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.

watch the trailer:

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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:


BUCKSHOT (2018)

August 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Part of the fun that goes with watching a filmmaker’s feature film debut is the hope and optimism that precedes the viewing. At a minimum, we expect to see something original – something … anything … that inspired this person to overcome the many obstacles to getting a first film produced and distributed. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for the first feature from writer/director Joshua J Smith. The material is a mixture of films and characters we have seen too many times before.

Charlie Stillman is a New Jersey boy who dreams of following in his deceased father’s country and western footsteps in Nashville. Armed with a guitar, his dad’s notebook, and nary a clue, Charlie heads south. Rather than open a door, his father’s legacy slams it shut in Charlie’s face. Circumstances are such that he agrees to fly to Seattle and drive honky tonk legend Buckshot Thomas cross-country for his farewell performance in Nashville.

What follows is a typical road trip movie taking place in a battered RV, with a crusty old curmudgeon and a kid who thinks “bro country” music is his ticket to paradise. To no one’s surprise, the generational gap closes quickly as Buckshot offers up life lessons designed to create authentic songwriting tips for Charlie. In exchange, Buckshot makes some unscheduled personal stops along the way – saying goodbye to the past, with sequence involving a drug dealer, gun play, a guitar-whisperer, and gallons of booze.

A half-baked love story is little more than a blip; although there is a quite touching scene in a cemetery, as Buckshot pays his final respects to family, and we learn the story behind his first hit song “Darlin’ Eyes”. And that’s really what this movie has to offer: Tim DeZarn stars as Buckshot, and his performance makes the character more interesting than the script would have us believe. You’ll surely recognize Mr. DeZarn from many roles over the years in TV and movies, but I don’t recall his taking such a strong lead.

Frank Collison plays the guitar mystic and old friend to Buckshot, while Allan Wasserman is the blustery club owner, and Emily Davenport the fringe love interest. Conor Murphy seems to lack the presence to rescue such a poorly written character, but the biggest disappointment comes from the missed opportunity by filmmaker Smith. It’s prime time for a statement on the devolution of true “outlaw” music and musicians into the mainstream sludge that passes as country music these days. Instead of playing it safely in the middle of the lane, a true outlaw movie with guts could have labeled Mr. Smith as an exciting and daring new filmmaker. No wonder Buckshot carries that smoke wagon.

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HOT SUMMER NIGHTS (2018)

August 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Crime, Romance and Bromance battle it out in the summer of 1991, accompanied by music from the 1970’s, influenced by classic films of the 1980’s and 90’s, and starring 4 rising young stars of today. The debut feature film from writer/director Elijah Bynum comes across as the work of a film and music fanboy concerned with not leaving out any ideas in his only opportunity to make a movie. He shows enough here to likely justify another chance, but we can’t help but wonder if assistance from a mentor might have fine-tuned this into a nice little gem, rather than a blip on the resume of the shooting stars he’s working with.

Fresh off his Oscar nominated performance in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, Timothee Chalamet stars as Daniel, a socially awkward 18 year old. After the death of his beloved father, Daniel’s mom ships him off for the summer to live with family in Cape Cod – yet another place where he will be an outsider as neither a ‘Townie’ nor ‘Summer Bird’ (the wealthy preppies in summer homes). An odd meet-cute kicks off the bromance between Daniel and local heartthrob/legend and dime-bag pot dealer Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe, FOREVER MY GIRL). It’s also the beginning of a business relationship that both showers them with cash and puts them on the road to ruin. Hunter’s estranged sister McKayla is the local object of desire for the male population. Played by Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS), McKayla is the town vixen who ultimately and predictably falls for Daniel, unaware of his business dealings with her bad boy brother.

Also in the mix here are Emory Cohen (so good in BROOKLYN) as Dex, the no-nonsense “supplier” who pushes the Hunter and Daniel dealings to greater heights, Thomas Jane as the local law enforcement presence, William Fichtner as the coke dealer Daniel tangles with, and Maia Mitchell as Hunter’s love interest. There is also the fallout from recently deceased parents for Daniel, Hunter and McKayla, as well as the impending storm (now known as Hurricane Bob).

