Tag Archives: 4.5/5

Minari

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is about as heartfelt and pure as movies get. Adapting his childhood experiences growing up in mid-1980s rural Arkansas, Chung doesn’t merely recall the struggles that his Korean American family endured during that period but reconsiders them with a new sense of compassion and grace. The tender retelling of his upbringing as a first-generation immigrant is all the more compelling when you factor in that Chung was likely no more than ten years old when the events of the film took place. While Chung’s script is centered around his perspective as a child, he writes every character with sympathy and specificity, calling to mind the adage that children are often more insightful and perceptive than we perhaps give them credit for.

We meet the Yi family as they tail a moving truck in their station wagon, making their way to the modest mobile home where they will soon set down their roots. When the Yis arrive, the patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) exits the car first, seeing the untapped potential in the vast acres of farming land that lay before them. Much more tenuous is his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), not nearly as thrilled with their surroundings and even more apprehensive of the hard work that will be necessary to make their exodus from California worthwhile. The young David (Alan Kim) and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) may be the most excited of all, ignoring the residence’s tacky, light brown interior paneling and instead choosing to note that their house has “wheels like a big car!”

Crops certainly don’t grow overnight, so Jacob and Monica take jobs at a nearby hatchery — the former is purported to be an “expert chicken sexer” by his new superior — until their yield increases. Mom and dad’s absence during the work day brings the need for Monica’s spritely mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to move in from Korea to watch over David and Anne. Kids being kids, the pair playfully talk behind their grandma’s back in English, all while trying to stay out of a level of trouble that would warrant a stick-whipping. Thanks to a neighboring war veteran Paul (Will Patton), Jacob is able to avoid some of the rookie mistakes associated with starting one’s own farm but still faces an array of pitfalls that put more pressure on his ability to provide for his clan.

The film’s title refers to a water plant whose seeds Soon-ja scatters at the base of a nearby river. Known to produce a vegetable that has myriad culinary uses, minari grows healthily and abundantly once it settles its roots and serves as a perfect metaphor for dogged optimism that Jacob holds for his family’s future in their new surroundings. Minari may not have a traditional antagonist but that doesn’t make the organic obstacles that occur any less challenging or the natural elements that inform the conflict any less brutal. It ultimately arrives at a truth about the immigrant experience that feels specific to this story but potentially applicable to so many others: that hardship and sacrifice may cost parents their personal lives in order for their children to build up better lives for themselves.

Bringing this salient point home is the transcendent ensemble acting, anchored by a soulful and zealous performance by Yeun as an obdurate father almost literally breaking his back for his family. Ye-ri is right there with him, taking a character who could play like a one-note nagging wife in the wrong hands but is instead given the dimension and depth that she deserves. Portraying the surrogate for the real-life Chung as a youngster, Alan Kim gives David a cherubic craftiness and sheepish introspection that make his work nothing short of winsome. Continuing a string of outstanding work in his young career as a film composer, Emile Mosseri lends a gorgeous musical score that aches with the possibility of unknown futures. Thoughtful and touching in equal measure, Minari is a family drama whose ability to generate empathy seems effortless.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Streaming on HBO Max is Tom & Jerry, a live action/CGI comedy starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Michael Peña about the eternally feuding cat and mouse duo who wreak havoc on one of New York City’s most upscale hotels.
Debuting on Hulu is The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a biopic starring Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes about the legendary jazz singer and the drug addiction that tragically cut her life and career short.
Available to watch on Apple TV+ is The World’s a Little Blurry, a music documentary centered around the rising career of Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Nomadland

In her elegiac and emotionally captivating new movie Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao opens with a curious title card about a small city in Nevada named Empire. It’s a remote town so driven by a single industry that when the local sheetrock plant closes down in 2011 after 88 years in business, the entire town was evacuated and the zip code was literally abandoned not long afterwards. Among those displaced by the devastating closure is Fern (Frances McDormand), who doesn’t have much need to stay after the recent passing of her husband. She finds a new partner, of sorts, in a van she dubs Vanguard, which carries the remainder of her belongings that she hasn’t sold off or holed up in a storage unit. With jobs being scarce as a result of The Great Recession, Fern travels from one Southwest city to another, meeting other nomads like herself and adapting to their mutual lifestyle in the process.

