Movie Review – The Farewell

Lulu Wang explores the cultural gaps between East and West.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There are movies that speak to me on such intimate frequencies they almost seem to be whispering into my ear and no one else’s. The Farewell, the latest film by Lulu Wang, is tender and warm, and it speaks directly to me about my relationship with my grandma. I think we as moviegoers are fortunate when we encounter a film that knows how to reach us.

The Farewell is based on parts of Wang’s life, but I suppose, as someone of Chinese descent, it could also be about parts of mine. We meet Billi (Awkwafina), a young Chinese American girl living in New York with her mum and dad. One day, she learns that her paternal grandma (Zhao Shu Zhen) back in China is stricken with stage 4 lung cancer. Instead of bearing bad news, the goal for Chinese families is to make the patient’s remaining days as happy as possible, even if it means concocting an elaborate fake wedding to explain why the entire family has suddenly convened in her living room.

Billi is most befuddled by this deception. She moved away from China when she was very little, so she’s grown up adopting Western standards. She feels her grandma should be told the truth. After all, it’s what any of us would do, right? She might have affairs to settle, old disputes to resolve. The rest of the family remains obstinate. As Billi’s uncle Hai Bin (Jiang Yong Bo) explains, “It’s the responsibility of the family to carry this emotional burden for her”.

The Farewell is a fiercely elegant picture that would’ve seemed less so had it not been led by Awkwafina and Zhao Shu Zhen. The relationship between Billi and her grandma is the emotional centre of the movie. For the story to work, we must first be drawn in by their affections for each other. Awkwafina, with her candid face and slight hunch, is very good at seeming discontent with her own emotions. Zhao, meanwhile, is basically like my own grandma. Generous, doting, cheeky, stubborn, endlessly jovial. I swear, somewhere there is a factory producing little identical old ladies from the mould of a Chinese grandmother overlord.

And so, the entire family continues with its questionable charade. The cast in a movie like this must be very good, and it is, especially Diana Lin as Billi’s mother, who presents a strong appearance but falls apart whenever she has to remind Billi of what it means to be Chinese. Wang milks her cast for every last ounce of earnestness, which might not have been difficult since her story flows with ease and cleverly demonstrates how two cultures can be completely different without either being wrong.

There is one moment, however, that slightly jarred me from complete happiness. It comes after the movie has ended. I won’t say what it is, but it shouldn’t have been included. It snuffs out much of the emotional drama the film so patiently built. When we are told something, we want to believe it, not be fooled suddenly by a cheap trick. The rest of The Farewell is among the finest minutes of cinema this year.

The Farewell is available in Australian cinemas from 5 September 2019

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

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Movie Review – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Outrageous and frequently bonkers, Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film is a solid and sentimental throwback to a bygone era.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood immediately calls to mind Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It also suggests a fairy tale, which usually involves a bodacious hero, a poor old distressed damsel, a castle and a big baddie. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is very much like a fairy tale, except the big baddie is seldom seen, the damsel doesn’t know she’s in distress and the heroes are a couple of clueless fading TV stars. It’s a long, meandering dream, the kind of pompous brilliance only Quentin Tarantino could get away with. It’s not his finest, but it might be his most affectionate.

It’s the spring of 1969. Hippie culture is an infestation. The old westerns of the ’40s and ’50s are a dying breed. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), once the hero of the hit western Bounty Law, is afraid his career is over.  His trusty stunt double, Cliff Booth, hangs around him like a valet, boxing coach and BFF rolled into a hunky Brad Pitt package.

The first half of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seems to go nowhere. We follow Rick as he attempts to revitalise his career. We are invited into Cliff’s dirty trailer, where his dog Brandy waits eagerly to be fed. Elsewhere, Sharon Tate, who lives next door to Rick, is living life and inhabiting the body of Margot Robbie very comfortably.

