Review: Joker is No Joke

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Be warned, Joker, directed by Todd Phillip’s, may be based on a comic book character that has had a long history in comics but on screen, but it will change the way you look at the character and the genre. If you had changed the names of some of the characters, the result would be a powerful modern noir film about a man’s fall from his already precarious grip on sanity to full chaotic madness. This is not a film for everyone and if you go in thinking it’s going to be some “comic book movie,” you may be off-put by it’s heavy nature and uncomfortable themes. Yet it is also an exemplary work of cinematic art.

When we first meet Arthur Fleck, he is a clown for hire. And in the opening scene he is one of those we most ignore on the street as we pass them by, someone holding a going out of business sign for a store. Nameless kids steal his sign and after a chase, they corner him and beat him up.  This is also our introduction to Gotham, a city that is reminiscent of the seedy streets of New York from the 70s and early 80s as portrayed in films like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. But as a narrative, Scorsese’s King of Comedy is perhaps the biggest influence on Joker, as Arthur Fleck has spells of delusion where we glimpse into his imaginary world where he is accepted and even loved.

Gotham is a powder-keg city on the brink of exploding. Garbage is piling up on the streets because of a city-wide garbage strike. Unrest among the populace brews throughout the film as public tensions between the disenfranchised classes escalate steadily as the film progresses. There is rampant poverty and the Gotham itself is a decaying grimy city crowded with its own mad identity. Arthur Fleck may be insane, but so is the world around him.

Without a doubt, Arthur Fleck, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is the center of the film. It is not just a character piece, it is practically a one-man show. Sure there are other characters in it, but most of them are unnamed and just stepping stones towards his dark madness. Much of this is uncomfortable to watch as Phoenix’s portrayal of an already unsettled and unhealthy Arthur Fleck finds himself drowning in a system that has not only given up on him but the city as well. An early scene shows him with a social worker where it is revealed that he has already spent time in a mental institution, yet he can not answer the reason he was there in the first place. He is already on seven medications, yet he doesn’t feel it is doing anything for him. Later, city budget cuts will halt his sessions as well as his prescriptions. His social worker frankly tells him,”The city doesn’t give a shit about people like you. It doesn’t give a shit about people like me.”

The Joker is not just about the decay of a single human being but of a society. Society and and the uncaring system that created it let down not only a person that could have been helped but a city that could have been helped. And much of the the narrative displays that as Fleck’s personality spirals, so does the city as it become more violent and chaotic. And towards the end as the Joker is truly born, Gotham City becomes its most chaotic, reflecting the made state that Joker has now embraced.

This movie definitely has its violent moments but they are not, and I repeat, not, glorified or over the top like in Tarantino’s least violent film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Now some of the violence may be disturbing or even unsettling. Good. It’s supposed to be because you don’t want him to do it, yet he does. Even in one instance of self defense, you think he’s defending himself, but then he crosses the line beyond self defense.

Joaquin Phoenix crafts an amazing performance as the troubled Arthur Fleck. He initially starts off as an awkward and apprehensive character who seems harmless at first but unfortunately as he progresses and gains confidence, he is also progressing into his darker nature. It is certainly one of the best performances I’ve seen all year and I would be surprised if he does not get at least a nomination for an Academy Award.

Francis Conroy plays Penny Fleck, Arthur’s mother who as we see in the very beginning is home bound and dependent on her son . And as it will be easy to see almost just as early on is not that mentally stable herself. She obviously does not have as much screen time as Phoenix, but her performance does stand out for its subtle nuanced portrayal of another troubled person.

Robert De Niro turns in his usually impressive performance as Murray Franklin, a late night talk show host who is very reminiscent of Johnny Carson, right down to the rainbow colored curtains and his Ed McMahan lookalike co-host.

As much as joker was planned as a standalone movie, almost to be seen as an Elseworlds tale, somehow they just could not leave the connection to Batman and the Wayne family out of it. There is a subplot involving Thomas Wayne, played by Brett Cullen that it works for the most part, especially as the Thomas Wayne comes across as a bit of a jerk. But frankly including Bruce Wayne as a child in the movie was not necessary.

