Here are my thoughts on three recent movie releases:
Blinded By the Light
The cliche goes that the most meaningful music we’ll ever listen to is whatever speaks to us when we’re teenagers. It forms the soundtrack to our formative years and is forever linked to that period in our lives. For the especially optimistic among us, there might even be a single band we watch latch onto during that time, a band or artist whose music is so powerful it permanently morphs our worldview and makes us believe that the world can truly be changed by a song.
For me, Pearl Jam and U2 were those bands. For journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, it was Bruce Springsteen. Your answer is probably different. However, if you’ve ever loved a band so much that you started dressing like them and adopting their worldview then Blinded By the Light will speak to you, even if you’re not a particularly big Springsteen fan. It is Manzoor’s loving tribute – er, his tribute along with the assist of director Gurinder Chadha – to The Boss as well as his own turbulent youth growing up as a Pakistani immigrant in a go-nowhere British town during Thatcherism. The result is a refreshingly pure and often overjoyed exploration of the power of art to inspire. Beyond that, the film also works as a rather effective depiction of the immigrant experience in repressive times.
To be sure, though, Blinded By the Light is cheesy, sentimental, given to musical numbers which repeatedly threaten to bend the reality of the film beyond its breaking point, and unabashedly hopeful about the power of music to bridge generational and cultural divides. Still, I loved just about every second of it.
Goes Well With: Sing Street, Wild Rose, The Commitments
Final Note: Hayley Atwell stars as a teacher who proves instrumental in encouraging the film’s fictionalized version of Manzoor to pursue a career as a writer. After Captain America and Agent Carter, I’m always happy to see her in anything, and she makes the best of her limited screen time here.
When writer-director Lulu Wang hopped on the Hollywood lunch meeting carousel and pitched her idea for The Farewell, she was met with stonewalled silence or well-meaning, but woefully misinformed notes. No one doubted how much the story – a Chinese-American travels back to China for a wedding which has been hastily thrown together as an excuse for everyone to see a dying family member who doesn’t actually know she is dying – meant to her. After all, it was ripped from Wang’s own life. She was the Chinese-American who struggled with her family’s decision to lie to her grandmother Nai Nai about a terminal cancer diagnosis.
However, while that certainly made for an interesting story to tell in meetings it wasn’t immediately obvious to everyone if there was really a movie to be made from it. Where was the comp? Where was the pre-existing project which did something similar and succeeded? Would Wang consider making it more like My Big Fat Greek Wedding – like, maybe the main girl brings a non-Asian boyfriend home with her thus setting up some fun culture clash comedy? Or why does the main character even need to be a girl?
Dejected, Wang was convinced her movie would never be made. When the chance arose for her Farewell pitch to become an episode of NPR’s This American Life, she took it, not just because she was determined to find a home for her narrative but also because she had bills to pay. This American Life didn’t pay much but it was certainly more than the literal zeros she was getting from all of her failed lunch meetings with movie producers and the money she’d made from her debut film, 2014’s Posthumous, was long gone.
That’s when everything changed. Within days of her This American Life episode debuting, Wang was contacted by a movie producer who wanted to help her bring her story to the screen. It was someone who made his name and money off of the American Pie movies two decades ago, and now he was in the business of bankrolling interesting indies. He had enough clout to guard her against any kind of studio interference and supported her pitch to film in China, cast Chinese or Chinese-American actors, and present the majority of the dialogue in Chinese.
It’s a classic Hollywood story, really. Salvation often arrives from the most unexpected place when you are at your absolute lowest, and you should always put forth your best effort in any job because you never know who might be watching or listening. However, this classic Hollywood story of perseverance and being told “no” by everyone in town before finding your first “yes” has resulted in a very non-traditional Hollywood movie.
Purchased for big money by A24 out of Sundance, The Farewell doesn’t feature a single speaking role for a white character and apart from Awkwafina in the lead role you probably won’t recognize anyone in the cast. Yet, from the moment it debuted in LA and NY and gradually platformed its way to the flyover states reports rolled in of audience members of all ethnicities flocking to the film for a cathartic cry.
You can add my name to that list. Everyone in this movie is mourning someone who is not even dead yet and doesn’t know how close she is to the end. That sounds like pure misery porn, yet The Farewell somehow also manages to be utterly life-affirming – a masterful work of grief, generational and cultural divides, and one woman’s search for identity in an impossible land she barely recognizes anymore.
While Awkwafina’s more Westernized reaction to the scenario is what we latch onto, it’s actually the scenes with her family members as the film progresses and the weight of the lie begins to weigh heavier on them which really got me. By the time the film climaxes with a sequence of Awkafina and her family sharing their own slow-mo, Reservoir Dogs perp walk even though their only crime as a gang is lying to their matriarch it’s hard not to feel like you’re in the presence of a master filmmaker, wonderfully inverting such a familiar cinematic trope as the slow-motion walk.
That makes The Farewell a true breakthrough indie. Through this movie, Awkwafina, an untrained rapper/comedian, has shown an entirely new side of herself, and because of this movie, Lulu Wang’s career will never be the same. Her days of resorting to public radio to get her next movie made should be over.
Goes Well With: Crazy Rich Asians, Columbus, Tokyo Story
Final Note: There is so much awards chatter around The Farewell. Some say it is an Oscar movie. Others fear the Academy will have long forgotten about it by the time voting starts. I don’t see nearly enough campaigning, however, for Shuzhen Zhao, the wonderful actress who plays Nai Nai. For me, she steals the movie, giving us all the warmth and depth we need to fully understand why losing Nai Nai is going to hurt her family so much.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold
My 6-year-old niece loves this mid-budget, “Dora as a teenager” movie so much she’s seen it twice now. My 11-year-old nephew – who had a huge Dora the Explorer cartoon phase 6 years ago – sorta liked it but said, and I quote, “it’s definitely a kids movie.” Fair. I mean, there is a talking, animated fox named Swiper (voiced by Benicio Del Toro!) whose existence is never explained and barely even acknowledged as being weird. Still, it’s weird to hear my nephew dismiss Dora as “kid’s movie.” They grow up so fast, you guys.
As for me, I admired Isabela Moner’s unwavering smile and positive outlook as the titular Dora and have to admit there is a fair deal of cleverness on display, transporting a teenaged Dora from the jungle to the big city high school and then back to the jungle again with her new friends for an adventure doubling as an extreme bonding experience. Screenwriters Nicholas Stoller, Tom Wheeler, and Matthew Robinson looked at an educational kids TV show about a girl, her cousin, and their various animals having adventures and somehow found a story, asking, “What would Dora be like as she got older? Would the world stomp the optimism and inquisitiveness right out of her?” The answer is a delightful no.
After the movie, the three of us had a nice argument on the way home over whether, spoiler, Boots really talks to Dora during a climactic scene or if she just imagined it. (My niece says it really happened and can’t understand why anyone would think differently.) Then I bought them something to eat. I will most likely never think about this movie ever again, but they might. Should either one of them, God forbid, ever get stuck in quicksand maybe they’ll remember what this movie says you should do in that situation. Ah, Dora, educating our kids to the bitter end.
Goes Well With: Any of the Indiana Jones movies, The Brady Bunch Movie
Final Note: There is a mid-movie animated sequence that had the entire theater – both the adults and kids – laughing. That was the only time both adults and kids seemed to enjoy the film on the same level.