CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. With so much attention on this being a rare mainstream movie with an “all Asian cast”, it’s possible to lose sight of the fact that it’s much more than this generation’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Director John M Chu has delivered a very entertaining, though a bit slick and glossy, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy with touches of cultural awareness. It also features a few noteworthy performances, including a star-making turn from Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”).

Based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, the screenplay is written by Peter Chiarelli (THE PROPOSAL) and TV writer Adele Lim. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an energetic, American-born Chinese economics professor, and her boyfriend Nick Young is played by big screen newcomer Henry Golding. A successful and confident person on her own, Rachel, having been raised by a hard-working single mother (who fled China while pregnant), assumes her charming and handsome boyfriend is equally grounded. It’s not until she agrees to accompany him to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding that she begins to pry the truth – most of the truth – out of him. See, Nick and his family are quasi-royalty in Singapore … one of the wealthiest families in the city and country.

Upon arriving, Rachel quickly learns that Nick’s mother is certainly not open to the idea of her son, the company’s heir-apparent, having anything to do with a woman lacking the required pedigree – namely money and a Chinese legacy. Michelle Yeoh (CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON) plays the icy Eleanor Young, and is quite elegant in her disdain for Rachel, and in capturing the relationship between Asian mother and son. Some of the best scenes are the interactions between Rachel and Eleanor – each so eager to succeed in their polar opposite missions. Facing widespread accusations of gold-digging, Rachel retreats to the comfort of her old college friend Goh Peik Lin, played by a fast-talking and quite hilarious Awkwafina (OCEAN’S 8).

The humor is prevalent throughout, with some of it being quite outrageous. Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun play Peik Lin’s parents … the caricatures of new money. Jimmy O Yang is the high-roller never-grown-up frat boy type responsible for the outlandish bachelor party; Nico Santos is Oliver, the self-titled ‘rainbow sheep of the family’; and Ronnie Chieng is the obnoxious family member everyone avoids. The comedy provided by this group prevents the dramatic elements from ever being too weighty for viewers. This holds true even with the short-changed sub-plot featuring Nick’s beautiful sister Astrid (a scene-stealing Gemma Chan) and her disintegrating marriage to another “outsider”.

Opulence and obscene wealth is on full display, leaving us a bit unsure (by design) exactly where the emphasis should be placed on the title. Although it has the required elements of a fairy tale, it’s certainly not run-of-the-mill. Cinderella allowed a kind-hearted woman to be rescued from slave labor and a basement bed. This Cinderella story doesn’t exactly rescue Rachel, who is a strong, self-made woman. Instead, it ups the ante by having her harshly judged … while in fact, she is the one who should be sitting in judgment – first of a boyfriend who was never honest, and then with a family who assumes she’s not good enough to be one of them.

In a tip of the cap the aforementioned THE JOY LUCK CLUB, Lisa Lu (now 91 years old) plays Kevin’s grandmother, the matriarch of the family, and one who has played a role in making Eleanor the protector of family and tradition. Eleanor’s guiding philosophy and contempt towards Rachel is summed up in her line, “All Americans think about is their own happiness”. It’s one of the moments where we do wish the film would dig a bit deeper and further explain the traditions and cultural differences that cause such venom spewing towards Rachel.

Director Chu has had a stream of poorly reviewed films (NOW YOU SEE ME 2, JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, STEP 2), but that likely stops here. His social media montage early in the film is a visual feast, and the camera work (by Vanja Cernjul) over Singapore is stunning. The soundtrack offers Asian versions of some well-known songs, including Cheryl K singing “Money (that’s what I want)”, a Berry Gordy song which we are accustomed to hearing sung by John Lennon. Credit goes to casting as well, since Ms. Yeoh and Ms. Lu are Asian acting royalty, and Ms. Wu and the dashing Mr. Golding are sure to see their careers skyrocket.

The director and producers are also to be commended for making the rare decision of choosing art over money. They were so committed to the film finding a theatrical audience that they turned down huge bucks from Netflix for the rights. It’s a risk that will likely payoff for them. Is it a simple love story made complicated by family, economics, tradition, and class differences … or is it a story of tradition and wealth that attempts to salvage the purity of a love story regardless of class? Either way, it’s a relatable story and one that will surely entertain most anyone who watches. As a bonus, you’ll pick up a banana joke that you’d best not repeat.

