San Diego International Film Festival Review: ‘Taurus’ and ‘Empire of Light’

By October 25, 2022 No Comments

By Brandon Walkley

Less than 100 miles South of one of the most dense film and entertainment markets across the planet lies San Diego, an unsuspecting environment for a cinephile to exist in (I would know, I spent 18 years of my life doing exactly that). However, every autumn when the temperature finally dips below 75° in the city, the San Diego International Film Festival comes to town, and this past week marked the 21st edition of it. Honorably showcasing films such as The Blair Witch Project, Napoleon Dynamite, Call Me By Your Name, and Parasite in years past, the festival’s lineup this year was no exception. While I was only able to take time to come down for two of Sunday afternoon’s screenings at the AMC UTC 14 (Sean Baker logged this theater on his Letterboxd once, though I unfortunately did not see him this time around), the festival-going experience does not get anywhere near the respect that it deserves, and I am dutifully going to try my hand at endorsing it. 

In an era of entertainment marked by some of the most questionable A-lister relationships, Colson Baker (better known as Machine Gun Kelly) and Megan Fox are one of the most bizarre examples to emerge in recent years. Both star in the upcoming feature film Taurus, shown at the festival as a spotlight screening. Directed by Tim Sutton from an original screenplay, the film follows Cole (Baker) a beloved rap rockstar who continues further into the void as he reaches for inspiration to write a final song. Cole is pushed into three different directions: his collaborators (Scott Mcnairy,  Lil Meech, and Lil TJay) want him in the studio, his assistant Ilana (Maddie Hasson) wants to save him, and his ex girlfriend Mae (Fox) and dealer Bub (Ruby Rose) are only further paralyzing his physical and mental state. Taurus previously went under the name Good News during production, which led many to believe that the story was loosely inspired by the life and death of beloved rapper Mac Miller; however, the creators of the film have repeatedly stated that there is no association to Mac’s death and the film is simply standalone. 

I wanted to like this so bad, but I just couldn’t. The film is cringy at times, slow in others, and miserable in its entirety. Not even an Oscar-winning performance could redeem this film, but that’s not to say the performances in the film are bad. Machine Gun Kelly offers up a decent performance as Cole, but the real star of the film is Maddie Hasson’s performance as Ilana. Previously starring in last year’s Malignant, Hasson completely steals Taurus. There is a specific scene of her and Baker fighting at an interview recording that caused the crowd to erupt into applause immediately after, and it is no surprise to me why. When you put Machine Gun Kelly at the forefront of a film like this, it’s obvious where real life inspiration has been drawn from for Taurus, but it is executed in the most vapid, vacuous manner. 

It should also be mentioned that Baker was in attendance at the screening to accept a Spotlight Award for his performance as well as participate in a post-screening Q&A. Tauruses have a reputation for being one of the most stubborn, self-indulgent signs in the zodiac chart, and the film does a stellar job at conveying exactly that; that is, of course, if that was what they had intended to convey. 

Nothing feels more meta about a film festival than a romance film centered around a love for cinema being the festival’s closing night screening. There really is no better way to tout the transformative experience that is watching a movie than by basing the premise of an entire feature film on this exact principle. Starring Olivia Colman, Colin Firth, and Michael Ward, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes’ new film Empire of Light does exactly that. Set in a run-down movie theater on South Coast of England in the 1980s, Hillary Small (Colman) engages in sexual relations with the theater manager Mr. Ellis (Firth). Hillary finds new life when the theater hires Stephen (Ward), whose whimsiness and excitement jarringly contrasts the monotony she currently exists in.

Simply put – Empire of Light is incredibly charming and poignant. As expected, Olivia Colman’s performance as Hilary is incredible. She’s given many moments throughout the film to show her expansive acting repertoire through a range of emotions, and dare I say she may possibly be on track to earn another Oscar nod next Spring? It is also no surprise that Sam Mendes’ direction and writing is strong here as well. Directing films like American Beauty, Skyfall, and 1917 in years past, Mendes adds yet another compelling film to his decades-spanning filmography work with Empire of Light

While the premise of the film mostly centers on the development of Hillary and Stephen’s relationship, the film is about a love of movies at its core. Hillary is told repeatedly that amidst the chaos of her life, she still should seek time to watch a movie at the theater she has tirelessly devoted herself to, and as someone who has seen quite a few movies in my life, this resonated with me deeply. Going to the movies is a ritual in my weekly routine, and as long as they make movies about loving movies, I will watch them. And as long as they screen movies about loving movies, I will review them with my silly little blog posts, Feed segments, and Letterboxd reviews. 

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