The Farewell (2019)

One of the things I struggle with most in my personal life (to the point where I bring it up weekly in therapy) is my compulsion to avoid conflict & unpleasant conversation, especially with my family. I’ll often spare other people’s feelings by keeping my own opinions on uncomfortable subjects quiet, which limits a lot of my interactions with family to very surface-level & artificially pleasant depths, even when I’m really upset. There’s a lot going on thematically in Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical family drama The Farewell – ranging from immigration culture clash and abstract ponderings on Identity to the very nature of Life & Death – but what really resonated with me personally is how extreme this divide between surface-level familial pleasantries vs. deep emotional anguish becomes as the film pushes on as if nothing’s wrong while the world crumbles around it. Smartly, a lot of this tension between secretive personal grief and forced-smiles small talk is played for morbid humor and a disorientingly surreal tone. When it does come to a point where feelings spill over and characters openly weep in “inappropriate” social settings, though, the cathartic release of that breakdown feels remarkably true to something I’ve often felt in my real life but have never seen expressed so directly on the big screen.

In this case, the secret kept to spare a family member’s feelings is a pretty major one. Awkwafina stars as Wang’s fictional avatar, a young writer who returns to China to visit her elderly grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao), who is diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. As is apparently custom in China, her family has decided to lie to their matriarch about her own cancer diagnosis, so that she can live out what little time she has left blissfully unaware of the doom hanging over her head. Her children, grandchildren, and extended family stage a sham wedding as an excuse to visit her one last time under happy circumstances without tipping her off that something is wrong, and most of the tension of the film derives from maintaining that celebratory surface while everyone is miserable with grief. This is a hyper-specific culture clash narrative where Awkwafina’s American upbringing prompts her to desire a genuine emotional display that her parents’ Chinese upbringing does not allow for. They believe they’re doing the grandmother a charitable service by shouldering all the worry & grief themselves, and the movie takes both sides of that argument dead seriously, even when laughing at the exponential absurdity of the situation. As with all hyper-specific human experiences, there’s still a universality to the situation as well, as we’ve all had to tell “good lies” to people we love to spare them grief, even if not as severe in scope as a cancer diagnosis.

Most of this movie’s charm relies on the adorable intergenerational rapport between Awkwafina & Zhao, even with such a devastating secret hanging over them. Whether in a darkly humorous exchange where the granddaughter is teased for being inexplicably gloomy or in a sweeter teasing when the grandmother exclaims, “Stupid child! Too loveable!,” their relationship is endlessly watchable, which makes it all the more devastating that it’s barreling towards such a definitive end. Wang also elevates the material as an exquisite stylist; she emphasizes the heightened emotions of the situation with a lush strings score, dives headfirst into the sensual reliefs & comforts of food as a grief-staver, and underlines the bewildering absurdity of living in a world of competing Truths (that the grandmother is drying and that everything is fine) by abstracting everyday Chinese environments as if they were surreal alien planetscapes. There’s a sequence in a wedding photography studio in particular that’s so continually disorienting that it might as well have been a dream, which is often how it feels to be hit with devastating personal news you haven’t been able to process—either publicly or internally. All this intricate detail in performance and direction adds up to an impressive tightrope balance between morbid humor and quiet emotional anguish – landing The Farewell in a curious space between Oscar Season crowd-pleaser & deceptively complex art film.

I do have a couple minor, spoilery complaints about last minute aesthetic choices that I believe robbed this film’s resolution of its full complex emotional potential by grounding it in a more pedestrian milieu of based-on-a-true-story dramas (or, in this case, “based on a true lie” dramedies). I was still crying despite that turbulent conclusion, though, so I guess those complaints can’t be all that important. Some people will even welcome them as much-needed tension relief, especially if they’ve followed this personal story since Wang first shared it on This American Life. More importantly, Wang herself apparently felt it necessary to include them in this fictionalized retelling of her own personal story, so their crowd-pleasing comforts are likely a version of self-therapy I have no real business questioning, especially since I found her auteurist decision-making so impeccable elsewhere.

-Brandon Ledet

Paradise Hills (2019)

Like all genre films, Paradise Hills feels like a loose collection of themes & imagery we’ve all seen before. Is it exactly fair or accurate to describe it as Guillermo del Toro’s Stepford Wives set in the Queen of Hearts’s rose garden from Alice in Wonderland, featuring extras from The Hunger Games & Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Probably not, but that rambling assemblage of references at least hints to how familiar individual elements of its fantasy world feels, even if you’ve never seen them arranged in this exact configuration before. What makes Paradise Hills a great genre film is that it still feels entirely unique & spellbinding despite those pangs of familiarity. This is a dark, femme fairy tale I presume was conceived by first-time director Alice Waddinton after a poisonous tea service left her hallucinating & scared for her life. She may be painting with a familiar palette, but the resulting picture is wonderfully warped in new & exciting ways, especially considering how she conveys dread & menace through an overdose of the feminine.

An impressive coterie of young actors (Emma Roberts, Awkwafina, Danielle McDnonald, Eiza Gonzalez) square off against veteran badass Milla Jovovich in a near-future Patriarchal hell. Spurned by their parents for being too queer, too fat, too rebellious, and too difficult to control, the young women are imprisoned in a high-femme reform school that feels as if it were borrowed from a lingerie fetishist’s erotic fiction. Jovovich keeps her prisoners in line as a green-thumb dominatrix who plans to excise their offending idiosyncrasies in the same way she snips the thorns from her endless supply of roses. On the surface this femme obedience school that transforms young rebels into proper mademoiselles feels almost paradisiac. The young women’s torture is mostly a PG-rated barrage of ballet, yoga, and garden tea service. There’s a sinister sexuality & dystopic undertone of Patriarchy to their entire ordeal, though, something that bubbles up to the surface with increasing violence as the unruly students bring their rejection of traditional gender roles to a boil.

The most immediately satisfying aspect of Paradise Hills is the visual splendor of its costume & production design. Although the titular obedience school is obviously an evil force that must be destroyed, there’s an intoxicating allure to its high-femme paradise. The lacy house robes & white leather bondage harnesses that serve as the school’s uniform are their own kind of gendered prison that erase the individual women’s distinguishing features, yet are also undeniably gorgeous & covetable on their own merit. Similarly, the school itself appears to be a romantic spa getaway for the ultra-rich, not the brainwashing torture chamber that it truly is. This is far from the first fairy tale to allure characters in with a bounty of sensual pleasures only for the fruits therein to be revealed as rotten, cursed, or poisonous. In that tradition, Paradise Hills presents a fairytale Eden that’s deadly dangerous precisely because the pleasures it offers on the surface are so tempting. It would be far too easy to lose yourself in this pleasure palace – both literally and figuratively.

Many people are going to roll their eyes at how earnestly this film commits to its over-the-top, Literotica-ready premise, but I found that sincerity to be refreshing. Undercutting the absurdity of its fantasy scenario with snarky one-liners or tongue-in-cheek camp would have broken its dark magic spell. Waddington (boosted by a cowriting credit from the increasingly fascinating Nacho Vigalondo) carves out a very peculiar, particular mood & aesthetic here, even if she uses familiar genre tools to get there. Welcoming in audiences who aren’t already on the hook for the film’s high-femme fairytale mystique with ingratiating humor would only deflate what makes it special. Paradise Hills’s uncanny sense of femme menace works best if the sensual surface pleasures of its fantasy realm instantly appeal to you as a world where you could lose your sense of time and self. It’s a film you sink into, like a warm familiar blanket, until you suffocate.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is just about the phoniest movie you’ll see all summer, but that’s by no means an unintentional effect. The movie opens with the giant hotel lobby setting, swanky music, and block lettering text of an Old Hollywood comedy – promising all the laughs, romance, and lavish imagery you’d expect from that traditionalist fare. The main update to the formalist Hollywood spectacle offered in Crazy Rich Asians is the one indicated by its title. This is a type of film usually populated by and targeted at white people reclaimed for a more historically underserved demographic. While the romantic comedy and wealth porn pleasures offered by the film are generic to the point of pastiche, its Asian & Asian-American cultural context anchor them to a specificity & a social politics POV that distinguish it from the phony Hollywood fare we’re most used to seeing on its scale. It’s damning to the reputation of mainstream filmmaking to consider that this well-behaved, phony romance spectacle is a subversive work merely for casting non-white leads, but that’s how representation-starved most POC audiences are on the pop culture landscape. Crazy Rich Asians is both a cookie-cutter Hollywood romance fantasy we’ve seen plenty times before, and paradoxically a political breakthrough for a cultural dinosaur that’s stubborn to change with the times.

The romcom A-plot pretty much writes itself. An NYU economics professor falls for a hunky bachelor who describes his family as “comfortable,” but is secretly one of the wealthiest lines of unofficial royalty on Earth. The “What if you accidentally married a prince?” fantasy offered in the film only takes on a specificity & a subversion when adapted to its cultural setting. Here, an Asian-American academic with a poor immigrant mother is dropped into a fish-out-of-water fantasy where she meets her secretly-wealthy beau’s absurdly monied family in the most extravagant corners of Singapore. Her culture clash of being an Asian-American woman in an alienating Asian environment is best exemplified in her icy relationship with her boyfriend’s mother, who subscribes to traditionalist divisions of class & culture that make her an unworthy candidate to marry into the family. The wedding preparation drama, makeover montages, and social power struggles that result from that conflict are all genre-faithful romcom material, but the specificity of their circumstances are consistently distinct & defiantly foreign. It’s no surprise, then, that Crazy Rich Asians’s best strengths lurk in the details outside its main romance plot.

Since Crazy Rich Asians is largely faithful to the familiar payoffs of Old Hollywood spectacle & the romcom genre, its more distinguishing details are hiding in the periphery. The wealth porn on display in Singapore’s more extravagant settings play almost like a travel ad, but that same luscious photography being applied to street food & homemade dumplings is a more rarified, gorgeous wonder. The central conflict established in the main romance is familiar to the genre, but the comedic sensibilities of weirdo side characters played by Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Nico Santos are an anarchic presence that transform that genre formula into a new, exciting beast. You just have to be all-in on the typical payoffs of romcom & wealth porn indulgences to fully appreciate those deviances; this is a fun, beautiful film, but it’s one that’s aimed directly at wide, mainstream audiences. Culture-clash drama between Asian & Asian-American people can be found in select small-budget indie films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle; what’s significant about Crazy Rich Asians is that it balloons that perspective to a massive, big budget, Old Hollywood scale. If you’re more likely to watch an escapist fairy tale that’s unashamed of reliving Old Hollywood phoniness than a small-scale indie drama aimed at artsy fartsy types, the cultural specificity of Crazy Rich Asians is a revelation. Old Hollywood romantic spectacle has been a traditionally all-white affair, so it’s wonderful to see that hegemony broken up by something so unashamedly fun & beautiful, even if narratively generic.

-Brandon Ledet

Ocean’s 8 (2018)

Ocean’s 8 opens exactly like the Soderbergh version of Ocean’s 11 that preceded it, with Sandra Bullock in a parole hearing interview pretending to be reformed so she can be released and launch directly into her next grift. George Clooney sat in that same position back in 2001, which partly makes Ocean’s 8 feel just as much like Ghostbusters-style gender-flipped remake as it is a years-late sequel. Bullock is not a reincarnation of Danny Ocean, however, but rather his sister & criminal equal, Debbie Ocean. Likewise, the film does not follow the Soderbergh “original” or its Rat Pack source material’s plot about smooth criminals simultaneously robbing three Las Vegas casinos, but shifts its heist’s target to the much more femme setting of the annual Met Gala, one of high-fashion’s biggest events of the year. For better or for worse, it also shifts away from Soderbergh’s experimentations in overly slick, early 2000s thriller aesthetics to adopt a style more befitting of a 2010s mainstream comedy. As a result, both films are noticeably distinct from one another, but also notably cheesy and of their time in a way that pairs them as clear parallels (even though, once gain, this is a sequel and not a remake).

