Thursday, September 28, 2023

Film Reviews: Enjoyable and Delectable Bon Mots by Two Auteur Filmmakers: Pedro Almodóvar’s “Strange Way of Life” and Wes Anderson’s “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”

Strange Way of Life (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film: Strange Way of Life 
At the New York Film Festival this Saturday
Opening in Limited Release Next Week 

The inner life of gay cowboys is being explored again. Even though Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain seems to be the definitive film to survey the ego and psyche of male sexuality in the Wild West, there does seem to be more to mine here. Jane Campion took a stab at it with The Power of the Dog and now Pedro Almodóvar is tackling the issue in his second short film (and his second in English), Strange Way of Life.  The film, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year, is actually pretty tame in the sexual lexicon of Almodóvar’s other films, and despite the best efforts of Alberto Iglesias’ sometimes melodramatic, sometimes angelic score, the film is firmly in a realistic mode. Sheriff Jake (Ethan Hawke) is investigating the murder of his niece when he is sidetracked by the unexpected arrival of his friend, Silva (Pedro Pascal), whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Silva says he crossed the desert to see a back specialist in town, but the sheriff feels his timing is suspicious. Their reunion leads to painful “why can’t we let dead dogs lie” memories being brought up, including Silva’s once hopeful dream that he and Jake could live together and run a ranch. Jake couldn’t even fathom such a thing (see the title), but before you can say “Jack Nasty,” old passions are quickly rekindled. Maybe because the film is only about 30 minutes, Almodóvar keeps the story lean and to the point. Is there still love between these men or could there be an ulterior motive that may be tied to the murder investigation? Hawke and Pascal have immense chemistry together, and when carnality finally takes over, it starts with the camera lingering on Pascal’s back — one of the sexiest, most male-gazey moments in film. The morning after scene panders so much to the audience’s expectation that you have to laugh at the baldness of it all. Also, at different moments in the story, each character draws his gun toward the other. Sure, sometimes, a gun is just a gun, but one can never tell in an Almodóvar film. 

Friday, September 22, 2023

Theater Reviews: “20 Seconds” Is an Absorbing Solo Show About Transforming Trauma Into a Calling. Also, a Summer Broadway Catch-Up With the Enjoyable “Here Lies Love” and “Back to the Future”

20 Seconds (c) Jeremy Daniel

Theater: 20 Seconds 
At the Pershing Square Signature Center 

We New Yorkers are usually allergic to sincerity, especially when it is packaged in our usually highbrow art. So, if you feel a heartfelt play meant to be inspiring may not be for you, please skip to the next review. Ok, now that they’re gone, let me introduce the rest of you to Thomas Sweitzer, who has brought his one-man show, 20 Seconds, to New York. This is his life story, focusing on his child and teen years in suburban Pennsylvania in the 1970s and 80s. (Lindsay Fuori’s set, representing his childhood home, feels a bit too wholesome and quaint.) When the play starts, a youthful 50-year-old man enters, playing a teenage version of himself, when he is asked by a teacher to tell a story from his past. He naturally starts talking about his mother’s meatballs. Those innocuous, homemade meatballs turn out to be an important touchstone throughout Sweitzer’s life as he begins to narrate a much darker story, playing a dozen or so characters, including his parents, classmates and other colorful people that crossed his path. Sweitzer’s story is, unfortunately not a unique one, as he mainly focuses on his toxic home life in which he and his loving (but usually ailing) mother had to deal with unpredictable and often violent outbursts from his mentally unstable father. Like most autobiographical plays, Sweitzer is performing an exorcism as he presents in vivid detail, some of the more gruesome episodes perpetrated by his father (usually when drunk) in his rage and anger (usually at the expense of his mother). 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Film Reviews: A Trio of Films Celebrates the Triumphs of the Little Guy in “Flora and Son,” “Cassandro” and “Dumb Money"

Flora and Son (c) Apple TV+

Film:  Flora and Son 
In Cinemas, on Apple TV next Friday 

Director John Carney’s films all have one plot, and yet each one has been unique and enjoyable in its own right. From Once, about a busking Irish singer and his newfound bandmate, to Begin Again, about a young songwriter finding her singing voice, to Sing Street, about a band of young Irish lads who form a band out of necessity, Carney has always celebrated the power of music to elevate one’s mind (if not one’s actual economic status). So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that his latest film, Flora and Son, is about the eponymous working-class single Mom (Eve Hewson, who is the daughter of rock royalty) and her rebellious son, Max (Orén Kinlan), who discover that their shared love of music might bring purpose to their current downward social-class trajectory. It all starts when Flora finds a beat-up guitar and gives it to Max for his birthday, but Max, being the ungrateful 14-year-old that he is, only likes making his rat-a-tat-tat spoken word songs on his computer. So, Flora takes up the guitar herself, even finding a teacher on YouTube: a Zen SoCal aspiring songwriter named Jeff (a mellow Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and before you know it, Flora is co-writing songs, which gives her a new outlet to deal with her life problems. This is pure John Carney, with no real surprises, but it sure is enjoyable comfort food, which is very similar to another Apple TV produced and Oscar-winning movie, CODA. Will Flora and Son, which, like CODA, prominently uses Joni Mitchell’s “Both Side Now” as its spiritual inspiration, have the same awards outcome? It will certainly be an unabashed crowd pleaser. How can it not when a cheeky character calls himself the Dublin O7 (as in the Irish James Bond)? John Carney, the screenwriter, takes his characters down a very familiar path, but Carney, the director, tweaks the visual style a bit for some surprisingly fun moments, including how to make a Zoom call a bit more cinematic. And then there’s Carney, the songwriter. His catchy tunes, co-written by Gary Clark, is the beating heart of Flora and Son, from “Meet Me in the Middle,” which beautifully evolves throughout the film, to the finale crowd pleaser, “High Life,” which sings “This song’s a love song/It’s not an apology.” Duly noted. 

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Film Review: “A Haunting in Venice” Engulfs Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot Into the Dark Arts of Divination, Ghost Stories and Murder

A Haunting in Venice (c) 20th Century Studios

Film: A Haunting in Venice 
In Cinemas 

Premise: The famous and infamous sleuth Hecule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has decided to retire in Venice after his last two cases (one on the Orient Express and the other on the Nile) tested his moral compass. Enter American mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), who claims her fictional version of Poirot in her novels made him a celebrity. She’s disappointed in his retirement and convinces Poirot to attend a séance where she hopes he will discredit the medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), who has been hired by the grieving opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) to contact her dead daughter, Alicia, who committed suicide a year ago. So, when Reynolds inhabits the spirit of Alicia and says foul play may be involved in her death, things start to go awry in the spooky Venetian palazzo. Is Mrs. Reynolds’ talents fake or was Alicia actually murdered? Luckily, also attending the séance are a host of suspects, including Alicia’s ex-boyfriend (Kyle Allen), Rowena’s religious and disapproving housekeeper (Camille Cottin), Alicia’s mentally unstable former doctor and his young son (Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, playing father and son as they did in Branagh’s Belfast) and Reynolds’ two assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), who may have some secrets as well. And while Poirot starts the evening as a spiritual skeptic, he starts to have visions and visitations from other worldly spirits. Is this an actual haunting in Venice or can Poirot prove otherwise? 

Friday, September 8, 2023

Theater Review: The Final Shakespeare in the Park Production Before a 20-Month Closure Immerses Us into the Brave New World of an Enjoyable “The Tempest”

The Tempest (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: The Tempest 
Shakespeare in the Park/Public Works (closed) 

Premise: As the final full production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park before a lengthy year-and-a-half renovation project, you can’t get any more joyous and crowd-pleasing than this musical take on “The Tempest.” With songs written by the immensely talented Benjamin Velez dropped in between Shakespeare’s text, “The Tempest” is a rousing production by the Public Works leg of the Public Theater. These are not the kind of adjectives normally associated with “The Tempest,” one of Shakespeare’s late comedies (only in its most academic definition) in which the exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero (Renée Elise Goldsberry), having been stranded on an island for years with only her daughter Miranda (Naomi Pierre) as her comfort, exacts revenge on the people who usurped her crown by summoning a tempest to crash their ship onto her island prison. They include her false and malicious brother Antonio (Anthony Chatmon II) and Alonso (Joel Frost), the King of Naples, who believes his son Ferdinand (Jordan Best) to have drowned in the shipwreck. But Ferdinand is alive and, having been separated from the other survivors, has fallen in love with Miranda. Prospero gleefully plays the two like pieces on a chess board (literalized in Alexis Distler’s serviceable set). Also in the story are two natives of the island: the sprite Ariel (Jo Lampert) and the savage Caliban (Theo Stockman), both now in servitude to Prospero. But is the angry, vengeful Prospero going to take his revenge on his captives, or will he be able to summon a grace towards forgiveness? 

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

2023 Fall Film Preview Via the Lens of The New York Film Festival

Strange Way of Life (c) Sony Pictures Classics, Foe (c) Amazon Studios, 
Janet Planet (c) A24, Evil Does Not Exist (c) Neopa Fictive

Every year, I look at the line-up at the New York Film Festival, which runs from September 29 to October 15 to see what interesting and arty films are going to open this fall. Yes, this doesn’t include a lot of the blockbusters from major studios, but in solidarity with the striking SAG-AFTRA and WGA members, I really don’t want to promote those big studios films. Yes, there are some films mentioned below that will be released by studios like Netflix and subsidiaries of Disney, I want to celebrate the artistic visions of directors, actors, writers, and the crews of these films.