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

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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

2019 Summer Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) discuss their careers in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Source: Polygon)

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most talented filmmakers of all-time. From directing masterpieces, such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, to being the owner of the New Beverly Cinema in L.A., it’s hard not to be impressed by him. He has barely directed a terrible movie. He continues the streak in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film unlike anything he has done before. This love letter of Hollywood cinema oozes with style containing a massive cast and film references galore mixing fictional characters with real-life Hollywood stars including Steve McQueen, director Roman Polanski, James Stacey, and Bruce Lee.

Set in Los Angeles in 1969, crime shows and Westerns are the most popular genres on television. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one of TV’s biggest stars. He and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) have been good friends since Dalton’s time on the (fictional) hit Western Bounty Law. However, they are both struggling to keep their careers afloat. One day, Dalton’s agent Martin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) offers him a role in a Spaghetti Western. When the two later find out about the Manson family, things take a turn for the worst.

One of the many reasons why the movie works is the look and feel. Robert Richardson’s superb cinematography gives L.A. a sunny, vintage feel to a much simpler time. Even when Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, who looks scarily similar to the actual Tate) goes to a matinee showing for one of her movies called The Wrecking Crew, also starring Dean Martin, she finds it enjoyable hearing the audience react to it. As Dalton states, it’s better to own a place in the city rather than rent one because people want to live there as opposed to visiting. It’s almost rare to hear dialogue as sharp as clean razors like what Tarantino brings to the table, even the little things to his direction make the movie shine.

DiCaprio and Pitt deliver some of the best performance of their entire careers. It’s awesome to see DiCaprio back to play someone as natural as Dalton, who is not ashamed of playing the anti-hero in every B-movie or television show he is in and also giving it all. It still surprises me Pitt has yet to receive an Oscar. Almost ten years after working with Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, he plays another wonderful character in Cliff Booth, a Vietnam War veteran, who will refuse to stand in anybody’s way even during an altercation (without giving anything away, the movie has such a spectacular payoff, and I kid you not, I cheered). They lead a marvelous cast in Robbie, Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis among others in one of Tarantino’s best.

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Yesterday

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Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) becomes Britain’s biggest pop sensation in Danny Boyle’s Yesterday. (Source: Smooth Radio)

The Beatles have been loved for generations, since their successful U.S. debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 1964, 73 million people tuned in on an exciting night during a time where the nation mourned for the death of JFK. Their fears soon faded once the band performed in front of a screaming audience. It established a popularity in other British bands in the U.S., including The Kinks and The Rolling Stones. 

Their music has been used in numerous movies; famously in A Hard Day’s Night, where John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr play satirical versions of themselves, and Across the Universe, a dazzling yet overblown jukebox musical set over the course of 1960s history. 

We already have an enjoyably trashy biopic of Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody) and a magical rendition of Elton John’s life (Rocketman). With two upcoming films featuring music of Bruce Springsteen (Blinded by the Light) and a Christmas-themed film featuring the music of George Michael (Last Christmas), 2019 might end up being a fun year for these type of films featuring classic artists. Now–director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis collaborate for the first time to give the audience another jukebox musical featuring the wonderful music of The Beatles with Yesterday, a movie that is less of an acid trip than Across the Universe.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) lives in the small seaport town of Lowestoft. He’s a struggling singer-songwriter to make a name for himself. One night, the unthinkable happens. A worldwide power outage occurs when he gets hit by a bus. Once released from the hospital, he performs a gorgeous rendition of “Yesterday” in front of his childhood crush Ellie (Lily James) and a group of his friends, in which they thought he originally wrote the song. Befuddled, Jack eventually finds out he is in a world where The Beatles and their music never existed. He becomes a worldwide phenomenon from recording their music at a local recording studio, with the support of his new manager Debra (Kate McKinnon) and Ed Sheeran (playing a fictional version of himself).

The poster consists of Jack walking across the iconic Abbey Road alone with a guitar on his back. The tagline reads: “Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only Jack remembers their music. He’s about to become a very big deal.” 

With that, he sure does! Although with disappointing results.

For his theatrical debut, Patel has great talent as a singer; putting enough vibrant energy into the 17 Beatles songs used in the film. With the music aside, as Jack, he comes across as a character with little to no personality. Sadly, same goes to the charming Lily James, whom I loved in Cinderella, Baby Driver, and last year’s Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

Even with a gifted supporting cast, there are stuck in a setting with barely any character. The concept is nothing short of genius with some humor thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, there is nothing to save for the narrative containing barely any surprises.

The movie does have its moments. All of the songs used (imagine how long it must have taken to accept the copyrights) are wonderfully covered by Patel, a talent I could actually see having a more successful music career. Without giving anything away, the movie has surprisingly touching final act I think a box of tissues is required. Other than that, Yesterday is a movie I wanted to like. However, it ends up as a bland and borderline heartless musical that will attract Ed Sheeran fangirls.

5.5/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) try to reclaim a Victorian mansion in Joe Talbot’s fantastic debut The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (Source: The Atlantic)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, the latest hit from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is based on an actual friendship between Jimmie Fails and director Joe Talbot, two San Francisco natives who would hang out constantly. They would ride on skateboards and discuss their hopes, dreams, and fears. Considering how expensive it is to live in the city, Jimmie has been living in group homes all of his life. 

After its premiere earlier this year, it has finally expanded to more theaters around the country. I admit, it’s definitely worth the wait.

Jimmie (Fails, playing a fictional version of himself) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) are two street-smart African-American friends living in San Francisco. They spend time with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover, delivering the most tender performance of his long career), watching classic film-noirs while Mont narrates the scenes for him. While Mont is an aspiring artist and playwright, Jimmie is struggling to live the life he wanted, especially earn money at a good paying job. One day, the two friends stop at a stunning Victorian mansion, built by Jimmie’s grandfather after World War II, in the historically black Fillmore District. Although the place is owned by an older white couple, they stop by every day to renovate it. Together, they both reminisce the past while living in the present.

Talbot’s directorial debut is a miraculous achievement. Although moving at a patient pace, every scene feels 100% authentic rather than forced. The actors feel like real people. It’s a beautiful tribute to a beautiful city that is as surprising as it is thoughtful. Fails and Majors portray one of the most heart-rending friendships I’ve ever seen in recent years. Adam Newport-Berra’s cinematography and Emile Mosseri’s score give San Francisco an almost dreamlike quality. Not to mention the soundtrack, containing hip-hop and classic folk songs, including Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and Michael Marshall’s gorgeous cover of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”, summing up the city’s diverse beauty. The mansion, at the film’s core, is symbolic for Jimmie’s hopes for a future that he could live up to his generation. 

To quote David Fear, of the Rolling Stone, “You can tell this movie is going to be special within its first five minutes.”

I cannot agree more! The Last Black Man in San Francisco will be a movie I will watch for the rest of my life. I’ll be damned if this doesn’t earn any Oscars.

10/10

2019 Summer Movie Review: Crawl

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Haley (Kaya Scodelario) and David (Barry Pepper) try to avoid a group of alligators in Alexandre Aja’s monster movie Crawl. (Source: Bloody Disgusting)

In a summer filled with sequels, it’s refreshing to see a blockbuster with a running time less than 90 minutes. French director Alexandre Aja is known for directing the 2006 remake of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes and the 2010 gorefest Piranha 3D. He returns–along with producer Sam Raimi–with an original monster movie Crawl (although people will compare this movie to the 1999 film Lake Placid), inspired by events during Hurricanes Katrina and Florence. 

(Although the latter didn’t have any reported alligator attacks, there was a moment where someone in South Carolina recorded an alligator wandering through the storm.)

Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) is a swimmer at the University of Florida. A Category 5 hurricane is about to hit landfall. She is worried about her father Dave (Barry Pepper), who is not returning any of her phone calls. After refusing orders from her sister Beth (Moryfydd Clark) to get out of Florida, Haley decides to brave the storm. Once she arrives at her childhood house, she sees Dave seriously injured in the basement. As the floodwaters begin to rise, they must survive by a group of ravenous alligators.

In real life, there are a lot of houses in Florida that don’t have basements, due to flooding and swarming with alligators. It is common in the Southeast where alligators can sneak into people’s houses. In the movie world, it can make for one nail-biting fight for survival, kudos to Aja’s confident direction balancing tension and self-awareness.

Known for starring in Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, 25th Hour, and, more recently, The Maze Runner series, Pepper gives a strong performance as Dave, Haley’s ex-swimming coach and works for his own construction company. He expects her daughter to persevere and be brave, even in the most difficult of situations. In one quiet scene, he tells Haley the story about how frustrated she was, as a child, that she couldn’t hold her breath underwater long enough to the other side of the pool. He saw her in the pool, and was surprised she didn’t give up. That’s why Haley makes for one badass action heroine, kudos to Scodelario’s powerhouse performance.

Crawl is everyone’s answer for a good time at the movie theater this summer that isn’t too long. Despite the basement issue and the limited character development, it doesn’t hurt the overall experience at all. The performances, the thrilling set pieces, and the straightforward are more than enough to recommend the movie. The alligators might be CGI, but they look as real as they can be. Trust me, there will be lots of blood.

9/10