About a month or so ago, a famous critic told me that Aftersun was his favorite film of the year and judging by his Letterboxd, it’s not even close. This was just days after I mixed up the date of the press screening at the NYFF and so I would have to wait until the Philadelphia Film Festival to see this film that’s been talked about all year. And I have to say that while going into a film with high expectations can oftentimes make or break a film, Aftersun met and exceeded all expectations. It’s just a stellar film led by wonderful direction from a first-time feature-length director, nuanced lead performances and a final scene that will leave you in shambles.
Aftersun is a relatively simple film following a father and daughter on a trip during the latter’s childhood. Calum (Paul Mescal) is the father to the young Sophie (Frankie Corio), and the two travel to Turkey for a summer holiday. The film is not focused on some bombastic vacation. Rather, it’s an exploration of a father and daughter who share a touching bond.
Mescal, who is most known to me as “Phoebe Bridgers’ partner” (lucky man), is stellar as Calum. I now remember him being in The Lost Daughter, which is not a film I particularly enjoyed outside of its performances, and he left a lasting impression there as well. While we don’t get a whole lot of background on Calum or his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter prior to the events of Aftersun, you do know that he’s a loving father. A lot of Mescal’s performance is very subtle and not to be ignored. Watch his face when his daughter wishes him happy birthday or the final scene that I won’t spoil here. Mescal’s phenomenal and I appreciate the fact that Aftersun shows both the good parts and flaws that Calum has as a father.
And Calum’s really not the perfect father. Aftersun is also not to portray other fathers as a juxtaposition to Calum. For example, there’s one father that drags his screaming son out of the hotel waterpark after his child “embarrasses” him. While Calum wouldn’t necessarily do that to Sophie, he can be stern when needed and even left his daughter hanging on the karaoke stage. However, Calum is capable of some good fatherly advice, including the line he says to Sophie about the fact that once you’re an adult, “you can live where you want to, [you can] be anything you want to be.”
Sophie is still coming-of-age at this point and we’re getting a glimpse of her formative summer. She shares moments with her dad including a karaoke rendition of “Losing my Religion” and laying by the pool, but she also meets a young boy and shares what we assume to be her first kiss and also hangs out with the older, “cool” kids. A lot of these moments are ones that we’ve all had in our younger years, and that’s the beauty of Aftersun.
A lot of the success of Aftersun is due to Corio, who is an absolute gem — congratulations on the Gotham Award nomination. This should serve as her breakout performance and the first of many phenomenal roles. Aftersun is Corio’s acting debut and if that’s the case, what better way to debut? Corio resembles a young Natalie Portman in Léon the Professional — which was Portman’s film debut. I can’t forecast whether or not Corio goes on to have the award-winning career that Portman has had, but Aftersun is a fantastic start on that path.
One of the best scenes Corio has is when Sophie is recording her father and he asks her to stop. Throughout the film, Sophie is periodically videotaping her trip on an old camcorder and there’s a point where she asks about something uber-personal to her father. He requests she put the camera down to which she cheekily replies, “it’s not filming,” though he’s quick to point out the red dot on the camera. For a film that takes place in what I assume is the 1990s, this was the lone scene where Sophie felt like a kid in the 21st century when YouTuber “pranksters” insist to Target employees that they aren’t filming when they clearly are.
But to reemphasize, both performances are nuanced despite how tender and quiet they are. Coming off of seeing The Whale just a couple of days prior, this father-daughter relationship — while inherently different — is far more moving and real. Mescal and Corio have a symbiotic bond that is required for the film to make any lasting impact. From the opening moments that see the two making fun of their travel guide to the way Sophie adamantly insists that she’s not tired despite nearly passing out by the end of her sentence, these moments just feel real. I can’t think of a more authentic father-daughter relationship in a film in recent memory.
