Friday, October 20, 2023

Film Reviews: Taylor Swift Keeps Making Cents as Her “Eras Tour” Film Rolls On, “Nyad” Excels with Excellent Performances by Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, and Enjoying the Trippy “Once Within a Time” May Require an Edible

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour (c) TAS Rights Management

Film: Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour 
In Cinemas 

The second weekend of the Taylor Swift juggernaut concert film in Worldwide Cinemas, filmed during the LA portion of her mega million-dollar tour, should be just as hard to get good seats in IMAX or larger format theaters, but chains are adding more theaters to the Thursday-Sunday schedule, so if the thought of Swifties singing and dancing during the 3.5 hour duration was a turnoff, you can probably find some sanctuary screenings. If you’re like me, and you know some of her songs, and didn’t even know Taylor had eras (let alone nine), the movie and the hype may feel too complicated to understand. The charm of Taylor is that even though she exudes a lot of rock star posing (she enters with a flourish worthy of Cleopatra, she’s so proud of her popularity, she kisses her biceps), she does seem genuine with her fans and their love for her. That charm is infectious for the majority of the film, although director Sam Wrench seems to be mostly cribbing the concert’s footage seen on the huge screen for the cheap seats. Believe me, Taylor always knows where the cameras are located, giving us TikTok-ready flirty, eye rolls. And the eras are easily categorized for us Gen Xers, with Red being her Prince era, Fearless her Debbie Gibson, Reputation has Janet Jackson attitude, while her pandemic twin eras, Evermore and Folklore, have total Stevie Nicks vibes. The film also lets you pay attention to some of her more clever lyrics like “car keys” rhymed with “patriarchy” in All Too Well, the 10-minute opus that’s her Stairway to Heaven (Taylor’s Version). By the time she dives into a hole in the stage after her acoustic set (the only spot in the set list she deviates from, city to city), you know she certainly didn’t skimp on the production value or the cool imagery (the diversity of the couples dancing during Lover probably didn’t play well during the Florida leg). Of course, she doesn’t bring up the exorbitant prices of her shows, but her tour, like the film, seems to put saving the economy all on her shoulders. So, Taylor, it’s you, hi, you’re the problem, it’s you. (But, also thanks.) 

Nyad (c) Netflix

Film: Nyad 
In Cinemas and Streaming on Netflix on November 3 

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin are mostly known for their documentaries about determined individuals taking on nature, like the hikers who want to conquer a mountain in Meru and rock climber Alex Honnold’s quest to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes and harness in Free Solo. For their first narrative feature, they don’t deviate too far from this formula as their subject, Diana Nyad, is a real-life swimmer who attempted to swim from Havana to Florida in her late-20s and failed, and her remarkable (and possibly suicidal) attempt to swim again in her 60s. Although there is a lot of archival footage and interviews with people involved with both attempts, the film is lucky to have the fearless Annette Bening as Nyad, as well as the peerless Jodie Foster as her best friend and coach Bonnie Stoll. Once Diana gets it into her head that she wants to try again, she and Bonnie transplant themselves from California to Florida to find a team to help them in their goals. They include a shark expert (Luke Cosgrove), a jellyfish expert (Jeena Yi), a medic (Garland Scott) and, most importantly, a navigator, John Bartlett (Rhys Ifans), who gives the important go/no-go for the swim based on currents and weather. Once the team is in place, the movie is all Bening, who doesn’t shy away from making Nyad arrogant and self-centered, especially when she not only puts herself in danger but also the members of her crew. Not a spoiler, but Nyad has many tries throughout the film as early attempts are thwarted by weather or the aforementioned jellyfish. The make-up for Bening after each attempt is shocking and grotesque, but Nyad never backs down and is ready to jump right back in the ocean. Less sure is Bonnie, and Foster almost steals the emotional center of the film from Bening, as she has to support her friend’s goals while also being the voice of reason. The film, written by Julia Cox, also doesn’t shy away from the fact that both Bonnie and Diana are lesbians, making it part of the film’s tapestry but not the main focus. The film falls into the usual narrative rut of a biopic as we never understand the intensity of Nyad’s ambition, although flashbacks to Diana as a talented swimmer tries to give some context. Throughout the film, she is heard telling the story repeatedly that her stepfather (Johnny Solo) believed she was destined for good things in the water as Nyad means “water nymph.” Of course, she inherited that surname from him, but it’s still a good story. And so is Nyad, which fleshes out the news stories in a way that makes this fictional retelling more engaging and emotional than just a straightforward documentary. 

Once Within a Time (c) Oscillscope Laboratories

Film: Once Within a Time 
In Cinemas 

If you only know visionary director Godfrey Reggio from his nonlinear visual poems, like Koyaanisqatsi, his latest opus, Once Within a Time, will feel like a major departure and yet also totally in keeping with the rest. For one thing, Reggio actually has a script (as impenetrable as it is) performed by actors, and the film runs only 40 minutes (with about 10 minutes of end credits). It starts in a playground in which children (a familiar trope of Reggio’s work is the innocence of children) are playing, starting at a spinning roundabout with a trees as its center (there’s also a lot of tree symbolism in here). The children encounter a god/narrator/host who guides them through recognizable archetypal imagery–Adam and Eve, the Trojan Horse, crash test dummies–all with no comprehensible dialogue to help. Reggio does get a major assist from production designer Scott Pask and composer Philip Glass, who at least give us a clear vibe–let’s call it steampunk nostalgia. Reggio does seem to be borrowing heavily from silent filmmakers like Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon), Fritz Lang (Metropolis) and Charlie Chaplin. He then throws in modern touchstones from the minds of visionaries like Stanley Kubrick (an ape is seen playing with a cellphone); Meredith Monk (a woman with a tree headdress sings to the children); the dioramas and theatrical conceits of Wes Anderson and Baz Luhruman; and then the opposing metaphorical cinematic trees of Terrance Malick (Tree of Life) and Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain). It’s a lot to take in and process but if you let it wash over you as opposed to analyzing every surprising moment (was that really Mike Tyson?), it becomes a groovy psychedelic ride. Like most memorable dreams, Reggio’s images are imbued with feeling rather than logical narrative. It will resonate with some or recede from memory as your alarm wakes you up.

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