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Friday, May 3, 2019

REVIEW: LONG SHOT somehow makes it work

At first blush, Long Shot looks like exactly that. Political rom-com? Is that a thing anyone really wants right now? But somehow, it has emerged as one of the better romantic comedies to get a theater release in the last year. It's a strange mash-up of throwback simmered in the charged atmosphere of today's political climate that succeeds in bringing warmth and comedy in equal measure, thanks largely to the chemistry between the two leads. 

Long Shot stars Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field. Field's life is micromanaged to the minute, and her aspirations to move on to a higher office come into focus when the largely inept President of the United States (Bob Odenkirk) decides he will not seek another term in the upcoming election. Field decides to seize the opportunity by testing some policy ideas on a world-wide tour, but her marketing and image consultants make it clear she's also got to work on her humor to better engage with voters. 

Enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a left-leaning journalist who quits his job after his outlet is acquired by evil corporate overlords. It turns out Field and Flarsky have a childhood connection, and when they bump into each other at a party, their career ambitions align as Flarsky joins Field's campaign as a speech writer. Romance and lots of jokes ensue, with a constant question hanging at the back of the proceedings: is Flarsky First Man (or even First Boyfriend) material? 

The vibe of Long Shot reads somewhere between Knocked Up (Rogen dates another attractive women billed as out of his league, etc) and 50/50 (a more sentimental movie, but similar in comedy beats and helmed by the same director Jonathan Levine). It uses politics as the set dressing but doesn't get into actual political policy: Field talks a lot about some sort of climate deal but we know little beyond that. Instead, Long Shot focuses on the constant tug-of-war between two types of personalities. Field is an idealist who has made peace with the concept of compromise, sometimes to her detriment. Her career path has taught her time and time again that she must sometimes adjust or dilute her vision for the sake of hierarchy, order, and party unity. Flarsky sits on the other end of the spectrum - an idealist who has never known compromise, but is so rigid in his beliefs that he can't impact change on any serious level. 

That Rogen is hilarious here is absolutely no surprise. He's been in and out of the limelight over the last decade, but his comedic chops are sharper than ever. But Theron, who hasn't really had the same comedic roles in her career (her appearance on Arrested Development was one of the show's low points before it was so unsuccessfully resurrected), proves to be as good if not better. Watching this movie and Fury Road back to back, you'd be forgiven for not realizing it was the same actress in both - she's that transformative and versatile of an actress. Their chemistry is also off the charts and easy, void of dramatic confessions in the rain, instead enveloping the characters in a natural warmth and even maturity. 

Long Shot even uses a surprising and effective combination of supporting characters: Andy Serkis as the sleazy billionaire, O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Flarsky's best friend, Alexander Skarsgard as the flirtatious Canadian Prime Minister, and June Diane Raphael and Ravi Patel as Field's campaign staff (that Raphael isn't as famous as Rogen for her comedic acting is also a crime, but hopefully her time is still yet to come). 

As big-budget franchise powerhouses dominate theaters and romantic comedies continue to slip away from theatrical release in favor of streaming vehicles, it's really refreshing to see movies like Long Shot, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Big Sick keep the tradition alive, even if only happens once or twice a year. 

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Monday, April 15, 2019

Atlanta Film Festival 2019: Features Overview

The 2019 Atlanta Film Festival showed 180+ feature films, short films, special presentations and creative media, and was one of the best lineups of films I've seen in my ten years of going to the fest. It's no wonder it was recently named the second best film festival in the country! Here's a rundown of all the feature films I saw this year.

The Farewell
dir. by Lulu Wang

When Billi's grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given only 3 months to live, the family decides its best not to tell her. Instead, they organize a fake wedding as an excuse for the whole family to spend time with her one last time. Awkwafina stars as Billi, finally getting first billing in a great role that allows her to stretch her dramatic and comedic muscles and proving that she belongs in more leading roles. Director Lulu Wang rides a fine line between familial melancholy and awkward comedy, and it works absolutely perfectly. This one is bound to make a splash, and is hopefully a career-maker for Wang and Awkwafina. Full Review Here.

dir. by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson

This nature documentary follows one adolescent penguin (dubbed Steve) as he becomes a father for the first time in Antarctica. The footage is pretty incredible–it's hard to believe they were able to get so close and personal with the penguins and track the same one among thousands–and the sound work is very impressive. That said, this is a documentary for kids, with Ed Helms narrating and often even giving an anthropomorphized voice to the penguins. Despite its beauty, I prefer the Attenborough style to this Disney-ized one in which suddenly Steve's mate has eggs (nothing to see here, kids) and which ends with a Whitesnake song.

