Friday, July 19, 2019

THE FAREWELL

Awkwafina     Shuzhen Zhao     Diana Lin     Tzi Ma


     To tell or not to tell.  That is the question in this arguably groundbreaking film that juxtaposes American and Chinese points of view about illness and death.  It’s not weighty at all, but covers all ranges of emotions and personal quirks of the characters. I first heard the story on a 2016 This American Life podcast, and it stayed with me ever since.  My worries about the film not living up to the real story were quickly assuaged. In the hands of writer/director Lulu Wang, Farewell takes normal, everyday family life and transports it to an elegant and highly entertaining level, skillfully weaving through potential “edict-like” waters and throwing the question up to the viewers.  
     Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American who moved to the U.S. with her family when she was a toddler. She is now grown up, and wants to go back to China when the extended family is gathering for her cousin’s wedding, a major ruse concocted primarily to get everyone to gather after the beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao) has been diagnosed with cancer, which everyone assumes is a death sentence.  But in China at that time, a diagnosis of cancer was hidden from the patient.  So that’s the set-up of the story:  The Chinese custom vs. the American way of discussing major illness frankly.  In this story it is only Billi who takes the American point of view, and she has been strictly forbidden by parents and other relatives to speak frankly to Nai Nai.  Even the Chinese doctor trained in the UK, whose policies are the same as Americans’, takes the Chinese approach.
     At this point, the film entertains us with cover-ups all around within the family—which are left for you to experience first-hand, because they underlie the fun of Farewell, so spoilers should be withheld.  But there is more to the film than the humorous; it poses numerous facets of “truth” and “lies” that provoke thought, and it draws on emotions that I assume people around the world will recognize and re-experience.
     The Farewell should be a testament to Lulu Wang’s creativity and ability to tell a story not easily forgotten, but as well to assemble the whole talented cast and crew to make a film that is likely to be on award nomination lists at the end of the year.  Along with Wang’s perceptive script, Alex Weston’s music elevates the action of the film, giving it even more eloquence by expressing in Eastern and Western modes universal emotions.  It is one soundtrack that is likely to be prized for its expressiveness. I attribute the priceless wedding pictures—and other good picture qualities—to cinematographer Anne Franquesa Solano.
     Awkwafina has been a hit every since Crazy Rich Asians, and she captures a starkly different role here in being a different kind of “misfit.”  Here, she must show more emotional depth, uncertainty, and diffidence, which she pulls off with expert facility.  She deserves whatever nominations she may receive. Noteworthy as well is the delightful Shuzhen Zhao as Nai Nai.  Presumably, she is not a professional actress, but she steals the show on more than one occasion, eliciting our love for her as if we’re part of the family, and providing a strong draw toward the Chinese way of thinking.  Not to be discounted are all the other major players in this drama, such as Diana Lin and Tzi Ma as Billi’s parents.

A movie everyone across the world is likely to appreciate.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Thursday, July 18, 2019

MARIANNE & LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE



     Anyone who is a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music is sure to want to see this documentary about his life and the woman who became his muse despite their disconnections through the years. It’s a love story, but likely more unconventional than any other told before, perhaps partly because of the times (1960’s-70’s) and partly because of who Leonard Cohen was in his soul and eventually came to be as a result of his stardom in the era of free and open love.
     Leonard came from a well-off, well-educated Jewish family in Montreal.  His father died when he was nine, but he was close to his mother, from whom he got his love of and talent for music. Unfortunately, he got something additional, which was depression, which seems to have run in the family. He himself was plagued with it throughout his life, although not to the degree he needed to be hospitalized. His stint in a monastery for five years in the 1990’s was very likely beneficial to him, not only in terms of mental problems, but in spiritual guidance as well, which centered him.
     Leonard meets Marianne on the Greek island of Hydra in 1960, when she is married to someone else, but the union is falling apart.  He is a writer, not a singer at the time, and has come there to join the artist colony and write novels, spending hours in the hot sun slaving away.  As their friendship increases, Marianne is attentive in bringing him whatever he needs, and eventually becomes his muse—a role she will play for the rest of his life.
     His first novel, Beautiful Losers, doesn’t sell and is panned by the critics, after which he has a breakdown.  He emerges from this with the resolve to go into music, even though he doesn’t play an instrument and doesn’t think he has a very good voice.  But when he goes to New York and visits Judy Collins, she recognizes his talent and pushes him forward in performing his own songs.  At this point one has to wonder how much of a role simple fate is playing in his future, because his career takes off.  
     The film by Nick Broomfield gives us highlights of Cohen’s folk star years, his music and personal relationships, the mostly ups—and some downs—of his career, his indulgence in drugs (LSD, speed, and alcohol), his unfortunate connections with Phil Spector, and eventually, his entering a monastery to find peace. It’s well done in giving the viewer a picture of the person and all the elements and people in his life that were influential.
     All the while, the film keeps us up to date about Marianne’s life and hers and Leonard’s intense attraction and “easy love” for one another, something that with geographical distance eventually transforms into increasingly infrequent communication.  However, the love story is in their always maintaining some kind of connection despite distances, and that at the end of her life, he sends her a poignant telegram that expresses what she has always meant to him.  At some point, Cohen confesses that, “I overthrew them (Marianne and her son Axel, for whom he had become a father figure) for an education in the world.”  It’s a decision that is arguable from almost anyone’s point of view, but one that is surely to arise in many relationships.