Despite the fact that Aftersun may be Wells’ first feature-length directorial effort, nothing about her work here would suggest that. Tuesday, her previous short film, proved that she’s got a great handle on the coming-of-age genre and that directing comes easy to her. She’s also just got a phenomenal sense of blocking, and while Gregory Oke served as the film’s DP, I’d like to imagine Wells had a hand in it, too. One of the many great shots is when the camera hangs on a polaroid as it develops. As this is happening, Calum and Sophie are speaking, but all we can see is the picture develop much like we’ve seen our two main characters do throughout the film.
Another strong choice Wells makes is her usage of “Under Pressure.” It’s ironic that I write this on the heels of the Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania trailer release because my biggest criticism of the trailer is the usage of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellowbrick Road.” I do adore the song, but gatekeeping aside, I generally think that the editing of iconic songs in trailers is infuriating. Take Lightyear, for example, which used David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in the trailer. It did that thing where it chops up the song so notes are extended and it hits the beats of the trailer, but it normally butchers a perfectly great song.
In Aftersun, “Under Pressure” is used to, well, visualize the pressure felt by Calum. Throughout the film, there are quick snippets, almost like flashes on a strobe light, that are sprinkled throughout various scenes in the film. It’s hard to clearly make things out, but Calum can eventually be seen. I won’t give away who also becomes clearer as these sequences happen in the film, but the scene eventually becomes set. Add in a shot of Calum floating aimlessly in the ocean and you have a great representation of feeling pressure building.
Around the middle eight of the song, all of the background music including guitars, pianos and drums are softly drowned out and we only hear the vocals of Bowie and Freddie Mercury. Maybe upon first thinking of the song, you wouldn’t think that the song is that intense — it is, after all, a relatively upbeat song — but there’s something about the isolated vocals that are so intense and this is where Oliver Coates’ very melancholic score is interwoven into “Under Pressure.” To my recollection, this is the first time I’ve seen someone use their score and stitch it with an iconic song. Even if this isn’t the first instance of it, it’s a beautiful touch.
Aftersun isn’t an overly-long film, its runtime is about 96 minutes without credits, but boy does it make the most of that. The final scene puts the icing on the cake of a near-perfect film. There’s a beautifully seamless transition that occurs and leaves one of our main characters alone. The facial expressions of the actor and the lonely walk down a hall and what you get quick glimpses of behind the door all put a neat bow on the film. It left me absolutely shattered, but Aftersun is a film that sticks the landing and closes the book on this chapter of a story.
It may be too hyperbolic to say this, but Aftersun is my favorite film of the year. I’m such a sucker for any film that can take a relationship whether it be familial or friends, just look at my favorite films of the last few years Booksmart, Minari and CODA, and Aftersun joins that class of stellar films. It’s such a tender and authentic portrait of a father and daughter on holiday together that will break your heart as often as it’ll make you smile, and I cannot express how excited I am for the futures of Wells, Mescal and Corio.
Aftersun had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival on May 21 and is in select theaters now.
The Fabelmans Review | For the Love of Movies
Leave it to Steven Spielberg to make the best entry in the “kid who loves movies” subgenre.
It’s funny, it feels as though the “kid who loves movie biopic” trope has become a subgenre of sorts in recent years. I think in my mind, the likes of Belfast — a film that isn’t about a love for cinema — and Hugo — a film about a love for cinema — and Empire of LIght — which seems to be a film about a love for cinema — have overlapped. Sure, I know they are different, but it feels like every filmmaker aspires to make a film loosely based on their life and that really laments the fact they do indeed love cinema. Steven Spielberg’s addition to the genre, The Fabelmans, very well could be the best of them all but is not without its flaws. Do I understand the complete critical acclaim and most calling it a Best Picture shoo-in? I understand it, yes. The Fabelmans is the perfect critical darling about one of cinema’s most influential filmmakers yet it’s like Rolling Stone reviewing a Paul McCartney album. Will they give a negative review to one of the world’s greatest musicians? Hell no. The Fablemans isn’t as bad as McCartney’s worst album, but I also struggle to completely get on board with the notation that this is the best film of the year.
