Synonyms (Synonymes)


Dance like nobody’s watching.

(2019) Dramedy (Kino-LorberTom Mercier, Quentin Dolmaire, Louise Chevilllotte, Urla Hayik, Olivier Loustau, Yehuda Almagor, Gaya Von Schwarze, Gal Amitai, Idan Ashkenazi, Dolev Ohana, Liron Baranes, Erwan Ribard, Yawen Ribard, Iman Amara-Korba, Sébastien Robinet, Damien Carlet, Ron Bitterman, Christophe Paou, Valentine Carette, Catherine Denecy, Léa Drucker. Directed by Nadav Lapid

 

People relocate for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, employment dictates location. In other instances, it is to move closer to family or loved ones. Sometimes, though, it’s to get away from something.

Yoav (Mercier) falls into the latter category. Traumatized by a stint in the Israeli Defense Force, he leaves Israel forever and emigrates to Paris, so bitter at the country of his birth that he refuses to speak Hebrew, even to fellow expats. The thing is, his French is a bit incomplete so in order to help him learn the language he buys himself a French-Hebrew dictionary that he obsessively reads synonyms from in order to increase the depth of his ability to communicate.

When he arrives in Paris, he finds himself in an apartment that is utterly devoid of furniture; it is a beautiful and cavernous apartment but lacks amenities. He gets into the bathtub fully naked intending to enjoy some private time rubbing one out but his efforts are disturbed by noises coming from the other room. Completely naked, he bolts out to find that all his possessions – including all of his clothes – are gone. Naked, he screams for help but nobody is apparently home. He gets into the bathtub and falls asleep, chilled to the bone.

His neighbors Emile (Dolmaire) and Caroline (Chevillotte) find him and take them to their apartment and warm him up. Emile, though much smaller than Yoav, gives him clothes that miraculously fit. They end up serving as tour guides and mentors and both of them are sexually attracted to him. In the meantime, Yoav finds work as a security guard at the Israeli embassy and goes through a series of incidents ranging from the surreal to the odd.

Lapid has a good grasp of the absurd and he utilizes it nicely, such as Yoav’s boss (Loustau) telling him about a regular event in which Jews are matched up in underground fights with neo-Nazis, or the war tales that Yoav spins for the ever-fascinated Emile. Lapid borrows heavily from New Wave cinema, particularly from Godard and some of what he borrows are things he should have left alone. The kinetic camera movement is nice but the ultra-close-ups and whip pans get annoying after a while. It is a definite case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome.

Mercier is a revelation. A fairly new actor, he is an enormous presence and the longer the film goes on, the more engaged the audience becomes with his story. Certainly, there’s an element of the surreal to his story, but it doesn’t warp reality overly much and Mercier in a fish out of water role that could easily devolve into clichés and tropes gives the character a freshness that is engaging. I also liked Chevillotte a good deal and her chemistry with Mercier is palpable but I wish the character had been fleshed out a bit more.

The movie ends on a high note – the final shot is a doozy – so hang in there with the movie which despite it’s excesses actually makes some poignant points about cultural identity and finding yourself in a strange land. This is a solid winner that cinema buffs should keep an eye out for.

REASONS TO SEE: Very literate and intelligently written. Mercier has a ton of presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Look ma, I’m directing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity, some mild violence and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is loosely based on Lapid’s own experiences emigrating to Paris.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cairo Time
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The First Purge

Papi Chulo


The new odd couple.

(2018) Dramedy (Blue Fox/Breaking GlassMatt Bomer, Alejandro Patiño, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Elena Campbell-Martinez, Michael Shepperd, Ryan Guzman, Tommie Earl Jenkins, Shaun Buchholz, Tom Beyer, Irene White, Caitlin Kimball, Marisa Szczepan, Brandon Kyle Goodman, Blaine Swen, Martin Morales, Nick Bush, Blaine Mizer, Rosemary Dominguez. Directed by John Butler

 

Loneliness does things to people. It preys on them from the inside, chews up their souls and turns them into people they won’t even recognize when they look themselves in the mirror. To be blunt, loneliness sucks.