What makes Zhao’s film so slyly remarkable is just how lived-in and genuine each aspect of her story feels as it unfolds before us. As in her previous work, the also excellent The Rider, she surrounds the protagonist with real-life figures playing modestly fictionalized versions of themselves. Among the challenges of creating a sprawling picture as this is, I would imagine it’s quite difficult to fill your movie with a bevy of non-actors but Zhao gets bonafide performances out of each and every one of them. Also serving as the film’s editor, Zhao has a brilliant instinct for how to cut conversations together where sentences may overlap but every word still registers and resonates. There’s a pace and rhythm to the dialogue in Nomadland that you just won’t see anywhere else.

Credit for the naturalistic exchanges also extends to McDormand, giving an understated performance that is necessarily more reactive and reflexive but no less compelling as a result. As a bereft wayfarer still acclimating to her changing circumstances, she reveals Fern’s empathetic nature while letting us in on her sadness little bits at a time. It’s a much different role than the one for which she most recently scored a Best Actress Oscar, the incendiary Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which openly wore its anger and bitterness on its sleeve. McDormand suggests Fern could possess similar resentment but sublimates it into savvy survival skills and a sturdy work ethic that allows her to pick up hands-on labor nearly everywhere she goes, even while work is difficult for others to find.

Adapting from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, whose subtitle Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century pitches it as a how-to guide, Zhao doesn’t graft a complex narrative onto Nomadland. A more pedestrian storyteller would have telegraphed a redemption arc or a series of inorganic obstacles for our heroine to overcome but Zhao knows that it’s more than enough for us to simply spend time with these nomads and hear them out. We learn about their way of life, from the Ten Commandments of Stealth Parking to bucket-based tips that I shouldn’t delve into here. While some were driven out of their homes, others choose the mobile lifestyle for their own reasons and just as they don’t judge one another, Zhao asks the same of us in the audience.

As the theatrical experience continues to experience setback after setback, there’s no movie I’ve seen in the last 12 months that made me wish I was watching it in a theater more than this one. While I might typically expect that sentiment to arise from an effects blockbuster rather than a $5 million awards drama, I’ll take the golden hour desert vistas captured by cinematographer Joshua James Richards over the fussed-over frames of a spandex superhero showdown any day. Hopefully sometime soon, I would love to see the images of this film illuminate the big screen when it’s safe to go back to our beleaguered multiplexes. A stunning meditation on transience and trauma, Nomadland is a patient and perceptive portrait of people who are rarely, if ever, given the chance to represent themselves in the movies.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Debuting on Netflix is I Care A Lot, a dark comedy starring Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage about a woman who makes her living stealing from the elderly by deceiving judges into appointing her as their “legal guardian.”
Swooping in on Disney+ is Flora & Ulysses, a family superhero comedy starring Matilda Lawler and Danny Pudi about the adventures of a young girl and her adopted squirrel who has superpowers.
Available to digitally rent is Silk Road, a based-on-a-true-story thriller starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson about the tech mastermind behind Silk Road, a dark web page that sells narcotics, and the DEA agent tasked with taking him down.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Nest

It’s commonplace for haunted house movies to follow a familiar formula: happy family moves into a new home, tensions escalate as supernatural events occur and the fraught family members band together to fight off the malevolent apparitions. In his outstanding sophomore outing The Nest, writer-director Sean Durkin inverts this equation, taking a family already reeling from years of mistrust and instability and instead of serving them up the typical ghosts and monsters, he uses the chilly setting to further exacerbate existing wounds. As with his similarly brilliant debut, 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Durkin examines frayed family dynamics within the structure of a slow-burn thriller where irrevocable tragedy is only a crooked look or misplaced insult away.

