Tag Archives: Crazy Rich Asians

Hustlers

13 Sep

 

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“The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), “The Big Short” (2015) and “Wall Street” (1987) all capture fast cash and high times in vivid blurs of overindulgence, articulated through mounds of designer drugs, $100 bottles of champagne and long-legged women in G-strings sashaying about for well-fleeced oglers. “Hustlers” takes all that and flips it on its head – kind of.

The time is 2007, pre-“Big Short” or, more accurately, about the same time, since it’s before the market collapse, and the folks raking in gobs of green on Wall Street are also shelling it out to a posse of pole dancers at a semi-swank Manhattan club. This also being pre-#MeToo, bad behavior and Robert Kraft-like expectations are all part of the landscape. The film, based on on a New York Magazine article, begins with fairy tale roots as Destiny (Constance Wu), the byproduct of a bad immigrant story, short on degrees and in need of cash to support her granny, takes up lap dance duty at the club – “Magic Mike” this is not. Stuck in that rut, she winds up being taken being under the wing (and enormous fur jacket) of Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), the club’s den queen. The pair team up, dance their tassels off, money flows in buckets and life is grand until that market collapse.

It’s there that the film begins to lose its own value, as the pair and their crew – needing to support kids and expensive digs – begin to shake down those still thriving on Wall Street by giving them essentially what amounts to roofies and maxing out their credit cards. It’s not a pretty picture.

It feels right that this tale of quasi-female empowerment be told by a woman, and while Lorene Scafaria shows plenty of game early on, hyping up the glitz and sleazy glamor and capturing the raucous backstage banter and J-Lo crushing it on the pole – her form and physicality are beyond age-defying – the film meanders as the narrative in the later years employs the device of the journalist (Julia Stiles) asking Destiny to rewind the ring’s exploits after a takedown. It becomes “Goodfellas” lite. Scafaria tosses in a few cinematic tricks to keep things interesting, such as the still moving lips of Destiny and the journalist gone silent after Destiny shuts of the recording device, but there’s not enough gonzo quirk as in Adam McKay’s “Big Short” to really merit them. The real pull here is the bond forged onscreen between Wu, Lopez and the others running the operation, but even that gets frayed and lost in the end.

Wu, who’s been trying to break free from the small screen (“Fresh Off the Boat,” primarily) the same way Jennifer Aniston did nearly two decades ago, makes a bigger, bold stride toward center stage following her turn in the hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” but here too, she becomes more of a plot-flow funnel point; the film’s consumed by Lopez every time she’s onscreen – it’s Lopez’s best work since the quirky crime caper-cum-romance “Out of Sight” back in 1998.

Yes Cardi B, is in the mix, and perfectly outlandish. Early century icon Usher shows up as himself to shower the posse on stage with wads of green. Those cameos come early, but as the money and the watering hole dry up and more desperate measures abound, the film loses its fangs, hanging on a broken Destiny wondering about her friend and mentor. Wu is fantastic in those scenes, but by that time something in the bigger picture feels missing, and we feel shorted emotionally as the tale of Ramona and Destiny gets rolled into a lesson of the times.

The Farewell

11 Jul

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

 

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“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.

Crazy Rich Asians

19 Aug

 

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There’s been much ado about “Crazy Rich Asians” being the first all-Asian film to hit English screens since the screen adaptation of Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” back in 1993. While that sentiment holds largely true, it’s not wholly accurate; those behind the labeling likely forgot about “Better Luck Tomorrow,” the 2002 curio from director Justin Lin (of the “Fast and Furious” and “Star Trek” franchises) about overachieving high schoolers. (Granted, it was made for only $250,000, so maybe it doesn’t qualify, but it did earn more than 1,400 percent that at the box office, which is crazy by any standard.) And “Crazy Rich Asians,” like “Tomorrow,” orbits around the tip of the social spire – the very tip of the top in this case, as it concerns the one-percent of all one-percenters.

If that sounds like a tough sell – trying to invoke empathy for the wildly entitled – that would be fair (the don’t-haves here have doctorates) but keep in mind, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a comedy, and one that revels smartly in the excess of its subjects without being trite, superficial or dismissive. Also, the problems the folks face along the way are universal people problems, not rich-people problems, though class does play a major factor. You could think of its as something akin to “Sex and the City” by way of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” with a fuller body, greater nuance and a twist of zest. What makes the whole thing fly is Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, a New York City econ prof who’s dating Nick, the hunky history prof (Henry Golding) from down the hall. She’s the one out of her class element when Nick invites her to attend a wedding in his homeport of Singapore. What she doesn’t know until she boards the luxury airliner and they’re led to a suite with beds and room service is that Nick is slumming it in academia: His family basically owns half of Singapore and his mother (a very regal Michelle Yeoh) is no fan of the poor-bred interloper. (Rachael was raised by a single mother – and worse, she’s American.) 

That’s the primary rub, and several of Nick’s old girlfriend’s are sent in to perform mean-girl stunts that at times feel more like a mafia hit. In short, the odds are stacked against Rachel, but Nick, ever calm, suave, loving and by her side, holds the boat steady – he’s Prince Charming and then some. Also in Rachel’s corner is rapper Awkwafina as Rachel’s bestie from college and Ken Jeong, her friend’s dad. They both try too hard, but provide the necessary comic relief. The one who really walks away with the scenes is Nico Santos as Nick’s cousin Oliver, imbued with barbed wit and a wicked sense of “Queer Eye” makeover panache. 

Wu, best known for her tiger-esque mom on the wonderful “Fresh Off the Boat” TV series, slides into the rom-com format with the same ease as Jennifer Aniston; as with Aniston, there’s something that doesn’t quite fit, but also something that endears. Yeoh commands every frame she’s in, but the big winner here is Golding, who has the demurring charm of Hugh Grant, with square-jawed good looks and kindness and intelligence in every glimmer. He’ll be a household name and bankable star before the next presidential election. 

The other stars of “Crazy Rich Asians” are the city of Singapore itself – plush, clean and eternally inviting as framed by director Jon M. Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul – and the food porn rendering of the banquet spreads and dumplings. It’s not on par with “Babette’s Feast” or “Eat Drink Man Woman,” but it will make you lick your chops. Also a nice touch: The American pop tunes sung in Mandarin, including Madonna’s apt “Material Girl.” It’s just another neatly placed garnish that takes the old and known and gives it zing. It’s a thing.