A Simple Favor (2018)

   Director: Paul Feig With: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, & Bashir Salahuddin. Release: Sep 14, 2018 R. 1 hr. 57 min.

Director: Paul Feig
With: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, & Bashir Salahuddin.
Release: Sep 14, 2018
R. 1 hr. 57 min.

 

“A Simple Favor” is a film that walks a tightrope between melodrama and parody. It’s a thriller told with a generous sense of humor, humor that is twisted and self-referential of the suburban mom caricature. That ever-so-perfect mom. The one who cuts the crust off the edges, remembers everyone allergies including the children who don’t even belong to her. That mom that volunteers for anything and everything, desperately pleading to be a part of every waking moment of her child’s life. That’s the kind of mother that we see in Stephanie (Anna Kendrick). She’s the mother who makes every other parent feel like crap as if they are not trying enough.

She’s a single mother too. Both her husband and half-brother died in a horrific car accident; so that mama work-ethic is due in part to her keeping busy, refusing to be reminded of the grief that she has somewhat buried beneath her desire for friendship. She even runs a popular vlog, where she shares recipes, parenting tips, and how-tos for the everyday single mom out there. This super-mom persona seemingly stifles her from developing any sense of meaningful connection with other adults though, both romantically and friendly. That is until she comes across Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a stunningly beautiful and alpha-like woman who seemingly allows no BS to slip by. She invites Stephanie over to her dazzling high-town house, just outside the hustling and bustling city of New York.

There, they exchange confessions. Drinking high-class martinis, and chit-chatting their stresses away. Least to say, Stephanie is star-struck by all of this. It’s not hard to see why either, Emily is that distinct kind of beautiful, striding around the screen in her red high heels and pin-stripe suits making sure all the attention is on her, like that of graceful painting brought to life. It’s the Manhattan dream to her, especially when she, like us, is swooped off her feet by Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding).

The handsome and smooth-talking charmer from “Crazy Rich Asians” graces us with his stunningly dapper presence once again, making all of us drool of course. Here he depicts a once-great writer, responsible for one New York Times Bestseller that has seemingly kept him from writing ever again. It’s also inherently enigmatic for Stephanie, both of these people seem to be piercingly contrasting to the stereotypical out of the city mom, they have threesomes, drink away their problems, and Emily is more unique than thought possible. She isn’t only stunning to look at, but her personality blows you back as well; swearing, and speaking directly to Stephanie. She’s intimate, encouraging, and seductive wrapped into one alluring package.

Some curious red flags go up while we are introduced to this gorgeous woman though, freaking out when her picture is taken, seemingly telling stories like that of a pathological liar, and when she suddenly disappears, it becomes more and more apparent that she was not an average person. As a former artist who used to paint her describes “I’ve never seen such a beautiful girl wanna be so invisible.” It becomes a mystery that isn’t worth solving. The breadcrumbs lead to conclusions seen from a mile away. It doesn’t take much to figure out where everything is going; it's the opposite of something like “Gone Girl." Never surprising us, but making it fun to participate in the hunt for the truth.

It’s what gives “A Simple Favor” this smooth edge to its classy grandeur, shifting fluidly from a bad and predictable mystery to an entertaining dramatic comedy with the charismatic woman taking charge of the story. It’s one of Paul Feig's best talents as a director. The acclaimed mind from films such as “Bridesmaids” and “Heat,” showcases his innate ability to work with strong and engaging woman once again. He gives them space to work, rightfully allowing them to take center stage, to be apart of the creation. There’s room for him to build off of, room for him to mold things, room for him to bounce off their spontaneity, improvisation, and behavior.

The plot isn’t intricate; it’s channeling the comedies or spy capers of the 60s as made apparent in the stylization of the opening credits. Designed funkily, single color stilettos and purses moving along in these angular cut-out shapes and frames that collage together in French-pop sort of way. Establishing that high-town mood from the get-go, relying on songs from artists like Serge Gainsbourg and Jean-Paul Keller to paint something ever-so similar to Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” He speeds past the twists and turns, running over them like the speed bumps that they could become, a wise but noticeable maneuver from Feig. He knows the screenplay can be shredded if given too much leeway, so he remains reserved, relying on style and charm rather than substance and drama.

That’s not to say there are no radiating messages made by the screenwriter (Jessica Sharzer adapting from Darcey Bell’s novel). Emily points out wrongful female habits, like that of the constant insistence on apologizing for things that aren't their fault, or confusing beauty for strength. But the super-mom turned feminine detective aspects are over-blown; never ridiculed or pointed out for their innate ridiculousness, a missed opportunity.

Besides those kinds of missteps, the actresses are on fire here. Kendrick funnels that shy, awkward, and quirky happy-go-lucky attitude that makes her so effortless to yearn for, to resonate with. She executes that kind of character with ease, but she takes it up a notch from her performances in the “Pitch Perfect” films, able to introduce a more dagger edge to that plucky attitude. Lively is no different. She inhabits that ruthless yet charming persona, able to become sexy and detached, intimidating and provocative, like that of a thorned rose.

They are the gas that fuels the car, keeping this locomotive of charm going down the tracks which inevitably is where “A Simple Favor” nestles itself. It doesn’t try to outdo good mystery films like that of “Gone Girl,” nor does it try to match the classy dramatic crime films of the 60s like “Murder on the Orient Express.” It finds it's lane and drives the speed limit, coloring inside the lines. The best way to decide if a film is good or not as a critic, at least for me, is whether or not you had a good time, and I can answer that question with affirmation. It’s not going to be a prominent favorite for female lead filmmaking when the year reaches its end, nor does it do anything shocking and surprising. “A Simple Favor” merely entertains and satisfies, and that’s all you can ask for sometimes.

Destination Wedding (2018)

   Director: Victor Levin  With: Keanu Reeve & Winona Ryder.  Release: Aug 31, 2018 R. 1 hr. 26 min.

Director: Victor Levin
With: Keanu Reeve & Winona Ryder. 
Release: Aug 31, 2018
R. 1 hr. 26 min.

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Many astute filmgoers will live by the saying “less is more.” It’s typically a wise, but common, critique. In Victor Levin’s “Destination Wedding” it's quite the opposite, a film that takes that ever-so-common criticism to its peak by literally using the least amount of filmatic utensils as possible. The film is basic, but the lack of effort given to its inner workings is what makes it tiresome. It’s comparable to watching paint dry, only saving itself through the charisma of its star power. Something that is so essential to the film, that it maintains any sense of compelling essence that, if not there, the film would become the perfect lullaby for a mid-afternoon nap. 

“Destination Wedding” is a title that gives away the story, mostly because the story is enormously hollow. Lindsay (Winona Ryder) and Frank (Keanu Reeves) meet at an airport, waiting for an eight-seat plan to arrive and transport them to California wine country for a wedding, hints the name: “Destination Wedding.” They bicker at the airport, discussing erratically ridiculously meta topics such as the death of chivalry and the enactment of everyday pessimism that steals the organical optimism we maintain as an evolved species. They don’t stop there, they quibble and intellectually spar about their wits, hoping that the other will either sacrifice footing or slowly realize their inferiority. 

It’s a bit absurd to expect this style of conversational exchange to occur between strangers, I personally have to dig this sort of mental sparring out of my closest friends, let alone mere acquaintances. You would expect Cupid and his arrow to be hovering over them like that of a helicopter parent, but that’s one of the few subtle maneuvers of subversions that Levin exceeds at accomplishing. This story does end how you would quickly predict, but Levin extends it as far as he can until he arrives upon checking off the boxes of a romantic comedies' audience fulfillments. 

