REVIEW: “The Farewell” (2019)

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Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival to a ton of buzz. It has taken some time, but the movie is slowly making its way into more theaters across the country and the critical praise has steadily grown. Wang’s intensely personal family dramedy pulls from her own life experiences with her ailing grandmother, a story she first shared on the Chicago-based radio program “The American Life”.

“The Farewell” could be considered one part biographical sketch and one part meditative think piece. Wang (who serves as writer and director) gives us a central character not only dealing with the illness of a loved one, but straddling the pull of two profoundly different cultural points-of-view. Wang does no finger pointing and her film makes no harsh judgments. Instead she sketches, explores and informs through an observant and sincerely human lens.

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Awkwafina gives what may be the most eye-opening performance of the year. The edgy comedian/rapper gained a lot of attention for her supporting turn in “Crazy Rich Asians”, a role that essentially restricted her to comic relief. “The Farewell” offers her meatier and considerably more challenging material which the evocative actress absolutely crushes.

Awkwafina plays Billi, a twenty-something New Yorker who has never quite got her footing in the Big Apple. She has lived there since she was 6-years-old after she and her parents (played by Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) moved to the United States from China. An independent spirit and aspiring writer, she’s a bit down-on-her-luck after being denied a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.

But she receives even worse news, her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and is given only three months to live. Per a common Chinese custom the diagnosis is hidden from her grandmother (affectionately called Nai Nai). Billi doesn’t like the deception but she doesn’t want to stir up trouble with her family. This leaves her in a state of incertitude, struggling to both understand and cope with her grandmother’s condition.

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The family concocts a fake wedding for Nai Nai’s grandson and his Japanese girlfriend, but it’s actually just an excuse to bring everyone back to China one last time to say their final goodbyes. Over the next several days Billi joins everyone else in not only hiding the truth from her grandmother but concealing her own heartache.

Wang’s subject matter is heavy but never overbearing. That’s because her movie isn’t strictly about death and grief. Underneath its main story conceit you’ll find several universal themes that hit home regardless of country or culture. But it’s the unexpected playfulness and humor that makes the film feel truly authentic. Wang embraces the peculiarities of family while never pushing it too far. The humor is always at just the right temperature.

Just as essential is Anna Franquesa Solano’s delicate, elegantly framed cinematography and Alex Weston’s supple, melancholy score. They both are impressive on their own, but when working together with Wang’s bittersweet script and a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, we end up with gentle, thoughtful, and profoundly earnest storytelling that often speaks volumes without a word of dialogue.

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I mentioned how much I enjoyed the soulful and restrained Awkwafina performance. But I can’t say enough about Zhao Shuzhen. I have read this is her first feature film but you would never know it. She effortlessly fits into her character’s skin, giving an energetic and strikingly authentic portrayal, the kind you would see from a wily screen veteran with 50 movies under her belt. She’s a joy to watch and a true scene-stealer. Hopefully the Academy pays attention come Oscar time.

An opening title card tells us this is a film “Based on an actual lie.” Funny thing is “The Farewell” is one of the truest movies about illness and grief I’ve seen in a while. At the same time it asks a variety of questions about individuality, cultural tradition, and the messiness of family among other things. Lulu Wang shows herself to be a filmmaker to watch, exhibiting a keen management of tone and the sincerest treatment of her characters. These are signatures of a really good filmmaker, and they come with only two movies to her credit. Talk about exciting.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Fast Color” (2019)

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Each year there is a movie that comes out of nowhere and absolutely knocks my socks off. Most of the time it’s a smaller film worthy of more press and deserving of a much bigger audience. So far no 2019 movie fits that description better than “Fast Color”.

The film is directed by Julia Hart who also co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, producer Jordan Horowitz. “Fast Color” premiered at SXSW in 2018 and was met with strong reviews but no distribution deal. Even after it was eventually picked up by Lionsgate subsidiary Codeblack Films, a split between the companies left the film in limbo. Lack of marketing led to no exposure making it impossible for “Fast Color” to grab the attention it deserves.