Hildur Guðnadóttir composed a score that is both haunting and oppressive at times. AT times it feels like a score for a horror film as an atmosphere of dread haunts her score in anticipation of fell deeds. Cello solos are featured throughout as Guðnadóttir is herself a celloist who had worked on scores for Sicario, and also composed the score for its sequel Day of the Soldado

Todd Phillips knows how to direct drama well, considering this is his background has been in comedies such as The Hangover Trilogy. He certainly knows how to shoot his film and get everything he needs out of his actors. But his script and direction are not perfect. Much of the plot is predictable, especially when we know what the end result will be. There are a couple of double twists that work though. But the is also an unneeded shoe-horning of Batman lore in to the narrative.

Lawrence Sher’s cinematography can best be described as beautiful ugliness. The grime and worn look of locations and interiors look authentic for a world that is meant to look like it is rotting. Much of it is shot in real locations in New York and every stain of rust and hue of graffiti shows.

There has perhaps been too much talk about various controversies that are connected to this movie. From fears that it may inspire someone to go out and commit violent acts like a mass shooting or that it fuels the rage of incels, it seems as people were determined to see it fail for the sake of seeing it fail. In my opinion it does not do that. I would recommend not only seeing this film with an open mind and no pre-conceived notions of it being based on a comic book character, but to see it as a quality film. Comic fans may be disappointed. Good. They need their views challenged. I believe this film succeeds in challenging pre-conceived views of not just the Joker but comic book based movies. What Zack Snyder failed to do with his Ayn Rand influenced attempts at grim and dark deconstruction of Superheroes, Todd Phillips succeeds in his auteur deconstruction of a iconic villain. This movie is highly recommended.

Final Score: 8.5/10

 

 

 

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Review: Abominable is E.T. With Fur, But That’s OK

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Abominable by Dreamworks does not do anything revolutionary as far as American animated features are concerned. In fact it downright emulates a classic film of almost everyone’s youth, E.T. The Extraterrestrial. It’s not necessarily a bad thing since it still does does a good job of entertainment overall, despite its familiar plot. Some shortcomings come from a story that plays out as if there were scenes missing from the final cut that would have helped the narrative feel more fleshed out. But in the end, it is a cute entertaining film that is family friendly and treats their young characters as good kids trying to do the right thing.

Yi (voiced by Chloe Bennet)is a teenage girl living with her mother and grandmother in an unspecified Chinese city, though I suspect it is either Shanghai or a reasonable substitute. She spends much of her days doing odd jobs throughout the city for extra cash. All the while her family does not know this. All they know is that she disappears all day without telling them what she does. She has a little hideaway on her roof where she keeps mementos and the money that she has stowed away for what appears to be a plan to travel across China.

One night she discovers that an escaped Yeti is hiding on her roof and some bad guys are looking for him. You can tell they are bad guys because they all dress in black and their helicopters are black. She decides to hide him from their search lights and figures out he just wants to get home which happens to be Mount Everest.

She decides to initially get him on the next cargo ship that will travel up north in the Yangtze River.  But seeing that Everest, as she has named the creature, may not be able to survive on his own she makes the decision to make sure he gets all the way home. Along for the journey is her younger neighbor Peng (Albert Tsai) and his cousin, Jin (Tenzing Norgay Trainor). While Peng is the plucky and childlike adventurous type, Jin is more responsible but is also the typical teen concerned about his appearance and how many likes he gets on social media. The kids are pursued by the aforementioned team in black and are led by mega-rich guy Burnish (Eddie Izzard) who wants the Yeti as a prize in his collection of rare animals.

The majority of the film is a pursuit film that doubles as a gorgeous travelogue through the landscapes of China, including the giant Buddha of Leshan, and of course up to the very summit of the Himalayas. Accompanying the stunning visuals is an accomplished score by by Rupert Gregson Williams, which is highlighted by beautiful violin solos performed by Charlene Huang.

ABOMINABLE

The plot is very basic but it succeeds in its execution. The animation from Dreamworks and China’s Pearl Studios (technically a spin-off of Dreamworks Animation) is a solid presentation technically and artistically. The character designs are very expressive and are helped along with fine performances by the voice cast of mostly Asian and Asian Americans. The backgrounds of Chinese landscapes are without a doubt lush and a wonder to the eyes. My only issue is with the design of Everest which resembles more of a giant Muppet dog than human-like that lies mostly in our subconscious mythology.  He also has magic Yeti powers.

Every so often, Everest uses his powers of Yeti Ex Machina to get himself and the kids out of a jam and save them from not only the goons chasing them, but also starvation. He basically uses his powers when the plot calls for it, or if the writers don’t have a creative way to get out of the corner they are in. This is the film’s biggest negative and it comes across as a little lazy. Stuck on a cliff? Yeti Ex Machina!

For a movie that is as derivative it is, it still manages to lure you in with some great characters interactions, particularly between the kids. Yes, they snipe at each other and will bicker. But the bottom line, is that they still treat each other as family and have each other’s back. Yi’s family dynamic is tight and yet she feels distant from them since her father’s death. Yet her mother and grandmother are still there and have faith in her. Their relationship is as warm and inviting as any in the world. These are genuinely good kids trying to do the right thing no matter what. These characters will draw you in enough to care what happens to them in their adventure.

Now, this movie could have easily been told as an American tale starting off in an typical American city with a Bigfoot substituted for a Yeti. And honestly it could have worked just as well as far as overall plot. But with China as a setting it offers quite a unique perspective, not only of what the countryside and cities are like, but of it’s culture. As much as the film does a great job of just showing magnificent landscapes of China, it does not do so in a pandering way. At no time do we or should we feel that we are undergoing a geography lesson other than how far the Himalayas are. The cultural identities of the characters are not treated as some exotic alien culture but as a matter of fact. That is because the universal bonds of family and friendship cross cultural barriers.

Final Score: 7.75/10

Review: Hustlers Will Shake You Down

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This is story about control
My control Control of what I say
Control of what I do
And this time I’m gonna do it my way
I hope you enjoy this as much as I do
Are we ready?
I am ‘Cause it’s all about control,
And I’ve got lots of it

Janet Jackson: “Control”

This is a movie about control. And it’s also based on a true story. Hustlers begins with the opening of Janet Jackson’s famous song, “Control,” playing and we are introduced to our main character, Destiny a new stripper at a high end New York strip club. She is literally taken under the wing of Ramona, a veteran of the club who shows her the ropes of the club. Money is easy to make under Ramona’s tutelage as many of their customers are wall street high high-rollers willing to drop hundreds — even thousands — of dollars in a strip club, for just seeing some T&A up close and personal. Things don’t go so well after the financial crash of 2008 and after some time apart Destiny is back working at the club but in thew shadow of the recession, business is no longer booming. That is until Ramona, Destiny and a few others decide to take matters into their own hands and go fishing for customers to hustle into spending large amounts of money in the club, maxing out their credit cards in drinks and tips. And folks, especially you guys out there (you know who I’m talking to), if you come to Hustlers expecting some titillating strip scenes with T&A all up in your face, you’re gonna get played — and rightfully so. This is an exceptional crime drama that seems to get a lot of its filmic influences from Martin Scorsese.

Side note. First of all, I’ve been to a few strip clubs, usually not sober, and I was not really into it. And most of the time the guys in the audience looked like they were just passing time. It was never like it is portrayed in the movies. Second of all, I did not know you could charge tips at a strip club. I’ve also only been to the low lying ones in my city, in neighborhoods most people would not want to wander into. Also, San Francisco had (and probably still has) weird laws about which clubs can serve alcohol and what the strippers can do.

It is without a doubt a crime film and is most reminiscent of Scorsese’s Goodfellas. The ladies are all likable and we especially end up caring most for Destiny, who is played by Constance Wu, and her family. Jennifer Lopez as Ramona is believable as the veteran and eventual ringleader of the group. And she turns in a strong performance as someone who is always working an angle. While we get much focus on them, we get only passing back stories for the rest of the crew, unfortunately. Destiny anchors film’s point of view character. She ends up representing the normal everyday girl that spirals into a lifestyle of crime.

This movie also makes it clear that even though crimes are being committed against these men, none of these victims are in the least bit sympathetic, except for maybe one.  In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a sympathetic male character in the film. Most of these guys are the same Wall Street wolves that crashed the economy in 2008, and it’s made pretty clear they don’t deserve our sympathy in the first place. If you think this is a film that is some anti-male jeremiad then you are missing the film’s finer points. But if you are a man, you may just find yourself feeling stupid. “Oh, I’d never get fall for that hustle.” you may say. Yeah, you probably would. But you may also look at how you look at or treat women who work these jobs differently. That is not to say that they are all going to drug you and max out your credit card, but they are regular people trying to make it in a country that is just one big hustle. Unfortunately their way of making it involves ripping guys off of tens of thousands of dollars at a time. I may not be qualified to call this a feminist film, but it certainly is about a handful of women who seize control from men who typically have exploited them in all sorts of manners as shown in the film.

Once the hustling schemes are set, we get many, perhaps too many, montages of the scam. They find a mark, get him interested in the company of these beautiful women, he gets slipped a spiked drink, and one of them decides that it’s a good idea to go to the strip club. Next thing you know he’s spent thousands of dollars on a bar tab and tips. It is such an simple shuck that only men would fall for something like this. And once things get going good, we are treated to scenes, on top of the hustling scenes, of the girls living the life and spending money on bling like there’s no tomorrow. They even throw a Christmas party where they exchange overpriced gifts with each other.

The movie is framed in flashbacks as told by Destiny years later as she is being interviewed by a reporter. Julia Stiles plays the corresponding role of the reporter who wrote the original article from which the film is based on. You’ll end up getting the feeling that this is a confessional. Destiny frames and anchors this story. After all, this is her story. And through her, we get the most personal, especially her desire to take care of her elderly grandmother.

Wai Ching Ho, probably best recognized as Madam Gao from Netflix’s Daredevil, Iron Fist, and Defenders, play’s Destiny’s grandmother. She is probably the hippest Chinese grandmother I’ve ever seen. Playing against type, she is well aware of where the money comes from and is even there during the gang’s Christmas party having herself a good old time.

Rapper (and former stripper herself), Cardi B cameos as a fellow dancer at the club. Her role may have been played up more in the advertisement but she is not one of the main characters. Lili Reinhart has some great little bits of characterization as the nervous member of the crew who tends to nervously throw up every other scene.

Written and directed by Lorena Scafaria, who does not have a history of big budget productions, Hustlers has a look of a higher budgeted film than it’s reported $20 million. It was filmed on location in New York and apparently at a real strip club. Neither of these are cheap to do and it is a testament to the creative talent behind the scenes to milk not only a great look but a great sound to the movie. Much of the soundtrack are jukebox hits from Janet Jackson, Fiona Apple, Britney Spears, and even Lorde.

Hustlers may not revolutionize film. But I think having a deft female writer and director at the helm helps it serve up its story in a very entertaining manner without being exploitative in its adult subject matter. Lot of guys may not like it because they think they came for a big screen strip show, then get shown how dumb they can be.  That’s on them. Enjoy  the film for the crime drama that it is.

Final Score: 8/10

Con Report: Silicon Valley Comic Con

This year’s Silicon Valley Comic Con has come and gone and as Silicon Valley’s largest pop-culture and comic book convention it has had ups and downs. As in the last two years prior, it took place in the San Jose Convention Center. Unlike mot comic cons across the nation, SVCC is unique in that they actively incorporate science as part of their programming. In a prominent area right beside the official con merchandise, NASA had an information and merchandise booth.

The con itself was well attended and for the first time it was held in the summer. Previous cons were held during the Spring, around spring break period. I have mixed feelings about this. According to the convention it was due to popular demand that the convention be held in the summertime. But there is a reason that summer is also called Con season and having it in mid August is right in the middle of other conventions as well. For myself I prefer the Spring as summers in Silicon Valley can be unpleasantly hot. Either way, it will be interesting to see the number of attendees this years compared to previous years.

As standard for comic cons, the were plenty of celebrity appearances and opportunities for autographs and photos with these celebrity guests. Silicon Valley Comic Con has had a history of doing reunions of casts. A few years back they re-united the cast of Back to the Future. A year after that it was a reunion of members of the cast of Star Trek the Next Generation. This year it was the re-union of the cast of the first three Terminator films and members of the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers American cast. Unfortunately, even though Arnold Schwarzenegger made an appearance on Sunday for autographs and photos, he was not on hand for the stage appearance with other cast members from the Terminator films such as Robert Patrick, Edward Furlong, Jeannette Goldstein, and Michael Biehn.

Also making an appearance for autographs and photos was Jason Mamoa (Aquaman, Dune) who has been building up a huge following over the years. Unfortunately he could not attend any stage appearance either.

Missing out on these two celebrities on stage was a disappointment but unfortunately it is the nature of the business when you have to work around the schedules of two busy individuals like Arnold and Jason. Too bad I was never a power rangers fan, I would have geeked out.

I did not cosplay this year. Part of that was the South Bay heat was not comfortable for me. And on top of that, some of my costumes no longer fit around the waist. They must have shrunk in storage or something. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Nevertheless, other attendees did cosplay and much of them looked really great.

 

 

 

I did however spend a good amount of time in the main exhibit hall with my shopping list of comics I was looking for and also connecting with acquaintances in Artists Alley. I did notice one thing about the programming track that was interesting. For a comic book convention, there seemed to be a lack of comic book centered programming. Maybe it’s a reflection of the industry that there are plenty of pop culture panels about things such as movies that were influenced by comics but sadly there were hardly any panels about comic books themselves. Maybe no one submitted panel ideas for comic book coverage, which is a shame.

One odd programming choice about panels I did not understand is the overlapping of panels. Half of the panels would start at the top of the hour while another half of the panels scheduled would start at the thirty-minute mark.

As with pretty much all comic conventions these days, the cultural divide is still evident in the total lack of anime and manga programming. Perhaps it is the fact that anime and manga is so huge now (manga sales are actually higher than comic books) that there is some unwritten understanding that they just may as well have their own convention. In fact, Crunchyroll Expo came two weeks after SVCC. .

Overall, the convention this year was slightly disappointing from previous years as not everything seemed to go as planned. I don’t know if there were any plans for either of the big name draws of Mamoa or Schwarzenegger to participate in stage panels but if there was no plans as such it probably should have been announced ahead of time.

Lines to enter into the convention were exceptionally long as the security company hired seemed confused about some of the simplest details such as what snacks could and could not be brought into the venue. People were made to pour out water bottles and and snacks confiscated, this included little bags of M&Ms and trail mix. All beverages including coffee had to be consumed before entering. There was apparently a special entrance for VIP ticket holders, unfortunately, hardly anyone knew about it, not even the ones at the door. And on a personal note, when I had thought that I had lost my car keys inside the convention and tried to get in just after the convention had ended, guards at the door were in total confusion as to what to do.

But the con experience, despite some nitpicks, has been steadily becoming the major pop-culture convention for Northern California. But because it actively cultivates a balance of science and technology with all things we love about nerd culture. Without movie and television studios trying to dominate the convention with major announcements or trailers, this is definitely more friendly towards fans just having fun together.

“Penguin Highway” is a Surreal Anime Delight

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What would you do if one day dozens of Adelie penguins started showing up in your little suburban town for no apparent reason? This becomes the trigger event for a surreal, yet beautiful, coming of age anime from anime film Penguin Highway that is sure to bring some delight to a dull day. And if, like me, you happen to have a love of penguins, you will be in for a joyful animated treat.

Aoyama is an overachieving self admitted genius. He is also in the fourth grade. Yet he keeps extensive notebooks on daily observations in life as his goal is to become a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He has a natural scientific curiosity about everything which is encouraged and cultivated by his parents. But frankly, he’s not as much of a genius as he thinks he is as he is a little clueless in may other areas as will be shown in the film. But he is definitely above average in the class. Fellow classmate, Hamamoto is a girl that he admits just might be smarter than him. His best friend, Uchida serves as the devoted sidekick who tends to states obvious facts that everyone misses such as who has a crush on who.

Aoyama has a fascination with the local dental assistant who is never really named but either addressed as Miss, or Onee-san, the honorific for big sister. We normal people would call it a crush, but he has no clue about that aspect of life. He also has an odd curiosity and fascination with her breasts. Though charming initially, it does become a little creepy as the film continues. Aoyama may be precocious but he is appropriately awkward in the world and sometimes his curiosity gets the better of him as he tries to see how long a person can go without eating.

One seemingly normal school day, penguins are spotted by many people in town and Aoyama decides it is his mission to investigate the phenomenon and solve the mystery of their sudden appearance. He discovers that they are Adelie penguins which are native to the Antarctic and not escaped zoo animals. A Japanese suburb is definitely not their natural habitat. Aoyama discovers that the ones that were rounded up by the local authorities suddenly vanished while in the truck carrying them.The mystery deepens and the game is afoot as Aoyama feels he has to get to the bottom of this enigma. And in true young kids fashion, the film’s Scooby gang is soon on the case.

He is of course teamed up with his classmates and Onee-san in his effort to solve the mystery of the penguins. By using observation and deduction he is determined to get to the truth. This truth will end up leading Aoyama and company on a road filled with surreal penguin appearances and disappearances,  inter-dimensional bubbles, and of course a little young romance.

Penguin Highway is the debut feature film of Hiroyau Ishida, but you would not think so as he deftly handles the story elements of the children with quite a bit of finesse  and never makes them seem annoying in their rambunctiousness as so often happens anime. Based on the novel of the same name by Tomiko Morimi, each of the characters are given their main moments and even the bully character is not really all that bad.

The final act comes together in a literal flood of adorable penguins and a dreamlike town that bends reality like a drug induced vision that is cute, funny and mind bending. Don’t let the fact that I absolutely love penguins and animes that feature them are especially endearing. This is a film that is heartwarming and quint and tells a story that can only be done in animation. On top of that it celebrates intellectual curiosity and the belief in science and the scientific method of evidence gathering.

But the final act may not make a lot of sense to many people and may leave some with more questions than answers while the final credits roll. But perhaps that is a good thing and maybe we’ll have to keep thinking about it later. Of course this is also all the more reason to watch it again.

At its heart, Penguin Highway is as simple a coming of age story as they come — except there’s space-time bending and penguins. It is uplifting and the visuals are absolutely stunning. If you happen to catch it dubbed the young characters are actually played by age appropriate actors. Although in some scenes, their young inexperience in voice work is evident.

I first saw Penguin Highway as an early screening during 2018’s Crunchyroll Expo and was deeply impressed. When it received a theatrical release, it was fairly limited but now it is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo at all major retailers by Eleven Arts Entertainment and Shout Factory. If you are interested in a Collector’s Edition, it is available to order from RightStuf.com which is probably the largest online retailer of anime and Manga in the world if not America.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: Blinded by the Light

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There was a certain genre of films back in the mid to late 80s that featured teen characters who felt trapped or stuck in where they were in the world. These circumstances could be because of economics, social status, or even family keeping the main character down from embracing their dreams and aspirations. Movies like Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, even The Last Starfighter had themes of  chasing a dream that others say they can’t achieve or defying your parents who are keeping you down.`

It is perhaps providence that circumstances align for the existence of the uplifting comedy drama Blinded by the Light which not only feels like an 80’s movie but since it is based on a true story, takes place in the 80s. Based on the memoir by Safraz Manzoor, Greetings from Bury Park, Blinded by the Light is a comedic drama that is joyful and heart warming as well.

Javed Khan is is a sixteen-year old Pakistani Muslim living with aspirations of being a writer living in 1987 Luton. Unfortunately for his dreams, his working class father does not see writing as a career and on top of that the family is very traditional Muslim which still believes in arranged marriages and familial piety. In other words, a father’s word is law in the household. And one of those laws is no girls, and graduate college and get a good job as a doctor, or lawyer.

While at Sixth Form College, which is like an advanced placement school before applying for university, Javed begins to take writing classes. He also meets and befriends a Sikh friend that would change his life. While talking over lunch Roops lets him borrow a couple of cassette tapes to listen too. They are two tapes of Bruce Springsteen music who Roops claims speaks to their situation as marginalized kids from Luton.

One night, at a particularly low point of frustration with the world, he puts on the Springsteen tape and listens to The Boss. Almost instantly the raw voice and the lyrics about struggling through in a working class world resonate with him. Not only does the music speak to Javed, it is as if the lyrics of Springsteen become a character itself, floating across the screen as if it were alive.

Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
The dogs on Main Street howl
‘Cause they understand
If I could wrench one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land

Rejuvenated by the music of his new found hero, Javed finds enough confidence in himself to start turning in his poems to his supportive English teacher, played by Hayley Atwell. It also gives him the confidence to start talking to fellow classmate, Eliza.

But not everything is great for Javed as his father is laid off from the local auto plant where his traditionalist father had been working for years. His mother must take on more sewing work all the while preparing for the wedding of his oldest sister. Javed faces increasing pressure to conform to the traditions of his family and obey his father’s wish that he do better than becoming “just another Pakistani cab driver.” His father has no understanding or belief that a writer can actually make a living and scoffs when Javed is given not only an internship at the local newspaper but a front page byline. And music of Bruce Springsteen is definitely not understood by his father, who he calls “that Jewish American singer.”

Yet despite his problems at home, he still finds joy in the company of Roops and Eliza. His budding romance with Eliza is an almost by the numbers teen romance. With the music of Bruce Springsteen blasting through his Walkman leads to an impromptu serenade of “Thunder Road,” comically accompanied by a whole street full of shoppers. There is another semi-musical moment later where Roops and Javed hijack the school radio station to play Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”  Along with Eliza in true 80s montage style, they dance and cavort about the streets of Luton. These scenes are meant for laughs, are absolutely unrealistic, but are also infectiously fun.

Blinded by the Light is, on the surface, a rather trope filled standard comedy drama. But what it does different and does well is tell its story from the unique perspective of an immigrant family amidst the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s England which was a tumultuous time both economically and racially. It can not be ignored that being a Pakistani Muslim during that that time was not easy as Britain’s neo-Nazi National Front party were openly harassing them in the streets. The story is one many of us may already see play out ahead of time with no real surprises. But as with my review of The Farewell, it is the reason that inclusion and representation makes a difference. It is unique because it tells a story of a culture that is often ignored or marginalized. Yes it is a different culture, but the themes about family and working class struggles are universal.

Director Gurinder Chandra weaves everything together and allows us to peer into a family and community that is not shown enough in cinema. Probably best known for directing Bend it Like Beckham, it too dealt with rebelling against traditionalism.

The cast is filled with relatively unknown actors. Viveik Kaira is absolutely charming as Javed and is easy to relate to and empathize with throughout the film. He starts off as the typical awkward kid, shy and hesitant, but when he is in the Springsteen zone, he is a force of exuberance, charm, and confidence.

Kulvinder Ghir deserves special recognition as Javed’s strict traditional father. It can’t be easy being both comedic and dramatic in the same scene as he carries the weight of both deftly, especially when playing opposite Viveik Kaira.

Hayley Atwell may be the best known of the cast but she is literally there as support for Javed. Yet her character is the first one that offers  encouragement to pursue his dream. She channels that one teacher that we all remember that was always there to encourage us.

As a son of immigrants and also Asian, many of the family issues that Javed faces about identity and where one belongs in society resonated with me, especially the desire to be a writer. Blinded by the Light may be a little clichéd, but it has enough working for it from its engaging cast to win you over. And of course the music of Bruce Springsteen helps a lot too.

Final Score: 8.5/10

Movie Review: The Farewell

The Farewell is a small budget film from Lulu Wang set mostly in China with dialogue mostly in Mandarin. It stars an almost all Chinese cast that comes to grips with a family dilemma that many people, not just Asians have to deal with, saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time while that loved one is still alive.

Current rising star, Awkwafina, hot on the heels of her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians, takes on a more serious role as Billi Wang. Billi is an aspiring writer who was received the bad news that she was rejected for a grant. She also receives the news from her parents that her Nai Nai, her paternal grandmother is dying of cancer. With the pretense of a all the family going to China to visit her for the wedding of one of her grandchildren, and Billi’s cousin, the family come to not only pay respects to the matriarch of the family but to also say their goodbyes. It is also decided among family members that the little time she has left she not be told about her condition.

This may sound odd to western audiences, but it is not all that unusual in Asia. Billi is not asked to join her parents as she would be the one most likely to tell Nai Nai the truth. She is also the most westernized of the extended family. Nevertheless, she scrapes up her own money to fly to China as well. While there she reconnects with her extended family and her grandmother. Yet underlying that is the fact that she is back in a China that has changed. her childhood neighborhood is no longer there and her understanding of the family dynamic his different as she had grown up with strained relationships with her own parents.

Yet, Billi has amazing love for her grandmother and internally and with other members is the constant debate on whether to reveal the truth to her grandmother about her condition. To a one, they all believe not to because it would place a burden on her. Whereas the family members take on the burden of her illness so that she may enjoy her last days surrounded by loved ones. And for someone like Nai Nai, she would see herself as a burden on others with her illness.

Being among her family brings out a sparking joy to Nai Nai as she is with her loving family. Billi especially has a rekindling of her bonds with her grandmother and finds the comfort and closeness that she has seemed to have lost with her own parents. And it is through her that she begins to understand her parents more.

The wedding subterfuge is rather interesting as it is for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao, who like her is a transplant, but to Japan. His girlfriend is Japanese which gives just a little bit of cultural tension as she does not speak Mandarin like everyone else. An it is never really stated how much she is in on the deception. Chen Han, as Hao Hao may not have much dialog, but he is always seen in the background feeling the pain of the deception that he must pull off in from of the family matriarch.

Crazy Rich Asians may have been Awkwafina’s breakthrough role, but this is without a doubt her starring breakout. Her comedic talents were a highlight in Crazy Rich Asians, but here where she is the star, she brings a strong dramatic turn as an Asian American caught between the multiple cultures, American, Chinese, and Chinese-American.

Bili’s father is played by Tzi Ma, a veteran Chinese-American actor with one of those faces that like many other Chinese-American actors has popped up in film and television for decades. It is about time he got as meaty a role as he got with The Farewell.

Nai Nai is played wonderfully by Zhao Shuzhen who does not seem to have any other credits to her name according to IMDB, but she turns in such a natural and charming performance that it is as if she embodies all that is good and beloved of everyone’s grandmother.

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In a theatrical field that seems to be flooded these days with big budgeted blockbusters and tent pole titles, it is significant that a film with a $3 million budget is actually one of the best films of the year. We are blessed that films such as The Farewell still exist. It is full of charm, heart, performances that are filled with natural verisimilitude. That natural verisimilitude may be because, as the opening title card says, that the story is based on a real lie. Lulu Wang based the screenplay on her own family experience and relationship with her own Nai Nai.

One of the reasons why representation matters in Hollywood is that even though on the surface, this is a family melodrama, it is from a perspective of Asian and Asian-American culture that much of movie goers in the west may not be familiar with and certainly something that Hollywood has been reluctant to include in their searches for the next big hit. What films like this, Crazy Rich Asians, and Netflix’s Always be my Maybe show is that Asian-Americans can tell their stories just as well as mainstream Hollywood. And because of their diversity they can tell these stories in a unique and original way.

I lost both my parents some years ago and managed t be by their bedsides for their last moments. Unfortunately the circumstances being what they were, neither time were they in a very conscious state and neither of their passings were what the family was prepared for. Lulu Wang’s new film, The Farewell deals with a touchy subject that is handled deftly with both humor and heart-touching drama.

Final Score: 9/10