He does this through the snarky combating of dialogue between Reeves and Ryder, neither of whom are to blame for the humdrum tone of the film. They enact their brilliance and skills at will, providing performances that feel effortlessly captivating, you know they're having fun which forces a grin out of your mundane viewing experience. 

The title, while literal, is a bit subverting as well, camouflaging itself as an expectational romantic comedy that in all reality involves little romance and a style of comedy unfamiliar to the genre. It’s not on the nose and simple-minded, rather snarky and quick-witted. It’s twist and a bit hyper-verbal, but it never invokes enough charm to become more than that of a giggle or two to break you out of your hypnotization of fatigue. 

The treatment of the wedding itself is the final cornerstone of whispering praise; it's authentically adept. Depicting the usual boredom that comes from attending a wedding that you were neither excited for and never intended to be invited to. Reeves and Ryder sit in the back of the room at all times, keeping to themselves. Sharing life stories, meta discussions of perspective, and bashing everyone and anyone who pretends to be enjoying themselves. 

Exchanging happy-go-lucky charm for sarcastic crooked humor isn’t exactly a fair trade, but it's the only thing that Reeves and Ryder are working with, besides each other. They rely on no-one else it seems, seeing as there are no creative fingerprints to be found from Levin. His dialogue can become both pompous and agitating, watching two grown adults complain about how life isn’t fair isn’t exactly the building blocks of a classic. 

He relies far too much upon his stars who, despite burdening the load with a smile, struggle to maintain the jig for long enough that it becomes believable. They are not to blame, but they are not absent of criticism. Keanu relies far too much on the inhabitation of “John Wick,” both in his tone of delivery and embodiment. It’s like watching the masterful assassin go on a vacation. Ryder is elegant, but a bit too unenthusiastic at times, her line delivery can become void of emotion as if she has forgotten what the point of the film is, and I can’t blame her.

They are the entire movie, and while a two-lead drama has been accomplished before, it was done so by far talented filmmakers. While Reeves and Ryder are stumbling along the way, their work is embodied with charm and chemistry, never becoming the problem or a symptom of this bland potato of a movie. 

Writer/director Victor Levin shows his first-hand experience of these so-called cutesy wedding, the monotonous familiarity of them all, the lack of uniqueness or specialness they muster. But he never rectifies that emotion through the tools given to him, you can feel him trying, hearing the wheels spin out of control, but it's all a blurred vision. It’s empty, like that of the cups of coffee you’ll have to drink just get through it. 
 

To All The Boys I've Loved Before (2018)

   Director: Susan Johnson  With: Lana Condor, Janel Parrish, Noah Centineo, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Trezzo Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard, & John Corbett. Release: Aug 17, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 39 min.

Director: Susan Johnson
With: Lana Condor, Janel Parrish, Noah Centineo, Anna Cathcart, Andrew Bachelor, Trezzo Mahoro, Madeleine Arthur, Emilija Baranac, Israel Broussard, & John Corbett.
Release: Aug 17, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 39 min.

 

“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” centers itself around the character of Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a young Asian-American teenager who finds herself becoming the biggest sister of the household with her older sister leaving for college in Scotland of all places. She’s shy, introverted, but fairly charming, so why doesn't she find herself amongst friends or, better yet, amongst boys? (Not that girls do anything else, but talk about boys, obviously) She’s afraid of falling love. Beyond that, she’s afraid of letting herself become vulnerable to someone else’s charms, letting them swoop into her life, and possibly, eventually, crushing her world. It stems from the loss of her mother at a young age, to combat this fear she writes love letters to those she has crushes on, even addressing them. She never sends them out, of course, doesn’t even plan to. One of them though is addressed to her big sister’s recently dumped boyfriend, Josh (Israel Broussard), an obvious big “no no.” When her big sister leaves, and her younger sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), believes Lara Jean (Lana Condor) to be lonely, she sends the letters out without her knowing about it.  

Soon, one of these boys, Peter (Noah Centineo), approaches Lara Jean (Lana Condor) and breaks the news to her that he can’t be with her because of his history with Gen (Emilija Baranac), someone who used to be Lara’s (Lana Condor) friend in middle school. She freaks out when she sees Josh (Israel Broussard) approaching with his letter, and kisses Peter (Noah Centineo). Later, they find themselves meeting up at her favorite cafe, and Peter (Noah Centineo) hatches this idea that they should pretend to be together to gain the attention of his ex so they can, inevitably, get back together. 

What does Lara Jean (Lana Condor) get out of it? Attention, the eyes of the school noticing her instead of ignoring her. At least I presume that’s her reasoning, it’s not made clear exactly, but the lies are made to be real, and it soon becomes a question of if they are faking it or are they beginning to fall for one another?

It’s not exactly an original story, with films like “The Proposal” and “Just Go With It” carrying out a fairly similar plot, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” can be seen as a product of its genre. Merely regurgitating the same story, but with a gender swap, a dropping in age, and a pinch of diversity. How that diversity is treated isn’t exactly for the better, it’s arguably stigmatized. Being treated as a young Asian girl falling for all the white men in her life, except for Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro) who is the one black guy to be found, but he’s gay so what does it matter, I guess. It’s not exactly racist, saying the ways it treats race is off-putting would be a better way of saying it. Oxford Kondō has a great article over it called “‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ Has Creepy Racial Things Going On,” I’ll leave the link for that here: (https://planamag.com/to-all-the-boys-i-ve-loved-before-has-creepy-racial-things-going-on-ad513e4dd470)

“To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” has a lot of good things in it that makes it stand out from the crowd of romantic comedies, one of them is not the screenwriting. Written by Sofia Alvarez, adapted from Jenny Han’s YA novel, “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” isn’t nuanced, but more than that, it's a bit dull. The film begins with an introduction to our young protagonist fantasies of romance, she reads these Fabio-like stories, meeting her crush in the “field of desire.” (I can’t believe I just wrote that) She sees romance in this frame, like that of a cheesy-fable of sorts, why? It doesn’t make her intriguing, rather empty. She’s a stereotypical teenager, which doesn’t make for great character investment. The story doesn’t take the time for that sort of thing though. It races straight towards the highlights of all rom-coms. The cutesy moments, the montages, and the inevitable break-up which leads to the heartening confessions of love. 

All of the tropes and things of that sort are not just sprinkled on top of the story, rather brushed over whatever story there is to be had. Not to mention that motivations are never made clear, why does Lara Jean (Lana Conor) choose to go along with Peter’s (Noah Centineo) plan? Is it for popularity? Is it to make Josh (Israel Broussard) jealous? Why does she do it? It’s the kind of question that if left unanswered like it is in Sofia Alvarez’s screenplay, it’s hard to accept or go along with anything else happening on-screen. 

The good things to be found “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” have to deal with the things on-camera, specifically Lana Conor who nails the quirky and innocent teenage girl, merely trying to figure out how to be both who she used to be and who she wants to be. Struggling to both mature into a new woman, while remaining true to herself. It’s a character that is seen as cliche, therefore easy, but it's far more difficult to sculpt something as double-sided as this, Lana Conor accomplishes this actorial feat with ease. 

The surrounding cast is quite charming and enjoyable as well, but the screenplay provided to them gives them little room to grow. The portrayal of these characters is a different story, as Susan Johnson works closely with veteran cinematographer Michael Fimognari, framing these characters and their interactions with a silhouette and portrait style of design. Time stops for them, freezing and giving these characters a pause in artistry. Rarely does this genre provide such a visual treat, Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” accomplished the same feat earlier this year, and just like that film, much of my praise goes out to both Susan Johnson and Michael Fimognari who are exceptional in their compositioning of such a bland and re-hashed story. 