You Are Here: A Come From Away Story
dir. by Moze Mossanen

Just after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, all air traffic in the U.S. was shut down and thousands of planes were re-routed to land elsewhere. This film tells the story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 30 planes with thousands of passengers were forced to land in its minuscule and unprepared airport. It's a story of unending kindness in the face of horrifying tragedy, how the whole town came together to provide shelter, food, and comfort during this incredibly difficult time. You'd be hard pressed to find a better subject for a documentary, and for the most part it lives up to its fantastic topic. While it loses focus in the last act, delving into a musical that was based on the same events, the bulk of the film is wonderful and makes up for the lackluster ending.

Speed of Life

dir. by Liz Manashil

In the middle of a couple having a fight, the man falls into a wormhole caused by the death of David Bowie. When he emerges, only seconds have passed for him, but for her it has been 24 years. The main draw here is the excellent casting: Ann Dowd and Allison Tolman play the older and younger versions of June respectively and work perfectly to give a sense of continuity between the two timelines. There are some really great ideas at work, exploring the difficulties of growing older and how tragedy affects us, and even some surprisingly interesting futurism (in 2040, anyone over 60 is required to live in government controlled senior homes, and Alexa-like devices annoy everyone and are constantly butting into the conversation). Unfortunately, there is a lot of wasted potential within the time travel conceit and the interesting future Manashil has created, and the ending doesn't feel satisfying given the excellent setup.

Summer Night

dir. by Joseph Cross

This feature directorial debut by actor Joseph Cross follows a group of friends through one summer night as relationships bloom and fall apart. Cross doesn't really hide that he's attempting to make a Richard Linklater film; he cast Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood in one of the leads and even recreates the axe baseball scene from Everybody Wants Some!! In some respects, it works–the ensemble cast is good and the camera work is very nice–but the writing is sorely lacking. The main two relationships involve a girl who just found out she's pregnant and her boyfriend who doesn't know how to handle it, and a boy who goes on a date with someone but is stuck on an old girlfriend. In both situations, the women's perspectives are often reduced to sitting around and crying or even admitting "I'm such a bitch." In the end, it feels a bit too "bros have to stick together" for my taste.

The Way You Look Tonight

dir. by John Cerrito

What if you found out that everyone you've matched with on an online dating service was the same person, just in a different body each time? That's the premise of this high concept romance which introduces the idea of the changeling, a being who changes bodies against their will each night. This film explores all kinds of ideas, from body image to self identity to homophobia in a smart way while managing to be a sweet romance. Full Review Here.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
dir. by Joe Berlinger

Lately, the response to so many recent True Crime series has been, "How could they possibly not know?" This film, directed by the same man who recently did the nonfiction Ted Bundy series, Conversations with a Killer for Netflix, seeks to convincingly answer that question by showing almost none of the violence. Told mostly from the perspective of Bundy's girlfriend Liz (Lily Collins), you begin to see how Bundy (played excellently by Zac Efron) convinced those around him that it was all just a legal misunderstanding. It's an extremely unique approach to this kind of true story, and is chilling and fascinating in a way that few narrative true crime films achieve. Full Review Here.

The Tomorrow Man
dir. by Noble Jones

John Lithgow plays Ed, a man obsessed with the inevitable end of the world, a doomsday prepper who never misses the chance to tell people who stupid they are for not seeing signs of the end. When he meets Ronnie (Blythe Danner), a hoarder, he begins to see what he's been missing out on in a romantic relationship and his family. While it has some cute and charming moments (and the ending is unexpectedly cool), it mostly feels like an empty senior citizen romance. Mostly, I was bothered by Danner's character, who is about as mousy and empty-headed as they come, especially when paired with the overpowering Lithgow character. This one didn't do much for me.

