Author Archives: Jay

The Farewell

Billi (Awkwafina) is barely scraping by, trapped somewhere between her parents’ disapproval and her need for their continued financial support when she’s blindsided by the news of her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. Grandma, aka Nai Nai ( Shuzhen Zhao), is in China, and totally oblivious to her health status. Billi’s parents, Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (Tzi Ma) moved to America when Billi was 6, but she’s always managed to stay close to her grandmother. She’s disturbed when she finds out her parents are willing to keep the secret from Nai Nai, and even more dismayed when she learns they, and the rest of the family, will be travelling to China to say goodbye under the guise of a wedding. But Billi, known for being awfully emotional, is not invited. One look at her teary eyes would tip off Nai Nai for sure.

She goes anyway.

What follows is lyrical, moving and a thoughtful tribute to family, and the nature of goodbye. But it’s also a meditation on some of the differences between East and West. In China, it’s common practice to hide this type of diagnosis from a loved one. Billi feels conflicted about this choice, and reminds people that in America, it would be flat-out illegal for medical professionals to hide someone’s medical status from them. But Billi’s uncle insists that in Asia, family trumps everything, and it is their job to bear this emotional burden for her, so that Nai Nai’s last months or weeks or days are not wasted on sadness and regret.

And certainly, the film is not wasted on sadness or regret. The family throws a wedding so that all Nai Nai’s friends and relatives can gather round her one last time without arousing her suspicious. A very obliging girlfriend of just 3 months goes along with it and wins good sport of the year for the next dozen years. So now the onus is on Billi to say goodbye in a non-obvious way.. And it turns out she’s not just saying goodbye to Nai Nai, but to her last real link to China.

The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific. They really create a dynamic that is utterly believable as a family, and that’s why the movie works so well. It could easily melt toward the sentimental but manages to stay firmly away from the overwrought. That said, the writing is good. Very good. it rings true and feels relatable. Awkwafina is of course the light and joy of the film, but don’t expect her usual goofball act. The Farewell is not a comedy. It is subdued, and tragic. But Lulu Wang’s writing and direction keep it authentic and filled with compassion, the kind of film that unites us in our humanity.

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Poms

Martha (Diane Keaton) is dying. She has no partner, no children, not even a cat. Just a NYC apartment full of stuff she doesn’t need and one niggling regret. After selling off most of her worldly possessions and relocating to a senior’s retirement community in Georgia to die in a warm climate (where stupid hats are NOT optional), she knows exactly how she’ll spend her remaining days: cheerleading.

Sure it’s unconventional. But quilting and baking and playing bridge don’t really appeal to a woman like Martha. She’s been haunted her whole life by a childhood ambition that went unfulfilled, and if she doesn’t do it now she never will. And when she holds tryouts, it turns out that at least 7 other women wouldn’t mind humiliating themselves along with her – Jacki Weaver and Rhea Perlman included. And also Pam Grier, who quite possibly could never humiliate herself – she is a queen among peasants. No knock against anyone else, but Grier is the accidental sun in this solar system.

In many ways, this is a silly and frivolous film, one that won’t make any lasting impression on the world of cinema, and didn’t really make a dent in terms of sales. But I bet if you’re over 65, it might be nice to see an older person on film who isn’t just waiting to die, or to dispense their life’s advice to the young protagonist, but who is instead still pursuing dreams, still the protagonist in her own life. You may have heard that Anjelica Huston for some reason felt the need to take a shot at the film, which is unfortunate, because there are a lot of older ladies in Hollywood, and only about half a role to split between them. You’d think she might be a little more supportive. Perhaps she and her creaking hips were just jealous? I know why I’m jealous: there’s an old lady on the cheer squad who does the splits. And it’s pretty impressive that she can do the splits at her age, but it’s REALLY impressive that she can get back up out of the splits afterwards, unassisted. That’s who I’m jealous of. I’d be stuck FOR DAYS.

And I guess I’m jealous of anyone who knows their expiration date is approaching, and instead of living in fear, they just live. Martha uses her time. Instead of stewing in regret, she chooses joy.

The director, Zara Hayes, also chooses to slip some subtle messaging into the film about how we police women, and especially elderly women. How we default toward infantilization. While some older people will of course require care, they also, unfailingly, deserve respect. And it feels far too easy for an older woman to become disenfranchised and lose her power.