Some of us can overlook the cliches because we’re enjoying the ride so much that we don’t notice the familiar beats and bumps. I do that with my fair share of genres and blockbusters, I am sure you’ve noticed, but this is a genre where I wish to see something new. I know it's far more arduous than writing film and television reviews, but there has to be some wasted talent out there. 

This film has female voices behind it, and I love that, and it's painted with diversity, and I love that too, but I also love good stories. "To All The Boys I've Loved Before" may be constructed by new hands and new voices, but it never becomes something of its own. Blending in instead of standing out, I guess, in that way, it remains true to the teenage drama. 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018)

   Director: Desiree Akhavan  With: Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, & Quinn Shephard. Release: Jul 18, 2018 NR. 1 hr. 31 min.

Director: Desiree Akhavan
With: Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, & Quinn Shephard.
Release: Jul 18, 2018
NR. 1 hr. 31 min.

 

Great movies can present themselves in diverse styles. It can be a journey that transports you into a different world or something that is instantly relatable because you’ve seen or met someone that the person on screen represents. Another way these films reveal themselves is intimately, offering themselves as a tale that reflects your reality or a former life you once had. Desiree Akhavan’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is that kind of film for me, a familiar and reminiscent journey through the trial and tribulations that I and my sexuality endured over time. Specifically, the hurdles implemented by Christianity, forbidding the same sex altercations and defining them as sins against God. The same confrontation presents itself to our young, self-assuring, lesbian protagonist Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is both forward thinking and an inevitable product of her era. 

Co-written by Cecilia Frugiuele and Desiree Akhavan and adapted from Emily Danforth’s best-selling 2012 YA novel, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is the emotionally abusing story of a young, orphaned, small-town Pennsylvanian, being forcefully sent to a Christian gay conversion therapy camp. Armed with nothing but her sense of identity, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) confronts an uphill battle that distorts her to something of an abomination, her homosexuality or SSA (same-sex-attraction) being a symptom of a more internal stigma hanging on her heart. She seemingly battles back against the odds, refusing to let these self-appointed “counselors” tell her who she is and who she should be. 

She’s stubbornly strong-willed, displaying this empowering self-confidence from the get-go, being unafraid to go for what she wants, like that of Coley Taylor (Quinn Shephard), a girl from her bible study. She’s someone that Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) describes as a “special kind of person,” able to make you feel wanted no matter who you are or where you're from, but she’s also the girl that gets her sent to gay prison. They are passionately rambunctious with their sexuality, making out and sexually exchanging their affinity for one another, until prom night rolls around and they are caught in the backseat of a car, sealing Cameron’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) fate with a sentence to a facility known as “God’s Promise.” 

There, Cameron (Chloe Grace Moretz) becomes a disciple of the “camp,” joining fellow male and female disciples in trying to cure their “shameful” desires for SSA. At least that’s what the leaders of the residence teach, that these children of God are merely experiencing gender confusion, asking them to see themselves as an iceberg in which their SSA is the obvious sin residing above water, but the building blocks of their sins lie beneath the surface, being the cause for the infection. 

Who are these self-appointed experts? One of them is Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle), a quietly, terrifying, and, for lack of a better term, bitch of a woman. Treating each of her disciples as guinea pigs for a therapeutic process deemed by the American Psychiatric Association as a process with “serious design flaws.” Something worth mentioning though, this process was not outlawed by the organization until 2009, barely a decade ago. 

Nonetheless, this psychotic zealot carries her visibly oppressed, “ex-gay” brother Reverend Rick (John Gallagher Jr.) as an example of the process's reward, evidence of its success. They spout off verses and life lessons, even going as far as to preach that “there is no such thing as homosexuality,” never giving the term an ounce of credibility or integrity. It’s this silent emotional abuse that slowly pours itself down Cameron’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) throat, building and flooding her beliefs and her confident self-assurance in telling right from wrong. Forcing her to antiquate herself with two fellow disciples socially, Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane; a made up name presumably) and Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck), a two-soul native American who was born with both a male and woman soul, so she can remain firmly planted in her self-appointed identity. 

The trio manifest an unbreakable bond and inevitably band together to survive the torment placed upon them by these so-called “leaders” and their shameful parents. The film reminds me of Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society” in that way, showcasing how a parent’s reprehensible action is refuted as them acting in the child’s “best interests.” When in reality, they are struggling to mask their shame for their son or daughter’s beliefs or actions, unable to cope with their “sinful” nature. 

Something that all of us, LGBTQ members, have seemingly encountered on more than one occasion, and a presumable strife that director Desiree Akhavan has faced before because she executes these disputes of ideologies with an assertive touch. She knows what she’s talking about and seemingly presents itself as a former experience, something she frames with an affectionate taste, wisely choosing to stray away from the doom and gloomy story of torture and misery; rather deciding to steer towards a “it gets better” tale of salvation, that we will, inevitably, move on from these times of oppression. That the war on love will fade to whims and whispers of disapproval, being overwhelmed by our passion for inclusion and expression. 

It’s, ironically, a spiritual experience. Speaking directly to the soul of any gay, bi, or trans member of the rainbow flag. Each performance feels that way too, inherently lived in and purposefully designed for the actor or actress depicting the character. Chloe Grace Moretz is the definite standout of course, with a terrifically ever-changing performance that ranges from emotion to emotion, never settling down for something simple and straightforward. The young star breaks out of that teenage melodrama stigma and becomes a woman, a performance that is worth watching and cheering for, like that of Sasha Lane who exhumes confidence and Forrest Goodluck who silently charms and generates heart-wrenching empathy. 

Someone you won’t and shouldn’t cheer for is Jennifer Ehle whose performance is counterfeiting, depicting that snobbish falsified supervisor that boils your blood. It’s a well-executed performance that was undoubtedly followed by apologies and hugs after each take of portraying this vengeful and irrational witch. Her co-star John Gallagher Jr. offers a fascinating depiction on the other hand as her “cured” little brother, producing a scene in which he is sent to arrange one on one conversations with the disciples after one of them commits self-harm when his dad refuses to let him come back home because of his feminine weakness. The "formerly gay" pastor self-conflicts, presenting a subtle but ever-so significant reminder of how our oppressors are the remnants of someone else’s oppression, a homophobic builts by homophobia. 

These moments are where Desiree Akhavan pushes herself in the running for best screenwriter and director of the year thus far, able to insert microscopically eminent themes with casual precision. She’s gutsy and cautious as a filmmaker, knowing when to push and when to pull back, but the only trivial fault I can find throughout her second outing as a director is the inability to provide that extra oomph. I can’t describe it, but something feels as if it's missing from every essential avenue of the filmmaking process, as if everything is great, but could be a hair better. The acting, the directing, the screenwriting; all of it needs that nudge of something. I know it may not be a sensical complaint, and I can’t place my finger on it yet, but there is a tiny piece missing from this puzzle of elevation. 

I may be nitpicking for all I know, but “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” is best defined as a tragically optimistic gesture that feels akin to John Hughes. Letting us venture down a path with a teenager who finds herself in desperate need of companionship, for accompaniment, for someone to tell her that they love her just the way she is. It’s a serene experience that can be described as both sanguine and emotionally crumbling. Because while it is ever so heartrending to watch her overcome these things, the story of Cameron Post is far from dated. 

The 90’s may feel like a distant memory, but the 2018 Grand Jury Prize recipient of the Sundance Film Festival is not a hazy recollection or tragic reciting of yesterday’s America. With conversion therapy still being inexplicably legal in 41 states, Akhavan’s film is not only telling a story worth being heard, but she’s also telling a story that is urgently necessary for an America that wishes to call itself a homeland for all. 