Sean (Bomer) is an L.A. weatherman who is still reeling, six months later, after the end of his romantic relationship with ex-husband Carlos. Unable to move on, he has a mini-nervous breakdown on the air, unaccountably sobbing while reading the weather. His boss (McLendon-Covey) wisely tells him to take some time off and get himself right. Sean would rather not; taking time off with nothing to do might force him to face his loneliness and he’s clearly not ready to do this.

The last vestige of Carlos is a tree in a planter on the deck of his hillside mansion with a spectacular view; when he has the plant removed, Sean notices a circle on the deck where the plant had been. Not being handy in the least, he determines that he needs to have his deck repainted. Sean decides to hire someone from a group of migrant workers who hang out at his local hardware store, looking for work. He selects Ernesto (Patiño) and soon the two form a bond, even though Ernesto’s English is shaky and Sean’s Spanish even more so.

Sean finds himself paying Ernesto to hang out with him, going on hikes in Runyon Canyon, being his plus one at a party of his friends and even gets Ernesto to row him on a local lake. Ernesto reports all of this to his incredulous wife Linda (Campbell-Martinez), scarcely able to believe it himself but 20 bucks an hour is 20 bucks an hour, so if the gringo wants to pay him to hang out, Ernesto doesn’t mind. Besides, Ernesto is inherently a kind man who recognizes the pain Sean is in.

You can kind of see where this is going, but oddly enough it manages to get there without completely being predictable. The emphasis here is on Bomer, which is a bit of a shame; I found Ernesto to be a far more captivating character and would have liked a little more of his point of view. Still, Bomer is a strong actor and while Sean occasionally does creepy things, he still remains at least to a certain degree to be relatable.

Butler is a good filmmaker with strong shot composition and manages to insert some truly poignant moments. He also resists the temptation to make Ernesto the wise old Mexican whose folk wisdom will solve all of Sean’s problems; in fact, Ernesto doesn’t really understand a good deal of what Sean is telling him. He just half-smiles, nods and lens an ear, which is what Sean really needs.

Some reviewers have criticized the film for being racist, but to be honest I didn’t see it and I’m Hispanic. As I said, I would have appreciated more of Ernesto’s point of view, but Sean never talks down to Ernesto nor does he treat him as an inferior. The only knock that I might see against Sean is that he really doesn’t show much interest in learning Ernesto’s culture or language and doesn’t seem all that curious about Ernesto’s problems. Something tells me it would have been a much better movie if he had.

REASONS TO SEE: A bit on the oddball side but definitely warm-hearted.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of Sean’s actions are a bit creepy.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity and a bit of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2018.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/18/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Mickey and the Bear

Parasite (Gisaengchung)


Who is the exploited and who is the exploiter?

(2019) Dramedy (NEON) Kang-ho Song, Yeo-jeong Jo, So-dam Park, Woo-sik Choi, Sun-kyun Lee, Seo-joon Park, Jung Ziso, Jeong-eun Lee, Andreas Fronk, Hyae Jin Chang, Myeong-hoon Park, Hyun-jun Jung, Ji-hye Lee, Keun-rok Park, Joo-hyung Lee, Ik-han Jung, Jeong Esuz, Dong-yong Lee, Seong-Bong Ahn, Hyo-shin Pak, Kang Echae. Directed by Bong Joon Ho

 

As the gap between the rich and the poor grows wider worldwide, the desperation of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum also grows. As capitalism turns into a modern-day Wild West, it doesn’t stretch the imagination much to figure out that some will do whatever is necessary to survive.

The Kim family is the kind of family that often takes the brunt of those pointing the finger at the poor and blaming them for their own poverty. Patriarch Ki-woo (Choi) is chronically unemployed and a bit of an idiot. His shrill wife Chung-sook (Chang) has the family bringing in income by folding pizza boxes but they can’t even get that right. They live in a basement flat with a toilet on a ledge looking out onto the street where drunks often urinate. Ki-woo, despite the haranguing of his wife, can’t be bothered to shoo the offenders away. Their phone service has long been switched off and they steal Wi-Fi from a neighbor who has inconveniently put password protection on his router.

