar opposite strangers get stuck sharing the same vacation home rental space. Graham's character, Julia, is introduced while reading Romeo and Juliet to her third-grade class, which, although a seemingly inappropriate choice, is at least treated with some humor as she is met with blank stares. For her, this trip to Verona fulfills a lifelong dream and follows a seemingly shocking breakup.
Met with one spell of bad luck after another, Julie discovers that her rental is double-booked and that she must share it with the cynical Charlie, played by Hopper. His motives for his Italy trip are work-related, and unlike Julie, he lacks a sense of romanticism. While the casting is excellent, with Charlie's ex played by Hopper's real-life wife, the chemistry between the two leads is lackluster, and their presentation feels like actors playing characters, which is... not ideal. Because the main characters and the movie's plot are so standard, they interact like caricatures rather than real people.
With the movie's setting in Verona, there are some Italian tropes throughout, as is the case with the character Uberto. This intense yet lovable cab driver spends most of his scenes swerving around roads and feeding Julie and Charlie some of his mother's homemade cannoli. Although it's understandable that the two main characters wouldn't be from Italy, their interactions with locals play into the tourism aspect of the movie, disconnecting the setting from any real romanticism Verona has to offer outside of its notability from Shakespeare.
Although the romantic progression in Love in the Villa is cute enough structurally, the humor scattered throughout is what saves the movie. As the film progresses, Julie and Charlie's relationship has a touch of the enemies-to-lovers trope as they hilariously attempt to sabotage one another out of the villa. Julie's occasional conversations with her friend and colleague Roberto provides a third-party judgment of the movie's stereotypical scenes that tends to lessen any feeling of cringe from the audience.
Even with its horrible CGI and some unfortunate character-driven inconsistencies, Love in the Villa's straightforward romance is done in a way that even a non-cheesy movie fan can appreciate. While the movie is nothing special in terms of rom-coms, it provides some good laughs and cute romantic moments between characters. Plus, the scenic views of Verona and Julie's stylish outfits while on vacation don't hurt to look at either.
Love in the Villa begins streaming on Netflix on September 1.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
After its premiere at TIFF in 2021, the film Learn to Swim now comes to Netflix for its digital release. The movie is director Thyrone Tommy's debut feature, and it is co-written by him and Marni Van Dyk. With tonal similarities to Whiplash and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Learn to Swim follows the rise and fall of a relationship told through the spontaneous lyricism of jazz.
Of course, Learn to Swim's strong suit is its music. With a mix of original songs and classics, the movie is an ode to the everyday working musician trying to make it big. As the main characters are introduced, they fall into their assumed roles: Dezi as the experienced and controlling sax player and music producer of Selma, who is a determined novice singer. Their arguments come through their work, with Selma aiming to be more than she is, and Dezi being the extremely talented but also incredibly passive musician that he is.
Their struggles are represented through song and their individual performances, especially as Selma and Dezi attempt to create something representative of the two of them while still allowing room for the other person. Even the film's 1.37:1 aspect ratio has a nod to album covers and the color grade gives the silky, whiskey-colored look that succinctly matches the tone and music of Learn to Swim.
The main character, Dezi, is the prototype of a highly talented and focused musician with a penchant for drinking and just generally making bad life decisions. Representative of his faulty headspace and clear nostalgia for past relationships, Learn to Swim jumps through Dezi's memories seemingly at random, slowly but surely telling the story of his and singer Selma's failed romantic relationship. Similar to hitting the shuffle button on a playlist, this movie is told through quick, out-of-order vignettes of Dezi and Selma's intriguing yet tumultuous relationship.
While this is a clever way to tell their story and a great representation of Dezi's unreliable narrator aspect since he is hopped up on pain meds for a majority of the movie, Learn to Swim's unique storytelling gets lost in the confusing jumble of moments, which almost require the audience to keep a notebook at hand in order to document the film's timeline.
Unlike the movie's easy listening through its music, Learn to Swim requires the viewer's full undivided attention in order to properly understand what is happening, and even then, some of the character's motives and actions feel out of the blue. Learn to Swim is likely not for the average Netflix user, but it is nevertheless an artistic rendition of love lost and an accurate representation of the beauty of jazz that any film fanatic is sure to enjoy.
Learn to Swim is now in theaters and on Netflix.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Mindy Kaling's Netflix coming-of-age series Never Have I Ever is returning for its third season. The series tracks Indian-American teenager Devi Vishwakumar as she navigates high school after the unexpected death of her father. While that seems to be a heavy and emotional topic at the show's center, Never Have I Ever is more comical than depressing. Yet, it allows room for heartfelt moments as Devi grieves and grows closer to her family and heritage. Even more so, the driving force for many of Devi's actions revolves around her love life, with season two ending as she finally gets with her dream guy.
This seemingly perfect relationship is what sets the stage as season three begins, yet it is quickly lost in the chaos of the show's fast-paced storytelling. Never Have I Ever's quick jumps through time are nothing new. Still, this season, they feel especially jarring as Devi continues to move from problem to problem in swift succession, never entirely slowing down in order to let the audience or characters process what is going on.
Similar to the show's previous seasons, the primary characters in Never Have I Ever seem to jump from one relationship and character-building moment to the next, never taking time to let the dust settle. In season three, this bleeds into the actions of secondary characters as well as the main ones, as is the case with two of Devi's best friends, Aneesa and Fabiola. The fast-paced nature of the character development of these two characters in this season is especially striking since they take the back burner, so any abrupt shifts in their attitude or storyline feels unwarranted because they never had time to develop properly.
