Tel Aviv on Fire
Salam (Kais Nashef), a Palestinian man, lands a job as a screenwriter for a TV soap opera, "Tel Aviv on Fire, produced by his uncle, Bassam (Nadim Sawalha). The show is about a Palestinian woman, Manal (Lubna Azabal) who goes undercover as Rachel, steal secrets from an Israeli general, Yehuda (Yousef 'Joe' Sweid), and reports back to her Palestinian boyfriend, Marwan (Ashraf Farah). To reach the studio in Ramallah from his home in Jerusalem, he must pass through a security checkpoint at the border. One day, Assi (Yaniv Biton), the commander of a security checkpoint, stops him and recognizes him from the soap opera. He persuades Salam to make changes to show's ending which to make the Israeli general in the show look more favorable and to please his wife because it's her favorite show. Meanwhile, Salam tries to win back his ex-girlfriend, Mariam (Maisa Abd Elhadi).
Tel Aviv on Fire's screenplay by writer/director Sameh Zoabi and co-writer Dan Kleinman is smart, funny, heartfelt and refreshingly witty. It's part satire, part fairy tale, romance, drama and comedy, but the screenplay manages to blend all of those elements in way that never feels clunky, uneven nor overstuffed. At heart, the story is fundamentally about an intercultural friendship between two seemingly different individuals. There's no real villain or hero; just human beings who connect with each other in spite of their differences. Not of all of the scenes feel believable, but that's forgivable because it's satire/fairy tale, after all, which requires some suspension of disbelief. The filmmakers ground the film in just enough humanism to make you buy the relationships, especially the one between Salam and Assi. The evolving dynamics of their friendship is fascinating, and it's fun to hear their witty banter much like the banter between Tony Lip and Dr. Shirley in Green Book.
It's also worth mentioning the terrific casting. Every actor, even the supporting ones, is very well-cast. Kais Nashef has wonderful comedic timing as the awkward, yet relatable Salam. The same can be said about Yaniv Biton. They both bring warmth and charisma to their roles. Nadim Sawalha is just as extraordinary as is in the underrated Captain Abu Raed. The film's pacing is just brisk enough so that there aren't any scenes that drag like in the overrated, vapid and pretentious Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. There's nothing pretentious nor vapid about Tel Aviv on Fire. Unlike too many modern comedies, it makes you laugh without making you feeling like you're losing any brain cells. You'll also crave some good hummus after watching it. If there were any justice, Tel Aviv on Fire would be as popular as the equally crowd-pleasing film Green Book.
The Lion King
Simba (voice of JD McCrary), a lion cub, is next in line to become the king of the Pride Lands after his father, Mufasa (voice of James Earl Jones). His friend Nala (voice of Beyoncé Knowles) would become the queen. Scar (voice of Chiwetel Ejiofor), Mufasa's brother, wants to become king himself, so he kills Mufasa and convinces Simba that he's to blame for his father's death. Simba runs away to exile to a place far away from home where he meets, befriends and grows up with Timon (Billy Eichner), a meerkat, and Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), a warthog, until he becomes an adult lion (now voiced by Donald Glover).
If you're seen the original version of The Lion King from 1994, this remake won't be very surprising in terms of its plot because screenwriter Jeff Nathanson doesn't change it, but what's surprising, though, is how much of original classic's heart, humor and soul remains intact. The story has elements of tragedy, adventure, thrills, suspense, drama, comedy and a little dash of romance. So, it's roller coaster ride of emotions that's also captivating for all ages. Yes, it does deal with the topics of death and grief briefly, but it's much more of a tale that celebrates the value of life, family and courage. The stampede scene is indeed intense while leaving just enough for the imagination so that it's not too scary for little kids. Once Simba meets Timon and Pumbaa, that's when The Lion King truly soars as they both add very witty and hilarious comic relief. If you loved them in the 1994 version, you'll love them in this version, too. You'll also be fully invested in the journey of Simba and root for him every step of the way, even if you already know how the story will end. The updated versions of the songs don't exactly hold a candle to the original songs, but---hakuna matata---they come close enough to pull your heartstrings and make you feel uplifted.
