Adrift in Soho


Soho is a world of light, and fog and shadow.

(2019) Drama (RandomOwen Drake, Caitlin Harris, Chris Wellington, Emily Seale-Jones, Angus Howard, Lauren Harris, Olly Warrington, William Chubb, William Jessop, Martin Calcroft, Warwick Evans, Anthony Burrows, Hayley Considine, Adei Bundy, Lara Graham, Luke Hicks, Tori Hope, Stella Lock, Mama Manneh, Mogs Morgan, Santiago Mosquera, Sandrea Simons.. Directed by Pablo Behrens

 

Neighborhoods have their own soul, their own character. Often they aren’t easily defined in a sentence or two, but some neighborhoods are remarkably easy to characterize.

Soho in the late 1950s was a place where drunks, dreams and would-be Bohemians hung out. While America was in the throes of the Beat Generation, Soho was London’s own heartbeat. Harry Preston (Drake) has arrived there from the provinces, wet behind the ears, hoping to write the book he knows will Change Everything. Maybe along the way, he might get laid.

He meets all sorts of characters, including the womanizing James Compton-Street (Wellington), the pretty American exchange student Doreen (Harris), radical New Cinema documentarians Jo (Seale-Jones) and Marcus (Howard), and The Count (Chubb), a literary patron. Jo and Marcus are making a documentary about Soho, but whereas Marcus is practical (he finances their efforts by shooting blue movies at local strip clubs), Jo is much more of a purist and leaves him to team up with fellow filmmaker Marty (Warrington).

The novel this is based on is something of a cult novel in the UK from original Angry Young Man Colin Wilson, who lived in Soho during the period depicted in the films. He eventually moved to the country but wrote this novel in 1961 as a kind of farewell to arms. I haven’t read the book myself, but I get the sense that it is not an easy read. So, too, is the movie based on it not an easy watch.

The movie could have used a little more of a budget to give it some scope and a better sense of place and time, but that’s not really something within the control of the filmmakers. The cast does a pretty decent job, particularly Wellington who displays a bonhomie and flair that is missing from the other characters; most of them are kind of flat and uninteresting, although the actors do the best they can. It doesn’t help that the characters spend an inordinate amount of time philosophizing about a fictional illness called “Soho-itis,” which is never fully explained in the film which is amazing, considering how much time they spend talking about it.

However, this is a gorgeous movie to look at – cinematographer Martin Kobylarz makes wonderful use of light, shadows and fog to give the viewer some compelling images. The mood is augmented by a jazzy score replete with hits from the era that are a bit on the obscure side, but fit the film perfectly.

The movie is actually a rather intelligent one; the problem is that too many of the characters are little more than stick drawings. I would have appreciated less rumination and more character development. Incidentally, viewers who prefer a more linear narrative may have some issues here; the movie is told essentially as a series of vignettes that sometimes don’t connect together well or form a really cohesive story. Still, I found that the movie held my interest for it’s nearly two hour length, which is more than I can say for other movies with higher aspirations than this one.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is exceptional.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a bit aimless at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author Colin Wilson based all of the characters on people he met while he lived in Soho in the 1950s, although their names were all changed with the exception of Ironfoot Jack. The story itself is said to be based on something the author experienced or knew of first-hand.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Postcards from London
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
2040

A Dog’s Way Home


Happiness is the love of a good dog.

 (2019) Family (ColumbiaAshley Judd, Edward James Olmos, Wes Studi, Bryce Dallas Howard (voice), Alexandra Shipp, Barry Watson, Chris Bauer, Tammy Gillis, Jonah Hauer-King, Farrah Aviva, Patrick Gallagher, Lucia Walters, Lane Edwards, John Cassini, Darcy Laurie, Benjamin Ratner, Motell Foster, Brian Markinson, Patrick Gallagher, Broadus Mattison, Christine Willes. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

 

Another in a recent spate of movies told from a canine point of view, this is also based on a novel by W. Bruce Cameron, who also wrote A Dog’s Purpose which, perhaps not coincidentally, got the sequel treatment in 2019 as well.