Just when their stories seem to be leading nowhere, Cliff picks up a lithe young hippie by the road and drives her to Spahn Ranch, where westerns used to be filmed. Now desolate and dusty, it’s populated by an eerie clan of youngsters who lurch about the grounds like zombies. Here, Tarantino relies on his audience’s pre-existing knowledge on 1969 Californian history, where names like Sharon Tate, Spahn Ranch and Squeaky should quickly surface horrible and gruesome images. The loose storytelling of earlier is swiftly tightened and given focus. Suddenly, the film has a trajectory.

Which leads me to Sharon Tate. She doesn’t appear very much in the movie, despite receiving hefty marketing. Her appearance here, as far as I can gather, is to let us know how undeserving of death she was. She was a promising actor, mysteriously gorgeous with a canny knack for comedy, and was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she and her four friends were murdered. She was a harmless victim of senseless violence. In Once Upon a Time, she is given one of the best scenes – a simple excursion to the cinema to watch one of her own movies, The Wrecking Crew (1969), where she’s cheerfully content to hear the audience laughing whenever she does something funny on screen. She seems happy just to be alive.

It’s moments like this that elevate Once Upon a Time above its own distractions. It’s a loving tribute to Sharon Tate, and to the westerns that surrounded Hollywood for years. Is the movie too long? The first half can certainly feel so. But thankfully Rick and Cliff are great fun to watch, and DiCaprio’s performance is perhaps the best of his career.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is available in Australian cinemas from August 15

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – Late Night

Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling shine, but Late Night doesn’t quite earn the title of must-see viewing.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Pascoe

It’s often said that comedy is harder than drama, which would make crafting a comedy about comedy no mean feat. Illustrating that success in this area can escape even the most accomplished of comic writers, Late Night – from screenwriter and star Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project) – offers intermittent amusement, while struggling to settle on a consistent theme.

Set in the cutthroat world of American late-night television, Late Night sees aspiring comedian Molly Patel (Kaling) land the job of her dreams as a staff writer on a show fronted by scathing TV star Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Newbury’s show is suffering a gradual decline in viewership, thanks in part to its sausage fest for a writer’s room. With eight white men all writing the gags, it’s no wonder things are starting to feel a little stale. So in comes Molly to spice it up, and hopefully rescue the ratings.

Kaling sets out to tell a story that satirises late night television in the same way The Devil Wears Prada and Morning Glory satirised the fashion industry and breakfast television respectively. The first act largely delivers on this potential. Sexism, ageism, racism – Kaling deftly weaves all three, and more, into Late Night’s juicy premise. It’s light, easy-to-please stuff with a gentle dusting of wry social commentary – so far, so good.

But this energy soon drains from the film. Whatever critique Kaling was crafting soon loses steam amidst an overly complicated rom-com plot, an oversized cast, several narrative cul-de-sacs that go nowhere and a botched attempt to tie things in with the Me Too movement. The film sets its sights on tearing chunks out of the likes of Kimmel, Fallon and co, but doesn’t hit hard enough or leave with something memorable to say.

Scene to scene, Late Night’s tone is incredibly inconsistent. Side-splittingly funny one second and perplexingly inept the next, it starts strong before losing its way. It feels like a proof of concept that needed more polish in the writer’s room before making it to air – which is a shame, because the basic formula of a fresh-faced employee clashing with a hostile workplace has served us so well in the past.

Late Night is available in Australian cinemas from August 8 2019


Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Booksmart

Whether it likes it or not, Booksmart is Superbad for a new generation.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Few movies this year will seem as worldly as Booksmart, the directorial debut by Olivia Wilde. It’s a raunchy teen comedy that could double as a crash course on contemporary social politics. It is female-led. One of its main characters is gay. There are interracial flings and gender-neutral skateboarders. I half expected Laverne Cox to barge in at some point. It is also piloted by one of the most electric, lovable lead pairings in a long while. This is Superbad 2.0, told by women, about women, retrofitted for 2019.

The movie begins with the end of high school. The hallways are boisterous and messy and all the cool kids have already planned their respective graduation parties. Best friends, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), have never partied. They have played it safe, thought about their futures and aced every exam (when Amy proudly contests their innocence by mentioning their fake IDs, Molly retorts “they were college IDs to get into their 24-hour library!”).