To top it all off, the scenery of the jungle looks breathtaking and must be seen on the big screen. Nature becomes a character in itself, and, fortunately, director Jon Favreau doesn't shy away from showing audience the wondrous beauty of nature. There's a scene with hair from Simba's mane that travels a long distance in the wind that becomes one of the most poignant, amusing, joyous and quietly powerful scenes in the film. That scene alone transcends words. The CGI of the animals and even little insects look so photo-realistic that you'll forget that you're actually watching animation. Where does CGI end and live action begin? That blurred line is part of what makes movies so magical, after all. The Lion King should easily be a contender for Best Visual Effects awards later this year. Prepare to be mesmerized and enchanted by this enormously entertaining adventure that's a visually stunning spectacle with a big heart. It's a triumph!
The Art of Self-Defense
Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a shy, insecure accountant, gets mugged and beaten up by masked men on a motorcycle. He decides to learn self-defense by joins a nighttime karate class at a local dojo where her meets its owner, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), and a brown belt, Anna (Imogen Poots).
The Art of Self-Defense can best be described as The Karate Kid on acid. It begins as a droll comedy in the same vein as Office Space and gradually becomes increasingly dark and unpredictable once Casey takes karate classes. Just when you think you know where the screenplay by writer/director Riley Stearns is headed toward, it surprises you with some bold twists along with provocative social commentary. Stearns finds just the right balance of tone that blends dark, off-kilter humor with drama and even some thrilling moments. The dialogue often pops with razor-sharp wit, but beneath its surface there's plenty of anger, sadness and frustration. The same can be said about Casey is more than meets the eye. He's an underdog who's not always likable based on the boundaries that he crosses throughout the film, but he's worth rooting for and caring about, especially because of the way that he had been emotionally and physically abused. It's somewhat inspiring to watch him become more assertive and confident.
The third act does go a bit over the top without becoming silly and inane. Plausibility isn't one of the film's strong points, but it doesn't have to be. There's enough character development and depth to ground the film in just enough realism so that you're immersed in the life of Casey. Everything that Casey goes though can be seen as a metaphor or a microcosm that speak to larger themes ranging from toxic masculinity to self esteem to power and even, briefly, gun control. Stearns should be commended for not being too preachy regarding any of those topics.
The cause of a film finding it's right tone isn't just it's screenplay, after all, but also its casting. Jesse Eisberg is very well cast as the lead because he knows how to give a deadpan performance that shows the many layers of emotions lurking beneath Casey's surface. He may seem fragile on the outside, but he has inner strength that Sensei helps to bring to the surface in more ways than one. Likewise, Alessandro Nivola gives a solid performance as the smarmy Sensei. Despite him being strong on the outside, he's actually fragile on the inside. Stearns doesn't get to the root of what makes him such toxic human being or what makes Casey so insecure to begin with, so there's some room for interpretation there. Is society and pop culture to blame for that or perhaps it has something to do with how they were raised during their childhood. Either way, kudos for Stearns for not being afraid to shed light on the dark side of humanity. At a running time of 1 hour and 44 minutes, The Art of Self-Defense is wickedly funny, provocative and refreshingly subversive. It's destined to join Office Space, American Psycho and Heathers as an American cult classic.
Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese-American woman living in New York, travels to China to visit her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), who's been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. Nai Nai's sister (Lu Hong) and Billi's parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin), decide not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis. Instead, they stage a fake wedding with her grandson, Haohao (Han Chen), and Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), to gather the family to bid her farewell and to let her live her remaining days in peace.
The Farewell could have easily turned into a sitcom, disease-of-the-week movie or a soap opera, but its sensitive screenplay by writer/director Lulu Wang refrains from veering into either direction. Wang has a wonderful command of how human beings interact with nuances, subtleties, understatements and wit intact. She deftly blends drama and comedy in a way that feels organic. The humor ranges from awkward to offbeat and dry without resorting to the lowest common denominator. There are no viagra jokes or fart jokes. This is a movie for adults. Each character feels like a fully-fleshed, living, breathing human being, especially Billi who faces a morally ambiguous dilemma when it comes to playing along with her family's lie to her grandma. Should she or should she not tell the harsh truth to Nai Nai? That's the question that Billi ponders and, if you're a compassionate, thoughtful human being, you most likely will be pondering that very same question yourself as well throughout the course of the film. It's that particular question, though, that allows for you to relate to Billi even if you and her are not from the same culture. Happiness, family loyalty, love and kindness are, after all, universal themes, but they're also very complex and, in some cases, even complicated. Awkwafina's genuinely heartfelt performance, though, ultimately opens the window into Billi's heart, mind and soul. She deserves to be nominated for Best Actress. Hopefully she'll continue to choose complex, challenging roles because she's a very talented actress. Good roles usually beget more good roles, so there's hope thanks to The Farewell.
