During World War I, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) sends British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) on a mission to deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) ordering his brigade to stop attacking the German army. They must travel nine miles through the treacherous terrain of enemy territory to reach Colonel Mackenzie's brigade and to deliver the message which would save the lives of 1,600 soldiers.
Writer/director Sam Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns immerse the audience in the lives of Blake and Schofield from the very first frame as they're laying on the grass under a tree together. One minute later, you learn what mission they're going to go on and why they need to go on it. That crucial scene never feels like exposition because the screenwriters keep it brief, clear and concise. Although the soldiers have one task that sounds simple and straightforward, their journey itself is filled with complexity. Both Blake and Schofield come across as human beings thanks to both the natural dialogue and the emotionally resonant performances that open a window into both of their heart, mind and soul. There's no use of a narrator or a wrap-around story like in Saving Private Ryan. Even without flashbacks or long expository monologues, you still learn just enough about the characters to get to know them and to be emotionally invested in their lives. Less is more, after all, so bravo to the filmmakers for incorporating subtlety and nuance so organically without boring the audience.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins and the musical score by Thomas Newman help to enrich the film while immersing the audience even further. The camera follows Blake and Schofield in one shot from start to finish, a bold choice that pays off in more ways than one by the time the end credits role. You hear what the soldiers hear and see what they see. There are no "bird's eye view" shots to be found here. The cinematography, the landscape, set design, lighting, sound editing and musical score combine to provide an atmosphere along with a kind of poetry that must be experienced on the big screen. The landscape that the soldiers go through often looks like the post-apocalypse or like Dante's Inferno. Some of the poetic scenes are indeed hard to watch because they unflinchingly show the ugly side of war, but that makes them all the more haunting.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman both give natural and moving performances. They have great chemistry together, and it's captivating to watch Blake and Schofield develop a rapport as they walk together. They joke around at times, share their feelings and show compassion throughout their mission. Although 1917 does have a plot with some action scenes, it's much more about the two soldier's emotional journey. They each have their own unique personality which makes them all the more human and relatable, even for those audience members who've never been through a war. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns deserve to be commended for including witty lines like when Schofield to Blake, "Age before beauty" as they climb up a trench. They clearly trust audience's intelligence, emotions, imagination and patience. Moreover, they wisely include small moments of comic relief which provides much-needed levity. The fact that they accomplish all of that in under 2 hours is a feat unto itself. At a running time of 110 minutes, 1917 is one of the most exhilarating, audacious and powerful war films in years. It ranks up there with classic war films like All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), an investigative reporter for Esquire Magazine, lives with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and their newborn baby boy. When his editor, Ellen (Christine Lahti), gives him an assignment to profile famed TV personality Fred Rogers, he accepts it hesitantly. Mr. Rogers gradually helps him to overcome his childhood trauma and to heal the bond between him and his estranged, abusive father, Jerry (Chris Cooper).
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn't a straightforward biopic of Fred Rogers. Director Marielle Heller along with co-writers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster avoid convention by telling a story of two people with different personalities who form an unlikely friendship. It could also be seen as a love story--a deep, platonic one. Lloyd has more in common with Mr. Rogers than he thinks he does. They both suffer from an emotionally traumatic childhood and struggle to cope with a wide range of human emotions ranging from anger to sadness and regret. Mr. Rogers becomes like a surrogate parent to Lloyd as he helps him to navigate through his emotions while becoming a more compassionate and empathetic human being. Fortunately, there's nothing contrived nor cloying about the way that Mr. Rogers heals Lloyd both emotionally and psychologically. The screenplay treats everyone as human beings, even Jerry who's trying his best to be a good father even though his best isn't quite good enough. Mr. Rogers is infallible as well with a lot going on beneath the surface. You learn just enough about him to understand why he befriends Lloyd and affects him so profoundly. There's just enough light touches of humor to balance the serious tone without going overboard in either direction. You'll also find a few inventive surprises with offbeat humor along the way which elevates and invigorates the film.