Here, kind-hearted med student Lucas (Hauer-King) finds and rescues a pit bull puppy living in a condemned property that an unscrupulous developer (Markinson) is trying to tear down. He and fellow VA intern Olivia (Shipp) who would look favorably on Lucas as boyfriend material, decide to keep the pup over the objections of Lucas’ PTSD-afflicted veteran mom (Judd) who gradually warms to the dog, whom they name Bella (Howard) whose thoughts we get to hear.

Lucas’ efforts to keep the developer from…umm, developing leads to him calling a favor from an equally unscrupulous animal control officer (Cassini) who is enforcing a Denver law banning pit bulls. Knowing that if Bella is captured by animal control she’ll be put to sleep, Lucas reluctantly arranges to give his dog to a family in New Mexico to care for, only to see Bella run home to her one true master. Along the way she meets people (good and bad), critters (good and bad) and tugs at the heartstrings at just about every available opportunity.

Being a dog nut myself, I tend to be overly lenient to such films and will be the first to admit that the ending had tears streaming down my jaded critical face. There are even moments for cat lovers – baby Bella is raised by Mother Cat, and along the road back home Bella meets a cougar kitten whom she dubs “Big Kitten,” turning into a not-so-good CGI apparition.

This is more-or-less harmless family viewing material with a nice sucker punch for dog lovers like me. It doesn’t really push any boundaries nor is it essential viewing even for kids, but it does make a nice hour and a half babysitter for parents and children alike during these stay-at-home days.

REASONS TO SEE: Ends up being heartwarming, but you would expect that..
REASONS TO AVOID: Not really Jack London, is it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some dog peril and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog that plays the adult Bella, Shelby the Dog, was a rescue dog found liiving in a Tennessee junkyard.

BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic:  50100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Call of the Wild
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Grey Fox

How to Build a Girl


Johanna Morrigan contemplates a boring future.

(2019) Dramedy (IFCBeanie Feldstein, Alfie Allen, Paddy Considine, Emma Thompson, Sarah Solemani, Laurie Kynaston, Frank Dillane, Arinzé Kene, Gemma Arterton, Chris O’Dowd, Michael Sheen, Lucy Punch, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle, Joanna Scanlon, Sharon Horgan, Patsy Ferran, Ziggy Heath, Bobby Schofield, Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins. Directed by Coky Giedroyc

 

When it comes right down to it, adolescence is a process in which we invent ourselves. The trouble is, we rarely know what it is we want to be. We often reach for the stars only to realize that our arms just aren’t that long. But as anybody who knows England will tell you, it’s almost impossible to reach the heights from Wolverhampton.

And it is from that dowdy suburban landscape that teen dreamer Johanna Morrigan (Feldstein) finds herself. Socially awkward but possessed of a talent for writing, she feels trapped in a place that doesn’t hold enough interest for her. An entry into a poetry contest ends up causing her even more humiliation and embarrassment than ever.

Her home life isn’t much better. She lives in a cramped household flat with her mother (Solemani) who suffers from post-partum depression after an unexpected birth of twins, her cheerful father (Considine) who dreams of the rock and roll stardom that he has thus far failed to find and her brother Krissi (Kynaston) who has the same frustrations she does and channels it into a fanzine. In her loneliness, she carries on conversations with photos of her heroes which she keeps on her wall; Sigmund Freud (Sheen), Maria von Trapp (Arterton), Sylvia Plath (Punch) and Elizabeth Taylor (L. Allen), among others.

Yes, it’s the 90s and Britpop is coming into its glory. Johanna manages to wrangle and interview with a Melody Maker-like British rock rag called D&ME but discovers when she travels to London that the somewhat snarky editorial staff thought that her submitted review of the soundtrack of Annie was a joke.

Utterly defeated, she ends up crying in a loo where a poster of Bjork (Ferrari) gives her a pep talk. Heartened, she storms back into the office and demands an opportunity. Taken aback, they assign her to review a Manic Street Preachers concert in Manchester.

She does okay and manages to convince them to give her an opportunity at a feature, an interview with up and coming rocker John Kite (A. Allen) whom she promptly falls head over heels over and he in turn opens up about his demons. Her piece, though, is a gushing, fawning puff piece that the snarky folks at D&ME don’t have any use for.