The Farewell doesn't judge any of its characters, and there's no villain to be found in sight. The villain is, rather, a silent, invisible one: Nai Nai's cancer. This isn't a film that's really about cancer, though, and it avoids becoming schmaltzy, maudlin and melodramatic. It's fundamentally about a family who come together to show their support and love for one another during a time of crisis. It's funny, melancholic, warm, sweet and poignant all at the same time. In other words, it's like life itself. Wang also includes some symbolism in the form of a bird, and doesn't hit you over the head with symbolism either. You might not grasp the meaning of the bird right away, but it makes a lot more sense in hindsight by the time the end credits roll.
More importantly, though, Wang keeps the film focused on the dynamics of the relationship between Billi and her family while subverting your preconceived notions based on Hollywood conventions. For example, Nai Nai's handsome single doctor (Jim Liu) introduces himself to Billi, you'd expect them to have a romance with each other, but, alas, they don't. In a Hollywood film, the doctor would sweep Billi off her feet and they'd live happily ever after. The Farewell remains a truly engrossing, refreshingly un-Hollywood film from start to finish. It's as quietly powerful as Ordinary People and deserves to become a sleeper hit. It succeeds in every aspect that Crazy Rich Asians failed at.
Toy Story 4
Woody (voice of Tom Hanks) is among the many toys belonging to Bonnie (voice of Madeleine McGraw), a kindergartner. At school, Bonnie constructs a new toy, Forky (voice of Tony Hale), made out of a spork, pipe-cleaner and a popsicle stick, items that she found in the trash. When she takes her toys along with her in her family's RV to an RV park, she loses Forky. Woody and his fellow toymates including Buzz (voice Tim Allen), Rex (voice of Wallace Shawn), Jessie (voice of Joan Cusack), Hamm (voice of John Ratzenberger), and Slinky (voice of Blake Clark), among others they meet at a carnival, help Bonnie to find her beloved new toy.
Toy Story 4, the fourth and final installment of the Toy Story series, blends action adventure, drama and comedy with a splash of romance that makes for an enormously entertaining ride. The plot may seem thin on the surface, but beneath its surface it has plenty of heart along and inspiring message about listening to your inner voice. What makes this film so exceptional, though, are the characters each of whom are delightful, unique and memorable in their own way. Forky is the most endearing character of them all, and many people, young and old, will probably be able to relate to him. Bravo to the screenwriters, Andrew Stanton and Stephany Folsom, for understanding that comedy derives from tragedy much like Charlie Chaplin grasped in his tragicomic classics. Chaplin's films are zany and hilarious, but they're also a bit sad at times. The same can be said for Toy Story 4 and other Disney animated classics.
There are indeed some tragic elements to the film, especially when it comes to the beginning when Woody adjusts to his new life as Bonnie's toy after being Andy's toy for so long. Duke Kaboom (voice of Keanu Reeves) has a tragic backstory. Then there's Forky who believes that he's trash and keeps jumping into a trash can. Those darker elements, which every film needs, even animated ones, are handled with a light touch that remains palatable for little kids. The journey that Woody goes through and the friendships that be makes and rebuilds along the way makes the journey not only a physical one but an emotional one as well. For every scene that's poignant, though, there's one that's very funny and witty. The humor is a mixture of slapstick, physical humor and even some screwball comedy, but the jokes land more often than not. As with all the great Pixar films, both adults and children will find something to laugh at and be moved by.
On a technical level, Toy Story 4 also impresses. The CGI animation looks extraordinary with so much photorealism that you'll often forget that you're watching an animated film. It's hard to take your eyes off the screen because of all of the eye candy. Most importantly, though, the CGI animators should be commended for creating characters that look like they have a heart, mind and soul intact. Who knew that a toy made out of a spork could be so warm and charismatic? To find the humanism in technology is a feat unto itself. To top it all off, the musical score by Randy Newman is very effective and compliments the film without being distracting. The paces moves along briskly enough, although there are a few scenes that drag in the second act, but the lulls are far and few between. Equal parts style and substance, Toy Story 4 is one of the best animated films of the year. It's an exhilarating journey brimming with warmth, humor and humanism. It also has one of the most profound and funny final lines to end a film since the classic final line in Some Like it Hot.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright, works at a fish market and lives with his grandfather (Danny Glover) and his best friend, Jimmie (Jimmie Fails), in the neighborhood of Hunters Point, San Francisco. Jimmie desperately wishes to reclaim his childhood Victorian home that he claims his grandfather had once built. Jimmie's father (Rob Morgan) lost the home years ago as he struggled with drug addiction. After speaking to the property's real estate broker, Clayton (Finn Wittrock), and learning that the deceased homeowner's next of kin are fighting over it, Jimmie persuades Montgomery to squat in the house with him while renovating it.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a lyrical, mesmerizing and genuinely heartfelt story about a city that has turned its back on the poor and black members of its population. San Francisco becomes a characters in itself. It's one of the most multi-faceted and compelling characters of the film. The cinematography by Adam Newport-Berra has the visual poetry of a Terrence Malick or Carlos Reygadas film, and even the music by Emile Mosseri speaks louder than words. Although the plot centers on Jimmie's childhood house, the film isn't really about the house itself; it's about larger issues and feelings that are profoundly human. This is the kind of film that transcends its plot in many ways. A film's plot, after all, isn't as important as the emotions that are contained inside of it. A lot happens in The Last Man in San Francisco, but a lot of it transpires off-screen within the imagination of the viewer. Bravo writer/director Joe Talbot and co-writer Rob Richert for trusting the audience's imagination, a very power tool, as well as their emotions and intellect. They wisely avoid flashbacks and unnecessary exposition while deftly balancing the heavy drama with just the right amount of comic relief. Even some of the editing choices and sound editing are unique and brilliant, such as an unexpected transition between the end of the song "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane and Jimmie hammering a nail in his childhood home. They also avoid preachiness, sugar-coating and cheesiness as they tackle a variety of issues such a gentrification, racism, friendship, history, capitalism and poverty. Those themes are indeed relatable and universal, but the way that the filmmakers incorporate them into the narrative and how they tell the narrative remains boldly unconventional and refreshingly un-Hollywood which makes the experience of watching The Last Black Man in San Francisco all the more transcendent and unique.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco is fundamentally a protest against the status quo. Its social commentary has shades of Spike Lee and Ken Loach. Writer/director Joe Talbot comes across as a filmmaker who's a cynical optimist and, most importantly, a humanist which is evident from the palpable humanism the permeates through every frame of the film from the screenplay to the cinematography, music and the breakthrough performances of Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails. He and Richert treat the characters of Jimmie and Montgomery with compassion just like Montgomery treats his blind grandfather compassionately as he takes care of him. Jimmie and Montgomery's friendship feels very real, and the same can be said about the evolution of their friendship with its highs and lows intact. The Disney/Pixar film Inside Out would be endlessly fascinating if it were to show audiences the emotional control center of either Jimmie or Montgomery. Both of them are complex human beings who go through the entire spectrum of human emotions throughout the film---some of those emotions are more dominant than others while some of the recessive emotions, i.e. anger, become dominant later on.
A scene on a bus where Jimmie interrupts a conversation between a stranger, Becca (Thora Birch), and her friend represents one of the film's intellectual centers. It feels just as powerful and haunting as the "Love/Hate" scene in Do the Right Thing and the daisy scene in Harold and Maude. If only that bus scene were longer, though, but perhaps the filmmakers wanted to allow audience to debate and to discuss the topic of love and hate among themselves. Life isn't black-and-white, after all, and a range emotions, some even contradictory, exist within every human being. Emotions are like the seasons of fall, winter, summer and spring. It's unnatural and unhealthy to cherish winter while ignoring summer, spring and fall. Hate comes with love and everything in between. With despair comes hope, with anger comes tranquility, and with joy comes sorrow. It's a human right for each of us to be treated as a unique, complex individual. As Maude told Harold using daisies as a metaphor for human beings, "Some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals---all kinds of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this [picks up a daisy], yet they allow themselves to be treated as that [looks at sea of daisies]." Much like other transcendent films such as Harold and Maude, The 400 Blows, I, Daniel Blake and Ghost World, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is, at its core, a poetic cry for humanity.