REVIEW: Crazy Rich Asians Goes Beyond the Call of Duty

Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians.

While the Asian population in North America is grossly underrepresented in Hollywood, there are venues to access Korean, Chinese, Philippine and Japanese films: A fair number are available via Netflix and big titles often find their way into the multiplex or art-houses. In fact, if it wasn’t for general audiences’ ludicrous distaste for subtitles, every culture with a film industry would be within reach.

So, it’s not like Crazy Rich Asians needs to reinvent the whole film market. It may, however, change habits, improve representation, and help breach the divide between the average moviegoer and Asian cinema’s vast treasures.

Discarding external considerations, Crazy Rich Asians is a sudser on steroids, a full season of a soap opera concentrated in two hours. Well written too. Director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) takes full advantage of the setup and –even though the basic plot is light as a feather­– manages to imbue the characters with enough pathos to make them interesting.

The film revolves around Rachel (Constance Wu, Fresh of the Boat), an economics professor at NYU in a committed relationship with Nick (Henry Golding). Nick invites Rachel to attend a wedding in Singapore, an opportunity to introduce her to his family.

Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick is the scion of one of the richest and most powerful families in the country. The matriarch, Eleanor (an imperious Michelle Yeoh), would like her son to return home and take over the family business, and Rachel seems to be standing in her way. Nastiness ensue.

Crazy Rich Asians’ mission statement comes to the fore in the opening minutes: A harried Eleanor is turned away from a snotty hotel in London. She makes a call and, moments later, she is the owner of the establishment. No snub will be tolerated.

The film is basically cotton candy. Everything is delish: The looks, the food, the real estate, the put downs. Michelle Yeoh towers over the rest of the cast, but everybody is up to task, particularly the comic reliefs (Awkwafina, The Daily Show’s Ronnie Chang, Ken Jeong). Constance Wu gets the hardest job of all as the lead: Balancing competing tones and make it look seamless. She struggles at times, but her innate likeability keeps the audience on her side.

There is a major B-plot involving Nick’s uber-fashionable cousin and her commoner husband, but I would be hard-pressed to say it matters to anybody else but readers of the original book.

While the dissection of family values in Chinese culture goes beyond the stereotypes, Crazy Rich Asians is not a film willing to sacrifice a good time for depth. Go for the luxury, stay for the killer one-liners. Three and a half planets.

Crazy Rich Asians is now playing, everywhere.

REVIEW: Ant-Man and the Wasp Is Marvel’s Amuse-Bouche

The solemnity of Avengers: Infinity War didn’t quite hit me until the first few minutes of the frothy Ant-Man and the Wasp. A sequel to 2015 Ant-Man (the one Edgar Wright got bumped from), this chapter leans heavily on the comedy and well-designed set-pieces based on… size proportion. The film stands by itself for far longer than expected –given certain events in the MCU– and the limited stakes are a welcome respite from Thanos’ idea of redistribution.

Probably because of the absence of drama behind the scenes, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a lot more cohesive than the first episode. Returning director Peyton Reed and a team of five scriptwriters fail to fully grasp the whole subatomic shrinking business, but your tolerance for science-speak is rewarded in different ways.

Following the events in Captain America: Civil War, the titular Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), has abandoned his career as a superhero and now endures a two-year house arrest sentence. Scott is willing to bide his time for his daughter, but is also fully aware his actions have forced his former companions –Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly)– to go on the lam. Continue reading “REVIEW: Ant-Man and the Wasp Is Marvel’s Amuse-Bouche”

REVIEW: Pope Francis Gets Real

Pope says hi.

Regardless of your feelings towards the Catholic Church, it’s fair to say Jorge Bergoglio encountered a challenging situation when he became Pope Francis in 2013: The institution was noticeably out of step with the world, congregations were dwindling, and the matter of widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by priests wasn’t being dealt with as much as swept under the carpet.

Francis revealed himself to be more of a revolutionary than anybody expected (sure, the transformation of the Church hasn’t been sweeping, but the man is inarguably an improvement). Director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) focuses precisely on the Pontiff’s main drives in Pope Francis: A Man of his Word, a documentary built around a couple of wide ranging interviews with the Argentinian Jesuit.

Wenders cares little about Francis’ upbringing or how he became the man he is today. His main concern is the Pope’s view of the world and what is he doing about it. The Pontiff’s modest lifestyle (for Vatican standards anyway) gives away his game: Poverty is the chip on his shoulders and hasn’t hesitated in calling out capitalism. He is also the first environmentalist Leader of the Church to date, a stance that has alienated many Conservative Catholics, particularly in the US. You don’t have to agree with the man, but one has to admire the consistency.