Stung, she resolves to be the biggest bitch she can possibly be and that turns out to be considerable. Reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a flame-haired, top hat-wearing libertine vixen who writes with poison pen and has as much casual sex as she can possibly get. But her persona begins to take over as she alienates everyone close to her, from John Kite whose trust she breaks, to her parents whom she humiliates by throwing in their face that she’s paying the rent. When she realizes that the people she’s trying to impress aren’t worth impressing, she is forced to re-examine who she is and who she wants to be.

Some have compared this to a distaff version of Almost Famous which isn’t too far off the mark; like that film, this story is based on writer Caitlin Moran’s own experiences as a teen rock critic for Melody Maker in the 90s. Make that very loosely based. There is an air of fantasy to this; the lifestyle depicted for the writers for the rag aren’t realistic; I can tell you as a not-so-teenaged rock critic in the 90s in the San Francisco Bay Area that all music critics are notoriously low-paid. That’s because there are far more people who want the job than there are jobs available; it’s the law of supply and demand.

Feldstein though takes a character who isn’t always lovable and makes her root-worthy. For the most part she has an endearing joie de vivre that permeates the film and makes it a pleasurable viewing. Even when she’s being a cast-iron jerk the audience knows that really isn’t Johanna.

There are literally dozens of cameos, including Emma Thompson as an encouraging editor late in the film to the ones mentioned earlier playing pictures on the wall. Particularly fun is Chris O’Dowd as a somewhat bewildered host of a local arts show.

\The soundtrack is full of a goodly amount of righteous period music, including tracks by Bikini Kill during a fun thrift store transformation sequence. Even if the story falls into cliché near the end, the good nature at the heart of the film coupled with the good will that Feldstein’s performance earns from the audience are enough to carry it through.

REASONS TO SEE: The film has a sweetness at its core. Feldstein is a star in the making.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally succumbs to clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some teen sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alfie Allen, who plays a singer, is the younger brother of Lily Allen, an actual singer who has a role here as one of the Bronte sisters.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews; Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Almost Famous
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

If Beale Street Could Talk


Love conquers all; even social injustice.

(2018) Drama (AnnapurnaKiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Paris, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Diego Luna, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock, Brian Tyree Henry, Dave Franco, Michael Beach, Aurora Collado, Kaden Byrd, Ethan Barrett, Milanni Mines, Ebony Obsidian, Dominique Thorne, Carl Parker, Shabazz Ray, Bobby Conte Thornton, Marcia Jean Kurtz. Directed by Barry Jenkins

 

James Baldwin is one of the greatest American authors of the 20th century, or of any other century for that matter; few authors captured the African-American experience with as much outrage, wit, joy, fury and dispassionate observation as he did. He was passionate and compassionate at once, writing prose that could easily have been poetry; of all the authors I’ve read in my life, only Shakespeare fares as well when read aloud as Baldwin does. He had a command of language that is rare and the fact that few of his books have been adapted for the big screen have almost as much to do with his lyrical prose as it does to the fact that his views were and are incendiary and perhaps unlikely to be embraced by white American audiences.

In this classic film, a pair of lovers – artist Fonny (James) and 19-year-old Tish (Layne) are stepping up their long-time relationship to the next level; they plan to get married. But when Tish discovers she is pregnant, the couple have already been separated – Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman (Rios) who was manipulated into selecting Fonny out of a line-up by a malicious cop (Skrein) who had a bone to pick with Fonny. As is often the case with African-American men, he gets only the representation he can afford and ends up imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Barry Jenkins, fresh off his Oscar-winning Moonlight, tells the story in a non-linear fashion, flashing back from the incarceration of Fonny to their developing relationship as children. Jenkins is becoming known as an actor’s director; if nothing else, he is a genius at extracting the best performances from his actors. Witness here, Regina King, playing Tish’s loving mother; when Tish informs her that she’s in a family way and not yet married, King – who with this movie rightfully took her place as one of the best actresses working today – displays maternal love and support with a minimum of dialogue and a maximum of gesture. She’s the mom everyone wishes they had, even those who have a mom like her.

