The Farewell

Here is another opportunity to visit with a different culture and see how it contrasts to the one you likely fit in. An immigrant Chinese Family returns to China to see an ill grandmother, but the extent of the illness is to be kept from the woman because of family expectations. When the granddaughter and her parents express their doubts about this choice, they explain to her Uncle, that it would not even be possible to keep this information from the woman, in the U.S. it would be illegal.  That’s a pretty stark contrast in values and there are other places where the differences come up as well.

Billi, the character played by star Awkafina, is devoted to her grandmother, speaking to her on the phone on a regular basis, even though it has been years since they have been together. Her parents are willing to go along with the charade, both out of duty but also because they too believe it is a wise thing to do. Billi is invited to not travel to the makeshift wedding of her cousin that has been established as the subterfuge to justify all the family members arriving simultaneously. Her parents do not believe she can be trusted to withhold her grief from Grandma [Nai Nai]. This is certainly true as the story goes on, because Billi cannot retrain herself from going to China and she is not a good enough actor to hide the fact that something is wrong. Awkafina on the other hand seems to be a good enough actress to show us all of those things about Billi, sometimes in narrative but usually in demonstration. Her bowed head and slumped shoulders are a giveaway that she is beaten down by life but especially by this moment in her life.

This story may pose an additional issue that is unrelated to a specific culture but is connected to all of us and our health. Ask yourself, “How important is my attitude toward the management of a heath crisis?” A doctor telling you that you only have so long to live, might actually be accelerating your decay by taking whatever wind out of your sails you may have had. Depression has got to contribute to the decline in quality of life and the foreknowledge of your diagnosis is certainly going to be depressing. There may in fact be people out there who are pursuing a different type of youth in Asia [That’s a pun folks, not a misunderstanding of the word].

The story is ultimately a heart warming experience with a family in a period of crisis. In the long run, it is a family that does have each others best interests at heart so the conflicts are minor rather than melodramatic. Nai Nai is a hoot, she says the right thing at the right time and her loving attitude toward everyone is something we could all hope for. The one thing that will stand out for most people is that eating is a critical part of these relationships, and as we see food being prepared, served, argued about and consumed, you will certainly wonder where you can get some of the dishes that are featured.

On a side note: This film is primarily in Mandarin with English subtitles. There are many sections in English but at least two thirds are in non-english formats. There were three large groups of families who came to see the movie which is great, but the one family that sat next to us proved a bit of a problem. The seven or eight year old boy was clearly not interested and apparently not capable of reading effectively. His mother narrated all of the film that was not in English and it was incredibly distracting despite the fact she was not particularly loud. So we are hearing the words in one language, reading them in another, and hearing them again in the second language. It was an annoying echo that undermined the experience substantially, and when the mother had to explain some things to the child, it was even more problematic. This was a bad choice for them and it was a worse one for us.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

I like all kinds of movies. Hollywood should adore a fan like me because I will turn out for the next tentpole blockbuster in the MCU, or a mainstream drama with major stars, or a gross out comedy or horror film. I also have a fondness for movies like our current subject, offbeat character pieces about subcultures and locations with which I am completely unfamiliar. Two examples from the last few years stick out for illustration purposes. “Moonlight“, the Best Picture winner featuring the history of a gay black drug dealer. That is not something that connects with my experience in any way but it was compelling. “Mud“, which should have been a Best Picture winner explores a Mississippi river community and the tangled relationships between adults and children, I thought it was the best film I saw in the year it came out. So in what ways are these films like “The Peanut Butter Falcon”?

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the movie and lets see if you can connect the dots. We have a Downs Syndrome, young adult, obsessive about TV style wrestling, who lives in the outer banks of North Carolina and gets involved with a disgraced crab fisherman. These are all cultures that I have had little or no contact with and my guess is most of the rest of us lack that connection as well. And this movie manages to bring us into those worlds, create a sense of empathy with those characters and build an emotional story that we will be engaged with for the time we spend with them. This is story telling rather than spectacle and I think that is as worthy of my time and money as any comic book movie would be.

Some might be put off by the presence of Shia LeBeouf in the cast. As a celebrity, he is problematic. Many of his antics are off putting and his persona might be objectionable. I really don’t care much about those sort of things. As an actor I have found him to be fairly consistent in turning in quality performances, both in CGI behemoths and in independent projects. This is probably his best work as an actor that I can remember. His manner of speech is not quite dominated by an accent as it is representative of a lifestyle and culture.  While much of that is the dialogue he has been given, he has to find a way for it to seem natural, and he does that quite well. The physical aspects of his performance are also solid. He is a young man, beaten down by circumstances and haunted by guilt. He is capable of enjoying moments of levity but you can see in most of his scenes that there is a shadow that hangs over him and that it pushes down on him physically as well as emotionally. The best news is, he is not really the star of the picture and all of his work is a reflection that he is a supporting character in the story, even though he has a substantial amount of the screen time.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen is the real star of the film. He is an actor with Downs syndrome who has to carry the weight of the story on his shoulders. His openness is the main hook that makes the performance viable. Although he is playing a character with the same condition he has, that character has distinctive behaviors and attitudes that are part of the script. Toward the end of the movie, there is a moment of doubt and fear that has never existed in his character Zac, prior to that instant. The actor makes it real and that is one of the places that makes this a true performance and not just stunt casting. He builds credible relations with the other two major players and a series of other characters as well.

Although the movie focuses on the relationship between the two actors I’ve mentioned so far, there are several others that deserve to be mentioned, not the least of whom is Dakota Johnson. This young woman has the good fortune or curse of having been the lead in the series of Mommy Porn films based on Twilight fan fiction which became so popular a few years ago. The movies are widely derided and it would be easy to dismiss her as a pretty face without commensurate talent. That would be a mistake. She was quite good in last year’s “Bad Times at the El Royale” and she is touching and sincere in this film as well. She is a conflicted care giver who knows how difficult life for Zac can be, but she can also see the impact that the relationship Zac has with LaBeouf’s character  is a positive one. There are three terrific actors in relatively small parts in the rest of the film, all three are former Academy Award nominees. John Hawkes is cast in his usual redneck image and he is the villain of the piece in spite of his character being largely in the right concerning his dispute with LaBeouf’s Tyler.  Bruce Dern is in the early scenes as a sympathetic resident in Zac’s care facility, and he adds some spunk to the proceedings early on. Finally, Thomas Haden Church may have the best character part since his role in “Sideways”, as a wrestling figure from the past who is an inspiration to Zac.

The film has a great deal of humor based on character to offer us. Tyler does not start out very sympathetic either as a person or towards Zac. The film suggests that good will can manifest good relations and that those are the things we should value above everything else. The lack of good will exhibited by the facility administrators, the crab fishing rivals and a broken down wrestler are the reasons we can’t appreciate their behaviors, even when they are somewhat understandable. Tyler on the other hand, in spite of his criminal acts, turns out to have good will in his heart, the story attempts to show us how someone can recover that by caring for another person. Sometimes these kinds of films are refereed to as “feel-good” movies.  Unfortunately that label might be seen as some as disparaging. In my opinion, this is a movie that makes you feel good because it plays honestly with the characters, not because it manipulates them or us.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

If you look at this film from a cinematic perspective, you are unlikely to be impressed. It is well shot but there is nothing innovative here. The story is melodramatic, male weepy material, and the dog narrates. Those would be things that turn off serious film buffs but they are exactly the kinds of things that would sell this movie to a specific audience and make it work. Well, I’m that audience and guess what, on an emotional level it works. Movies where the dog is a featured character have been around forever and they usually are designed for one purpose, to wring as many tears out of a person as possible. Check that off the list, this movie brings the tears for dog lovers everywhere. From the opening scene, we know how the movie is going to end, and that includes not just the metaphorical puddle but a real one as well.

I’ve never seen “This is Us” the television series that features the star of this movie Milo Ventimiglia. He is apparently quite strong in that role since he has been Emmy nominated three years in a row, but this is my introduction to his work and he is fine. I don’t know that there is much he can do with the role because he is basically a human punching bag with a side kick. The character of Denny Swift is an aspiring race car driver, who has opportunities snatched away from him and side roads in his life that turn into bad trips. All of that is tolerable because he has a dog with him to remind himself of the possibilities in life that he talks about regularly.

Amanda Seyfried has reached the stage in life where she has gone from playing the ingenue to playing the young mother. Her romance with Denny is swift and their life together is beautiful, until it is time for more stuff to hit the fan, then she becomes another plot point in the story. Human characters elicit empathy in movies when we are engaged in their lives, so the events that overtake her don’t have the same impact as the third major character in the film. That third character is the one we will have all the emotional connection to. That third character is the dog.

Enzo is the name of the dog. He is played by at least three different golden retrievers, as a pup, a young healthy dog and the older wiser pooch we meet at the beginning of the story and at the end. In the first five minutes, the conclusion is foreshadowed and we get an hour and a half to gird ourselves for the denouement. It’s still not enough time. In addition to being the world’s friendliest looking dog, Enzo has the gravelly and still slightly whiney voice of Kevin Costner. The actor never appears on screen but he is the star of this movie, telling us the story from the perspective of the dog. I hope he got paid well because he earns all the emotional beats for the film’s narratives. Speaking of getting paid, I am looking in the mailbox for our residual check. Look at these pictures.

Our dog may very well have snuck off and filmed this movie while we were not looking. The number of times there was an expression on Enzo’s face that I have seen on our own dog’s face is too numerous to catalog. If you control for lighting, these dogs are the same and even have the same inner voice (dog owners know what I mean).

There is nothing subtle about where this is heading. The manipulative plot devise that involves a custody dispute aside, the dog’s arc is the backbone of the story. Kathy Baker and Martin Donovan have the thankless roles of antagonists in the later part of the story and Gary Cole provides his usual welcome presence in i small part as a mentor of sorts to Denny.  The best acting however is done by the dog and everyone knows that this is his film and let him walk away with the movie on all four paws. Bring your tissues because you will weep if you are a person who loves a dog.art_of_racing_in_the_rain

Angel Has Fallen

So if it drives you crazy to see action films, franchised to extreme and you hate Gerard Butler and wonder who it is you can blame, well here I am baby. Let me have it. These movies would be a guilty pleasure except I have no guilt and those of you Butler haters out there can just move on, I have yet to fall out of love with the action flicks he is churning out in the last few years. “Olympus Has Fallen” started this series and it was definitely the superior of the White House under attack films of that year. “London Has Fallen” is not a particularly strong follow up to that first adventure of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning, but it did have a lot of combat scenes that were fun to watch up to a point. This third entry is not as clever as the first, but much more effective than the second.

Morgan Freeman is now President, although that seems to have been the case since 1998 [Maybe the Longest Term in Office Ever]. Some malarkey about new foreign policy constraints and the use of civilian contractors for military support is the plot point that moves the narrative forward. It really doesn’t matter because all we really want is agent Banning kicking butts and causing mayhem wherever he turns up. Fortunately that’s what we get. The man about to be named director of the Secret Service is framed to take the fall for an assassination of the man he is supposed to be protecting. There was no secret who the villain is, let’s face it, you don’t cast Danny Huston as a friendly and supportive sidekick. There is a man behind the man villain as well and although I was pretty sure what was going to be coming, there was a short period where they thew me off the track for two scenes and I thought my stereotypical assumption would turn out to be wrong. Nope, I was right, they just paused a beat before getting to it.

The middle of the film is a chase sequence that works pretty well and is different enough from the events in the second film to avoid feeling like a rehash. Mike has to escape both legitimate authority but also the bad guys who are trying to complete the frame. There are some shoot outs, a truck and car chase and Mike occasionally has to sit down with a headache.   Buckloads of good guys and bad guys get killed in the first sections of the film. The opening attack wipes out dozens of Secret Service agents. Turnaround is fair play and dozens of bad guys chasing Mike get creamed as well. Nick Nolte appears in the film and provides a big lift to the movie with a performance as a paranoid survivalist with a connection to our hero. Maybe laughing was inappropriate when a battalion of men is randomly blown to bits, but the demented glee of the character and the audiences joy in seeing tome turnabout left most of my matinee crowd chuckling.

I’ve not seen “Felon” or “Snitch” so I can’t say exactly what Director Ric Roman Waugh’s style is. This film makes it look very efficient and clear. There are some creative shots in the drone attack near the start of the film, and the opening “combat” sequence is distinctive so that we do get an idea that it is more video game than actual combat.  Overblown action scenes at the end don’t usually make much narrative sense but they usually don’t need to. They simply have to get us the resolution we are hoping for in an entertaining way. Bingo! that’s what we got. The film cuts down on the name recognition talent the first two films used to get our attention, and doubles down with quality second tier players. Instead of Angela Basset we get Jada Pinket-Smith, leave out Melissa Leo, Jackie Earle Haley and Robert Forester and insert Tim Blake Nelson, Lance Reddick and Piper Perabo.  You don’t need to have seen either of the earlier films to appreciate this one, just know that the cast change is unimportant, this series is all about action.

Well there is some political and topical material, these movies are not satires directed at any particular perspective. We don’t know the party of the President, we don’t have a lot of strum und drang involving high minded principles. This is straight 80s style action. Good guys and bad guys going at each other with some elaborate set pieces and enough personality in the background to keep us hanging on through the slower parts. I suspect the demographic for this will skew older. My reasoning is that the audience for this wants to stay awake, they don’t really care about being woke. Now let’s have Mike take his knife with the President to Moscow or Beijing. Time to kill some totalitarians, not just entrepreneurs.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

When you have a movie that you are not sure who the audience is, and it comes from a company that has shown incompetence when it comes to marketing, you get a film like this. Annapura Studios is on the brink of bankruptcy, not because of a creative vacuum but rather a lack of business sense. This is an arthouse style film, with bigger ambitions, which is going to be swallowed and spit out by the brutal dumping ground that late August often is. The film is not bad, it’s just not anything that you can tell somebody it is. The team putting this into theaters is telling us it’s a comedy, but you won’t laugh much, you will smile occasionally and I think you may end up feeling a little sad afterward.

Not having read the book, I will tell you what I can fathom from the film. Bernadette Fox is a genius artist/architect who has had a serious mental problem after the outcome of one of her brilliant projects. Cate Blanchett has cornered the market on quirky female characters for twenty years now. If you want accents, get Meryl, if you want quirk, Cate is your date. As usual, she delivers a fine performance with a combination of comedic timing and appropriate dramatic punch at the right moments. Billy Crudup is her equally genius engineering type husband. Between the two of them, wealth is an afterthought. Foremost in their thoughts is their daughter Bee, played by newcomer Emma Nelson. Bernadette’s problems are beginning to overwhelm her husband and  they create some issue for her fiercely loyal daughter as well.

This movie feels like a 1980s Meryl Streep feature. The story meanders and there are interesting characters, but there does not seem to be a point to the film except for the characters. There is a little bit of plot drama toward the end which makes the movie a lot more fulfilling but it depends and turning a couple of characters away from each other to get that drama. In the 1930s, Bernadette would be a madcap heiress that everybody indulges but in these times we can see she is emotionally and mentally challenged and indulging her has not really helped.

Director Richard Linklater has put the story together with cryptic notes about what sent her over the edge, most of which are revealed bit by bit as a video on YouTube. This gets some terrific actors in the movie in tiny parts that add to the whole quite well. David Paymer, Steve Zahn, Megan Mullally and Laurence Fishburne pop up and fill the background canvas of the story with needed color. Kristen Wiig is a harried neighbor who is played as an antagonist but has a deeper role to provide as the movie goes on. Judy Greer also has a more engaged part and she conveys a sympathy and insightfulness that Bernadette could use but like everything else she runs away from. I don’t know that the resolution of the story is a pragmatic solution, after all mania is still a disorder, but for the audience it is emotionally satisfying.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette”  is an odd concoction of ideas and characters. It worked well enough at times but I do think the choices about the Father/Daughter dynamic in the last third of the movie are problematic, at least when it comes to relating to the younger character. There are some sincere motivations but there is a bit of belligerence which was not evident earlier in the story and it feel inauthentic when directed at the other parent. That choice was especially iffy because of the crisis that the family faces.