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
NEXT:
Lamp Light

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Uncertainty


Uncertainty

Heads I win…tails you lose!

(2009) Drama (IFC) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lynn Collins, Olivia Thirlby, Assumpta Serna, Louis Arcella, Nelson Landrieu, Manoel Felciano, Jenn Colella, Giana Luca, Sofia Luca, Ana Cruz Kayne, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Ed Wheeler, Michaela Hill. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel

 

It is said that every decision we make creates an alternate reality. Take the right fork and life unfolds one way; the left and it turns in a completely different direction. We never know which way things will turn out.

Bobby (Gordon-Levitt) is a Canadian musician waiting for his green card. Kate (Collins) is a Broadway actress and dancer. They have been together for ten months and they are deliriously happy together. They meet in the middle of the Brooklyn bridge on the fourth of July and they are trying to come to a decision as to what to do. Bobby flips a coin; then they both run in opposite directions Bobby towards Brooklyn and Kate towards Manhattan. At the end of the bridge on either side they meet…each other?!?

Here the story veers off into two different directions. The Brooklyn side (in which the couple wears green) is one in which Bobby spends the weekend with Kate’s Argentine parents who are a bit old school. Kate’s mom Sylvia (Serna) doesn’t trust Bobby much and wants Kate to make something more of herself. Kate bonds with her little sister Sophie (Thirlby) who wants to follow in her footsteps while Bobby tries not to feel too out of place.

The Manhattan side (in which the couple wears yellow) the couple find a cell phone left behind in a taxi. When Bobby calls the number on it to get the phone to its rightful owner, he lands the couple smack dab in the middle of a situation. When someone comes to claim the phone, he is shot dead before their eyes. The two wind up running from a ruthless assassin hell-bent on retrieving the phone at any cost.

This is one of those parallel story films that occasionally crop up (Sliding Doors is the best-known of these) but the styles of story are about as dissimilar as you can get; one is a slice of life drama that explores the couple’s relationship and personalities whereas the other one is an action-thriller a la Collateral that moves at break-neck speed. The problem here is that the two storytelling styles are so dissimilar that they actually clash.

The pacing of the thriller gets thrown into painful reverse by the thoughtful reveries of the drama. The effect is jarring and off-putting. The sad thing is that if they had told the stories straight, both of these tales – or either one – could have been a compelling movie on its own, particularly the Brooklyn portion.

Gordon-Levitt is a reliable actor just coming into his own when this was filmed. You can see that he has gained in confidence from his indie films of just a year or two earlier. Collins is a performer who generally does a lot of supporting parts although she’s had lead romantic roles in a movie or two; she has some pretty good chemistry with Gordon-Levitt although Kate is a bit whiny in places.

I kind of wish they’d taken the couple from the Brooklyn film and put them into the Manhattan film; the Bobby and Kate of the thriller do a lot of stupendously dumb things, to the point where it becomes almost farcical. Conversely the Brooklyn portion drags in places, mainly because of the contrast with the high-energy Manhattan portion.

There was a good movie to be made here but unfortunately this turns out to be two mediocre movies crammed into the same reel. It wasn’t a bad idea – it’s just the thriller and the drama aren’t really compatible which ends up making the movie a little bit unsettling and quite frankly, life is unsettling enough without having to get the same feeling from your entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice performances by Gordon-Levitt and Collins. Nice idea.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Thriller and slice-of-life drama don’t mix very well. Sometimes seems awkward and forced.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, sexuality and just plain bad language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was written without dialogue. This was done on purpose so that the actors could improvise their dialogue on the spot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some audition footage from Gordon-Levitt and Collins doing a scene that was never filmed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36,689 on an unreported production budget; this is most likely a box office bomb.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sliding Doors

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: 5 Days of War

Peep World


Peep World

Sarah Silverman puts up her dukes.