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MILE 22 (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I like secrets too!  By definition, information is scarce on these teams, so Secret Ops units are perfect fodder for intrigue, espionage, and geopolitical action flicks. A fictional account of an elite paramilitary unit chasing down Russian spies is not only timely, but also timeless. Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are back for their 4th testosterone-laced collaboration. Their previous work included PATRIOTS DAY, DEEPWATER HORIZON, and LONE SURVIVOR, each with an element of truth to their story. Not so with their latest … at least we hope not.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mark Wahlberg, er… James Silva, a child prodigy with anger issues who has grown into a military intelligence prodigy with anger issues and a rubber band. Silva snaps the rubber band on his wrist when his impatience bubbles up as those around him can’t keep up with his rapid-fire thinking. The only thing that works faster than Silva’s brain is his motor-mouth filled with cryptic cuts and curses. Lest you think this is another men’s only club, writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland have blessed us with two female action figures. One is played by MMA star Ronda Rousey. She is given little to do here. The other is Lauren Cohan (“The Walking Dead”) who, as team member Alice Kerr, has much to do – even beyond the absentee-mommy guilt burdening her.

Carlo Alban plays another member of the elite squad, while John Malkovich plays “Mother”, the flat-top toupeed control center leader … you knew there had to be an ultra-high-tech lair staffed with computer nerds. Since Wahlberg spends most of the movie yelling, and Cohan battles her estranged husband (Peter Berg cameo) over Skype, the most interesting character is Li Noor, played by Iko Uwais (THE RAID). Uwais brings a Bruce Lee quality to the film with an incredible hospital room fight scene, as well as a few other sequences that will have you marvel at his abilities.

Intensity and tension and violence and gun play and fighting and chase scenes are jam-packed into a relatively short run time, but the opening sequence is the closest thing we get to something that fits into a well-written espionage thriller. The team sets up a raid on a Russian FSB suburban safe house. Things get twisted, and the final kill ends with “you’re making a mistake”. The film then jumps ahead two years to the Overwatch team reassembling in Southeast Asia for a mission to transport Li Noor to an airfield 22 miles away. See, he holds the information regarding dirty bombs that can either save or cost thousands of lives.

The film features a framing device with Silva being debriefed after the mission. He is explaining why they do the important work they do and why they did the important work they did and why it’s important that we understand the work is important. There is government bashing and military cheerleading, but mostly the interview acts as a respite between violent action sequences. The film plays so much like a video game that each ticket should come with a joystick. If after watching this, you need more, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a cheesy line at the end that tees up the sequel … and don’t worry, director Berg and Mr. Wahlberg are already in pre-production for their fifth film.

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DO YOU TRUST THIS COMPUTER? (2018, doc)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. When asked if they believe a computer could ever be conscious, two young woman combine to respond: ‘No. Unless they program it that way’. And that answer is at the core of director Chris Paine’s (WHO KILLED THE ELECTRIC CAR?) latest exploration of Artificial Intelligence. Are we controlling the machines, or could they end up controlling us?

Early on, the point is made that science-fiction has numbed us to the potential pitfalls and risks of A.I. Fingers are pointed at some favorites such as TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, WARGAMES, EX MACHINA, THE MATRIX, and ROBOCOP. We have come to accept A.I. as high level entertainment rather than acknowledging the inroads being made by firms such as Google.

It is explained that Google search is actually a form of Artificial Intelligence and the algorithms are collecting more data than we have stopped to realize.  For a film like this, expert talking heads are a necessity, and director Paine delivers. We hear from AI experts, writers, journalists, and doctors. The lineup includes Jonathan Nolan, Elon Musk, and Stuart Russell, and each offers fundamental insight for the topic, leaving us with the notion that A.I. is capable of ‘incredible miracles, as well as incredible horrors’. We are also informed that “it’s not the future, it’s the present”.

Specific areas impacted by A.I. and explored here include: self-driving cars, medical applications, military weaponry, and financial market data. Weaponized drones are an example, and one surgeon provides a real life case study of how a computer would have an advantage over him. Time is spent on the “Jeopardy” experiment where IBM’s Watson (created by David Farucci) goes up against the top contestants and wins. Robotics are also a focus here, and the impact goes far beyond the loss of factory jobs.

Well known documentary writer Mark Monroe (ICARUS, FED UP, THE COVE) helps director Paine with the presentation structure since so many topics are touched upon. The electronic score is a bit overbearing at times, and we can’t help but question the motivation behind the film’s dedication, “In Memory of Stephen Hawking”. The film could be viewed as high tech fear-mongering, however, it’s more of a wake-up call to pay attention to the developments that are occurring (and how data is being collected and processed). The last thing we want is for the film’s opening quote to come true: “You are my creator, but I’m your master” (Mary Shelley from “Frankenstein”).

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THE COOLEST GUY MOVIE EVER (2018, doc)

August 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. As one who watches more than 200 movies each year, I absolutely understand how someone could be extraordinarily passionate about a particular film … even to the point of bordering on obsession. First time director Christophe Espenan clearly feels that way about THE GREAT ESCAPE. In fact, his sentiment is so strong for the film that he assembled a team and took off to Bavaria in order to re-trace the filming locations some 50 years after John Sturges and his all-star cast were there.

