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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THE DUFF (2015)

February 18, 2015

duff Greetings again from the darkness. I was never a teenage girl, and for that, I am quite thankful. By comparison, being a teenage guy was a breeze. No filmmaker was better than the great John Hughes at capturing the challenges of high school … especially for girls. The mysteries of adolescent social hierarchy has long been a favorite movie target, and director Ari Sandel (Oscar winner for his short film West Bank Story) and screenwriter Josh Cagan loosely base their film on the novel from Kody Keplinger.

Mae Whitman (from TV’s “Parenthood”) stars as Bianca, a very smart student who enjoys hanging with her two best friends Casey (Bianca Santos, Ouija) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). That all changes one evening at a party when Bianca’s neighbor, and the school’s alpha-jock, Wesley (Robbie Amell, Firestorm in TV’s “The Flash”), informs her that she is the titular “DUFF” … Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The term itself is quite offensive, but the movie does its best to soften the blow by explaining that it doesn’t necessarily mean ugly or fat – a confusing turn, but fortunate since Ms. Whitman is neither.

As you might imagine, the familiar terrain of teen angst movies is covered and any hope of real insight is dashed pretty early on. However, it does spend a significant amount of time driving home the point that social media plays a dominant role in every aspect of teen life these days, including cyber-bullying. It’s no wonder that insecurities abound … one never knows when their trip to the mall or make-out session with a mannequin will become a viral video.

There are familiar aspects of such classics as Pretty in Pink, She’s All That, and Mean Girls. Robbie Amell even looks very much like Michael Schoeffling from Sixteen Candles. However, the film features two of my movie pet peeves. First, Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell are both in their mid-20’s – entirely too old to be playing high school students. Secondly, Mr Amell plays a jock but clearly cannot throw a football like one – and he does it three cringe-inducing times.

Mae Whitman has excellent screen presence and comes across as a blend of Janeane Garofalo, Ellen Page, and Aubrey Plaza. That’s pretty high praise, but she elevates a script that needs it, and holds her own with screen vets like Allison Janney (as her distracted mom) and Ken Jeong (as her slightly loopy journalism teacher).

The film is a commentary on today’s high school life, but the predictability and obvious gags prevent it from ever going too deep or appealing to any audience other than “tweeners”. Still, any film that smacks down the nasty people (here played by Bella Thorne) and advises to be true to one’s self, can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer:

 


ZOOKEEPER

July 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are all fine with the endless stream of animation featuring talking animals. The rules change a bit when the movie is live action … and the animals still talk! Not only do they talk, but they are giving lessons in love to zookeeper extraordinare Griffin (Kevin James) ala Dr. Phil.

Personally I think Kevin James is more suited to television, but it’s hard to argue with the huge box office success of Paul Blart Mall Cop. This movie isn’t quite as creative as that one, but for mindless summertime fun in an air-conditioned environment and a kid-friendly theme, it’s passable.

 The kid-friendly theme is somewhat misleading. To me, it’s the greatest flaw of the movie. It can’t seem to decide if it wants to be a kids movie or a “clever” film for kids that adults will enjoy. I don’t think most adults will enjoy it much, and I think most kids will be confused and bored by the adult plot of helping Kevin James land the girl and discover his true self.  But for kids, the animal scenes should sustain them.  I am not sure that TGI Fridays is enough for adults.

If you are going to have talking animals these days, you must have high priced voices … even though you can’t recognize them. Some of the vocal talent on display includes Sylvester Stallone and Cher as lions, Nick Nolte as the gorilla, Jupp Apatow as an elephant, producer Adam Sandler as the monkey (“throw poop”), Faizon Love and Jon Favreau as arguing bears, Maya Rudolph as an off-key giraffe, and Don Rickles as a frog.

 The story is this: Kevin James is a nice guy zookeeper who is loved by the animals, but spurned in marriage proposal by his girlfriend Leslie Bibb, who wants him to make more money. He works with nice gal Rosario Dawson who likes him so much that she agrees to help him get the shallow Bibb back. Other zoo co-workers include Donnie Wahlberg and Ken Jeong, who must be in every third movie released this year. Yada, Yada, Yada … animals give advice, Kevin James learns about real love, gorilla learns some people can be trusted, they all live happily ever after. I don’t consider that a spoiler.

The movie is produced by Adam Sandler and directed by his buddy Frank Coraci. Coraci also directed a comedy I kind of like (The Wedding Singer) and a couple I absolutely couldn’t stand (Click, The Waterboy). Anyway, if you are looking for mindless fun with the family, this one is safe though not inspired.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t believe anyone (including a gorilla) can have fun at TGI Fridays.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a step down from Night at the Museum is a step you prefer not to take


TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON

July 2, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I pride myself on being a fan of many different types of films – everything from World Cinema to Super Heroes.  However, it would be unfair to analyze, critique or compare a Transformers movie to any “normal” movie. Being somewhat limited in scope by the source material, director Michael Bay, delivers what the fan of the series want … full scale noise and all-out action.

While Mr. Bay admitted that part two of this trilogy was lacking much (an understatement), it appears his efforts to improve part three come not from a script doctor, but rather by tossing in some familiar Hollywood faces: John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey and Ken Jeong. Oh, and we also get Bill O’Reilly, an odd sequence with legendary Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon), and the best surprise – Leonard Nimoy voicing Sentinel Prime.

 Most of the same key players are back: Shia LaBeouf as Sam (friend to Optimus Prime), John Turturro (having cashed in on his 10 min of fame), Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson as soldiers, and Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam’s parents in a couple of throw away scenes that cost much less than the CGI that dominates the movie.

While I remain an avid opponent to 3-D, this film offers a few of the best uses since Avatar. Unfortunately the dimmed coloring offset the benefits and continue to annoy me. Just remove your glasses periodically and you can easily see how much brighter the colors are without the 3-D muting. Such a shame.

 Michael Bay knows explosions. And there is no shortage on display here. We get plenty of rock ’em sock ’em action and the military is on full display, especially with some pretty cool skydiving tactics. Heck, we even get Frances McDormand as a power-hungry bureaucrat. For those who know Chicago, the familiar sights abound. The Wrigley Building plays a vital role, though it still bothers me a bit to see a skyscraper destroyed. I will say the tilted office is not even close to the cool factor of the rotating hallway of Inception, though the effort is appreciated.

 The battle of the robots is what (lots of) people pay to see and the 40 plus minute final battle is something to behold, even if it drags on entirely too long. And I can’t fail to mention that the lack of presence of Megan Fox‘ character is explained a couple of times as having “dumped” Sam. Sam has rebounded nicely with Carly, played by supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who looks just fine in a $200,000 Mercedes, a slim white dress or conversing with an injured villainous robot. Yes, one must maintain a sense of humor during this movie.

The use of slo-motion, the ties to the space program, and the connection to Chernobyl are all a bit heavy-handed, but this is a Transformers movie, not a documentary. And the actual transformation of these guys is still one of the coolest on screen moments you can find … even if the story and dialogue will have you desperate for brain resuscitation when the movie finally ends.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Bay-splosions!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you just can’t believe the same guy (Peter Cullen) who voices Optimus Prime, also voice Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame


THE HANGOVER PART II

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Two years ago, director Todd Phillips presented a highly creative, hilarious, raunchy, unique film comedy called The Hangover. And now, he does it again. No, not the creative part.  I mean he presents that SAME film again. I am unsure whether this is a sequel or remake. The only substantial change is the setting … Bangkok instead of Vegas.

Now I fully understand WHY most sequels follow the formula created by the successful original film. Filmmakers want to keep their built-in audience satisfied. The theory is: If it worked once, it will work again. Especially when the first film grosses a half-billion dollars! So the chances are very good that if you liked the first one, you will also enjoy this one. But for me, I get excited for creative filmmakers … not re-treads.

 The key characters are all back and played by the same guys: Bradley Cooper (Phil), Ed Helms (Stu), Zach Galifianakis (Alan), Justin Bartha (Doug), and Ken Jeong (Mr. Chow). All of these guys have worked constantly since the first film, but it makes perfect sense to return to the scene that put them on the Hollywood map.

This time around, Stu (Ed Helms) draws the long straw and has the storyline based on his pending marriage to Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch). Stu’s “wolfpack” buddies agree to a one-beer bonfire beach bachelor party, but of course, something goes very wrong. The next morning finds our boys staggering to regain consciousness in a sleazy Bangkok hotel with no recollection of the previous night’s events. The only clues are a monkey, a severed finger, a facial tat and international criminal Mr. Chow (Jeong).

 No need for me to go into any details or spoil any moments. You know the drill if you have seen the first. What follows is nearly two hours of debauchery and moments of varying levels of discomfort, gross-out and comedic skits.

Supporting work is provided by Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor, and Mason Lee (Ang Lee‘s son). There is also a cameo by Nick Cassavetes as a tattoo artist. This role was originally meant for Mel Gibson, and later Liam Neeson. Cast and crew protests kept Gibson out and Neeson’s scenes were cut when re-shoots were necessary.  And rest easy, Mike Tyson makes another hilarious appearance – it may be the most creative moment of this remake … err, sequel.

I feel tricked by Mr. Phillips. The first Hangover had me excited that a new comedic genius had entered Hollywood and would quickly blow away the Judd Apatow recycle jobs and copycats. Instead, we get Todd Phillips copying Todd Phillips.

This is certainly an above-average comedy and there are plenty of laughs from the characters we kind of feel like we know – though, wish we didn’t. Just know going in that you are witnessing a clear attempt at cashing in, not a desire to wow.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: like many, you thought the first one was one of the best ever film comedies OR you just want to see how closely Ed Helms resembles Mike Tyson

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you saw the first one and wish you hadn’t OR you never saw the first one and think maybe they have “cleaned” this one up (they haven’t)