Film Review: THE FAREWELL (USA 2019) ***

The Farewell Poster
Trailer

A Chinese family discovers their grandmother has only a short while left to live and decide to keep her in the dark, scheduling a wedding to gather before she dies.

Director:

Lulu Wang

Writer:

Lulu Wang

Awkwafina (last seen in CRAZY RICH ASIANS) gets a starring role as Billi, a Chinese American who learns that her beloved grandmother aka Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) still living in China has three months to live after being diagnosed with cancer.  The family decide not to tell Nai Nai of her illness. Instead the family organize a wedding so that the entire family will travel back to China to spend time with her before she passes away.  Hence the film title THE FAREWELL. Billi was not invited to the wedding/farewell as the family fear that she cannot hide her feelings but she shows up in China unannounced from New York City.

The titles cleverly state at the start of the film; “Based on an actual lie.”  THE FAREWELL starts off a little humorously as director Wang introduces the somewhat dysfunctional family who aim to do good.  The idea is that the family takes on the emotional burden off the grandmother if she does not know.  Half way through the movie, it will hit (as it did me) whether what transpires is legal. i.e. will the doctors allow that illness be kept for the patient as requested by the family.  The answer is supplied right outwards – a good thing – in the middle of the movie.  It is not allowed in America but is allowed in China.

Director Wang is more serious that light in her treatment of the material.  Though there are always laughs on the horizon of every scene, the sombre mood is also pressing.  Despite the simple story which is suspense less, Wang keeps her film running at a good pace.  It is more the family interaction at play than the knowledge of whether Nai Nai will discover the truth at the end.  At the end of the matter, whether Nai Nai finds out or who tells her is immaterial to the plot.

Wang captures the behavioural  mores typical Chinese family.  Important are the big meals,  the obsessive ‘fussy’ care over the young and old, the need to keep a stiff upper lip among others.  Other issues the are also important include the relationship between mother and daughter-in-law.  Billi’s mother complains that Nai Nai was always boss in the home when she married her son, which implies the probable reason they left China for America.

The farewell is not the perfect drama as the film contains many glaring flaws including the tacked on happy ending.  Still THE FAREWELL is a sincere drama aided by a solid dramatic performance by Awkwafina who previously only has been seen in comedic roles.  The film is entertaining and sheds light on the difference of cultures, in a good way, and also of respect and the difficulty a family to get along. There is nothing forced in the film, and the story unfolds smoothly that should leave the audience not only satisfied but with a  warm fuzzy feeling.

Chinese American films have always done well and have been well made like this one (and with a strong feminine protagonist too), the recent Netflix original, ALWAYS BE MY MAYBE and of course, CRAZY RICH ASIANS.  There is a large target audience of North American Chinese and hopefully, there will be more films to cater towards this group.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D8iDwb12RdE

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Film Review: TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM (USA 2019) ***

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Poster
Trailer

This artful and intimate meditation on the legendary storyteller examines her life, her works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her literary career.

This artful and intimate meditation on the legendary story- teller, TONI MORRISON examines her life, her works and the powerful themes she has confronted throughout her literary career.

For those unfamiliar with the literary world of Toni Morrison, Toni is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her novel Beloved and also the recipient of the the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 with four novels in Oprah’s Book Club.  She is at present 88 years of age, and still as spritely as a young author, evident during her interviews captured on film.  She has been described more accurately as a legendary storyteller whose books are written from the black perspective. 

There cannot be enough praise for Toni Morrison.  Morrison has accomplished monumental orgs in her lifetime.  Besides her literary works, she also did the biography of Mohammad Ali.  On camera, she does not blow her own horn. But the other interviewees on camera like Oprah Winfrey, Toni’s friends and author Fran Lebowitz, author/activist Angela Davis, poet Sonia Sanchez, long-time editor Robert Gottlieb are others singing her praises.

Toni’s life, career and achievements are actually available for a good read on Wikipedia and one can learn just as much reading Wikipedia as it traces Toni’s lifelong journey from child to the present and how her life influenced her works.  But Greenfield-Saunders brings her life to the screen with lots of archival footage, such as grainy black and white film of black folk riding horse carriages in the old towns in America.  The film also puts her work and black folk into perspective.  It is revealed in voiceover that blacks were not allowed to be taught to read not even by the white folk.  Toni, who grew up in Loraine, Ohio, went to school and eventually to college.  She attended the historically black Howard University (where she faced segregation within the black community), to her stint as an editor at Random House (where she did ’70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali).  She was also a single mother with two sons, rising at 5:00 am to write.

The film is directed by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who met Morrison in 1981 when he did a cover shoot with her.  For this film, he has Morrison looking directly into the camera, while he shoots the others in an “over the shoulder style.”  As a director, he’s known for his “identity” documentaries such as The Black List (inspired by Morrison).

The best part of the doc is Toni’s books been described on film as well as the reactions of the books when first published.  Mention is given of her works like Beloved.  Another book “The Bluest Eye” is described in detail.  This is the book she wrote every morning up at 5 am while bringing up her two children.   Oprah interviewed, described how she got and called Toni on the telephone, ending up making a film of BELOVED directed by Jonathan Demme.  There is no mention, however that the film was a box-office flop.

Though it is pointed out in the film that Toni has both the respect and readership worldwide of Mexicans and Asians, the film would be more directed towards Americans (both black and white).  After all, the black American is half and an important part of American history.  

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8sUwXTWb4M

Film Review: EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE (USA 2019) ***

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile Poster
Trailer

A courtroom frenzy ensues and sweeps 1970s America when a young single mother meets Ted Bundy.

Director:

Joe Berlinger

Writers:

Elizabeth Kendall (based on the book “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy” by), Michael Werwie

Director Joe Berlinger is no stranger to the serial killer genre nor even to the Ted Bundy killings.  Ted Bundy is one of the most infamous American serial killers in history, being extremely charming and good-looking while committing unspeakable violent acts with the women he has killed.  Berlinger has made the 1997 doc PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS and lately CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES.  In his latest film, EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, the Ted Bundy story is told from a different perspective, from the point of view of one of the women charmed by him, who fell in love with him and visited him in prison while all the time believing in his innocence.  This woman is Liz (Lily Collins) who is finally forced to let him go at the end of the film.

The words of them film’s title are the exact words of Judge Edward Coward (played with sarcastic relish by John Malkovich), himself charmed by the killer while sentencing the man right after the trial.  Throughout the film, Berlinger never admits to Bundy’s guilt though there are a few instances (the evil sensed by a dog; his look while having sex; his look while being pushed beyond the limit) of a possibility.  If one had not known the history that Bundy had admitted his guilt and has since been executed in the electric chair, the film would attest his  innocence and how wrongful his arrest was.  Such is the story-teeing ability of Berlinger.

The film unfolds like a love story.  Bundy and Liz meet at a bar. It is love at first sight.  He takes Liz on as a girlfriend and lover despite she being a single mother.  When arrested, Bundy insists on his innocence.  Liz believes in him and supports him all the way despite contrary advice given her by her best friend. 

Berlinger wants to show that Bundy can charm both his women as well as the audience,  Zac Efron playing Bundy does just that and a marvellous job.  In fact Efron bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Ted Bundy.

The film’s lighter side has Bundy defending himself in court after firing his lawyer.  He pokes fun at the American Justice System while also putting down the politics of Florida.  These are the only parts that Berlinger glorifies Bundy as a kind of folk hero.

At the end of the film, Bundy still persists his innocence.  Though the man was to confess to his 30 or so killings before his execution, nothing of this fact is mentioned anywhere in the film, not even at the end credits.  The film should be seen in conjunction with CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER, Berlinger’s doc on Bundy to get a fuller picture of the story.  

EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE, a Netflix original movie as well as CONVERSATIONS are both currently streaming on Netflix.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtXEcBz3Go0

Film Review: MAIDEN (UK 2018) ****

Maiden Poster
Trailer

The story of Tracy Edwards, a 24-year-old cook on charter boats, who became the skipper of the first ever all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989.

Director:

Alex Holmes

The newly refurbished Maiden yacht will dock in Vancouver, July 28-August 2, as part of a two-year world tour to raise funds and awareness for girls’ education and female empowerment.  Why is the Maiden famous and what is it known for?  Alex Holmes’s MAIDEN is an exhilarating documentary that played at TIFF 2018 and Sundance 2019, delighting audiences with its story about 26-year-old Tracy Edwards, who broke the
glass ceiling when she skippered the first all-female crew to enter the world’s biggest sailing event, the Whitbread Round the World Race, in 1989-1990 (renamed Volvo Ocean Race in 2001).  Maiden is name of Edward’s racing yacht.

The film begins with these warning words: “The ocean is out to kill!”   “It does not take a break.” “There is no hope if anything happens.”  Yet, the doc’s subject, Tracey Edwards, at the time of the race at the age of 26, face crashing waters and frigid temperatures – the big setback at sea.  In 1989, the concept of an all-female crew was inconceivable to the manly world of open-ocean yacht racing.  Press bet on their failure.  Sponsors balked, fearing that the crew might perish and bring bad publicity.  After a failure at almost 2 years for sponsorship, Edwards refused to give up – she remortgaged her home and bought a secondhand boat that the crew refurbished themselves. She finally secured sponsorship through Jordan’s King Hussein.

Holmes humanizes the story by telling the story of Tracey from young child to older woman with white hair that she has now.  This was, that the audience can relate to the character, the underdog and root for her.  Tracey had the idyllic childhood till the worse thing imaginable could happen, happened to a child – the loss of one of a parent.  She moved to Wales with her mother and new abusive step-father which resulted in her running away from home.  Other adventures led her to her realization of her love or sailing.  When she realized the difficulty of females getting on a crew for the Whitebread World Race, she formed her own crew.  The doc continues this story.

The film contains interviews with Tracey and her crew as well as a few male sailors who  talk about their admiration and astonishment of the female sailor.  The film has a major part of its running time, the race that the Maiden won.  One wonders how many of the scenes were shot, especially with the waves crashing the boat.  According to the press notes, archival footage were taken on the boat, which explains the authentic ‘fly off the wall’ footage film that would almost get one seasick.

But what is most exhilarating about the doc is the human account of an underdog doing well – showing off those skeptical who claim that it cannot be done.  Edwards hows the triumph of ones human spirit over adversity,  The film also shows that she is not the person you want to be around with either, when she is under pressure – showing both sides to the coin.

MAIDEN is a beautiful documentary celebrating the harshness of nature and the foibles and strength of man – or woman in that respect.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AecVJ3Br4zc

Film Review: NEVER-ENDING MAN: HAYAO MIYAZAKI (Japan 2016) ***

Owaranai hito: Miyazaki Hayao Poster
Trailer

A look at famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki following his retirement in 2013.

Director:

Kaku Arakawa

Made as a Japanese TV movie back in 2016, taking 3 years before getting a commercial release at the TIFF Lightbox, one can understand the limited attraction of this documentary.  Though Studio Ghibli films are the bread and butter of Japanese animation features, still the studio’s film and director’s names are still unknown to many Americans who will never see anything not North American.  Unless one is a Studio Ghibli fan, fascinated by the films and an admirer of Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s founder and the Academy Award winning director (for PRINCESS MONONOKE) of more than a dozen world wide successes, the target audience is limited.

The film begins with the camera panning an empty animation studio following Miyazaki’s announcement to the press and staff of his retirement.  But he soon begins work on a  short film, BORO THE CATERPILLAR (in 2018) using CGI for the first time and then contemplating the main of a full length feature, which he jokingly claims could be completed after his death.

The film is clear to point out Miyazaki’s successes with a collage of his hits including SPIRITED AWAY (my favourite), MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO, PONYO, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE and his last feature THE WIND RISES.

The doc clearly narrow the scope to the director’s work and his daily routines.  It clearly omits anything of his past, his childhood or his influences.  Nothing is revealed of his family either.  In one scene, Miyazaki mentions his wife, but the film has not a single shot of her.  He is also shown making his own meals (often having ramen from pack of instant noodles) and walking around what seems an empty typical Japanese house.

Miyazaki the man is shown to be a simple one, but an over-obsessed animator that strives for his vision 100% totally driving those that have a different view crazy if not out of the picture.  He has a cigarette in hand most of the time and obviously smokes too much.  Miyazaki is also shown to be a kind man.  When shown a CGI animated segment of a zombie like creature writhing in pain, he astounds all present that he says he wants nothing to do with it.  “You have no idea of pain.” He relates a story of meeting a man who suffers pain that he could not lift up his hand to ‘high five’.   He insists on the importance of being sympathetic to pain, which again is illustrated in the emotion-like characteristics in all his animated characters and figures.

Besides being a film about Miyazaki, the film also reveals the difficult task of CGI and how much work goes into producing CGI effects.  One CGI animator even claims: “Perhaps it is easier to do hand-drawn”.  The film also questions the issue of retirement among the old.  Miyazaki says he’d rather work than do nothing, a philosophy many seniors who have all their faculties share.

The doc turns out to tackle more issues than expected which audiences hopefully will get to learn more of this legendary director.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7od_hvrGeHo

Film Review: LA DISPARITION DES LUCIOLES (THE FIREFLIES ARE GONE) (Canada 2018) ***

The Fireflies Are Gone Poster
Trailer

A frustrated teenager frees herself from her mother’s influence and her narrow life in a small industrial town to find out who she really is.

Warning: This review contains a spoiler in its plot point.  The spoiler occurs int h second last paragraph of the review.

At the start of the film, a radio show host Paul (Francois Papineau) announces on the radio that due to some unknown mysterious reason that have puzzled scientists and everyone else, all the fireflies are disappeared.  The fireflies are obviously a metaphor for something in the film which will be revealed in the second last paragraph of the review in italics.  Spoiler Alert: Skip reading the second last paragraph italics but the spoiler is included as it is crucial in the film’s critique.