The documentary kicks off with the modern day team trekking through a heavily wooded area. We learn they are searching for the exact location of the movie’s prison camp. It was built on a studio backlot, and background research reveals that trees had to be cleared to construct the prison, and the promise was made to re-plant twice as many trees once production ended. In the five decades since, the trees have flourished into what could now be described as a forest … with no signs of the prison camp that was part of cinematic history. So what should have been a highlight of Mr. Espenan’s movie, turns into something akin to Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault.

Based on Paul Brickhill’s book, the iconic 1962 film starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, and Gordon Jackson. It surely belongs on any list of ‘cool guy’ movies, along with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (released two years prior). Both films were directed by Mr. Sturges and feature terrific and memorable scores from the great Elmer Bernstein.

Archival footage of interviews from James Coburn and James Garner are included, as well as numerous photos and clips from the film itself. Mr. Espenan carries an album of screenshots from the film and does a nice job of matching up specific locations and scenes as he and the team walk through the towns. Local Hotel Alpina is featured as the place where much of the cast and crew stayed during filming, and the hotel staff fondly remembers when their paths crossed. Lawrence Montaigne serves as narrator, and since he also had a small part in the movie, his insight is appreciated … though he was better known for this frequent TV series appearances, before passing away in 2017.

A substantial portion of the film’s 55 minute run time is devoted to the motorcycle stunts of Steve McQueen. However, on the whole, the film does not feel stretched, but rather just a bit too lightweight for today’s documentary standards. It comes across as more of a tribute or fanboy whim than a “making of” or “behind-the-scenes” project delivering insight or detail. It did succeed in getting me to add THE GREAT ESCAPE near the top of my list for classic films to revisit … it’s one I’ve never reviewed, and definitely should.

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ONE BEDROOM (2018)

August 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Since none of us enjoy our own relationship-gone-bad, it’s kind of interesting how we can be drawn to just such a movie. Nate and Melissa’s romance is crumbling … or rather has crumbled. She has accused him of cheating with a younger woman, and they are surrounded by moving boxes as they finish break-up (not make-up) intimacy in the small Brooklyn apartment they’ve been sharing for 5 years.

Writer-Director-Producer-Actor Darien Sill-Evans stars as Nate, a DJ slash barber, who can never quite distinguish between what he should tell Melissa (Devin Nelson) and the boys at the barbershop, and what he should keep to himself. He’s a pretty typical clueless dude. Melissa is angry at him for cheating, and during their argument, a flashback sheds light on what really happened that night. Conflict and emotions fill the screen whether it’s Melissa and Nate bickering, or Nate getting the treatment from his co-workers at the barbershop, or even Melissa hearing it from her friend and brother.

In his first feature film as a director, Sill-Evans does a nice job of establishing the lingering doubts that accompany the dissolution of a long term relationship. Fingers are pointed, accusations are made, and feelings of guilt are predominant. He uses additional flashbacks to deliver more insight into all of these characters, especially the two leads. Much of the dialogue seems yanked directly from real life, and the best is, “I didn’t cheat, I retaliated”. So much is said with those words.

There is quite a bit of comedy mixed in, though much of the time, it’s the delivery, not the setting that generates the chuckles. Mr. Sill-Evans has certainly not delivered a formulaic Rom-Com, and in fact, the dramatic moments are the most powerful – shedding light on our flaws as human beings. Supporting work is provided by Jade Johnson, John Laster, Stephen Hill, and Chester A Sims II.

Opening with a streetside rant against racism, we hear some of the stupid things white people say during the gentrification of a neighborhood. Doug Simpson’s music is spot on throughout, and though this one won’t reach a mass audience, for an independent directorial debut, it definitely makes a statement.

watch the trailer (NSFW):


DISTORTED (2018)

August 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being startled awake by a nightmare is disconcerting for all of us. When that dream is strobe-like with flashes to a personal tragedy, the horrifying images carryover into daily life, impacting one’s mental stability.  Such is the new-norm for Lauren (played by Christina Ricci) as she attempts to recover from a disaster of which we are only provided glimpses and hints until later in the film (although it’s pretty obvious). Lauren admits to being scared to rejoin the world – she hasn’t even been able to resume putting her art on canvas.

Director Rob W King (HUNGRY HILLS, 2009) teams with writer Arne Olsen (whose work in the 1990’s included COP AND A ½, RED SCORPION, MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE) in an attempt to deliver a high-tech psychological thriller … a sub-genre that has yet to be successfully conquered, cinematically speaking. Lauren and her husband, played by Brendan Fletcher, decide the best move for her sanity and their marriage is to move from the city to the suburbs. They choose The Pinnacle, a luxury condo with ultra high-tech and modern amenities so extreme it’s known as “the smart building”.