Clever son Ki-taek (Song) gets a tip from his buddy Min (S-j Park) who is about to depart to study abroad that a rich high school girl he is tutoring in English will need a new tutor while he is gone. Min offers to recommend Ki-taek for the job but Ki-taek, who was unable to afford college, doesn’t have the credentials for the job. Not to worry: his sister Ki-jung (S-d Park) has no problem forging the documents he needs.

When Ki-taek goes to the beautiful modernist house the family lives in for an interview, he realizes the materialistic mom Yeon-kyo Park (Jo) is somewhat simple and easily swayed. He realizes that there could be a bonanza here for his family. He finagles his sister an interview as a teacher for the ADHD younger son Da-song (H-j Jung) specializing in “art therapy.” In the meantime his own student daughter Da-hye (Ziso) has taken a shine to him.

Cold-blooded Ki-jung realizes there’s room for the whole family, but it will take some finagling to get the established servants out, including their beloved housekeeper Moon-gwang (J-e Lee). Through clever manipulation, brazen gall and a thorough lack of mercy, Dad is moved into the driver’s position and Mom into the housekeeper’s job. Now the Kim family is living the high life and can think about maybe moving on up, as George Jefferson might say. However, the Park home holds an unexpected secret that throws all of their machinations into disarray.

Bong Joon Ho is already one of South Korea’s most masterful directors, with films like The Host, Snowpiercer and Okja to his credit. Here, he comes into his own with the kind of movie that is going to elevate him into an elite class of directors, guys like Del Toro, Cuarón and Wong Kar-Wei. This is one of the best-written movies I’ve seen this year, with clever dialogue and a plot that while it has some zany elements to it never falls out of believability.

The cast performs solidly, particularly Ho’s go-to guy Choi who takes a character who could have easily have become a caricature and gave him depth and even a bit of gravitas. Jo is also memorable as the somewhat dense mom of the Park family.

The movie changes tone in the second half and there’s some fairly intense violence that occurs, some of it quite disturbing. It isn’t a movie for the weak of heart but neither is it a movie for the weak of mind; there is an awful lot of subtext going on about class distinctions, and exploitation. Just who is exploiting who in this movie may not be terribly clear by the end of the credits. However, I must say that the only thing that is keeping this from a perfect score is a somewhat convoluted ending involving a coded message that overstays its welcome a bit.

Frankly, this is one of the best movies of the year and it certainly should be on the radar of anyone who really likes movies. There’s a scene on how a bad thunderstorm affects the wealthy Parks and the not-so-wealthy Kims that is a gut-punch that comes almost out of nowhere but Ho is such a deft director that it doesn’t feel out of place. Do yourself a favor and catch this one because it’s sure to get some love come awards season.

REASONS TO SEE: Very cleverly written. Well-acted. Some very dark humor but funny throughout. An intriguing look at class warfare from a different angle.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some bloody violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was the winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; it is also South Korea’s official submission for the Best International Film award at the 2020 Oscars and is an early favorite to make the short list.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoplifters
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness

Bathroom Stalls & Parking Lots


Club life isn’t necessarily real life.

(2019) Dramedy (Breaking GlassThales Corrėa, Izzy Palazzini, Oscar Mansky, Malakani Severson, Guilherne Zaiden, Nick Ryan Jurewicz, David Joseph Hernandez, Lucas Pagac, Patrick Bohan, Dominic Olivo, Travis Maider, Jacob Ritts, Mark Alfenito, Ryan Hill, Jace Moon, Felix Olmedo, Joshua Barry, Michael J. Gwynn, Matthew Mello, Mark Bowen, Marisa Lopes. Directed by Thales Corrėa

 

Life, love, romance, sex. These are things that we seek and sometimes find us even when we’re not looking for them, yet we go out chasing them particularly when we are single, hanging out in bars, clubs and at parties. A lot can happen in the course of an evening.

Leo (Corrėa) is a Brazilian ex-pat living in Los Angeles who has been maintaining an online relationship with a man in San Francisco. His friends Donnie (Palazzini) and Hunter (Mansky) urge Leo to come up to the City by the Bay to find the object of his affection so that he can at last take the relationship into the real world. The trouble is, he’s not really sure where to find him. No problem, though: everyone in the gay community in the Bay Area knows where the action is – in the Castro district.