The Death of Dick Long
dir. by Daniel Scheinert

Like most of the reviews out for this film have pointed out, it's difficult to describe this one without spoiling the gut punch of a reveal that comes about halfway through. To keep it spoiler-free, the story begins with two friends in Alabama leaving their mysteriously mortally wounded friend at the doorsteps of a hospital, and the misadventures they go on to try to keep it a secret. This one plays out much like a Coen Bros. movie, with a sense of humor that made me laugh out loud consistently. It must be mentioned that the music in the film is hysterical and adds a lot of character–the soundtrack consists largely of Nickelback, P.O.D., and Disturbed, which really puts you in the headspace of those strange goofballs. This is about as dark a comedy as it gets, and it's as hilarious as it is disturbing. Highly recommended.

dir. by Orlando von Einsiedel

Documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel turns the camera at his own family as they walk scenic routes across the UK and discuss for the first time the suicide of his brother many years ago. This one is an emotionally difficult watch, but an important one; it shows the value of communication in the wake of tragedy and the healing power of nature, but the journey is rarely an easy one. My only real issue is that despite the beautiful locales, the film gets very repetitive visually since 80% of it is the camera looking at them from ahead as they walk. Most powerful and saddening in the movie, though, is the fact that every single person they meet along their walk has also been affected by suicide of a loved one, a reminder that the awareness that the film brings is absolutely critical.

dir. by Tonia Mishiali

In this character piece from Cyprus, Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni) has just been told by her doctor that she is entering menopause, and the effects are heightened by her abusive and disgusting husband. Elpida begins to have daydreams about having affairs with younger men and fighting back against her husband, and eventually begins to lose connection with reality. Pause is very well shot and edited, and the central performance by Fyrogeni is outstanding, showing a huge range with very little dialogue (she doesn't speak for the first 9 minutes of the film). While the film feels like it's building to something huge and maybe doesn't quite deliver, it is a poignant and understated portrait of an aging woman who finds herself stuck in a terrible relationship.

In Fabric
dir. by Peter Strickland

If you're familiar with Strickland's previous films, you know they are strange to say the least, and you'll either love them or hate them, and In Fabric is no exception. When a very odd department store has a post-Christmas sale, Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys a red dress but soon begins to believe it is cursed when strange and violent things begin to happen. The movie is ultra-stylized, playing a bit like an Italian Giallo complete with bright colors and a killer synth score by the band Cavern of Anti-Matter, and with delightfully ornate and ominous dialogue from the store clerk. My only issue is that it tells two episodic stories of the dress, which feels like either too many or not enough. If this one is your kind of weird (it definitely was mine!), then you'll find lots to love. Full Review Here.

Teen Spirit
dir. by Max Minghella

Actor Max Minghella's directorial debut is a surprisingly polished one. Teen Spirit takes a look at the young Violet (Elle Fanning) entering a reality game show singing competition, supported by ex-opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric). The singing sequences are very impressive, even more so knowing that Fanning did all her own singing in the film, and they're visually very fun. Aside from being an inspirational story of perseverance, there wasn't a whole lot thematically to latch onto, though. There are times when Fanning really shines, but I found myself a little frustrated that she continues to play the exact same shy, quiet type that we've seen before.

Greener Grass
dir. by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe

If you thought In Fabric was weird, you haven't seen Greener Grass yet. A little similar in look to something like Too Many Cooks, this pastel suburban satire is about the difficulties of a soccer mom whose world is falling apart. Here's the best way to describe it: the fact that every adult in the film has braces is the least strange thing about the movie. A man becomes obsessed with drinking his pool water, a woman pretends to be pregnant by putting a soccer ball under her dress, and a child transforms into a dog. The absurdist humor is consistent and hilarious, and best of all, there's always a feeling that it serves the greater purposes of satirizing the suburbs as a nightmarish hell. DeBoer and Luebbe write, direct, and star and are absolutely stellar. One of my favorite movies of the year! Full Review Here.

Them That Follow
dir. by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

Mara (Alice Englert) lives in the Appalachian mountains with her father (Walton Goggins), a pastor at a small pentecostal church where believers test their faith by handling venomous snakes. Amidst this interesting backdrop, Mara struggles between her love for non-believer Augie (Thomas Mann) and the man her father has arranged for her to marry. While the love story didn't necessarily grab me, the film has a few incredibly tense scenes that are very well crafted, and the performances are strong all around. The cast, which includes recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman, is definitely the highlight here.

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AFF '19: GREENER GRASS is your new favorite party movie

There is a rich history of suburban satire and horror, from The Stepford Wives to The Burbs to Halloween, but none capture the inherent weirdness in the suburban community like Greener Grass, the feature film debut of writer/director/stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe.

Greener Grass focuses on two moms, Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) who struggle to raise their children in a bizarre suburban world. Jill's life and family slowly begin to crumble as she regrets giving her baby to Lisa, her husband becomes obsessed with drinking pool water, and her son continues to manifest odd bad behavior. Meanwhile, a bagger from the local grocery store has murdered a yoga instructor and and the killer stalks Jill from the shadows.

