ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (2019) – Rom Com Spoof Short on Laughs

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Isn’t it romantic?

Sure is.

But is it funny? Er, not so much.

And therein lies the problem with ISN’T IT ROMANTIC (2019), the new rom com starring Rebel Wilson as an architect disillusioned with love, who after a bonk on the head wakes up and finds herself living inside the world of a romantic comedy. While the gimmick here is that Wilson’s character has to deal with the very world she’s spent her life making fun of, the problem is the film is funnier when it takes place in the real world because it’s more fun watching Wilson taking potshots at reality than soaking up life in a romantic fantasy.

While architect Natalie (Rebel Wilson) is down on love, she actually has a pretty happy life. She’s got a good job, a best friend at work, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), as well as a best guy friend at work Josh (Adam Devine) who tries but fails to catch her attention. So, while she slams both true love and romantic comedy movies, her life is a good one. She doesn’t really need a romantic fantasy to save her, which definitely gets in the way of the film’s major plot point.

After the clonk on the head, she awakes and finds herself living in a movie world, specifically the rom com. The handsome hunk she met briefly at a meeting, who was a complete jerk, Blake (Liam Hemsworth), now falls madly in love with Natalie. At this point, the film goes through all the rom com clichés with Natalie commenting on them throughout, since she knows these films inside and out. And it’s in this fantasy world that she finally sees the light about Josh and realizes that perhaps it’s with him that her future lies.

ISN’T IT ROMANTIC is an amiable enough movie but it’s simply not all that funny. Again, the funniest bits are when Natalie is in the real world, at the beginning and end of the film. The main part of the film, where the story employs its gimmick of Natalie living inside a movie, is playful and light, but the laughs simply aren’t there.

There’s plenty of romance to be sure, but it’s the kind that’s superficial without resonance.

Rebel Wilson is a fun actress to watch, going all the way back to her role in BRIDESMAIDS (2011), and she’s certainly enjoyable here, even if the material isn’t all that sharp.

Liam Hemsworth chews up the scenery as handsome hunk Blake, and it’s clear that he’s having a good time throughout. Betty Gilpin is very good as Natalie’s best friend Whitney, but her best scenes also occur when the film takes place in the real world. In the fantasy sequence, Whitney becomes Natalie’s rival, a trope of the rom com, but sadly, it’s a trope that isn’t funny here.

Adam Devine is enjoyable to watch as Josh, the likable co-worker who has eyes for Natalie. Interestingly, his character remains the same in both the real and fantasy worlds.

Priyanka Chopra impresses as Isabella, a beautiful model who Josh saves from choking and then marries during the rom com scenes. Like Hemsworth, it’s clear that Chopra is having fun throughout.

Probably my favorite performance in the movie belongs to Brandon Scott Jones who plays Donny, Natalie’s irritable neighbor who in the rom com sequence becomes the stereotypical flamboyantly gay best friend. It’s the liveliest performance in the film.

Screenwriters Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman’s main premise of Natalie entering the world of a rom com movie is okay, but it would have worked better had Natalie needed it more. Sure, her friends tell her she needs love, but she seems perfectly content without it. And the jokes just aren’t all that funny.

Some of the jokes do work however, like the running gag of Natalie not being able to swear since she’s living inside the world of a PG-13 romantic comedy. Likewise, the sequence where she’s trying to have sex with Blake, but the film keeps cutting away since again it’s rated PG-13 is good for some laughs. But there aren’t a whole lot of these moments.

Director Todd Strauss-Schulson keeps things bright, happy, and romantic, but since this is supposed to be a rom com that pokes fun at the genre it’s disappointing that the humor isn’t all that sharp. The liveliest sequence in the movie is the closing dance number, a bit late in the game.

ISN’T IT ROMANTIC is a likable enough movie, but it falls way short of being the kind of send-up to the genre which it purports itself to be. Which means, at the end of the day, ISN’T IT ROMANTIC really isn’t anything more than just another cliche-ridden rom com, even if it surrounds those clichés with lots of knowing winks and nods.