Tom Hanks gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Fred Rogers. He looks like him, acts like him and feels like him. It's quite remarkable for an actor with such a high star power to disappear into a role so that you forget that you're watching an actor playing the role, but believe that you're actually watching Mr. Rogers. Bravo to the always-reliable casting director Avy Kaufman for choosing such a talented, charismatic actor who's a humanist at heart. It takes a humanist, after all, to portray humanism so convincingly. Hanks grasps the nuances and subtleties of the role as he brings it to life. Matthew Rhys gives a solid, natural performance as does Susan Kelechi Watson and Chris Cooper. No one overacts nor under-acts which only enhances the film's naturalism even further. Amazingly, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbor doesn't overstay its welcome and avoids preachiness as well as tedium. At a running time of 108 minutes, it's warm, wise and wonderful. It's a perfect treat for the holidays that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. Anyone who wants to feel more alive in this cold, humanizing world will appreciate the film the most. It's a triumph!
18-year-old Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has a domineering father, Roland (Sterling K. Brown), who pushes him hard to be a good high school wrestler. He also has a younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell) and a stepmother, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry). When his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), informs him via text that she's pregnant, he pressures her to get an abortion.
The less you know about the plot of Waves the better because it veers into an expected direction after a shocking plot twist. Fortunately, the trailer does not give away any spoilers. Like many great films, it's not really about its plot, but more about the intense roller coaster ride of emotions contained within the plot. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults hooks you from from the very first frame as Emily rides her bike with her hair blowing in the wind before introducing you to Tyler and his girlfriend as they drive with music blazing. From then on, you see him wrestling and then interacting with his father and stepmother at home. Shults does an impeccable job of immersing the audience with music, natural dialogue, stylish lighting, editing and camera angles. Even the sound design adds depth because you can barely hear what Tyler father's saying to his son as he walks up the stairs, so you hear the father the way Tyler hears him.
The dialogue never feels expository nor stilted, and accomplishes a lot with just a few words. There's plenty poetry in the film's visuals and music, like when Tyler and Alexis run through a field of grass with the sprinklers on while high on MDMA. Poetry can also be found within the film's spoken words. When Emily meets Luke (Lucas Hedges) for the first time, their banter feels awkward, funny, witty and, above all, true-to-life. Shults is the rare kind of American director who trusts the audience's emotions, intelligence, imagination and patience. Impatient audience members might ask, "Where is this movie going??", "What's the point of this??" or "What is this about??" during the first half. Patient viewers will be rewarded with many answers to these questions by the time the end credits roll.
Waves has a lot to say about grief, the human experience, love, hate, forgiveness, compassion, suffering and happiness, but it doesn't hit you over the head with those messages. It also reward perceptive audiences because every scenes has small details that speak louder than words. For, there's a poster on the wall of a locker room that states something about pain, a brief moment when someone lovingly pets a cat, a couple holding hands in a car as one of the hands is quickly withdrawn, or a sermon at a church about love and hate where Tyler falls asleep. Each of those details becomes more significant later on in retrospect and upon repeat viewings.
When it comes to the performances, everyone gives a strong, convincingly moving performance. The stand-outs, though, are Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown both of whom give breakthrough performances. They have a scene together that's one of the film's many emotional and intellectual centers. It's a powerful, heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest scene that says a lot about the dysfunctional dynamics of Roland and Emily's relationship as father and daughter. Without giving away any spoilers, the final scene feels satisfying because it's well-earned without tying everything up in a neat bow thereby leaving enough room for interpretation. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, Waves is a mesmerizing, emotionally engrossing and thoroughly immersive experience. It's one of the most profound, poetic and haunting films of the year.
In New England during the 1890's, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) starts a new job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island where an older lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), also works. Their loneliness and isolation takes affects their relationship and their mental health as Ephraim suffers from bizarre hallucinations.
The Lighthouse is the kind of film that's less about its plot than about its atmosphere and the emotional and mental state of its protagonists. Writer/director Robert Eggers and co-writer Max Eggers keep exposition to a bare minimum with no flashbacks and very little backstory. They also eschew a first act by starting the film when Ephraim arrives to the island and meets Thomas instead of showing his life on the mainland with his family which would've been filler. What follows is what appears to be a chamber piece, but a very cinematic one that doesn't feel too stuffy. There's a sense of dread and mystery in the atmosphere as the film progresses, and the relationship between the two lighthouse keepers becomes increasingly intense. Pay close attention to the dialogue because it's sharply written and has some moments of wit and a dark humor that offseats the film's heavy, dark themes.
Both Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson give tour de force performances and have great chemistry together. They're very believable in their roles and bring plenty of unflinching emotional depth along with them. It wouldn't be surprising if it were difficult for them to shake off these roles emotionally, especially toward the end. The film could have easily gone over the top and it almost does, but doesn't cross that line too far. In other words, Eggers effectively blurs the line between reality and fantasy while leaving just enough room for interpretation. He also shoots the film in glorious black-and-white and a square aspect ratio that makes for a very stunning visual experience. Together with the provocative use of symbolism, the cinematography, use of music and lighting, The Lighthouse might be best watched and analyzed in film school, but, much like Roma, it needs to be experienced on the big screen to maximize your immersion into the sights and sounds. It's not a palatable film nor does it try to be; you might have to see it more than once and to debate it among your friends to understand it better, and even then it might still seem elliptical. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, The Lighthouse is a Bergmanesque trip down the rabbit hole of psychological horror with mesmerizing cinematography. It's bold, bizarre and brilliant.
Kim Ki-woo (Choi Wood-shik) and his sister, Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam), live in a dilapidated basement apartment with their mother, Kim Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) and father, Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho). When Ki-Woo discovers that there's a job opening as a tutor for a wealthy family, he seizes the opportunity to tutor a teenager Da-hye Park (Jung Ziso), the daughter of Sun-kyun Lee (Park Dong-ik) and Park Yeon-kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), and older sister of Park Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung) who live in an upscale. Soon, each member of the Kim family work for the Park family without them being aware that they're related.
Like all great films, Parasite transcends its plot as well as its amalgam of different genres. The less you know about its plot beforehand the better, though, because the screenplay by writer/director Bong Joon Ho and co-writer Han Jin-won offers many clever twists and surprises. What ensues after the Kim family meets the Park family turns into an intriguing blend of psychological thriller, dark comedy, social commentary, and drama. Bong Joon Ho ratchet up the tension gradually with a slow-burning pace which shows that he trusts the audience's patience. He and Jin-won also include some provocative metaphors without hitting you over the head with them. Most effectively, though, they withhold key information from the audience until a major reveal during the second act that won't be spoiled here. The twists work because they're not dumb like those found in M. Night Shyamalan's films, and they're not meant to merely shock the audience. The performances by everyone, even those in the supporting roles, are all superb.
Like Hitchcock, Bong Joon Ho knows how to keep his audience in suspense because the suspense derives from the anticipation of the events to come. Throughout Parasite, there's almost always a foreboding feeling of unease. You know that something dark will be happening imminently, but you don't know what that will be in particular. Bong Joon Ho and the co-writer clearly understand human nature because they treat the characters like human beings and their actions are all rooting in the way that human beings truly think, feel and behave in similar situations. You might even find yourself relating to some of the characters, but even if you don't you'll still sympathize with them, especially when it come to the heartfelt relationship between Kim Ki-woo and his father.
On an aesthetic level, Parasite is a feast for the eyes without being gaudy or suffering from excessive style over substance like the recent Lucy in the Sky did with too many changes in aspect ratio. In other words, Bong Joon Ho doesn't try too hard to please the audience, although the camerawork does looks exquisite and communicates a lot through the lighting, set design and camera angles. The same can be said about the use of classical music which never becomes intrusive or distracting. At a running time of 2 hours and 12 minutes, Parasite is a triumph of directing, writing, cinematography and acting. It has repeat value and is destined to become an all-time classic that will be discussed and analyzed for many years to come. It's one of the best films of 2019 by far.
Thirty years after she rose to fame as the star of The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) faces homelessness and might lose custody of her kids, Joey (Lewin Lloyd) and Lorna (Bella Ramsey), to her ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), so she travels to London to perform at The Talk of the Town for five weeks to make some much-needed income. At a party, she meets Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) who soon becomes her fifth husband, but she still battles alcohol and drug addiction. She recalls her younger years while on the set of The Wizard of Oz and suffering abuse from the dominereering producer/MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery).
Screenwriter Tom Edge and director Rupert Goold should be commended for showing Judy as a human being from the first first frame until the last. Edge jumps back and forth between Judy's adult years and the adolescent years that were very traumatic for her. She struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, she's not a particularly good mother, and she also has financial woes, but beneath the surface, there's a compassionate, warm person. It's great to observe her wit which is evident when she quips. The flashbacks are very well intergrated into the narrative without taking away from its momentum, and they also help you to empathize with Judy as you learn how she was abused during her childhood. There aren't any villains to be found here. Even Judy's ex-husband is written as a human being. The only true villains are Judy's drug and alcohol addictions which she uses to numb and run away from the emotional pains from her past. She, like all compelling characters onscreen, yearns to be human after enduring years of abuse that dehumanized her. Fame is also quite dehumanizing. She wants to be loved unconditionally like her two of her fans, Dan (Andy Nyman) and Stan (Daniel Cerqueira), provide for her when she agrees to come up to their apartment for dinner. That dinner is one of the film's most beautiful scenes while being concurrently heartwarming and heartbreaking.
It's so moving and refreshing to watch a character onscreen who has an inner life. Renée Zellweger captures the heart, mind and soul of Judy Garland which is no easy task. he filmmakers designed the window into Judy's heart, mind and soul, but it's Zellweger who deserves an Oscar for opening that window so widely and bearing her own heart, mind and soul. She truly becomes Judy Garland, physically, mentally and emotionally, and loses herself in the role without any hamminess. The exquisite costume design also deserves to be commended and will mostly likely be nominated for awards. Prepare to be mesmerizing by Zellweger's singing, especially during the final scene. The last line of the film, which won't be spoiled here, not only speaks volumes not only about Judy, but also serves as a testament of how much the filmmakers, together with Zellwegger, humanize a Hollywood icon. At a running time of 118 minutes, Judy is exhilarating, tender and genuinely heartfelt. Renée Zellweger gives the performance of a lifetime.
Adán (Omar Chaparro), an architect, thinks he knows best how to seduce women. His good friend, Toby (Mauricio Barrientos), listens to his advice when he tries to hit on a women at a supermarket and a bar. Adán puts his advice to the test when he meets Mia (Martha Higareda), a TV producer who has her own set of rules when it comes to the dating game. She wants to host a TV show called "Todos Caen" and must prove that her advice works by seducing Adán and getting him to change his Facebook status to "In a relationship."
Tod@s Caen is a delightful, smart and funny battle of the sexes. The screenplay by Cory Brusseau and Martha Higareda combines comedy and romance in a way that pays homage to the classic screwball comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age like Bringing Up Baby and Adam's Rib. Adán and Mia even break the fourth wall by talking to the camera like Alfie does in Lewis Gilbert's Alfie. There's plenty of banter between Adán and Mia, pop cultural references and comedy of error that will leave you in stitches. The humor, unlike that the juvenile humor in too many modern comedies, is very witty and zany without appealing to the lowest common denominator---with the exception of a brief scene involving vomit, but it manages to be still be funny and even oddly touching in a way that won't be spoiled here. Mauricio Barrientos provides the most laughs and has terrific comedic timing, although every actor, both male and female, gets a chance to shine here. Omar Chaparro and Martha Higareda have as much onscreen chemistry together as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy do in Adam's Rib or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant do in Bringing Up Baby. They're charismatic leads who help to make both Adán and Mia worth rooting for and, more importantly, relating to.
Beneath Tod@s Caen's comedy, there's a warm, beating heart, a mind and a soul. Brusseau and Higareda deserve to be commended for writing a strong role for women and sending a positive, empowering message to audiences because he allows Mia to be a human being onscreen. She's fragile and fallible, yet smart, tough and brave, especially for her emotional honesty in the third act. She's a wonderful role model which is something that younger generation need, but don't have enough of in cinema these days. If you're sick of the gross-out humor of Good Boys and Girls Trip or the schmaltz of Nicholas Sparks movies, you'll be pleasantly surprised that Tod@s Caen wisely avoids all of those pitfalls. It's sweet without being saccharine and smart without being preachy. It's also smarter and funnier than Isn't it Romantic?. Prepare yourself for the best romantic comedy since Love Actually. It deserves to be become a cult classic and to be seen on the big screen with a large crowd. Please be sure to stay through the end credits for a mid-credits scene.
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 Beyonc? 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.