That's the most straightforward way I can explain the story, but it is so utterly absurd that this really doesn't do it justice. This is a world in which everyone wears pastel colored clothing at all times, where there is a TV show called "Kids with Knives" featuring commercials for baby food that is pre-chewed by real mothers, and where everyone drives golf carts instead of cars. (For Georgia natives, the movie was filmed in Peachtree City, the self-proclaimed golf cart capital of the world.) Lets just say that the totally unexplained fact that every single adult in the film has braces is easily the most normal thing in the film.

The movie is incredibly well designed. From the hundreds of strangely colored costumes, reminiscent in some ways to the films of Anna Biller, to the perfectly manicured lawns and matching color golf carts, the movie is rich with strange detail. The lighting, too, is very impressive; there are hardly any shadows seen in the film, as everything is brightly lit, giving the whole thing an atmosphere of an impossibly perfect community. The cinematography is excellent and impressive for such a low budget film, taking advantage of complex long shots and trick shots that really sell the existence of this strange alternate reality. Last but not least, the music by Samuel Nobles adds much to the film, swaying back and forth from 90's sitcom music to 80's horror synth. It will probably receive comparisons to something like Too Many Cooks–and it certainly has something in common there stylistically–but also surprisingly reminded me of last year's Mandy in some ways, but maybe that's just the Cheddar Goblin.

Greener Grass is one of the most fun movies I've ever seen. Every scene is packed full of bizarre, hilarious detail, from quick toss away lines to the names of the characters (the school teacher, Miss Human, is maybe my favorite). It is laugh out loud funny throughout, and I found myself remembering funny moments days later and giggling to myself. DeBoer and Luebbe are incredible as the constantly worrying and apologizing mothers, making the awkward and baffling process of one mother offering her baby to another on a whim seem as ordinary as a trip to the orthodontist. The directing partners have also surrounded themselves with a fantastic cast, including SNL alumni Beck Bennett and Neil Casey as their husbands and some great young actors, including The Haunting of Hill House's Julian Hilliard.

What makes Greener Grass especially awesome, though, is that while it could just feel like an extended version of a strange Adult Swim special, it always feels like there's something more under the surface. DeBoer has said that when she and Luebbe were writing the film (and the short film that it is based on), they had a rule: nothing should be weird just for weird's sake, but should serve a purpose or represent something larger within the narrative, and that really comes across. Sure, you can watch it and laugh your ass off without thinking about what it means when a child suddenly transforms into a dog, but the idea of a child turning into a young adult and growing away from one parent and towards the other is a very real conflict. Underneath it all, and especially in the unsettling ending, there's a truly scathing look at women's role in suburban communities, just with a bizarre and colorful veneer on top.

Greener Grass is destined for cult movie status, bound to be the blu-ray you immediately pop in when friends come over ("You haven't seen Greener Grass?!"). The key to its success is that it is wildly rich, rewarding repeated watches with little gags and details, and this is one I can't wait to watch and share many times in the coming years!

Greener Grass is directed by and stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe and is currently making its way around the festival circuit.
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Sunday, April 14, 2019

AFF '19: EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL, AND VILE provides a unique and fascinating perspective

With recent true crime series like Kidnapped in Plain Sight and Leaving Neverland, the conversation afterwards always steers towards, "How did they really not see what was going on?" This is a difficult question; from an outside perspective, it seems impossible that we wouldn't see through a pedophile or sociopath's motives right away, but to the victims it often isn't so easy. That is the perspective that Joe Berlinger's Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile aims to explore while looking at the specific case of serial killer Ted Bundy.

The film takes place mostly from Liz Kendall's (Lily Collins) perspective, Bundy's longtime girlfriend. We see how they meet and how their romance grows, and how difficult it is when Bundy first gets arrested. Extremely Wicked doesn't always stay directly with Liz, but always maintains the illusion that Bundy created for those around him: that it is just a legal misunderstanding, that he is being railroaded as a way for police to close a bunch of murder cases.

This is a unique and refreshing perspective for a true crime film. It doesn't glorify the killings, because it essentially never shows them at all. The focus is more on how he spun the situation to those around him, creating the strange phenomena of young women turning up at his trials to support him despite the allegations. In a way, this is far more horrifying than the specific killings, since it shows exactly how we might not suspect a loved one even when the evidence seems overwhelming.

The performances in the two leads of Zac Efron and Lily Collins are strong. Efron pulls off the charm and cleverness of Bundy quite well, so much so that it almost makes you root for him as he makes his two prison escapes until you remember who he is. Collins gives a gut-wrenching performance that is pretty heartbreaking at times, and it is devastating to watch her learn the truth that we all know going into the story. John Malkovich as the judge presiding over Bundy's trial is perhaps the only miscast; I'm sure most of his dialogue comes directly from court transcripts, but Malkovich often makes them seem overly theatrical or even silly, sometimes taking me out of the movie.

If you're a true crime fanatic or are approaching the movie expecting to see Bundy's murders, you might be sorely disappointed. However, the climax is well worth the ride, and I found this to be a much more satisfying and fascinating look at a serial killer than just an account of his violent actions.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is directed by Joe Berlinger and stars Zac Efron and Lily Collins. It releases in theaters and on Netflix on May 3rd.
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AFF '19: IN FABRIC is the best kind of surreal horror

Peter Strickland's films are always difficult to define, from his ode to the Italian Giallo in Berberian Sound Studio to the women-only alternate universe BDSM romance of The Duke of Burgundy. His newest film, In Fabric, is firmly in the horror camp, but is too stylish and bizarre to fit easily into any sub-genre.

In Fabric tells the story of a cursed dress sold at a bizarre and sort of occult department store. Each person who wears the dress suffers the curse, passing the dress on to its next victim. The majority of the film focuses on Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a newly single mother who buys the dress to wear on a blind date, but also spends time with a washing machine repairman and his wife who both end up wearing the dress.

From the opening shot of a glistening switchblade opening a box to dramatically reveal the dress, its clear that you're in for a stylish treat. The film is visually lush, full of gorgeous and strange shots and colorfully haunting images. This is augmented by the really fun score by Cavern of Anti-Matter that provides a synth-driven backdrop reminiscent of those by Goblin.

The world of the film is probably its strongest feature, though; while the protagonists are mostly normal people, everyone around them are strange and fascinating characters. The department store clerk talks ornately about purchase receipts and clothes shopping as if they are ominous, magical things. When Sheila purchase the dress, the clerk responds, "Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?" Commercials for the store are hypnotic and omnipresent, and Sheila's supervisors at her job at the bank regularly offer to role play with her to help improve her handshake and ask her to describe her nightmares in vivid detail. There's a scene that takes places in the store overnight that involves a mannequin and semen flying gracefully through the air–lets just say it wasn't entirely surprising that the credits included "Mannequin Pubic Hair."

My only real issue with the film is in its episodic nature. It spends well over half the film with Sheila, then shifts to another couple for the last act, and this feels sort of unsatisfying. It almost feels like it could have been much longer, following the dress through several more victims, rather than just the two interwoven stories. Barring that, I would've been just as happy to see Sheila's story extended to the full length of the film, as she was much more interesting than the other victims of the evil dress.

In Fabric is certainly not for everyone–at least one person in our theater decided they had seen just about enough and walked out during perhaps the strangest scene–but if you're into surreal horror with a stylish edge, this one is definitely for you. It's my kind of weird in the best possible way, and aside from the somewhat anticlimactic structure, it's a feast for the senses.

In Fabric is directed by Peter Strickland and stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Fatma Mohamed, and Gwendoline Christie and premiered at TIFF.
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

AFF '19: THE WAY YOU LOOK TONIGHT is sweet and unique

The indie drama scene is full of quirky romances; that might even be how you define indie drama. There's a reason for it, obviously: relationships are hard, and are rarely as clean and defined as those seen in hollywood romances. The complex ins and outs of a new relationship are just about the deepest veins to mine as far as film subjects go, but rarely is a movie ambitious enough to try to explore so many of the most difficult parts, from identity to body image to sexuality.

That's where The Way You Look Tonight comes in. It starts as many modern romances to, with a young man (Peter, played by Nick Fink) setting up an online dating profile and finding a match. His first date with Ellie goes remarkably well, but she disappears without a word in the morning. A little heartbroken and frustrated, Peter tries again, and again, and while there are familiar things with the girls he dates, he can't get over Ellie. The movie takes a fantasy turn when it is revealed that all the girls he's matched up with have been Ellie, who is a changeling, one of a group of people that has recently come out to the world that changes bodies each night.

This is one of those concepts that is so rich with thematic content that it's hard to believe it hasn't already been done a million times. Because Ellie changes body type, ethnicity, and eventually even her sex, it really allows the film to explore the idea of love that transcends the physical body. Beyond that, it grapples with themes of self image and self harm, and on a larger scale how we define our own identity separated from our physical body. It's a really interesting setup that starts almost like an absurdist comedy but becomes something with much more depth as it goes on.