Although it’s about a decade late to the table, it’s arguable that Ocean’s 11 needed this women-led sequel, as it’s a series that’s always struggled with doing right by its female characters. In Ocean’s 11, Julia Roberts mostly had the thankless role of reacting to male characters’ actions & muttering vague warnings under her breath. For Ocean’s 13, both she & Catherine Zeta-Jones refused to return to the series because they were told the script could not accommodate giving them substantial roles beyond a couple lines of dialogue, despite having room for over a dozen men. Ocean’s 12, by far the best in the series (even if you include the also-excellent Logan Lucky), was much more accommodating of both actors, particularly for the opportunity it gave Julia Roberts to poke fun at her own celebrity (the same role she fulfilled in Sodebergh’s Full Frontal). Anne Hathaway is afforded the same self-satire platform in Ocean’s 8, but this time she’s not surrounded by a sea of men in tailored suits. Ocean’s 8’s cast includes Bullock, Hathaway, Rihanna, Awkwafina, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Sarah Paulson, and Cate Blanchett as the titular eight. None of these already-established celebrities are playing against type, but rather lean into their public personae in an exaggerated way, like drag or pro wrestling characters. Hathaway clearly has the most fun with the space afforded her, but the important part is that this heist comedy playground was ever offered to this many talented women in the first place.

Immediately upon release from prison, Debbie Ocean launches into a few minor grifts that provide her temporary food & shelter. Once recharged, she begins recruiting the crew she needs to steal millions of $$$ in diamonds from the upcoming Met Gala, a much bigger heist than she’s ever attempted before. Cate Blanchett joins as a longtime bestie in full Atomic Blonde drag. Rihanna & Awkwafina are aggressively casual stoners gifted at street-level hacking & pickpocketing. Kaling is a jeweler, Bonham Carter a cash-strapped fashion designer, and so on. It’s Hathaway who steals the show as an image-obsessed, emotionally fragile actress whom the team plans to steal the diamonds off of, though. Public opinion of Hathaway has always been grotesquely judgmental about her supposedly outsized ego, so it’s wonderful to see her subvert that perception by turning it into a caricature. The heist itself, from the planning to the execution to the fallout with law enforcement, is all standard to the typical joys of the genre, except in an unusually haute setting drenched in fashion & wealth. The most distinctive factor at play is that the film is staged like a comedy more than a thriller, which suits the material well enough at least in the way it distinguishes it from Soderbergh’s previous trilogy (except maybe Ocean’s 13, its closest tonal parallel).

The cast is exceptional, the choice in setting inspired. The worst that could be said about Ocean’s 8 is that director Gary Ross burdens the film with all the visual style & generic pop music of an Alvin & the Chipmunks squeakquel. The flatness in its imagery & its dispiritingly indistinct pop music cues feel at home with the standard approach to the modern mainstream comedy, though, which is largely where the film lives & dies. Ocean’s 11 is often framed as being a stylish subversion of the heist picture formula, but its own hideous color saturation & music video experimentation also feels beholden to the worst aspects of its own era’s aesthetic, a post-Matrix techno thriller hangover that culminated in the “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car” PSA. Ocean’s 12, Logan Lucky, and now Ocean’s 8 all feel like improvements on that earlier picture in the way they work around its more glaring shortcomings, which is a kind of paradox in that they could not exist without it. Ocean’s 8 is, admittedly, the least impressive improvement of the three. It does the bare minimum of giving women something to do while still working within that film’s original framework, only shifting its genre context slightly closer to a standard comedy. It’s still funny & breezily charming within that modern mainstream comedy context, even while often slipping into pure unembarrassed cheese, which is the most Ocean’s 11 ever offered us in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet