Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Interested Bystander’s Oscar Predictions: November 2023

The Color Purple (c) Warner Bros.

The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes are over, and now that the studios agree to give their workers a living wage, they can start to promote movies for this year’s awards cycle. The person who seems most itching to have facetime with the voters seems to Bradley Cooper for “Maestro,” followed by Jeffrey Wright for “American Fiction” and the cast of the upcoming “The Color Purple.” 

But with campaigning starting so late, maybe voters will have to rely on films and performances they like rather than just give into the media hype. With the critics’ groups announcements happening in the next two weeks and the shortlists announced right before Christmas, this is the last of my predictions that will be unbiased by the buzz and just on the films themselves. 


Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Film Review: Three Master Directors Tackle Life in Japan That Children Don’t Understand and Adults Can’t Explain in “Monster,” “Perfect Days” and “The Boy and the Heron”

Monster (c) Well Go USA, Inc.

Film: Monster 
In Cinemas 

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has returned to his homeland setting of Japan after sojourn films in France (The Truth) and South Korea (Broker), and while I had some problems with the script by Yuji Sakamoto (ironically, the winner of the Screenplay Award at Cannes this year), Kore-eda is again sympathetically tackling the innocence of children trying to cope in a world they can’t comprehend. But the movie tells the story of young Minato (Soya Kurokawa), from three perspectives, with his own being the last one, and that’s a shame because the first two, while well-acted, bring up issues that are red herrings to what is actually happening. The first act is told from the perspective of Minato’s mom Saori (Sakura Ando) who is noticing a change in her son’s demeanor as he starts fifth grade. He’s erratic, he suffers bodily harm, and she is horrified when he says he now has a pig’s brain, and thus, is a monster. After some investigation, Saori believes her son has been a target of harassment from his teacher, Hori (Eita Nagayama). The second part is from Hori’s perspective, and we see how hints and innuendos can ruin a teacher’s reputation, especially when it involves pre-teen kids. But it’s in the third part that Minato’s true story is told and everything that felt mysterious and foreboding earlier falls into place. That’s because a fourth character, his much-teased classmate Yori (Hinata Hiiragi), who was only glimpsed in earlier parts of the film, turns out to be the lynchpin to the film’s mystery. Yori and Minato are given the same generosity of grace Kore-eda affords to innocent children, as in his masterpiece Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or in 2018. I was ultimately moved by Monster as a whole and hope one day someone will re-edit the film chronologically with all three stories happening at once. As it is, the story manipulates the audience for most of the movie before revealing the beating, generous heart by the end. Make no mistake, there are monsters in this film: real and metaphorical, but also fantastical that inspire games and wonder in children. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Film Reviews: Thanksgiving and Holiday Films for Family (“The Holdovers”) and Friends (“Saltburn”), With Some Streaming Options

The Holdovers (c) Focus Features

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FILMS You’re home with family. What should you watch that’s safe for Mom, Dad and nieces and nephews. 

Film: The Holdovers 
In Cinemas 

Auteur filmmaker Alexander Payne has always had a cynical look at the world in films such as Election and About Schmidt, with his last movie, Downsizing, maybe taking it a bit too far. Perhaps because he is directing a script he didn’t write (the screenplay is by David Hemingson), his latest, The Holdovers, is possibly his most relatable and sentimental work. The film takes place in a nostalgic New England Christmas setting of 1970 and deals with three people in holiday crisis. Set at an all-boys boarding school, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is one of the titular holdovers as he has been asked by his mother not to come home for Christmas because of his tenuous relationship with his stepfather. He and some other kids are being babysat by his reluctant Classics teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti, reuniting with Payne for the first time after Sideways), who is both mean and vindictive in his approach to the spoiled kids he teaches. Also stuck at the school is the school cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who has recently lost someone close to her and doesn’t feel festive. How these three interact and deal with each other’s problems doesn’t divert too much from expectations. Sessa is fine as the always angry student, although a plot reveal toward the end could have been explored a bit more. As for Giamatti, will his Grinch heart grow three times as large by the end of the movie? Well, how Mr. Hunham’s story resolves itself takes a slightly unexpected turn that may feel a bit out of character, but Giamatti somehow makes it work. Randolph, however, as Mary is the standout here. She is the moral compass of the film and Randolph is both funny and heartbreaking. The nostalgia may touch a chord for many audiences, but will The Holdovers become a Christmas tradition film like It’s a Wonderful Life or Elf? Time will tell. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Theater Reviews: Experimenting with Theatrical Realities Yield Mixed but Always Fascinating Results for “Arcadia,” “Scene Partners” and “Poor Yella Rednecks”

Arcadia (c) Ashley Garrett

Theater: Arcadia 
Presented by Bedlam at The West End Theatre 

For over 10 years, the theater company Bedlam has had a reputation for irreverent and cavalier productions of classic plays. Whether it’s an audacious theatrical conceit, modern acting techniques or swinging between minimal and maximum presentations, this brash company almost dares you to re-think beloved literary classics deconstructed within an inch of its original intent. Sometimes it works (like their superior Sense and Sensibility) and other times it feels like a noble failure (the perplexing mash-up Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet). Bedlam’s latest, Arcadia, which is one of Tom Stoppard’s most whimsical, dense and engrossing plays, thankfully falls into the former. Taking full advantage of The West End Theatre’s unique circular and domed playing space, director Eric Tucker’s barebones production makes sense once the audience gets back from intermission (after being politely but pointedly ejected from the theater). Until then, the first act may be confusing for those who are not familiar with Tom Stoppard’s play. His conceit presents us what happened in the Arcadian, the British estate of Lord and Lady Croom, who may or may not have hosted Lord Byron one weekend in 1809 that may or may not have ended in a duel, while also showing us some present-day scholars trying to decipher the surviving clues and how they get so much of it wrong. Of course, Bedlam being Bedlam, there are some stylistic choices that you must go with, including the cast having British accents in the past but American accents (as well as mannerisms – there’s a lot of yelling) in the present. But the second act, while not helping to clarify some of Stoppard’s more complex plot puzzles, at least has some ingenious (if perhaps too cute by half) set pieces that include an astonishing amount of physical precision on behalf of the cast. Again, how much of this is fidelis to Stoppard depends on your love of the original 1995 Broadway production. The huge ensemble has a good time playing off each other, with the actors who seem most able to straddle the Stoppard and Bedlam hybrid most successfully being Caroline Grogan’s inquisitive Thomasina, Lisa Birnbaum as her restless mother Lady Croom in the past and Mike Labbadia’s petulant Valentine in the present. Like many plays this season, Arcadia is a long sit (a little over three hours), but somehow Eric Tucker’s conceit and Stoppard’s genius finally does mesh, and I enjoyed it as much as any good carnal embrace. 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Film Reviews: The Celebration of Ordinary Heroes Are at the Center of the Biopic “Rustin,” the Documentary “Orlando, My Political Biography” and the Hulu Comedy “Quiz Lady”

Rustin (c) Netflix

Film: Rustin 
In Cinemas and will stream on Netflix starting on November 17 

There have been many films about historical events revolving around the civil rights movement and the effects of Jim Crow, from Selma to One Night in Miami to Hidden Figures. Speaking of hidden figures, there is an important individual whose name is brought up in passing during this period but is rarely celebrated, except as a footnote to history, and that is Bayard Rustin. A colleague and friend of Martin Luther King, Rustin was mostly relegated to behind the scenes of the civil rights fight because he was a gay man. And according to the engrossing, if slightly by-the-numbers historical biopic directed by George C. Wolfe (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black and portrayed by the peerless Colman Domingo (all out gay men), Rustin was one of the most outspoken architects of the Great March on Washington on August 28, 1963, but butted heads with his contemporaries, including NAACP’s Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock), Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright) and even King (Aml Ameen) himself over the projected number of participants (Rustin predicted over 100,000), the participation of Black NYC police without weapons (Rustin was a staunch follower of Gandhi) and even the type of sandwich in the marcher’s lunch (insisting on peanut butter and jelly). The witty script doesn’t shy away from thorny issues, including the downplaying of women in the movement (CCH Pounder as Anna Arnold Hedgemen and Audra McDonald as Ella Baker) and, of course, Rustin’s homosexuality and his affairs with a white staffer, Tom (Gus Halper) and a fictitious Southern preacher, Elias (Johnny Ramey). To make this all palatable and to fit into a two-hour movie, things have to be condensed and issues omitted, but as a whole, Wolfe is successful in putting Rustin’s achievements into historical context, and even suggests he knew he would have to stay in the shadows of the more recognizable names of the movement. That horrible injustice is the real point of this film, which doesn’t stray far from the usual activist cinema formula of, say, Milk (with Black’s Oscar-winning screenplay) or Ava DuVernay’s Selma, but to have a neglected figure finally getting the spotlight pointed at him, Rustin is a welcome achievement. From Branford Marsalis’ bouncy score to Tobias A. Schliessler’s unobtrusive camerawork, Rustin (co-produced by Barack and Michelle Obama) is a celebration of a flamboyant, funny, deeply proud but ultimately humble servant of the civil rights cause.