Review: The Lighthouse

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Should pale death, with treble dread, make the ocean caves our bed, God who hears the surges roll deign to save our suppliant soul.

Director Robert Eggers made quite a splash with the unsettling horror film The Witch. With The Lighthouse, he ramps that sense of unsettlement up to eleven and creates a horror movie that centers around madness and features two incredible performances from a pair of actors that are often underappreciated for their craft.

The Lighthouse is set entirely on a small island where a solitary lighthouse is to be manned by two men who are also the sole human occupants of the island for four weeks until the next relief comes. Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake is the old grizzled sea dog of the pair who is the senior in charge and has been doing lighthouse duties for a long time now — perhaps too long. Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow, is the young newcomer who has taken his first lighthouse duties thinking there would be good money in it by the end.

The pair are strangers to each other and it’s not even until about halfway through the film that they even exchange names. Tensions begin on the very first day as Pattinson’s character refuses to drink during dinner with the veteran, saying it is against regulations. The old man treats Pattinson as nothing more than a hard laborer. He has him doing all the repairs, all the hard work, and the cleaning. All this time he is noting everything in a log book and makes it clear that he is the only one that maintains with the lighthouse lamp.

As the days and weeks go by, nerves begin to fray as Winslow becomes tired of Wake’s old sea stories and verbal abuses. Winslow begins to see things that he is not sure is  real or imagined. All this time, the relationship between the pair wax from friendliness to outright physical fights as they while away nights drinking alcohol.

Throughout the film, Eggers creates a feeling of dread and unease as we and Winslow question whether what he has seen is either real or not. It does not help that Wake questions the youth’s own grip on reality about questionable actions that are presented as those of Wake’s.

Their confines are claustrophobic and made to look even more so as the films was shot in the narrow aspect ratio of 1.19:1 which is even more narrow of an aspect ration than old tube televisions which were 1.33:1. It is also shot with stark black and white film which adds to the atmospheric nature of dread that permeates the entire movie. The cinematography is by Jarin Blashke, who had also shot The Witch for Eggers previously. While that was a film that was muted in colors, the decision to go black and white for The Lighthouse makes every shadow and every scene all the more unsettling. Location filming took place at the real lighthouse on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia. The normally attractive tourist spot becomes a menacing gothic figure surrounded by crashing waves and angry storms under the lens of Bashke.

Accompanying this beautifully shot film is a menacing score by Mark Korven, another alum from Egger’s The Witch. From the opening shot, ominous deep minor notes immediately make you aware that an impending dark tale is about to unfold and there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Throughout the narrative, Korven’s score looms over scenes like a heavy anchor around the necks of the characters, weighing the feel of the film down with moods of unease, even in the most mundane of scenes.

Much of what makes this film work hinges on the ability of just two actors to carry this film with a minimum of budget and special effects. Fortunately for us, Eggers draws out some of the best performances on the year from the two cast members. Robert Pattinson has steadily been building a solid acting resume, post Twilight and he is steadily maturing as one of the most respected and accomplished actors of his age. Willem Dafoe turns in what is possibly his best performance ever as Thomas Wake, channeling a dark abusive old sea dog, chewing on a pipe, and dripping salty, often vitriolic lines.

 

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Despite this being a horror film, it won’t appeal to all horror fans. There are no jump scares and there is no masked slasher slowly stalking victims trying to run away. Much of the horror in this is psychological and builds up as characters begin to lose their grips on sanity. Soon both men will descend into their own form of madness and we as a viewer are left to wonder whose vision of reality is true — or even if both of them are not seeing things as they are. Most certainly, the ending may not make much sense to average horror fans but even so, it will be one of those endings that will make you think about it after the lights come on in the cinema. If there is a universal lesson that we can all take from this film it’s that it’s bad luck to kill a seabird.

Robert Eggers, with his follow-up to The Witch is carving a niche for himself in the horror genre that elevates him to an auteur status that is currently occupied by artists of vision like Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) who are changing how we see modern horror movies. Instead of going for cheap jump-scares and torture porn deaths, they make you feel dread, fear, and unease. And in the end that is those things make for good horror.

Final Score: 9/10

Bonus Content: While watching The Lighthouse, I could not help but think of an episode of The Simpsons. And true to the South Park meme, The Simpsons already did it with an episode titled Mountain of Madness where Mr. Burns and Homer are trapped in a cabin together and they slowly go mad. Of course it’s not the exact same story but it is a little fun to compare the two.

So for legal reasons, and for my declaration of fair use, below is a clip from that episode.

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Review: Parasite

South Korean Cinema has really grown in its ability to cross on over to western consciousness. Their films are celebrated for their action films, and crime dramas. K-dramas have become a sensation online and K-pop has taken its share of the US pop music charts. Director, Bong Joon Ho has been at the forefront of the Korean wave. He gained notice with The Host, a Korean monster movie that was unique in that it had a good monster along with a good story and acting. He crossed over into Western films with the science fiction dystopian film Snowpiercer which had some moderate success. Unfortunately not all his films are easily accessible to the West like the brilliant Memories of Murder. With Parasite, Bong Joon Ho has achieved what no other Korean film has ever done, and that is to win the Palme d’Or, the grand prize at the Cannes film festival.

Parasite is a dark comedy that gradually becomes darker and less comedic as it unfolds over it’s narrative. The Kim family is a family living in abject poverty, that somehow manages to get by in life by doing odd jobs, and leeching wifi from neighbors or nearby cafes. Their apartment is below ground with their only window to the outside world is a gutter level view to a the street at gutter level view to an alley where drunks o to pee. And in a symbolic piece of set design, their toilet occupies the highest elevation in their abode. This family is a giant “your family is so poor” joke.

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Opportunity comes knocking when a friend of Ki-woo, the Kim’s only son, asks him to take over the job he had tutoring English for the attractive daughter of the rich Park family since he will be studying abroad.  Ostensibly it’s because his friend doesn’t want other college brats fawning over her while he gone. (Yeah, you know bro-code is gonna get broken) Ki-woo, isn’t really qualified as he’s never been to college, having failed the entrance exams several times, but he does have experience. His sister Ki-jeong just happens to a Photoshop whiz and easily forges college documents for him.

He manages to get the job and while there discovers from the mother that their young son is very interested in art but had gone through several art teachers who could not handle the boy’s wild nature. He recommends a highly praised art therapist who is a friend of a friend who is highly sought after but not cheap named Jessica. Jessica is, of course, his sister.

The Kim family is a family of hustlers. And the Parks are the perfect marks, rich and gullible. The Kims quickly adapt to whatever they need to adapt in order to achieve that hustle. And bit by bit, the rich Kim family finds that the entire Kim family is under their employ, even displacing the currently employed driver and housemaid.

Much of the film is darkly comedic, but is also a commentary on the differences in the class differences between the haves and the have absolutely nothings. The differences between the two families is mainly money. Both are quite likable and both are closely bonded together. As poor down and out that the Kims are, they are still a loving family. True, they are a scheming family of grifters, but there is no doubt that they are closely knit and  they truly care for each other. The Parks, for all their riches and are also a loving family. It is evident that the parents truly care for their children. The Park’s true feelings about social class is revealed most tellingly when Mr.Park keeps mentioning how much he dislikes it when people, meaning the help, cross the line.

The dark comedy soon gives way to just plain dark and enters into near grand guignol territory as dark secrets are revealed and it turns out that the Kims are not the only ones in the house running a hustle.

Parasite is filled with great performances from a cast that finds itself in a combined with a great story and direction. The film is also shot incredibly well. The cinematographer was Hong Kyung-pyo who shot the gorgeous dreamlike film about the artistic muse, M. Even the lower class sections of the city that the Kims occupy has beauty to it as bright neon lights up streets shops and golden warm lights illuminate the streets. Director Bong Joon-ho knows his craft and draws out great performances and is able to craft a story where every characters is memorable.

Song Kang-ho, who seems to be in every Korean film, turns in an exceptional performance as Kim Ki-taek, the father that leads the grifting family and has the bearing of the common man, a man who has been through much in life and deals with it as it comes along the best he can. Jang Hye-jin is Chung-sook, the mother of the Kims who wavers from her lower class upbringing to the matronly act of refined housekeeper with ease.

Parasite is wickedly funny and engaging. You’ll find yourself caring for every character, especially when things eventually turn tragic. It also has subtle messages that you will think about later as it pertains to class. And the ending may be ambiguous, but if you really pay attention, it is ultimately tragic as certain things in life won’t ever change and if they do, it’s only in dreams.