A tender, poignant recap of Leonard Cohen’s life in all its color, reflecting the cultural times.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland


THE LION KING

Voices of:  Keegan-Michael Key     Seth Rogen     Donald Glover     Chiwetel Ejiofor     James Earl Jones
John Kani     Billy Eichner     Alfre Woodard     Beyonce     Amy Sedaris     John Oliver     JD McCreary


     What hard lessons for a cub to learn, especially when malevolence is involved! Simba (McCreary as the young Simba) is so proud to be next in line for king, but is so young he doesn’t understand the responsibilities that are part of such an honor.  He sees it initially as more freedoms for him, without regard for others.  He’s impatient, and easily led astray by Uncle Scar (Ejiofor), going where he shouldn’t go and being susceptible to outright lies.  Fortunately, the pride looks out for him, the best they can, especially the hilarious mother hen, Zazu (Oliver), but sometimes, Simba is too much for him, even.  The story contains high risks and tragedies, and although adults are likely to be entertained, it may be a little too heavy for young children.  
     The filming is spectacular (VFX by Rob Legato, cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, production design by James Chinlund), and the varied pace gives the viewer times to simply soak up being in the wild with exotic animals.  Hans Zimmer’s score made up of mixed genres is a definite highlight, sometimes being background and sometimes center stage.
     The story (screenplay by Jeff Nathanson) is mostly captivatingly suspenseful, but has interludes showing community solidarity, loving family life, and Simba’s coming of age experiences and his relationship with his father Mufasa (Jones).  There is plenty of humor too, such as the warthog Pumbaa (Rogen) and his sidekick Timon (Eichner) providing funny “stand-up” routines while being protective of Simba (with an ulterior motive, of course).  
     Romance is supplied by Mufasa and Sarabi (Woodard) in their continuing loving relationship, and the preadolescent/young adult attraction between Simba (Glover) and Nala (Beyonce) when they’re teenager/young adults.  The latter has its humor in the preadolescent phase, when the two friends cannot fathom being married (Ewww!), but then later on clearly being attracted to one another.  
     The Lion King has good modeling for kids, as well, showing them what it means to have community solidarity, nurturance by the older for the younger, and the importance of truthfulness.  I also appreciated their illustrating to children that adults do lie sometimes, so all of them cannot be trusted.  

Hard lessons learned in the transition from cub to king.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, July 11, 2019

STUBER

Kamail Nanjiani     Dave Bautista     Natalie Morales     Betty Gilpin     Jimmy Tatro     Mira Sorvino     Iko Uwais


     Straightaway you will be able to guess how this story plays out.  What you may not expect—unless you’ve seen the previews—is that the L.A. policeman going out for the big sting cannot see (from Lasik surgery) and that neither he nor the Uber driver can drive (that is, really drive).   Understand that a large part of the action takes place in cars.  The numerous “jokes” in the film are an attempt to make all this funny, but only one in about twenty made me chuckle.  Two were worthy, one being when the policeman is taking a perp to a hospital, he directs the Uber driver to an animal hospital. “He is an animal!” is the justification.  The other is in telling the policeman who gives his daughter a gun for protection when she is pleading for attention, the Uber driver scolds him with, “You give people glocks instead of love.”
     The story is that Vic (Bautista) of the LAPD has been tracking a major criminal for years, and just when he has a chance to capture the kingpin, it’s just after he has had eye surgery and on the very night of his daughter’s (Morales) art gallery opening.  The day before, Vic’s daughter has made sure he will get to the opening (he has a reputation for not showing up) by reserving an Uber to pick him up and take him there.  The Uber arrives, driven by Stu (Nanjiani), a loquacious, desperate to please (and earn good ratings), conscientious driver (albeit, not adept at all in making U-turns). Vic is extremely confident in taking on both tasks—capturing Teijo (Uwais) and attending the gallery opening.
     Think of all the things that can go wrong in this scenario, and you will probably be right; they do, and it turns out to be more frustrating than entertaining before it descends into something you’ve expected all along.  Stuber actually had the potential to be a really good spoof (for example, Stu the Uber driver); but the execution just doesn’t bring it home. Attempts are made by showing off Bautista’s physical strengths (macho) juxtaposed against Nanjiani’s emotional sensitivity (“effeminate”), which ties in with one of the overall aims being to make Vic become more sensitive and Stu more assertive, which the film achieves, but it follows from a script based on clichés and improbable events.
     All of this is supposed to come together in a romantic ending where heroes can be named, loves can be declared, and justice is served.  You can be the judge as to whether this happens.