That has to be frustrating for Hart and everyone involved especially since their film is genuinely something special. It’s part dystopian science-fiction, part moving family drama. Most surprisingly, it could be defined as a superhero origin story, but one not directed by source material or restricted by franchise obligations. Instead it’s a highly original work with its own unique pulse and more things on its mind than caped crusading and cosmic threats.

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First the setting: in the American Midwest we learn it has been eight years since the last drop of rain. People can’t grow food and the prices of water have skyrocketed. A fabulous Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Ruth. When we first meet her she’s clearly on the run from something. Soon we learn she suffers from uncontrollable tremors, so violent that they trigger small earthquakes. Of course superpowers like that would draw the attention of the government who are desperate to find and study anything they can to end the planet’s slow demise.

Frightened and with nowhere else to go, Ruth flees to the one place she can potentially feel safe – home. Once there she has a tense reunion with her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) who has been raising Ruth’s daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) for ten years on a remote country farmhouse. Hart begins to shrewdly unpack the complicated family history surrounding three generations of women. The less you know the better, but I’ll say this much: All three have special powers that have been passed down through the women of their family. But Ruth struggles, even portrayed as “broken” due to her inability to tap into her abilities.

While you could call “Fast Color” a superhero movie, it doesn’t draw its strength from spectacle but from the mysterious wonders of ordinary life and the relationships that help shape us. Many small details both physical and emotional bring weight to the story and resonate through Hart’s canvas. And they help to explore the wealth of stimulating themes: the power of maternal bonds, embracing individuality, family legacies, addiction, and that just scratches the surface.

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So many elements add to the rich and engaging storytelling. Hart and her cinematographer Michael Fimognari do a variety of interesting things with the camera from elegant tracking movements to well-framed stationary shots. Rob Simonsen’s score is most often quietly effective but other times emotionally stirring without being manipulative. There’s the strong supporting work from Toussaint (I hope Oscar is paying attention), Sidney, and the always reliable David Strathairn playing a small town sheriff. And of course Mbatha-Raw who is convincing, committed, and utterly compelling. How is she not considered among our best working actresses?

It’s a real tragedy that “Fast Color” has been all but lost among the waves of 2019 movie releases both large and small. But it’s not too late. After a botched marketing campaign and minuscule theater release, “Fast Color” is now available on several streaming platforms (Vudu, Microsoft Movies, Amazon Prime, iTunes). There simply aren’t enough of these experiences out there – movies willing to infuse familiar genres with fresh, creative, and thought-provoking ideas. Beautifully conceived both narratively and visually, thematically rich and full of inspiration. This is a film truly worth championing and I’m happy to do so. It also happens to one of the year’s very best.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Free Solo”

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“If you’re seeking perfection free-soloing is as close as you can get.” That statement from 33-year-old American rock climber Alex Honnold is one of many from the documentary “Free Solo” that gets us into the head of a man who does something so terrifying and dangerous yet at the same time utterly remarkable.

For those who don’t know, free-soloing is rock climbing with no protective gear – no ropes, no harnesses, no nothing. It’s an undertaking with a margin of error next to zero. It’s something that’s easy for some to dismiss as ‘crazy’ (the movie even explores that possibility from a medical point of view). But “Free Solo” attempts to challenge that perspective by putting as much of its focus on the man who is Alex Honnold as it does his magnificent and unfathomable feats.

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The film documents Honnald’s physical and mental preparation leading up to his attempt at free-soloing El Capitan, a menacing yet beautiful rock formation standing at 3,000 feet in Yosemite National Park. Husband and wife co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who also did the excellent 2015 climbing doc “Meru”) follow Honnald through his excitement, trepidations, and insecurities.

Honnald grew up a loner by his own admission who was effected by his parents divorce despite noting they were both happier afterwards. What impacted him more was the death of his father who was a big supporter of his climbing. You get the sense that this pushed Honnald to challenge himself even more, often losing himself in free-soloing. It didn’t allow for many long-lasting relationships. The exception was Sanni McCandless, a self-proclaimed patient person but with self-respect. We see that tested as the El Capitan climb draws closer.

