Sunday, October 29, 2023

sunday matinee at taylor swift: the eras tour

Newly-minted billionaire Taylor Swift glides through this concert film with sequins and red lipped cheesin’ at the peak of her pop powers (unless, of course, there are more peaks to come), opening and near-closing with “Mastermind” abilities (the dark edge of her having control over a fawning, smart phone-lit audience is one of the set’s creepy subtexts). The edited version of this pricey concert in L.A.’s towering SoFi stadium (fitting for a student loan debt-ridden nation) went down well with a Diet Coke (whom sponsored Swift in 2013 and whose cans perfectly match her Red era aesthetics) and gnawing dwellings upon chaos and mortality [the weekend’s wake of war (I passed a small protest for ceasefire on drizzly Commercial Street on the way to Provincetown’s Waters Edge Cinema), another horrible mass shooting, Matthew Perry's death—someone from that cheery forever-young cast of Friends suddenly gone]. 

Swift’s earworms, to some’s great annoyance, have been burrowing away in the background of major shifts in the early 21st century: their uncomplicated chord progressions give comfort; their “Easter egg,” furtive lyrics (all hail concrete details—like a scarf in a drawer) provide a tinge of mystique while initiating one to experience a sliver of celebrity-dom. The tour’s setlist (smartly, each album is contained, but not chronologically drawn upon) conjures up the youthful, sunny feels-like-high-school and “22” optimism of the Obama era in her Fearless and Red tracks, to the forlorn intimacy of COVID lockdowns on folklore (still her most interesting record). The “roaring 20s” from that wistful album’s opener “the 1,” probably refers to age, but I can only think of its latent irony in how the beginning of this decade started out with such global uncertainty and tragedy. It’s performed by Swift in a creamy, crepey dress with gold glints (designed by Alberta Ferretti). This quiet enclave of the setlist features some of Swift’s dreamiest, intricate lyrics and storytelling (under all the pop domination hullabaloo, she’s sometimes under-appreciated as a gifted lyricist; one wishes her songs were covered more by other artists--I would love to hear Stevie Nicks cover "willow," who Swift evokes in her Bella Donna-esque caped performance of it here). The narrative tale, “the last american dynasty,” is thankfully captured here too—a breezy and weird song about an oil money wife having a “marvelous time ruining everything.” 

The lyrics “charming, if a little gauche” could apply to this concert film as well—with its corny designer studs (especially the snake one during reputation’s corner) and gangly choreography. The direction by Sam Wrench, photography by Brett Turnbull are solid, if not particularly distinctive, and the tour itself doesn’t have the flashiest tricks up its sleeves nor compelling pizzazz visuals of other legendary pop acts like Madonna. Here, while floating above "Lavender Haze," she is constantly connecting to fans, with their friendship bracelets and hand-heart symbols, an ecstatic audience who, when Swift isn't center-framed, we briefly see in ecstatic scraps, filled with many who may have moved through the emotional tumult of adolescence with her music. Swift's in-between bits are awkward. Perhaps her gawky lack of charisma when she speaks and dances is part of her relatability—you too can feel like a “monster on a hill,” dancing and loving her music, and she will squintingly smile and love you back.

Swift’s overtures to nature in folklore and evermore (especially when she was hit recently with her private jet controversy) has always seemed as tenuous and performative as a Terrain store, so when she sits down at a monstrous grand piano covered in fake moss, it’s laughable, but she seems to knowingly poke a little fun at it too. Part of the appeal of the Eras Tour is to witness her growths of her skills as a songwriter: from earnest corndog country (“Our Song”) to straight-up anthemic and ebullient (all of the 1989 performances are undeniable) to the unassuming and thorny (there’s a little bit of regression on some of the Midnights tracks—but “Anti-Hero” is smashing and “Karma,” with its ridiculous lyrics and lunging beat still makes me swoon--here, a perfect, uplifting closer). 