Molly’s been accepted to Yale, which, naturally, is big news. So you can imagine her consternation when she discovers that all her beer-chugging, sexually ravenous classmates have also been accepted to prestigious colleges across the country. How did this happen? If everyone else fooled around and still succeeded academically, why did she spend the last few years studying her ass off like a schmuck? Her plan? Make up for lost time by partying the night away with her crush Nick (Mason Gooding), where maybe, just maybe he might finally notice her.

Booksmart is more concerned with style and forward momentum than with scribbling out the finer details of teenage life. Party scenes are generic. Plot points are broad. Amy and Molly spend the majority of their evening hopping from party to party, trying desperately to reach Nick’s house (neither knows his address). Don’t you think that by the second or third party the night would be over? I mean, how many hours are there? But never mind. Because Amy and Molly are in every scene and they work so well together, logic is easily forgotten.

I just wish the movie had tried a little harder to explore these two complex, intelligent, quirky girls instead of chucking them into a series of mindless gags. There’s clearly a lot more to them than hooking up and getting wasted. By the end, what exactly have they gained? Was it all simply an opportunity to get crazy? I dunno, they seemed cool enough from the start. Nothing’s wrong with loving crossword puzzles and Ken Burns documentaries. The baffling thing is, these girls know that. But I suppose teenagers care more about what others think of them than what they know of themselves. Maybe now that it’s all over, they can go back to sneaking into college libraries.

Booksmart is available in Australian cinemas from July 11

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Parasite

Biting, observant, outrageous; Bong Joon-ho continues his political rampage with a modern classic.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There is something about South Korean cinema. I’m not quite sure what it is. It is wild, energetic, sometimes forceful. It thinks laterally and is always powering forward even when nothing seems to be happening. It is, I suppose, uniquely entertaining. Now comes Parasite, the latest film by Bong Joon-ho, and not only is it immensely entertaining, it’s damn near ready to bite your head off.

This is a slick black-ish comedy about the devastating reality of capitalism. That in the same country, in the same city, one family can live like kings while another lives in constant worry that neighbourhood sewage might one day flood into their shabby basement apartment. The poor family is made up of dad Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho); mum Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin); son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik); and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam). They have three things in common: they’re out of a job, they’re desperate for money, and they’re quite comfortable committing fraud.

The first half of Parasite is straight-up comedy, as Ki-taek’s household forges documents and instigates scandal to supplant the domestic staff of the wealthy Parks. Ki-woo earns a lucrative job tutoring the Parks’ daughter, Da-hye (Ziso Jung), in English. He ropes in Ki-jung, posing as his cousin from overseas, to mentor Da-hye’s brother’s artistic development. Ki-taek becomes the family driver and Chung-sook takes over as housekeeper. Before we know it, Bong has created an ingenious situation in which an entire family earns its collective income directly from another.

The second half is something I suspect no one would see coming, as once Ki-taek’s family establishes its parasitic takeover, the movie descends into madness. All they really want is to earn decent cash, preferably at the expense of rich fools. Also, it helps that the Parks are basically begging to be screwed in the ass.

Parasite is a thoroughly visual movie. The camerawork by Hong Kyung-pyo is precise and beautiful in a way that makes every shot mean something. Observe, for example, how often the darkened doorway to the cellar of the Park kitchen sits in the middle of the frame, immediately drawing importance to itself. Or how Bong likens the dangers of social media to guns by having one character threaten an entire family at phone-point. Or how the rainwater that cleanses the driveways of the rich gushes downward and downward until it floods the houses of the poor. Bong makes it quite clear that one of capitalism’s great faults is its disparaging negligence of the lower classes.

I would’ve maybe preferred Bong to have made his comments a little more subtly, but there’s no denying he has crafted here a movie of artistic, thematic and visual superiority. It’s insanely funny but also heart-breaking. It makes you feel for the poor and hate the rich, one of capitalism’s inevitable by-products. Why shouldn’t the less fortunate be allowed just one day in the company of luxury, or the privileged be taken down a peg or two? No one should have to deal with sewage water filling up their living room.

