I recently saw two documentaries that had a lot of things in common, both were about historical issues in two Asian countries: China and The Philippines.
The first one is Nanfu Wang’s ‘One Child Nation,’ which centered on China’s policy from 1979 of families only being allowed to have one child. Something needed to be done then on the country’s overpopulation, so the government issued a law curbing population. Wang is herself a child of those times, so she had some personal stake in it. But she also found out the ramifications of that policy. Doctors were performing late-term abortions by the hundreds of thousands, for example. Plus, a lot of female newborns were being given away by families, but since no one wanted female children, most times these newborns were left to die at the markets. Later on, these babies ended up being old in the open market, brought to the United States for adoption in exchange for money. Some of these effects were really disturbing, and tested my squeamish factor. I thought the film was very thought provoking, and opened my eyes on an issue that I didn’t know existed.
Since I am a Marcos baby, there really weren’t a lot of surprising revelations in me from watching Lauren Greenfeld’s ‘The Kingmaker.’ Greenfeld’s pat subjects have always been the rich and their downfall, so it must have been fascinating for her to have the chance to interview Imelda Marcos – this, after all, is a woman who owns a Picaso, a Michaelangelo, and a Monet. But in the course of making the film, she found something else – that the Marcoses are slowly inching back to regain political power in the Philippines. Some people have described this as sort of a dark Cinderella Story, and it’s very apt. You can see how savvy Imelda can be, and how she can easily charm you. I have a friend who know nothing about her and left the theater utterly buying everything she was selling. Greenfeld presents a very balanced subject here, giving equal time to her opponents and detractors, and gives an impartial view of the subject. The film is quite interesting, even for me who has semi-intimate knowledge of these affairs.
When Shia LeBouf was in rehab, his therapist asked him to write down some of his memories, as they thought he was suffering from PTSD. Those writings, fleshed out, became the screenplay for ‘Honey Boy.’ Sadly, it feels like it. I know a lot of people like this film immensely, but I am not on that camp. For the most part, I thought the film was self-indulgent and one note. I empathize with what the character went through (here the LaBeouf character is named Otis) and the performances are across-the-board outstanding, but I didn’t connect with the film at all.
Maybe it’s misery fatigue? i didn’t find anything new in this story, or even in how Director Alma Har’el tells it. It isn’t broad enough to be interesting for me, and perhaps it should have had a little more back story for context? Noah Jupe, who plays Otis is great, mixing innocence and kid-smart. LaBeouf, playing his father, is raw and edgy, and I could imagine playing this character must have been very cathartic for him. And Lucas Hedges, playing young adult Otis is great, and I think he has never looked more attractive on screen. The film is not necessarily a total waste of time, but I question if it needs to exist.
It’s that time of the year again, and here I am, listening to my first (new) Holiday album of the season, and this one is a doozy. I have been looking forward to hearing Lea Michele’s ‘Christmas In The City’ since it was announced. Last year, when I was searching for versions of ‘Merry Christmas Darling’ on Spotify, I chanced upon her version from her Glee days, and it became an instant favorite. I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. She has chops of steel, as we all know, and since she is from musical theater, I know she will being a certain theatricality to the songs. And true enough, even though we have heard these songs so many times, I still found a lot of new things in her interpretations. A carol as ubiquitous as ‘Silent Night’ made me weep from her choral infused version. And I love the not-s-obvious choices, like ‘Do You Want To Build A Snowman,’ from Frozen, and ‘Christmas In New York’ which is a Holiday Valentine to New York City – it’s a catchy song and captures the joyous spirit of the city during the Holidays. Her duets here are curious choices – a well-blended ‘White Christmas’ with Darren Criss is fine, but a country-tinged arrangement of ‘I’ll be Home For Christmas’ with Jonathan Groff lacked energy. The pairing with Cynthia Errivo in ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ was a little underwhelming compared to the promise of what it could have been. But there are enough great tracks here to make this a staple on my Christmas playlist.
Noah Baumbach’s ‘Marriage Story’ is a love story. But it is framed from an opposite point of view, as the film starts with the couple, played by Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson, at the office of a therapist who is counseling them about their uncoupling. What follows next is a film about two people trying to figure out themselves as they go through the process of a divorce, and along the way they find that above all things, they still have an evolving feeling of love for each other.
