2019 Summer Movie Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

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Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and Zak (Zack Gottsagen) become best friends in the Deep South in The Peanut Butter Falcon. (Source: IndieWire)

The Peanut Butter Falcon became a sleeper hit at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival (which won the Spotlight Audience Award) showcases the talents of two forthcoming filmmakers and an actor with Down syndrome. Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz met Zack Gottsagen at an acting camp for adults with disabilities in Venice, California. Gottsagen, who has been acting since he was a kid, impressed the two with his skills. As a result, the two homeless filmmakers promised to pen a screenplay for him. They got no other actor than Josh Brolin to help them start the project. Eventually, the two would get a great cast to star in this feel-good dramedy reminiscent to Mud.

Zak (Gottsagen) has been living in a nursing home in North Carolina for two years, under the care of Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). He dreams of becoming a professional wrestler like his idol The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church, the role Brolin was originally set to play before declining to play Cable in Deadpool 2), whom he obsessively watches a video tape of every day. After several failed attempts, he gets a little help from his friend Carl (Bruce Dern) to successfully escape the facility in the middle of the night.

Along the way, Zak meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), an outlaw spending most of his time fishing in the marshes and stealing crabs from traps. The two eventually become good friends. Once Eleanor catches up to them, she must make a moral choice of taking Zak back or let him pursue his dreams.

There have been plenty of movies in recent years with great messages about following one’s dreams. However, there have been few movies that with so much authenticity. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a prime example of that and more. LaBeouf and Johnson have never been better. The audience learns about where they came from. Without giving anything away, their backstories bring enough emotional layers. LaBeouf’s Tyler is reluctant of tagging along with Zak, but becomes more respectful and understanding as the movie progresses. In one scene, Tyler explains to Eleanor about Zak’s freedom, and he could never be looked down as being a disabled person. The movie would never be complete without Gottsagen’s childlike innocence, charisma, and wit. Church is certainly having a blast here. 

With gorgeous cinematography by Nigel Buck, terrific performances, and a wonderful message, I guarantee this Mark Twain-inspired film will have everyone smiling long after the credits roll. A future cult classic, for sure!

10/10

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2019 Summer Movie Review: Blinded by the Light

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Javed (Viveik Kalra) and his friends decide to bring a little light into a dull English town in Blinded by the Light. (Source: Vancouver Sun)

Bruce Springsteen has been an international icon for almost 50 years. Releasing such big hits as “Born to Run”, “Born in the U.S.A.”, and “The River”, he became the true definition of Americana. Despite suffering from depression, The Boss has released an autobiography entitled Born to Run (of course) and is still making music to this day. His new album, Western Stars, contains a more folksy vibe (compared to his early work) featuring brass and orchestra music. As a result, not only is the album a bona-fide masterpiece, it also speaks true about people’s lives–hopes, fears, and everything in between. 

One of the artist’s massive fans is Sarfraz Manzoor, a British journalist from Pakistan whose life has changed when a classmate from school introduces him to the music of Bruce, which helps him parallel between the lyrics and his personal life. This is the set-up for the latest hit from Sundance, Blinded by the Light, which Manzoor co-wrote the screenplay with director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) and Paul Mayeda Berges.

Set in Luton, England, in 1987, where Margaret Thatcher is U.K.’s Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan is U.S. President, Javed Khan (newcomer Viveik Kalra) is a Pakistani teenager living with his parents (Kulvinder Ghir and Meera Ganatra) and sisters Yasmeen (Tara Divina) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta). As an aspiring poet, he’s struggling to make a living after father Malik gets laid off at the local General Motors automobile plant. Not only that, he’s also getting constantly bullied by his neighbors and peers at his new school. One day, his classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) gives him some cassette tapes of The Boss (“Whose boss?” Javed asks. “The boss of us all,” Roops responds). Javed begins to understand his family situation.

If Blinded by the Light decided to take place in rural America (for example, Iowa or Nebraska), it would be fine. However, I doubt it would hold as big of an impact as to what Chadha brings through her directing and screenwriting. The movie never talks down to its audience; instead, giving them a sense of inspiration and wonder. They have control on what they thrive. That’s how Springsteen’s lyrics correspond to Javed’s lifestyle. I love the scene where Javed and Roops pull a prank at the local college radio station, where they lock the doors while “Born to Run” plays on the record player. They both run out of the school while singing and dancing to the song, which is symbolic for Javed escaping his life to pursue something special.

21-year-old Kalra is a revelation as Javed, who tries to succeed as a writer while getting the support from his family, especially his father. The audience cracks a smile whenever Javed turns on his Walkman to hear the lyrics for “Dancing in the Dark” and “The Promised Land” and when he sings his heart out to “Thunder Road” (Bollywood style!) to his new girlfriend Eliza (Nell Williams, Game of Thrones). Also, it’s hard not to feel his frustration in his household. Ghir’s Malik is portrayed as a strict father who expects his son to be successful in these harsh times, even though he disagrees with Javed’s taste in music. Hayley Atwell has a minor yet effective role as Ms. Clay, Javed’s writing teacher who becomes his only positive influence. When he shows her the poems he has written, she sees a lot of potential (the last act really hits home).

Blinded by the Light is the movie the world needs right now. It’s filled with wit, charm, emotion, excellent music, and great acting. This and Rocketman are among my favorites of 2019 thus far. I will watch them for the rest of my life.

