Review: The Farewell (2019)

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell offers up an immediately gripping premise and executes it flawlessly, tackling a heavy topic with both grace and levity. Young Chinese-American Billi, already struggling with accepting the fact that she has been rejected for a Fellowship, is devastated to learn that her grandmother back in China is dying of cancer and is baffled when she learns that her family intends to never tell Grandma Nai Nai. Instead, they are planning a fake wedding as an excuse to bring the family together so she can be blissfully ignorant in her final months. Billi is conflicted, stuck between worlds on so many levels.

Culture clash rests at the heart of this movie, with both sides offering up compelling arguments. What results is one of the most bittersweet experiences I have had with cinema. Every joyful moment Nai Nai experiences highlights the tragedy for the rest of the family. People break down in tears and are forced to mask their devastation as bliss to avoid suspicions. The film never tries to answer whether one option is better than the other, instead supplying reasons for Billi to go along with her family despite her disagreements. There’s no solid answer for grieving.

The emotional weight is flawlessly captured by Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography. The central figures are commonly framed with an expansive background, only a small piece of the full picture. Several shots are neatly arranged to feature the entire family, grandma crowded at the center while the younger cousin is often captured playing with electronics a few steps back.

Wang plays as much in the sonic landscape. The score is loaded with melancholic vocal pieces and striking strings. The music is allowed to overtake the scene at key moments, evoking emotions that can’t be expressed with diegetic sound.

The editing and transitions are key in balancing the humor and drama of the piece, bubbling turmoil cut down with mundane shots of Nai Nai going about her day. The Farewell draws out several of its shots, making great use of deep space to lessen the need for cutting as several characters manage to carry a conversation within the frame. The Farewell only cuts when it is required, capturing the aesthetics of the slow cinema movement without ever feeling slow itself. Between her visual composition and tackling of family dynamics, Lulu Wang has really captured what makes Hirokazu Kore-eda’s works so compelling.

The dire concept is balanced with Nai Nai’s charm. Free of the knowledge of her death, she’s happy to act as her usual self. The way she speaks to Billi seems a bit callous until it’s clear Billi is happy to go along. Nai Nai is granted a certain bluntness in how she speaks with others, which helps raise the tension (and comedy) when she’s so quick to point out that everyone looks sad.

This is an ensemble piece and the performances are largely phenomenal. Awkwafina captures the air of a young woman lost with a sense of aimlessness, seemingly the black sheep in her family. The quiet tension in her gaze as she reluctantly plays along says so much. Nai Nai can only be as charming as her actress, and Zhao Shuzhen does wonders. Even the less central figures get their moments to shine, such as Diana Lin as Billi’s mother who can’t hide the distance she feels with the family she married into. Chen Han and Aoi Mizuhara are given little dialogue as the ‘engaged’ couple, but both say so much with that silence. Chen Han spends most of the film bawling his eyes out, as if being so central in the sham gives him the most freedom to express emotionally what he can’t say with words. Aoi’s Aiko appears dazed, unable to communicate with almost anyone due to a language barrier and likely overwhelmed with the scenario.

If this is not the best movie of 2019, it will only be because this year will have graced us with two true masterpieces. Matching a powerful theme with stellar artistry and a wonderful cast, The Farewell is a prime example of how to do drama properly. It’s not as simple as telling a compelling story, but reinforcing it from every angle. The concept, theme, technique, performances, everything works in perfect harmony to craft an emotionally riveting experience. Though this is not a long film, every image and every moment is so densely packed that it offers an endless supply to ponder over. To be brought into another’s view of the world and learn so much while also being thoroughly engaged, The Farewell is a perfect example of why movies are a perfect art form for capturing emotional truths that can’t be expressed in words.

5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Blinded by the Light (2019)

Great art can resonate in surprising ways. We’ve been rather inundated recently with films praising the ‘all-time great’ musical artists with nary a critical thought toward their legacies. Yesterday feared treating The Beatles as anything less than timeless and indisputably great while people seemed happy to let Bohemian Rhapsody drag Freddie Mercury’s personal life as long as the film offered up the band’s greatest hits in a glorified package.

Few of these nostalgia pieces actually explore why these particular artists resonated with the masses – it’s always presented as some objective quality that would be present even if their work was displaced from the artist and period. Blinded by the Light offers a bit of fresh air by actually diving into the specifics of one young man’s passion for music. Being a fan of Bruce Springsteen will certainly add to this movie’s appeal, but it rarely comes off as a grandiose statement about the value of his music – this is a personal journey.

