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

Advertisements

Deadpool


Deadpool is knocking the movie industry sideways.

Deadpool is knocking the movie industry sideways.

(2016) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, Gina Carano, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic (voice), Michael Benyaer, Karan Soni, Leslie Uggams, Rob Hayter, Greg LaSalle, Hugh Scott, Donna Yamamoto, Kyle Cassie, Taylor Hickson, Randal Reeder, Jed Rees, Style Dayne, Aatash Amir, Chad Riley, Emily Haine. Directed by Tim Miller

We’re all used to the ponderous superhero movies with tons of special effects as we see how the hero went from a young nobody to being a powerful and charismatic hero, saving the world (or at least New York) from threats that even Schwarzenegger at his best couldn’t overcome.

Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is an ex Special Forces vet with 41 kills to his credit. These days he makes a living by being a bad guy taking out worse guys, as he puts it. He hangs out in the St. Agnes School, which is really a bar where mercenaries hang out awaiting assignments and the bartender Weasel (Miller) is Wilson’s best friend.

Then Wilson meets Vanessa (Baccarin), a cocktail waitress and hooker who agrees to go out on a date with him and eventually, the two become a couple. But when things are going good, fate has a way of laying the smack down on us. Wilson is diagnosed with terminal cancer. While drinking away his troubles, he is met in the bar by a recruiter (Rees) for an experimental medical program that can cure Wade’s cancer but also give him superpowers. With nothing to lose, he leaves Vanessa’s bed in the middle of the night and heads for the clinic (which is more like a warehouse) overseen by psychotic scientist/super villain Ajax (Skrein) who hates his given name of Francis. The process which it takes to cure Wade is a brutal one and an excruciating one.

When he escapes the compound after Ajax and his super-strong minion Angel Dust (Carano) – whom Wilson describes as a less angry Rosie O’Donnell – torture him with a modified hyperbaric chamber, Wade is disfigured and pissed off. Donning a costume with a mask so nobody can see his face, he adopts the name Deadpool after a pastime at the bar, and goes on the hunt for his nemesis.

In the meantime, the X-Men in the form of Colossus (Kapicic/LaSalle) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Hildebrand) are trying to recruit Deadpool for their team although ‘pool is far too focused on getting revenge to bother with saving the world. Not that he’s against saving the world, as long as he gets the girl, puts the bad guys into the ground and has plenty of chimichangas afterwards.

Reynolds has been trying to get this made for six years, ever since the unsatisfying appearance of the Merc with a Mouth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fox has been resistant to the idea of doing an R-rated superhero movie and for once, the filmmakers got their way and I’m sure the executives at Fox are happy that they did. The movie has been a phenomenal success; already some pundits are talking that it will force the industry to rethink the entire release concept of tentpole blockbusters.

I don’t know if this will eventually be that kind of game-changer but it is excessively entertaining. As has been noted basically everywhere, the tone is irreverent (the opening credits proclaim the movie was directed by “An Overpaid Tool” and has similar credits for most of the cartoonish opening) and the main character often addresses the audience directly, or makes references to the fact that he’s in the movie as when he tells Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Colossus that they are the only two X-Men he ever sees despite living in a huge mansion: “I guess the producers couldn’t afford any more X-Men” he says snidely.

Reynolds was born to play this role. He has the right amount of attitude and the right amount of physicality and somewhat importantly, the right amount of looks. He’s also willing to take a bit of a right cross to the career jaw and make fun of his own image even as his movie is lampooning the genre and Marvel in one fell swoop. Reynolds is engaging and even though his character is violent, annoying and a little bit psychotic, he ends up carrying the audience’s interest throughout.

The rest of the cast is for the most part pretty much unknown although Baccarin, best known for her stint in Firefly, makes for a fine love interest, Carano (a former MMA fighter) a mostly line-less henchwoman and Skrein a suave villain who gets annoyed whenever his real name is used. While Skrein isn’t the most charismatic man to hit Hollywood ever, he nonetheless fulfills the role of an urbane British villain nicely.

I think overall the movie captures the spirit of the comic book pretty well, which is good news for fans. If there are any sticking points it’s that the movie slows down a little near the end when it should be building momentum, and the excessive gore and profanity may be a little much for those sensitive for such things. And parents, please do NOT bring your kids to this. Unless you feel comfortable dropping the F-bomb in front of them regularly and exposing them to scenes of heads being sliced off of their necks, this isn’t meant for kids. I don’t know how many people have to say this however many different ways – and I still see idiot parents bringing their six and seven year old kids to the movie. Get a flippin’ babysitter if you want to see it that badly.

In any case, this is the movie we asked for, it’s the movie we deserve. It’s fun and while I get the sense that Fox kind of hedged their bets with the budget, it’s clear that there will be lots more Deadpool goodness in our futures. And that suits me just fine.