The cast of Never Have I Ever grows bigger in season three, with the new addition of private school student Des and his mom, who each get close to Devi and her mom, respectively. Along with Des' introduction, the show also introduces his friends Parker and Addison, who is the show's first confirmed nonbinary character. The addition of these characters brings a whole new world to Devi's life, providing plenty of mishaps for her to navigate.
Season three of Never Have I Ever ends on the perfect note to prepare the audience for the next and final season. With Devi's upcoming senior year and the promise of newly kindled relationships, season four will likely be the ideal end to what has proven itself to be a one-of-a-kind teen drama.
Never Have I Ever season three begins streaming on Netflix August 12. All ten episodes reviewed.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Skydance Animation's first feature film Luck is a Pixar film in disguise. This is likely due to former Pixar filmmaker-executive John Lasseter's current role as head of animation at Skydance Animation, along with the film's writer and director who both have multiple Pixar films under their belt. While the Pixar-influenced plot devices and imagery shown in Luck feel familiar, this is also the film's downfall, as it proves itself to be just another addition to the sea of animated features that are being consistently churned out by the multitude of animation companies that exist.
Pixar's influence on Luck can be found primarily in the film's 3-D animation style that is also featured in recent productions from Walt Disney Animation Studios, DreamWorks Animation, and various other animation companies. Although the visual similarities are the most striking between modern Pixar films and Skydance's debut film, the plot and character-building are incredibly reminiscent of what's been shown before. The settings of the Land of Luck and Bad Luck are one of the most noticeable examples of this, as they are both lucky- and unlucky-themed versions of Riley's Mind from Inside Out. There's also plenty of imagery that alludes to Monsters, Inc., most glaringly are the bunnies in hazmat suits that handle the unwanted specks of bad luck. While Luck tries to reinterpret these key resemblances to Pixar, John Lasseter's previous experience has a clear influence on his current work at Skydance.
With all the ways that Luck is like other animated films, there are also all the ways that it falls flat in comparison to them. Although the Land of Luck and its inhabitants are incredibly well-thought-out and executed, the rest of the world is lackluster. In particular, the heroine of the film, Sam Greenfield, appears like any old 3-D style female character set in the modern day. Her design is vague and unimaginative, likely loosely inspired by the character's voice actor Eva Noblezada, but not bearing any distinctive similarities. While Noblezada's incredible voice acting gives some character to Sam, it's not enough to make her a compelling main character. This is especially visible when Sam is exploring the Land of Luck and follows a cast of unique and mystical creatures that seem to have received all of the attention to detail that the heroine of the story missed out on.
In between its direct influences and faults, Luck has a compelling storyline and extraordinary cast of voice actors that bring the world to life. Hidden underneath Pixar's stylistic grip and the film's half-done designs, there are some compelling moments in the plot and characters' personalities that give Luck and Skydance Animation a chance against the creations of popular animation companies. Hopefully, as more of their films are released, Skydance Animation will distinguish itself from its animation company predecessors.
Luck premiers on Apple TV+ on August 5th.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
There’s a reason Prime Video’s newest series Paper Girls is being heavily compared to the hit show Stranger Things. For one, both are set in the '80s and star a team of bike-riding tweens located in the midwest. The resemblances continue with Paper Girls's sci-fi roots similar to that of Stranger Things, but where Stranger Things focuses on the supernatural, Paper Girls is centered around its adventures in time travel similar to shows like Loki and The Umbrella Academy.
Based on the comic book series by Brian K. Vaughan, the Paper Girls show only resembles the comics in terms of the meat of the plot and its adherence to the original cast of characters. From their clothing to characteristics, the ensemble cast of twelve-year-old girls Erin, Tiffany, Mac, and KJ perfectly mirror their comic book counterparts. Their battle to return to 1988 and become the people they plan to be is the driving force of the show. In scenes that get lost due to the messy plot and poor CGI, the cast outshines any flaws the series may have, and let's be honest, it has quite a bit.
The original source's unusual and disorienting sci-fi aspects are traded in for close character studies in Paper Girls. Whereas the comic book makes the most of its creativity on the page, the show lets the sci-fi plot take the backseat, with its lackluster CGI and uninteresting uses of sci-fi technology. While there are still remnants of the comic's most memorable artistic choices (e.g. the pink tinted skies that appear throughout the series), the creativity stops there, with the series instead taking the route of tackiness and predictability. Most of this loss in a unique setting is due to budget, which makes the series especially disappointing in comparison to other top sci-fi series out right now.
Paper Girls's pacing is another one of the show's biggest downfalls. Similar to its genre equals, Paper Girls has the problem of choosing the wrong time to end the episode. For instance, a groundbreaking fight and character death occur only a little over halfway through the season, and what would seem to be the second season intro of the girls appearing in a new timeline only happens an episode later. Likewise to The Umbrella Academy's refusal to conclude at a reasonable point, Paper Girls perseveres with its strides in world-building and storytelling getting lost in the rush to move on to the next big thing.
Paper Girls isn't a perfect show, nor is it an entirely terrible one. For fans of coming-of-age sci-fi, it's something to fill the hole leftover by the recent season of Stranger Things. For fans of the original comic, the show has its moments, but it is ultimately a disappointing adaptation of an extremely unique concept.
Paper Girls premiers on Amazon Prime on July 29. All eight episodes reviewed.