Javed is a British-Pakistani teenager struggling to survive within a family structure that places each member as subservient to the patriarch, who in this case is Javed’s father Malik. At his new school, he meets a Sikh student named Rooks who is currently obsessed with Springsteen. Javed ends up checking The Boss out one melancholy night and finds a similar love that pushed him to find a renewed interest in his own writing – unfortunately, his father does not approve of these artistic pursuits.

A lot of the elements are familiar, but Blinded by the Light goes about the subject matter with such unapologetic passion that it works. I’m particularly fond of Javed’s first listen, the lyrics popping into the air as he breathes in each word. He ends up rushing outside to take in this raw emotional release. This sequence highlights how this music manages to resonate despite the seemingly massive differences between Javed and his idol; despite Springsteen’s tendency to reference specific American tropes, certain words are highlighted as they relate to Javed’s own experience. These musical moments are pushed to the point of being over-dramatic, such as when Javed leans against a building as the lyrics are projected onto the side, but a charm of this work is how utterly sincere it dares to be.

Perhaps it’s a stroke of luck that Springsteen was the musician that caught Javed’s ear back in 1987. As far as the ‘great musicians’ of the 20th century go, few seem as commonly miscast as The Boss. His own unabashed Americana branding has warped him into some sort of patriotic symbol for the under-informed – as Javed is quick to point out, “Born in the U.S.A.” is an anti-Vietnam song with a coldly ironic title chant. Blinded by the Light is a story of the misunderstood.

The film dives into several diverse topics from its late-80s setting. Perhaps most disquieting is the strikingly familiar political unrest as it explores an explosion of Neo-Nazis in the highly conservative Thatcher era. Javed and his family are obviously dragged into this, Pakistani immigrants being a popular target of hate crimes. The film tackles these tensions in less heightened states as well, such as a dinner where Javed’s girlfriend’s parents openly accuse her of dating Javed purely to get under their skin. “Born to Run” certainly seems a convincing anthem for such misplaced youth.

To really counter the trap of Yesterday‘s questionable and borderline toxic ideology, Javed is actively portrayed as a bit of a jerk when it comes to his obsession. He insults a friend by dismissing synthesizers, despite the movie starting with him happily enjoying “It’s a Sin” by the Pet Shop Boys before he is introduced to Springsteen. Javed is given room to grow, to learn that artistic resonance is a personal experience and that Springsteen speaks to him in a way that might mean little to the people around him.

Similarly appealing to the use of Pet Shop Boys is the range of fashion styles. Javed’s discovery of jean jackets is matched by a tour of competing scenes around the lunch room. It’s the type of cheesy movie magic where every major style of the era seems to cross the camera at once, but it’s pretty effective at capturing the period and showcasing worlds untouched by the artist at the center of this story.

While I truly dug the sincerity with which this film carries itself, I find some of Chadha’s direction to be questionable. Javed’s discovery of Springsteen is reduced by flashbacks to scenes that only happened minutes earlier; does she think us incapable of remembering the opening sequence that we just sat through? Additionally, when we’re not getting carried away with the magic of the songs, a lot of these sequences have rather plain presentation. The themes and narrative easily outshine the technique.

Blinded by the Light is an inspiring biopic that is compelling in its unabashed sincerity. While it may fall into the usual stylistic tropes, the story at its center is strong enough to largely escape overt familiarity. While tackling such specific topics as Springsteen, 1980s Britain, and being a Muslim in the West, Blinded by the Light hits more universal truths by exploring musical appreciation in general, the seemingly cyclical nature of far-right extremism, and living with a controlling father. To be simultaneously specific and universal is one of the keys to becoming a great work of art – if Chadha had put a bit more consideration into the presentation, this would have been one.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019)

Richard Linklater’s latest work follows Bernadette Fox, a neurotic architect pushed to the breaking point when her daughter Bee suggests they go on a family trip to Antarctica over winter break. She spars with a nosy neighbor and hoards pills while ranting about her anxieties to an unseen personal assistant over email. All attempts to help form her husband Elgin are soundly ignored.

Everything about Where’d You Go, Bernadette suggests this should be a quirky experience. Antarctic trips, a bizarre estate, snobby rival parents, and a singular lead are all the right ingredients, yet every artistic choice seems designed to reduce these elements to the slightly mundane. Bernadette borders on lifeless, squandering its eccentricities while likewise failing to settle on a clear message – all of which is amplified when the film attempts to throw in some shocking turns that really don’t go anywhere.