Most interesting is the structure of the film; once Ellie reveals herself to Peter, he gradually comes to understand how her nightly transformations work, and we seem to build to a happy ending about halfway through...right up until her first change into a male body. This really throws Peter for a loop and he has a difficult time getting used to it. This bit is refreshing in a way, since up to this point Peter has been almost unrealistically quick to accept this strange situation (he's kind of the perfect boyfriend), but then we discover his mild homophobia and the film kicks its dramatic side into full gear. Though he eventually overcomes his initial difficulties, it really pushes the idea of love going beyond any physical form.

My favorite thing about the film is the way it keeps expanding its world, showing the difficulties within the changeling community. They use a unique piece of clothing to identify themselves that they consistently wear, for example. On a bigger scale, they have a hard time with ID cards since their appearance changes, making it nearly impossible to keep a driver's license or passport. The concept feels fleshed out enough that it can hold the weight of the lofty topics the film wants to explore. It also doesn't hurt that the film is shot quite well, and I enjoyed the dreamy original score by Westray Tackett. The editing by Will Bryson and director John Cerrito (who also plays a small but important role in the film) is impressive for a feature directorial debut; it feels tight and concise, without a lot of the unnecessarily slow editing that plagues much of the indie genre.

All in all, The Way You Look Tonight is a gem of a film, one of those clever movies that you find hard to forget. I've found myself thinking about the idea long after the credits rolled, wondering about the further implications of life as a changeling and how Peter and Ellie's relationship might turn out. Its thought-provoking concept is bound to be a conversation starter and one that makes you truly think about what makes you, you.

The Way You Look Tonight is written and directed by John Cerrito and stars Nick Fink. Find out more about the film by visiting its Official Site.
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Sunday, April 7, 2019

AFF '19: THE FAREWELL is a moving and funny look at family and culture

We've all seen the film about a family that is brought together by the illness or death of a loved one, wrought with melodrama and big, broad performances. The Farewell is not that. 

The Farewell is based on the true story of director Lulu Wang's family in the wake of the news that her grandmother is diagnosed with lung cancer and given only a few months to live. Here's the twist: she doesn't know she's dying, and her family want to keep it that way. Billi (Awkwafina) travels back to China with her parents to meet up with her grandmother and the rest of her family as they plan a fake wedding for her cousin as an excuse to get the whole family together to see her one last time. Billi struggles with keeping up the lie her family has collectively decided to tell amidst their squabbles about whether her parents should have stayed in China, all the while trying to spend quality time with her grandma for the last time.

The setup is a pretty fantastic one to begin with, ripe with darkly comic possibilities, but Wang, Awkafina, and the rest of the cast produce something even better than expected. Written out, it sounds a bit like a straight comedy, but in the universe of the film the reasons for the elaborate ruse feel so grounded that it only feels absurd when the mood is temporarily lightened; as Billi's uncle explains, it is her family's duty to "carry the emotional burden" for her grandma. As Billi struggles to negotiate the tricky task of saying goodbye without actually saying it, this also brings to the forefront the cultural differences between herself as a Chinese-American and her relatives who chose to stay in China or move to Japan.

The performances in the movie are strong across the board. Awkwafina shines as Billi, imbuing the role with genuine melancholy and love. However, the heart of the film is in the performance of Shuzhen Zhou as Nai Nai (grandmother), who any viewer can't help but see their own grandma in. She is very funny, sweet, and endearing throughout, and Zhou serves as the emotional anchor of the movie.

Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano opt for wide still shots and long takes rather than cutting between closeups, and this unconventional approach to such an emotional story offers a much more interesting visual experience. As Wang explained after the screening, she liked the "awkwardness in still frames" and even used horror movies as a reference point for how to portray something unsettling that's in the room that nobody can talk about, and this approach really accentuates the delicate and often uncomfortable family dynamics in the story.

The Farewell is a really interesting movie because on one hand it offers a fascinatingly intimate look at unique Chinese culture surrounding death, but on the other shows that familial tragedy is in some ways universal. It's a rich and rewarding film that offers beautiful small moments of contemplation while never losing its sense of pace, and if all that isn't enough for you, there's a reveal at the very end that brings further meaning. Highly recommended!

The Farewell is written and directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina, Shuzhen Zhou, Tzi Ma, and Diana Lin, and premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It is set for a wider release on July 12th under distribution by A24.
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