From a cinematic perspective, Wim Wenders gets his hands on some eye-popping footage. Unfortunately, his decision of creating cheesy interstitials with the life of St. Francis of Assisi (as if shot by Carl Dreyer in the 1920’s) fails to achieve the desired effect of linking both Francises through history.

Bergoglio comes across as affable, but doesn’t take much to discover gravitas under his welcoming demeanor. One could argue Wenders is too soft on Francis, particularly when dealing with the matter of children’s abuse at hands of clerics. As biased as it is, it provides enough insight on a man who sees monumental tasks ahead –refugees, climate change, ever expanding poverty– and his reaction is simply to roll up his sleeves and get to work, which is more than the other guy did (the German one, who quit). Three planets.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is now playing at the Roxy Theatre.

REVIEW: Incredibles 2 Leaves You Wanting More

 

Elastigirl leaves the baby with her house-husband in Incredibles 2.

Alongside Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc., The Incrediblesis a foundational Pixar film, a veritable neoclassic that explores the changing dynamics of family life disguised as a superhero film from the 60’s. The film invigorated the career of Brad Bird, who crashed and burned with the Iron Giant, a critical darling that didn’t connect with audiences.

The Incredibleswas a smash hit, and Bird moved on to bigger things (the narratively ambitious Ratatouille, his first live-action film Mission: Impossible 4), but following another box office miss (the unfairly maligned Tomorrowland), the Pixar creative returned to Pixar to helm a sequel of his first hit… 14 years after the original.

Incredibles 2 picks up seconds after the original’s ending, mid-battle with the Underminer. The considerable destruction that ensued from that encounter forced the Parr family to go back into hiding. Broke and a little bored, when a millionaire offers them to spearhead a PR campaign to bring superheroes back, they are happy to accept. There is a catch, Helen a.k.a. Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is the one chosen to be the face of the movement.

Suddenly a stay-at-home dad, Bob a.k.a Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles mightily: Homework is ridiculously hard, daughter Violet is sullen as ever, and baby Jack-Jack has dozens of powers and can’t control a single one of them. Meanwhile, Elastigirl thrives in her new job, although the new villain in town –the Screenslaver– is getting on her nerves.

The home front chaos is far more compelling than the adventure that ties all together, mainly by how compelling Bob, Violet and Jack-Jack are, together and separately. Bob is not exactly ‘woke’ and even though he doesn’t get in the way of Helen, he is clearly begrudging his spouse. Violet’s priorities are not in line with the rest of the family, especially when facing the possibility of a boyfriend.

The relationship of Bob and Helen is another highlight. Never mind the disagreements, their partnership is one you can believe. Take recent superhero hits Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War: A good chunk of the plot hangs on coupledom, and yet the undoing of these pairs left me cold. Bob and Helen have a shorthand and know when to push a point and pull their punches. It’s a successful marriage in a nutshell.

I don’t plan to spoil the identity of the villain here. Suffice to say, like all good antagonists, it has a valid motive and a cool and unusual modus operandi. It’s not nearly as flashy as fanboy-gone-wrong Syndrome, but it has more depth.

The only aspect of the film that doesn’t quite work is the conclusion. Probably because the scenario is not particularly dramatic, or the threat is too mild to taste, the stakes feel low. That said, Incredibles 2 gets an easy pass on character strength alone. 3 ½ planets.

Incredibles 2 is playing everywhere.

REVIEW: (Groan), Lucy

Oh, Lucy! was the first movie I saw in last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. I remember thinking “what a pointless oddity. I’m positive I will never hear of this movie again.” And here we are.

Produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Oh Lucy! is not the film you would expect from the Anchorman duo. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a lonely middle-age woman living in Tokyo, rediscovers her joie de vivre when by chance lands in an English class with John (Josh Harnett, don’t ask). The expat’s teaching technique consists in giving the student a blond wig and an American identity, “Lucy”. (Seriously, people have problems with Isle of Dogs and not with this?)

Unbeknownst to John, the class triggers a tectonic shift inside Setsuko. She loosens up, quits her job and decides to actively pursue the English professor. John has gone back to America, you say? No problem! She has a passport.

There are a couple of additional complications (John is dating Setsuko’s niece; Setsuko and her sister can’t stand each other) that give the film a whiff of screwball comedy, but Oh Lucy! never takes off: Harnett is no one’s idea of comedic performer and Shinobu Terajima embodies too much pathos to come across as funny.

The film is more effective while in Japan. The moment the action moves to Los Angeles and the “fish out of water” cliché kicks in, Oh Lucy! loses its charm. The tonal inconsistency is jarring: This is a comedy that opens with someone launching himself in front of a train, and clearly there is something wrong with Setsuko that is never addressed.