The three men couldn’t be more different; Leo is affable, easy-going who isn’t looking for a quick hook-up but rather for something meaningful and long-term. Donnie is all about the moment and if the moment includes sex, so much the better. Hunter is bi-sexual but has found love with a woman who’s a nurse and insists loudly to everyone – particularly Donnie who obviously has the hots for him – that he’s straight now, although his protestations ring hollow.

Over the course of the night the three men will find sex without really trying too hard; finding love is a much more difficult proposition and all the bathroom stall and parking lot encounters in the world aren’t necessarily going to help them find it. Leo gets all sorts of advice about how to snare the man of his dreams – most of it bad – but he doesn’t give up on his dream, even if it seems more out of reach than ever.

In many ways, this is about love in the age of Grinder. Corrėa – who directed this and co-wrote it with Palazzini – has an immense amount of screen presence. Facially, he resembles a cross between Edward Norton and John Cusack and comes across as extremely likable. Part of the film’s dramatic tension stems from Leo’s growth as he realizes that Donnie’s hedonism and general lack of responsibility is not the life he wants to pursue anymore. Leo’s growth during the course of the night is the crux of the movie and Corrėa pulls it off nicely. He has to my mind the potential to become a mainstream star if he chooses to go that route.

Corrėa makes wonderful use of the Castro which as an ex-Bay Area resident I can tell you is one of the more dynamic and beautiful neighborhoods in the City which is chock full of them. There’s also the historic element to it; the Castro is at least as culturally significant to the LGBTQ+ movement as the Stonewall neighborhood; it was where Harvey Milk had his business and eventually represented on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It was also one of the first openly gay-friendly neighborhoods in the entire country. Although the historic element isn’t emphasized in the movie which tends to stay in the nightclubs and bars of the district, it’s good to see that it gets its due as an epicenter to American gay life.

Cinematographer Cassie Hunter makes good use of the natural lighting in the outdoor scenes as well as the neon and colored lights of the bars, discos and clubs of the Castro. Russian DJ Same-K provides the pulsating electronic score.

If I have a complaint about the movie, it does move fairly slowly even given its short run time of 80 minutes. It does look at the romantic expectations of not just young gay men, although they are certainly at the forefront here; the themes are indeed universal, as we all sooner or later grow out of the lust-driven encounters of our youth and begin looking for something more. While this isn’t the apex of LGBTQ+ cinema, it does serve as a reminder to me that there are an awful lot of really good movies with gay themes that give us a different point of view that all of us can use to find insight into the same questions we all face as we try to muddle our way through life.

REASONS TO SEE: Corrėa has a ton of screen presence and likability.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat slow moving.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, sexual content, nudity and a couple of sex scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed on location in San Francisco’s Castro district.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Love or Lust
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Corporate Animals

Brittany Runs a Marathon


You can’t move forward if you’re just standing still.

(2019) Dramedy (AmazonJillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howley, Micah Stock, Alice Lee, Jennifer Dundas, Patch Darragh, Erica Hernandez, Adam Sietz, Dan Bittner, Mikey Day, Kate Arrington, Beth Malone, Esteban Benito, Nadia Quinn, Juri Henley-Cohn, Peter Vack, Gene Gabriel, Sarah Bolt, Ian Unterman, Frances Eve. Directed by Paul Downs Collaizo

 

We have become more aware of our health than perhaps ever before. Here in America, despite the epidemic of obesity and its attendant health issues, we have become more aware of what we eat, how we exercise and generally what kind of shape we’re in.

Brittany (Bell) does none of those things. She works taking tickets at an off-Broadway theater and spends her nights drinking, hanging out with her friends and essentially being the fat best friend, to use a movie cliché. She goes to see a doctor (based on his Yelp rating) hoping to get him to prescribe Adderall; instead, he gives her a wake-up call. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are dangerously high as is her Body Mass Index. Her liver is beginning to get enough fatty deposits to be worrisome. In short, her doc (Darragh) advises her to lose 50 pounds pronto and make some serious life style changes.

That’s not necessarily an easy task for Brittany, who is used to making fun of people who exercise. Going to the gym is out of the question; she can’t afford even the most basic gym membership. However, as she notes to an obsequious gym owner, running outside is still free so Brittany digs out a ratty old sports bra and a pair of sneakers that have seen better days and prepares to make a quick run down the block.

She makes friends with fellow runners Catherine (Watkins) who is undergoing an ugly divorce and runs to take her mind off of things, and Seth (Stock), a married gay man who wants to get more fit so he can keep up with his kids. Brittany begins to take to running and gets it into her head that she wants to run the New York City Marathon. She convinces Seth and Catherine to train for it with her.

Brittany begins to transform. She loses weight and feels better physically. She stands up to her former roommate Gretchen (Lee), a bitchy judgmental Instagram influencer who constantly demeans Brittany and moves into the mansion of the couple whom she is dog-sitting for while they are away on an extended vacation. Already moved in is Jern (Ambudkar) – yes you read the name right – a feckless Millennial with all the ambition of a potato and not even of the couch variety. Jern is interested in a maybe romantic relationship but Brittany is not so sure.

As the pounds melt off, something odd happens – all the self-loathing and self-doubt that she has felt most of her life haven’t melted away with it. She resents anyone who wants to help her, distrusting their motivations. Brittany may not be Olympic material as a runner, but she is world-class when it comes to pushing people away. Soon enough she ends up living with her older sister (Arrington) in Philadelphia along with her brother-in-law (Howley) who is more of a father figure to her. Brittany’s dreams of running the New York marathon look to be in jeopardy.

This is most definitely a female empowerment film, although not the usual kind. For one thing, Brittany’s physical changes don’t necessarily coincide with attitude adjustments; she still has all the insecurities she’s always had and her sense of humor can be occasionally cruel. Brittany isn’t always a likable person, but thanks to Bell’s charismatic performance you still end up rooting for her to succeed. As kind of an odd aside, I found myself distracted by Bell’s resemblance to actress Cameron Diaz. I ended up chiding myself for being so shallow when it comes to reviewing a movie which is about inner beauty more than outer but it is noticeable enough that I had to mention it.

Writer-director Collaizo based the story on his experiences with his own best friend who underwent a similar transformation. I don’t know what the real Brittany thought of the movie – it isn’t always flattering to her – but she does end up kind of heroic and inspirational in spite of that. You can sense the affection Collaizo holds for the real Brittany throughout. He also wisely keeps the audience guessing as to where the movie is going to go up until the end, but sadly finishes with a pure Hollywood ending that is disappointing but not enough to affect the rating too much.

Brittany’s journey isn’t always an easy one and thus neither is it always for the audience either. Still, the movie has an abundance of charm going for it, a star performance by Bell and some nice skewering of our self-indulgent, self-centered society. There’s definitely some meat on the bones here, but with enough entertainment value to make for a pleasant meal.

REASONS TO SEE: Was never sure where this was going to lead us. You wind up rooting for Brittany despite her occasional bitchiness.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some drug content and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bell lost 40 pounds during the course of filming the movie, just as her character does in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Run, Fatboy, Run
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chained For Life

The Peanut Butter Falcon


Getting away from it all.

(2019) Dramedy (Roadside AttractionsShia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zach Gottsagen, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley, Raquel Aurora, Michael Berthold, Deja Dee, Lee Spencer, Rob Thomas, Mark Helms, Dylan Odom, Nick Morbitt, Noah Hein, Annie Jamison, Susan McPhail, Karen B. Greer. Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

 

Some movies have their hearts in the right place. You can tell that there’s a sincere desire to shine a light on the marginalized, or tell a story close to the heart of those telling it. But lofty as those ambitions might be, they are not always realized on celluloid.

Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down’s Syndrome who has been warehoused in a nursing home simply because the state has nowhere else to put him. Abandoned by his parents, he is left to rot amongst old folks waiting to die. Zak makes it from day to day because of a dream – to attend the wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Church) and become a professional wrestler himself.