Parasite is available in Australian cinemas from June 27

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment

Movie Review – Yesterday

The Beatles deserve more than a one-note Ed Sheeran joke.

⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

In Yesterday, struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) gets hit by a bus during a worldwide power outage and wakes to find himself in an alternate universe where no one else knows that The Beatles exist. Jack decides to pass off the songs of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr as his own, but rather than being able to relish in his newfound success, Jack becomes guilt-ridden and paranoid that someone is going to uncover the truth.

Yesterday has all the makings of an English hit. It has Richard Curtis as its screenwriter, Danny Boyle at the directing helm, and a loveable cast that includes modern music icon Ed Sheeran. But while Yesterday has a lot going for it, the end result just doesn’t land right, and it turns out to be a bit of a lacklustre affair.

Curtis, who is known for bringing us films like Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually and Mr Bean, doesn’t quite give us his usual charm. His characters are often written as offbeat yet quintessentially English, and while we see glimpses of this in Lily James’ love interest character Ellie, we don’t get enough of it.

For instance, Jack’s dry English wit doesn’t translate; he comes off as miserable and arrogant, making it difficult to empathise with him. In saying this, I do hope to see more of Patel in the future. It’s not that he’s necessarily bad in this film, it’s just that the role isn’t strong enough to showcase his abilities.

Lily James is the stand-out here, perfectly expressing girl-next-door innocence and the heartbreak of unrequited love. Unlike her ditzy and downright annoying turn in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, this is the most comfortable James has seemed in a long time. In fact, Yesterday would have made for a much more interesting film had it centred around Ellie being hit by a bus instead of Jack.

In the midst of a recent influx of musicals (Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, A Star Is Born) Yesterday struggles to find its place. The inclusion of Sheeran as a self-deprecating caricature of himself is funny for the first five minutes, but quickly becomes tiresome as the joke is hammered to death. Boyle misses the mark in his direction, unable to tell a succinct story or inspire strong performances from his actors. Nothing in Yesterday really pays off in spectacular fashion, and there’s nothing really at stake. The concept is wild and clever, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The Beatles deserve more.

Yesterday is available in Australian cinemas from June 27

Image © Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – The Secret Life Of Pets 2

Sometimes a sequel transcends the first film… and The Secret Life of Pets 2 does just that!

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill 

The Secret Life of Pets 2 joins Max and his friends as they get up to more mischief when their owners aren’t home. Featuring a much more likable Max, trouble grows for the group as their owners have babies, a circus comes to town with a hapless tiger, and more trouble-making pets are discovered in the building, creating problems they must solve before their owners come home from work.

Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me franchise) deliver an animated sequel that is surprisingly good, and – dare I say it – even better than the first one. Each of the three core storylines are cleverly interwoven, building on existing characters and introducing some new ones before bringing it all together in a big finale that beautiful ties together all the loose ends. It’s funny, light-hearted and highly relatable for all pet owners.

Most of the cast have returned, except Louis C.K as Max – who presumably wasn’t signed on again due to his sexual misconduct scandal – and has been replaced by Patton Oswalt. Despite Max being written as a much more sympathetic character this time round, Oswalt’s voice also fits the character of Max better, capturing his increased anxiety better than I think C.K would have been able to achieve.

The introduction of Shih Tzu Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) alongside returning bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart) allows the dynamic duo from last year’s Night School to team up again and deliver some comedic excellence. Haddish and Hart continually bounce off each other throughout the film, with Haddish playing the straight man to Hart’s over-the-top persona.

Harrison Ford also appears, voicing the pet version of himself in ageing farm dog Rooster. Despite being a dog of few words, Rooster helps Max overcome his anxiety and realise that he’s capable of much more than he thought. Does Ford add anything by voicing Rooster? Well no, not really, but his inclusion will be a kick for parents and grandparents.

While there have been some good sequels to children’s films before (think Shrek 2, Toy Story 2, Ice Age 2, and Despicable Me 2), rarely has a sequel transcended the first one. But The Secret Life of Pets 2 does just that, ensuring children and parents alike will be thoroughly captivated for the snappy 86-minute runtime. Overall, The Secret Life of Pets 2 is an enjoyable children’s film and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to watch again.