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GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Nostalgic Look at Comedy Duo’s Final Tour Together

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) is a pleasant homage to the work of the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It tells the bittersweet story of their final tour together, long past their superstar years. The film is driven by two top-notch performances, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

The movie opens in 1937, at the height of their film career.  Stan (Steve Coogan) is the more business savvy of the two, and he wants a larger contract from studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). When it’s clear he’s not going to get it, he tries to convince Ollie (John C. Reilly) to leave the studio with him and sign a contract elsewhere, but it’s a decision that is far more difficult for Ollie to make, since he’s still under contract with Roach. As a result, Ollie stays with Roach. And when Ollie makes a movie without Stan, things hit rock bottom for the duo.

The action switches to 1953, where Stan has convinced Ollie to join him for a European tour as a promotional tool for a new movie he’s writing for the two of them. When financing for the film falls through, and they’re met with small audiences on the tour, the realization hits them that this could be the end of their career.  But as the tour continues, the crowds grow, until once more they are playing to sold out theaters.

But all is not right for the comedy duo. Ollie’s health is fading, and the two men squabble about their friendship and loyalty to the each over the years, causing a rift that they may not be able to overcome.

STAN & OLLIE is a very enjoyable movie. It’s well-made and is a rich looking period piece. Director Jon S. Baird convincingly transports his audience into the film, stage, and personal worlds of Laurel and Hardy.

The screenplay by Jeff Pope squarely focuses on their friendship, as these are not good times for the two men. They’re aging, they can’t get financing for a new movie, they’re playing to small crowds, and there’s a lot of tension between them. Their friendship is pushed to its limits. And yet when they look back at their years together, they realize the value of their friendship, and it’s this realization that is the best part of the story.

The comedy, on the other hand, while light and humorous— and it’s certainly fun to see some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comic bits recreated here— is never flat-out hilarious. And so it’s not the strength of the film.

The best part of the movie by far are the performances by the two leads. They’re both excellent, which is a good thing since they’re in nearly every single scene.

Steve Coogan captures both Stan Laurel’s comic genius as well as his drive to constantly write gags for the duo. Laurel is portrayed here as a man who is almost addicted to writing, so much so that he really has time for little else. And during one of their arguments, Ollie accuses Laurel of being flat-out cold, robotic, a writing machine who has no sense of friendship or humanity.

Coogan also plays Laurel as a man carrying a lot of hurt with him, as he still feels betrayed by Ollie’s decision years earlier to make a movie without him.

John C. Reilly is just as good as Oliver Hardy. During the tour, Hardy is ailing, and Reilly does a nice job capturing the comic who continues to drive himself to perform, even against doctor’s orders. Ollie is portrayed here as a man with more balance in his life than Stan, as he’s interested in other things besides work, and while he says he doesn’t need Stan, he really does feel lost without him.

Coogan and Reilly really do make this movie, and they easily carry it along for its 98 minute running time.

Rufus Jones adds fine support as Bernard Delfont, the man responsible for arranging the European tour. He goes back and forth between sounding like a con man and a legitimate agent.

Shirley Henderson is excellent as Ollie’s wife Lucille, who is fiercely protective of her husband, and Nina Arianda is memorable as Stan’s wife Ida Kitaeva, a former dancer who doesn’t let anyone forget it.

At times, STAN & OLLIE is emotionally flat. The best scene in the movie is when Stan and Oliver finally have their huge argument, and that’s the one scene that packs a powerful punch. Other than this sequence, it’s all rather mild.

And in spite of this being a movie about Laurel and Hardy, there’s a sense of sadness that permeates the film.

That being said, I still really enjoyed STAN & OLLIE. It definitely succeeds in reacquainting modern audiences with the classic comedy duo.

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THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018) – Robert Redford’s Swan Song A Good One

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Robert Redford in THE OLD MAN & THE GUN (2018)

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is being billed as Robert Redford’s final role. He has said he’s retiring from the movies after this. As such, this light amiable movie is a fitting swan song for the venerable movie star.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is loosely based on the true story of Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) a bank robber and thief who escaped from prison multiple times and simply couldn’t break the habit of robbing banks. When asked if he couldn’t find a different way of making a living, he responded that he wasn’t making a living, but simply he was living.

The story takes place in 1981 and follows Tucker and his two cohorts Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits) as they quietly and politely rob one bank after another. One day, they choose a bank in which police officer John Hunt (Casey Affleck) is there with his kids. The heist goes off without a hitch, and Hunt is astonished and embarrassed to learn that he was inside a bank that was robbed and he didn’t see a thing. To save face, he decides to make it his mission to find and capture the folks responsible.

Tucker and his team become known to the public as “the over-the-hill gang” since they are described as men well into their 60s. The media reports their exploits as almost a human interest story, and in fact the public seems to like them. More so, because Tucker is so darn polite, even those in the bank who are robbed by him report that they seemed to like him. Not only is he polite, but he always seems to be smiling and happy.

After one particular heist, Tucker hides in plain sight by pulling over to the side of the road to help a stranded motorist, a woman named Jewel (Sissy Spacek). After she agrees to meet him for coffee, it becomes clear they like each other and a romance blooms.

Even when the heat is on, Tucker has no desire to quit his lifestyle, finding the increased police interest a challenge. In fact, once he learns that he is being pursued by Officer John Hunt, he even reaches out to him, much to Hunt’s astonishment. And Hunt finds himself liking the bank robber as well.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is blessed with a light and very enjoyable script by director David Lowery, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, fine direction by Lowery, and excellent performances by the entire cast, led of course by Robert Redford.

Now, I’ve never been a big Redford fan.  It’s not that I haven’t liked him completely as an actor, but that his performances have rarely resonated with me.  That being said, there have certainly been films of his and roles he’s played that I’ve really enjoyed, but most of these came early in his career, in films like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), THE STING (1973), and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). Later films like THE NATURAL (1984), OUT OF AFRICA (1985), and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1992) didn’t do as much for me.

THE OLD MAN & THE GUN is easily Redford’s best performance that I’ve seen in a quite a while.  I had a lot of fun watching THE OLD MAN & THE GUN.

Redford makes Forrest Tucker— no relation to the famous late character actor, by the way— a guy who’s easy to like and root for. You really don’t want to see him get caught. The character is also a gifted storyteller, and he’s someone who, whether he’s talking to Sissy Spacek’s Jewel, or his partners, or to Casey Affleck’s Officer Hunt, you don’t want to stop listening to. Some of this is the script, but most of it is Redford. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a nod come Oscar time.

Sissy Spacek is equally as good as Jewel.  She and Redford work well together.  Their scene in the coffee shop is classic. He tells her point-blank that he’s a thief. She doesn’t believe him, and he asks her what she would do if he could prove it to her, and she says she’d leave. His response is that “in that case, I’m not going to do it. Not because I can’t. But because it’s not my style.”

Casey Affleck is also excellent as officer John Hunt. His career is going nowhere, and he’s terribly embarrassed by what happened in the bank, but his quest to capture Tucker doesn’t become an Ahab-like obsession, but rather an exercise in self-respect.

Danny Glover and Tom Waits also share fun scenes as Tucker’s fellow bank robbers.

Strangely, Keith Carradine gets fourth billing, but he’s only in the movie for a couple of seconds. Evidently, most of his role ended up being cut.

David Lowery’s script is humorous and upbeat, and has a lot to say about aging with dignity, about doing what you love and not worrying about how much time you have left. When Tucker tells Jewel he wants to ride horses, that it’s on his list of things to do in his life, she says he should hurry up and do it, to which he responds, “why?” Which got a nice laugh from the audience, but also makes the point that Tucker is extremely comfortable where he is in his life.

The best scene in the film is where Tucker follows Hunt into the men’s room to introduce himself to the police officer. It’s a great moment. Tucker’s pleasant personality is on full display, but so is Hunt’s, and the scene is a gem.

The film does tend to slow a bit towards the end, which says a lot since it only clocks in at 93 minutes. Admittedly, it felt longer.

There’s also a neat montage late in the film chronicling all of Tucker’s prison escapes which makes use of some Redford clips from yesteryear.

I really liked THE OLD MAN & THE GUN. Its charming story, although slow-paced, is a crowd-pleaser. It features strong performances throughout, especially by Robert Redford, Sissy Spacek, and Casey Affleck.