(2010) Comedy (IFC) Michael C. Hall, Sarah Silverman, Rainn Wilson, Judy Greer, Taraji P. Henson, Ron Rifkin, Leslie Warren, Alicia Witt, Lewis Black (narrator), Stephen Tobolowski, Nicholas Hormann, Kate Mara, Ben Schwartz, Octavia Spencer, Geoffrey Arend. Directed by Barry Blaustein

 

Families are our bedrock but they can also drive us crazy. Sometimes we love ’em to death but other times they can make us so mad we can’t see straight. You love your family more than anyone but the flipside is that you can hate your family more than anyone too.

The Meyerwitz family is gathering at a swanky L.A. restaurant to celebrate the 70th birthday of patriarch Henry (Rifkin). The family, dysfunctional and argumentative at the best of times, is living under a veil of tension more than usual. That’s because Nathan (Schwartz), the baby of the family, has written a best-selling novel that is a thinly veiled account of his family, with all their dirty secrets intact and there for the world to see.

Daughter Cheri (Silverman), a failed actress is actually suing her brother. Eldest brother Jack (Hall), who before Nathan’s success was the most successful Meyerwitz, is seeing his architecture business crumble and to relieve the stress, regularly goes to peep shows to take out his frustrations. His wife Laura (Greer) is pregnant to compound matters.

Joel (Wilson), the ne’er-do-well of the family, is on the run from loan sharks and is desperately trying to guilt money out of his brother Jack who doesn’t have the money to give any longer. He tries to keep the knowledge of the unsavory things he’s done from his girlfriend Mary (Henson) who only sees the good in him.

And Nathan himself isn’t without his own demons. Condescending and cruel to those around him, he takes an erectile dysfunction pill while getting ready for a date and winds up with a monster boner that won’t quit. And even Henry has a few secrets of his own – and you can bet they’re all going to come out at this dinner from hell.

The movie has a terrific ensemble cast, led by Hall who is in my opinion one of those actors who always elevates the material he has. I’ve never been a huge fan of Silverman but she turns in what might just be her best performance yet as the neurotic Cheri. This is a bit of a stretch for the usually caustic Silverman (and there are elements of her usual persona here albeit much toned down) and she nails it nicely.

Wilson is kind of the comic foil here but while he’s usually pretty good this is not one of his better performances. Greer however is golden here – she has become one of my favorite comic actresses in just the last couple of years. She and Henson make up the heart of the movie.

The issue here is that most of the characters are pretty one-dimensional and cliché. The actors cope to varying degrees but it becomes noticeable often. The story isn’t that much better – there are no real surprises and nothing that you haven’t seen before and done better. Even Lewis Black’s narration is by the numbers and a waste of this inventive comedian’s talent.

This is a movie that wasted its potential. The premise is a sound one albeit one that has been done before (the dysfunctional family gathering) and the cast is superb. With better writing this could have been an indie classic. Still, the talent holds it up just enough to make it worth seeing.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice ensemble cast who try real hard. Some funny moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One-dimensional characters.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of bad language and a fair amount of sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The hand with the different color painted nails in the salon that Jack enters is the same hand of the “Ice Cream Killer” that is on the trophy shelf of “Dexter,” the Showtime series that Hall also stars in.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14,351 on an unreported production budget; this was a big box office flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Hotel Transylvania

This Means War


This Means War

Tom Hardy and Chris Pine mistakenly believe they're trying out for the next Men in Black movie.

(2012) Spy Comedy (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler, Til Schweiger, Abigail Leigh Spencer, John Paul Ruttan, Angela Bassett, Rosemary Harris, George Touliatos, Clint Carleton, Warren Christie, Leela Savasta. Directed by McG

 

When guys bond, it’s a beautiful thing. Guys will take a bullet for each other; guys will give you the shirts off their back. When a woman comes between two best friends, all bets can rapidly become off.

That’s especially true for Franklyn “FDR” Foster (Pine) and John “Tuck” Harrison (Hardy). Both of them are elite field agents for the CIA and their partnership in the field has led to the kind of friendship that is as close as family (in fact FDR regularly brings Tuck to the home of his Nana (Harris) for family functions). They are working a case in which two German weapons dealers (and actual brothers) are in the midst of pulling off a scam in Hong Kong. The operation goes south and one of the brothers winds up taking a doozy of a last step. Naturally Heinrich (Schweiger), the terse surviving brother, vows revenge.

