Review by Tatiana Miranda
At first glance, Apple TV+'s new series The New Look might seem like a standard historical fashion drama about Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, but the series — and the designers' realities — are much more complicated. Named after Dior's style of fashion in the late 1940s and 50s, the show focuses on famous French designers Coco Chanel and Christian Dior during and following the Nazi occupation of France during WWII.
Similar to how Chanel's and Dior's respective fashion styles were deemed opposites of one another, the two figures reacted to the Nazi occupation in varying ways. The series opens as Dior nervously presents his new fashion line at a press conference. Meanwhile, Chanel smears him in an interview and, later in the series, to Nazi officers. From Dior's quiet disposition and structured designs to Chanel's outspokenness and more comfortable fashion style, the characters could not be more unalike. Yet, they both find themselves in the crosshairs of Nazi-occupied France.
For years, Chanel's romance with a high-ranking German officer and use of anti-Semitic laws to gain control of her company from Jewish business partners were long hidden. However, due to recently published biographies on the designer, Chanel's unsavory connections to the Nazis have come to light and restarted the discussion of her ethics.
Meanwhile, Dior's younger sister, Catherine, was a member of the French resistance who survived a concentration camp. While Dior himself wasn't an active member of the resistance, he worked hard to help his sister and used his experiences to create the "New Look," which became a symbol of hope and change as the war ended.
The New Look takes on a lot in terms of characters, subjects, themes, and even talent, as the series features stars like Ben Mendelsohn, Maisie Williams, John Malkovich, Juliette Binoche, and Emily Mortimer. With so much to tackle in a ten-episode series, some things felt sped up or underdeveloped — namely, Catherine Dior's experiences as a French resistance member and concentration camp survivor.
Since the series focuses more on her brother, her work in the resistance and experiences in the concentration camp come second. This would be more understandable if the elder Dior were a fascinating lead character, but his shy personality and understated conflicts make him one of the least interesting characters of the series. Moments of triumph, such as the announcement halfway through the series that he would be starting his own fashion house, feel lackluster as there are hardly any emotional ties between the character and the viewer.
On the other hand, Coco Chanel is a complex lead character who just wants what's best for herself and her legacy, even if that means collaborating with the Nazis. Dior is even seen in a similar position, as he is forced to design gowns for a Nazi ball to provide for his family, but the choice doesn't hold the same weight or narrative influence as Chanel's storyline.
While The New Look is an eye-opening look at Chanel's involvement with the Nazis, it is ultimately a dull depiction of the effects of WWII on the French fashion industry and its main designers. Even Chanel's feud with Dior, which resulted from her need for relevancy, is downplayed as simple petty remarks. Although the series has a stellar cast and a beautiful soundtrack produced by Jack Antonoff, it is an unremarkable telling of remarkable historical figures.
The New Look premiers on Apple TV+ on February 14th. All ten episodes reviewed.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Fifteen years after the release of the cult classic film Jennifer's Body, writer-producer Diablo Cody expands on her horror comedy filmography with Lisa Frankenstein. Written by Cody and directed by Zelda Williams, Lisa Frankenstein is a campy horror film set in the 1980s and loosely based on Mary Shelley's infamous monster. Despite it being Williams's feature-length debut, it is a fantastic follow-up to Jennifer's Body that still feels like a wholly unique, standalone film.
The film stars Kathryn Newton as Lisa, an eighteen-year-old outcast dealing with an overwhelmingly popular stepsister, absent father, evil stepmother, and the aftereffects of her mother's grim death. Unpopular and misunderstood, Lisa finds solace in goth music, her favorite silent films, and an unnamed Frankenstein's monster-like character played by Cole Sprouse. Newton and Sprouse are also joined by Carla Gugino, Joe Chrest, Henry Eikenberry, and Liza Soberano.