That scene contrasts with Fonny’s hyper-religious mom (Ellis) being formed of her son’s girlfriend’s condition. The acid tongue comes out as she lashes out at the girl her son loves, growing in vitriol until her aghast husband (Beach) abruptly hits her, shocking Tish and her parents, who absolutely can’t believe what they’re seeing. The families are in complete contrast; one loving and supportive, the other judgmental and cold although the dad does his best.

The movie is supported by a stunning soundtrack that highlights the emotional landscapes that Baldwin and Jenkins paint. The result is a powerful portrait that is as timely now as it was then – which I’m sure wouldn’t surprise Baldwin at all, but would undoubtedly sadden him, as it should any thinking, compassionate person.

REASONS TO SEE: A impressive literate and intelligent script. King and Layne deliver high-powered performances. The soundtrack is really terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: The non-linear storytelling is a bit tricky but it does pay off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first trailer for the film was released on the 94th birthday of author James Baldwin, who wrote the original novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Plus, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews; Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brian Banks
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
15 Years

Widows (2018)


Dangerous deeds discussed in dark places.

(2018) Crime (20th Century) Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Daniel Kaluuya, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Lukas Haas, Coburn Goss, Alejandro Verdin, Molly Kunz, James Vincent Meredith, Patrese McClain. Directed by Steve McQueen

Viola Davis is one of America’s most underrated actresses and that considering that she has been nominated for an Oscar three times and won once (for Fences). So when I tell you that this might be the best performance of her career, and it wasn’t even one of the three nominated films on her resume, that might speak volumes about how the system

She plays Veronica, the widow of Harry (Neeson) who was butchered along with his crew after a job. As it turns out though, he stole two million bucks from a ruthless gangster (Henry) who happens to be running for Chicago alderman as the opponent of Jack Mulligan (Farrell), the son of a politician who together have been essentially running the Ward for decades. Now, with the gangster’s psychopathic brother (Kaluuya) hot on her trail, she knows she must resort tto literally using her husband’s playbook to pull off a much larger heist that will pay his debts in full and set her up for life, but she’ll need help. She figures the widows of Harry’s crew have both the motivation and the skills.

Oscar-winning director McQueen has assembled a cast that is without parallel. In fact, he might have done his job too well; the film is crammed full of interesting characters who all need more screen time than they got, so we end up with scenes that run too long and characters that overstay their record. A little less focus on the other characters would have made this a better film.

McQueen uses the city of Chicago perfect effect, whether in the mansion of Jack’s dad (Duvall) or in Veronica’s beautiful apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, or in the poorest corners of the largely African-American Ward, the movie is always interesting in a visual sense. The movie doesn’t have the humor that is usually found in heist films nor does it have that clever “we outsmarted you” gotcha that most heist films possess. This is far more brutal and direct. It works as a heist film, but it works even better as  a commentary on how wide the gulf between haves and have-nots has become.

REASONS TO SEE: A tremendous cast with Davis standing out particularly. McQueen has a great visual sense.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long and a few too many characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, a fair amount of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Olivia the dog, who is heavily featured in the film, also appeared in Game Night.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 84/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kitchen
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Himalayan Ice

The Leisure Seeker


On the road, American-style.

(2018) Dramedy (Sony ClassicsHelen Mirren, Donald Sutherland, Christian McKay, Janel Moloney, Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriela Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Helen Abell, Joshua Mikel, Robert Walker Branchaud, Denita Isler, Chelle Ramos, Danielle Deadwyler. Directed by Paolo Virzi

 

Growing old is hell. I’m finding that out first hand, and I’m not even 60 yet. The older we get, the more we have to lose, including our independence. There’s something about that which is almost unthinkable, but it often happens to our parents long before it happens to us.

John (Sutherland) and Ella Spencer (Mirren) are an aged couple in the twilight of their years. John is a retired literature professor; Ella is a wife and mother but also a very smart and tough cookie. One day, she and John set out in their old Winnebago for one last adventure.