Written by Noah Baumbach (and apparently based on his experience when he was divorcing actress Jennifer Jason Leigh) the film is sometimes difficult to watch. There are a lot factors here that complicate more than just a separation – there is a distance issue as Johansson’s character Nicole moves to Los Angeles after being cast on a pilot (‘But we are a New York Family,’ Driver’s Charlie says) And when lawyers got involved in the process, the whole situation turned all shades of ugly, and you can see in the character’s faces that even they themselves do not comprehend what exactly has gone on. The premise may be on the familiar side, but the story is elevated by raw and honest career-best performances from both Driver and Johansson. In my review of ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ I wrote that the latter’s earlier performances have previously left me cold, but here she is as real as it gets. And Driver’s brilliance shouldn’t be a revelation, but there is a scene here where he just slays me – in the middle of a fight, Charlie just breaks down and he – both of them – will break your heart. Every year, I pick my ‘sentimental’ favorite performance, and this year his will be hard to top. And there’s even a cherry on top – one of his memorable scenes is when he sings ‘Being Alive’ from Company. When I first read about this, I had reservation, but it was handled so organically that not only did it make perfect sense, but I would even say that this one of the best uses of a Sondheim song out of a show tune’s context. All in all, though, I am not one hundred percent convinced yet that this will be the film I champion come awards season – it comes off as much too white and straight at times, but there’s no denying this will be on my Top 5 films of the year.
I am really liking this ‘Broadway on Netflix’ trend, and want to support it. Kenny Leon directed ‘American Son’ on Broadway at he has now also directed the Netflix adaptation of the production of Christopher Demos Brown’s work. All in all, I think this is a pretty good effort, but I also had problems with it. I still recommend seeing it, as I thought the play itself has some things to say, even if at times it feels like the messages are bludgeoned. Kerry Washington is the main draw here, as she plays Kendra, who son has gone missing. She goes to the police station to find out what is going on, the only information she has is that her son has been detained by the police. Washington plays her role without fear, and damned if her character doesn’t come across as likable. TO be honest, I had some trouble with sympathizing with her character. Kendra acts with so much entitlement at times that it clashes with the idea that she understands the ‘black’ experience.There is fine support with the rest of the cast but it’s Washington front and center here. The play feels very claustrophobic and Leon films it that way – you get the sense of panic and urgency waiting for the ‘inevitable’ here. At times, it really did feel that the action was closing in, and perhaps that was the director’s intent. All in all, I thought it succeeded in what it wanted to do, and hope we get more similar fare from Netflix.
Ira Sachs is one of my favorite directors and his films ave always touched me, from ‘Love is Strange,’ to ‘Keep The Lights On’ to ‘Little Men.’ I wish I could say the same for ‘Frankie,’ his latest film. I had high hopes for it, for it stars Isabelle Hupert in the title role (Does she only make films with one word name titles ? From Elle to Greta and now Frankie) Unfortunately, though, ‘Frankie’ is too subtle for me, and I am the queen of subtle. Jupert plays a movie star named Françoise Crémont who assembles her family in picturesque Sintra, Portugal. ‘Frankie; as she is called, is dying from cancer, and she is trying to orchestrate her family’s lives after she passes. This situation, of course, lends to a whole range of emotions among her family members, as they deal with their own personal struggles. The ensemble cast around her is great, and I particularly liked Marisa Tomei as a woman unaware that she is being match-made by Frankie for her son. There’s not much drama in here – the situations are sparse and under-nuanced, and there were far too many characters for the audience to connect with except for Hupert’s Frankie. I appreciated Sach’s genteel style, I just wish there were more substance.
Before we got into this mess under Trump, we sometimes forget that Bush 2’s administration was also bad. While I will say that it wasn’t as catastrophic as what we currently are enduring, it was still pretty bad. I mean, we went to a fake war during that time. You will see that while watching ‘Official Secrets.’ This film is pretty good, and the subject mater is as timely as today. Basically, the film tells the story of Katharine Gun, who works with the British intelligence Agency. One day, she receives a memo from the NSA, asking for their agency’s help in collecting information on United Nations Security Council members to be used to pressure them into voting for the Iraq war. She leaks this information and bears the consequences of it. Keira Knightley plays Gunn and she is magnificent here – subtle and empathetic. I keep on forgetting that she is a great subtle actress and she is on top of her game here. I confess to not really knowing anything about this case so I felt the urgency and suspense in the story – Gavin Hood’s pacing is fantastic and this film is as thrilling as any action movie out there. And the ending is satisfying and infuriating at the same time, once you realize the cover up that they did to protect their misdoing. I highly recommend this film.