"When all Americans are treated as equal, no matter who they are or whom they love, we are all more free."--Barack Obama

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

   Director: Jon M. Chu With: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, & Jing Lusi. Release: Aug 15, 2018 PG-13. 2 hr. 

Director: Jon M. Chu
With: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, & Jing Lusi.
Release: Aug 15, 2018
PG-13. 2 hr. 

 

It had been 25 years since a film had an entire ensemble of Asian-Americans as it's cast, let alone an Asian-American filmmaker. Wayne Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club” was that last piece of absolute representation, an indie-darling of a film that focused on the relationship between Asian mothers and their American born daughters. It’s no coincidence that twenty-five years later, almost exactly to the date, Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” has been released into American theaters, framing a similar story to screenwriter Amy Tan’s novella. Being a novel adaptation itself, “Crazy Rich Asians” co-screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim adapt Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling story. A tale about a native new-yorker, Rachel (Constance Wu), getting lost in the depths of undiscovered secrets, kept from her by the man she loves. She discovers these secrets when she travels with him to meet his family in Singapore. 

She discovers his wealth, his family history, the in’s and out’s of an unfamiliar culture, and the struggle of gaining approval from a traditional-devout mother, one who refuses to believe that Rachel (Constance Wu) could ever be good enough for her son. Amongst the rom-com formula, you may also discover subplots that focus on the inherent conflicts that wealth can create, as well as the fish out of water cliche of our desperate lover attempting to wear shoes that don’t belong to her, pretending to be someone she’s not. It’s a story that is inherently familiar to American audiences, but the film provides a cultural flair that is unmistakably un-American. How great is that? 

This isn’t a criticism of why America is awful. I’m not going to break out into “This is America” raps and grunts, and “Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t do that either, it merely celebrates its heritage and its makeup. It transports us to a corner of the world that is rarely shown in this grand of fashion. Jon M. Chu and talented cinematographer Vanja Cernjul ( “The Deuce” & “Marco Polo”) do just that though, providing a natural flow and bloom of Singapore that is conducted with a taste of wisdom. 

They masterfully stage these majestically transformative silhouettes of the beautiful terrain and ecology of a place that is hardly treated with such prestige. The glimpses of this culture that we get to see are nothing to shake a stick at either. It’s where Jon M. Chu earns his pinstripes as a director to be reckoned with, taking us on a private tour through the beat-up streets of Singapore, where we learn that the street vendor food is to die for, and we get to see the grandeur of Asian American tradition and style, peeking its head out with confidence. 

Its chin is held high, looking down upon us, as if to remind us of the power and the beauty that culture, such as this one, can possess. It’s a marvelous journey through a society that is rarely treated with such honesty and brilliance, usually focusing on the Samurai’s and NInja’s of its past, forgetting that this world has more to offer than mere swords and throwing stars. It’s a visual marvel, one that can take your breath away at times, as well as riddle you with goosebumps as the wedding ceremony that takes place in this film is perhaps one of the most poetically stunning sequences of imagery I’ve seen this year. 

It all serves up to something spectacular, but the story is unable to match the opulence of diversity seen on the silver screen, it crumbles underneath a reliance on cliches and tropes. Bordered by the tiresome formula of a rom-com, Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s adaptation feels vapid, broadly stroked, but with little heart. Though it has its fair share of surprises, using our assumptions against us like that of the screenwriters behind “The MEG,” it never provides a voice worth listening too, rarely stepping out and shamelessly expressing itself. 

They are sprinkles here and there, moments where the defiance and the unbashful pride swell up, and we get to feel the fervency lying behind the closed doors of the screenwriting, but it’s few and far between. Unlike “Black Panther,” a similar empowering body of work, “Crazy Rich Asians” suffers from trying to be too American at times, despite the world building and the landscapes of the scenery feeling inherently opposite. The story is something you would see from a Reese Witherspoon movie, which is not a compliment. 

The performances are notable though, Constance Wu is strikingly charming, providing a solid outing that only suffers from a lack of investing character writing. Awkwafina is given her time in the spotlight, being the comic relief of the film, just overstaying her welcome on a few occasions. Her partner in crime is Nico Santos who depicts a presumably gay fashion designer (because gay guys can only be fashion designers apparently), and they provide some genuine chemistry, both with each other and Constance. 

The stand out of the film, undoubtedly, is Henry Golding. He is effortlessly charming throughout this entire runtime, never feeling out of place, or out of character. He is perfection in this role as the suave, hunk, prince-charming, bachelor of Singapore. He’s funny, earnest, and kindling an organically resonating relationship with Constance, one that is both believable and tangible. His disapproving mother, phenomenally depicted by Michelle Yeoh, is a great character as well, one that doesn’t feel out of bounds either. 

These are the twists of expectations that are used against us, superbly. There is no secret conspiracy, no big melt-down moment, no-corny material, it all makes sense. It just adds up to something that isn’t quite as memorable as the tour of culture given to us by Justin M. Chu. He has a knack for visuality, one that I hope is put to good use throughout his career, which is what we can only wish will be the result of a film like this one. 

Opportunity. More chances to invite us into a new world that is visible and tangible, merely hidden from our American eyes. It’s a trait of filmmaking that can invigorate an experience with an intangible spirit, like that of the same beaming, elation of energy I felt when walking out of “Crazy Rich Asians.” 

Though the narrative is bogged down, broken down into something more readily digestible for American audiences, the scope of this film is vast, grand, and spectacularly diverse from expectations. It’s an all-access pass into a washed away culture, one that is radiating with hidden potential. 
 

Disobedience (2018)

   Director: Sebastián Lelio With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Allan Corduner, & Nicholas Woodeson.  Release: Apr 27, 2018 R. 1 hr. 54 min. 

Director: Sebastián Lelio
With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Allan Corduner, & Nicholas Woodeson. 
Release: Apr 27, 2018
R. 1 hr. 54 min. 

2_4 stars.png
 

One of the bad things about being a movie lover who resides in a southern city is the lack of movies that come my way; sometimes it can take a few extra months before I can see and study a film that everyone else is raving about. Sebastián Lelio’s “Disobedience” is a film that was one of great anticipation for myself, as a fan of his last film, the Oscar-winning “Fantastic Woman.” The recipient of best foreign language film, “Fantastic Woman” was a provocative and visually stunning entree to the year of 2017, and “Disobedience” is a so-so follow-up. 

His first English-language story, based on Naomi Alderman's novel,  “Disobedience” centers around Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), a New York-based photographer, and the daughter of a recently deceased rabbi who breathed his last breath during his last sermon. As a denounced daughter of the Rabbi, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) was someone who found herself as a stranger returning home to a community that doesn’t share the same individuality she does. She sees old faces, faces that immediately begin to judge her lack of fulfillment as someone unmarried, unproud of her Jewish heritage, and unconforming to a lifestyle that she abandoned. 

The question remains though, why did she leave the community? The answer comes to fruition when we begin to see her interact with her ex-best friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who was dubbed as the spiritual son of her father. He was the boy groomed for the divine throne left by this infamous Rabbi, and someone who was recently married. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) picks on her step-brother for marrying a Jewish woman until she learns the identity of this mystery wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), who shares an intimate history with Ronit (Rachel Weisz). 

As a woman forced to become someone that she’s not, Esti (Rachel McAdams) seems deeply saddened, pretending to fit in with the community she was born into, ashamed of her sexuality. Reminiscent of Xavier Dolan’s “It's Only the End of the World,” the film begins to divulge into an examination of the inherent intolerance of religion. It’s something up for discussion, as when you have the belief that no other worldview is right other than yours, it tends to produce barriers. 

