Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Film Review: Revelatory LGBTQ+ “Egoist” at New York Asian Film Festival, The Fun if Slight “Theater Camp” and The Undernourished Comfort Food “The Miracle Club” at the Arthouse

Egoist (c) Strand Releasing

Film: Egoist 
Seen at the New York Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center 

The New York Asian Film Festival launched its 22nd edition last weekend with the premiere of Thai director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Fast and Feel Love, and for the next two weeks will have premieres of films from all over the Asia, many that will never get a proper US release. I want to highlight Japan’s Egoist, director Daishi Matsunaga’s equal parts bold and traditional film about a tentative relationship between fashion magazine editor and usually relationship shy Kosuke (Ryohei Suzuki) with his personal trainer Ryuta (Hio Miyazawa). Although Kosuke has a core group of friends, he mainly keeps to himself in his modern utopian apartment, which may be the source of the title as Kosuke protects his ego by throwing himself into work and maintaining his upscale style. It’s no wonder he’s attracted to Ryuta, a youthful, almost egoless free spirit. Maybe because of my jaded gay film experience, I immediately distrusted the working-class kid who looks longingly at Kosuke’s clothes and lifestyle. Although Ryuta has a secret (and it’s a doozy), the love between the two seems genuine in a Call Me By Your Name kind of way, with the younger man even bringing Kosuke to his modest home to meet his mother (a wonderful Sawako Agawa). The film makes a tonal shift in the third act that deepens the relationship in an unexpected direction, with real life intruding on the two’s idyllic bubble. This is the most heartfelt and gay-affirming Japanese film I have ever seen, with sex scenes starting out raw and passionate before evolving to tender and loving moments. Matsunaga’s direction mostly utilizes a handheld voyeuristic approach but calms it down as it progresses to a memorable static, almost painterly shot of a man sitting at a kitchen table as he watches another character cook, informing us of the man’s state of mind without a single word spoken. Egoist is a beautiful and understated love story, queer or otherwise, and by the time we get the final shot of two hands in a loving pose, we have gone through quite an emotional journey. 

Friday, July 7, 2023

Film Reviews: In Summer Cinema: A Funny, All-Asian Sex Comedy (“Joy Ride”), an Unnecessary Trip Down Memory Lane (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”) and a Sweet Coming-of-Age Journey (“Sublime”)

Joy Ride (c) Lionsgate Film

Film: Joy Ride 
In Theaters 

After the success of Crazy Rich Asians, it would only seem inevitable that the Asians would get their own gross out, road trip film in the style of The Hangover, Bridesmaids and Girls Trip. This formula is already set: four to five friends go on a wacky time-sensitive mission, testing the friendship of the two main characters, with a square friend who gets to experience some crazy shit and a wacky distant relative who’s a no-holds barred loose cannon. That Joy Ride, with Seth Rogen producing and Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim directing, adheres to this formula so tightly it’s sort of a disappointment. It felt like they took a screenplay and sort of mad-lib dropped in references to Splinter the Rat, those waving Maneki-nekos cats and KPOP, added Boba Tea, stirred and voila, a hard R-rated generic comedy with an Asian twist. But the screenplay by Family Guy vets Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao and, especially, the four talented actors elevate the material to at least gross in an Asian way, as the crew is game enough to dive deep into the drug-induced, vomit-soaked, sexually charged muck that are hallmarks of these films. Audrey (Ashley Park) and Lolo (Sherry Cola) are best friends who were the only Asian kids growing up in White Hills, Oregon. Audrey needs to close a deal with a Chinese company for work, and since she lied about speaking Chinese on her résumé (she was adopted from China by a white couple), she asks Lolo to come and help translate. Hitching a ride is Lolo’s nonbinary cousin Dead Eye (Sabrina Wu), who is socially awkward but game for anything (think Zack Galifianakis with Awkwafina’s hair style from Crazy Rich Asians), as well as Audrey’s college friend Kat (recent Oscar-nominee Stephanie Hsu), a rising soap opera actress in China who keeps up a vanilla façade for her Christian boyfriend. Also, the whole language barrier excuse is thrown out the window in China as Mandarin, Cantonese and English are used willy-nilly throughout. The joy rides these four friends get into are just one over-the-top, non-sequitur episode after another, including a drunken night at a bar, getting blackmailed into taking copious amounts of cocaine, a run-in with a hot multicultural traveling basketball team, and a KPOP-Cardi B mashup (KWAP, if you will) music video at an airport. All this is hysterically done, but the writers also try to keep some semblance of a serious plot regarding Audrey’s Asian card and if she’s deserving as it seems she seemingly rejects everything about her biological heritage. Instead of a crazy blow-out finale, the film opts for sentimental diversion for Audrey and a character played by Daniel Dae-Kim, which is a nice surprise, although it feels beamed in from another film. Still, there’s a lot of crazy fun to be had in “Joy Ride” and I look forward to more boundary-pushing humor in the eventual sequel. 

Monday, July 3, 2023

Theater Reviews: Three One-Person Shows Ingratiate Themselves With Audiences Before Bringing Up Themes of Anti-Semitism (“Just for Us”), Drug Addiction (“Triple Threat”) and Indulgent Monologuists (“One Woman Show”)

One Woman Show (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Liz Kingsman's One Woman Show 
At the Greenwich House 

There’s no way to talk about Liz Kingsman's One Woman Show without spoiling it. For instance, the title of her show is not even One Woman Show but Wildfowl, which admitted is not as fetching a title to introduce the world to Kingsman’s brand of humor. But it is perfect for her hot take on the one-person/monologue play format, specifically Fleabag (also odiously titled), Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ play version of her hit TV show. Both shows found success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and both are also deadpan funny. Kingsman, a native Australian living in the UK, even cheekily addresses this in the program that she hopes to make her play into a TV series. I can see Kingsman, whose talent for giving life to a myriad of characters in this 70-minute show, on TV, but One Woman Show or Wildfowl should probably stay as a play. Kingsman begins as typical monologue plays are inclined to do, setting up her life as a Gen Z-er looking for purpose in a bustling metropolis, which in Kingsman’s case is at an aviary conservation organization in London. But Kingsman’s real goal is to deconstruct the one-person play genre by occasionally breaking the fourth wall in a way to give us a meta commentary about the genre in a sort of The Play That Goes Wrong kind of way. Her style is very much in the vein of a Saturday Night Live skit in which her character of Liz is the most unreliable of narrators and nothing should be taken at face value. There really is no throughline as much as a series of outrageous stories as funny as they are manipulative. Once I realized Kingsman’s schtick and how she doesn’t really deviate from it, the show didn’t hold many surprises, except that it’s very funny, especially her flirtation with a new co-worker named Phil (pay close attention to his height, but I may have said too much already). If anyone verbalizes the theme of the show, it would have to be Dinah, Liz’s supervisor at the nonprofit, maybe because she is Australian and Liz can use her natural accent. Some parts parody, some parts stand-up comedy, with a majority part taking the piss out of this genre, Liz Kingsman’s show is 100% funny and irreverent.