We meet the ambitious scoundrel Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) as he makes a call to an old employer and wakes his steely-eyed wife Allison (Carrie Coon) with the news that they’ll be moving back to his native London for a new job opportunity. It’s the “greed-is-good” era of the 1980s and Rory is hungrier than ever, even if this move marks their fourth in ten years. Rory has essentially made the choice to pursue the position on his own, asking neither for permission nor forgiveness, but it doesn’t take long to learn that he and Allison are hardly on the same page about anything. As the pair “settle” into their dreary England estate with kids Sam (Oona Roche) and Ben (Charlie Shotwell), resentment continues to build and the chasm of conflicting personalities between the four grows wider.

Richly conceived and near-flawlessly executed, The Nest truly is a triumph on every meaningful level of artistic merit. Durkin, who did spend part of his childhood in 1980s South England, mines the more irksome cultural disparities between British and American life as just one of the pin pricks of malcontent that fracture the O’Hara clan. With this groundwork in place, he constructs supremely well-observed characterizations within a fittingly economical screenplay that tells us everything we need to know about these people without a word of excess. The direction is brutally patient and tonally congruent, with Durkin beautifully demonstrating a balance between tension and release. Were this movie to play in theaters nationwide, I would fully expect jeers akin to “don’t go in that room!” from audiences, only adapted for a chilly story of domestic strife rather than a jump scare-laden horror movie.

In roles that are perfectly attuned to the strengths of the actors, Coon and Law do some of the most wrenching and compelling work of their already accomplished careers. Law’s performance recalls the charming deception of his Talented Mr. Ripley character Dickie Greenleaf but he trades Dickie’s carefree spirit for Rory’s palpably desperate sense of determination that is sickeningly enthralling to behold. Coon is equally electrifying as a no-nonsense horse trainer who is in lock-step with her compliant stallion but can’t seem to put the reins on her recklessly impulsive husband. Their inevitable scenes of verbal conflict match the bruising staying power of the culminating scene from last year’s Marriage Story, though I doubt The Nest will inspire nearly as many misbegotten memes.

In one of the year’s most hypnotically effective musical scores, composer and Arcade Fire band member Richard Reed Parry pits discordant piano against apprehensive woodwinds to musically mirror the story’s central conflict. The diegetic soundtrack aptly interpolates 80s hits like the wistful Thompson Twins track “Hold Me Now” and, in a particularly cathartic sequence, the ebullient Communards dance tune “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. It’s been 9 long years since Sean Durkin broke out and if he has more films in him with a quality level similar to The Nest, I hope we won’t have to wait 9 more for his next mesmerizing masterpiece.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies to stream this weekend:
Available to watch on Hulu is Run, a suspense thriller from the director of Searching starring Sarah Paulson and Kiera Allen about a homeschooled teenager who begins to suspect her mother is keeping a dark secret from her.
Out for digital rental is Jiu Jitsu, a martial arts fantasy starring Tony Jaa and Nicolas Cage about an ancient order of expert fighters who must square off against a vicious race of alien invaders in a battle for Earth.
Debuting next Tuesday on Netflix is Hillbilly Elegy, a Ron Howard drama starring Glenn Close and Amy Adams about a law student drawn back to his hometown as he grapples with his Appalachian family’s struggles.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Boys State

Making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the enthralling and massively entertaining documentary Boys State hits streaming this weekend and announces itself as one of the year’s best movies. Chronicling the 2018 edition of the American Legion leadership program that gives the film its name, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine showcase the hundreds of Texan teenagers who gathered to construct a fictitious representative government from scratch. Over the course of a week, the spirited youngsters divide up into two parties of Nationalists and Federalists and elect officials in positions ranging from party chair to governor.

Though they capture input from many of the participants, Moss and McBaine focus on a handful of teens who seem to show the most promise from the outset. There’s Federalist party chair Ben Feinstein, a quick-witted, conservative-minded double amputee who quickly learns the lay of the land and boosts fellow Federalist Eddy Conti to gubernatorial candidacy. Comparatively, Nationalist Steven Garza is more reserved but no less inspiring as a sincere progressive inspired by the likes of Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders. Other Nationalists who rally behind Garza for governor are the eloquent and charismatic party chair René Otero and square-jawed rabble rouser Robert Macdougal.