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As Chin and Vasarhelyi showed in “Meru” they have a knack for capturing both the beauty and danger of the climb. Here the risk is intensified and the consequences are evident in ever stunning and at times dizzying shot. And the camera puts a heavy emphasis on the precarious nature of the climb (sometimes a foothold is on nothing more than the tiniest dent in the rock face). It’s exhilarating, terrifying and it begs to be watched on the largest screen possible.

Alex Honnald is as fascinating as he is enigmatic and soaking up his story proves to be a satisfying experience. Yet despite the amount of time we spend with him it’s hard to get into his headspace. I never had a good grasp of how he thinks and of what makes the guy tick. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe “Free Solo” isn’t trying to get us to understand Honnald. Maybe it just wants us to respect him and the daring choices he makes. But I guess I am as unsure of that as I am the man himself.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Fighting With My Family”

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Seasoned wrestling fans probably remember the industry-shaking WWE debut of Paige. It was 2014 and the night after the company’s biggest event Wrestlemania. Paige, just 21 at the time, won the Women’s Chapionship (then called the Diva’s title) in her very first match becoming the youngest women’s champion in WWE history.

Paige’s career has since been marked by some enormous highs, unfortunate controversies, and a heartbreaking early retirement due to a severe neck injury. “Fighting With My Family” tells the remarkable underdog story of the young woman from Norwich, England, her eccentric blue-collar family, and her improbable rise to WWE Superstardom.

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Florence Pugh plays Paige whose real name is Saraya-Jade Bevis. She was born and raised in and around wrestling. Her parents (played by Nick Frost and Lena Headey in a crafty bit of casting) ran their own one-horse family wrestling outfit. Paige was closest to her brother Zak (Jack Lowden) and both dreamt of becoming professional wrestlers in the WWE.

While wrestling was the family business it was far from a lucrative one. Yet despite the deck being stacked against them, Paige and Zak push towards their dream with their loving and peculiar parents supporting them along the way. They finally get the call they’ve been waiting for – a chance for brother and sister to try out for the WWE. It leads to Paige being invited to go to the United States to compete for a roster spot. Zak doesn’t make the cut.

Writer-director Stephen Merchant does a good job balancing the wrestling aspect of the story with the family elements. That’s important because, as the title suggests, family is very much a fundamental part of Paige’s life. From having to leave her folks behind in England to the stress on her relationship with her heartbroken and envious brother. Merchant makes it a crucial part of his storytelling which is a steady blend of comedy and drama.

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A lot of credit should go to Pugh as well. She’s one of several young actresses working today who have shown immense talent and an understanding of their craft that goes beyond their age. Pugh effortlessly falls into a world she has admitted to knowing nothing about. You would never know it. We also get a really good Vince Vaughn performance. He plays the fictional character Hutch Morgan, a developmental trainer and talent scout who gives Paige her shot.

“Fighting With My Family” was quite the surprise. It actually packs far more heart and more character depth than I was expecting. It is a little predictable and at times you can see it needlessly stretching itself to be as crass as its PG-13 rating will allow. But it does go to show how well things can come together when you have a strong cast and a good story to tell.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Five Feet Apart”

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While some people push back on these things (and I understand why), movie history has shown there is an audience for teen illness flicks. I find it hard to be dismissive of them. They can serve to enlighten people as well as speak to those who have experienced the diseases or know someone who has. At the same time there is a thin line between informing and exploiting.

“Five Feet Apart” walks that thin line at times leaning precariously towards the exploitative. But thankfully the film never falls over to that side mainly due to a deeply serious approach to cystic fibrosis as well as an authentic and fiercely committed performance from Haley Lu Richardson.

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Richardson plays Stella who is back in the hospital for another series of treatments. She’s sprightly OCD and admits to having control issues, but she remains positive sometimes above what her health seems to allow. She documents her journey with CF through her YouTube blog called “My Daily Breath”. It helps her cope as well as share her experience.

Down the hall is a childhood friend and fellow CF patient Poe (Moises Arias in a tempered down gay sidekick role). Oh, and there’s the new guy, the hunky and brooding Will (Cole Sprouse) who’s channeling as much early Johnny Depp as he can muster. He’s there for an experimental drug trial. While Stella and Will may share the same disease, otherwise they couldn’t be more opposite. Of course that changes and a mutual attraction begins.

From there the movie operates under the same rules as most of these things do – a bittersweet romance, the looming threat of disease-related death, and a bathtub filled to the rim with tears. The tension here is that Stella and Will must remain six feet apart to keep from sharing potentially fatal bacteria. As their relationship intensifies so does the longing to be closer. But their heartbreaking reality is the real antagonist of the film.

In his feature film debut director Justin Baldoni gets several things right. Teen romances can be hard to digest but his is easy to buy into. It forms and grows naturally despite a few missteps by the script. And Baldoni definitely sells the setting. Practically the entire film takes place in a hospital ward and a lot of detail is put into making it as realistic as possible.

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It’s the final 15 minutes that sees the movie nosedive into melodramatic overkill. It’s as if the filmmakers lost faith in both their story and their storytelling and turned to a sappy Nicholas Sparks-ish ending. It still gets to you and your eyes are sure to well up. But unlike earlier in the film, I could feel the tug of manipulation throughout the final leg.

A part of me really appreciates the sheer education value of “Five Feet Apart”. It drops a ton of information and provides an earnest depiction of cystic fibrosis which can be eye-opening for people like me. It’s also great that it offers another opportunity for Haley Lu Richardson to show why she’s one of the best young actresses working today. But that ending. It doesn’t quite kill the good that comes before it, but it comes mighty close.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

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REVIEW: “The Favourite”

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With a good sample size of movies to go by, Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos has shown himself to be an acquired taste. His films tend to operate on their own quirky wavelengths often within the punishing boundaries of his harsh worldview. His characters take the brunt, but he can be just as tough on his audience especially when he muddies the line between heartbreaking and nihilistic.

“The Favourite” features many of the same Lanthimos signatures but this time with a bigger foot in the real world. Set in early 18th century Britain and taking place almost exclusively on the grounds of the Royal Palace, the story follows a sickly Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and her conniving court of opportunists.

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At the movie’s core is the toxic trinity of the Queen, the Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s ambitious cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone). To no surprise Lanthimos chose the more salacious (and generally discredited) interpretation of Anne’s relationship with both Sarah and Abigail. But to be fair he’s not going for an accurate depiction. It’s the framework he wants for his bitter and twisted tale.

As England wars with the French so to does Sarah and Abigail for the Queen’s affection (because along with the Queen’s affection comes position, power and influence). Nothing is too devious or too vile for these lovely human beings. Backstabbing, deception, sexual devilry – it’s all fair game. And this is the rest of the movie in a nutshell, two ruthless vipers duking it out for their own self-absorbed reasons. The only suspense is in which one will be left standing.

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This is the first time Lanthimos hasn’t directed his own script. Instead Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara pen this verbally volatile period romp. Your enjoyment may hinge on your tolerance level for nasty behavior. It can be tough finding some level of heart but we do get a taste of it in Queen Anne. She’s a sad and pitiful woman plagued by crippling gout, unbearable grief, and a ton of insecurities. While Weisz and Stone are very good at peddling malevolence, Colman offers an occasional yet welcomed breather.

There are a handful of men scattered throughout the story. All of them are more or less pawns who the women manipulate for their good pleasure. It’s fun to watch. The best of the lot is Nicholas Hoult who is a hoot playing the slimy and subtly conniving Harley. He’s a politician with an agenda and I swear his wigs get bigger and more absurd with each new scene he’s in.

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While I found plenty in the story to push back on, I certainly can’t argue against Lanthimos’ incredible sense of craft. His camera employs all sorts of intriguing perspectives, interesting lens tricks, and funky angles. Sometimes it’s tough to see what he’s trying to convey but it always looks fantastic. Chipping in are some gorgeous set designs and Sandy Powell’s exquisite costumes which Lanthimos definitely takes advantage of.

“The Favourite” shines brightest through its top-notch performances across the board and in the sheer beauty of the filmmaking. That light fades when you get down to the meat of the storytelling. The bitterness wore on me, it can be pointlessly coarse, and I didn’t laugh much at all (except at Hoult). Not good for a blue-blooded black comedy. So I end up where I often do with Yorgos Lanthimos films – somewhere in the middle between impressed and frustrated.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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