The Secret Life Of Pets 2 is available in Australian cinemas from 20 June 2019

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Long Shot

Casually enjoyable faux-political fluff, but Veep it well and truly isn’t.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

U.S. Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) learns that the President of the United States will not be running for a second term and is thrilled to learn he’s willing to endorse her as his successor. At a party she runs into Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), an opinionated journalist who has recently been fired from his publisher as the result of a corporate takeover. Impressed with his flair and provocative writing, Field hires Flarksy to write her speeches on her campaign tour, unaware of the emotional connection that will bloom between them and the effect it will have on her shot at the presidency.

Love him or loathe him, Seth Rogen’s brand of comedy has come to manifest itself almost annually, and despite varying in quality, it usually ends up reliably landing somewhere between grin-breaking and frequently chuckle-worthy. Long Shot, however, is an example of what happens when almost every Seth Rogen movie – from the more sentimental to the flat-out ridiculous – rocks up at once, and the result, predictably, is a pretty big mess that never quite manages to be funny or endearing enough to win you over.

Setting itself up and framing itself as a romantic comedy à la Knocked Up, we get served the crude sexual humour from the likes of Superbad and Sausage Party, the over-the-top action violence of Pineapple Express and Observe and Report, the hard drug-fuelled nonsense of The Night Before and This is the End, and another attempt to have a say about politics like The Interview. Tonally, it’s all over the place, and failing to balance so many different Rogenisms means that the main course – the romance – topples underneath it all.

It doesn’t help of course that the romantic angle falls pretty flat between the two leads. Charlize Theron is typically good as the steadfast, virtuous secretary of state, while Seth Rogen simply embodies his wisecracking stoner schtick as an asshole journalist. The pair bounce off one another well thanks to their gifts for comic timing, but the romantic chemistry just isn’t there. It doesn’t help that the movie does very little to convince us that the goofy Rogen is really worthy of the elegant Theron’s affections.

On the bright side, a film that easily could have become bogged down in insufferable political agenda plays being opinionated mercifully lightly. The suggestion that sane people are neither entirely right or left leaning, with the ability to see the benefits and flaws of both sides is a brief breath of fresh air in an otherwise muddled affair. Modestly amusing, but not much else, Long Shot is mostly ‘meh’.

Long Shot is available in Australian cinemas from May 2

Image courtesy of Studio Canal

Movie Review – The Hustle

Another day, another female-centric remake…

⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

In The Hustle, two female con artists pair up in the South of France to prey on the rich men who vacation there. The successful and beautiful Josephine (Anne Hathaway) takes Lonnie (Rebel Wilson) under her wing and teaches her all her trade secrets, but when the relationship turns sour, the pair engage in a turf war, battling each other for control of the city. Selecting a young tech millionaire as their challenge, the two will stop at nothing to prove they are the better hustler.

Chris Addison’s feature film directorial debut is a shameless remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). With a script that lacks the heart and depth of the original, The Hustle is no match for the classic comedy of Steve Martin and Michael Caine. Hathaway and Wilson are given very limited material to work with, relying mostly on recycled weight jokes and classist attitudes to generate humour. The constant references back to men being ‘dirty dogs getting what they deserve’ quickly becomes boring, coming off as thinly veiled feminist pandering.

Hathaway’s English accent is absolutely dreadful and utterly unnecessary. Meanwhile, Wilson sticks to her familiar bumbling, brash Australian character, bringing the occasional laugh through some obscene statement or action. Ultimately, the biggest problem here is in having to endure yet another remake. From Ghostbusters, to Ocean’s 8 and What Men What, these new female-led films have all failed to compete with the originals. You can’t tell me there are no new scripts out there that feature a strong female cast; there’s no need to constantly rehash old material.

The most disappointing thing about The Hustle is that is starts out as a film about two intelligent women coming together, but quickly turns into an unimpressive dick measuring competition that requires a man to bring about the resolution. So much for the feminist angle…

The Hustle is available in Australian cinemas from May 9

Image © Universal Pictures 2019