Although treated kindly by nurse’s aide Eleanor (Johnson), Zak knows that he has to get out of there or risk watching life pass him by with his dreams unfulfilled. With the help of his roommate, crusty old Carl (Dern, who has made a career of portraying cranky old men) and some strategically applied soap, Carl wriggles out of the barred window wearing only his tighty whities and escapes to find his dream.

Tyler (LaBeouf) wants little more than to be left alone and be able to support himself by crabbing on the boat left to him by his older brother (Bernthal) who passed away recently. However, Tyler is one of those guys who is his own worst enemies – drinking too much, drowning in anger issues and playing by his own rules when it suits him, even if his rules supersede the rules of society and decency. On the run with some angry Outer Banks crabbers out for his blood, he and Zak meet and despite Tyler’s initial reluctance, decide to travel together at least as far as Aden, NC (site of the wrestling school) while Tyler high-tails it to Jupiter, Florida afterwards. With Eleanor desperately chasing after Zak, Tyler and Zak find themselves sailing on a raft through the by-waters and estuaries of the Outer Banks in a desperate bid for the freedom that has eluded the both of them all their lives.

This is sort of like Huckleberry Finn by way of the Discovery Channel. The connection between Zak and Tyler is central to the film and to their credit, the two actors manage to carry it off most of the time. The movie never condescends towards Zak’s condition; it is treated matter-of-factly, as the color of his eyes and hairs would be. In a sense, the movie portrays people with Down’s syndrome about as realistically as any movie has ever portrayed them. Again, heart in the right place.

But this is the hard part. I feel like a complete heel for saying this because I think Gottsagen is doing his best, but he doesn’t deliver a compelling performance here. Sad to say, quite the opposite; whenever Zak speaks the film comes to a grinding halt. Lines are bellowed without conviction and you never get a sense of the depth of his obsession with becoming a wrestler. It comes across as an idea that wandered across his radar one day and is just sitting a spell before moving on when supplanted by another. I know it makes it sound like I’m saying that hanging out with people with Down’s Syndrome is annoying and that’s not at all what I’m meaning to convey, but hanging out with this guy with Down’s Syndrome is annoying. I do give the filmmakers kudos for casting someone with Down’s Syndrome to play someone with Down’s and I applaud the effort to bring a marginalized group to the screen in a sympathetic non-comic relief role, but Gottsagen didn’t quite deliver as I might have hoped.

That’s a shame because the cast is marvelous and they all do great work, even Johnson who is often maligned for her work in the 50 Shades of Grey films. Hey, a paycheck is a paycheck and Johnson delivers on the sweet here, although her romance with Tyler comes off as unlikely at best. Still, the movie seems to have a theme of unlikely plot developments.

The cinematography by veteran Nigel Bluck makes nice use of the Georgia wetlands which substitute here for the Outer Banks – apparently the tax incentives are better in Georgia than they are in North Carolina. In any event, the film does its level best to be charming and often succeeds – but often shoots itself in the foot, seemingly taking on a philosophy of The Ends Justify the Means which is a bit disquieting. For those looking for a diversion from the summer blockbusters but can’t wait for the Fall’s Oscar contenders to arrive, this will do in a pinch.

REASONS TO SEE: Never too sweet, never too edgy. LaBeouf reminds us why he was considered one of Hollywood’s up-and-comers not too long ago.
REASONS TO AVOID: Whenever Gottsagen opens his mouth, the movie comes to a grinding halt. Seems to promote an “ends justifies the means” philosophy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Zak, Tyler and Eleanor jump off the oil rig by swinging on a rope, the actors did the swinging; no stunt doubles were used.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Brian Banks

The Farewell


A happy family portrait.

(2019) Dramedy (A24) Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Shuzhen Zhou, Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Han Chen, Aoi Mizuhara, Yongbo Jiang, X-Mayo, Hong Lu, Gil Perez-Abraham, Becca Khalil, Ines Laimins. Directed by Lulu Wang

 

It is inevitable as we journey through our lives that we will lose loved ones. The natural order of things is that we age, grow old and die so those who were put on this Earth before us finish their cycles before we do. We have to come to grips with their mortality and in doing so, our own. It is hardest sometimes for those who are young to truly understand that those around them are neither invincible nor immortal.

