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. 

Ryohei Suzuki (c) The Interested Bystander

Thankfully, Egoist does have a distributor and will be released by Strand Releasing, so you will have a chance to see and embrace this intimate but big-hearted film. One of the reasons the movie works so well is the uninhibited and fearless performance by Ryohei Suzuki, who plays Kosuke as a vain, image-obsessed man who sees an alternate universe version of himself in Ryuta. How this egoist’s façade melts to genuine understanding of the many layers of love is this film’s core theme. It’s no wonder that Suzuki was honored at the NYAFF festival during its New York premiere with the first ever Screen International Rising Star award, with the adorably traditional Suzuki wearing a tuxedo on a typically hot and humid Manhattan summer night. He was humble and appreciative of the Japanese-heavy audience as he accepted the award, while also voicing his support of the SAG-AFTRA actor’s strike. Congrats to him and to the NYAFF for a successful opening festival weekend. Here are some intriguing, upcoming films to catch: The Centerpiece film, Dream, directed by Lee Byeong-heon, Nate Ki’s Chinese horror film Back Home, Lee Hanee’s Korean box office hit Phantom and a free outdoor screening of Bong Joon Ho’s 2006 The Host

Theater Camp (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: Theater Camp 
In Cinemas 

In the 1996 mockumentary Waiting for Guffman, the theater-loving folks of Blaine, Missouri, are just having fun putting on Red, White and Blaine to celebrate the town’s sesquicentennial year. It’s only when Corky St. Clair, who once worked in New York, announced that a producer named Mort Guffman was coming to see the show do things go awry. Guffman, the showbiz equivalent of a Macguffin, doesn’t arrive at the theater productions put on by the kids in the newest mockumentary, Theater Camp, but these kids, whose spunk, enthusiasm and talent overfloweth, don’t care. It really is about the work, and their joy and chutzpah are the best thing about directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s debut film, with a screenplay by Gordon, Lieberman, Ben Platt and Noah Galvin. It’s only when the film focuses on (and mocks as mockumentaries do) the adults (played by three of the creators) does the Guffman dream of stardom overshadow the kids. Amos (Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) are teachers at AdirondACTS, a scrappy theater camp which may have to close because of financial reasons. The two teachers, along with the clueless theater son of the ailing camp owner Troy (Jimmy Tatro), are the least compelling characters in this tale, although they are very funny, casually throwing theater jargon and Broadway references around like daggers. Surrounding them are a chorus of wonderful kid actors who represent all the colors of the rainbow. I know this is a low-budget comedy, but the lack of actual showtunes (except for some snippets in the audition scenes) is very evident, but a nice tradeoff are the truly awful (in a good way) songs for this year’s original musical, Joan Still, a tribute to the ailing founder of the camp (cameoed by Amy Sedaris). Don’t get me wrong, those who belong in any way to the openhearted tribe of theater geeks will embrace and laugh their way through this obvious love letter to the performing arts. I just wished the can-do, “let’s put on a show” spirit was less mocked and more celebrated. 

The Miracle Club (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film: The Miracle Club 
In Cinemas 

There’s a moment in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s The Miracle Club where the three marquee name stars—Maggie Smith, Kathy Bates and Laura Linney—are quietly sitting at a table together, with 40 years of resentful history between them, and then daggers come out, starting out as passive-aggressive observations before launching into full-fledged, gunshot accusations with no one leaving the room without some emotional wound. This is the kind of acting fireworks we anticipate with these three powerhouses, but I just wish there was a more interesting story surrounding them. We are in Ireland, 1967, and with the death of her mother, American Chrissie (Linney) returns for the first time in 40 years to her childhood home. Why she left is the secret that gets hinted at for most of the film, but it’s obvious she is not welcomed by the reception of her former best friend Eileen (Bates) and Lily (Smith), the mother of Chrissie’s first love.  Eileen, Lily and the younger Dolly (Agnes O’Casey) win a talent contest at the local church to go on a pilgrimage (on a bus, a la Priscilla) to Lourdes, where each has a reason to visit the holy site where miracles are granted to the faithful. As her mother curated and planned the trip, the seemingly agnostic Chrissie joins. Director O’Sullivan can’t make up its mind if the film is about the unresolved hostility between the main characters or one of those many charming Irish films about how these women are the glue to their respective marriages, and shucks, men are just clueless without them. The Miracle Club ends up like last year’s better executed Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, a travelogue adventure with a hint of a feminist manifesto, only without the Christian Dior dress. All three actresses are fine, I just wish they could find films where they play happy optimistic characters instead of these icy ones in need of a thaw.

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