Is the communal mania of going to this tour, this concert film (and films like Barbie) somehow related to a hungered mixture of our need-to-be-seen-and-shared social media age and our post COVID-vaccination times? Swift was already (and still is right now) dominating the music industry. Just go to your local Target—one of the last mainstream dregs to find physical media of music in a mainstream brick and mortar store—and you may see disheveled shelves of just Taylor Swift albums on vinyl and CD’s (her current ones and re-recordings of her old ones), some with a kaleidoscopic array of appealing album art for each record. With so much "free" music out there, there is a narrowing pool of artists, with the aid of a strong label, and a canny marketing team, who amass tremendous dominance over the industry. But credit should be given sometimes to the artist themselves. Ultimately, any popular icon has detractors, but the skeptic who finds this film on a rainy Sunday in a sparsely-attended theater (sans pre-teens dancing in circles) may be temporarily buoyed by quality music and Swift’s relentless "hope of it all." ***

-Jeffery Berg

the holdovers


I really enjoyed the casting, performances, and details in Alexander Payne's The Holdovers.

My review is up at Film-Forward.

Friday, October 27, 2023

fellow travelers - episodes 1 & 2

In the wake of a known homophobe elected as House Speaker, the sensitive and absorbing McCarthy-era entrenched and Washington D.C.-centric Fellow Travelers lands on Showtime (episode 1 streaming today, and airing Sunday). America is a splintered country, constantly progressing and regressing like shoreline, with a splintered media landscape; the people who should watch Fellow Travelers probably won't, but there is much to glean and learn from the miniseries' not-so distant American queer history for both older and newer generations. Based upon a sturdy 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, the series follows a through-the-decades relationship between Hawkins "Hawk" Fuller (appropriately nicknamed, played by piercing-eyed Matt Bomer) and Tim Laughlin (Jonathan Bailey). The first two entries move primarily back and forth between the early 1950s and the mid-1980s, during the AIDS-crisis. The series opens to 1986 with the wistful strands of Stevie Wonder's "If It's Magic" (throughout, songs complement characters and actions), where Hawk is introduced at his roomy house with a Mitt Romney-ish disposition, monied, graying around the temples and married (Lucy, played by Allison Williams). One of the immediate strains here is trying to make both Bomer and Williams look stodgy and authentically "old"--their aged make-up isn't quite credible, and faintly distracting.  

The series, however, hits its stride (so far) plumbing the Lavender Scare, where Hawk, Tim, and others within their career and social circles are swept up. In some ways, it is a glossy and unsurprising depiction, with Philip Glass-y music and smooth photography (shot by frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator, Simon Dennis, whose burnished glow camera work is as lustrous as Boomer's sleek body and countenance), and softly erotic depictions of men talking about McCarthy on a sofa while unbuttoning each others' white Oxford shirts in cigarette smoke haze. 

Yet, beyond the surfaces, it's agonizing to see the splitting of couples, the interrogations, the burdens, festering paranoia, and secrets ("Why don't you pretend?" Nat "King" Cole croons after one nighttime street scene after a tryst). It is probably why creator and writer, the intelligent and thoughtful Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia and recently, co-adapter of My Policeman), and director Daniel Minahan (for episodes 1 & 2), revel in bawdy, explicit sex scenes. These sequences are moments of intense, fleeting pleasure and release for closeted men, and complicated as well, characterizing Hawk's career-climbing shallowness and sexual dominance as barbed and self-protective and the boyish Tim, with his Clark Kent eyewear, fumbling, subservient and sweet. Bailey has a more introspective character to play; in the outset he seems to be looking to advance his State Department career (who in D.C. now and then isn't and wasn't?) but he at least seems to have a political philosophy (one figures, with glimpses of him living in 1980s San Francisco, he will go through significant changes). 

It will be interesting to see the direction this series takes in developing them further. In the second episode, we start to see the denseness of Hawk in particular as we see early interactions with Lucy and trip home to visit his family (Rosemary Dunsmore appears in a standout turn as his mother), flashing back to a prior relationship (objects--a tennis trophy and a D.C. paperweight--are emotional triggers for Hawk, as he continuously seems to bury over his queerness). Also in the mix are Roy Cohn (Will Brill), and Hawk's boss and Lucy's father Senator Smith (Linus Roache in another unrecognizable showing). Marcus (Jelani Alladin) is a Black journalist who has had some history with Hawk, and figures as a somewhat tenuous connection. Hopefully the series will continue to sketch him further--and his deepening flirtation with nightclub singer (Noah J. Rickets, who provides sultry music cues)--as he currently feels a bit adrift from the overwhelming force of Tim and Hawk's relationship.  

-Jeffery Berg

Monday, October 16, 2023

Thursday, October 12, 2023

silver dollar road

My review of the very interesting Raoul Peck documentary Silver Dollar Road is now up at Film-Forward. It's a story of the fragility of Black landownership on a waterfront property in North Carolina. It may take a couple of views to grasp the intricate details, but the overriding injustices in the doc are eye-opening.


Wednesday, October 4, 2023

occupied city

Steve McQueen's films often employ a sense of the familiar and the traditional while broaching harrowing stories, filling frames with visual flair. Recently, Lovers Rock, an extraordinary cinematic piece of music, dance, sound, imagery, emerged as a small, yet impactful strand of Black West Indian experience in the United Kingdom around 1980 within his Small Axe opus. McQueen's latest is a swerve in another direction, but still deeply invested in specificity and the historical--a seemingly daunting documentary piece at an over 4-hour runtime that intertwines the COVID-19 pandemic with the reverberations of the Holocaust. It's a disarming picture at first, but once the rhythms are established, it becomes mesmerizing. Shot on film, with rich compositions by cinematographer Lennert Hillege, the movie wanders through Amsterdam, with even-toned narration from Melanie Hyams reading sections of Bianca Stigler's (Three Minutes: A Lengthening) Atlas of an Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940-1945. With stylistic shades of Alain Resnais's Night and Fog, the film roams rooms, buildings, city squares and a milieu of other settings in the "present day" (though now, a very specific "past" of early 2020 into 2021) where previous atrocities occurred during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Though inviting of comparisons, the film is a parallel running of two different, yet significant histories within a specific place. In some ways, it might be one of the most significant filmic examinations of the pandemic yet. Visually, we witness the changing of the seasons and also the changing of the pandemic, from the wintry lockdowns of paranoid masked pedestrians, curfews and shuttered stores to the hopeful springs of gatherings and vaccinations, while listening to Hyams read veritable passages of history. Many sites where atrocities occurred where changed, built-over, or dryly noted as "demolished." The pandemic just happened to fall in the midst of filming, but what is ultimately captured within this picture's many frames is a fascinating orb, filled with juxtapositions of time and space and bodies (we see the very young--children going up and down the sides of snowy, icy hills and also, the old, doing small group strengthening exercises). 

The expansive, humanistic scope of this film will likely carry it into high regard as a piece of well-observed chronicling as time passes. Ultimately I found the length of the film fitting to its subject matter and also an interesting experiment; it has a cumulative power that can feel simultaneously deadening and staggering. But taking the film in fragments could be an intriguing test too--just how much can forms of film and language effectively capture? How much does the imprint of history make an impact if it seems so "unseen"? Music and sound play roles as well--from the natural world and city sounds to the yawning, ghostly score from Oliver Coates, source music like autotuned-hip hop and Roxy Music's melancholic "Avalon" playing happenstance on a street corner. David Bowie's "Golden Years" suddenly rolls out in one sequence, introducing a sense of change within the era as the elderly get their first vaccinations. It's also a haunting reminder of the very last living generation from Atlas's time period who, in years to come, will eventually shuffle off in this new age. Sometimes I listened carefully to the words, other times I was so enraptured in the visuals that I tuned out the narrations. Overall the visuals are vivid, sometimes dramatic--such as climate change and social justice protests--and sometimes slightly comical, surprising. The deep knowing of the temporal through the steady and deliberate direction of McQueen and editing by Xander Nijsten (a monumental achievement) provides a unique take on history, mortality and the human experience. ***1/2 

-Jeffery Berg