Poms is a sweet, well-intentioned film. The ladies make dreadful cheerleaders. I’m sorry, but it’s true. The movie really doesn’t glamourize old lady cheerleaders. Their moves are tame and lame and underwhelming, exactly as you’d expect them to be. But it’s the women’s verve and vitality that shines through. They’re not setting the world on fire with their dance moves or athleticism. But they’re not going gently into that good night. Until they’re dead, they’re alive. And in that way, it’s a very inspiring little film.

Otherhood

Three mothers, originally friends because their sons were friends, have stayed in each other’s lives even after their sons have all moved away. We meet them at a mother’s day brunch they’ve thrown themselves because their lousy sons always forget (if any one of them had a daughter, or even a daughter-in-law, this movie wouldn’t exist; daughters are not allowed to forget). Not content to just sit around bitching and whining about their lives, they decide to inflict their neuroses on their grown sons, uninvited. So they pack themselves into the world’s most hostile road trip and storm New York City to make their problems someone else’s.

You likely know a mother or two just like this, and if it’s your own mother, well, god bless you. This kind of mother wants it both ways: she decides she MUST become a mother because her life is incomplete, but then she spends her kid’s life telling him or her that it was a completely selfless act that requires a well of gratitude whose depth cannot be measured as it is bottomless and unending and nothing will ever be enough. And when the child is grown, the mother is lost and without purpose because motherhood was everything and now she is nothing. And improbably, all three female characters in this film are suffering from this affliction.

Personally, I know tonnes of mothers who have managed to maintain a balance between forging a career, having their own life, nurturing friendships, and being better mothers because of it. I don’t imagine that’s easy, but it’s life, and the last time I checked, motherhood IS optional. But these women are acting like life is over because their grown sons don’t immediately reply to their inane and constant texting.

It must have been difficult for Netflix to promote this movie since one of the three women is Felicity Huffman and she’s not exactly winning any motherhood prizes right now (if you’re just poking your head out from underneath a rock, she’s one of the parents accused of believing that her kids are such profound idiots that they could only get into college with the help of large, illegal bribes, and that they still deserved to be there, perhaps taking the place of your own kids, who would have otherwise merited the position, because their mother is rich and famous and quite possibly she just wanted them out of the damn house). Leaving her aside, Netflix managed to convince both Patricia Arquette and Angela Bassett to join the ranks of the pitiful. And frankly, Arquette does nothing to dispel the pity party. She’s gotten a little too comfortably playing the kooky, offbeat, perpetually single mother. When she breaks into her son’s apartment to bake for him, it’s uncomfortably believable. When she fails to learn a lesson about meddling and instead declares that the only problem was that she didn’t meddle soon enough, you believe that too.

Bassett, on the other hand, is an asset. Her character has certainly invested too much of herself into living for the men in her life (her husband and her son), especially when those men haven’t deserved it, don’t return it, and don’t even want it. But because it’s Basset, her character doesn’t feel pathetic. She holds her head high. She clearly has strength. And she DOES learn her lesson, and earns herself a better life; in the end, she’s the only one we’re really rooting for.

I think a lot of women, and perhaps parents generally, struggle with the transition from parenting a child to parenting an adult. But the truth is, that role is always changing. A newborn baby is a round-the-clock, soul-sucking (and hopefully soul-nourishing) job; a two year old is a battle of wills; a twelve year old is an exercise in diplomacy; a fifteen year old is a test of nerves. You never stop being someone’s mother, but mothering stops being invasive and starts being supportive at some point – if you’ve done it right. Not everyone gets it right, and that’s okay too, because we’re all human and we’re all learning on the job. You might even have to be someone’s kid while also being someone else’s parent. But neither of those things should subsume your entire identity.

Otherhood isn’t a great movie but it’s possibly worth watching just because there isn’t enough Angela Bassett in the world as it is. Stories about women are worth telling. We don’t always get them right. We’re all fumbling around trying to figure shit out. And if you haven’t recently been federally indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, you’re probably doing okay.

Power of Grayskull

I don’t know of many men around my age who don’t know the opening words to He-Man: “By the power of Grayskull…I have the power!” It appealed to every kind of kid the world over. Whomever holds the sword, holds the power. And what kid doesn’t wish for power? The power to eat unlimited popsicles, stay up past bedtime, and rot your brain with comic books and candy. They were humble asks, really, but the very promise was intoxicating. Adam could, with the use of his sword, turn into the most powerful man in the universe. He-Man’s muscles were popping! His scaredy cat sidekick Cringer turned into a mighty Battle Cat who fearlessly leapt into battle, fangs first, with He-Man saddled to his back.

Mattel was struggling as a toy company. They had the successful Barbie line as well as Hot Wheels but wanted to get a great line of action figures for boys, a brand they could rely on. They were buying up movie licenses to release tie-in merchandise, but they always missed the mark. In the 70s, there still hadn’t really been a movie that spawned a successful toy, and Mattel’s Clash of the Titans line was another huge miss. The movie came and went in theatres, and the demand for toys immediately dried up (there weren’t home videos back then to keep the steam going). They had the opportunity to grab Star Wars licensing and passed. D’oh! So they went with the next big thing: Conan. Which might have been a good idea had the movie not turned out to be rated R with nudity and violence – not exactly toy-friendly. Shit. So instead of chasing after licences, they decided to just invent their own brand, which is where He-Man comes from – inside some Mattel guy’s brain. To sell the toys (and the vehicles, accessories, sidekicks, villains, etc etc etc), they came up with a back story to illustrate on the packaging, hopefully sparking the imagination of children. It worked. Little boys loved the toys, especially since Mattel released mini comic-books in the packaging to further flesh out the mythology.

In 1981, rules around children’s programming changed, and while before they would not have been able to create a show about a toy (essentially a 30 minute commercial), suddenly they could, and so of course they did. And heck yes the kids ate it up. The show had a whole cast of characters and cool locations that inspired toys constantly, which turned the Masters of the Universe into a billion dollar empire. The show and toy line were so successful that they thought: why not chase the girls too? So a twin sister was invented out of thin air: Adora, who of course turns into She-Ra, Princess of Power.

These stories were manufactured ass-backward to serve a need to sell bits of coloured plastic. It’s actually kind of fascinating to see how it comes together, and ultimately inspires a live-action movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella. He-Man is remembered ever so fondly by fanboys of a certain age, who also embraced She-Ra, it probably goes without saying (her story lines were more sophisticated, her animation bolder, and she rides a goddamn horse with wings).

She-Ra was definitely my jam, although having little sisters usually meant that I was Swift Wind, the talking unicorn, more often than the princess of power herself (who wears the coolest head piece ever invented). So I really ate up every bit of this documentary which seeks out all the dusty corners of its creation. I love learning the practical ways in which creative ideas were born. It’s a call behind the scenes opportunity to pick the brains of those involved, and what a fabulous collection of creators!

The Red Sea Diving Resort

In the 1970s, Captain America went to Africa disguised as Captain Israel, where he assembled a crack team of Super Jews, including a harpoon-wielding Hawkeye and a Black Widow with feathered bangs.

Well, okay, that’s not exactly how it happened, and it DID mostly happen.

Ethiopian Jews were being slaughtered in their homes in the late 70s and early 80s, so Mossad agents led families on a 1000km walk to Sudan where, if they survived the journey, they became refugees waiting to be taken to Jerusalem, which was the tricky part. Sudan was receiving a stipend from the UN for each refugee they took in. The refugees starved, but the Sudanese government was not interested in losing easy money. In order to smuggle them out, the Mossad agents posed as hoteliers, actually running a resort, to remove Ethiopians by sea, toward a waiting Israeli Navy Seal ship.

The crew is run by Ari (a bearded Chris Evans), a reckless agent known for running into danger without a plan for getting out. Always by his side, the very courageous local Kabede (Michael Kenneth Williams), for whom this is not a mission but very simply life.

Anyway, I callously poked fun at the casting of Captain America in this film, but it is a genuine problem. Not Chris Evans per se – he’s fine. He’s just too identifiably heroic, and the camera knows it. The story is infatuated with the idea of this rescue mission and it pumps up the hero aspect to 11 while disregarding their humanity. We know the group’s Black Widow (ie, only female component, played by Haley Bennett) is a mother and that she has left her child(ren?) behind for months or years in order to help save strangers but literally nothing is made of it. Who is she? How does she cope? How do the kids? Where are the kids? Ari is also a father, with an ex-wife who is already tired of his bullshit before this story even begins. His backstory is almost as empty as Black Widow’s, but his guilt is exculpated by a crayon drawing that implies his daughter forgives him for his repeated abandonment. What I’m saying is: the Avengers are super heroes who are just doing their jobs. In this case, the Mossad agents are real people with real loved ones and lives back home that they’ve sacrificed in order to save people, not from Loki or Ultron or Thanos, but from genocide, a less-glamourous, real-world problem that most people look away from. But the movie takes the one thing that it’s got going for it and ignores it almost completely.

Okay, scrub that: the film had 2 potential things going for it – the heroes, sure, but also the victims. Because these Ethiopian refugees are perhaps the true heroes of this story, and maybe any story. I’ve always thought that, as bloated as End Game was, the only story I was really interested in is the one they never told – that of normal people on Earth, those left behind by the snap, and those who disappeared because of it. What is their experience? Such a global, world-shifting event deserves some story-telling but never got any (they failed to even really touch on it in Spiderman Far From Home, disappointingly). But in this case, the Ethiopians escape with little else besides their lives, and know they are lucky to have that much. Many are missing children and spouses and parents. Many will lose more along the arduous journey, only to end up in a crowded, unhygienic camp where their bodies are worth money to their captors, so they are given just barely the means to stay alive. And that’s only half the trip: next they’re going to smuggled past armed check points, onto rubber rafts, and raced through the choppy waves of the Red Sea onto vessels that will sail them into a new life, one so different as to be unimaginable from their straw hut lives in Ethiopia. Now that’s a story. But by all means let’s eschew that for more of Michiel Huisman in a speedo.

So yeah, The Red Sea Diving Resort fails to overcome the same tired old tropes. It feels like a compilation of other movies you’ve already seen, but not a best-of compilation, more like a cross-section of the just-okay bits. Which is a weird compilation, I’ll grant you that. Who’d want to watch it? Not me. Not really. Not even for a bearded Chris Evans, still very much in Captain America mode.

UglyDolls

Uglyville is home to some fairly upbeat if misshapen dolls – they’re missing eyes or teeth or limbs – but most seem content. All but one doll, Moxy (Kelly Clarkson), who dreams of going to the “big world” and living with a child who will love her. She gets together a band of misfits (truly the only kind of band that CAN be assembled on this island of misfit toys by any other name), including Lucky Bat (Leehom Wang), Wage (Wanda Sykes), Babo (Gabriel Iglesias) and Uglydog (Pitbull), and together they stumble upon the Institute of Perfection, the last stop between the best dolls and their forever homes.

The Institute of Perfection is run by Lou (Nick Jonas), an alarmingly blonde-haired, blue eyed bastion of excellence. He gets all the beautiful dolls ready to run the gauntlet, the final hurdle to be cleared before being placed in a home. Moxy and gang find these perfect dolls to be outwardly pretty but inwardly ugly – they soundly and definitively and in many cases quite cruelly reject Moxy and friends for looking different.

From the very first frame, you know where this film is headed. We’re teaching kids to embrace differences and to accept imperfections. Sounds nice. But this movie takes an uncomfortably long time getting there and goes through too many catchy songs about the importance of beauty on the way. It makes you really start to sweat all the Hitler references.

In the end, the Uglydolls meet a perfect doll named Mandy (Janelle Monae) who (you may want to sit down for this) wears glasses. And through that hideous physical defect they’re able to bond and together they realize that not only is being weird okay, maybe it’s even possible for a kid to love you that way, in all your freaky glory.

UglyDolls plays like a watered down Toy Story, appealing to only the very youngest of children (my 5 year old and 7 year old nephews preferred to pick up live-action Dumbo over this for a recent car trip, but it was Sean’s recommendation of Shazam that really impressed, which meant we just spent 10 days sequestered in a cottage with kids who couldn’t go more than 5 minutes without singing “Lightning with my hands! Lightning with my hands!” and requesting this new band they’ve just been introduced to through the movie – Queen). Its fuzzy feltness and bouquet of primary colours should serve as a warning that this movie is nothing but saccharine and if you have any other requirements from a film then this one is not for you.

 

Yearbook: Star Wars Edition

So we’ve run through both Marvel characters and Disney princesses, I guess it’s time we take a look at our Star Wars pals and vote on who’s most likely to succeed. The only problem is that Sean was a nerdy little kid who loved Star Wars while I managed to avoid it for most of my life. So my votes are going to very basic in comparison to his since I don’t know who the heck Boba Fett is even though Sean talks about him (?) all the time. I will probably struggle not to say Chewie every time. God help me. No, YOU help me. Chime in!

Best Hair

Well holy hell. This is hardly fair! And could it really have gone any other way? Chewbacca for the win, but his hair is no joke. Maria Cork was the supervisor of the hair department in creature effects on The Force Awakens, and it was her job to make sure his locks were glossy and gorgeous every single day. Mostly yak hair with a bit of mohair around the eyes, you can read all about his preferred hair tools and products here.

Cutest Couple

No shame, but we’re on the same page again. Is there such thing as being TOO partial to droids? Nah. C3PO and R2D2 are more like an old married couple who bicker all the time but ultimately have a deep and loyal bond. Poe and BB-8 have more of a bromance. We should all be so lucky as to be cherished and valued the way Dameron feels for his droid.

Best Dressed

Samesies again? And I’m not even mad about it! Lando Calrissian is the obvious, and perhaps only choice. He’s stylish and debonair and has a cape collection that an entire galaxy envies.

Most Badass

I was startled and impressed with General Leia’s power, her temerity, her cool, her commanding presence. But ultimately I think Sean will be proved right – Rey ain’t nothing to fuck with.

Most Ambitious

Sean went with Emperor (Palpatine – I think), and I’ll believe him. I can’t really remember the bad guys so I googled Domhnall Gleeson Star Wars guy and the internet reminded me that he was called General Hux, who seems reasonably upwardly mobile.

Biggest Flirt

Sean thought Han was the flirtiest but I went with Oscar Isaac because that boy was eye fucking me the whole movie.

Class Clown


Sean went with Jar Jar Binks and I kind of don’t really know who that is in the grand scheme of things. I chose Anakin Skywalker because that shit WAS funny, even if it wasn’t intentional.

Life of the Party

Sean went with Wicket, the Ewok, and to be honest, I don’t know my Ewoks. Is this something I should look into? I went with Finn because I bet there ain’t no party like a storm trooper party.

Best Car

In a move surprising no one, Sean goes with Han and his hunk o junk, the Millennium Falcon. I wanted to pick those AT-AT things but I don’t know who drives them. So I went with Jabba’s party boat, which if course I couldn’t remember what it was called so again I had to ask google: what do I mean by that barge thingie with sails that picked them up in the desert and the internet spit back: Khetanna. It’s like a cruise ship for space villains. Sure it has a blaster cannon but it’s also got room for live music and 500 guests.

Most Likely To Become President

Again the vote goes unanimously to General Leia Organa for president, though let’s be honest – she’s already pretty much attained higher rank than that. President would probably be a demotion.

Most Likely To Get Catfished

Of COURSE it’s Kylo Ren. This emo dweeb probably has a dating profile littered with My Chemical Romance lyrics, and his profile pic is of him shirtless wearing high-waisted mom jeans, and he still wonders why everyone’s swiping left. He’s probably teetering dangerously in incel territory.

Most Accident Prone

I guess I don’t have any specific memories of C3PO being clumsy, but it sounds right. I went with Luke because the dude is missing a hand!

Most Opinionated

Sean went with Anakin. I went with L3, Lando’s droid from Solo, who was smart and woke and ready to lead her own rebellion.

Most Upbeat

Sean gave most upbeat to Yoda, and I’m glad to see him get some love, especially for his zen philosophy. I went with a young Han Solo – I connected more with him than I ever did with Harrison Ford’s character, which is probably blasphemous, but there it is.

Most Likely To Make Millions

Sean went with Lando for most likely to make millions, and as a chronic smuggler and gambler, he’s a hustler baby, and Sean’s probably right. But I went with Rose Tico. She’s got an impoverished background, having been forced to plunder her own mining community for the First Order her whole life, so I think she’s got the proper motivation to rise to the top.

Most Likely To Star In Their Own Reality Show

I knew you’d have Boba on here somewhere! I went with Sam Jackson, and I guess I mean that literally. I had to google his jedi name: Mace Windu. I’m really in this for SLJ (the L is for Leroy!).

Mostly Likely To Be Famous on Instagram

Sean thought Finn would do well on IG but I picked Admiral Holdo because she seems more into hair and fashion and getting her angles right, plus she’s important and well-connected so she’s got lots of famous friends.

Brainiest

Okay fine, we’ll give this one to Yoda, who has an advantage, being a 900 year old jedi master all-seeing ghost.

Who You’d Most Like to Eat Lunch With

Sean wants to eat lunch with Obi-wan because he’s a big nerd. I want Oscar Isaac FOR lunch.