What’s most fascinating about Boys State is how thoroughly it lays out the beauties and shortcomings of the American democratic process within the context of the current political climate. Though it’s explained early on that the Nationalists and Federalists needn’t adhere to any “guidelines” set by the existing Republican or Democratic parties, it doesn’t take long for the two groups to resemble their real-life counterparts. The testosterone-driven electorates are only slightly exaggerated cyphers for the actual crowds of rally-goers who express their approval or dismay in no uncertain terms. The process of watching the candidates feed off of their energy and change their political strategy accordingly is fascinating to behold.

Lest I make the movie sound like something only a polysci major would enjoy, it’s crucial to note that Boys State is a fun watch even if you favor the personalities over the politics. There is plenty of humor and tension as these strangers come together, try to figure each other out and build something meaningful in such a short amount of time. “I think he’s a fantastic politician,” Otero says of rival Feinstein. “But I don’t think a ‘fantastic politician’ is a compliment either,” he adds after a beat. As the film moved breathlessly to the climactic election night, I could not have been more captivated while waiting to hear the results, even knowing that they didn’t have any actual consequence on the real-life political landscape.

McBaine and Moss, the latter of whom headed up the terrific 2014 doc The Overnighters, weave together all of these public and private moments with both commendable sensitivity and spellbinding momentum. Since 1937, the Boys State program has produced scores of notable alumni from Dick Cheney to Bill Clinton and even film critic Roger Ebert. After seeing this movie, it’s difficult to imagine that ambitious figures like Feinstein and Otero won’t one day have political influence which matches that of the program’s biggest breakouts. Equal parts riveting and revealing, Boys State is a vision of American politics that distills our hopes and fears into one supremely entertaining package.

Score – 4.5/5

Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available on Netflix is Project Power, a New Orleans-set action movie starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a pill that gives the taker superhuman abilities for five minutes.
Available on Disney+ is Magic Camp, a family comedy starring Adam DeVine and Jeffrey Tambor about a struggling magician who returns as a counselor to the camp he attended as a child.
Available on demand is Sputnik, a sci-fi horror film starring Oksana Akinshina and Fyodor Bondarchuk about the lone survivor of a space accident who is unknowingly harvesting an alien creature in his body.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Palm Springs

As anyone who’s gone through months of quarantine (basically all of us, at this point) will tell you, it has a way of distorting one’s perception of time. With the removal of structured tasks like work and social outings, the “Blursday” phenomenon can make us feel that we’re living the same day over and over again with no end in sight. Given that so many of us can now relate to this purgatorial condition, it perhaps couldn’t be a better time for a time loop comedy like Palm Springs to come along and help us make sense of and maybe even make light of our “quarantine blues”. When Neon and Hulu struck a $17.5 million deal for the film at Sundance earlier this year, there’s no way they could have realized how apropos it would ultimately be upon its release.

Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, a seemingly carefree slacker whose loud Hawaiian shirt shouts “I don’t care” but disaffected disposition points to something a bit darker. “Today, yesterday, tomorrow — it’s all the same,” he murmurs blithely from a pizza-shaped pool float the morning of a Palm Springs wedding. It turns out, his words are more literal than it sounds, as Nyles has actually relived this exact day more times than he can remember. The twist on the Groundhog Day conceit comes in the form of maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti), who becomes stuck in the perpetual time loop with Nyles after an unforeseen incident binds their fates. With nothing but time on their hands, the two work together to absolve themselves from their temporal dilemma.

Director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara know they’re in familiar territory here but one of the many joys of watching Palm Springs is seeing how fresh a perspective the pair can graft onto this formula. By making a couple go through the broken record routine as opposed to one person alone, the film investigates the prospects of a romantic relationship in a time warp that continually resets. The story serves as a multi-faceted metaphor for monogamy, making literal the sentiment that two people can live forever in their own shared reality apart from the rest of the clueless world. In this way, the film reminded me often of all-time great Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in the way it explores how time interacts with romance in unexpectedly complicated ways.

While the performances in Palm Springs might not quite be up to the caliber of Carrey’s and Winslet’s in Spotless Mind, they’re not as far off as one may anticipate. Samberg starts off in familiar goofball territory but it doesn’t take long before he adds layers of anxiety and grief to really sell the experience of a man caught up in his distressing scenario. Milioti is even better as a sardonic match for Samberg’s wise-cracking Nyles as she slowly unpacks the stages of existential dread in the funniest way possible. Elsewhere, the always fantastic J.K. Simmons turns in another excellent supporting performance as a fellow wedding guest who adds even more wisdom and emotional intelligence to an uncommonly perceptive movie.

“Uncommonly perceptive” is not a descriptor I would have necessarily expected to apply to a product of The Lonely Island, the comedy trio Samberg created with two fellow SNL alums Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. The minds behind frivolous cult comedies like Hot Rod and MacGruber have seemingly matured enough to craft something this simultaneously thoughtful and hilarious. If you’re familiar with the trio’s brand of humor and come into the film with the understanding of how much pranking and mischief two people could get up to in this sci-fi synopsis, then you may have a picture of just how entertaining the film ultimately becomes. Palm Springs is a melancholy and mordantly funny meditation on what it means to grow together with someone in a world that seems doomed to repeat its past failures.

Score – 4.5/5

Also streaming this weekend:
Available on Apple+ is Greyhound, a war movie starring Tom Hanks and Stephen Graham about an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain whose Allied convoy is being pursued by a fleet of Nazi U-boats.
Available on demand is First Cow, an indie drama from writer/director Kelly Reichardt starring John Magaro and Toby Jones about a cook who travels with fur trappers to 19th century Oregon.
Available on Netflix is The Old Guard, a superhero film starring Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne about a group of centuries-old immortal mercenaries who are suddenly exposed and must fight to keep their identity a secret.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Little Women

Writer-director Greta Gerwig follows up her breakout debut Lady Bird with Little Women, an enchanting and exquisite modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical novel. It’s a daunting task taking on such a well-known work, one that has now been adapted to film eight times now, but Gerwig has committed to creative choices that distinguish this iteration from its ilk. In the best way, this feels like a “remix” of the original source material, focusing on tone and theme more than adhering strictly to the narrative as it’s laid out in the book. Bolstered by lush camerawork and a first-rate ensemble cast, this is a delightful and supremely entertaining take on a coming-of-age classic.

Set in 1860s New England, the story centers around the March family as Marmee March (Laura Dern) looks over her four daughters while Father March (Bob Odenkirk) fights in the Civil War. There’s Jo (Saorise Ronan), the rambunctious aspiring writer who captures the affection of the devilishly charming next-door neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). There’s Meg (Emma Watson), who dreams of a life on the stage with a suitor waiting in the wings. There’s Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest whose jealousy and selfishness tend to get the best of her. Finally, there’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whose sweet and reserved disposition is reflected in her beautiful piano playing that warmly fills the March residence.

Gerwig’s boldest artistic direction, in conjunction with editor Nick Houy, comes in how she approaches the chronology, beginning the film with Jo as an adult pitching a pulp novel to the incredulous Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). From there, we flash back six years to Jo’s childhood in the lively March household and then we flip back and forth in time to follow not only Jo’s journey but also the stories of the other three sisters as well. As is tradition for retellings of this tale, Jo remains the focus but Gerwig expands the scope of the character work by allowing us to spend more time with the rest of the March family. For example, Amy has been more crudely drawn in other adaptations but through Pugh’s performance and Gerwig’s writing, she’s a fully fleshed-out character.

The dream cast, which also includes venerable veterans like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, is perfectly realized in both major and minor roles. Rekindling their pre-existing partnership from Lady Bird, Ronan and Chalamet showcase an effortless charm and chemistry that brings out the very best of the actors’ sensibilities. Pugh caps off her breakout year with another winning performance that cements her as one of the most magnetic young actresses working today. Also carried over from Lady Bird is Letts, who scores some big laughs as a cynical publisher who playfully picks apart Jo’s pending novel, peppering in pieces of advice like “if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”

Bringing the whole package together are some terrific contributions from behind the camera. The elegant cinematography from Yorick Le Saux makes beautiful use of natural light in every scene, book-matching the opening and concluding shots of the film with transcendent symmetry. Musically, Alexandre Desplat’s stately yet spritely score adds the perfect notes of sophistication and whimsy for a period drama such as this. Little Women is proof that with the right combination of ingenuity and intelligence, it’s possible to make even the most well-worn stories feel fresh once again.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Grudge, starring Andrea Riseborough and John Cho, is a remake of a remake about a spooky house cursed by a vengeful spirit who haunts and kills all those who enter it.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Lighthouse

Writer/director Robert Eggers follows up his striking debut The Witch with The Lighthouse, a different kind of horror movie that channels psychological distress over supernatural haunts. While both films use period-correct dialogue with authentic dialects to establish an undeniable sense of time and place, Eggers’ latest effort is even more engrossing and oddly enchanting by comparison. Shot in gorgeously haunting black-and-white and presented in a constrained 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film is an unrelenting symphony of dread and dismay fueled by impeccable sound design and two top-caliber performances.

We meet our two main characters, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), in hazy silhouette as their boat charges ahead to a remote island off the coast of New England. It is there that the two men plan on spending the next four weeks together, with the cantankerous Wake serving as the lead of the lighthouse while the virile Winslow takes up the physically taxing jobs. Over their stay, the pair bond over nightly dinners and overnight liquor sessions but eventually, isolation and paranoia begin to take hold of them as the natural elements around grow harsher every day.

Shaped by the work of German Expressionist masters like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, The Lighthouse is a hellish and hypnotic vision from a filmmaker who continues to push himself formally and stylistically. Together with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers beautifully paints his frame with the perfect balance of light and shadow to convey the rotting psyche of the central duo. Also lending itself to the slow decline into insanity is the music score by Mark Korven and the accompanying cacophonous sound design, which blends the constant cawing of seagulls with the growl of a bellowing furnace to overwhelming effect.

Thanks to the fiercely committed acting from the leads, this is as good a two-hander as you’re likely to see in theaters this year. Sporting a picturesque seaman’s beard, Dafoe brings a cackling menace to his role as he tosses off dinner toasts and curse-laden monologues with equal panache. Pattinson, who was also excellent in another challenging A24 entry High Life earlier this year, is even better as the downtrodden wickie who becomes consumed with guilt and obsession. I hope this film gets nominated for plenty of Academy Awards when the nominations are announced but at the very least, these two actors deserve to be recognized for their superb work.

Bringing everything together is the salty screenplay by Robert Eggers and his brother Max Eggers, which ratchets up the tension between the beleaguered men with pointed dialogue that’s at times harrowing and hilarious. Whether they’re sparring about the quality of one’s cooking or how lazy the other is, their bickering is intentionally reminiscent of an old married couple. In the midst of a more amiable conversation, Thomas utters the film’s thesis: “boredom makes men to villains.” Immaculately crafted from top to bottom, The Lighthouse is a maelstrom of mischief that should pull in all who dare to enter its path.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Charlie’s Angels, starring Kristen Stewart and Naomi Scott, reboots the popular female-centric action franchise about a trio of highly trained spies who travel internationally to take on a new threat.
Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, tells the true story of an American car designer and professional driver who set out build a brand new vehicle to challenge Ferrari at 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Good Liar, starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, is a spy thriller about a seasoned con man who finds himself falling for the woman he orchestrated his latest scheme against after meeting her online.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Farewell

The immensely moving and thoroughly amusing new film The Farewell stars Nora Lum (who goes by the moniker Awkwafina in her music career) as Billi, a struggling writer toiling away New York City. While making a laundry run at the home of her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), she learns that her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) has recently been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer with only three remaining months. The decision is made by the family, in accordance with Chinese culture, not to reveal the news to Nai Nai but a hasty marriage proposal by Billi’s cousin Hao (Chen Hanwei) to his new girlfriend ensures that the family can travel to Beijing to say their veiled goodbyes to their spritely matriarch.

The premise would suggest a rather somber affair but thanks to some intuitive and empathetic direction by Lulu Wang, who based this film on her own real-life story, the tone is mostly light-hearted with notes of bittersweet reflection along the way. She finds humor where others might only find sadness and lends a perspective that may indeed help others get through their own hard times. In this way, it reminded me often of the similarly excellent dramedy The Big Sick, which also intelligently balanced the heavy story at its center with plenty of tasteful laughs.

From an early phone conversation between Billi and Nai Nai, in which both trade fibs about where they are and what they’re doing, the film is predicated upon the polite lies that we tell our family to guard them from unpleasant truths. When it comes to the well-intentioned deception behind the big secret at the center of the story, there’s a sense of dramatic tension that any character could blurt out the news to sweet Nai Nai at any moment. More importantly, there is a poignant subtext about how we can do the wrong thing for the right reasons on behalf of the people that are closest to us. Some may view this movie and object to how the characters handle this situation but few would question the sentiment behind their decisions.

The performances from the ensemble cast are stellar across the board but it’s Lum, who popped up last year in both Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, that stands out as a true revelation. In her first leading role, Lum is remarkably assured and quietly commanding (despite her slumped posture) in an audience surrogate role that could have been potentially been flat or one-note. Shuzhen is also terrific as the blissfully unaware Nai Nai, whose firecracker spirit and quippy banter give the movie a richly humane energy. That she consistently reminded me of my own late grandmother would likely explained why I was moved to tears on two separate occasions during the film.

There are some playful touches from behind the camera that bolster the comedic and dramatic foundation of each scene. The editing work by Michael Taylor and Matthew Friedman does a fantastic job of giving us enough time to take in each characters’ role in the family while also aiding in some briskly-paced scenes of situational comedy. Cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano gives us some gorgeous foundational shots of the Chinese city Changchun but also treats us to some sumptuous low angles of busy dinner tables that make every meal look like a delectable feast. The Farewell is one of the year’s best films, a heartfelt tribute to grandparents everywhere and the families that support them.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, starring Zoe Colletti and Michael Garza, adapts the series of children’s horror tales into a story about a young girl who conjures terrifying creatures within her mansion.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold, starring Isabela Moner and Eva Longoria, bring the cartoon explorer into live-action for a new adventure in which Dora must save her parents and solve an ancient Inca mystery.
The Kitchen, starring Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss, is a comedy crime film about three housewives out to settle the score with the Irish mafia after their mobster husbands are sent to prison.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Booksmart

Actress Olivia Wilde makes her feature directorial debut with Booksmart, a joyfully vulgar and endlessly witty teen comedy that is destined to go down as an all-time classic. Taking cues from genre pillars like The Breakfast Club and Clueless, Wilde paints a hilarious portrait of high school life that feels specific to this generation while still remaining timeless on a thematic level. Even though we’ve been recently spoiled with an abundance of excellent coming-of-age movies like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, we have yet another winner on our hands.

We meet best friends and academic overachievers Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) on their final day of high school as they prepare to graduate with top honors. Upon discovering that most of her rambunctious peers were also accepted to prestigious universities, Molly grows envious of their party-hard mentality and vows to make their last night of senior year one to remember. The pair set out on a conquest to find an ever-elusive house party (“We are A+ people going to an A+ party,” Molly asserts) while naturally running into increasingly absurd obstacles along the way.

Penned by an all-female quartet of writers, the masterful script for Booksmart is filled with humor that can be shockingly explicit one minute and then unexpectedly high-minded (indicative of the film’s title) the next. This means that copious amounts of four-letter words and jokes about the human anatomy are tempered with relatively obscure references to famed documentarian Ken Burns and Queen Noor of Jordan. In her first time out as a director, Wilde deftly juggles an impressive array of comedic styles with unfailingly hilarious results.

Atop a talented ensemble of both first-time actors and veteran comedy performers, Dever and Feldstein sport an undeniable chemistry full of charm and warmth that trickles down to the rest of the cast. A chief complaint I had with Superbad, another very funny high school romp to which Booksmart will inevitably be compared, is that the friendship between its two central characters seemed to be rooted more in malice than in mirth. Even at their snarkiest, Amy and Molly always find small but significant ways to empower one another and, in one notable instance, reprimand each other when they occasionally succumb to negative self-talk.

