Months in Review: Films of July & August (part 2)

With a bit of a delay, below is the second part of my impressions of the new-to-me films I watched in August.

GAME NIGHT (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

A truly wonderful cast delivers in spades in the often-hilarious Game Night from directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. What impresses most for a movie like this is the directorial prowess with which it’s filmed, adding substance to an already funny film. In the lead Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams offer chemistry that works both romantically and comically, stealing the show with a couple of stand-out scenes that show how insanely talented these two actors are when it comes to finding the right comedic rhythms.

If that weren’t enough, the plot offers plenty of surprises and hilarious side stories that bring about almost as many laughs as the terribly unlikely and silly central story. Special kudos should be given to Jesse Plemons, a versatile young actor who is simply fantastic in a small yet juicy role as officer Gary; and to the partnership between Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris, whose careers have mostly been spent in the small screen prior to Game Night.

TULLY (2018) [ 3/5 ]

I understand the appeal of a film like Tully. After all, it deals with an all-too-real middle-aged married couple who is expecting a second child. Their problems are common: their sex life is almost non-existent, the romance is surely gone, the man is far too consumed by his job to be more than an average father and a lousy husband, and the mom is far too frustrated and sad and overwhelmed to show even a glimmer of happiness.

Judging from the reaction of parents I have heard talk about the film, I also assume that the way it touches most of these subjects can be either revelatory, depressing or, at the very least, food for thought. As a non-parent thirty-something who does not quite understand mid-life crises I found Tully almost infuriating. While I can wrap my head around being tired and overwhelmed, the choices the adults in this film make didn’t reveal to me a scary parenting possibility. Instead, it showed me that, if stories like this are possible, there are cultural problems that put pressure on adults to be something they are not.

Tully is one of those films I can’t find faults in from a cinematic point of view, but one I question because of the choices that were made in its writing and conception. A saving grace is the awesome performance by Charlize Theron. Her Tully character reminds me of another great role of hers in Young Adult, if only that same character had been reluctantly shoved into an unhappy marriage and a series of accidental pregnancies.

AMY (2011) [ 4/5 ]

If someone told me a documentary about my life will be made while I lay on my deathbed, there is no one I would rather give the rights to my story than director Asif Kapadia.

It is now the second feature documentary I watch by the director (the first being Senna, a biopic about the life of legendary race car driver Ayrton Senna that I loved). Once again, I am amazed by the craftsmanship of his work. Unlike many contemporary filmmakers that experiment with the documentary form, Kapadia is perfectly comfortable fulfilling the role of the traditional storyteller.

With the tale of Amy Winehouse Kapadia starts from the notion that everyone choosing to watch his film knows about the tragic end to her story. Despite that, he manages to weave a complex story of lost innocence that exposes, like many other films, the dangers that come at a young age with sudden fame and success. Within this well-worn subject of fallen stardom, Kapadia manages to find the person behind the camera. Instead of taking it against his subject, which would be an easy thing to do with Amy Winehouse, he challenges audiences by highlighting the complicit role that her parents, friends and even society at large played in the late singer’s deterioration and eventual death. Kapadia doesn’t lecture us though, but he also doesn’t shy away from telling the story as it happened, regardless of whose reputation he cracks.

Through nearly two hours of interviews, found footage and concert clips, Kapadia never loses sight of his subject. Slowly he dispels the image of the good-for-nothing junkie British girl and, slowly, he humanizes her, with all of her faults, but also her blessings as a singer, as a friend and as a daughter.

LIKE FATHER (2018) [ 2.5/5 ]

There are moments, as fleeting as they may be, that hint at a better film lying dormant below a thick layer of cringe-inducing dialogue in Netflix’s original film Like Father. Sadly, those moments are not those shared between the two leads: Kristen Bell, playing a workaholic daughter, and Kelsey Grammer, playing an estranged father with a lot of regrets. The failure of the film is that the moments that have the greatest importance to the overarching theme are the least convincing. Grammer, whose rise to fame happened almost entirely in the small screen, fails at capturing the feeling of the repentant father and grieving friend.

Surprisingly, there are a few instances in which the setting (a couple’s cruise) and the supporting characters (a mixed bag of middle aged African Americans, a gay couple and an elderly couple) are what gives the film some life, and lighthearted pleasure.

Sidenote: A good film has never chosen to wrap its story with a singing and dancing number. It’s almost always a testament to a lack of ideas and not knowing how to end a film.

LIFE OF THE PARTY (2018) [ 2/5 ]

I have always had tremendous respect for the work of Melissa McCarthy, but it has never been as clear just how immense her talents are than watching this truly awful film by her director and husband Ben Falcone. Sometimes it takes an extremely unimaginative and worthless piece of writing and directing to really appreciate what talent can do to make a piece of cinema tolerable.

Melissa McCarthy is, per usual, the best thing about the film she stars in. She injects life and humor to nearly everything she does. On several scenes I even marveled at her innate ability to extract humor where there is none found on the script.

Sidenote: I look forward to the actress getting her feet wet in the well-received Marielle Heller dramedy Can You Ever Forgive Me?

CARNAGE (2011) [ 3.5/5 ]

On a purely cinematic level, Carnage is a very challenging film to make I’d think. For starters, it requires a great deal of imagination to stretch into a feature length film what is a very limiting premise: an after school squabble between kids ends up in one getting injured and their parents decide to meet to deal with it. To make things more challenging, the entirety of the film, with the exception of the first and last dialogue-free scenes, takes place inside a Manhattan apartment and it involves only 4 people. It is, therefore, all about the words and those who deliver them. For that, director Roman Polanski enlisted the talents of a fantastic ensemble: Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet playing a posh and cynical New York couple, and Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly playing the seemingly civilized but actually dysfunctional middle class family whose son was injured.

What ensues between these characters is pure madness. Instead of taking the predictable path of pitting one side versus the other, alliances and enemies turn and shift as the film progresses. The unpredictability is, in fact, one of the film’s delights which, at about the one hour mark, recycles accusations and recriminations as the verbal (and sometimes physical) fighting escalates.

Sidenote: I tried to watch this film without considering Roman Polanski’s involvement, judging the film simply on its merits. However, I could not help but feel a sour taste in my mouth for having enjoyed the film made by a convicted rapist who fled from justice decades ago. The silver lining here is that the work of actors and crew remains valuable and worth discussing, even if the man at the helm shouldn’t be making movies.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) [ 3.5/5 ]

Recently I read a news headline that recounted controversial statements made about the “need” for diversity by a questionable anchor. He challenged the notion of “why exactly are we better with diversity?”.

While a pathetic statement like that does not deserve a counter argument, I could not help but think that films like Crazy Rich Asians would not be as successful, appealing and, ultimately, as necessary, if we belonged in a truly post-racial society where the very topic of integration is irrelevant.

Time and again, the things that make Crazy Rich Asians stand out from its romantic comedy counterparts is that it shines a bright, fabolous and non-dimmable light on Asian culture. Generally what happens is not entirely dissimilar from things that have been explored and tried before on the big screen. The difference now is that these situations of class and cultural divide are entirely occurring within an Asian umbrella, interpreted by an ensemble of beautiful and interesting Asian actors shedding a light, however imperfect, of what their lives are like.

Furthermore, Crazy Rich Asians is a film that knows its audience and caters to it. In its display of the lives of the 1%, the wealth is always front and center. It revels on it and doesn’t demonize it with tired stereotypes. Instead, the film mostly respects it. Cracking jokes at the ridiculous excess while also allowing it to be a tool through which to claim independence, respect and attention.

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