A clever beginning concept of Stu being the uber driver devolves into absurd hi-jinks and cliché jokes that may not leave you laughing.

Grade:  D                                    By Donna R. Copeland

MAIDEN


      Maiden:  A film beautifully directed by Alex Holmes, that should be seen by boys and girls, men and women, to counteract misconceptions about supposed differences between males and females.  In addition to Holmes’ direction, Katie Byer’s editing brings the viewer along on the race at a well planned pace, so that it becomes a mystery as to how this Whitbread Around the World Ocean Race will turn out.  The journey before and during the race is just as interesting.
     By the time Tracy Edwards was a teen, she didn’t show much promise for achieving anything.  Her life started out well with loving parents, but when she was 10 years old, her father died suddenly.  Her mother had been a good influence in pressing the envelope of what was expected for females, but when she tried to take up her husband’s business after he died, she began to run into obstacles and wasn’t able to keep it going.  She then made an unfortunate match after that, wedding a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic.  
     Tracy had run-ins with him, and after being expelled from school departed home for a backpacking trip in Europe.  She ended up in Greece, first becoming a barmaid, then realizing that she wanted to be on a sailing ship, took a job as cook (and cleaner) on the sailboat of a friend who went against the grain by allowing a woman on the boat as part of the crew.  It was during this period Tracy learned to sail, which was all “about freedom”, she said, and as soon as she heard about the Whitbread Ocean Race, she began having aspirations to enter.
     Little did she realize beforehand what she would run into, but quickly became aware of the negativity and skepticism she would encounter as a woman, let alone getting a sponsor, a boat, and a crew (an all-female crew, she decided).  As often happens, some luck is involved, and when Tracy, almost by accident, crosses paths with King Hussein of Jordan, he is impressed with her and her efforts to enter a “man’s world”, and they stay in touch.  In the end, after being turned down by hundreds of companies who will not sponsor her, Tracy appeals to the King, and he agrees to help her.  
     At this point, Tracy has manages to buy a used boat, hire a crew to help her refurbish it, and enter the Whitbread race.  She runs into trouble even before the race begins with a personnel problem, so ends up taking over the First Mate’s duties herself.  This proves to be a test of her own leadership as to whether the crew will remain.  
     Throughout the 33 thousand mile journey around the world, it’s exciting and sometimes terrifying (Cinematographer Chris Openshaw exposes us to choppy seas, gigantic waves, ice bergs, and more to give us a sense of really being there), touch and go with the sailboat competitors, and the emotional and physical toll the trip will make on the crew—sometimes as a result of trauma on another sailboat.
     Documentaries are not generally exciting, but this one is with its moment-by-moment coverage in dangerous situations.  If one is not experienced in sailing, this is a good time to learn what is involved—the physical demands; the engineering knowledge of the boat and how it’s constructed; and the leadership, determination, and true grit of pulling off such a demanding race.
     The film does a good job in highlighting Tracy Edwards, both in her early life, which shaped her into the young adult she became, and in her experiences and insights later on that guided her in making her choices.  

For the thrill of the race, Maiden comes through with excitement, mystery, and true grit.