An air of familiarity is not uncommon in movies, but this one is downright creepy in how many films it seems to mimic in either tone, style or content. The romance between Daniel and McKayla is the least effective story line. We want to know more about the brother-sister relationship, and are disappointed that the uber-talented Maika Monroe is given little to do other than bat her wicked eyes. It plays like a Greek tragedy where the only question is whether the tropical storm will beat the group’s self-destruction.

This summer story is billed as ‘coming of age’, but that description doesn’t seem to fit unless it refers to the ever-present young narrator whose place in line only becomes clear near the end. There is a nostalgic look and feel to Mr. Bynum’s film, and it’s always nice to have a drive-in theatre play a role; however, his music choices – though terrific to listen to – seem to fit better two decades prior to the setting: Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes”, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Uriah Heep, Linda Ronstadt and The Modern Lovers. Beyond all of that, we do learn that Hunter Strawberry does not like sprinkles.

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CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018)

August 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s always a sunny day when Christopher Robin comes to play.” You know when it’s not a sunny day?  When grown man Christopher Robin ignores his wife and daughter to work every waking hour at his job as an Efficiency Manager for a struggling luggage company. Whatever made the filmmakers spend so much time here on the gloominess of adulthood is beyond me, but oh my, when the friends all reunite in the Hundred Acre Wood, it’s truly a joy to behold.

It was only last year when GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN hit the theatres, and while that was more of a biopic of A.A. Milne and the origin of Winnie the Pooh, this version focuses instead on the adult Christopher Robin, and how responsibilities can rob us of all the joys of childhood if we aren’t careful.

Ewan McGregor plays the grown-up Christopher Robin, and we see him back from WWII as a boring workaholic who has little time for his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) or daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). The story begins with young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) sharing a farewell lunch with his friends just before he heads off to boarding school, leaving his childhood far behind. In addition to Pooh bear, we also see Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Kanga and Roo, as well as a bouncy Tigger and classically mopey Eeyore. It should be noted that these aren’t the animated creatures you and your kids are accustomed to. These are stunning CGI stuffed animals modeled after the early drawn images of Ernest Shepard. They are lifelike … as much as talking stuffed animals can be … and kid viewers are likely to fall quickly for them.

There are three screenplay credits: Oscar winner Tom McCarthy (SPOTLIGHT), Oscar nominee Allison Schroeder (HIDDEN FIGURES) and Alex Ross Perry (LISTEN UP PHILIP). Their work is based on a story from Greg Brooker (STUART LITTLE) and Mark Steven Johnson (SIMON BIRCH), and of course the characters from AA Milne and Ernest Shepard. It might not surprise you that the director Marc Foster also directed the excellent FINDING NEVERLAND, but it’s a bit eye-opening to think he also directed MONSTER’S BALL and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, neither of which have a single scene that kids should watch!

Despite the heavy gloom of the portion of the story dealing with Christopher Robin’s family and job, the film (and the kids in the audience) lights up when all the friends are on screen. Playing the “Say what you see” game on the train emphasizes that creativity sprouts from nothing (doing nothing is a recurring theme in the Pooh stories), and of course, the ever-present red balloon plays a role (much different than the red balloon in IT), as does the familiar “Winnie the Pooh” song from 1977, which most everyone in the audience hummed along with in its various pop-ups during the movie.

The voice acting is necessarily superb, and credit goes to Jim Cummings as both Pooh and Tigger – roles he also voiced in the animated series and previous animated films. Of course the great Sterling Holloway was the original Pooh voice, and he passed away in 1992. Nick Mohammed is Piglet, Peter Capaldi is Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo is Kanga, while Sara Sheen is Roo. Toby Jones is Owl, and Brad Garrett gets some of the film’s best and funniest lines as everyone’s favorite downtrodden donkey Eeyore.

Pooh, the ‘silly old bear’, states “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.” This type of humor and philosophy goes on throughout the film, whenever the friends are on screen. The moral of the story is that it’s crucial that we maintain some sense of childhood wonder and joy, even as adult responsibilities close in on us. If you can wake up each morning and say “Today is my favorite day”, you are likely not a bear of little brain … plus you’ll avoid Heffalump traps!

watch the trailer: