The Farewell

11 Jul

‘The Farewell’: Reasons for a family reunion? Grandma’s going to hear the happier version

 

Image result for the farewell

 

“The Farewell” unfurls a bittersweet emotional journey buoyed by the complicated matter of identity that confronts many immigrants and first-gens when returning “home.” Last year “Crazy Rich Asians”played on that notion with an overlay of rom-com. Here there’s less of both as Billi (Korean rapper Awkwafina, who played a goofball in “Crazy Rich Asians”), a frustrated, out-of-work New York writer, heads back to China for her grandmother’s inevitable passing. As one ingrained traditionalist notes, “Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die.” The grand matriarch Nai Nai (played with grace and dignity by Shuzhen Zhao), does have cancer, but her family decides to keep her in the dark about the terminal prognosis; even the doctor’s in on it. As for Billi’s and other family members’ sudden presence, which makes Nai Nai purr, it’s explained away as being in town for a wedding of a distant family member. The rub: The family now has to set up and execute said wedding.

The film, as we’re told, is “Based on an actual lie” – on the real-life experiences of writer/director Lulu Wang (she recounted it on NPR’s “This American Life” in 2016). The conflict of Chinese traditional values vs. Western drive finds its way into the corners of nearly every frame, and at certain turns you can feel bits of Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” (1993) and, even more so, Peter Wang’s forgotten cross-cultural comedy, “The Great Wall Is a Great Wall” (1986), seep in.

Behind the lens, Wang builds the narrative quietly and poignantly in ever-widening strokes, from the narrow confines of Billi’s parents’ Changchun apartment to the grand – almost garish – wedding (which is where images of Lee’s “Banquet” come in). Along the way, one does wonder how blissfully obtuse Nai Nai really may be – could she be alert to her affliction and just playing along? The wedding itself is a strange yet alluring spectacle, an alcohol-infused epic replete with off-key stage performances and emotions gurgling past the brain’s normally sober governor.

The gimmick of a group-perpetuated charade may drive “The Farewell,” but the reason it resonates is its star. The comedian/performer well known for taking things to gonzo heights – just witness her and Ken Jeong (“The Hangover”) go at it in “Crazy Rich Asians” – delivers a surprising, if disarming, performance that many might not have imagined possible. Nuanced and deeply reflective, Awkwafina seems to be pulling from somewhere deep; even more affectingly, she forges a heartfelt synergy with the other members of the wonderful ensemble (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma among them as mom and dad). It’s hard to imagine “The Farewell” won’t mark Awkwafina’s breakout; it might just do the same for Wang. After all, this is her story, and one she got Awkwafina to understand from the inside out.

Marianne and Leonard

11 Jul

‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’: A muse recalled in verse long after the poet moved on

 

Image result for marianne and leonard

Documentarian Nick Broomfield has tackled some beguiling and controversial subjects during his prolific career, be it Tinseltown escort-turned-entrepreneur Heidi Fleiss (“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”), serial killer Aileen Wuornos (“Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer”) or the enigmatic death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain (“Kurt & Courtney”). Broomfield has a shaggy-dog quality to his approach, tending to insert himself into the story no matter his proximity or relevance, and sometimes oddly so – not overbearing like Michael Moore, but it still can be a distraction. In “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” Broomfield can legitimately ring the bell as a participant; Marianne Ihlen, the front half of the film’s title, was at one point Broomfield’s lover, and allegedly his inspiration for becoming a filmmaker.

The other half of the title is none other than iconic folk signer Leonard Cohen, who had a longtime relationship with the Norwegian-born Ihlen. The two met in the early 1960s at an artists community on the Greek isle of Hydra, back when Cohen was a writer and had yet to meet Judy Collins (he penned “Suzanne”and she made it a hit in ’67) and go on to become a major force in shaping the popular music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. (Hydra was also where Broomfield met Ihlen).

The singer and his muse had a “free” or “open” relationship (thus that brief tryst with Broomfield, who became jealous of another lover on a higher-up rung) that would span decades – several of Cohen’s songs are tributes to her. The film doesn’t center wholly on the relationship, as the title might imply, but more on the after-Hydra days when Cohen decided he needed to do something else to earn a better income. That promising partnership with Collins enters and the focus shifts from Ihlen to Cohen’s musical successes and pitfalls, as well as his self-destructive yen for women and drugs. Cohen aficionados won’t be too much they don’t know (the Hydra chapter may be the exception), but the archival footage – including some newly discovered film shot by famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker – will hit all the right nostalgia notes and likely educe a new degree of appreciation. Broomfield too tries to layer in his appreciation for Ihlen, even capturing her last, infirm moments, which, because of the remote presence of Cohen, come off more as liberating fist pump than sad, agonizing whimper.

If there’s one thing Broomfield’s deferential redial of a man, a woman and a career does, it’s to show that creative genius does not brew exclusively in one soul, and that nurturing and encouragement from others is needed. There’s also the epiphany that the man, mostly regarded as a cool, croaky crooner with an avuncular exterior, roamed in some dark places chasing artistic self-indulgence.

Midsommar

5 Jul

‘Midsommar’: Hands-on anthropology studies reveal how dark it can get under midnight sun

Image result for midsommar

 

As a kid I went to this Danish town north of Los Angeles called Solvang where it was Christmas year-round and the waffles were extra large and strangely exotic, and everyone dressed like they were from “The Sound of Music.” I tell you this because Solvang reminds me so much of the Swedish commune where four Americans wind up for a nine-day fertility festival “Midsommar,” the thrilling new chiller from Ari Aster. Everything so old school Lapland you half expect to see the Ricola folk or Max Von Sydow among the elders welcoming the group.

Two of the four Americans dropping in – Josh (William Jackson Harper, TV’s “The Good Place”) and Christian (Jack Reynor, the poor person’s Chris Platt) – are anthropology grad students, and the midnight sun rites are fodder for their theses. It helps that stateside buddy Pelle (Vilhelm Blongren) is from the remote village that feels like pieces borrowed from the sets of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” and Robert Egger’s “The Witch” with a bit of Ikea retrofitting tossed in. Rounding out the U.S. crew is loudmouth Mark (Will Poulter, the dirty cop in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”) and Dani (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”), Christian’s girlfriend and a tag-along whom the other lads in the posse aren’t so keen about.

The film begins and ends with Dani. There’s a prolonged opening about her clinginess to Christian, her bipolar sister and a family tragedy that would send anyone to therapy in double time– a hauntingly fraught meander worthy of Paul Thomas Anderson. Once up in the Swedish enclave, Dani freaks out on organic hallucinogens, Pelle clearly has eyes for her and the age-old cult ordains her as the dark horse in the May Queen dance-off.

Early on in the anthropological exploration—which doesn’t feel so scientific or methodical—we get a glimmer into just how dark this eternal summer day can get. Once you’re 72 in the commune, you’re ready for renewal, which has something to do with a swan dive onto a stone pallet or a wedding reception line of celebrants wielding a medieval mallet. It’s not easy to drink in, but it’s when Aster – who played on audiences’ sense of comfort and composure with the equally grim “Hereditary” – lets us know shit just got real. The American scholars, as smart as the allegedly are, don’t take note of such omens, even as their ranks thin. But when things begin to feel a bit “Wicker Man” predictable, Aster focuses on the fractured dynamic between Christian and Dani, and the choices the characters make are telling.

The final scene, just as with the reveal of the fate of Dani’s family, is gorgeously framed and flawlessly choreographed. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but Aster has again put a new, gory bow on a genre we know too well. If you can make it to the end, you’ll walk out on edge and agape.

The Third Wife

5 Jul

 

Image result for the thirdwife

Recently I had the opportunity to rewatch the taboo, erotic drama “Adore” (2013) starring two very compelling actresses – Naomi Watts and Robin Wright – as mothers having relations with each other’s 18-year-old sons. A hypnotically alluring WTF, “Adore” pulls you in and makes what’s off the moral compass seem rationally right by immersing you in the characters and their desires. The same applies to Ash Mayfair’s compelling directorial debut, “The Third Wife,” though besides the forbidden fruit and foreign soil (it takes place in Vietnam; “Adore” is set in Australia) there’s little other tether: “The Third Wife” takes place a century and more ago, when money and position allow men to have their way, in this case engaging in outright polygamy – thus the title.

The film focuses on the inclusion of May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) as the new third wife in question, barely a teenager. When we meet her, her husband Hung (Long Le Vu) sucks an egg yolk from her belly before taking her. It’s a painful, erotic and disturbing scene. Set in the rural setting of a silk farm (worms, webs and lush green bamboo imagery fill the screen) during the colonial era, the women are isolated and subjected to the rule of tradition, but Hung is not an overtly oppressive head of house and the three women (the other two wives played by the stunning Nu Yên-Khê Tran and Mai Thu Huong Maya) and Hung’s pubescent daughter Lien (Lam Thanh My) interact freely and forge a knowing sisterhood. 

Other subplots causing friction on the plantation flow through Hung’s son, named Son (Nguyen Thanh Tam), having an affair with his second wife, Xuan, and the budding same-sex attraction between a very pregnant May and Xuan. It’s the kind of quiet tension that so completely filled Zhang Yimou’s fantastic early works (“Raise the Red Lantern” and “Red Sorghum”) or the first film out of Vietnam to earn Academy Award recognition, “The Scent of Green Papaya” (1993). 

Mayfair, who grew up in Vietnam but was Western-educated from an early age, crafts a composition that feels masterful beyond her slim CV in emotional complexity, plot and orchestration. Of course, it helps have on hand artistic adviser Tran Anh Hung (director of “Green Papaya,” and husband of Nu Yên-Khê Tran), formal recognition and support from Spike Lee (the Spike Lee Film Production Award) and Chananun Chotrungroj’s dewy and glorious framing of erotic meanderings amid verdant backdrops. The film stumbled into a bit of a controversy when Mayfair cast a 12-year-old in the role of May. That aside, Nguyen Phuong Tra My and the whole cast deliver deep, heartfelt performances, conveying effectively what the laconic script has intentionally left to thespian heft. If the notion of a 14-year-old bride, or actor roughly that age playing such, disturbs you, think how the women relegated into such roles without a choice felt.

Under the Silver Lake

5 Jul

‘Under the Silver Lake’: A distracted detective searches for the frequency in ambitious oddity

 

Image result for under the silver lake

For folks who dig seedy sagas that wind through the underbelly of Hollywood’s dream factory – say “Neon Demon” or “Inherent Vice” – David Robert Mitchell, who hit it big in the horror genre with “It Follows” back in 2014, has a strange one. “Under the Silver Lake,” something of a personal odyssey-cum-mystery, moves in skitters and tics containing a flood of cinematic homage (nay, make that overt: “Did you see that? That’s my Hitchcock”). And while not all of it sticks, it does add spice to the layer cake as it gets thicker and more pungent.

Sam (Andrew Garfield), our hero – or antihero, as is more the truth – is a mopey, shaggy dog, at best underemployed and most likely lacking a job at all no matter how many times he responds “good” or “busy” when asked about said occupation. He lives a lackadaisical existence ambling about a motel complex that has “Rear Window” views; across the way a comely occupant coos to her parrot, sans top. Like Jimmy Stewart, Sam’s got binoculars handy to drink it all in, and what’s this? Down by the pool lounges Sarah, another fetching lass in a bikini (Riley Keough) with a fluffy white toy pooch. Before Sam has a chance to pursue Sarah (the gal at the pool) a friend with benefits shows up, and headboard-banging thumps ensue. What to make of Sam? The dude’s clearly a libertine under the sheepish, aw-shucks demeanor used when fielding calls from his mother, who likes to jabber on about the virtues of Janet Gaynor (I like his mom). Besides paying hypnotic witness to Sam’s self-indulgent, voyeuristic proclivities, not much really transpires for a while. There’s some noise on the TV and a local zine about a canine serial killer (yup, a doggie mass murderer) and a billionaire who dies in an enigmatic crash around the corner. Then Sarah goes missing and things get weird. David Lynch weird. 

What follows is a seductive, disjointed downward spiral as Sam sets off searching for Sarah. Along the many strange pit stops are a crypt party at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (hello Janet!), a dance club where Sam, on some type of hallucinogen, becomes wildly inspired by R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” and at every turn there’s Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten), an aspiring actress and more who saunters through the film in a bathing suit, high heels, a red ballon and tight, tight piggy tails – in short, Lolita incarnate. Perhaps not intentional, but come on, onetime Spider-Man star Garfield recursively gets goo on his hands, be it the egging some kids lay on his car (his retribution to which is over the top and disturbing) or the masturbation session to his dad’s classic 1970s Playboy issue, and at one point (overt nod and wink) a Spidey comic book gets stuck to his hand. Hmm. In a more audacious scene, Sam kicks in the bathroom door on a pop star (he needs the secret code behind a hit’s lyrics) and drags the icon off the commode, but not before we get a long glimmer of the chart-buster’s fecal output, and beats him like Dan Rather in that R.E.M. song. 

As gonzo as much of that sounds, the edgy, “did that really just happen?” bounciness of “Under the Silver Lake” becomes its appeal. Without such it might not have worked. If there’s any downside, it’s Sam’s passive-aggressive ebb and flows (not the psychological definition): He’s largely passive, with extreme eruptions of delusional rage. It doesn’t all hold together, and even if it did, would Sam be the kind of guy I’d want a beer with? The real bell ringer here is the exceptional cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (“It Follows” and “Us”) and the stylistic verve he and Mitchell cook up – it’s transfixing and transportive beyond all rights. As an erotic thriller, “Under the Silver Lake” might not quite achieve its money shot, but it is an ambitious, titillating spectacle, and a promise of more alluring things to come.

Being Frank

28 Jun

‘Being Frank’: Hiding a whole second family, you’d think that by now he’d be a better dad

 

Image result for being frank movie

It’s a kid-eat-dad kind of a world out there in “Being Frank,” a duplicitous daddy comedy, but hey, sometimes dad doesn’t know best and might even deserve a bit of comeuppance. Set in the early ’90s (you can see cellphones and the Internet ruining some of the narrative ticks), Philip (Logan Miller from “Love Simon”) wants to attend art school in New York; dad (the aptly named Frank, played by comedian Jim Gaffigan) wants him to stick closer to their small-town home – “Stay in state,” he says. Frank himself is never around, always off on business trips to Japan for a ketchup company. In a mini act of rebellion, Phillip runs off during spring break to a nearby lakeside town where he learns dad’s not in Japan, but settling in with his second family. That’s right: Dad’s got big love and two well-seeded clans. Surprisingly, Phillip doesn’t blow the lid off the polygamous do-si-do, but instead uses it to get what he wants. He even helps Frank perpetuate the charade.

Directed by Miranda Bailey, whose credits as a producer include indie comedies that similarly go to places few would (“Swiss Army Man” and “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), “Being Frank” in execution feels a bit staged and ham-fisted at times – think “Meatballs” if it tried to play it straight. Inconsistent lurches between romp comedy and soap opera melodrama detract as the plot noose tightens and the truth closes in on Frank. The one heartfelt light in all the household-shuffling madness (talk about multitasking) is the bond that forms between father and son. Granted, it’s not born from traditional roots such as golfing or an investment club, but at least it’s a common goal and the two forge a secret language to keep it all clicking along.

You can’t fault Bailey for going after such ripe comedic fruit, and Gaffigan goofs it up enough to make his lout empathetic, but overall “Being Frank” feels underdone – like some of the jokes and situational comedy needed to be hashed out more, or perhaps required a second or third take to get right. It’s worth acknowledging the supporting cast, which includes Samantha Mathis as one of the wives, Alex Karpovsky as Frank’s stoner buddy with gonzo suggestion and a sassy Isabelle Phillips as one of Frank’s daughters. They do their part to hold the leaky dramedy afloat.

Ophelia

27 Jun

A new feminist slant on a bard classic

Image result for ophelia movie

A feminist reenvisioning of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Ophelia” assumes the POV of Hamlet’s betrothed (the heroine of the title) and boldly begins with a “Sunset Boulevard”-esque opener; us hovering above the protagonist’s body floating in a body of water as their voiceover from beyond tells us how they got there and why. It’s an alluring grip, but not necessarily one that holds as tight as that 1950 classic starring Willam Holden and Gloria Swanson.

Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein, the perspective pivot might tweak some Shakespearean loyalists but for others, it may also pique bard interest—after all look what Tom Stoppard did with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” The burden of success for such a high dive attempt ultimately comes in the execution, and while Claire McCarthy’s production is big, lush and gorgeously shot (by Denison Baker) it doesn’t quite stick it. On the plus side, the tragic tale of deadly familial parlor games finishes with some smart, surprising twists and the whole feminine slant feels timely and appropriate given the state of sexual politics and equality these days.

The casting too is something of a minor coup, with Daisy Ridley (Rey in the current “Star Wars” trilogy) donning auburn locks in the title role, Naomi Watts as Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude and Clive Owen as the snaky manipulator Claudius. George MacKay add a fresh face in the role of the Danish prince though it’s mostly in the corners of the frame, though the scenes with Ridley—and there’s not enough of them—posses the kind of rich ripe chemistry found in the Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann productions of “Romeo and Juliet.” Though the role of Claudious is deepened with more backstory here, Owen is mostly held in check by his character’s singular duplicitous mode. Ridley and Watt on the other hand, are gifted more full bodied characters that expand, bond together and lift what threatens to become a production over leaden with plot and expectation. To that end, MacCarthy and her screenwriter Semi Chellas (“Mad Men”) do keep all the pieces successfully (if precariously) in the air, and handle the flips from the known to the new, with respectful diligence.

Overall “Ophelia” delivers bewitching intrigue and charm. It takes bold chances and mostly succeeds—a big part of that being Ridley’s subtly sizzle. Her Ophelia’s not too far from Rey in “The Force Awakens” (heroines of ‘common’ origin forced to the center of an epic conflict spurred by greed and tyranny) but in a Shakespearean yarn you can’t hide behind massive CGI FX and Yoda speak, her range and confidence will have casting agents think of her for—just about anything. McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) too should likely see her stock rise, the composition is assuredly sharp and authentic, though the slight modernistic infusion into the period score, distracts more than it adds anything new.