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: The Farewell

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Billi (Awkwafina) goes back to China to see her distant relatives in Lulu Wang’s miraculous The Farewell. (Source: Vanity Fair)

Premiering at this year’s Sundance to critical acclaim, The Farewell marks the first family film from A24. Writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feat is “based on an actual lie”. Furthermore, it’s inspired by the director’s real-life grandmother being diagnosed with cancer and not being told about it by any relative. “I always felt the divide in my relationship to my family versus my relationship to my classmates and to my colleagues and to the world that I inhabit,” she said in an interview with Variety. “That’s just the nature of being an immigrant and straddling two cultures”.

If Crazy Rich Asians made cinema history last year for its depiction of Asian culture in the Hollywood spotlight, The Farewell continues the cycle.

Billi (Awkwafina) is a Chinese-American writer living in NYC when she learns her grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhou) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. What surprises her is that everybody in her family has kept it a secret (in the Chinese culture, it serves as an act of kindness. Otherwise, it’s bad luck). The only ones who do tell her, however, is Billi’s mother (Diana Lin) and father (Tzi Ma). One day, Billi decides to head to Changchun, China, to reunite with her relatives. As an excuse, they decide to have a wedding for cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). While there, Billi struggles to find the difference between Eastern and Western norms.

I appreciate the subtlety and endearment that Wang puts in her wonderful writing and directing. The norms make sense to viewers unfamiliar with Eastern society. Billi has been living in the States for many years. She makes it her mission to know her family morals. As Billi’s mother says early on, “People don’t die of cancer. They die of fear.”

After rising to fame for her roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians as the comic relief, Awkwafina makes her transition to something dramatic. Her performance as Billi is nothing short of Award-worthy. The audience begins to understand where she’s coming from. Whether it’s denying a Guggenheim Fellowship grant, or in dire need of the truth. She does spend time with her relatives at the dinner table filled with tasty-looking dishes. I also love the scenes with her and Nai Nai (played with such warmth and wit by Zhou), which indicates it is not shameful to live a little every day. It’s hard not to crack a smile during those scenes.

Once the climactic wedding sequence comes around, the movie starts to learn the truth about the family’s situation (despite the wacky festivities going on), which is where it really hits home. The Farewell is one of the few movies in 2019 that has affected me on an emotional level with its honest, straightforward, thoughtful outlook of two different cultures. This serves as an early pick for the Best Picture Oscar.

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw

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Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) are forced to work with each other in the first spin-off in the never-ending Fast and Furious franchise. (Source: IndieWire)

The Fast and the Furious franchise is one of the longest-running film series of all-time. With the first four films focusing on street racing, Fast Five (the best in the series) and Fast and Furious 6 made the transition of becoming high-octane heist films defying every law of gravity imaginable. Furious 7 made a great departure for the late Paul Walker (who died from a fatal car crash in 2013), and The Fate of the Furious was just as fun.

The first spin-off features two of the funniest characters (played by two of the toughest actors working today) who kick a billion tons of ass. Together, they take on a massive British superstar. David Leitch (whose John Wick revitalized the tired genre and brought Keanu Reeves back to the action spotlight) is behind the camera this time. With Hobbs and Shaw, he feels right at home.

Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) is the most powerful terrorist the world has ever seen. While genetically-enhanced and bulletproof, it’s damn near impossible for him to be killed. He attempts to use Snowflake, a deadly virus that would affect humanity. Meanwhile, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and British mercenary Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) are forced by the CIA to team up together with Deckard’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby, The Crown), who goes rogue after injecting the virus herself. With time counting down, they help take down the powerful Brixton and his organization, once and for all.

Besides Tokyo Drift, I happen to enjoy this stupid franchise. Who knows when it will officially come to a satisfying close, but I’ll continue to see more entries (including spin-offs). Hobbs and Shaw is another enjoyable entry. One of the reasons why it works is the chemistry between Johnson, Statham, and Kirby. Hobbs and Shaw might hate each other’s guts (their constant bickering generates some good laughs), but they don’t hesitate to get the job done. Kirby’s Hattie is also a ton of fun to watch; not only does she kick ass, she is also incredibly smart. I love the amusing flashbacks when her and Deckard pull off schemes as children, and naming them after famous British musicians (“The Keith Moon”, “The Mick Jagger”). Elba can play this type of role in his sleep, but his Brixton is so powerful that he could challenge Thanos in a duel of massive proportions.

The brutal action showcases Leitch’s directing talents. Of course, they defy physics (like the series is known for), but they strap the audience in for something thrilling and eye-popping. The climactic fight in the rain between the two heroes and the villain is one of the most beautifully-choreographed fights of the year. Although the film is approximately two-and-a-half hours, the film moves at a brisk pace.

Of course, the film is far from perfect. Without giving too much away, there are some cameos that are too distracting. The soundtrack ranges from great to borderline obnoxious. I love hearing Yungblud’s gorgeous cover of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” as the film opens and closes. The humor can be a bit of a mixed bag as well. When it works, it works! The movie pick itself up once Hobbs and the two Shaws are on-screen, and explore Hobbs’ massive family. If any of you are looking for something ridiculous yet thrilling and charming this month, Hobbs and Shaw is worth it. It knows what it wants to be, and it delivers! This is perfect matinee entertainment!

8/10