From lighthearted comedies to compelling documentaries, November ushered in a variety of movie releases available to watch on streaming services and online platforms. Though the month seemed to fly by, film beat reporters Olive Grimes and Maya Thompson are here to help you stay up to date on November movie releases that might have gone under the radar.
“Searching for Anna May Wong”
The first name dropped in the new documentary “Searching for Anna May Wong” is not, in fact, Anna May Wong, but instead the name Natasha Liu. The camera focuses on the up-and-coming, absolutely charming actress as she introduces herself in the opening scene and declares, “This is my story, and the story of other Asian actors in Hollywood.”
“Searching for Anna May Wong” muses the question: How has racism against Asian and Asian American actors evolved since the era of Anna May Wong? Throughout the late actress’s career in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Wong lost several roles to white actresses. Most notably, Luise Rainer was cast in the 1937 drama “The Good Earth” and later won the Oscar for the role, which first belonged to Wong.
Directors Denise Chan and Z. Eric Yang stitch together this history through interviews with an all-star lineup of Asian actors, including Sandra Oh, Jason Tobin, Amy Hill and James Hong. Through these interviews, the documentary champions the importance of representation behind the camera as well as in front of it. In amplifying an urgent message, “Searching for Anna May Wong” beams with compelling sincerity and humanity.
— Maya Thompson
Etant Dupain doesn’t yet have the name recognition of a celebrity documentarian, but there’s a nonzero chance you’ve seen some of his work already. The Haitian journalist has brought an intimate touch to documenting life in his country for international outlets as diverse as CNN and Vice — but “Madan Sara,” he reports, is his first truly personal project.
The film takes its name from an economic class of women in Haiti who find a volatile, if accessible, source of income in transporting mass amounts of produce from farms to urban marketplaces. It’s a massive and centuries-old industry — finding its roots in Haitian slave labor and the economic disenfranchisement of indigenous and Creole women — but it’s remained an integral part of the Haitian economy even amid threats from domestic terrorism and hostile national policies.
Dupain has a decidedly no-frills approach to his filmmaking that sometimes errs on the side of pure journalism, but this creative decision doesn’t make “Madan Sara” any less effective. There’s a near peerless skill to how he spins a story out of interview footage and verite, as well as a great deal of admiration for the women at the center. It’s a wonderful sight to behold a perspective that would’ve likely never reached a mass audience otherwise; Dupain’s clear creative aptitude is simply an added bonus.
— Olive Grimes
It’s hard to imagine, in concept, how to make an effective retelling of Frank Zappa’s legendary life and career in documentary form. And though “Zappa” doesn’t fully do your favorite rock star’s favorite rock star justice, it’s got the right idea: flamboyant, esoteric, unpredictable — and never taking itself too seriously.
Indeed, “Zappa” plays out like some of the rocker’s greatest tracks, following a familiar structure but with a bold experimental approach that refuses categorization. Arranged by “Bill and Ted” actor-turned-director Alex Winter, “Zappa” is as often comprised of associative found footage as it is recordings of the musician himself — whether it’s Cold War propaganda cut in with Zappa explaining his childhood fixation on gas masks or Zappa’s surreal home movies serving as a motif throughout his later life.
At the same time, the film is also just a plainly effective tell-all that cleanly avoids the cliches of the rock star doc. It’s a genre that loves to fit its subjects in archetypes — the tortured artist, the eccentric idealist, the egocentric jerk — but “Zappa” lands just outside of them. Whether you’re drawn in by Zappa’s disparate music or merely the legends attached to his name, “Zappa” finds its strength somewhere in between conventions and expectations. After all, that’s how the artist likely would’ve wanted it.
— Olive Grimes
Written and directed by Dimitri Logothetis, “Jiu Jitsu” takes place in a world where every six years, a ruthless alien assailant (Ryan Tarran) travels through an interplanetary portal, threatening to destroy Earth unless he battles the planet’s fiercest jiujitsu fighters in hand-to-hand combat. “Jiu Jitsu” centers on Jake (Alain Moussi), a mysteriously wounded amnesiac, who gets dumped at a Burmese U.S. Army base and discovers that he’s part of an ancient order of masterful martial artists — the heroes who fight the raging alien invader.
The coked-up camera in “Jiu Jitsu” shoots its fight sequences so wildly, they’re laughably fantastic. Nobody in the whole movie seems to have a working gun — not even in the military — and every combat scene lasts about 20 minutes because characters who are on the receiving end of a roundhouse kick can simply get back up.
Then, there’s Nicolas Cage, a wonderful agent of chaos. Nearly 40 minutes into the movie, Jake falls into a greasy, underground opium den and meets Wylie, Cage’s Yoda-inspired eccentric. Cage delivers a feral performance as his character guides Jake on a heroic journey to uncover his complicated past and looming destiny. “Jiu Jitsu” is a wild ride that leaves nearly every plot point out to dry, but its sheer ridiculousness makes the movie a sort of incredible Cthulhu: The more you try to understand, the madder you become.
— Maya Thompson
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her role in “The Good Earth.” In fact, that role was performed by Luise Rainer.