Final Score: 9/10

Review: Maleficient Mistress of Evil

Disney has made a cottage industry of remaking their animated films into live action films. The Lion King falls somewhere in-between with it’s photo-realistic computer animation. Almost all of them have been financially successful with varying degrees of critical reception. Two-thousand-fourteen’s Maleficient stands out to me as significant in its quality and unique take on the story of Sleeping Beauty it was based on. Instead of doing it as a remake, it is a retelling from the point of view of the animated film’s villain, Maleficient, and her motivations. It did well in the box office and it was definitely a fun scene chewing role for Angelina Jolie as the high cheek-boned villain.

Maleficient: Mistress of Evil is the direct sequel to its predecessor and continues its story with the now older Aurora (Elle Fanning), the legendary Sleeping Beauty and now Queen of the fairy inhabited Moors, is set to wed Prince Phillip(Harris Dickinson). Maleficient, as Aurora’s Fairy Godmother, is not too fond of the union but is willing to accept it for her sake, even meet with the Prince’s parents, the king and queen of Ullstead.

Though King John (Robert Lindsay) is hopeful that the union of Aurora and Phillip will bring peace between the two kingdoms of humans and fae, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer), however, has no such hope or optimism. And in one of the most transparent first act plot turns of modern film, she orchestrates the cursing of the king so that Maleficient can be blamed for it. Driven from the palace and wounded in the process, Maleficient finds herself taken in by the Dark Fae, the fairy folk that she is descended from. Hated and hunted through history the remnants of their kind have retreated to a hidden island sanctuary. Wile there,there is a similar debate of whether to pursue peace or seek out war with the humans. And it is revealed that  Maleficient is especially special among them. Yes, Disney plays the Chosen One card.

Meanwhile, with the King suffering the curse of an unwaking sleep, and the mother of the bride missing, the wedding is going ahead as planned mainly because the plot requires it, I guess. But Queen Ingrith is plotting against the fairy folk who have all been invited to the wedding. Prince Phillip spends much of his time worrying over the sleeping form of his father while Aurora suspects that the Queen may not have the best interest of the fairy folk in mind. She uncovers the conspiracy pretty easily — very easily, like she walks into it.

This is a movie that really did not need to be made. Yes in the Disney cartoon, there is a wedding at the end and I guess it’s the reason for the plot of this sequel, but what could have been a direct to video one hour sequel in the old days is a full on high budget vehicle with large battles and a padded story that stretches it just long enough to make it a feature film.

What makes the film work, however, are stand-out performances by both Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer who stare great daggers at each other in the few scenes they have together. If their were more scenes of that, the movie would have benefited from it. It is also visually stunning at times with images of the Moors that pop on the large screen, especially on large formats like IMAX. Fans of costuming will love the work done in this film as Jolie sports some great outfits, even with basic black. Michelle Pfeiffer looks absolutely regal in her queenly regalia despite exuding absolute menace.

The plot is quite simple, easy to digest, pretty predictable, and yet it will keep you engaged enough only because the audience has already invested in the characters established in the last film. It most definitely winds up with an easy ending that ties everything up to easily. In other words, the ending is a very Disney ending.

Bearing in mind that this is still essentially a tale for a younger audience, there are some dark images and ideas that are portrayed in it. Warwick Davis plays Lickspittle, someone who works for the queen and is in charge of developing weapons to kill fairies. His research involves experiments on living fairies in fact. Now, the nature of fairy tales is dark and it may surprise some that there is such dark themes in the film but I take that as par for the course. Young children may find some of it unsettling. But young teens will probably be fine.

Despite its flaws, the visual style, and the fine performances do elevate the film into something that is definitely worth a watch, maybe at a matinee.

Final Score: 7.5/10

Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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R.F. Kuang’s second book in her Poppy War Trilogy, The Dragon Republic, is not only as impressive as her first novel, The Poppy War, but is actually more mature in its writing style and confidence in storytelling that shows through the further world-building lore that is based heavily on Chinese history. There will be spoilers ahead for The Poppy War as this review will assume that you are already aware of the events, especially the end of that book.

After the events of The Poppy War, Rin and the surviving members of the Cike are on the run as the she is now enemies with the Nikan Empress who betrayed the nation to the invading Mugen Federation. She is also haunted by the death of Alton, the only other member of her Speerlie race. And even though she ended the war with the Federation by effectively committing genocide, chaos is left in its wake as soldiers without a nation to return to have resorted to wandering the country as bandits.

She soon finds herself joining with the warlord of the Dragon province who is also the father of her old school rival Nezha. It is the Dragon Warlord’s plan to lead a rebellion against the Empress and instituting a government based on democratic republic. As cynical as Rin is about this form of government she joins for the sake of vengeance against the traitorous Empress. Her best friend, Kitay,  from Sinegard Academy joins in the cause as well. Nezha, scarred and matured by the war is now a general under his father’s leadership.

New to the narrative is the nation of Hesperia. They come across as the equivalent of the Western European powers, equipped with firearms (something that the Nikari people have not seen) and airships, they are an imposing figure that allegedly supports the idea of a Dragon Republic. But they hold back on actual military support as they believe the Nikan people are not civilized enough yet. They also have their own agenda involving the spreading of their single deity religion and the examination of Rin’s shamanic power so that they can cure what they consider to be a manifestation of chaos.

The grim portrayal of Kuang’s world continues on an even broader scale as the scale of Rin’s observations on the war torn country around her expands to the multiple provinces. The effects of country that has just survives an invasion but now thrown into a civil war are all around her. There are mass exoduses and refugees fleeing from one place to another to escape conflict. On top of that is the lack of food for a population being overrun by conflict.

Rin still suffers from being more impulsive than she is smart — even though she is very smart. She is also still obsessed in following in the footsteps of Alton as a leader, even using his trident for which she is ill suited as a wielder. Her problems are even more compounded when her first face to face fight against the Empress results in her being cut off from her shaman powers.

Amid the cast of ambiguous characters with ambiguous motivations, Kitay stays the most true, and perhaps most innocent of characters. He also remains Rin’s truest friend. As in the previous novel, he anchors Rin as a moral compass and is the voice of reason. It doesn’t always work though. Fellow warlords and other generals tend to disregard some of his advice. Even Rin will give into her impulsive self than listen to reason much of the time.

Nezha’s character is much more fleshed out in The Dragon Republic as more is revealed about his family background and his motivations. His character arc is all the more intriguing when he and Rin come to know each other better and he also becomes a good friend to her. But he is also conflicted as a general and son of the Dragon Warlord who ultimately sees Rin as more of a tool of war and a bargaining chip that he throws to the Hesperians to study in exchange for their promised support. It becomes clear that the warlord is willing to sell her out if it is in his best interest.

The images of the after effects of war are haunting. There are many observations of starving peasants or bodies of civilian casualties littering field or floating in rivers. The Dragon province becomes a destination point for refugees fleeing starvation and band of former Mugen Federation soldiers now reduced to raiding defenseless villages. There is starvation and a definite lack of resources for these refugees which is made abundantly clear in the narrative.

Kuang’s structure and tone has definitely improved since the last book and events flow more naturally in the same three-part structure that was the structure of the first book. We also learn more about the shaman magic that Rin and others (including the Empress) have inherited. More is also revealed about the founding of the Nikan nation by the founding shamans. And with the introduction of the Hesperians, we get conflict not only in cultures but of religion as well.

Things coalesce in the third part of the book and it can seem to move quickly as groundwork that had been laid out throughout the narrative comes to a head as most of the novel’s plot threads come together with battles, betrayals and loss. As this is meant to be a trilogy, the novel ends at an appropriate point that does not feel like a cheap cliffhanger, but will still leave you with anticipation for the third and concluding book in the trilogy.

Ms. Kuang has grown quite a bit as a storyteller from her debut to her second novel and her ability to weave complex ideas has grown with her. He displays some great depictions of military tactics and action. She also manages to juggle a bigger cast and more complex issues such as politics and the plight of wartime refugees. Her main character, Rin has to go through a lot of development and emotional growth which she did not manage to handle as well in the first book. And the complexities of Rin’s character arc throughout the book is often filled with frustration, anger, and raw emotion as she has to examine what her place in the world is with or without her shamanic powers.

The Dragon Republic is more than a worthy follow-up to The Poppy War and I for one am in great anticipation of the final book because this is an amazing story that has been captivating from the beginning.

Final Score: 9/10

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

 

 

 

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.

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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