If nothing else, Terajima’s performance keeps the film watchable, but the low stakes and even lower production values hurt the overall experience. The message -the connections you make in the world may save you in the end- is a sweet one, if about as pat as they come. One and a half planets (out of five).

Oh Lucy! opens this Friday 13th at the Roxy Theatre.

Almost Ready, Player One

The #604Stacks.

It’s Juno weekend in Vancouver. For those who think music died with Bowie and Prince, the event doesn’t carry much weight (three weeks ago, I didn’t know what a “Hedley” was. Now I’m trying to forget), but at least the side attractions are quite fun.

Chief among them are the #604Stacks, the low-income housing featured in Ready Player One, Steven Spielberg’s latest movie based on the Ernest Cline best-seller. The stacks are shipping containers -not unlike Brazil favelas- that symbolize the widespread poverty and overpopulation that may characterize the planet in 2045. From this environment emerges Wade, a teen gamer who goes on an epic journey -both virtual and in real life- to become a hero for a disheartened population.

The #604Stacks are a full scale recreation of the aforementioned housing in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Three of the containers are accessible to the public. The first one is filled with classic arcade games: “Centipede”, “Ms. Pac Man”, “Donkey Kong” and the sort. Worth mentioning, the Oasis, the virtual reality universe where Wade spends most of his time, is peppered with 80’s references, and knowledge of the decade’s pop culture and electronic games is indispensable to thrive.

The second container is a duplicate of Wade’s residence (it doubles as rewards area). The third one houses a VR game inspired by the film. “Rise of the Gunters” pits Wade and friends against the corporate agents who want to control the Oasis. I did poorly at “Gunters”, but crushed “Centipede”. Hours and hours of Atari 2600 practice pay off.

#604Stacks its open to the public Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th, 12 to 9pm.

Ready Player One opens next March 29th everywhere.

REVIEW: Tomb Raider Is Serviceable Fun

Back in the day (2001), when Angelina Jolie was announced as the incarnation of the world’s (second) most famous tomb raider, the decision was celebrated as a victory for Girl Power: Finally, a female hero carrying an action film.

Besides the fact we have progressed astonishingly little in that regard (word by word, the same was said of Wonder Woman last year), it’s worth mentioning Jolie’s Lara Croft movies were not great. Not only the plot was unwieldly, Angelina played a sassier version of herself and not really a character.

The main change the 2018 version of Tomb Raider is that Alicia Vikander actually plays Lara Croft. The film is simple but cohesive and the action set-pieces are fluid, as opposed to the choppy style of some other genre specialists (ehem, Michael Bay, ehem).

In this incarnation, Croft is an bike courier/MMA aficionado living paycheck to paycheck. She doesn’t have to. Lara has inherited millions of dollars from her missing father, but she is reluctant to take a penny as she hasn’t given up hope that her dad may resurface.

On the verge of caving in, Lara stumbles upon a clue of her father’s whereabouts: A restless man, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) may have ended in Japan, in pursuit of the resting place of a witch with devastating powers. And he wasn’t the only one in pursuit of the grave.

Tomb Raider is one of those rare cases in which the marriage of an European filmmaker’s sensibilities and a Hollywood production works out. Director Roar Uthaug, responsible for the low-budget, high-octane tsunami flick The Wave, keeps things grounded in reality. Because Indiana Jones’ parentage is undeniable, Uthaug embraces it, leading to effective sequences of Lara Croft using brains and brawn to escape from impossible situations.

A reliable performer, Alicia Vikander brings her low-key charisma to the role. She is immensely watchable and brings a modicum of verisimilitude to ludicrous scenarios. Fans of the videogame (the film is based on the 2013 reboot) are served with winks and nudges, without going overboard.

As the first movie of a would-be franchise, the film does a good job sticking to the story at hand and not overloading in mythology, so often the kiss of death of origin stories. A strong supporting cast (Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott-Thomas and a criminally underused Derek Jacobi) and rather amusing set pieces make Tomb Raider an enjoyable popcorn flick. 3/5 planets.

Tomb Raider is now playing everywhere.

REVIEW: A Wrinkle in Time Could Use Some Ironing

Storm Reid is Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time”.

Director Ava DuVernay has had a remarkable career. Outside forays in music videos and television, her films have been consistently powerful: The fierce family drama Middle of Nowhere, the revelatory doc 13th and the heart-wrenching Selma, they all have left an indelible impression. It wasn’t a surprise Disney would pick her to head the adaptation of the emblematic sci-fi novel A Wrinkle in Time. She has the chops and the sensibility to pull it off.