REASONS TO GO: A fun romp throughout. Stays true to the spirit of the comic book.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore and profanity may upset the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod ohmygawd! Do not take your children to this movie. If they’re under ten chances are it will be too much for them. There’s a TON of f-bombs, gratuitous violence (always the best kind), and some graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Became the first R-rated film to open with more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Kung Fu Panda 3

Powder Blue


Powder Blue

Ray Liotta looks for redemption in the seedy underbelly of L.A. where it is seldom found.

(Speakeasy) Jessica Biel, Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker, Lisa Kudrow, Patrick Swayze, Kris Kristofferson, Eddie Redmayne, Sanaa Lathan, Alejandro Romero. Directed by Timothy Linh Bui

Big cities are a terrible place to look for redemption. Cities are impersonal, seedy, uncaring and mean. Still, redemption can be found in places where you least expect it.

Charlie Bishop (Whitaker) is a former clergyman who is carrying a load of pain greater than he can bear. The death of his wife has left him overwhelmed and looking for release. He drives the city streets of Los Angeles in the dark of the night with a bag containing his life savings of $50,000. He intends to give this to whosoever can deliver him from his pain – with the gun that is also in the bag.

Rose-Johnny (Biel) is a stripper but not because she wants to be. Her son lies in a coma in a hospital bed and is unlikely to ever come out of it. She rails against the doctors and the world that is insensitive to the needs of a single mom who only wants to hold her laughing son once again. Her boss (Swayze) is more interested that she makes it to work on time than in the heartache she feels for the only one in the world she cares for.

Qwerty Doolittle (Redmayne) has inherited the mortuary that his father started and is barely keeping his head above water. He has no time for dating and partying and is intensely lonely, generally only kept company by the dead. He wanders through life knowing he wants more than just existing and also fully aware that he is unlikely to get what he wants.

Jack Doheny (Liotta) has just been released from prison after 25 years behind bars, but not because his sentence is up or because of good behavior. He has terminal cancer and nowhere to go, nobody to be with. An old buddy (Kristofferson) gives him a briefcase full of money and the name “Rose-Johnny” written on a piece of paper. What this is for is anybody’s guess.

Sally (Kudrow) is a waitress who is separated from her husband. She, too, is lonely and scared and wants to reach out to somebody but working the night shift in a coffee shop isn’t exactly conducive to meeting a nice guy. She remains cheerful and upbeat, but deep down she has needs and fears that are colliding in her heart.

For those who have seen movies like Crash and Traffic, these stories are meant to be separate but related, interweaving until the very end when they are theoretically supposed to be tied together with a nice big bow. It’s a means of storytelling that Robert Altman was a master at and that many independent filmmakers of the first decade of the 21st century have tried to imitate with varying degrees of success.

There’s not a lot of success here. Liotta fares the best out of all the actors, bringing dignity and pathos to a character who is Mickey Spillane-tough. Kudrow is also likable and sympathetic in her mostly supporting role.

The problem here though is not the actors, who do their best, but with a script that is scattershot and sometimes senseless, giving the actors lines to say like “You’re not a doctor! Doctors cure people! You’re not curing anybody!” Some of the dialogue is equally cringeworthy. You have to feel for the actors in cases like that, especially for Swayze (whose final screen appearance this is) who is made up in excessive eyeliner and looks like a transvestite version of his character in Road House had that character been castrated early on, and Biel who went to great lengths to learn how to be an exotic dancer and does indeed go topless. Not many actresses of her caliber are willing to do that these days.

Bui has a good eye for color and tone but at times he goes for style over substance. The strip club in which Rose-Johnny toils is a neon palace where the strippers are lit like rock stars and the patrons cheer, whistle and throw dollar bills like confetti on cue. Not that I spend my time in strip clubs, but I’ve seen my share and I’ve never seen one like that.

The problem with these kinds of interweaving stories is that you have to care enough about the characters to want to follow them through the weave of the tapestry that is being unfolded before you. That doesn’t happen here; even the great Forest Whitaker chews his scenery like he hasn’t eaten in weeks. The only thread I cared about was Liotta’s and I found myself wishing he was in more of the film. That’s a bad sign for a movie with this means of storytelling. Considering the top-of-the-line cast Bui assembled, this should have been a far better movie than it turned out to be.

WHY RENT THIS: Liotta does a solid job as the dying ex-con.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A scattershot script and some wacky over-the-top performances submarine this effort.

FAMILY VALUES: Much foul language, plenty of nudity and sexuality and some scenes of graphic violence. All in all, much more suitable for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The color blue is featured in some way in every scene.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Don’t Tell (La bestia nel cuore)