Cate Blanchett is the one high note of this film as Bernadette; she fully embodies this character with a wonderful display of introversion and sometimes raving hysteria. She has a commanding presence that dominates the screen – which would be more compelling if the other actors didn’t appear to merely fold over while in her presence. Billy Crudup feels especially underwhelming as Elgin, his eyes darting around like an embarrassed teenager during at least one key conflict. Several of his lines feel rushed or wooden, and I wonder how many takes they shot to settle on what ended up in the final product. Kristen Wiig and Zoe Chao are cast as stereotypical gossip moms, a cliche that offers little room for nuance in their performances. It’s difficult to take the larger-than-life Bernadette seriously when everyone that surrounds her feels so underdeveloped. Who wouldn’t turn into a neurotic mess while surrounded by these bland cutouts?

The dip in quality anytime other characters are alone on screen is palpable. What I’m imagining were intended to be heartfelt moments between father and daughter as they search for a missing mother instead carry all the weight of an after school special. Their poor acting is paired with a nauseatingly saccharine score, the type of light music you could imagine a church pianist chiming in with during opening prayer to signal that something important is being said.

What doesn’t help these late discussions is that the film juxtaposes their search with scenes of Bernadette doing just fine on her own. It’s difficult to care about Elgin and Bee’s panic when we know they have no need. This ending is especially difficult because the opposite also wouldn’t have worked – the film is too centered around Bernadette that it couldn’t simply cut her presence out for the final act.

Even the visual elements feel unbalanced. Shots of nature and the house lend an air of gravity, yet the actual scenes between characters have such basic presentation. With the aforementioned score, the film teeters dangerously close to feeling like a soap opera – made worse when combined with the half-hearted attempts at quirk.

It’s honestly hard to understand how a movie with all these disparate elements falls so flat. The secondary actors aren’t incapable – they have plenty of better performances to prove otherwise. Director Richard Linklater has made three films that feature regularly in my all-time top 100, so it seems similarly unlikely that the blame falls squarely on his shoulders. His best works have a meditative quality, so it makes sense that he would have connected with the deeply troubled Bernadette. Yet he stumbles anytime he has to get out of that character’s head, which is particularly surprising considering his best work consists of finding meaning in the smallest of moments.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette is an unsure, tonal mess buoyed by a strong Cate Blanchett. It’s the type of work that feels just off in nearly every category. It can be fun in its moments, but any grander purpose is muted by odd choices, some of which are so questionable I legitimately had to stifle laughter near the climax due to how poorly it managed emotional weight.

2 Stars Out of 5

Review: The Art of Self-Defense (2019)

The Art of Self-Defense has been one of the tougher films for me to crack. There’s something insidious about its presentation, a dizzying dive into toxic masculinity that pushes so hard into black comedy that it borders on surreal horror. In 2019 and most of cinema it seems entirely singular – but there is one specific classic that it mimics so closely that it feels imitative.

Accountant Casey Davies joins a karate dojo after being assaulted by a gang of bikers. What starts as a mere riff on his social awkwardness as he gets in over his head transforms into something else entirely as the dojo master, a white man who goes only by Sensei, takes him on as a pet project. Casey soon begins to define himself entirely by his place within the structure of this karate system. Jesse Eisenberg is in fine form as Casey, though he’s not exactly breaking new territory as an emasculated nerd.

What sells The Art of Self-Defense is how matter-of-factly it sells the absurdity. The characters operate within a certain brand of nightmare logic but go about their actions plainly. Violence runs rampant with little to no consequences. The whole experience is as if we’re watching modern people role play a martial arts film, engaging in battles of honor and masculinity after a day at the office. It’s altogether uncanny; the presentation suggests a familiar world yet the narrative is so alienating.

On its own, The Art of Self-Defense could have been a truly mesmerizing work. However, I figured out exactly what it was doing with nearly all of its plot beats well before anything really happened – not necessarily because it was playing its hand too openly but because of how obviously it was playing from the same book as that other film.

The Art of Self-Defense is Fight Club for a generation that can now immediately summarize all the concepts at play with the phrase ‘toxic masculinity.’ The flaw of Self-Defense is that it speaks in that language. We are always put on the outside of Casey’s story – these figures are meant to be ridiculed from their first appearance.

Fight Club worked because it recognized how inescapable these ideas are in certain men. It resonated due to how intimately it captured the experience of a man lost to that system, to the point that some fail to recognize it as a critique since it so perfectly captures their own experience with masculine expectations. With The Art of Self-Defense, it’s all too easy to view oneself as above any of the characters. They exist solely to be mocked.

Ultimately, I’m not certain what this film is actually saying. It goes through the motions of black comedy so well that I almost mistook the atmosphere for meaningful social commentary. Obviously, toxic masculinity is a real issue – perhaps the flaw is Imogen Poots as Anna, who is a wonderful character on her own but her presence blurs the message. Anna is as caught up in the system and, though the film makes sure to highlight some mistreatment on account of her gender, she seems just as devoted to all the same toxic behaviors as the rest.

I’m breaking the film down this way not because I think it is a bad film but quite the opposite – this is a work that borders on greatness and I feel the need to explain why it doesn’t quite land. Its atmospheric mastery created one of the most spellbinding experiences I’ve had at the movies this year, and the screenplay is comparably uproarious. This movie hits far harder than I expected.

As such, I would easily recommend The Art of Self-Defense. If you can get past the gripes I had, I can easily imagine this being among some people’s favorite films for the year. Riley Stearns certainly appears to be a director to keep our eyes on.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

Dora the Explorer popped up in that sweet spot where I was just a bit too old for it yet my youngest cousin was at just the right age. It became the bane of her visits alongside Blue’s Clues, yet it was the type of mockable show that offered some semblance of joy by playing along with the seemingly inane interaction. Adapting such a simplistic concept into a full-on adventure movie seemed laughable.

Yet here we are, and Nickelodeon has crafted a more engaging Tomb Raider movie than any of the actual adaptations. That is far from high praise, but Dora is largely successful at capturing the spirit of running through jungles and diving into temples. It doesn’t aim for much beyond being Indiana Jones for youngsters, but high art is far from a requirement.

What makes this such an effective adaptation of a rather minimal source is how effectively it brings Dora to life. Edutainment characters have a tendency to be overly bubbly to capture the attention of young children, and it’s easy to imagine a live action remake holding back. Instead, Isabela Moner plays Dora in the exact same manner. Contrasting this larger than life character with an otherwise mundane world really highlights her charm. Where many other works take familiar children’s characters and places them in more bleak circumstances, Dora rejects this notion and has its title character rescue the other characters from a boring existence.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold toys with these back-handed tropes but never embraces them. This film is completely aware of the absurdity of its existence and instead of trying to deconstruct itself, it runs wild. Dora’s spirit is presented as if it can never be broken. It’s a breath of fresh air when Disney’s live action films targeting a similar age group seem to openly reject the vibrancy of their origins. Dora is essentially a live action cartoon.

The film instead uses this toying for comedic purposes, and it can be rather charming in its humor. Early segments carry direct nods to Dora’s audience addresses and, though the movie slyly pulls back on breaking the fourth wall, later sequences have hints of edutainment as the teens try to solve puzzles. A lot of the humor runs off Dora experiencing a culture clash with her classmates – instead of trying to soften her characteristics, this film is molded around her traits.

This film certainly falters. The actual temple exploration is handled a bit too straight by the end. A bit of energy is lost as the classmates begin to go along with Dora. This is far from a great film, but it’s fun and competent enough to be called a good one – which is much higher praise than I expected to give.

There’s not much more to say without digging way too deeply into a standard children’s film. Even as someone who dreaded having to turn the station over from Cartoon Network to Nick Jr. when the cousins were visiting, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a charming work that not only captures the spirit of its origin but expands upon it. In a time where adaptations try to shed their more cartoonish aspects, Dora takes great pleasure in exploring how little the title character would fit in our world before letting her drag us into hers.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)

Adapting a classic children’s book series that is as dreaded as it is beloved, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has a challenge in combining otherwise disparate pieces of micro-fiction. The source material consists of stories that end nearly as soon as they begin with little real substance, some so simplistic they merely ask the reader to jump out at their friends as they reach the end. The real selling point of this adaptation is to see the ghoulish illustrations brought to life – at least on that front, this is a moderate success.

The framing story carries a bit more weight than anything from the source, though that’s not enough to carry a feature film. Characters are cartoonish and shallow while the need to shoe in as many scenarios as possible leaves the entire work disjointed. Teenager Stella Nicholls is drawn to the macabre, a natural fit as the protagonist of a slightly cheeky horror film. The rest of the cast is typical monster fodder, there more to pace the scares than to get the audience invested. The one exception is Ramon Morales, who offers some light commentary on race and politics in 1960s America. It’s enough to stand out in this slight crowd but nothing beyond that, and his depth really just clues the audience into the fact that he’s the one to focus on.

Despite its attempt to offer up an overarching tale, this film comes off as little beyond a series of loosely connected vignettes. My umbrage with this is the total randomness of each encounter. The film starts strong with Harold, a terrifying scarecrow that lives on its eventual victim’s farm. Harold has a presence well before he bares his teeth and his sequence feels intrinsically linked to its target.