Billi (Awkwafina) is an underachieving Chinese-American writer whose parents emigrated to this country when she was a little girl, tearing her away from the culture she knew and the family she loved, in particular her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhou). Even as a grown woman, she still telephones her grandmother regularly and remains close even though she hasn’t seen her in years.

One day while home doing laundry, she discovers her father (Ma) disconsolate in his bedroom and demands to know what’s wrong. It turns out Nai Nai – his mother – has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and doesn’t have long to live, maybe only weeks. Billi is devastated of course but she is further thrown for a loop when she discovers that Nai Nai hasn’t been told the truth about her condition – a Chinese tradition in which the family takes on the burden of knowing and worrying about the impending mortality of a loved one.

The marriage of a hapless cousin, Hao Hao (Chen) to a Japanese girl, Aiko (Mizuhara) is used as an excuse to bring the family to Changchun where Nai Nai lives. Billi is eager to go to say farewell to her grandmother but her mother (Lin) is adamant; Nai Nai must remain ignorant about her condition and Billi is sure to give away her grief, being an emotional sort.

Naturally Billi goes anyway and Nai Nai is absolutely delighted. She’s totally in her element, planning everything having to do with the ceremony and the reception, arguing with the caterers over whether crab or lobster is to be served. Billi agrees to hold her tongue but it’s hard not for her to be melancholy from time to time. It’s the rest of the family though that has trouble keeping their emotions in check.

Billi has issues regarding the move to America. China has changed to an incredible degree and isn’t a country she recognizes. Her connection with Nai Nai is her connection to her heritage and it is part of her identity. The Farewell allows us – and director Lulu Wang, whose life and experiences this is based on – to explore the tightrope that Chinese-Americans must often walk to reconcile the cultures of their background and of their present circumstances.

Awkwafina, a rapper who started out as comic relief in films like Oceans 8 and Crazy Rich Asians is absolutely devastating here. This is the kind of performance that establishes careers and can net an actress plum roles. Billi is a nuanced individual, caught between two cultures and not really sure which one she identifies with most. Her self-worth has taken a beating, mostly due to her overbearing hyper-critical mother. She believes strongly that her Nai Nai should be told the truth about her condition and she has trouble justifying the lie, yet she keeps a big secret of her own. At the end Billi embraces both sides of her identity and it is beautiful to see. Zhou and Ma give Awkwafina some great support and the onscreen relationships feel totally real.

It is no secret how much the Chinese culture values family above all else and for those Westerners who don’t understand that, the difference between East and West is succinctly explained here. Even so, there is a universal aspect to families; we all have members of our family we treasure and others we see only on rare occasions (and that’s just fine with us) while there are still others we barely know. I think you’ll find that the family gathering here will seem very familiar in a lot of ways to most of you, even if there are some cultural differences – like karaoke. Just don’t try to make sense of all the cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends.

This is a movie that has heart and comes by its emotional responses honestly. You don’t get a sense of being manipulated here; nonetheless this will resonate, particularly with those who have lost a beloved grandparent. I was very much reminded of the last time I saw my grandmother alive in Winnipeg. I did get a chance to say goodbye to her which was a very good thing even though she wasn’t in a terminal stage yet. I’ve never forgotten my Baba and how warm and loved she made me feel. Grandmothers are like that, you know.

This looks to become a major indie hit for A24 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a wider release than it is already enjoying. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the film got some recognition come Oscar nomination time, particularly for Awkwafina but maybe for Best Screenplay, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Zhou) and Best Picture. Cinephiles should make a beeline to the box office for this one as should anyone who has ever loved their grandmother, particularly if that grandmother is still alive. You definitely need to appreciate her while she’s still around.

REASONS TO SEE: The story struck a huge chord in me. Awkwafina is absolutely amazing here. This is not a tourist version of China but a peek into the everyday lives of Chinese people.
REASONS TO AVOID: Got a little bit hard to figure out who was who in terms of the relatives.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity as well as some serious adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the film made its limited release debut on July 12, it beat out Avengers: Endgame for the largest per-screen average of the year to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/31/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Departures
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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