The trouble is though that John is suffering from dementia and his lucid moments are getting further and farther between. Ella is also having some serious health problems and the strain of being John’s caregiver is wearing on her to the point where she isn’t sure she can continue. Their children Will (McKay) and Jane (Moloney) are frantic with worry – their parents left without telling them their plans, which are to drive down from New England to Key West to visit Ernest Hemingway’s house – Hemingway is a hero to John, and one of the things he can remember more clearly more often – one last time.

There is definitely an elegiac feel to the movie, even though there is a sense of humor to it. John’s antics aren’t necessarily played for laughs; he soils himself and some of his memory lapses are downright dangerous. Still, Ella faces a good deal of her husband’s illness with a cheerful sense of humor, even if she is at the end of her rope. The love between the two of them is heartwarming.

Part of the reason it is so is because Sutherland and Mirren are both excellent actors and the chemistry between them is genuine. Virzi gives them a real sense of being on a road trip, which helps the actors express being comfortable together. The Winnebago isn’t in the best of shape but with a bit of tender loving care, it will get them where they’re going, which is pretty much true for life.

The problem here is mainly that the plot is pretty predictable and there aren’t a lot of surprises, although feisty Ella faces down a pair of would-be robbers with a shotgun but that is one of the few moments where I thought that the movie was playing down to the elderly – oh, look, isn’t she cute, she’s got a gun. For the most part, these are real people with real issues that face millions of our elderly day in and day out. That’s one of the main takeaways I had from the movie and I thought both Sutherland and Mirren gave their characters dignity, from the first frame to the last.

Although there are some fairly funny moments and some fairly sweet ones, this isn’t something you should look to for some light entertainment. The issues being portrayed here are very real and they may remind you of someone in your own life going through similar challenges – parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers. It may hit a little too close to home. I’m very fortunate that my mom (my father passed away more than thirty years ago) still has full possession of her faculties, even though her memory isn’t what it once was and she walks a lot slower than she used to, but she is the first to squawk when she feels pandered to. I don’t think this movie would give her reason to squawk.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances from Mirren and Sutherland. Kind of a nice travelogue.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the predictable side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first English language movie for Virzi.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews: Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
First Man

A Simple Favor


Cocktails and besties, the perfect combination.

(2018) Suspense (Lionsgate) Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Eric Johnson, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Gia Sandhu, Kelly McCormack, Glenda Braganza, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Glenda Braganza, Danielle Bourgon, Andrew Moodie, Bashir Salahuddin, Aparna Nancheria, Gia Sandhu, Katherine Cullen. Directed by Paul Feig

Da Queen will tell you that I love a good whodunit. Da Queen will also tell you I despise a lazy one. A Simple Favor falls somewhere in between; I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a suburban supermom who has a mommy vlog full of life hacks for moms and so on. Her son (Satine) is a school chum of the son (Ho) of Emily (Lively), a high-powered public relations VP for a high-powered New York fashion firm led by the aptly named Dennis Nylon (Friend) who never met a wardrobe he couldn’t insult, especially if it didn’t involve his own clothing line.

Stephanie and Emily bond over martinis and quickly become besties, sharing their deep dirty secrets – Emily’s marriage to struggling writer Sean (Golding) is crumbling. Emily’s job is demanding more and more of her time and Stephanie is only too happy to pick up both boys from school, but then one night, Emily doesn’t come to pick up her boy – nor does she show up the next day. Stephanie fears the worst.

But Stephanie is a bit of an amateur sleuth and when the police don’t seem to have any leads on the whereabouts of Emily, Stephanie takes over looking for the lost item as any proper mom would. And what she finds…isn’t what she expects.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, isn’t afraid to inject some humor – okay, a lot of humor – into the neo-noir thriller. Sometimes, the movie seems almost schizophrenic at times. The tone varies from light to dark and sometimes in between. The chemistry between Lively and Kendrick absolutely works; they both look like polar opposites but it isn’t hard to see what draws the two characters together. The humor works well, but surprisingly it’s the thriller portion that’s less successful; the denouement isn’t hard to figure out in advance and the movie definitely loses narrative steam during the last third. Still, the things that work in A Simple Favor work very well; the things that don’t can be overlooked.

REASONS TO SEE: Kendrick and Lively have excellent chemistry.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less mindless entertainment, appearances to the contrary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content and some graphic nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the character of Emily is a heavy drinker, Blake Lively (who plays her) has been a teetotaler all her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu. YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Girl
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Searching

Crazy Rich Asians


Love, Singaporean style.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Warner BrothersConstance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng. Directed by Jon M. Chu

Fairy tales are powerful things. Doesn’t every little girl want to marry the prince and go riding off into the sunset together, preferably in the direction of a beautiful castle? Trust me, men have their fairy tales as well but we won’t get into those here.

Rachel Chu (Wu) is an economics professor at NYU and she’s been dating handsome Nick Young (Golding), a fellow academic, for more than a year. She’s headed to Singapore with him to attend his cousin (and best friend’s) wedding. When they get first class tickets on the airplane, she asks him how wealthy his family is. “We’re comfortable,” he says modestly. Yeah, they’re comfortable in the same way that Bill Gates is comfortable.

Nick’s mom (Yeoh), the imperious matriarch of the family, is none too pleased to see Rachel who even though her son is crazy about her is still nonetheless not even close to the kind of match that she had in mind for her son. Rachel will have to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of Nick’s family, aided by her college bestie Peik Lin (Awkwafina), if she is going to keep the man she loves.

America loves its rich folks and that helps the movie out a great deal. The fact that this is a largely Asian-American cast and crew is a big deal, and the movie gives us some insight into Chinese (primarily) culture and customs, and those are some of the more endearing moments of the film.

I can’t say enough about Constance Wu, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat. She has tons of charisma and likability; she has a big future ahead of her and not only as a romantic leading lady. She has the kind of presence that Awkwafina (who would break out this year in The Farewell) has, but with a touch more self-assuredness. Golding also has a ton of leading man appeal.

Although there are a few rom-com tropes here, they don’t necessarily get in the way of the enjoyment of this movie. After an over-profusion of the genre over the last 20 years, romantic comedies have fallen somewhat out of favor. With a fresh take on them as this one has and particularly after the kind of success it enjoyed (the highest box office for any romantic comedy in more than a decade), you can bet we’ll be seeing more of them in the near future. If they’re this good, I wouldn’t mind at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Constance Wu is a find. Culturally informative. Escapes most rom-com clichés.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sends some mixed messages about the institution of marriage.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Netflix offered to produce the movie at a substantially larger budget, but producer Kevin Kwan felt that it was important to prove to the studios that Asian-American movies were commercially viable. Netflix ended up producing Always Be My Maybe instead.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft,  Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pretty Woman
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A.X.L.

The Meg


Jason Statham smells something fishy.

(2018) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Winston Chao, Sophia Cai, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Robert Taylor, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jessica McNamee, Masi Oka, Raymond Vinten, Mai Hongmei, Wei Yi, Vithaya Ransringarm, Rob Kipa-Williams, Tawanda Manyimo, Mark Trotter, Jeremy Tan, Sui Fong Ivy Tsui. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

Sharks have been a popular movie villain ever since Steven Spielberg brought forth Jaws as quite possibly the perfect summer movie back in 1975. Given Hollywood’s propensity to the maxim “bigger is better,” it was only a matter of time before we got a gigantic prehistoric shark wreaking havoc.

Jonas Taylor (Statham) is a deep-sea rescue specialist who has an encounter with something huge during an unsuccessful rescue of a sub. Essentially laughed out of the business, he retires to Thailand to get drunk and stay drunk – two things it is quite possible to do in Thailand. However, when an experimental submersible in which his ex-wife (McNamee) is a crew member is trapped below the Marianas Trench (don’t ask), he is enticed back, headed to the sleek 2001-esque research station below the ocean bankrolled by tech gazillionaire Morris (Wilson) and headed by Chinese scientists Dr. Zhang (Chao), his comely daughter Suyin (Bingbing) and precocious granddaughter Meiying (Cai), as well as Jonas’ buddy Mac (Curtis). Needless to say the giant creature Jonas saw is real (Nyah! Nyah! Toldja so!) and turns out to be a gigantic prehistoric shark that has been extinct for 200 million years; except it wasn’t, it had just gone from being a shallow water predator to a deep sea diver because…reasons.

Warner Brothers marketed this as a fun, light summer movie which I suppose a film about people getting swallowed whole by a giant shark would have to be. It really doesn’t live up to the trailer though, although Statham really makes an effort to take the movie on his broad shoulders. Sadly, the movie suffers from hoary plot clichés and underwhelming CGI and comes off as a kind of Plan 9 from the South China Sea. It does skirt the so bad it’s good territory.

Despite all its shortcomings, there is something about the movie that is endearing, although it could have used a little more self-awareness – why, oh why didn’t someone say “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”? – and a little less cool gadgetry. For my money, the movie came within one uneaten chunky Asian kid from getting a more respectable score.

REASONS TO SEE: Statham gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sketchy CGI and a predictable plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is aquatic violence, some bloody images, peril and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in and out of development since 1996 when Disney (!) first bought the rights to the novel. It has bounced around a variety of studios (New Line, Warner Brothers) and directors (Guillermo del Toro, Jan de Bont) in that time.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jaws III
FINAL RATING: 5/10
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The Spy Who Dumped Me

Frankenstein (1931)


One of the most iconic images in horror movie history.

(1931) Horror (UniversalColin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris, Francis Ford, Michael Mark, Mae Bruce, Jack Curtis, Paul Panzer, William Dyer, Cecil Reynolds, Cecilia Parker, Ellinor Vanderveer, Soledad Jiménez, Mary Gordon, Carmencita Johnson, Pauline Moore, Arletta Duncan. Directed by James Whale

Perhaps the most iconic horror film of all time is James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (the latter of whom is listed in the credit as “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley” – ah, misogyny). It is in many ways the perfect storm of Gothic imagery, gruesome subtexts, pathos, terror and a truly mind-blowing performance by Boris Karloff as the monster.

Most everyone knows the story, or at least bits of it; medical student Henry Frankenstein (Clive) who was renamed from Victor in the book and most subsequent films, is obsessed with the big questions of life; why does one child turn out to be the pillar of the community, the other a criminal? Where does life begin? Can a man bring life to the lifeless?

To discover the latter, he and his faithful servant Fritz (Frye) – renamed Igor in most subsequent productions – dig up bodies for their parts to create a perfect being. Utilizing a violent thunderstorm, lightning strikes buffet his creation until, as Frankenstein notably exclaims, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

However, Frankenstein eventually has cause to regret his experiment as he loses control of the monster which goes on a murderous rampage, not always out of malice (in a particularly famous scene he inadvertently drowns a little girl while throwing flowers into a lake).

Many of the tropes that have characterized horror films in the 88 years since this movie was made originated or was refined here; the angry mob with torches and pitchforks, the sweet maiden menaced by an ugly monster, the imposing castle, the thunderstorm, the grunting of the inarticulate monster and so much more.

Karloff’s sad eyes and stiff gait made the monster so memorable that it was called thenceforth Frankenstein, even though the monster is never given a name in the film. Karloff, to that point a journeyman actor who generally played the heavy in B movies, would go on to a lucrative and acclaimed career as one of the greatest horror specialists of all time. Frankenstein is so iconic that many identify the genre with this movie; often the scowling visage as the monster is used to represent the genre.

While the scares are tame by modern standards, I think the film holds up extraordinarily well even today. This is how horror films were done before excessive gore was used as a crutch by many filmmakers in the genre; Whale knew just about how much to leave to the imagination and our imaginations are often more gruesome than reality. I think that these days, it gets lost in the shuffle a little bit but if you haven’t seen it – or haven’t seen it in a while – you owe it to yourself to watch it once again or for the first time.

REASONS TO SEE: A classic in every sense of the word. Karloff’s performance is a career maker. Still pretty scary even now. Still the best adaptation of the iconic Mary Shelley tale. The standard by which other horror movies are judged.
REASONS TO AVOID: Quite tame by modern standards.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scary images and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster isn’t seen until 30 minutes into the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 91/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bride of Frankenstein
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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