Every creature that follows feels pulled out of a hat. It’s clear the filmmakers combed through the most memorable designs from the books without considering how to incorporate them in a meaningful way. These individual sequences border on scary purely on a stylistic level but, as part of a larger piece, I instead found myself distracted by the total lack of symbolism. There’s no finesse, no reason why this character gets pitted against that monster. Most of the stories from the source are similarly shallow, but that’s a lot more acceptable in short form. Here, we have to sit through meandering exposition to get to the good stuff.

And don’t get me wrong, there is good stuff. On both a stylistic and technical level, this film looks pretty good. Despite their inexplicable nature, these creatures possess some gnarly designs. The actual horror sequences carry some disorienting twists – I was rarely sure how any individual encounter would end. While it never reaches outright scary it perfectly achieves ‘spooky’ – this is the right target considering its origins.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is popcorn horror with a slightly better than average visual edge. It briefly flirts with camp but drops that atmosphere when the monsters arrive, causing a stark tonal inconsistency that the film never shakes. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine that the filmmakers hoped the bizarre creatures would lend a sense of surreal horror but they offer nothing to dig into. Not dark enough to be scary and not light enough to be humorous, Scary Stories is lukewarm and inoffensive but fun enough if you somehow didn’t get enough horror over this overstuffed summer.

2.5 Stars Out of 5

Review: Yesterday (2019)

Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is built around a fun topic for debate – if The Beatles never existed, could their songs still carry a social impact in the modern day? Unfortunately, the possibilities are squandered in the service of a generic and frustrating romantic comedy.

Himesh Patel is Jack Malik, a failing musician on the verge of quitting when he wakes up in a world where The Beatles popped out of existence. Though he briefly struggles with some of the best songs ever written now under his name, he quickly becomes one of the biggest stars in the world.

This turns out to be a problem because he’s madly in love with his former manager Ellie and is completely incapable of just saying it – you’d think since she is open about being in love since her childhood and he returns those feelings, he could simply promise to come back after the tour or even offer to move her out with him once he receives the loads of cash that seem imminent if he stays course. The romantic tension of this movie rides entirely on the two being incapable of saying the most basic things to each other, and the fact it isn’t resolved until the end feels entirely inorganic. All this does is cast Jack Malik as a socially inept buffoon.

The problem with a mainstream story that could question The Beatles’ legacy is that it has to play within certain rules. To feature a character playing their music requires legal agreements, which means the music is treated as an objective good. As Jack dots the walls of his room with Beatles’ song titles, one of the first we see is “Revolution 9” – even their generally agreed upon lesser tracks are spared any criticism.

A big issue at the heart of this film is convincing us that Jack is capable of reproducing these songs to nearly the same level. We’ve all heard lesser cover versions, and I’m sure one of them would pass as great without the original to compare. What stops me from believing the way it’s presented here is that Jack seems to largely work alone. How does he pull off their more elaborate work? The movie largely sticks to showing their simpler songs, and it was never clear if Jack himself was doing the same, realizing his own limits.

Even accepting that this movie is going to paint The Beatles as ‘objectively’ good, it could have at least explored Jack’s morals in this scenario. We teeter on the edge of interesting scenes when a few people ask how he came up with the songs and he simply can’t explain, but these moments are rarely pursued. Imagine how much more engaging this story could be if the public grew aware he was somehow plagiarizing seemingly non-existent songs. But again, this movie is a simple fluff piece with no deeper thoughts.

The use of Ed Sheeran in this movie seems rather out-of-touch. While he may be a megastar as far as sales go, his music lacks critical acclaim. Is this the closest equivalent they could think of in the modern scene? It again highlights a central flaw, the belief that this music can exist without the context of its time; there are, in fact, modern bands that do a phenomenal job capturing the sound of the Beatles. However, bands like Tame Impala rarely break through to the mainstream despite their adherence to this once classic sound. This is a film that correlates quality with an overly simplistic understanding of popularity. If The Beatles wrote the exact same songs yet never achieved as much success, would these same works somehow be lesser?

Luckily, Danny Boyle is still a stylish director. Musical sequences are full of energy, and it manages to be enjoyable despite all its shallow elements. That doesn’t add up to much, though, as I’d sooner recommend his other works.

Yesterday is a mediocre romantic comedy with Beatles as a stuffing. The leads are too annoying to sympathize with, despite their actors being fine enough. These performances are backed by an even more annoying Kate McKinnon and the groan-inducing presence of Ed Sheeran throughout.

The saddest bit? They get the severely underappreciated Michael Kiwanuka to cameo at the beginning. Could they not have graced us with anyone of his level instead of Sheeran?

2 Stars Out of 5