Grade:  A                                    By Donna R. Copeland




Wednesday, July 3, 2019

WILD ROSE

Jessie Buckley     Julie Walters     Sophie Okonedo


     Ah, the struggle of making it in life after having two kids before age 18 and serving a jail sentence, but also nursing a burning desire to make it big in country music when you live in Scotland.  A tall order!  Rose (Buckley) is just such a girl who seems not to have much, but is richly blessed with a mother (Walters) who is far from indulgent but provides a loving home for Rose’s children when she is away.  Upon returning home, Rose finds her children distant—another challenge—and no means of supporting herself, much less her children as well.
     She gets a job cleaning for a local woman of means, Susannah (Okonado), who comes home unexpectedly to find Rose vacuuming and singing at the top of her lungs. She immediately recognizes that Rose has talent, and begins to help her in pursuing her dreams.
     But psychologically Rose is not ready.  And this is the sobering part of her story.  She has come upon adulthood without much education, training, or even coaching on practical matters.  Furthermore, she has a serious issue with self-esteem.  We sympathize with Marion, Rose’s mother, in wishing and waiting for Rose to connect with her children.  When she doesn’t right away, Marion takes a “tough love” approach and exits the home, with the hope that Rose will figure out and accept her most important responsibility of being a mother.  But this is exactly when Rose is pursuing a singing career, so things get pretty hairy.
     Will Rose step up to the plate with her children?  Will she fulfill her dream of getting to Nashville and become a famous country singer?  The beauty of the film is in its treatment of these apparently conflicting issues, demonstrating that choices have to be made by individuals, which have long-term consequences.  What it works out in this case seems to me a sensible resolution that takes into account both dreams and responsibilities.
     Director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor have a good grasp of the psychosocial parameters in such a human story and treat them with a sensitive touch. However, I wish they had provided more of a back-story to Rose’s and Marion’s lives, to enrich and make more understandable their current circumstances.  
     Jessie Buckley is likely to be a rising star in entertainment with both musical and acting talent.  She makes her character be appealing, spunky, vulnerable, or aggressive, depending on the circumstances.  Julie Walters is her usual lovely, attractive maternal figure whose assertiveness waits for the right moment to arise before lowering the boom.  Sophie Okonedo exemplifies culture with elegance and soul, and I was grateful the filmmakers remained loyal to that persona.

An inspiring look at a music star in the making with significant hurdles to overcome.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland


Tuesday, July 2, 2019

MIDSOMMAR

Florence Pugh     Jack Reynor     Will Poulter     William Jackson-Harper
Vilhelm Blomgran     Archie Madekwe     Ellora Torchia


     Midsommar brings to mind romantic associations to a festival, summer/winter solstice, and cultural traditions.  How much writer-director Ari Aster (Heredity) depicts actual traditions in this film and how much he embroiders them with his own fantasies, I’m not sure, but suspect that most of what is seen in the film is from Aster’s own imagination. The film certainly goes way, way out in its characterizations and plot, so that by the end you know you’ve seen a freaky, quintessential horror show.  It’s helped along by Pawel Pogorzelski’s eloquent, captivating, and beautifully composed cinematography and The Haxan Cloak’s music that draws from genres ranging from the medieval to the hauntingly eerie to the most dissonant modern.  
     Midsommar begins as a thoroughly American kind of drama, with a couple, Dani (Pugh) and Christian (Reynor), who are going through ups and downs.  She is very needy, especially after a tragedy in her family, and his friends urge him to ditch her for someone else.  A trip to Sweden might be the answer.  Pelle (Blomgran) has invited his close friends [Christian, Mark (Poulter), and Josh (Jackson-Harper)] to go with him to his native Sweden for the Midsommar festival.  He grew up in a commune, so they would all be welcomed by his huge family. They hadn’t counted on Dani going with them, but she wangles an invitation, and Pelle lets her know how happy he is that she is coming along.
     The American group arrives in Sweden, and are taken to country fields sprinkled with people who turn out to be part of Pelle’s large family.  He introduces them all—ever the gallant host—and his friends are awestruck.  They will be even more awestruck when they impulsively decide to trip on drugs supplied by the communal community.  Dani is reluctant to imbide, but under peer pressure gives in; only to re-experience the tragedy she just endured.  But she gets hold of herself, and proceeds with the others to Pelle’s commune, where there are throngs of people all dressed in white.
     The rest of the story is about what the friends encounter and experience there, which ranges from the simple (helping cook meals) to the esoteric (engaging—not necessarily willingly—in bizarre rituals).  The viewer likely will experience what most of the American characters experience—a curiosity followed by unease and anxiety, even hysteria, and, finally, horror.
     Some may find comfort in preordained events—at least from godly figures (there’s nothing you can do about it, so you can’t be blamed)—but when they’re orchestrated by controllers with an ulterior motive, it can be the most unsettling and horrible experience one can imagine.  That is what Ari Aster does with this film.  He subjects his characters—and maybe viewers as well—to events they’ve never dreamed of, prompting us all to wonder what we would do in those circumstances.
     After her stint as Katherine in Lady Macbeth (2016) and here, Florence Pugh establishes herself as an actress with range and talent.  That being said, her role, as written, does not provide much of a showcase moment.  It’s actually true for all the characters; actors are not given opportunities to shine. Aster’s intention appears to be emphasizing story over characterization, specifically in the contrasts between cultures.  He jabs Americans a bit in their general disregard for tradition and in their inclination to break rules (a bit of “ugly Americans”), but the Swedes’ traditions as shown here evoke strong opinions about attitudes about death and individual agency.
     The film’s two-hour twenty-minute length may stretch the viewer’s tolerance; certainly, some of the over-the-top last scenes could have been cut, and making a better film.

A cross-cultural trip like one you have probably never seen.

Grade:  B                                    By Donna R. Copeland