“Movies are a dream, doll — you’ll never forget them,” promises Mitzi (Michelle Williams) in an effort to calm her anxious young son who’s about to enter a movie theater for the first time. As they say, your mother is always right, and after Sammy Fabelman (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in his younger years and Gabrielle LaBelle in his teenage years) is taken to the cinema for the first time by his parents Mitzi and Burt (Paul Dano), his fascination with the art of filmmaking intensifies. Like a young child before they can speak, he just has a hard time expressing that. He watches The Greatest Show on Earth and the sequence where a train crashes into a car lingers in his mind well after the reel stops playing. This leads to an obsession until he receives some toy trains for Hannekah and it’s not until he films it that he finds some catharsis.
And Sammy has talent, wouldn’t you know! From his early days of filming his toy trains, he also exhibits a Roger Deakins-like ability to capture images on film. This continues into his formative teenage years, bringing joy and pride to his entire family as they watch the evolution of his craftsmanship at every boy scout meeting.
But like real life, there is a world outside of movies. Sammy’s parents, after initially settling in Phoenix, move to northern California where the Fabelmans are outcasts in the land of giants. Sammy is picked on by a group of jocks and it’s a miserable experience. Add to the fact Sammy holds onto a secret involving his mother and his “uncle” Bennie — who is not really part of the family and is only at family gatherings because he “works for” Burt, according to his mother.
All that critics have talked about are the performances of Williams and LaBelle. They’re both great — especially the former — but why are we overlooking Dano and Francis-DeFord? Considering that most of Dano’s roles consist of him breathing funny and whimpering in his speech, it’s weird to see him in such a humane role. It’s like seeing Tim Roth in films like Reservoir Dogs and The Hateful Eight and then watching him play a screenwriter in Bergman Island. It’s truly remarkable. Francis-DeFord is just adorable as a younger Sammy and I wish we had gotten even more of him before advancing a few years. See the still below to catch a glimpse of the anxiety on his face while watching his mother watch one of his films. If you are close to your mother, you’ve likely had a similar moment at some point.
Williams is the emotional anchor of the film and is great on her own and in her scenes with LaBelle. As her life continues to derail along with her mental stability, Williams adds empathy to the character despite some shitty actions her character commits. Maybe it’s the “mama’s boy” in me but my heart just melted seeing her reactions to Sammy’s films, the pride and joy her son’s hobby — sorry, passion — brought her.
I know that we all love Rogen, but he’s surprisingly good in the film. Don’t fret, his signature laugh makes its way into the film on a handful of occasions, but despite shitty actions much like Mitzi, you can’t completely despise Bennie. Something about Rogen’s aura and connection with the Fabelman kids feels in line with that family friend whom you call your uncle. Bennie’s also the “cool uncle” who overshadows Burt at every point. Whether intentional or not, we all know how it feels to constantly be pushed down by your good friend yet you still can’t give them up.
It’s also great to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood scene-stealer Julia Butters in another role. She plays Reggie Fabelman, one of Sammy’s sisters, and it’s a great way of getting back on track after starring in The Gray Man (which is essentially shooting yourself in the foot). She has quite a turbulent relationship with Sammy and is always there to stick up for her mother when Sammy is being harsh.
Ironically, towards the end of what feels like the end of the film, Burt says to Sammy, “We’ve gone too far into our story to say ‘the end.’” The Fabelmans feels like it has finally reached its natural catharsis and while it always kept my attention up to this point, I felt we had emotionally peaked. Unfortunately for me, the film then proceeds to go on for another 15 minutes to utilize an admittedly great cameo from David Lynch that is equal parts brilliant and unnecessary. This epilogue wasn’t enough to completely sour my thoughts on the film but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth.
My biggest complaint, however, is with one particular bit in the film. Most of the humor in The Fabelmans was fine, but I want to preface this by saying that I think there are some tasteful ways of taking digs at Christians — just look at Honk for Jesus or The Eyes of Tammy Faye — but there’s a bit in The Fabelmans revolving around Sammy’s first girlfriend, Monica (Chloe East) that just didn’t land for me. I’m not posing as a “Holier than thou” Christian — I’m far from a practicing Christian — but there’s a recurring bit revolving around the term “praying” being used as an innuendo for kissing. Sounds harmless enough, right? The issue comes in the actual portrayal of Monica, which is reduced down to a caricature of a “Jesus freak” more than anything else. So yeah, Monica prays, she wishes for the Lord to “come inside her,” but it’s not until Sammy asks the Lord to “come inside him” that they can kiss. Again, I’m not saying Christians should be immune to jokes as they have been for years, but this bit felt weirdly out of place considering the fact that Monica acts relatively normal in any other scene. To her credit, East goes for it all.