The barriers constructed by Sebastián Lelio and his co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz never attempt to paint a single individual as an antagonist, the film frames society, and even more so religion as the one at fault, not the followers themselves. It’s a refreshing framing of an imprisoned love story that would point the finger at the man or the pastor, instead, “Disobedience” strays away from expectations and provides a tale that, like “Call Me By Your Name,” blends it's melancholy with an unidentifiable villain. Unlike Luca’s masterpiece though, “Disobedience” doesn’t provide a reveling experience as much as it does a dramatic trial of two women’s silenced affair. 

You would expect Lelio and Lenkiewicz’s story to narrow in upon the affair, or the woman who’s risking everything to feel whole again, feeling young again, as The Cure’s “Lovesong” suggests, but the film centers itself around Ronit (Rachel Weisz) who becomes more of an observer than a character. Watching these events take place before, growing quieter and quieter as they continue, never speaking out against them, rarely giving us time with Esti (Rachel McAdams). She’s someone shackled by a community, a husband, a faith that refuses to see her as who she is, more as a surrogate for children. Why that emotional struggle doesn't become the focus still seems perplexing. 

Lelio and Lenkiewicz narrative is one absent of that emotional heft because of that choice of fixation I think; it was needed to make this movie something more than an essential examination of the tribulations that LGBTQ members still face in both religious communities and society in general. That’s not to say the film doesn’t provide anything worth investing though; it can become enraging to watch a group belittling others for a difference of viewpoints or a husband forcing his wife to be someone she’s not. Watching her deal with the process is disconcerting and resonating, seeming as if she’s become divorced from her individuality, with only Ronit (Rachel Weisz) being able to remind her of who she once was. 

The performances are essential in making this story work, and Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are well aware of that fact, never straying away from the challenge. The story doesn’t lay everything out for us, so those first moments of interaction have to feel organic and natural as if these two women are no strangers to one another. McAdams and Weisz achieve that level of chemistry in a multitude of ways, hefting a duo of performances that ache the heart as much as they uplift it. Two women standing together in confidence is something special to watch, but Alessandro Nivola is no slouch either. Depicting the husband and Rabbi successor, Alessandro Nivola is subdued near the beginning of the film but slowly begins to pack on the layers of emotion, leading to a speech near the end of the film that serves as one of it's best moments. 

The colors and framing of this film is subdued as well, cinematographer Danny Cohen furnishes a bleak and dour look to the film. Filled with greys, storm clouds, dim-lighting, and low contrasting visuality that seems in the vein of a black and white photo, something lacking the same punch of energy needed to make the screenwriting feel more than adequate. 

Maybe it should have gone further than just examining this story like an observer; perhaps it should've provided more interaction between the women, it needed more of something. Maybe the story centered around the wrong person as I suggested, maybe it was something else. Regardless of whichever side of the coin I decide to land on, it's a film that suffers because of that vacancy of emotional heft, never branching off as more than a quiet rebellion of everyday circumstances produced by such behavior. Perhaps it should have been more daring, more risky, more outright with its individuality. Maybe it was silenced by its religious undertones. 

“Disobedience” is Sebastián Lelio’s third feature film in a row to discuss the hardships of womanhood. The lack of voice, the lack of identity, the lack of notice given to them. He’s become somewhat of a moral authority as a filmmaker, why does he stray away here? 

I can’t say that “Disobedience” was worth the wait, there is something here worth watching, something special, I just feel that most of it was left unsaid. Next time, shout it out. 

Set It Up (2018)

   Director: Claire Scanlon  With: Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Pete Davidson, Meredith Hagner, Jon Rudnitsky, & Tituss Burgess.  Release: Jun 15, 2018 TV-14. 1 hr. 45 min.

Director: Claire Scanlon
With: Zoey Deutch, Glen Powell, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Pete Davidson, Meredith Hagner, Jon Rudnitsky, & Tituss Burgess. 
Release: Jun 15, 2018
TV-14. 1 hr. 45 min.

 

Romantic comedies are a hit and miss kind of genre, either they suffer from a multitude of cliches or they have such a unique voice that these films stand out with a fragrance of seamless rewatchability. Claire Scanlon’s “Set It Up” is a film that falls somewhere in the middle, but it definitely favors the latter. It’s a female written and directed film that seems to handle this genre with flair and charisma that seems to stray away from this genre. 

Taking place in the upper echelon of New York city, “Set It Up,” written by Katie Silberman, introduces us to the crappy job of assisting someone who holds the keys to your future, specifically two assistants. Harper (Zoey Deutch) who assists to a big-time sports journalist, Kirsten (Lucy Lou), and she’s an aspiring writer who spends her hours supporting and slaving away for this boss woman, while simultaneously forgetting actually to write something. 

Her co-star, Charlie (Glen Powell), is a helper for a big-time business mogul, Rick (Taye Diggs), and he wants to get that big promotion so he can afford those expensive seats that he usually saves for his boss. After a night in which these two aides struggle to agree on how to satisfy their bosses appetites, they come together and begin to share each other's struggles. Participating in this therapeutic exchange of the frustrations they feel for slaving away for two people who seem to care less whether they are happy or sad or anything other than on-time and quiet. 

They soon hatch up this plan to force these two to begin dating and getting it on, so that they can start to get a little time to themselves. Harper (Zoey Deutch) takes this time to try and kindle and mingle with other singles, and Charle (Glen Powell) decides to begin hanging out more with his model girlfriend, Suze (Joan Smalls). His gay roommate, depicted by SNL’s Pete Davidson, clearly sees this lack of self-confidence and identity that Charlie (Glen Powell) has, and it becomes a pivotal character arc for this man. 

Harper (Zoey Deutch) is in the same pickle of having that same lack of belief to become a writer, which as someone who shares that struggle of writer’s block, I get that anxiety of not feeling good enough. Continually stressing about re-writes and trying new writing styles so if someone looking to hire writers reads my work, they might decide to give me some money for it. 

These two people begin to discover the relationship their constructing is not as palpable as the one manifesting before them, and then the film provides those cliche lines for love and yadda yadda yadda. We’ve seen these tropes and plot structures before, and Katie Silberman seems to have forgotten this. She has provided a relative amount of nuance and unique voice to a film that soon turns into the stereotypical romantic comedy that we’ve seen more than a thousand times. I guess these things still have to be here so that we know that we’re watching a romantic comedy, but it also feels as if she’s sacrificing footing for a killing stroke in a way. 

Delivering a screenplay that still fits in the tight little check boxes of the genre, but also shares her voice. You can hear that tone of someone writing what they mean, from the standpoint of sharing what they believe. Painting a diverse cast that is usually predominantly white and straight like that of “The Proposal,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Love Actually,” and I could go on. 

“Set It Up” is not one of those films, introducing a proud gay character that provides the movies best jokes, and two bosses that are diverse as well. One of whom is an independent, strong, and confident woman and the other is a successful black man that stands in a position of power. It’s subliminally executed though, never noticing it until someone else points it out or until you begin to read someone else's review, like I did, before writing this one. Visually, Claire Scanlon’s direction doesn’t stand out in that area, rarely being more than a carry and film kind of situation. She does provide that upbeat, hipsterish, New York city style that delivers that authenticity that blends in with the realistically diverse depiction of a metropolitan area. 

The film doesn’t deliver much more than that though, a film that has a lot of surprising uses of foul language, gender influenced debates and a considerable amount of witty dialogue. The two stars share remarkable chemistry and provide some great banter between each other that feels palpable and believable. Seeing them interact with two diverse higher-ups such as a Chinese-American woman and an African American male, knowing they struggled for their earnings and opportunity, just as much as these two white assistants. 

It’s a film that paints a diverse picture, uses that picture to formulate a few subliminal socio-political comments, but never actually delivers anything worth mentioning. It’s a film that cuts off the crust of its bread, fearing to offend instead of standing their ground, Katie Silberman and Claire Scanlon provides a film that is surprisingly better than most but never takes that final step to make something worth taking notice. It’s like a teenager being afraid to speak up about something they know to be true; you just have to breathe and embrace the anxiety. 

We watch Harper (Zoey Deutch) deal with a similar problem; she's advised to write something awful to correct and tinker over to make it great, the same logic could be applied to the screenplay from Katie Silberman. You have to write that script that takes off a bit more than it can chew so that you can learn how to deliver your message properly. Silberman is almost there, but she needs to embrace that rebellious side that she displays so passionately in this authentically colored romcom. 

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

   Director: Brett Haley  With: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, & Toni Collette. Release: Jun 8, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 37 min.

Director: Brett Haley
With: Nick Offerman, Kiersey Clemons, Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Blythe Danner, & Toni Collette.
Release: Jun 8, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 37 min.

 

In the midst of watching Brett Haley’s (“The Hero” & “I’ll See You in My Dreams”) “Hearts Beat Loud,” I began to take note of the film’s modesty. It never introduces or takes a stance on some sort of social commentary or political discourse, which is remarkably refreshing. While I enjoy a filmmaker standing by his beliefs and embracing that controversial edge of social topics, it’s nice to see a movie that allows us to relax and enjoy a film that charms with pure charisma. 

It never stops to take a stance on anything, which is something it could’ve done with that of its star being in a same-sex relationship with a girl named Rose (Sasha Lane). The film could’ve stopped to defend that relationship, which wouldn’t have bothered me, obviously, but it would have been entirely unnecessary. The story doesn’t need that added bit of socio-political debate; in fact, it feels so natural to the story that it never feels as if it's being argued for, just merely occurring within our narrative. 

Written by Brett Haley and Marc Basch, “Hearts Beat Loud” focuses on a relationship between a father and daughter. Specifically, that much-awaited moment when the young one goes off to college and the dad has to learn how to live without her being home; the whole situation is even harder when discovering the mom passed away in a cyclist accident twelve years before our story occurs. 

Residing in the hipsterish village of Red Hook in Brooklyn, Frank (Nick Offerman) is a records shop owner, selling vinyl and chatting up music geekdom with customers. His daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons), is a pre-med student at a community college preparing to attend another round of pre-med at UCLA. 

The only problem is that she inherited that gene of singing from her mother, who met her father in a band. After one jamming session after a long hard day in which Frank (Nick Offerman) reveals to his landlord, Leslie (Toni Collette), that he’s going to close the shop, they kindle a fire that gives Frank (Nick Offerman) this feeling of a last chance at reigniting that immense pride of fatherhood. 

There is melancholy that hangs over it all, which becomes an idealist versus realist kind of scenario in which Frank (Nick Offerman) sees a young girl throwing away her talent for a reliable income. On the other hand, Sam (Kiersey Clemons) is afraid of ending up like her father, a dead-end shop owner who lives in the past. It’s something the film does quite differently than fellow uplifting musical rides like “Sing Street,” maintaining a level-head between something authentic and dreamlike storytelling. 

Brett Haley and Marc Basch excel in crafting that harmony of tension and upliftment, never allowing it to crush your feeling of elevation while never allowing you to believe in something implausible. Someone who says this best is the bartender Dave (Ted Danson), who states “We can’t always do what we love, so we have to love what we do.” 

He becomes a constant source of therapy for our father figure as well as providing some amusing stories about his times in Woodstock, and he describes the film’s narrative meaning with that poetic diatribe. Recognizing that dreams don’t always come true and we have to learn how to live without them. It’s not crushing, nor is it saddening per say. The film handles it in a way that inspires us to relook at life in a way that is far more optimistic than dour. 

Where the film gains a lot of steam that pushes it from good to great is its music. It has an indie-folk style that also has a lot of pop to it, providing a soundtrack that is so infectiously passionate. Forcing you to tap your toes while allowing the lyrics speak to your soul, it's that kind of music that we all listen to for some upliftment, and it delivers in that way. The film does have a few touching songs that echo the inherent emotion placed into this family dilemma, something that is sure to roll a tear or two from every eye in the theater. 

Aesthetically, Brett Haley and his cinematographer, Eric Lin, deliver a summerish atmosphere to the film. Providing a vivid and bright array of visuals that attract the eye, with yellows and greens radiating throughout the screen. The environment is very hipsterish, with flannels and coffee and retro style scenery that blends in with the story in an organic fashion. The camera itself moves freely, circling our artists when they begin to jam out, providing this momentum building essence that excited me with joy and vibrancy, something the film continued to do with ease. 

Both Offerman and Clemons deliver fantastic performances. Offerman (“Parks and Recreation” & “Hero”), returning for his second team up with Brett Haley, has always been the cuter and far more charismatic version of Tom Selleck for me, and he displays it again in “Hearts Beat Loud” with some adorably humorous moments with Kiersey Clemons (“Dope” & “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”). 

He also provides some of the film’s most passionate moments, moments that are only outdone by Kiersey Clemons who surprises with an exceptional performance. She gives these naturalistic moments that feel as if we’re watching Sam instead of Kiersey Clemons pretending to be Sam Fisher. If it weren't for her co-star Toni Collette’s phenomenal performance in “Hereditary,” she would be my front-runner for the best female performance of the year thus far. Collette also delivers a solid performance in this movie, as well as Ted Danson who is fun to see as always, and there’s also some fun scenes with Blythe Danner who depicts Frank’s (Nick Offerman) mother.

The story is one we’ve seen before, and one we’ll inevitably see again. The music is poppy, and purposefully catchy, but it all plays so organically that it provides a feeling that merely is infectiously joyous. During a scene in which Frank (Nick Offerman) is attempting to help bring Sam’s (Kiersey Clemons) debut song to life, he states: “This is a mood piece, it just has to have a feeling. This has a feeling.” The same could be said for “Hearts Beat Loud,” a mood piece that is contagiously exhilarating that elates as much as it inspires. It’s a feeling that I can’t get enough of, and one that I can’t wait to feel again. 

Drive (2011)

   Director: Nicolas Winding Refn With: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Issac, Ron Pearlman, & Kaden Leos. Release: Sep 16, 2011 R. 1 hr. 40 min. 

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
With: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Issac, Ron Pearlman, & Kaden Leos.
Release: Sep 16, 2011
R. 1 hr. 40 min. 

 

"Is he a bad guy?" "Yeah." "How can you tell?" "Because he's a shark." "There's no good sharks?" It’s this bit of dialogue that our Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) son, Benicio (Kaden Leos), share that gets to the heart of what Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is at its core. It’s a story that is all about one man’s attempt at repentance; it's a dramatic and artistically manifested character study that resides in the skin of an action, car-centric, thriller. Refn fabricates a film that has so much visual storytelling that it's hard to believe the movie was only released five years ago because it maintains an old-fashioned feel in how Refn produces a silent film in hiding. 

“Drive” uses it dialogue in that way, if it ever does say anything at all, it's for a designated purpose. It’s a story that would usually be given a hefty dose of dialogue with cheesy lines that are meant to evoke an enthusiastic response from the audience; it's traditionally expected to focus far more on the action and the car chases than the man behind the wheel. 

