How was your Halloween night, folks? Based on the demographic numbers I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure most of our readers are too old for trick-or-treating (though I certainly wouldn’t judge this generation of young adults for holding onto that childhood tradition for as long as possible), so if you’re at the Halloween party age, I hope you had fun and a designated driver, and if you’re a parent of a trick-or-treating-aged child, I hope you were not distracted by near-nonexistent candy-poisoning psychopaths and instead focused your attention on the real threat to your children on Halloween night: cars.
But now we’re in November, which means Thanksgiving, elections for those of you living in Kentucky, Virginia, or Mississippi, and even more Oscar-hunting releases. I’m going to defer to Joey on scary movies like It’s a Wonderful Knife (which he apparently has already seen and very much enjoyed) and Thanksgiving (which I do not believe he has seen yet but looks right up his alley) coming out this month and instead focus on the high-profile dramas, including not one, not two, not three, but four biopics. Starting with…
RUSTIN – In Limited Release November 3, On Netflix November 17
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Starring Colman Domingo, with Chris Rock and Glynn Turman
How am I feelin’ about this one? I am a huge fan of Colman Domingo. Ever since I first “discovered” him as the boisterous, supportive father in If Beale Street Could Talk (though he played small parts in six movies I had seen before then and had already established himself as a formidable stage actor for a decade), I have always seen him as a Good Omen for films. Even if nothing else in the movie worked, he could always be counted on to light up the screen.
I’m not talking about charisma or just a general “presence” in front of the camera, either, though he certainly has that in spades. Unfortunately, I can find no clips of this scene online, but if you have Zola handy, go watch the scene where Domingo’s menacing pimp threatens Zola to get back into the car. As he calms down, there’s this moment where he starts to say, “I got you…” and then he realizes he’s still speaking in his Jamaican accent, composes himself, and slips back into his American accent to start again, “I got you girls a real nice spot.” It’s one of those little grace notes of a performance that most actors don’t give much care to, and yet here he is injecting those neat subtle character insights into a weird Twitter-based road trip comedy.
Sadly, this has not resulted in any recognition from the Academy, yet. Despite Tony and Olivier Award nominations plus an Emmy win for Euphoria, an Oscar nomination eludes him. But that may not be the case for much longer, as Joey, after seeing Rustin at Telluride earlier this year, expressed absolute confidence in Domingo being so electrifying as its titular hero that an Academy Award nomination for him come January is all but assured.
But wait… who is the titular hero of this movie? Who is “Rustin?” That’s actually one of the interesting things about this movie; Bayard Rustin is, in fact, one of the most important figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite not being nearly as iconic in the public consciousness as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. or John Lewis, nor having exerted as direct a hand in the policy victories of that era as President Lyndon Johnson or Chief Justice Earl Warren, he is without question one of its most crucial figures. While we all remember the March on Washington as it happened, it was Rustin who led its organization. The phone calls, the canvassing, the logistics of that demonstration were his undertaking.
You can actually see him behind Dr. King as he delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech:
So why are we just now getting a major motion picture about such a critical figure of such a critical moment in American history? Well, he voluntarily set himself as a background player in these activist movements because he did not want his open homosexuality to hurt their public image. Yeah… he was unrecognized for his work advancing human rights because he was gay. We are, at least for now, far more accepting of people who do not conform to heteronormative identities, and while I normally abhor manipulative “Honor The Man, Honor The Film”-type film awards campaigns, if it leads to greater awareness of Bayard Rustin’s place in history along with an overdue Academy Award nomination for an actor I adore… I think I’m okay with it in this one instance.
NEXT GOAL WINS – In Theaters November 17
Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring Michael Fassbender, with
Armie Hammer Will Arnett and Kaimana
How am I feelin’ about this one? Okay. I know this is petty, but I have to get this off my chest. Because the trailer for this movie does something very annoying to me. It happens right here:
And this is, technically, a true statement. But Taika Waititi is “hiding the ball,” to borrow a sports term. Yes, he lost the Best Picture Academy Award that year, but he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award. Jojo Rabbit was in no way a “loser” at the 92nd Academy Awards. He then went on to direct another entry in one of the most lucrative media franchises in cinema history, so this notion of him as some beleaguered underdog in the Year of Our Lord 2023 is… disingenuous, to say the least. It’s like when an Ivy League-educated millionaire politician presents themselves as some salt-of-the-earth workin’ mayun to pander for votes.
Anyway… this is a feature film adaptation of a sports documentary from 2014 about maintaining one’s dignity and fighting spirit in the face of humiliating, sustained defeat. The American Samoa team was crushed by a 31-0 loss against Australia in 2001, the worst in the history of international soccer (sorry, European readers, but this is a U.S.-based website), and struggled to move past that ever since. In a bid to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, they hired a superstar coach to turn them around to make it to the big time. As classic an underdog story as you can get, but wait, there’s more! The American Samoa team also featured a “fa’afafine” center back named Jaiyah Saelua, who made history as the first transgender soccer player to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier. Pretty cool!
Joey liked this movie well enough, though he cautioned not to inflate your expectations for what is mostly just a nice crowd-pleasing sports dramedy. As long as its director doesn’t keep pretending he’s an underdog loser filmmaker if it does become a mainstream hit, I’ll personally be satisfied.
SALTBURN – In Limited Release November 17, Expanding Wide On November 22
Directed by Emerald Fennell
Starring Barry Keoghan, with Jacob Elordi and Rosamund Pike
What is it about? A college student develops an infatuation with a charismatic classmate, who invites him to meet his aristocratic but eccentric family over the summer.
How am I feelin’ about this one? I was not as big a fan of Promising Young Woman as a lot of other people were, especially Joey. Partially because I felt it just kept writing aggressively in-your-face anti-patriarchy checks that its considerably more chaste reworking of the old “rape revenge” thriller subgenre couldn’t cash. Mostly because of its absolutely catastrophic ending, utterly ruining the main thematic arc of the story and rendering its main character’s motivations incoherent.
At the same time… I was also pretty excited about how many doors its success opened for its writer/director Emerald Fennell. Because for all the misgivings I had about the substance of Promising Young Woman, its style was exquisitely weird. Over-saturated? Maybe, but placing your polemic against modern rape culture set against a backdrop of garishly cheerful pink, blue, and lime green sets and costumes worn by dialed-up characters standing on the knife’s edge of hyperstylized archetypes rather than actual flesh-and-blood people is definitely A Choice, and it’s one I found oddly engrossing to observe even as the writing kept falling short in my eyes.
So the more I learned about Saltburn, and the more I see of its opulent titular setting and sexually-charged barely-qualifies-as-subtext gay tensions between its characters in the trailer, the more I feel like this is her leaning on my favorite instincts of hers from her debut feature. Joey was ecstatic in his praise but also rather… coy, on the details in his rave review of this one out of Telluride, which makes me even more curious as to what she has in store for us for something that looks like a more delirious take on the Patricia Highsmith thriller.
MAY DECEMBER – In Select Theaters November 17, On Netflix December 1
Directed by Todd Haynes
Starring Natalie Portman, with Julianne Moore and Charles Melton
What is it about? Twenty years after their notorious tabloid romance gripped the nation, a married couple with a large age disparity experiences renewed tension when an actress arrives to conduct research on them in preparation for an upcoming feature film about their torrid past.
How am I feelin’ about this one? Uh… oops. Yeah, I really whiffed on this one in my Cannes predictions piece. Probably because I keep hoping this remarkable filmmaker finally gets some sort of institutional recognition for his run of versatile, bold cinematic achievements. He’s never won a major festival award and he’s only been nominated for one Academy Award, for Best Original Screenplay in 2003 for Far from Heaven. Will he finally be recognized for his newest release?
I… kinda doubt it? But stranger things have happened? See, this is a bit of a, shall we say, thorny topic. Not that Todd Haynes has ever shied away from uncomfortable thematic subjects. But this is a movie that is and isn’t “about” a middle school teacher who had sex with one of her students, gave birth to that student’s child in prison as a convicted sex offender, and then went on to marry him as soon as she was relea-it’s Mary Kay Letourneau. That’s very obviously the real-life figure longtime Haynes collaborator Julianne Moore is playing here, with Riverdale’s Charles Melton playing the Vili Fualaau part. Obviously, Haynes is not playing with that kind of fire again when it comes to real-life stories of fraught individuals and so this script is about fictionalized versions of these people. Or is it about them…?
See, there’s also Natalie Portman, playing no one connected to that true tabloid story, but rather a fictional actress cast in a biopic playing the disgraced teacher twenty years after their affair shocked the world. She’s coming over to “observe” them and get a feel for how to portray this controversial person on film, and then, as it usually does with Todd Haynes, things get complicated, uncomfortable, and a little bit dangerous.
Joey, not as consistent or enthusiastic a fan of the New Queer Cinema icon as I am, really enjoyed May December, declaring it his funniest movie if not quite among his absolute best. The odds of such a reportedly campy and unsettling movie about such a taboo real-life subject probably will not be his path to overdue Oscar glory, but at a minimum, it will definitely be a hot topic of discussion on Film
NAPOLEON – In Theaters November 22, Releasing On AppleTV+… At Some Point
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, with Vanessa Kirby and Tahar Rahim
How am I feelin’ about this one? As annoying as I found The Discourse™ surrounding Joker and as little interest I’ve had in revisiting that movie in the years since its release, I am genuinely really happy that Joaquin Phoenix finally has an Oscar of his own. It’s also nice that, unlike some other Best Lead Actor winners I could name, he hasn’t felt the need to go back to that well immediately after his victory (though, yes, we will see Arthur Fleck again in a sequel that its producers vowed would never happen). His first theatrical starring role as an Academy Award winner was C’mon C’mon, playing a more sensitive and receptive role that reportedly is in line with his actual personality as just a quiet, eccentric guy who would like the world to eat less meat.
Flexing his versatility as an Academy Award winner even further is in Napoleon, playing the eponymous military genius and Emperor of France during his rise to power and marriage to his first wife Joséphine and… I’m sorry, he’s too old for the part. He just is. Napoleon Bonaparte first met Joséphine in 1795, when he was just 26 years-old. Their marriage was annulled in 1810 when he was 41 years-old and he died a little over a decade later in St. Helena at the age of 51. Phoenix is 49 years-old and his looks haven’t remained frozen-in-time like Paul Rudd as he’s aged. Part of what made Napoleon Bonaparte such a titan of France was how much power he accumulated at such a young age. So casting someone just two years short of the age Napoleon died in a movie allegedly depicting his ascension feels misguided, to say the least.
Then again, we’re talking about a director who justified his decision to spray-tan Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton to portray two Middle Eastern princes as “I can’t mount a film of this budget… and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I’m just not going to get financed.” And honestly, even beyond the miscasting, I’m just getting weary of these kinds of historical epics from Ridley Scott. I know Gladiator was a smash hit back when Bill Clinton was still President of the United States, but have any of his subsequent sword-and-sandals historical action movies measured up? Why is he still chasing that dragon instead of mounting more procedural science fiction movies that center their dramas on problem-solving like The Martian? Remember that movie? It would be nice to see more like it, huh?
I want to be optimistic, but I just don’t have a good feeling about this one, folks.
MAESTRO – In Select Theaters November 22, On Netflix December 20
Directed by …
And starring Bradley Cooper, with Carey Mulligan and Matt Bomer
How am I feelin’ about this one? Okay, here we are! Last biopic of the month (though certainly not the last biopic of the year)! And, if you’ll indulge me, one more Oscar-related gripe because man oh man am I still pissed that Bradley Cooper didn’t win Best Actor for A Star Is Born. That is always going to stick in my craw every time I see him in a new movie from now on. Just like Saoirse Ronan after Lady Bird, I’m going to presume that whenever he does win an Academy Award, it’ll be a tacit apology for passing him over for that role.
Maybe it’ll be for Maestro? He’s directing and starring in this one just as he did with A Star Is Born, and it’s about a titanic figure in the world of American entertainment: Leonard Bernstein, the prolific songwriter who made history as the first American-born conductor to lead an established symphony orchestra in the United States. I’m tempted to be cynical and note the old-age makeup and bisexual scenes as the perfect Oscar-baiting soufflé, but I want to be serious for a minute and say that it’s really cool that a big-name male movie star has now personally directed not one, but two movies where his intimate personal relationship with a woman is the focal point of the drama.
In an era where sexuality and vulnerable interactions with the opposite sex are increasingly demonized by this generation of moviegoers (who also can’t figure out why they’re so lonely all the time, go figure!), it’s genuinely inspiring to see someone with the clout and stature of Cooper to center actual romance in the movies he directs. Marital romance, no less! He’s interested in exploring how two people in a marriage figure themselves out! This doesn’t just show up for him behind the camera, either. One of the reasons he’s such a terrific modern movie star is seeing just how consistently generous he is to his women screen partners, even in movies that would otherwise short-change their women like American Sniper.
Reviews for this one have been somewhat mixed, calling it less of an interesting portrait of a hugely influential music icon and more of a vanity project for its director and star. For his part, Joey is very much on the pro side of the debate, describing Maestro as vibrant and romantic, fully in line with the spirit of its two main characters.
Let me know how you feel about all these upcoming portraits of real-life figures this month in the comments.