The Farewell (PG)
This is one of my favorite films for the entire year. An exquisite study of the American belief in independent spirit versus the Chinese belief in family above all, this film is introduced by the warning: “This film is based on a Big Lie.”
There are lies all over the place in the film, the basis of which is the alleged incipient death of the matriarch of the family, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). Allegedly dying of cancer, she serves as the head of the family through a quick-serve wedding of a grandson, Hao Hao (Han Chen), to a Japanese girl, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), who is a radiant newcomer to film.
The kicker is that nobody is to tell Nai Nai of her diagnosis or the real meaning of the family reunion, which is to say good-bye to her without telling her why it is good-bye.
And what a family reunion it is.
The entire cast gathers for a hysterical wedding with lots of music (red drum and cymbals as introductions) and lots of toasts. Throughout, the main guest, Nai Nai’s favorite granddaughter, Billi (Awkwafina), secretly mourns her grandmother’s imminent death and deals with the fact that she feels she has come home to Beijing, which she left at age six.
Here we touch on a major feature of the film—Chinese culture. Some of it is downright funny to an American eye: funerals with people hired to weep copiously to show that the family sincerely cared about the departed; one of the grandchildren obsessed with taking iPhone shots of the wedding while everybody else is posing; the “bride and groom” attempting to pose for wedding photos, coached by Nai Nai, and a weeping groom almost passing out at his own wedding.
In fact, this film is far funnier than I expected it to be. Nai Nai is the chief source of the laughter as she expresses her views of the world without reservation or consideration of political correctness. One can see why Billi adores her.
How far will the family go to protect the secret? Billi races to the hospital to head off Aunt Gao who has the results of tests that will be shown to Nai Nai. It turns out to be a valuable trip because it allows members of the family to alter the diagnosis to “benign shadows” instead of “terminal lung cancer.”
The odd thing about the film, as it turns out, is that it is all true! Director Lulu Wang’s grandmother (or Nai Nai) was diagnosed and the family pledged their secrecy. (Hiding a diagnosis from a patient is illegal here, another cultural difference.) “It’s not the cancer that kills you,” we are told, “it’s the fear.” True, no matter what your cultural background.
I loved this film, its emphasis on family and its cultural rips of the beliefs we hold that we know it all. Take the kids and let them learn about alternatives they may never have encountered before.
The Art of Racing in the Rain (PG)
The film opens with the last moments of a golden Lab. So, it’s no surprise that this is a kerchief-soaker several times over. But it’s a good dog movie and most good dog movies are kerchief-worthy. This one is more interesting than most because of the numerous authentic-sounding tips on how to drive a race car, especially in the rain.
Kevin Costner is the voice of Enzo, the real star of the film, though Milo Ventimiglia does a sterling job as his owner and best friend, Denny Swift, a race driver who usually finishes second though he teaches driving on the side. Amanda Seyfried is Eve, Denny’s wife who does a good job of dying though she has little else to do but look pretty and love Enzo (who is named for the famed Enzo Ferrari).
This is important particularly in the last scenes, at the Ferrari track in Italy. Ryan Kiera Armstrong, nine years old, sparkles as the daughter, Zoe. The kid can act!
Enzo observes the humans around him with some degree of puzzlement, especially when Eve becomes pregnant. He becomes fascinated with “the magic sack where the baby was assembled.”
A jarring and obnoxious note is played by Martin Donovan as Eve’s father. He is obsessed with Denny’s driving and its potential for injury or death and interferes whenever and however possible with Zoe’s upbringing. He and his wife, played beautifully by Kathy Baker, are called “The Twins” by Enzo who comes to hate them.
You’ll enjoy this film for its lovely acting, even if you empty a box of Kleenex along the way.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold (PG)
Isabela Moner brings Dora the Explorer to life delightfully and irrepressibly in this real-life presentation of the kids’ favorite “Dora the Explorer.” Michael Peña and a pregnant Eva Longoria serve as Dora’s explorer parents who are looking for the Lost City of Gold—Parapata.
Left behind to go to school in California, Dora soon finds her way to the jungle to look for her parents, accompanied by schoolmates—cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), high school know-itall and therefore unpopular Sammy (Madelaine Madden), and resident dork Randy (Nicholas Coombe).
Joining the gang in the jungle is Boots, Dora’s trusty monkey sidekick who serves as comic relief as well as rescuer for the gang. Warned by cousin Diego, “This is high school—life or death,” Dora longs to join her parents in the jungle and gets her wish along with her more reluctant friends.
True to the spirit of the TV series, life in the jungle is no piece of cake and the group survives any number of potentially fatal escapades before finding the Lost City of Gold. This is pure fantasy adventure, even including a scene in which the characters turn into cartoon likenesses. Parents may find the whole idea silly while kids of most ages will have a rollicking good time.
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (PG-13)
This film deserves four stars only because of the spectacular action sequences that are part of this franchise, done with remarkable imagination from start to finish. The plot creaks: A virus has been programmed to destroy the world, and Hobbs and Shaw are assigned the task of shutting it down before it can be ignited.
Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Shaw (Jason Statham) combine with MI6 agent and Shaw’s sister, Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), to provide some crazy martial arts pieces. Meanwhile Idris Elba as the villain (Brixton), a programmed assassin who has met both Hobbs and Shaw before, summons a good portion of the longest credit section of “Stunt doubles” perhaps in history.
The action starts immediately with the deadly verdict: “She took the virus!” That’s never good, but it’s not unusual in thrillers so we just file that away as the “plot” unwinds. The plot alternates between admittedly incredible action sequences featuring motorcycles, trucks, Jeeps, cars and anything else that moves. There is plenty of hand-to-hand action as well. Both Hobbs and Shaw are challenged by overwhelming odds but win every fight except those against Brixton (he has superpowers). Hattie does pretty well. too, though she is as beaten up as the other two by the end.
There are what amounts to cameos by a very funny Ryan Reynolds as a CIA agent, Eddie Marsan as the creator of the virus and Helen Mirren as “Queenie,” Shaw’s mother and a felon in prison. The film never takes itself totally seriously except for the somewhat soapy FaceTime bits between Hobbs and his charming daughter, Sam (Eliana Sua). Hobbs is careful to get the “family values” message delivered as often as he can, whether or not it makes sense at the time or not.
There are special effects galore. The most incredible is the fight between a wrecker and a military helicopter and the final bash-up between the Samoans and the heathen led by Brixton.
Is the virus located in time to save the world? Who cares? A solution might get in the way of the plot, whatever it may be.
There was an almost constant gaggle of giggles coming from the audience and they were appropriate. There really are no out-loud laughs in the film but lots of titters and a few “Oh, no!” moments.
Leave your brain at the beach and enjoy the chemistry between co-producers and co-stars, Johnson and Statham with handy assists from Vanessa Kirby, one of the stars of “The Crown” and a veteran stage and screen actress who handles her physical role handily and with relish. The violence is constant but cartoonish and leavened with humor so the kids should be able to laugh with you.
The Kitchen (R)
This film is lots of Melissa McCarthy as a serious gun moll, Tiffany Haddish as a serious gun moll and Elisabeth Moss as the most serious gun moll, no laughs at all and a purely fictional and fantastic “What if?” movie-making the mark for female dominance of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and more in the late ‘70s. The three women are all married to losers who get caught and thrown into a three-year prison sentence. They are all abusers in one form or another, all Irish and all stupid. Their wives are sick and tired of them and decide to run their own Mob.
Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) who runs the Brooklyn Mob does not like losing territory to the women, but they are better Mobsters than the men so he pulls a deal with them. Lots of bloodshed follows in Hell’s Kitchen until the boys get out of the slammer early, thanks to deals by Coretti. That results in the inevitable: The boys get taken out.
Lots of dirty dealing, incredible patience from the women who stay in dumpy apartments while making tons of money―why?―and a total lack of humor make this a rather dreary experience. High levels of physical, mental and financial torture mark this film that fails to attract affection. Both McCarthy and Haddish should stick to lighter, comic roles. Moss is simply scary.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (PG-13)
A film with this title has to be really scary before it is actually scary. This one is a teen-style loud with banging, lights flashing, monsters roaring kind of exercise that gets rather tedious once the gimmick is exposed.
There is an old house containing several old books, one of which consists mostly of blank pages that are written on in real time in red. (Could it be blood?) Zoe Margaret Colletti as Stella leads a group of fellow teens into the house and into the presence of the book, which proceeds to threaten and attack them all. Michael Garza as Ramon is her stoic favorite but also a Vietnam War draft dodger because his brother came back in a box. (Several scenes of Nixon campaigning and war protest mentions mark the time in the late ‘70s.) Sarah Bellows, (Kathleen Pollard) is long-since dead but resentful over her treatment in the distant past and takes it out, one by one, on the teens, writing in her blood-red ink. Stella figures out the gimmick but is helpless to stop Sarah from killing her friends in strange ways. Sarah just keeps writing her stories that come true.
This will probably draw a decent-sized teen audience as a last gasp of summer treat, but there are better things the kids could do with the time—like take a dip in a cool swimming pool or read a book that doesn’t write itself.