“Drive” does the complete opposite, telling a story about a man whose name remains a mystery to us, even after the credits roll, we only know him as the Driver (Ryan Gosling). His backstory, his upbringing, and most of the details we would usually get are all thrown to the wayside and forgotten. Instead, we are given moments that are meant to be open for interpretation. An interpretation that evokes a feeling of heartache for myself, because, despite our lack of knowledge for this man’s past and his identity, we learn about the man he is. He’s someone seeking that righteousness for his committed sins; we know that his history is far darker than he lets on. We see that when he meets the family next door consisting of a single mother, Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos). 

He regularly has a grin on his face, as if he's finally found his place to rest, but we learn that her husband was in prison all this time. Finally released to a family welcoming home, a man (Oscar Isaac) whose past sins force him back into life. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) wants to be a real hero, a real human being as one of the film’s essential songs suggests, he throws his hat in the ring to save this man from his debt. When the job goes awry, we’re left with a man who has to overcome his vengeful anger, left with few choices to make to get back to that feeling of serenity. 

Until that point, his self-inflicted guilt feels unwarranted as the film opens with him committing a crime, one that seems to be relatively free of the sin that we see him carry, at least at the weight he carrying it. We see him express his rules to the men he’s assisting in the robbery, he’s the getaway driver, but he’s one that doesn’t come cheap. He’s there for the job, he doesn’t carry a gun, he owes them nothing when the job is done, and he’s damn good at his job. 

We watch him speed through the streets of Los Angeles in a way that isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. There are no wide shots of him driving away with an army of police cars following him. Instead, he's a tactician, and he's strategic with his vehicular maneuverability. He stops and hides in plain sight, he chooses a car that blends in, and he moves through the chase with a sense of artistry that leaves his associates with a stunned looked on their face, as if they find his strategy a bit unfamiliar, but they know that he knows exactly what he’s doing. 

The way he gets out of this chase is sly as well, but the entire scene is treated with a heft of focus by Refn and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel. They shoot the whole chase from inside the vehicle, providing that perspective filled the feeling of being apart of the pursuit. You hear the engine rev, and it feels as if your sitting next to the driver, experiencing the revs of the engine and the adrenaline of a car chase. Refn delivers that type of neorealism/noirish style to the film, always maintaining the sheer sense of realism while providing a noir style. 

The soundtrack echoes that, with strange, rhythmic, and magnetic, electronic music that echoes how Refn is clouding his story’s emotions with style. Though his style is resonating and beautiful to watch, the emotions become hidden behind that style. It’s the one lagging flaw to be found in this story because it's an elegant exercise in the form a filmmaker uses is what makes “Drive” special. 

He extends it further and farther than it deserves to be, allowing that noirish essence to lend to the realism of the film while maintaining a level of emotion due to the sheer brilliance of the writing behind our hero. Written by Hossein Amini ("Snow White and the Huntsman" & "47 Ronin") and based off the novel by James Sallis, “Drive” has a sense of normality to its screenplay, almost as if it's purposefully turned down. 

The action, the blockbuster potential, and the sheer excitement of it all feel turned down, but the humanity is turned all the way up. Not only in how our hero is handled, but in how the world is rendered. The tagline of the poster says “there are no clean getaways” which feels eloquently precise for what this film’s story is attempting to become, but in all fairness, that story hinges on our main character. The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a man who carries a sense of guilt as I said, but it takes a while before we figure out why. 

Before we see that darker side of himself, that he finds himself fighting off more often than not, he wants to rest and feel the warmth of life once again, but he’s lost to the life he’s become apart of, being forced to become the coiled scorpion that resides on his jacket. Injecting venom into those who dare to tempt him, that same violent venom that seems to poison his life more than others, and Ryan Gosling exhumes that character arc better than anyone possibly could. He’s like Steve McQueen in that way; he’s charismatic but subtle. He embodies presence and sincerity. 

He’s an actor that continually challenges himself with characters needing a sense of powerhouse performance, even manifesting a character whose love for a doll becomes as poignant as anything we’ve seen before in “Lars and The Real Girl.” Audiences felt they were sold a bill of goods after seeing this impeccable actor in “Drive” though, they expected this to be his turn towards action and spectacle, but Ryan continues to remain in favor of quality over quantity. He shows up on the silver screen one to two times a year, and each time it's special. 

Much like “Drive,” a film that sold itself as something that audiences love, but one that merely inhabits the exterior of that genre and is made up of something far more poignantly with that of its internal aspects. The audience wasn't lied too; they just weren’t told the whole truth. 

Swiss Army Man (2016)

   Directors: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert With: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, & Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Release: Jul 1, 2016 R. 1 hr. 37 min. 

Directors: Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert
With: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, & Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Release: Jul 1, 2016
R. 1 hr. 37 min. 

 

“Swiss Army Man” is one of those rare gems where you will never find yourself saying: “Oh, not this again.” You won’t find genre tropes and cliches in the midst of this coming of age film of a Frankenstein monster. It’s something where you can find the breadcrumbs to the train of thought that helped these former music video directors turned filmmakers’ craft something as genuinely intertwined with an amalgamation of imagination as “Swiss Army Man.”

It stems from the minds of Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert (billed as the Daniels Brothers), a film that opens with a soft humming from our main character, Hank (Paul Dano), who find himself stranded on a small island in the midst of the Pacific. We see that he’s reached his limit and has fashioned a noose to hang himself from, as he hums himself with a comfort level of confidence to commit himself to suicide, he notices a corpse has washed up on the shore. He begins to walk, seemingly forgetful of the knot around his throat. Luckily, the makeshift loop snaps and he finds himself acquainted with a corpse that is presumed dead, until we hear a rumbling of noise travel from his chest to his rectum, letting out a loud roar of gas. 

Humorously awkward, these farts become a tool of sorts that inspires Hank (Paul Dano) to makeshift this body into a jet-engine speedboat to sail him off the island. The expenditure of gas powers them through the crashing waves of the open seas until Hank (Paul Dano) pulls back to hard on the reigns, and finds himself lost in the open waters. Washed to the shore, Hank (Paul Dano) awakes on an island front but finds the edge of civilization surrounding him with tall trees and a beautiful rainforest that soon becomes his hiking grounds in which he carries this carcass through the trails of the forest. 

The imagery is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker and Yoda, and the same teachings follow as we and Hank (Paul Dano) learn that this cadaver has found his voice. Speaking softly as Daniel Radcliffe comes to life, and this zombie-like figure turns out to be a long lost swisstool of a man that has forgotten how the world works. Dubbed with the name of “Manny” by Hank (Paul Dano), we watch the simplified teachings of what is life itself, why we throw away our trash, how we make simplicity complicated through social constructs, and how the hidden meaning of it all can become buried by our self-enforced fallacies. 

Yes, it's a farting corpse who can snap fire out of his fingers and shoot objects from his throat like a machine gun, but the Daniel brothers make that enigmatic aspect feel inherently believable and genuine to the reality of the world around us. The Daniels showcase a malleable formulation of clay that is continuously remolding itself from an ingenious overt comedy to a psychologically inducing drama and then a rugged survival thriller involving a bear attack. It’s inventive throughout its ninety-seven-minute runtime, consistently subverting expectations while remaining slightly familiar enough to resonate with the two-person journey were lead upon.

There is a multitude of inferences of messages you enforce upon the story written by Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, from the evident brother duo relationship in which our older brother, Hank (Paul Dano), is teaching the younger brother, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), the intricacies of the world in which they reside. The coming of age heart that feels essential to the core of this movie in which we’re watching Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) pull himself from the wasteful land of the world back to the brightful array of life in ways that are both biological and emotionally constructive. 