While February might seem like a weird time to release a horror-comedy, the film's campy romance between Lisa and the monster makes it the perfect alternative rom-com. Similarly to Cody's work on Juno, Lisa Frankenstein shows the world through a more rose-colored lens. Less dark than Jennifer's Body and unlike other popular dark comedies with more distinct good and bad characters, Lisa Frankenstein doesn't focus on the ethics of murders or regeneration. Instead, character actions are taken at face value.
This is not to say that the campy nature of the film makes it unbelievable, but it comes off as more fantastical. Like the plot's supernatural nature, the characters don't subscribe to the ethics and consequences of the real world. While sometimes this can come across as an easy way out of dealing with plot holes, Lisa Frankenstein uses its otherworldliness to create a captivating world full of eccentric characters.
Outside of the outlandish plot and characters, Lisa Frankenstein's campiness also comes from its over-the-top '80s-inspired aesthetics and soundtrack. From REO Speedwagon to Wite-Out as nail polish, the film incorporates plenty of trends and music from the '80s in a way that feels more like a caricature of the decade rather than being period-accurate or a parody. The distinctive costumes and incredible soundtrack lend themselves to the film's likely cult classic status.
Even with great performances by Newton, Sprouse, and Soberano as Lisa's stepsister, Taffy, the characters come off as secondary to the plot and aesthetics. Since the film isn't a drama by any means, it makes sense to keep certain characters more rudimentary to focus on the extremity of the plot. Yet, it also makes it harder to have emotional beats between characters that don't have well-developed relationships, such is the case with Lisa and Taffy.
Overall, though, Lisa Frankenstein is another wonderful work from Cody that feels unlike anything else. This, paired with stellar performances and captivating visuals, makes the film a fun spin on the usual rom-com genre and a perfect Valentine's date night movie.
Lisa Frankenstein hits theaters on February 9.
Review by Tatiana Miranda
Masters of the Air is the latest captivating miniseries from Apple TV+. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks and based on the book of the same name by Donald L. Miller, the series centers around the 100th Bomb Group of the US Eighth Air Force as they were stationed in East Anglia during WWII. While the show is based on the real-life bomb group — nicknamed the Bloody Hundredth due to its 77% casualty rate — and features fictionalized versions of its members, it never comes across as a history lesson and is instead a riveting look at the realities of war and the technical aspects of the US Air Force.
Chock-full of recognizable faces, as well as new names, Masters of the Air utilizes nearly every single character who comes across the screen. Led by Austin Butler as Major Gale Cleven and Callum Turner as Major John Egan, the show also features stellar lead performances from relative newcomers Nate Mann as Major Robert Rosenthal and Anthony Boyle as Major Harry Crosby. More established stars such as Barry Keoghan, Raff Law, Bel Powley, Isabel May, and Fionn O'Shea also star, although in more minor roles. Still, each performance is a standout, and even with such a large cast, the characters never feel overwhelming.
While it would have been easy for each episode to fall into a routine of focusing on a specific mission that the Bloody Hundredth faced, it instead weaves different storylines and locations of members to give the series a more cinematic feel. From German imprisonment to celebrations on base, Masters of the Air doesn't focus solely on the fighting aspects of the war or the Air Force. Instead, it paints a multidimensional picture of the 100th Bomb Group and their sacrifices.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the series is its portrayal of the Tuskegee Airmen. Coming in at episode eight of the nine-episode series, the 332nd Fighter Group is portrayed as the supporters of the 100th rather than having their own established storyline and characters. Although the series focuses mainly on the 100th, the attempt to show any of the 332nd, comprising African American military pilots, comes across as a last-minute addition to the storyline. Actors such as Branden Cook and Ncuti Gatwa don't get nearly as much screen time as their white costars, and even when their storyline is interwoven with those of Butler and Turner's characters, they are seen more as background characters.
Overall, Masters of the Air is a fantastically shot and well-acted series, although it does have its few flaws. Still, it's a fascinating look into WWII that doesn't watch as solely a war series but instead features moving portrayals of grief, romance, friendship, and sacrifice in the US Air Force.
Masters of the Air premieres on Apple TV+ on January 26. All nine episodes reviewed.
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.