The film’s best segment occurs at the start at a dinner arranged when Leo shows up late,  The uncomfortable dialogue that goes on around is brilliant – funny, informative and sarcastic.  Leo (Karelle Tremblay) is clearly out to disrespect her mother (Marie-France Marcotte) while showing her disdain towards her step-father, Paul.  It is Leo’s birthday but she leaves the dinner after excusing herself to the toilet.  Later on, the mother gives her her birthday present telling Leo never to do what she did ever again, which she promises.  The scene is multi-purposeful.  Besides introducing the audience to all the primary characters, it also reveals the relation ship Leo, clearly the protagonist has with each of the present at the table.  he dialogue is also sardonic if not witty, funny if not revealing.  Unfortunately no other segment in the film comes matches this.  But the confrontation scene between Leo and stepfather, Paul comes close.

The only character missing from the tables a local guitarist, Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) who is much older than her.  She takes guitar lessons from him and becomes a little infatuated with him.  When her real father, (Luc Picard) shows up, she finds him not the hero she expected him to be.

It is the performance of the actors that save this otherwise predictable tale of Leo, s girl stuck in her small town.  Newcomer Karelle Tremblay affects the audience’s sympathy without being the annoying teenager while older Quebec actors lend their support.

It does not take a genius to guess that the fireflies are a metaphor for Leo’s hope – or hope in general.  As Leo finally gains enough courage to hop on a bus to leave the small town and start life anew, the fireflies suddenly re-appear around the town in the dark (as is unfortunately totally predictable, especially for one who have seen too many films) signifying the return of hope or that hope is no longer lost.

For all that the film is, the film still succeeds as a well executed and thought-of portrait of a teen stuck in a small town.  At least Leo survives.  In a similar film, Robert Mandel’s 1983 INDEPENDENCE DAY (not the Roland Emmerich’s disaster flick of the same title), Diane Weist’s character escaped her personal prison by lighting up a cigarette while filling up the house with gas in the film’s last scene.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeY_FHcWhMo

Film Review: MIDSOMMAR (USA 2019) ***

Midsommar Poster
Trailer

A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Director:

Ari Aster

Writer:

Ari Aster

Writer/director Ari Aster’s follow up to the critically acclaimed and highly successful horror feature HEREDITARY is a sprawling 2 hour 20 minutes occasionally disorienting horror piece that at times forgets that it is a horror movie.

At the special pre-screening of MIDSOMMAR that was graced by the presence of director Aster and actor Jack Reyner, the director describes his film, and very accurately so, about a film on codependency.  It is a break-up story, as the audience also learns that the director himself was undergoing one when he wrote the script.  

At the Q & A, Aster, clearly jet lagged and understandably disoriented  kept beating about the bush when asked direct questions, often taking a full 5 minutes on a straightforward question.     This could be the reason his film stretched out to 140 minutes.  But to Aster’s credit, what the film company A24 planned as a straightforward slasher film set among a Swede cult has turned into something more relevant, human and believable.  Aster did a lot of research on European folklore and history culminating in what can be witnessed as a worthwhile effort.  Though set in Sweden, the film was shot in Budapest, Hungary for financial reasons.

MIDSOMMAR ends up as an engaging folk horror film that follows a group of friends who travel to Sweden for a festival that only occurs once every 90 years.  Christian (Jack Reyner) and Dani (Florence Pugh), a young American couple, are having trouble with their relationship.   The story points out that is a dysfunctional one that should not go on.  Dani is over possessive and Christian is not there for Dani when she needs him most, as when her parents and sister are killed from gas poisoning.  She follows Christian and his friends to a commune in Sweden where the relationship is further put to the test.  As the group stay on, weirder and weirder incidents take place that have to be seen to be believed.  Aster does an excellent build up.

The film is well shot with colourful exteriors – large field in Hungary standing in for Sweden with bright coloured huts of the commune.  The young actors Pugh and Reyner form good chemistry as the dysfunctional couple.  There is an emotional scene where Dani is laid across Christian’s lap crying, bawling her eyes out at the death of her family.  That image is reminiscent of he unforgettable image of the tortured couple in Alfred Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN.  But the scene is dark and one cannot see Christian crying as a result of Dani crying.  Actor Reyner during the Q & A confessed he cried as a result of Pugh’s emotional outburst.

Though the film is generally slow, it is even paced and is an absorbing watch.  There has not been such a slow moving film where time actually flies through the films running time.  Aster at the Q & A says that he has several scripts ready to be directed but none of them horror.  His HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR are marginally horror films, so nothing much will be changed.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Vnghdsjmd0