Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Crazy Rich Asians,' That's What I Want

Is that a ring on your finger, or are you just happy to see me?

Crazy Rich Asians is the kind of movie I was convinced I'd be annoyed by. I blame Sex and the City 2, and its ugly Americans set loose on foreign soil to both conspicuously consume and offend. That film managed to end what had always been an unrealistic yet enjoyable fairy tale about romance and implausible personal budgets on a sour note.

But it's next to impossible not to be charmed by Crazy Rich Asians and its version of a similar modern fairy tale, especially since there's nary a single ugly American to be seen in the entire film. In fact, aside from some very racist British characters who are part of the film's flashback opening, the cast is entirely Asian, the first major studio film to center on an Asian cast since 1993's The Joy Luck Club.

Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an "ABC" (American Born Chinese) who is a professor of economics at NYU. She's dating Nick Young (Henry Golding, making an impressive acting debut after a career of TV hosting), who is also a professor (blink and you might miss that fact). Though they've been dating for over a year, Rachel hasn't met most of his family, and Nick decides to change that by inviting her to Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding.

Now, it might seem a tad unbelievable that a professor of economics with access to a smart phone wouldn't know that her boyfriend is from one of the richest families in Asia, even if he's never actually told her anything about them. Let's just say, she's a far better person than I, who would have been Googling the shit out of his name after our first date. But it's a scenario that works best for the film's story, so that we get to discover all of Nick's secrets through Rachel's awe-struck eyes.

Wu's Rachel is both smart and slightly naive. She's also funny, providing sardonic commentary about her new surroundings, (when they land in Singapore, she's astounded by the plethora of offerings in the airport alone, lamenting that all JFK has to offer is "salmonella and despair"), and not afraid to tease her man about his ridiculous good looks. Too often romantic comedies assume a couple being attractive is enough reason for them to be together. Screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli know that's never enough, giving Rachel and Nick (but mainly Rachel) endearing personalities and smarts as well.

Once they arrive in Singapore, it can be a little hard to keep track of just who all the characters are without the help of a handy family tree (something the book wisely provides), but the majority are cousins (Nick is an only child), aunties, mothers, or grandmothers. The patriarchs in Nick's family are, oddly, nowhere to be seen, but that's probably a wise choice. It gives more screen time and gravitas to the excellent Michelle Yeoh as Nick's possessive and steely mother, Eleanor.

Eleanor is the first barrier Rachel bumps up against in what appears, at first, to be an otherwise welcoming collection of family and friends, but she's more than a stereotypical "tiger mom." You can understand why she would be frustrated with Nick's wishy-washiness when it comes to their family dynasty, and her fears for his choice in life partner are not entirely unfounded, especially when we learn the rough road she had on the way to becoming the ultimate matriarch.

The film centers primarily on Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor, though some time is given to side-plots involving Nick's cousins, particularly Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her troubled marriage. That storyline ultimately feels a little thin, as if a good chunk of it was left on the cutting room floor. Frankly, I could have done without it, especially if it meant more time for Awkwafina as Rachel's college buddy, Peik Lin, who is also rich, but not crazy rich, and Nico Santos as cousin Oliver, who is the story's version of a fairy godmother.

Director John M. Chu has some experience with musicals, having directed several of the Step Up films, and he approaches much of Crazy Rich Asians as though it were an luscious musical, which is perfect for a film centered on opulence. It's not enough to know these people are crazy rich, we have to be able feel the luxury. Sure, sometimes it's all a bit eye-rolling. And yet, seeing synchronized swimmers pop up in the background of a party scene somehow feels...appropriate. He also films food almost as lovingly as he films his characters (don't go to the movie hungry).

A lot will be written about Crazy Rich Asians' importance in the annals of popular culture, and how it proves that, once again, white people don't own these popular Hollywood genres. And that's certainly true. But don't let that importance overshadow the fact that it's also one of the most enjoyable films of the year.

Friday, August 10, 2018

'The Meg': OK, I'll Bite

"Pshaw. I thought you said this thing was big."

The Meg is a movie featuring Jason Statham fighting a giant, prehistoric shark called the megaladon. For some, that will be all the information you need to know you're going to stay far, far away. For others, like me, it's all you need to know to say, "Oh hell yes. I'm watching that."
That said, I did go into the movie with two pretty firm expectations. First, that Jason Statham would have to take his shirt off, and it being a movie set on the ocean, he be both wet and shirtless. Second, if he didn't at least try to punch the shark in the face at some point, I'd have to consider the film a complete failure.

It was with relief that I quickly learned that Statham hadn't been miscast as some kind of scientist, or a marine biologist. Instead, he's Jonas Taylor, a... guy who's good at rescuing people who are trapped in the ocean? I guess? The Meg opens with him and his team in the middle of such a rescue, trying to save a crew trapped in a sunken submarine. When he sees something huge start to crash into the side of the sub, Jonas makes the decision to leave a man behind in order to save his team and the rest of the crew, who ultimately don't believe his big fish story.

Years later, an underwater research facility called Mana One is exploring the Mariana trench, convinced it's deeper than previously thought. When a submersible breaks through the trench's cool, creamy, thermocline (delicious!) and is attacked by something huge, leaving them trapped, there's only one man who can help.

No, not Aquaman. Jonas Taylor.
Now, I'll admit, everything I know about deep sea exploration I learned from watching The Abyss, so I was under the impression that along with the dangers of underwater aliens, diving at those depths can be treacherous, with the need for slow decompression lest you risk the bends, or worse. But I guess Statham's character is special because all he needs to do is hold his nose, pop his ear drums, and he's good to go.

Like many a modern blockbusters, The Meg is a co-production between the U.S. and China. This is reflected in its easily translatable, and therefore often wooden dialogue ("That living fossil just killed my friend!"), and its casting, which includes Li Binbing as Suyin, an oceanographer, Winston Chao as her father, Dr. Zhang, and Shuya Sophia Cai as Meiying, Suyin's adorably precocious daughter. (The young actress's moments with Statham are surprisingly effective.)

The international cast also includes Masi Oka, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Ruby Rose, and Rainn Wilson as the token asshole billionaire funding the Mana One. Apart from that last one, The Meg isn't short on attractive cast members, including, yes, a wet and shirtless Statham (though, ironically it happens during a shower and not a diving scene).

Pretty people and a giant shark. What could go wrong? A PG-13 rating, that's what. The Meg is seriously lacking a commitment to going--pardon the pun--overboard. The death count, for a shark that could easily eat a bay full of swimmers in one gulp, is disappointingly slim, and the lack of cringe-inducing carnage means one's mind begins to wander.

I began to ponder why the shark was even bothering with these puny people when it had a whole ocean full of whales to snack on. Did it have some kind of grudge? The research center's deep dive into the trench is revealed to be the ultimate cause of the megaladon's escape to shallower waters, but we're also supposed to believe Jonas had a run-in with it years before, which, what? And also--

Hold that Jason Statham, free diving, going mano on mano with that megaladon?

All is forgiven, The Meg. All is forgiven

Friday, August 3, 2018

'The Darkest Minds' Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

At least there are no zombies

The Darkest Minds is the latest big screen adaptation of a science fiction YA book series centered on an outcast teenage girl. Let me stop right there and say, as prevalent as the set-up may seem to be right now, I'm all for it. We've had decades and decades of science fiction centered on outcast boys. We've got catching up to do.

The film has a formula, and it definitely sticks to it. You've got a post-apocalyptic landscape where youth is seen as a threat and expendable; a teenage heroine who is unique above all others; and some helpful color-coordination to help us keep track of who belongs where.

With each passing day our depressing present begins to resemble dystopian future more and more, so The Darkest Minds may benefit from timing more than actual profundity, touching on topics that include identity, sexual assault, child incarceration, and a government that can't be trusted.

In the not-too-distant future, children and teens are dying from a mysterious neurological disease. Those who survive quickly realize they have new abilities, ranging from increased intelligence, to superhero-level powers. Those with lesser mutations, (deemed levels Green and Blue) are rounded up and placed into camps. Those with deadly powers (Oranges and Reds) are killed, or used by the government as weapons.

Ruby (played as a child by Lydia Jewett and as a teenager Amandla Stenberg) is a mind-reading and mind-altering Orange passing herself off as a Green, struggling to mask her true self through six years in the camps. When she manages to escape she teams up with fellow runaways Liam (Harris Dickinson), a telekinetic Blue; Zu (Miya Cech), an Orange who can wield electricity as a weapon; and Chubs (Skylan Brooks), a Green with increased intelligence.

Their quest to find a rumored sanctuary for outcast super-powered youth bears a striking resemblance to The Walking Dead's journey to Terminus, and anyone who watched season five knows how that turned out. Then again, nothing in The Darkest Minds can be deemed original or even a superlative example of its formula.

And yet, its diverse cast managed to win me over. Amandla Stenberg's Ruby is vulnerable and appealing, appropriately terrified by her own Jedi mind trick abilities. Skylam Brooks's Chubs is the source of the film's rare comedic moments, and I wish there was more of him. I was rooting for their band of misfits the whole time, and wouldn't hesitate to watch the sequel that is clearly set up though unlikely to ever come. And if The Darkest Minds does nothing else, it will at least instill this fact into the minds of a new generation: never, ever trust a rich white boy with a popped polo shirt collar.

Friday, July 20, 2018

'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,' My, My How Can I Resist You?

Diggin' the dancing queens

I understand the appeal of jukebox musicals. Sometimes (OK, maybe most times), I much prefer going to a dive bar with a great jukebox over seeing a new band at a local club. There's comfort in the familiar, and knowing ahead of time how an evening's songs will make you feel.

One's enjoyment of the Mamma Mia! movies will, of course, depend, a lot, on one's tolerance for ABBA's musical catalog. My tolerance is pretty high, so, while I found the first film's plot a tad insipid, and the musical performances ranging from adequate (Meryl Streep; Amanda Seyfried), to excruciating (Pierce Brosnan), I still had fun watching it, if only to see which ABBA song would be force-fed into the plot next.

Of course, the soundtrack for that first film consists almost entirely of ABBA's greatest hits, which would seemingly leave Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again with the choice to either rehash those numbers, or reach deeper into the ABBA catalog. It does both.

The film serves as both a sequel and prequel to Mamma Mia! In the now, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is re-vamping and re-opening the hotel in Greece her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep) spent the majority of her life working on. Will her three dads (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård) make it to the opening? Will her boyfriend, Sky (Dominic Cooper)? Will her estranged grandmother? (Spoiler alert, she's played by Cher, and she's on the poster and the trailer). Or will weather ruin the whole event?

Since that's the extent of the drama in that plotline, the real soap opera plays out in the past, as we follow young Donna (Lily James) during that fateful summer in 1979 that led to Sophie's birth. Somehow, we're to believe someone who looks like Lily James grows up to look like Meryl Streep, which, yes, is preposterous, and we must also take the casting of the younger versions of her suitors with an equal grain of salt. It's only Jessica Keenan Wynn who is utterly convincing in the flashback scenes as the young Tanya (Christine Baranski).

Thankfully, these younger avatars have stronger voices than some of their older counterparts, which helps to justify the casting. And Lily James manages to turn a potential manic pixie dream girl into someone who feels much more lived-in and relatable. You don't doubt the infatuation of her three suitors.

One of the irksome things about the first film was how the choice of song didn't always feel organic to the plot ("Does Your Mother Know" is tied into a May-December flirtation that leads nowhere), or just features the actors singing at each other ("SOS," which is what I shouted after hearing Brosnan sing just one lyric.)

So while there are some greatest hits reprieves here, (it was hard not to sing along to "Dancing Queen" this time, especially when it turns into a dance number performed by hundreds of people on the island's docks), there are also more organic feeling numbers, like "When I Kissed the Teacher," which Donna performs alongside her pals Tanya and Rose during their graduation from Oxford, (look for a cameo by ABBA's Björn Ulvaeus in that scene), and "Angeleyes," which gets a very theatrical rendering by Christine Baranski and Julie Walters.

And then there's Cher. To say her character in the film is ridiculous (she's supposed to be Donna's mother; Cher is two years older than Meryl Streep), is to just recognize the appeal of casting her. The movie grinds to a halt for her performance of "Fernando," as well it should. You may groan at the obviousness of the number. You may role your eyes a bit. But you'll be smiling the whole time. And that goes for Mama Mia! Here We Go Again as well.

Friday, June 22, 2018

'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom': Let Them Have It

What could be more fun than a dinosaur ER?
At this point in the seemingly never-ending Jurassic film franchise, it can safely be said that humans are idiots and they should just let the dinosaurs have the planet. After all, they had it for a lot longer than we have, and if it wasn't for a big dumb meteor it's likely they'd still be around. And if we had any doubts about who deserves this planet, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom peppers the film with plenty more reasons to take the dinosaurs' side.

Three years after the disaster at Jurassic World--which itself is reason number one to let humanity die; those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it (in a series of big budget sequels)--the dinosaurs that have been left to live amongst the ruins of the park on Isla Nubar are threatened with extinction when a dormant volcano on the island starts to erupt.

Former footwear-challenged Jurassic World operations manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now heads up the Dinosaur Protection group who are working hard to convince the government to take action and rescue the endangered creatures. But the government chooses to do nothing. (Reason number two: a spineless congress).

Enter the reclusive, elderly billionaire Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to the rescue. A former partner of Jurassic Park creator John Hammond, Sir Ben believes the dinosaurs deserve to live, and has built them a secluded sanctuary island. He just needs Claire's help to capture the smartest dino, a raptor known as Blue. Of course Claire needs someone else's help with that, roping in "animal behaviorist," and Blue's trainer, ex-boyfriend Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).

Sir Ben, who is on his last legs, has entrusted his executor Eli (Rafe Spall) to head up the rescue, and through a smile filled with supernaturally white teeth, Eli convinces Claire he loves those dinos as much as she does. (Has she learned nothing about trusting things with big white teeth?)

The scenes on the island are the only point where we get to see the dinosaurs living their lives and doing their own thing, and that's a joy that the first Jurassic Park  exploited full well, before it turned to destruction. Fallen Kingdom gives us about five minutes of that before all hell breaks loose, and the dinosaurs are running for their lives from the volcano and some pretty nasty mercenaries--headed by a sadistic Ted "Jame Gumb" Levin--brought along to aid in their capture.

At this point the film sets the tone for the rest to come, as we witness the sad plaintive wail of a brachiosaurus who is left to die as the island is quickly engulfed by lava and ash. As my eyes began to well up with tears, I began to hate Fallen Kingdom.

It gets worse from there. For the remainder of the film, many of the dinosaurs are relegated to cages, drugged up, tortured, or on the verge of death. Fun! The villains are revealed, and they're one-dimensional one-percenters, who only see the money-making possibilities of dinosaur propagation. While the inevitable use of a mutated dino as a military weapon gets the most play, we never really know what the rest of the bad guys want them for. Big game hunting?  Exotic menus? Weird sex games? Whatever it may be, it just proves that the obscenely rich are the worst, (and reason number three that humanity should die off.)

The film is big and loud (so, so loud), but at the same time it feels claustrophobic, with some of the dinosaurs charging around a spooky old mansion like errant toys in a dollhouse whose floors somehow don't collapse under their weight. There's a lot of screaming and running, much coming from Sir Ben's precocious granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon). Oakland actress and comedian Daniella Pineda has a few good one liners as dinosaur vet Zia Rodriguez. But the bottom line is a movie like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom should be fun, not a depressing slog that makes you question humanity. I mean, if you've got Jeff Goldblum in your Jurassic movie and you only give him four minutes of screen time? A decision like that is proof enough we humans deserve to die off.