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. 

Orlando, My Political Biography (c) Sideshow and Janus Films

Film: Orlando, My Political Biography 
In Cinemas 

Director Paul B. Preciado’s Orlando, My Political Biography, is classified as a documentary, even though most of the film is inspired by Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking Orlando, A Biography, with reenactments and readings of the novel, by transgender actors, who consider the fictitious figure a trans hero and a rare beacon. In the novel which Woolf wrote almost 100 years ago, Orlando is a young male aristocrat and poet who wakes up one day as a woman and proceeds to travel for the next 300 years as (if you will) an interested bystander to history. It is undeniable why this Orlando is such an irresistible figure, first (historically) to feminist readers and then to the trans and gender nonconforming community. Woolf, who was married to a man but had close relationships with women, doesn’t have Orlando go into shock in their metamorphosis transition, playing it more as a given, accepting their fate before continuing with their journey with new purpose. Preciado is a scholar who writes about all forms of sexuality in a historical context, so it’s no wonder that he would use Orlando as a jumping off point to highlight the struggle and plight of trans and the gender nonconforming individual. Preciado has his cast of about 25 non actors tell their own transformative biographies before donning a ruff (the fashionable Elizabethan collar of the time) to read a passage from Woolf’s novel. Occasionally, Preciado brings groups of these “Orlandos” together in staged situations, like a doctor’s office to get hormone treatments, but mostly they just let the participants speak, which runs the gamut of sad family tales to triumphant self-discoveries, and they’re always fascinating. Preciado is a sympathetic guiding hand to these stories, although sometimes his poetic and arty sensibilities feel more like an unnecessary distraction rather than an impartial spectator (the ending conceit in a courtroom is quite moving, I must admit). Serious in nature, the film is also playful and gives each of its subjects a moment of dignity. Orlando is their spiritual patron saint, and to have each one say at one point that they are playing Orlando is a powerful statement in a fascinating film that would pair well as a double feature with Sally Potter’s 1992 excellent film adaptation with Tilda Swinton as Orlando. 

Quiz Lady (c) Hulu

Film:  Quiz Lady 
Streaming on Hulu 

In an unusually bountiful year of Asian American films in cinemas by Asian American filmmakers, it’s odd that the most conventional one would go straight to streaming. Unlike Celine Song’s moving drama Past Lives, Randall Park’s relationship comedy Shortcomings and Adele Lim’s raucous sex comedy Joy Ride, Jessica Yu’s family comedy Quiz Lady premiered on Hulu. Why? The film stars two of the most bankable and popular Asian American actresses in Hollywood, Sandra Oh and Awkwafina. Both are Golden Globe-winning actresses and have loyal fan bases (Grey’s Anatomy and Killing Eve for Oh; Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell for Awkwafina). Granted, this is a pretty middle-of-the-road, familiar comedy with the character’s Asian-ness relegated to the backseat until necessary, but it’s still quite funny, and it’s a joy to watch these two actresses paired together as sisters, taking on the type of role the other usually plays. Instead of dialing up her usual outrageous persona, Awkwafina is more meek and nondescript as accountant Anne, whose only joy is to watch (with her dog Mr. Linguini) her favorite long-running game show, Can’t Stop the Quiz (think Jeopardy smarts with $10,000 Pyramid silliness). She is reluctantly reunited with her older, estranged, flighty and unreliable sister Jenny (Oh, hamming it up deliciously) when their mother disappears and leaves them with her gambling debt. Their only way out is to have almost Rain Man like savant Anne go on the game show to win the money. Hilarity, if not originality, ensues. Although the premise and a lot of the jokes make Quiz Lady feels like a throwback to the Will Ferrell physical comedies of the early aughts (unsurprisingly, Ferrell is a producer and plays the host of the quiz show), the charm and chemistry of these two actresses make it work better than it should, considering they go through familiar comedy beats like when Anne takes the wrong drugs to calm her nerves during an audition. Besides Ferrell, who is essentially playing Buddy the Elf as Alex Trebeck, the film also stars Holland Taylor (underused as Anne’s neighbor), Tony Hale (as a Ben Franklin cosplayer, don’t ask) and Jason Schwartzman (as a Ken Jennings-like, obnoxious returning champ). Awkwafina is both funny and endearing as the awkwardfina Anne, and it’s nice to see her on-screen rather than playing animated birds in two movies this year alone. But it really is Sandra Oh that steals the movie as Jenny in her inappropriate outfits, her inability to read the room and her comedy set pieces (the one with her broken wrist is outrageous and cringy funny). Also, shout-out to a surprise posthumous cameo from a comic giant that was unexpectedly moving. Like last year’s Asian-centric Fire Island, Quiz Lady should have had a chance to reach a wider audience before finding a home on Hulu. But Hulu is where you’ll find it, and you’ll have a good time once you hit play.

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