Wednesday, August 29, 2018

'The Bookshop': Keep Calm And Smile Along

Reading is fundamental

One of my greatest pleasures is going on vacation and finding a local bookstore; hunting down something appropriate to read, maybe from the store's curated "local reads" section. You can learn a lot of about a place via its bookstores--or lack thereof.

Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, centers on just such a bookshop in the small English seaside town of Hardborough, Suffolk, in 1959. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a war widow who decides to buy an old house that has been sitting empty in the town for years, to live in and open a bookshop, partly in tribute to her husband, who shared her intense love of reading.

It's a simple enough dream, but the small town has its objections, particularly from wealthy matriarch Violet Gamart (Patrica Clarkson), who, once that old house is no longer available, decides is the perfect place for a town "art center."

Florence's most devoted customer turns out to be the town's aging recluse, Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy) who spends most of his days sitting in his drafty mansion, reading "biographies about good people, and novels about nasty people." He detests most of the town, but takes a liking to Florence, especially after she introduces him to the works of Ray Bradbury, as well as a controversial new novel called Lolita.

Mortimer's Florence appears mousy and bookish, but she's no wallflower, fighting, as best she can, for what she wants. Nighy's Mr. Brandish is an odd bird, intense and averse to eye contact, but also blunt. Their scenes together vibrate with what goes unsaid.

The Bookshop is classically British, from its salty seaside characters, to its fireplaces and knit shawls, and especially to how the central conflict between Florence and Violet simmers under the surface, behind polite words and smiles. The two only meet face-to-face once, so their feud is inflamed through the aid of lawyers, bankers, and neighbors.

While that conflict provides the film's drama, the film's small joys come in seeing Florence open that shop, and, with after-school help from young neighbor Christine (Honor Kneafsey), stocking the shelves with classics and new discoveries, relishing the smells of old books and the colorful covers of new releases.

I recently watched four seasons of The Great British Baking Show in the course of two weeks, and at first was perplexed by my addiction to it, since I don't like cooking shows, and am in no way an Anglophile. But then I realized I was hooked because it was so soothing, with its peaceful, English countryside setting, band of Brits who support each other while also competing, and occasional shots of young lambs eating ivy.

The Bookshop broke that fantasy, reminding me there's no such thing as a country filled with nothing but nice people doing nice things for each other, and that vengeful bitterness can simmer under the most sincere of smiles.

Friday, August 24, 2018

'The Happytime Murders' Felt Dirty

No puppet. No puppet! She's the puppet!

When I first saw the trailer for The Happytime Murders, I feared it might be a movie that could ruin my childhood. Adult versions of kids entertainment, and seeing G-rated characters doing X-rated things is a something that will always make my inner child wince a little.

Luckily, The Happytime Murders is too far removed from the Muppets of my youth to cause any lasting damage. It doesn't live in the land of the Muppets, instead giving us a world that's a cross between the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the regrettable 1978 porno Let My Puppets Come, with way too much emulation of the dirtiness of the latter and not enough of the screwy humor of the former.

Like Roger Rabbit, the story is a Los Angeles mystery set in a world where humans and the improbable co-exist. In this case, it's puppets. They can do everything humans do, but are marginalized in society for being different. They're OK as entertainers, but don't let them share a cab with you.

The film's attempts to equate the puppets' mistreatment with actual racism are clumsy at best, and it's best not to think too hard about just how puppets are able to live, eat, have sex, and die. To delve down that hole is to face madness.

Our hero is Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a private detective who was once the first puppet cop, but was kicked out of the force after a deadly shooting. When the cast members of a popular 90's puppet sitcom called The Happytime Gang start turning up dead, Phil is forced join forces with his estranged partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to help find the killer.

McCarthy is perfect casting for this kind of role as she's always at her funniest when she's allowed to play it broad and let the expletives fly, which they most certainly do in this very, very R-rated movie. Indeed, the majority of the film's humor centers on seeing puppets doing lewd and illegal things. Sometimes I laughed because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I knew going in there was going to be a puppet sex scene to sit through, and I knew we'd see a puppet..."finish." But I didn't know it was going to last for five minutes and require the use of dozens of cans of white silly string. I had to laugh at the audacity.

But the film's biggest laughs actually come from in its smaller jokes, like Phillip's mutterings ("Looks like this mystery was brought to you by the letter P"), and its weirder moments, like Edwards discovering the inbred progeny of some first cousin puppets.

Maya Rudolph is also very funny as Phillips' human secretary Bubbles. She shares some screen time with Melissa McCarthy, and they garner more laughs in their ten minutes together than they did in the entirety of Life of the Party.

Director Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson, has directed some good Muppet movies in the past, including The Muppet Christmas Carol, and he's been trying to make The Happytime Murders for almost a decade. (The behind-the-scenes moments during the end credits show just how much work was involved.) Maybe the delayed timing will work in his favor, with current audiences being too young to remember movies like Meet the Feebles and Team America: World Police that did the dirty puppet thing earlier and better.

Just as long as that new audience isn't too young. Because while The Happytime Murders didn't retroactively ruin my childhood, god bless the child who accidentally stumbles upon it while flipping cable channels. I hope their parents can afford the therapy.

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.