There’s an intrinsic magic within the confines of the 150-minute runtime of The Fabelmans and you just know you’re witnessing something special. Spielberg is one of the most influential figures in all of cinema, and while I may not be the world’s biggest Jaws or E.T. fan, this is a filmmaker that brought the Indiana Jones series to life and made my childhood. Perhaps this is why I’m lenient enough to ignore some of the cliches in The Fabelmans. I also found that Spielberg subverts expectations in his own subtle ways. For example, Sammy gets bullied by the jocks — namely Sam Rechner’s character — but Spielberg found a way to subvert expectations in this cliched subplot. It’s not that Spielberg completely flips the expected outcome on its head. Rather, he finds a new route to get the characters to the same endpoint most of these coming-of-age films come to. That final scene between LaBelle and Rechner is admittedly great and this is where I really would have liked the film to commence
While this subgenre of “directors making movies about loving movies” is on the verge of becoming cliche, I think Spielberg’s message of creative expression and doing what you want is valuable. The Fabelmans isn’t perfect, and I fear its reputation will become tainted in the coming months should it be the Oscar front-runner everyone expects. As of now, it’s the perfect Thanksgiving film for you and your family and as vulnerable as a filmmaker of Spielberg’s stature will be.
The Fabelmans is playing in select theaters now.
The Wonder Review | Florence Pugh Carries a Film That Leaves You Hungry For More
The film hits Netflix this Friday.
There haven’t been many films with a viewing experience as frustrating as The Wonder, a new film starring one of the world’s finest actors, Florence Pugh. The Wonder is a film that has practically everything going for it from solid performances, amazing behind-the-camera and a plot that sounds interesting on paper, yet, something’s missing. Perhaps due to pacing or runtime issues, it’s truly a wonder (I’ll see myself out) that I didn’t fall asleep during this film.
Opening with a spinning shot in what appears to be a rehearsal space for a stage production, The Wonder quickly brings us back in time as Lib Wright (Pugh), a young nurse, is sent to a small village in Ireland to watch over a young girl who hasn’t eaten in months (four, to be exact).
This girl, Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), and her entire family swear on the fact that she has not eaten anything since communion in church four months prior to the events of the film (those thin wafers smack, to be fair). However, one thing leads to another, a journalist gets involved, and above all else, Lib begins having suspicions that this miraculous case is closer to a scam that is well short of a miracle as big as The Second Coming.
But if only it was that easy! Lib tries her best to plead her case to the committee that placed her on this case to no avail. From there, she’s basically gaslit until taking matters fully into her own hands.
There’s no better place to start than the below-the-line work on this film. The cinematography beautifully captures this dreary island in Ireland in an oddly similar fashion to The Banshees of Inisherin. The film also appears to be shot on film — or my stream was buffering that much — and features an ethereal score composed by Matthew Herbert. The set and costume design is simply wonderful. All of the behind-the-scenes work is a large part of why any part of the film works. There’s such simplicity in all of it, but there are qualities that make a film about a girl on an infinite fast seem grounded. The craftwork also goes a long way in making the film feel like a part of the time era and pulling you into it. The film supposedly takes place in 1862, and aside from the opening and closing shot (which ties the opening in a neat bow), there’s no doubt that this film takes place in that time period. It’s truly amazing how great the sets and costumes look; and I love the subtlety of visual cues such as the line of the table, perfectly placed in the center of the frame, lining up perfectly with the line on Lib’s dress. It’s such a small detail that Wes Anderson fans would likely appreciate with all of the perfect symmetry found in his films.
And Pugh is expectedly the standout of the film that does a majority of the hard carrying. However, Kíla (her real-life mother, Elaine Cassidy, plays her mother in the film as well) also holds her in. Specifically, there is a scene where Anna really opens up and shares a traumatic experience with her brother with Lib. While the camera does shift between Anna and Lib throughout the scene, Kíla really delivers a heart-wrenching monologue a la Rebecca Hall in Resurrection. There’s little to no score in the background, so the weight of the scene is really on Kíla’s shoulders; who knocks it out of the park.
This traumatic experience also blows the film’s most intriguing theme wide open. This idea of Christian guilt and the morality of Christian worldviews. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t reveal the contents of Anna’s story. What I will say, however, is that what happens would be considered “unethical” in any religion. But because of the fact that Anna is a girl, there are certain expectations placed and she’s seen as a disappointment as a result. Does someone really deserve to die when they are the victim? This moral conflict that mixes misogyny and religion together is by far the most interesting thing presented in the film. If only it delved deeper into it.
As the film progresses, Anna’s condition worsens — especially after Lib catches on to one potential theory that would explain how Anna can live for all of this time. It’s no secret that it’d take a miracle big enough to feed five thousand to be able to live off of no food for a third of a year, and once Lib begins sniffing around, Anna begins to get worse. As a nurse, what do you do? Generally, your mission is to serve and aid your patient. In Lib’s case, her mission was the watch over Anna with little interference. Strange, right?
The Wonder has an intriguing premise and is well-crafted. Its biggest faults come in the pacing of the film, which makes it a slog to get through it. Pugh and Cassidy are a great pairing and both give good performances, but the film is far from memorable otherwise. Ultimately, the lack of movement in the plot will leave you hungry for more.
The Wonder is in select theaters now and is streaming on Netflix now.
Spirited Review | An Instant Christmas Classic
A festive must watch packed with a star studded cast, gut busting humor and catchy musical numbers.
It’s not very often a brand new Christmas movie becomes an instant classic, but here comes Spirited offering all the festive magic you could wish for and more.
Spirited comes with a wholly fresh and original story despite the infamous material it’s based upon. Stacked with a stellar cast, gut busting jokes and catchy tunes, Spirited is a Christmas movie that deserves a watch every Christmas season.
A musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol, Spirited follows the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrel) who attempts to redeem an unredeemable (Ryan Reynolds).
It’s safe to say that there is no shortage of A Christmas Carol adaptations, from the classic 1951 A Christmas Carol, to Bill Murray’s Scrooged and even one involving the Muppets (my favorite). Spirited decides to take the familiar Charles Dickens tale and turn it on its head, making the film feel completely fresh and original despite the material it’s based upon, and results in an adaptation that is easily among the best.
Delivering a story that is so refreshing, Spirited excels in its own original plot, making each twist and turn feel earned and truly unpredictable. These twists are brilliantly executed, and are undeniably impactful. Forcing audiences jaws to drop to the floor as well as hitting them right in the feels in some very emotional moments that are sure to make audiences tear up.
The comedy is pitch perfect, each joke is hilarious and are expertly executed by the film’s cast. The musical numbers are just as funny as they are lavish, excelling the films comedy. Spirited all in all comes together to deliver one of the funniest Christmas ever.
Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrel are unsurprisingly dynamite on screen. Hilariously bouncing back and forth from each other whilst also hitting on all the emotional moments that will be sure to make you shed a tear or two. When you put two brilliant comedic actors, possibly two of the best in the genre on screen together what else could you expect. Similarly, the rest of the supporting cast is brilliant with Octavia Spencer once again showing the world why she is one of the best in the business.
Spirited offers many catchy songs, of which you will find yourself singing or humming along too long after the film has finished. The musical numbers are big, exciting and infectious, that are excelled by the cast, who all deliver surprisingly brilliant singing voices. I know I will be adding each song to my playlist.
All in all, Spirited is a must see Christmas film that is sure to become an instant classic. Offering a new and genius take on Dickens beloved tale, packed with gut busting humor, catchy musical numbers and a stellar cast.
Spirited release on Apple TV+ this Friday, 18th November.
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