Eventually summarized into how we have forced an extraordinary world to become so mundanely expectational, choosing to construct social irregularities as things that we naturally secrete like that of our sexual relationships or farting itself. Almost becoming embarrassed of our biological features, “Swiss Army Man” provides a meta-like outlook that feels like the hipsterish version of “2001” or a coaxing perspective of philosophical theories. 

The Daniels manifest something as brilliant as a dreamlike setting that looks handknitted to perfection. Even constructing a mirrored image of the real-world with forest tools, the Daniels and their cinematographer Larkin Seiple formulate a film that maintains a dream-like essence that is snappy with it's editing and breaks out into music video like montages of style that is euphorically joyous to watch. It’s an engulfing adventure that swoops you in with it's acapellic dramatic swoops of music that becomes apart of the dialogue between Hank (Paul Dano) and Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), and even becomes influenced by the characters themselves. 

It’s a continuous molding of relentless imagination and nuanced storytelling that is led by Paul Dano and Radcliffe’s storming performances that will most certainly go unacknowledged by most award circuits, but the sheer charisma cannot go unmentioned. Gapingly charismatic, feeding off each others energy to produce a tandem that machetes its way through the self-made barriers of audience members who refuse to jump into the ridiculousness of it all. 

“Swiss Army Man” is an endearing journey that is inherently ridiculous, yet remains consistently supple throughout its hypnotical sequences of idiosyncratic craftsmanship from two of film’s most whimsically fresh voices. It’s that kind of movie that is sure to split friends between opinions, likely to be described as an artful classic, an aggressive misfire, and a terrible dumpster fire of a movie where ideas are thrown at a screenplay with relentless aggression. 

I reside in the community of believers who fall for the arrogant charm of a film in which a farting corpse has taught me life lessons through the absurdity and laboring love of a movie that refuses to apologize for its silliness, count me in for whatever these inventive chefs cook up next. 

Only Yesterday (1991)

   Japanese Director: Isao Takahata | English Director: Jamie Simone With: (Jap Voices) Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, Yoko Honna, Mayumi Izuka, Mei Oshitani, Megumi Komine, Yukiyo Takizawa, & Masashi Ishikawa. (Eng Voices) Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Alison Fernandez, Hope Levy, Stephanie Sheh, Ava Acres, Madeleine Yen, & Jaden Betts. U.S. Release: Feb 26, 2016 | Jap Release: July 20, 1991 PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

Japanese Director: Isao Takahata | English Director: Jamie Simone
With: (Jap Voices) Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, Yoko Honna, Mayumi Izuka, Mei Oshitani, Megumi Komine, Yukiyo Takizawa, & Masashi Ishikawa. (Eng Voices) Daisy Ridley, Dev Patel, Alison Fernandez, Hope Levy, Stephanie Sheh, Ava Acres, Madeleine Yen, & Jaden Betts.
U.S. Release: Feb 26, 2016 | Jap Release: July 20, 1991
PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

 

“Only Yesterday” feels like a companion piece to Isao Takahata’s 2014 swan song, “The Tale of Princess Kaguya,” but it's actually one of the films that led to its manifestation. Arriving on American shores in 2016, “Only Yesterday” was originally released in Japan on July 1991. It’s a film that has been held back from U.S. soil due to its embracement of womanhood, but it's that unshameful welcoming of studying a woman’s maturity that leads to “Only Yesterday” being a delightful discovery for initial viewers and first-time observers of the English dub alike. 

Written by Isao Takahata and adapted for American audiences by David Freedman, “Only Yesterday” is a story based off of the “Memories Come Tumbling Down” manga from Hotaru Okamoto & Yuuko Tone, depicting that dreamlike essence of reminiscing. Specifically, a 27-year old woman’s hindsight of her childhood. The stories behind her first crush, her first time trying pineapple, her first period, and how all of these things influenced her maturity. In the present day, she’s a woman going back to the countryside of life, realizing that the city life may not be all it's cracked up to be, trying to relive that passion for life. 

She craves that spirit of hard work, but work that fulfills you. Something that makes you feel whole inside, tired from the effort you’ve given to something, pouring out your love for a task that you enjoy. It’s a story that examines how our immaturity and idealism that we inherently possess as children carries us to the adult that we eventually grow into, including our interactions with literal biological advancement, such as puberty. 

Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” falls in line with his mature stories that star children, such as his World War II survival story from the perspective of Japanese children in “Grave of the Fireflies,” or his empathetic study of women in Japanese society in “Kaguya.”

He, like his long-time collaborator and friend Hayao Miyazaki, is an artist who produces child-focused stories that teach adults as much as they enforce life lessons upon children. His aesthetic style is also something that continuously evolved throughout his career, from his brand and detailed hand-drawn animation of “Only Yesterday” to the minimalist and seemingly vibrant style of “Kaguya.” Isao Takahata is no stranger to the conversation of genius filmmaking, despite his stories being simplistically referred to as children’s cartoons by some. 

“Only Yesterday” is a film that exemplifies his extraordinary ability as a storyteller. Continuously transitioning between the present day and her adolescence, painting the past with this blurry outlined fade, replicating that real-life visual that we experience when looking back on our past. It’s hazy, slightly irregular, almost misconstrued, while remaining clear as day due to its impact on our lives, allowing us to watch a world that is partially regained by the senses. The saying “art imitating life” could never be so poetically attached to anything more than this animated coming of age dream of a film. 

The stories of the past are carried throughout the film, sometimes being placed in the backseat so that the present day narrative can take back the wheel. While it's dialogue-heavy and meandering and a bit detracting in comparison to the stories of her childhood, the adulthood perspective provides some of the film’s most enchanting moments that can roar the heart a beat or two. 

It’s because of the deep-rooted emotion that we almost instinctively assign to children that these stories carry far more weight than the ones stemming from her womanhood. They are charming and warm, while fundamentally depressing when we watch her deal with the mockery of popular girls, the belittlement of her voice due to her age, and her silenced individuality due to the persistent squashing of her dreams and hopes that eventually carry over to her adult seclusion feeling like an earned side effect of the trials she’s encountered. 

It’s a tale that feels inherently tender and tangible, that’s not to say there is no fantasy to be seen. A particular moment exemplifies her metaphorical translation of happiness from her interaction with her first crush, she flies through the air, soaring on cloud nine as a giant pink heart pops from the roof. These moments alongside the tragedies and the resonating aura we endure make the love letters to nature and paths of adulthood feel lackluster. We always seem to look back with reverberance and sentiment and look forward with pessimism and anxiety; it’s genuinely the passion that feels like it was “Only Yesterday,” while the tension of the world feels like it's apart of today. 

Isao Takahata exhumes the essence of that message with ease almost, the English-speaking voice talents of Daisy Ridley (with an outstanding American accent), Dev Patel, and Ashley Eckstein, and the Japanese-speaking voices of Miki Imai, Toshirô Yanagiba, and Yoko Honna add that extra amount of empathy to make this film something beautiful to experience inside a theater. 

It’s romantically swooping ending that broaches during the credits is tear-jerkingly flattering to watch, a rare feat to see in both modern-day animation and live-action filmmaking alike. The Pixars and Dreamworks of the world are always fantastic, but the magic of Studio Ghibli seems to breathe rarified air into the world of hand-drawn stories still, even when their more than twenty-five years late to the party. 

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a bad film, but most bad movies are born out of a lack of commitment to a project, a lack of cooperation from a studio, or just a lack of effort placed into the filmmaking. I’m not saying all three of those scenarios didn’t take place, but I think there was something far worse taking place behind the camera than just those tools of cinematic injustice. 

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