The debacle lands the two field agents in desk jockey-land. Bored out of their skulls, they begin to talk about their love lives (and if you know how bored guys have to be to discuss their love lives with one another…) leading Tuck, recently divorced and missing his son Joe (Ruttan) to sign up with one of those online dating services.

Lauren (Witherspoon) is a product tester and she loves her job. She had moved to Los Angeles to be with her boyfriend who wound up cheating on her, sending her into a romantic tailspin from which she’s not yet recovered. Her best friend Trish (Handler) signs her up for a dating site and she promptly lays her peepers on Tuck’s profile and is very interested.

So is Tuck but FDR knows that he’s rusty at the whole dating thing, so he arranges to hang out at a neighboring video store just in case he’s needed to rescue his friend. Tuck and Lauren hit it off right away so Tuck sends the “all clear” signal to FDR. FDR, a big-time movie buff, decides to find something to rent for the night. Of course he stays long enough to bump into Lauren after her date with Tuck. Not knowing who she is, he flirts with her and long story short, manages to connive her into a date.

The two men find out that they are both dating the same girl and as it turns out, both have strong feelings for them. At first they set up ground rules of a “may the best man win” sort but soon enough the “all’s fair in love and war” corollary sets in and they are both using all the high-tech means at their disposal to keep an eye on each other as they put the moves on poor Lauren. Will she choose either one of them, or will the evil Heinrich show up and spoil the party?

McG has made a reputation that isn’t necessarily the greatest among critics. In all fairness, he doesn’t seem to be aiming to create films that are as memorable so much as they are entertaining. There’s a lot of bright colors, lots of things that go boom and lots of eye candy for both sexes, all of which are elements regularly seen in McG movies.

That this movie has gotten critically spanked is no surprise – that this is much better than what the critics are letting on isn’t either. What is a surprise is that the audience, generally better arbiters of this kind of film than the critics, haven’t picked up on it yet.

There is good chemistry between Pine and Hardy, essential to make this movie work. These are two up-and-coming stars, both who show signs of being destined for bigger and better things. Their byplay is natural and realistic; they act like a couple of guys who have been friends for awhile. The chemistry with Witherspoon is a little bit more forced. Mind you, Reece Witherspoon is one of the most beautiful women in the world, but she seems uncomfortable with the slight sluttiness her character displays.

This isn’t smart entertainment by any means. It’s a big dumb dog lying in front of a fire on a rainy afternoon; familiar and easy to deal with, making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. This breaks little or no new ground and doesn’t really want to. The whole aim here is to entertain and if that’s all the filmmakers are after, mission accomplished – and not in the George W. sense either. I can be picky and take issue with the somewhat choppy pacing which is less than seamless going from comedy to romance to action sequences but while it’s a little annoying it isn’t a dealbreaker.

There’s far worse out there at the moment and there will be far worse available when it comes out on home video/streaming. If you’re looking for something mindless and fun, this could be your huckleberry. If you’re looking for something that isn’t just empty calories, well, you might want to check your art house listings.

REASONS TO GO: Good ol’ empty-headed entertainment. Some nice action sequences and good chemistry between Pine and Hardy. Witherspoon is awesome to look at.

REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a bit choppy; feels like you’re driving a car with a bad transmission.

FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find plenty of bad language, some action-style violence and a lot of sexual innuendo. .

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point in the film, FDR is waiting for Tuck to show up at his home to join him in a “CHiPs” marathon. Actor Chris Pine’s father Robert Pine was a regular on that show.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100. The reviews are poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: True Lies

STAR TREK LOVERS: Both Pine and Hardy have appeared in Star Trek films – Hardy as Shinzon, the clone of Capt. Picard in Star Trek: Nemesis and Pine as Capt. Kirk in Star Trek. In fact the reference to Pine being a cruise ship captain throughout the film is in reference to this.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Kung Fu Panda