Monday, August 27, 2018

Funny, fluff and even some substance

Number one at the box office for the second week in a row, I sauntered out on a whimsical – and hot – Sunday afternoon to catch, of all things, Crazy Rich Asians. As the old Mad magazine cartoon had it, it wasn’t because of the movie but to get inside air-conditioned comfort! Just kidding. Crazy Rich Asians turned out better than expected. It has crisp direction by Jon M. Chu, interesting enough characters, and a story almost as serious as it is funny and fluffy. And if for no other reason, the sumptuous setting of Singapore is almost enough to make you want to book a seat on the next flight and check out the city-state itself. But, come to think of it, few other North American films have had as their subject matter Asian-Americans. Yet, with more than a 20 million population, they’re the third largest ethnic and racial group in the U.S. They’re grossly underrepresented in film, television, advertising, and popular media altogether. Still, I wondered if this movie was stereotyping in, you know, a negative way. Yes, it is stereotyping, but in the best of fun, just as other movies have stereotyped Blacks, Irish, Italians, and even Greeks. Based on the somewhat autobiographical novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians depicts (some) Asians as possessing vast wealth, of a kind even the richest non-Asian Americans have hardly touched. Opulence in clothing, cars, homes, parties and indeed weddings - the focal point of this film – may have no equal. Of course, the movie is a love story and arguably a chick flick, but it’s an enjoyable ride for anyone who’s watching.  The central characters are Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding). They’re young Americans in New York, he from a fabulously wealthy Singapore family, she from a lower middle class Chinese broken home. On the occasion of his best friend’s wedding, Nick asks Rachel to accompany him to his ancestral home and meet his family. She has no idea what she’s getting into, and that’s the fulcrum upon which the plot rests. At turns hilarious, exhilarating, outrageous, heart breaking and sad, Crazy Rich Asians introduces us to a cast of characters in a roller coaster ride through the upper echelons of the Malaysian elite, with a wedding ceremony that may be the most ostentatious you’ve ever seen. But it’s not all fluff. There is drama, class consciousness and, yes, outright discrimination that no society seems to be without. For mass entertainment Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hot summer hours.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Summer doldrums

Wow, this has been a bad summer for movies. And I’m not even talking about blockbusters, which have also gone missing in action. Art house theatre releases have been flat. What to do? Go to see what the most interesting flicks on the big screen might be, and otherwise sit at home and turn on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). And, yeah, there’s Netflix…. So, here’s what I’ve been watching over the past month:

Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley), in theatres: This is the edgiest film I’ve seen all summer, but its edge carves into a familiar script. And if you can stand the cacophonous sound track you’re a better person than me. The plot revolves around Cassius "Cash" Green (Lakeith Stanfield, Get Out, Selma), a naïve recruit to an Oakland call centre. He’s tipped by Langston (Danny Glover) that if he wants to make sales he has to use a “white voice.” He proceeds and graduates to the elite ranks of selling. But when fellow employees go on strike he, now in suit and tie, blithely crosses the picket line. To his ultimate peril. He’s humiliated to the nth degree, including doused in excrement on a TV game show. Yes, Riley, a communist activist, really wants to ram the point home. The movie’s one truth is the capitulating to another identity, forced by racism. Technically, it has as much visual dissonance as audio, with sets having an artificial claustrophobic feel. The movie zings but it doesn’t quite sing. 

The Constant Gardiner (2005, Fernando Meirelles) on Netflix. Is this film now 13 years old? And who could have thought that the early 2000s would start to have a dated look? The clunkier laptop computers and almost comical computer screen dialogue boxes are dead giveaways. And so too is the fact a British diplomat in sweltering Kenya wears suit and tie. (Maybe they still do.) Ralph Fiennes plays Justin Quayle, accosted in the post 9/11 world by a social activist, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), who accuses Her Majesty’s government of Iraq War complicity. They of course fall in love. In Africa, her Amnesty prowess conflicts with his High Commission work. It’s then that the real story unwinds. The plot seems slightly over the top – murders to keep a drug company’s immoral protocols under wraps - but maybe I’m just naïve. The story is apparently based on a true incident, recounted in John le Carré’s novel of the same name, though it may have gilded the lily. (The author says it’s “lame” compared to the real thing). Meirelles’ direction is good, and the plot is marked by appropriate le Carré international jet set intrigue. The scenes of Kenya’s vast poverty are eye-opening.

A couple of weekends ago I spent a whole day watching Gary Cooper films on TCM: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Love in the Afternoon (1957), The Fountainhead (1949), The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and Sergeant York (1941). Cooper’s versatility as a more serious “ah shucks” version of Jimmy Stewart’s everyman, in the heroic mode, comes in a variety of disguises. Like as Longfellow Deeds, the naïve but morally upright inheritor who uncannily exposes corruption all around him. (Photo left) Or as Lou Gehrig as an everyman who just happens to be 1930s baseball superstar. Or as a hillbilly pacifist who nonetheless takes up arms as the lesser of two evils. In Love in the Afternoon, though, he has a Cary Grant persona as the urbane older gentleman to Audrey Hepburn’s sassy ingenue. And in The Fountainhead, how can he be anything other than a larger-than-life straight shooter in the Ayn Rand story of an uncompromising architect?

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Linking the politcal Left with fascism

Dinesh D'Souza is a prominent American conservative filmmaker and author. Born in Bombay he’s about as patriotic an American as you’ll find, a truism for many immigrants. Through numerous books and now five films D’Souza has combined his patriotism with a critique of liberal society and the Democratic Party. This continues with Death of a Nation: Can We Save America a Second Time? now screening at numerous Detroit-area megaplexes. The film has attracted little mainstream media coverage unlike, say, D’Souza’s counterpart on the Left, Michael Moore’s movies. Nevertheless, his films have had wide though predictably partisan audiences, as will likely be the case here. For beginners, D’Souza’s treatise can be startling if not shocking. Death of a Nation takes its title from D. W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915), which many considered incendiary for how it portrayed the Ku Klux Klan. D’Souza recounts how then Democrat president Woodrow Wilson showed the film in the White House and how the Democrats were instrumental in reviving the racist Klan. From there, the film argues through chronology how the Democratic Left has aligned with the forces of racism and fascism, traits typically associated with the Right. Abraham Lincoln, after all, was a Republican. The party of George Wallace was the Democrats.  Robert Byrd, the longest serving senator in US history, was also a Democrat and one-time Klan organizer. The film shows the relationship between the Klan’s targeting African Americans and the Nazis targeting Jews, the former influencing the latter. “Which is the party that invented white supremacy?” the documentary asks. “Which is the party that praised fascist dictators and shaped their genocidal policies and was in turn praised by them?” Structurally, the film is broken into interviews and historical re-enactments, including some well-dramatized re-creations of the rise of Hitler, done by a Czech crew. Finally, D’Souza denounces what he calls modern day fascists such as Antifa, which attacks groups it doesn’t want to speak, comparing them to Mussolini’s Black Shirts and the Nazis’ Brown Shirts. While the doc's narrative is engrossing if infuriating, technically the flow at times seems cumbersome. And some might conclude the overall message is simply agit-prop. But that, as they say, may depend on your political perspective