But this is Redford’s movie, to be sure.  It’s evident he had fun playing this role. If it’s true that this is indeed his final performance, it’s a worthy finale to a long and distinguished movie career.

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A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

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CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) – Romantic Comedy More Interested in Wealth Than Asian Culture

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The “crazy” in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) refers to just how “crazy rich” the main character’s family is in this movie. Aside from that, there’s not much “crazy” in this well-meaning romantic comedy which has more to say about wealth than Chinese traditions or falling in love.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable comedic love story.

It is.

It’s just— unless you’re planning to marry royalty— not all that relevant.

In CRAZY RICH ASIANS, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a young economics professor at NYU, and she’s involved in a happy relationship with the handsome and easygoing Nick Young (Henry Golding). When he invites her to Singapore to meet his family at his best friend’s wedding, she happily accepts, and since she knows little about his family, she assumes they are very poor since Nick rarely talks about them. Boy, is she wrong.

It turns out, that not only is Nick’s family wealthy, they’re crazy wealthy!  As in near royalty! As in Nick being the most eligible bachelor in all of Southeast Asia!

At first, this poses little or no problems, because for Rachel, it’s almost as if she has entered a fairy tale realm of princes and princesses. But this euphoria is short-lived, as it becomes increasingly clear that Nick’s family, especially his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) does not see Rachel as the right fit for Nick. In Eleanor’s case, she sees her son as taking over the family business, something he will not be able to do properly if he marries “beneath his status.”

And thus the battle lines are drawn, as Rachel decides to fight for the man she some day hopes to marry, but can she stand up to the impossible wealth wielded by Eleanor and her dynasty?

This may sound serious, and this part of the story is, but on the whole CRAZY RICH ASIANS is light and fun, with a heavy emphasis on romance.  The film definitely plays more like a fanciful love story than a straight out comedy.

The most impressive thing about CRAZY RICH ASIANS is its all Asian cast, which for a Western-produced film is something that hasn’t happened since THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993). Let’s hope it’s not twenty-five more years before it happens again.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS reminded me of another recent romantic comedy, THE BIG SICK (2017). That film was a love story between a Pakistan-born man and an American woman, and it both highlighted and poked fun at the differences between cultures. That story worked better than the one told here in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, as Rachel doesn’t face cultural differences— as in the difference between a Chinese American and a Chinese—as much as she faces monetary differences, and in this regard, the story simply doesn’t resonate as well. Understanding the very rich is less engrossing than understanding another culture.

The screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on the novel Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, works for the most part. The comedy is light and amiable, and the romance irresistible. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the opulence of the Singapore settings. And the two leads are certainly likable.

Constance Wu delivers a strong performance as Rachel, the young woman who at first goes along with the revelation about her boyfriend’s rich family until she finds herself on the receiving end of ugly words and innuendos. She remains likable throughout, so much so you’re almost wishing she’d just up and leave this annoying family behind her.

Henry Golding is sufficiently handsome as the dashing Nick Young, and he makes for a sincere and honorable boyfriend who believes he can shield Rachel from his family.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s powerful mother Eleanor. She has a way of being both dignified and icy cold, and as such, gets some of the best dramatic scenes in the movie.

Likewise, Gemma Chan is excellent as Nick’s sister Astrid, who Nick describes as having the biggest heart in the family.  Chan’s supporting storyline, about problems in her own marriage, is as interesting as the main plot.

In terms of comedy, Awkwafina delivers a scene-stealing performance as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s college roommate who lives in Singapore with her family.  She gets some of the best comedic scenes and lines in the movie. I enjoyed Awkwafina a lot here, more so than her recent role in OCEAN’S 8 (2018).

And Ken Jeong shows up as Peik Lin’s father, and he of course has some comedic bits as well, although they’re not quite on the same level as Awkwafina’s.

Nico Santos is also memorable as Oliver, a flamboyant member of Nick’s family who, unlike Nick’s mother, is always there for Nick and Rachel.

Director Jon M. Chu fills this one with eye-popping rich parties and weddings, and he takes full advantage of Singapore and its surrounding islands. The film is beautiful to look at, full of both beautiful locales and people. There are also plenty of mouth-watering foods. Don’t see this one on an empty stomach!

For the most part, the pacing is good, although the film is long, clocking in at two hours, and towards the end things do slow down a little bit. Chu previously directed the lowly G.I. JOE: RETALIATION (2013) and NOW YOU SEE ME 2 (2016). Needless to say, CRAZY RICH ASIANS is his best film yet.

I enjoyed CRAZY RICH ASIANS. It was fun to immerse myself in Asian culture and be part of the crazy rich wedding. I also liked Rachel and Nick and were rooting for them to be together, and better yet, I laughed a lot at the lighter parts of this movie.

That being said, it didn’t completely resonate with me because the incredible wealth of Nick’s family played more like a romantic fantasy than a true life story. It also just didn’t interest me all that much. Plus, I reached the point in the story where I felt Rachel would be better off without Nick and his family, which is I’m sure not what the writers had in mind. As such, the ending of the film didn’t completely work for me, as I could easily have imagined better fates for Rachel.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies, especially those which emphasize romance over comedy, you’re sure to enjoy CRAZY RICH ASIANS. The film pushes all the right buttons with its rich boy meets poor girl storyline, with the possible exception of its ending, as it may have overplayed its mean rich family hand. But if you like stories about the girl going after her handsome prince, this is the movie for you.

For the rest of us, it’s an amiable tale, helped by gorgeous locales and a very talented cast.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS is lighthearted entertainment.  I enjoyed watching it, even though its “crazy rich” lifestyle is far less interesting to me than the other parts of Singapore culture I wish the film had explored.

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BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – Effective Essay on Race Relations in the U.S.

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Adam Driver and John David Washington in Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018).

Believe it or not, BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018), Spike Lee’s latest movie which tells the tale of a black Colorado cop who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, is based on a true story, chronicled in the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth in 2014.

But Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN is less a bio pic of Ron Stallworth and more an essay about race, and that’s what ultimately makes this all-too-often-over-the-top tale a success. From its opening shot from GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) to its closing news footage of the horrifying events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the film is structured as a treatise on race relations in the United States, and sadly shows that rather than progressing to a better place, we’ve largely stayed the same, or worse, as judging from the emboldened unmasked faces of the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, we may have gone backwards.

It’s 1972, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black police officer in Colorado Springs. His dream is to become an undercover detective, and he sets out to do just that as he phones the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and pretends to be a racist white American male. When he’s invited to join the KKK, he arranges for a white officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) to play him, and the ruse is on.

Together, and with the full support of their superiors, Ron and Flip infiltrate the KKK’s inner circle and move to take down its more prominent members. Their investigation even leads them to the KKK’s grand master, David Duke (Topher Grace).

This in a nutshell is the plot of BLACKKKLANSMAN, but as I said, what’s more important and impressive about this movie is what it has to say about race relations. On that note, there’s a lot to digest.

BLACKKKLANSMAN makes the case that we haven’t gotten anywhere with race relations, that we’ve actually gone backwards. At the height of Ron’s and Flip’s success, late in the movie, they are informed that their unit is being disbanded due to budget cuts, the symbolic meaning being that here was a moment in time when racism was being driven back, and we took our foot off the pedal and allowed it to return unchecked to the point where it is now, as chronicled in the film’s final few minutes with the footage from Charlottesville.

Early on, there’s a speech by a former Black Panther member to a college crowd where he speaks about his childhood love of Tarzan and how he used to root for Tarzan to beat the black Natives, until he realized those Natives were him. This, along with the footage from GONE WITH THE WIND, speaks to how ingrained racism has been in our culture, even in our movies.

Later, in one of the best sequences of the movie, the film jumps back and forth between two events. A speech by Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) who recounts in explicit and painful detail his eyewitness account of a brutal lynching of a black boy, watched by a crowd of white onlookers behaving as if they were at a sporting event, is intercut with David Duke and other KKK members watching THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). This is the closest the film comes to making its audience weep at the horrors of race relations in our country.

One of the things that doesn’t work in BLACKKKLANSMAN is Spike Lee’s lack of subtlety. Too often his in-your-face style backfires with the unintended result of giving credence to the opposite side. Some of the KKK members, for example, seem like walking clichés for what racist people should be like. The same with some of the police officers. The white racist officer, for example, seems to have walked off the set of last year’s THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) as if he’s Sam Rockwell’s Officer Dixon’s long-lost cousin, but with far less realistic results.

The screenplay by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee, based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, gets an A for its race relations content but scores far less when it comes to its characterizations and plot points. The characters struggle to remain real and the story doesn’t hit all the right notes. There are times when it feels like an awkward “special” episode of Norman Lear’s ALL IN THE FAMILY (1971-79).

On the other hand, one thing Spike Lee does well is take advantage of our knowledge and feelings of present day issues.  There are several uncomfortable scenes of police brutality, for example, in this story which takes place in 1972, but by and large they pale in comparison to real events which have happened in the here and now, again showing how things are worse here in 2018.

John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington, is solid as Ron Stallworth, but strangely the character isn’t developed as thoroughly as he should be. We know that he always wanted to be a cop, and that he likewise wanted to fight for his people, but we know this because he says this.  We don’t really see or experience his passion or his pain.

Adam Driver fares better than Washington, and his Flip Zimmerman character is actually better developed than Ron Stallworth. Zimmerman is a Jew who at first doesn’t mind hearing all the KKK’s insults, but later in another of the movie’s better scenes, he tells Ron that the reason he didn’t mind the slurs is that although he is Jewish he wasn’t raised Jewish, and so his heritage meant nothing to him. He just saw himself as an average white American, but after hearing all the KKK members’ derogatory remarks, he says now for the first time in his life he can’t stop thinking about his heritage.

He also has a key scene where he responds to Ron’s question of why he doesn’t do anything about the racist cop in their midst, as he tells Ron that although the cop in question is a bad cop, they won’t do anything about it because they are a family and they must look after their own, to which Ron says “that sounds like another group I know about.”

Two of the better performances belong to the supporting players. I loved Laura Harrier as Patrice Dumars, the college student who leads the black movement on campus and who Ron falls for. Harrier possesses a strength and energy that oddly is missing from both Washington’s and Driver’s characters. The movie picks up in intensity every time she’s on-screen. Harrier was similarly successful in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017).

And Topher Grace is excellent as David Duke. His matter of fact businesslike style showing how Duke tried to intellectualize the KKK and make it mainstream, doing everything in his power to make it more acceptable, is unlike the rest of the movie, subtle and chilling. And when we see the real David Duke in 2017 footage, you can see how well Grace nailed the role.

Some of BLACKKKLANSMAN works. Some of it doesn’t. For example, the conversation where it’s explained that the role of the KKK in the 1970s was to legitimize racism to the point where it’s accepted in U.S. politics in the hope that one day someone with similar views is elected U.S. President, works on the one hand because here in 2018 that appears to be the case, but on the other hand seems too convenient and trite, the perfect ammunition for those arguing the opposite point that such talk is “fake news.”

That being said, I liked BLACKKKLANSMAN a lot, but I didn’t love it. What it has to say about race is absolutely required viewing. We still have a race relations problem in the United States and right now it’s not even close to getting better. But in terms of how it tells its story, I liked it less so.  Its characters struggled to draw me in, its story often seemed too blatant, as if Lee’s emotions about this topic were so strong he couldn’t see to it to tell it through a more nuanced lens, and its comedy rarely struck a chord and drew nary a chuckle.

Strangely, I was more emotionally moved regarding race by Marvel’s BLACK PANTHER (2018) earlier this year.

However, I may be in the minority. The film received a hearty round of applause from its full audience as the end credits rolled.

I do agree, however, that it’s Lee’s best film in years. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Spike Lee movie that I’ve really liked. You probably have to go all the way back to MALCOLM X (1992).

The strength of BLACKKKLANSMAN is not in its storytelling but in its unabashed openness to look at issues of race. As such, it makes for a highly successful and effective essay on the history of race relations in the United States.

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