Typically having a building be the villain doesn’t work out so well from a story-telling perspective, so of course, paranoia and conspiracy theories are dwelled upon. An obvious choice of the “Beautiful Dreamer” song is repeatedly slipped into scenes to cause Lauren further queasiness. As she becomes increasingly suspicious, and convinced evil is afoot, she crosses paths with a mysterious dark web figure played by John Cusack – a character so predictable that he whispers in conversations, wears a black hoodie, and works in a secret computer lair. As others try to convince Lauren her medications for depression are either too much or too little, Cusack feeds her the age old line … you aren’t paranoid if they are watching you.

Christina Ricci has been acting since she was 10 years old, and here she performs admirably in a film that, bottom line, doesn’t deliver. The movie has the vibe of a cheesy TV show, kind of a rip-off of “Westworld” or “I, Robot”, though it does tease us with the possibilities of electronic hypnosis and manipulation through subliminal images. Our ever-increasingly digital world, and the dangers that come with such power, are a real world problem that, for whatever reason, just hasn’t transferred well to the big screen yet.

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BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018)

August 9, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Adam Driver impersonating John David Washington or vice versa … either way is comical, except that it’s also based on a true story where their characters existed and this chain of events actually occurred. The source material is the memoir by Ron Stallworth and it’s possible, given today’s social climate, that only director Spike Lee could pull off a film that so blatantly uses racism for comedic effect, yet also reminds us of its inherent danger.

Mr. Washington (Denzel’s son) plays Ron Stallworth, Colorado Springs’ first black rookie police officer. His job interview is quite awkward and, of course, features a reference to Jackie Robinson. Quickly growing tired of his records room duty, Stallworth’s first field assignment is to infiltrate a local black activist group and report back on a Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) event. This leads to a much bigger and riskier plan of going after the KKK. Yes that’s right, no need to re-read the part about him being the first black police officer. This is the incredible story of how an African-American (with the help of his white partner) worked his way into the KKK, even speaking with David Duke on a few occasions, and ultimately prevented an attack on local black activists.

The adapted screenplay was a collaborative effort from Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and director Spike Lee. The film is simultaneously laugh outloud funny and provocative. The outlandish plan involves Ron Stallworth (and his white voice) being the telephone connection, and partner (and non-practicing Jew) Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) being the “white face” of Ron Stallworth at KKK meetings. There is extreme tension during Zimmerman’s undercover scenes, and much of the humor occurs during Stallworth’s phone conversations. Topher Grace is extremely effective as David Duke, a thankless role to say the least.

Superb support work is widespread in this film that runs 2 hour and 15 minutes. Robert John Burke plays a no-nonsense Chief Bridges; Frederick Weller is racist jackass patrolman Andy Landers; Laura Harrier is Patrice, the Angela Davis lookalike activist and love interest; Jasper Paakkonen plays skeptical and high-strung Klansman Felix; Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA) is the comical and unnerving Ivanhoe; and even Harry Belafonte makes a surprise big screen appearance. Other notables include Alec Baldwin (in an opening that sets the stage), Nicholas Turturro, Damaris Lewis, Ryan Eggold, Isiah Whitlock Jr, and Arthur J Nascarella. It’s a terrific and deep cast and they walk the fine line between entertainment and enlightenment. There is no shortage of Hollywood family genes and blending thanks to: Washington, Baldwin, Turturro, Buscemi, and Weller (it plays like 2 degrees of separation).

A low-budget look to the film gives it an authenticity and 1970’s vibe, and cinematographer Chayse Irvin works wonders with the camera in a multitude of situations where our attention should be on the dialogue of the characters rather than the colorfulness of set pieces. Black Ron running the show from a telephone (and a white voice) and White Ron face-first in the muck both have their burdens to bear, and much of the time, Zimmerman’s is the more interesting of the two – although as a whole, it’s an astonishing story.

Perhaps Spike Lee set out to make the polar opposite of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 most controversial film THE BIRTH OF A NATION, and he has certainly crafted one of the most effective films of his oeuvre. He also nails a few jabs at Trump and the current political climate, while the music from Terrence Blanchard perfectly complements the tone. Mr. Lee interjects some historic moments as well as some fictional ones – none more powerful than the back and forth chants of “White Power” “Black Power”. At the conclusion, Lee serves up footage of Charlottesville, reminding us that the racism that caused us chuckles over the past couple of hours, remains prevalent today … only that’s not the least bit funny.

watch the trailer: