Now Playing — The Farewell

farewell

It’s a simple tenet, too often ignored. The more specific a work of art, the more likely the piece resonates with a thoroughly enmeshed truthfulness that approaches the universal. A film doesn’t need to be autobiographical to qualify, nor is realism necessarily a component. The chief reason Black Panther stands as the strongest entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is director Ryan Coogler’s impassioned adherence to this guideline. The Farewell, a markedly different film, meets this standard, too, and not solely because writer-director Lulu Wang drew from her own family’s experience in shaping the story. The film is special and uniquely moving because it is defined by a cultural specificity that is presented without condescension, to either the characters or the audience.

In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American living in New York City, struggling to make her way as an aspiring writer as she edges out of young adulthood. Billi has a strained relationship with her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), so she draws a significant amount of emotional support from regular phone calls with her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhou), who still lives in China. When word comes back through family channels that the elderly woman has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, it’s devastating to Billi, especially when she’s discouraged from attending a family reunion in China to effectively pay last respects, though it is done under the guise of a wedding. The family is opting not to share the diagnosis with the grandmother, under the premise that it’s a kinder course of action to keep her in the dark about the gravity of her illness. It’s thought that Billi will not be able to keep the secret. She attends anyway, and the film traces her experience in the country she left as a child and the tension she feels over the well-meaning but ethically debatable subterfuge.

Wang’s script is constructed with delicacy and care. The family dynamics are sketched in with just enough detail to give the actors room to explore, finding nuance in the restrained affection and verbal glancing blows. Every cast member responds marvelously, with Awkwafina and Shuzhen giving notably lived-in performances. Smartly, Wang shows all the tiny deceptions that flow through various human interactions, all chosen because sometimes proffering an untruth is the simplest course, harmless and more efficient. More than any expository lecture of Chinese cultural norms could be, this screenwriting choice provides the needed perspective.

Warm and wise, The Farewell is dynamic precisely because it doesn’t strain to achieve such a state, deploying histrionic speeches or cataclysmic reveals. If it sometimes feels a touch too sedate — especially in its relative lack of visual panache — that strikes me as a minor flaw, entirely forgivable because the eschewing of vivid dramatics is its own act of kindness. The film remains well clear of any sense of emotional cheapness or other easy exploitation of the scenario. In a lovely irony, a film about a grand, knotty lie succeeds because of its commitment to honesty.

Now Playing — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

once upon a time

By now, it should be be no surprise that a new Quentin Tarantino film finds the filmmakers shuffling together all his good and bad instincts like the thick, blood-speckled cards of a tarot deck. Then they’re flipped up with a randomness that is reshaped into a semi-logical totality on the fly by the teller, often in direct contrast to what any reasonable intuition might infer. No, no, no, he jabbers insistently, the Death card is actually good!

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, duly pronounced Tarantino’s ninth film in promotional materials, is set in Southern California in 1969. The entertainment industry looms large in the narrative, mostly in the recounting of lonely ballad of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former big screen fixture and star of the TV western Bounty Law who’s slipping into professional irrelevancy, reduced to guest spots as cardboard villains to be dispatched at some point between the last commercial break and the closing credits. There are also Rick’s new neighbors, newlyweds Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), who represent the ascendancy of the generation that’s pushing the older creative personnel aside. As real figures introduced into Tarantino’s fiction, the couple also provides the impetus for the director to dig into the darker corners of the late-sixties California culture.

To get to the ranch where trouble is fomenting, Tarantino employs a character named Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s former stunt double and current jack-of-all-trades aide, driving the actor to and from the set, fixing items around the house, and providing pep talks. Cliff’s curiosity about a live wire hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) eventually puts him within the burbling menace of the community of hollow-eyed young disciples assembled by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who’s courting an especially narrow typecasting dilemma by also playing the insane monster in the upcoming season of Mindhunter). Before the film is complete, the brief connection proves significant.

To Tarantino’s credit, he operates essentially three distinctively story threads in a way that allows them all to be more of less satisfying. He’s not particularly deft in his juggling — his helpless love for languid set pieces essentially forces him to leave pots he’s set to bubbling unattended for longer than is ideal — but he largely makes the sprawling film feel cohesive and admirably, improbably tight. The more significant problem is the period details — in music selection, in art direction, in styling — that have been inserted into the film as delicately as a backhoe drops in a load of gravel. Especially in the first act, when Tarantino is establishing his world, the film can seem less of an exercise in storytelling and more of an excuse for the filmmaker to display the favorite things he acquired after going into a vintage shop and declaring he’d take it all. Very quickly, the material excess shifts from convincingly of the era to pure distraction.

Almost in defiance in its flaws, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood continuously reasserts itself as disarmingly compelling, mostly due to the conviction Tarantino and his collaborators bring to the intoxicating allure of the movies. Propelled by DiCaprio’s multi-layered performance — which, at times, seems to be lightly satirizing the floridness of his turn in Tarantino’s Django Unchained — the rickety endurance of Rick achieves an unexpected poignancy, and the perplexing underuse of Robbie is very nearly redeemed by the sweetly unguarded joy she conveys in the scene in which Sharon goes to a movie theater to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino’s obvious and genuine affection for the roiling history of U.S. cinema inserted into his work has previously come across as overly self-satisfied, predatory, and even mildly toxic. This film represents the first time his obsession plays as warm and movingly appreciative.

As has been the case in every movie bearing the director’s signature after the comparative control of Pulp Fiction, the new Tarantino joint is messy. Personal appreciation will depend on how the the filmmaker’s well-established tics registers with the individual viewer. Are they are joy, or are they an irritation? I’ve gradually drifted toward the latter camp, but I recognized the charms of — and was occasionally enthralled by — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Although I found plenty to dislike (mostly the borderline sadism of the grand finale, shaped by Tarantino’s now trademark vindictive revisionism), the more restrained, observant moments — Rick’s tentative pleasure in succeeding on set, Rick and Cliff smack-talking their way through an episode of The F.B.I. — managed to compensate. If nothing else, this film offers the least aggressively mannered dialogue of any Tarantino film, a small yet laudable feat.

I’m long past expecting Tarantino to restrain his oddly lowbrow pretensions enough to let his actual talent catch up. Creatively, he’s a typhoon that swirls up gemstones. Standing in his path mean gets buffeted, but riches are the reward. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood could be leaner, smarter, kinder, easily a half hour shorter. But then it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie, would it?

Now Playing — Midsommar

midsommar

I greatly admire Hereditary, Ari Aster’s feature directorial debut, but I completely understand how some moviegoers might have developed an aversion to it by the end. There’s no charity from me to those who rankled at the visual resplendent and insidious thematic brutality of the bulk of the film, presumably because it didn’t adhere to the preferred mainstream horror model of simple concepts and jump scares. But anyone whose pleasurable ride took on a rattletrap rockiness when the film veered sharply to travel down unpaved Bonkers Street in the closing moments just might have a point when they wrinkle their nose at the title’s evocation. The cannon blast of ludicrousness worked well enough for me, but I get the more discombobulated reaction.

The sophomore effort from Aster, Midsommar, takes the excess of his prior feature and starts running multiplication tables with it. The film opens as a young woman named Dani (Florence Pugh) experiences a family tragedy, further muddying the relationship with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). An anthropology student in college, Christian was souring on the romance and planning an escape of sorts by accompanying a small cluster of classmates on a trip to Sweden, where they’re planning to observe a lengthy summer solstice celebration in the remote community where Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), another friend from school, grew up. Feeling guilt about Dani’s distraught state, Christian invites her along, much to the irritation of his cohorts (the other two travelers are played by William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter). Upon arriving in the commune-like space, all gathering spaces and idyllic grassy expanses, the visitors size it up as quaint and a little odd. Then, as it will, menace starts to emerge.

As in Hereditary, Aster builds mood with uncommon expertise. With the subtlest shifts — of image, of tone, of performance — he transforms the very soul of a moment. He’s not averse to florid spectacle, as Midsommar proves repeatedly. But his clearest strength is wrenching devastating impact out of small moments. No matter what fevered hysterics Pugh goes through as the film’s madness escalates — and she ably scales mountains of overheated emotion — it is the fragile humanity she brings to the small incursions on her most vulnerable points that have the greatest resonance.

Pugh’s performance is vital. It keeps the film grounded, no matter how luridly fanciful Aster’s imaginings. She’s not joined in accomplishment by her castmates, especially Reynor, who looks genuinely confused as the film roars to its crescendo of a third act. That works for the character somewhat, but his placid, gaping wonderment is so out of step with the story beats that it grows laughable. Similarly, the film actively relies on the anthropologist instincts of the central character to sidestep the perpetual horror movie plot hole of characters opting not to flee at the first sign of danger, but none of the actors portraying academics is at all convincing. Normally, that might not be a major issue. The day jobs of characters are little more than a distant notion in most films. Here, though, the validity of the plot hinges on an intellectual commitment to impartial observation after witnessing a horrific act. Just because the rationale is present doesn’t mean, in its depiction, it’s convincing.

What Midsommar does have in abundance is Aster’s fearless adherence to his own vision, even as it cyclones into lunacy. It is surely the most boldly gonzo wide release film since Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, but blessedly free of the absurdly misplaced artistic self-regard that made the earlier feature into a fingerpaint smear of quarter-baked notions. The not insightful flaws of Midsommar are unmistakable traces of earnest filmmaking ambition. For a director such as Aster, borne by wildly invigorating creative instincts, that approach is far preferable to timidity and restraint.

Now Playing — Spider-Man: Far From Home

for from home

It has been a mere three years since Tom Holland took his first swings as Spider-Man, bringing the character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper in Captain America: Civil War. It seems as though the young English thespian has been playing Peter Parker and his masked alter ego without a moment’s rest ever since, taking the lead in Spider-Man: Homecoming, appearing in two Avengers films, and gamely showing up for just about any tie-in appearance Marvel slides across the table to him. Like other actors twinkling in the Marvel galaxy of stars, entirely uncertain of which films are home to their performances, Holland simply shows up for work and the mighty Marvel movie machinery makes magic.

A mere ten weeks after carrying a reasonable amount of screen time as the character in Avengers: Endgame, Holland is back as the web-slinger in Spider-Man: Far From Home. In the film, Peter Parker is feeling the pressure of his superhero side engagements in a post-Thanos universe. He’s still taking his lessons at a New York City school, where most of his friends (and, importantly, most famous co-stars) were also among the random half of the universe snapped away in the cosmic event referred to here as “The Blip,” thereby avoiding the awkwardness of sudden age discrepancies complicating established friendships and crushes. Worn down and still mourning his mentor, Peter is anxious to take a break from crime-fighting during a summer trip to Europe with his fellow high school students. Too bad about that pesky “great responsibility” thing.

Across the ocean, Spider-Man gets roped into a battle against giant elemental creatures who swirl up in major cities and start mindlessly marauding. He’s partnered with a costumed, caped, and helmet adorned figure named Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal, an absolutely inspired choice for the role), who picks up the nickname Mysterio because of Italian news reports about the abilities he flashes, putting him roughly in Doctor Strange territory. From there, the complications grow and shift, significantly testing the young hero who’s roamed far from his friendly neighborhood.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is enjoyable, but also a little muddled. It repeats the winning strategy of Spider-Man: Homecoming — most notably mimicking the wit and spirit of the nineteen-eighties teen comedies presided over by John Hughes — with less consistent results, and the burden of the sprawling, interlocking Marvel narrative hangs heavy on it. Director Jon Watts remains adept in his staging and allows space for a welcome playfulness in the interactions between actors. What’s lacking in this outing is a strong visual sense that fully exploits the globe-hopping locales, squandering the opportunity to give the film the feel of a zingy James Bond blockbuster with web-shooters instead of Q’s array of fortuitously helpful gizmos. With ample chances to differentiate the film within the cinematic superhero canon, Watts and his collaborators wind up crafting a work that’s agreeable and fairly forgettable. It’s not a good sign that the overall film is completely upstaged by the requisite tag-on scenes included after the closing credits start to roll.

Not long ago, it seemed Marvel Studios had completely changed how major Hollywood filmmaking worked, sending entertainment executives on a desperate tear looking for properties that could replicate the model. Now, in a summer that has been mostly defined by moviegoers’ yawning indifference to and outright rejection of brand extension as creative motivation, Marvel almost stands alone in filling theater seats with satisfied customers. In the face of that current truth, registering disappointment in Spider-Man: Far From Home is like saying the chocolate ice cream could have tasted better. The accuracy of the statement doesn’t really matter. Like everyone else, I’ll undoubtedly join the line when it’s time to get the next scoop.

Now Playing — Toy Story 4

toy story 4

So maybe here’s where the story ends? Nearly twenty-five years after Toy Story launched Pixar into the field of feature film production and almost a decade past Toy Story 3, which seemed to provide an ideal conclusion to the franchise, the fourth full-length installment of the film series has arrived. Before my cynicism prevails (and it will), I should not that the Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley, is a perfectly dandy piece of entertainment. The screenplay benefits from the narrative sturdiness instilled by the studio’s famously rigorous stress-testing (reported strife notwithstanding) and the new additions to the sprawling cast of characters are consistently inventive and delightful. The practically unparalleled emotional potency of the film series remains solidly intact, as well. The drum thwacks to the heart may not be quite as forceful as was the case with the preceding installments, but there are still skilled percussionists at work.

Toy Story 4 begins with a critical flashback revealing why Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) was absent from the prior film. Perched on a nightlight lamp that was outgrown, Bo Peep and her sheep were gifted to another household, leaving a lingering loverlorn ache in the heart of venerable cowboy toy Woody (Tom Hanks). Years later, Woody has slipped down in the pecking order set by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), the child who inherited Andy’s toy box when he went to college. An increasingly purposelessness Woody anxious finds meaning in protecting an impromptu, plastic-utensil-based plaything named Forky (Tony Hale), crafted by Bonnie to hold off sadness on her kindergarten orientation day. Hectic adventures follow, notably including Woody’s reunion with Bo Peep, transformed by circumstances into the Toy Story equivalent of Sarah Connor circa Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Closure is again the ostensible theme, along with some recurring consideration of purpose. But it’s all soft and ill-defined, one of several notions kicked around like a soccer ball. One of the more promising ideas pursued involves Woody’s inability to cede control and listen to other leaders, particularly those that are girl toys. But that angle fades away almost entirely before the movie ends, which has me convinced it’s a remnant of the contributions of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack that so dismayed Pixar leadership, leading to their departure from the project (at right around the time the full extent of Pixar head John Lasseter’s ugly behavior toward women came to light.) That’s admittedly a leap on my part, but the lineage matters less than the frustrating sense that things don’t fully cohere, that this is one of those instances when the desire to provide new product to the marketplace overtook the recurring mission to create a film worthy of the legacy of the hopping desk lamp.

Perhaps I’m raising the rim unfairly high for Pixar. There are components of it — such as Annie Potts’s fantastic vocal performance as Bo Peep and the vividly detailed visuals of a carnival and a second-hand store — that are grand and memorable. And the new film certainly looks like high cinematic art compared to the hideous-looking animated gimmicks from competing studios that were flashed like warnings in the trailers preceding my screening of Toy Story 4. But when the likes of Up and Inside Out are proven possible, it must be acceptable to long for more than another spinning diversion from the conveyor belt.

Now Playing — Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese’s side career as a documentary filmmaker has largely been a verification of all the stuff anyone would suspect he adores, from the Rolling Stones to erudite New York institutions. A director with nothing truly left to prove, but also, as all evidence presented over the years indicates, a surplus of energy, Scorsese has regularly circled around to excavations of cultural touchstones and artists who enjoyed heydays in the latter half of the twentieth century. Music artists have been a regular source of fascination, including a lengthy film biography of George Harrison and Bob Dylan. nearly fifteen years after his first pass at the latter, Scorsese has returned to the most famous person to grow up in Hibbing, Minnesota.

As the title suggests, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese narrows in on the icon’s mid-seventies tour of the same name, liberally employing rarely seen archival footage of both concerts and backstage shenanigans, and joining the old material with more current talking-head interviews. The Rolling Thunder Revue was set up as a traveling jamboree, with a fleet of other famed performers — Joan Baez among them — sharing the stage and a freewheeling air about it. Dylan insisted on smaller venues and less typical towns, perhaps to revitalize his people’s poet persona or maybe to lessen the pressure since it had been almost a decade since he’d toured as the clear main attraction. Regardless of the motivation, the vibe of the tour was a fine match with the post-Watergate U.S., marked by confusion and a sense of irreparable rupture to all sorts of norms. The circus was arriving to entertain the rabble as the ship went down.

Scorsese opens the documentary with vintage footage of a magician performing an illusion, aided mightily by obvious camera trickery. That’s the throat-clearing warning that not all is at it seems. Dylan has been a expert myth-maker at least since the day he decided the first name of a revered Welsh poet would serve him better that his given surname of Zimmerman. Scorsese’s documentary follows the model, sprinkling in completely fabricated details in the modern reminisces, up to and including the casting of actors to portray certain key figures in the carousing caravan. If it seems like too wild a coincidence that one of the stars of Scorsese’s Casino had a previously undisclosed stint as a hanger-on member of Dylan’s troupe, well, that’s a sound instinct. And Dylan’s corroborating testimony can be disregarded by the jury.

If the folderol of fictions had a clear purpose — if it were indeed commenting on Dylan’s propensity for tall tales and image building, or were being held up as a mirror to the vaudevillian looseness to which the Revue alluded — the choice would be sound, or at least reasonable. Instead, it’s wan nonsense that distracts from the solid pleasures of the unearthed film of the tour. Dylan led the musicians and fellow artists he assembled with a ferocious sense of purpose, and Scorsese is characteristically unerring in his skillful deployment of music. He gives the performances the time to register deeply, as with the blazing version of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which lands like a deluge of blows. Equally winning moments are found away from the spotlight, as Joni Mitchell runs through her new song “Coyote” backstage or an assemblage of punch-drunk music makers harmonize on an impromptu “Love Potion No. 9” in the narrow hall of the tour RV.

Why Scorsese and his cohorts feel the need to incorporate doses of flim-flam is a mystery to me. To my eyes, the older, authentic footage includes more than enough to divert, dazzle, and delight.

 

 

Now Playing — Booksmart

booksmart

For her feature directorial debut, Olivia Wilde wanted to up the intensity of a high school movie. Screenwriter Katie Silberman was brought in to rework a script that had already passed through a few word processors, and she says Wilde’s vision was to pitch the level of emotion and import somewhere in the vicinity of Training Day. The resulting film, Booksmart, strikes me as falling short of that stated goal, but the aspiration does offer a hint as to why it works more often than it doesn’t. As familiar as many of its particulars are, Wilde and her collaborators are striving to create a movie just a little sharper than its antecedents.

The film’s main narrative gets properly when student government president and proud valedictorian Molly (Beanie Feldstein) realizes that her relentless academic overachieving at the expense of a social life hasn’t delivered the expected outcome of her significantly outpacing her classmates, many of whom indulged in rambunctious teen frippery and still managed to secure entry to elite colleges and universities. On the eve of graduation, Molly decides to make up for lost time-killing, enlisting her best friend and fellow brainiac, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), in a plan to crash the biggest party of the night. The duo has only the barest idea of what decadence might be had at the bash — despite social media video attests to ghost pepper consumption and pizza box karate — but there’s a conviction that it is an experience unmet, a box to be checked with paper-tearing vigor.

As a director, Wilde has a nice visual sense. She also exhibits some of the most common first-timer symptoms, including some anxious editing, overly fussy shots, and a compulsion to shove too many ideas through the door at once. On the last point, too many ideas still makes for a better movie than too few. Booksmart follows the model set forth by Superbad, Can’t Hardly Wait, and a bevy of other films in which anarchic revelry leads to the stealth wisdom that comes with growing up and maybe a touch of self-actualization. and Wilde has an admirable ability to come by her more insightful moments honestly. She largely avoids easy heroes and villains, or even shorthand brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals. With cunning deftness, Wilde allows every character to play out with levels of complexity and contradiction. She trusts her youthful cast to settle into a bright truthfulness. Longtime ace Dever is the strongest, but there are also nice supporting turns from Molly Gordon (as a classmate tagged with a nickname connoting promiscuity), Skyler Gisondo (as wealthy student overeager for friendship), and especially Billie Lourd (as a child so wild the behavior transforms into a sort of strange magic).

Booksmart is messy, peppered with comedic diversions that work only fitfully. But it’s also warm and empathetic, reaching for uncommon nuance with determination and verve. Wilde might have issue an imperfect opening salvo as a filmmaker, but it’s still an exciting start. Like her two protagonists, she clearly has a lot to say and every bit of it is worth hearing.