Which is why it pains me to say A Wrinkle in Time is not up to par. It’s not necessarily DuVernay’s fault. The script is agonizingly obvious (kids are more sophisticated viewers than the movie gives them credit for) and commits a capital offense for an adaptation of this nature: It nearly forgoes world-building. Also, as seminal as the Madeleine L’Engle book is, it’s 56 years old, and every plot point has been recycled to death.

The one thing A Wrinkle in Time has going for is zeitgeist: All major social movements crystalize in the story of Meg (Storm Reid), a brilliant 13 year-old who -following her father’s disappearance- has turn sullen and withdrawn. Well on her way to hopelessness, Meg and her family are visited by Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a kooky figure who seems to know more than she should about Meg’s dad and his interdimensional travel theories.

Soon Meg, her would-be boyfriend and her annoying little brother head to other worlds in search for the missing father, under the tutelage of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Oprah, supernatural, benevolent beings battling the Darkness, the source of all evil.

I could go into further details, but there is no end to all the narrative details the movie both tackles and glosses over. While nobody expects a page-to-page recreation, A Wrinkle in Time does a poor job explaining the mechanics of the story. Things happen. It’s magic. Moving on. A poor casting decision (Meg’s younger sibling is hard to understand and much of the plot hinges on him) further hinders the film’s unfolding.

Ava DuVernay manages however to keep the visuals interesting, particularly when choosing practical effects over CGI. For brief moments, the film becomes tactile, relatable. Makes you wonder what could it have been… with a better script. 2/5 planets.

A Wrinkle in Time is playing everywhere.

REVIEW: Before We Vanish Is a Lo-Fi Space Invasion

How is this for a feat: A sci-fi flick about an alien invasion with barely any special effects and little background info regarding the interlopers’ motivation. Before We Vanish gets a lot of tracking merely out of dialogue and only falters when gives in to the subgenre’s classic tropes.

Directed and written for the screen by Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse, Cure), Before We Vanish follows the escapades of three aliens hiding inside humans, as they set up the stage for a full-scale invasion. Utterly clueless on how to properly function in society, the aliens “steal” concepts from humans, forcing the victim to function without the notion that was taken from them. Say “work” or “ownership”.

The extraterrestrials -who never hide who they are- also take on human guides: A journalist who believes has stumbled on the story of the century and the fed-up wife of one of the humans vessels. As they steal ideas from Tokyo dwellers, the aliens begin to develop personalities, for better or for worse.

The ingenuity of Before We Vanish is commendable: The film takes a page from the seminal Under the Skin and imagines extraterrestrials as entities who don’t share any common referents with the earthlings. Much like with a baby, the order they acquire information determines the person they become: A terminator-like teen with a sunny disposition or a thoughtful partner to an overworked spouse. Since the events take place in Japan, the extraterrestrials are earnest and unfailingly polite, even when snuffing someone.

The fascinating process of seeing these characters “become” a person is all but abandon midway through, when the government wises up to their presence. It’s unfortunate, as up to that point, the film is a sociological delight. Before We Vanish doesn’t take a pro-alien or human stance (both sides deserve to lose at any point in time), but stands by karma as the ultimate universal law. Three planets.

Before We Vanish will play at the Broadway Theatre March 11th, 13th, 17th, 18th and 20th.

Three SK-Made Shorts Premiere Tonight in Saskatoon

Talking at Night. (Photo by Nicole Romanoff)

Three short films produced under the umbrella of Doc Lab Saskatchewan will be screened for free tonight (8 pm) at the Remai Modern. The shorts -directed by three local filmmakers chosen from over 30 hopefuls- were supported by the National Film Board (NFB), alongside Creative Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Filmpool Cooperative.

The films are all superb and underscore the importance of having a cinematic voice representing of the province:

Talking at Night by Eric Thiessen (in attendance): The film captures the daily routine at Saskatoon’s Mobile Crisis Centre, where overextended workers must fend calls from the city’s most vulnerable. Thiessen’s fly-on-the-wall approach gives a good idea of the challenges the organization faces day in and day out. Extra points for not using the callers for emotional effect.

To Wake Up the Nakota Language (Nakón-wįcó’i’e oǧų́ǧa) by Louise Big Eagle: This short chronicles Armand McArthur’s efforts to save the Nakota language from oblivion. McArthur is a charismatic presence, and the loneliness of not having anyone to talk to transcends the screen. A beauty.

Ride by Kristin Catherwood: The most visually accomplished of the bunch, Ride follows Liam Marshall, a bareback bronc rider from Big Muddy Valley. It doesn’t have the social resonance of the other two, but the all-access pass to a little known activity makes it interesting.

The shorts will also be shown in Big Beaver, at the Community Hall next Monday 26th, with Kristin Catherwood and Liam Marshall in attendance.