Thursday, July 21, 2022

Film Reviews: Billy Porter’s Satisfying Directorial Debut “Anything’s Possible”; Documentary “The Old School” Revisits a Scottish Scandal; Dakota Johnson Shines in Anachronistic “Persuasion”

Anything's Possible (c) Prime Video

Film Review: Anything’s Possible 
On Prime Video 

Emmy Award-winning actor Billy Porter’s stint on the TV show “Pose” has put him in the company of the next generation of talented LGBTQ+ actors and activists and his admiration for them probably influenced his choice as a director for his first film. “Anything’s Possible” is a surprisingly sweet Pittsburgh high school drama about Kelsa (Eva Reign), a trans YouTuber who wants to just make it through senior year unscathed in order to get a fresh new start in college with full support of her single mom (Renée Elise Goldsberry). What Kelsa doesn’t expect is to have her crush, Khai (Abubakr Ali), suddenly seem to have mutual feelings on her “last first day of high school.” Khai is a sort of nerdy artist type who may have to disappoint his liberal Iranian parents by not having any real interest in college. “Anything’s Possible” shares a lot of DNA with the hit TV series “Heartstopper,” with its bright color palatte, its mostly wholesome milieu and a cute love story at its heart. While Kelsa would rather not be seen for her transness (she loves animals and wants to study zoology), Porter and screenwriter Ximena García Lecuona don’t shy away from the obstacles in her way, from her aversion to people calling her brave (although that’s what her names mean) or having friends who are with her to be woke. This is breezy fun and both Reign and Ali have an easygoing sweet chemistry. Only when “Anything’s Possible’s” second half focuses on some predictable drama that includes a homophobic friend for him and a jealous friend for her that it sort of loses its way. But even then, the movie rebounds nicely to a surprisingly refreshing conclusion. The film premiered last week as the opening night film of L.A.’s OutFest and will stream on Amazon Prime Video Friday. With an overabundance of high school stories on streaming services, one wonders if there can ever be new perspectives for this well-worn genre. “Anything’s Possible” lives up to its title in that respect. 

My Old School (c) Magnolia Pictures

Film Review: The Old School 
In Cinemas 

There are some documentaries that you really can’t talk about since the filmmakers hide the plot from promotional material in order to build to a revelation in the film itself as to why the story is being told. From “Four Identical Strangers” to last year’s “Flee,” “The Old School” gives us enough questions at the start as to why the story surrounding Brandon Lee in 1995 at Bearsden Academy secondary school in Bearsden, Scotland, created such a scandal, but it’s not until the final third that we get the full story. Up until then, we get mostly interviews with the former students (now in their forties) and teachers who remember when Brandon first started at the school. And how can you forget an odd-looking kid with this crazy backstory: Brandon is Canadian and has been on the road with his opera singing mother who has been home schooling Brandon before she died in a car accident, which is why he is now in Scotland living with grandmother. Director Jono McLeod’s biggest get is that Brandon Lee agreed to participate, but he didn’t want to be filmed, which is odd, because once the scandal breaks, we see Lee in a lot of news reports, so why be so camera-shy? McLeod gets around this by having actor Alan Cumming play Lee, sitting in a classroom lip-synching Lee’s dialogue a la Deirdre O’Connell’s Tony Award-winning turn in Broadway’s “Dana H.” It’s an odd touch but admittingly unique and very intriguing. Cumming is game but he can’t help but look like the guiltiest character being interviewed in a murder mystery because, well, he did do it. 

My Old School (c) Magnolia Pictures

McLeod also gives us other stylish touches, including dramatizing some of the stories through animation (like “Flee”) in a MTV’s “Daria” kind of way. So, as a mystery, I was hooked from the beginning, but once all is revealed (including why one of the former students could be less impartial than the others), it is a bit of a disappointment. Sure, a thing like this doesn’t normally happen in small-town Scotland, but in our current social media sensory overload, the story doesn’t really feel that extraordinary. Until then, Brandon Lee gets his fifteen minutes of fame, looking very much like Alan Cumming, and still defending his actions. 

Persuasion (c) Netflix

Film Review:  Persuasion 
On Netflix 

I love Jane Austen adaptations, from period accurate movies like the recent “Emma” with Anya-Taylor Joy and the gold standard of these types of movies: Keira Knightly’s “Pride and Prejudice,” as well as the contemporary remakes like “Clueless’ and “Fire Island.” I even liked Austen novel-adjacent movies like “Becoming Jane” and even “The Jane Austen Book Club.” And so, I was excited about a new film version of “Persuasion,” Austen’s least known novel. The main plot involves Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) who was persuaded to turn down the proposal of Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) because of his lack of money and social standing, but eight years later, he is now a Captain in the Royal Navy and wealthy. What should be a simple story of regret and possible forgiveness is complicated by many (MANY!) family members and subplots and inheritance and misheard rumors that are catnip to Austen fans. Director Carrie Cracknell seems to be doing a hybrid version of traditional and contemporary, which is a risky experiment, but she never gets the tone right like in the wonderfully underrated Apple TV+ series “Dickinson.” Sure, have a character declare, “If you’re a five in London, you’re a ten in Bath,” but then have them dab and twerk along the way, too. Cracknell needed to commit to the bit. Still, there’s a lot to admire in this film, starting with Johnson, who is just plain fantastic in the role of Anne. She gets the spirit of the character right, which is more than I can say for Jarvis, who gives us a personality-free, mumblecore Wentworth. Henry Golding is perfect as Mr. Elliot, who is amalgamation of two Austen tropes: the cad with ulterior motives (Willoughby, anyone) and the distant relation who is set to inherit everything (cough cough Mr. Collins), but his character has been short-shrifted in this version to be almost a cameo. Purists are up-in-arms with this Bridgerton treatment of Jane Austen, but with so few novels and her popularity ever growing, there surely is enough room on the Austen shelf for a cheeky irreverent version of “Persuasion.”

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