While SNL alums like Will Forte and Wilde’s fiancé Jason Sudeikis turn up in amusing adult roles, the cast of the film is mainly made up of fresh faces who make the most of their time on screen. Billie Lourd, the daughter of the late Carrie Fisher, is a scene-stealing highlight as a relentless party girl who continues to pop up mysteriously throughout the night. Molly Gordon is similarly terrific as a character who seems to fit the “mean girl” mold early on until a pivotal monologue reveals greater depths to her character. As a high school comedy that both invigorates the genre and reminds us why it’s such an enduring one in the first place, Booksmart succeeds with flying colors.

Score – 4.5/5

Also coming to theaters this weekend:
Aladdin, starring Mena Massoud and Will Smith, is another live-action Disney remake of a animated classic about an affable thief who hopes to win the heart of a princess with the help of a magical genie.
Brightburn, starring Elizabeth Banks and David Denman, inverts the traditional superhero origin story and depicts a child from another planet who comes to use his powers for evil instead of good.
Opening at Cinema Center is Hail Satan?, a documentary that traces the recent rise of The Satanic Temple, which is regarded as one of the most controversial religious movements in American history.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Apollo 11

Though there have been plenty of other movies and TV specials about the first moon mission, we haven’t seen anything quite like the wondrous new documentary Apollo 11. Utilizing previously unseen footage from the 8-day period during which the mission took place in July 1969, director Todd Douglas Miller has crafted a meticulous and often thrilling recreation of mankind’s most daring feat. Unlike last year’s excellent First Man, which tells a more personal story centered around lead astronaut Neil Armstrong, this film is much more straight-forward about the specifics of the spaceflight.

Miller, who is also credited as the sole editor, eschews typical documentary conventions like having the events explained to us by historian talking heads or a narrative voiceover. Instead, he cuts the footage in a way that even people who don’t know the ins and outs of space travel would be able to understand. When the astronauts are discussing upcoming tactical maneuvers with NASA headquarters, we’re shown diagrams that clearly demonstrate what the crew is about to attempt. What’s most impressive about this aspect in particular is that even though these visual depictions mirror what a teacher might draw on a chalkboard, the film never feels like a boring school lecture.

Given that all of the documentary’s footage is taken from 50-year-old film, one may expect that the look of this movie would be quite dated but the images are full of new life with the aid of digital restoration. Thanks to Miller’s direction, the film has a cinematic immediacy to it from the first frame, which begins by highlighting the massive scale of the operation as the camera glides up the 6-million pound rocket ship. There are also gorgeous shots, like one from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet awaiting the trio of astronauts, that feel both incredibly modern and indelibly timeless at the same time.

With the aid of Matt Morton’s majestic musical score, unbroken shots of the crew completing the most challenging portions of the mission are made even more awe-inspiring than they would be otherwise. When the frame is divided into several split-screens that feature various teams working within mission control, the pulsing synth-driven soundtrack gives appropriate urgency to their efforts. The rest of the audio is filled out expertly by sound designer Eric Milano, who poured through thousands of hours of uncatalogued audio recordings to capture the most essential pieces of dialogue from this landmark event.

When we think of the moon landing, typically Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin come to mind first but this documentary is a reminder of the hundreds of talented individuals whose hard work made this dangerous mission a success. One such example is found in an early tracking shot that depicts the seemingly endless rows of computing equipment and scientists dedicated to achieving the impossible. Thanks to the efforts of Miller and everyone behind the production of Apollo 11, their work can now be seen through a new lens of clarity and preserved for future generations looking for inspiration once again.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Us, starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke, is a new horror film from Get Out director Jordan Peele about a family of four whose vacation is upended by a diabolical group of home invaders.
Hotel Mumbai, starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, tells the harrowing true story of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks from the perspective of the staff at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.
Back in theaters for its 20th anniversary is Cruel Intentions, the romantic teen drama starring Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon about a pair of wealthy step-siblings who make a lascivious wager.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup