Movie Review ~ Raya and the Last Dragon

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ancient evil has returned to the fantasy world of Kumandra and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people.

Stars: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk, Lucille Soong, Patti Harrison, Ross Butler

Director: Carlos López Estrada, Don Hall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It really is fascinating to see how far animation has come, specifically Disney animated features, over the last three decades.  As hand-drawn animation was being phased out in favor of the faster speed of computer rendered movies that could produce stunning life-like characters, Disney managed to have their cake and eat it too when they brought Pixar into the fold while maintaining their own feature animation department.  For a while, it was Pixar that ruled the roost and turned out motion pictures of high caliber that recalled that Disney renaissance of the late 80s/early 90s that all but saved the studio.  The hand-drawn side had measured success with strong films but it wasn’t until the one-two punch releases of Frozen in 2013 and Moana in 2016 that made it clear there was still life left in the format.

Evolving from simply bringing classic fairy tales to life, the studio has listened to their audiences around the globe and continued to create work that represents people from all walks of life from shore to shore.  Now, instead of asking “What bedtime story are they bringing to the screen” we ask “what country/culture are they using as an influence this time around?” and I think that aside from it being a necessary business move it shows a company changing with the times and leading the way, not struggling to catch up with their competitors.

That’s not to say each film is easy.  Take Raya and the Last Dragon for example.  This new feature went through some interesting press as it made its way to a release since first being announced back in 2018 thanks to a small bit of business regarding the voice casting of its lead female.  Though she had originally auditioned back in 2019, Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) was not cast as Raya, a young warrior princess on a quest to restore order to a divided land.  The original actress that was cast wound up not bringing the kind of maturity the filmmakers had wanted so they returned to Tran a year later and Tran re-recorded the role.  It’s not the first time Disney has done this (2015’s The Good Dinosaur was almost entirely scrapped after it was completed and redone from the beginning) but it was interesting that they could have had Tran all along but opted in another direction first.

Inspired by the culture and communities found in the Southeast Asian islands, Raya and the Last Dragon is an original story from your usual full table of writers that contributed bits and pieces and rewrites over the course of production, but it is surprisingly full in its mythology and storytelling.  Hold on tight because the opening narration from Raya swiftly relays via flashback the history of the land of Kumandra and how it became split into five separate tribes after evil spirts named the Druun ripped through the bountiful landscape.  This was a time of dragons that drew on their own magic to protect the people of Kumandra from being turned to stone by the Druun that continued to terrorize the land.  In doing so, they fell victim to the grasp of the evil entity and the magic was transferred to a single dragon that finally unleashed the might of the power and restored balance.  The people were saved but divided and the dragons were no more.  Only the power source of their magic remained, housed in a glowing orb held in a sacred temple by one tribe.

Continuing in flashback, we see how Raya’s father (a mother is never mentioned), the leader of the tribe and tasked with protecting the orb, only wishes to unite the five tribes again but his efforts fall on ears that won’t hear, bringing out the worst in the visiting leaders.  During this visit, young Raya bonds with Namaari, the daughter of another tribe leader but the friendly interaction turns unexpectedly sour.  True intentions are revealed and in doing so sets into motion a tidal wave of events that have long lasting repercussions for everyone, sending Raya on a quest to the ends of the mighty rivers in search of answers from a source only spoken about in legend.  By the time she’s found the right river’s end, she meets the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) that holds a key to uniting the tribes…but a familiar foe from her past has also been seeking the mythical creature and will stop at nothing to get what they want.

To summarize any fraction of the remaining plot of Raya and the Last Dragon would be impossible in the space I’ve allotted for myself here and would reveal too much of the unique characters of the real and imagined kind the Disney animators and directors Carlos López Estrada and Don Hall have in store for viewers.  It’s a more complicated plot than most and younger viewers may find it harder to follow from a story perspective, though I can imagine older adults will find the addition of a narrative that involves more political maneuvering and topical contemplations on community agreement that are strikingly reflective of our own current woes quite intriguing.  It also finds time to have the typical Disney humor and the laughs are welcome among some of the darker subject matter.

As expected, the animation work is stunning and not only is the amount of detail that can now be displayed totally mind-blowing, but some scenes look like an actual live-action film and I still am on the fence if it really wasn’t.  Was it?  With the story taking up our attention and the visuals leaning toward the overwhelming, it’s the voice work that tends to be a little lacking in this one.  That’s not faulting the actors in any way, but the focus just isn’t there as much as it has been in other films.  Tran has the right balance of passionate fight within her and sensitive care that she shares outwardly; clearly the filmmakers made the right choice to use her.   In smaller roles, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians), Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy), Sandra Oh (Tammy), and Benedict Wong (The Martian) are pleasant but, again, never ‘pop’ like I’m used to voice talent doing in the past.  Only Awkwafina drums up some energy with her line readings and you can’t help but hear a little bit of Aladdin’s Genie in the performance…which is fine…but it’s definitely there.

Lacking the kind of big moment that were defining pieces of Frozen and Moana, I’m not sure where Raya and the Last Dragon will wind up within the Disney Animation roster when the rankings are reshuffled.  It has the prestige of a well-honed plot and is one of the classier screenplays Disney has produced in some time, but in other ways the film has a flatness to it that it can’t quite rise above.  It achieves a beautiful moment of harmony right at the end…but by that time we’ve waited nearly two hours for that tug at our hearts and for Disney, that may be too long of a wait.

 

If you catch Raya and the Last Dragon in theaters, you’ll also see Walt Disney Animation Studio’s first animated short in five years, Us Again.  For those watching the movie at home, Us Again will be available on Disney+ in June!  Check out my review of Us Again here.

Movie Review ~ Let Them All Talk

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A famous author goes on a cruise trip with her friends and nephew in an effort to find fun and happiness while she comes to terms with her troubled past.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest, Lucas Hedges, Daniel Algrant, John Douglas Thompson

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: If there’s one thing to be said about veteran filmmakers, it’s that they can get a movie put together quickly.  I kind of marvel at the endless gestation periods franchise pictures need to make their way to their release date (it’s not all about how long the special effects takes, trust me) or how particular directors struggle with the fine-tuning part of their oversight that keeps a project from getting in front of the viewer.  Then you have your Spielbergs, Eastwoods, and Soderberghs who can churn out movies, and often good ones, with such ease it feels like they just woke up and decided to make a movie that day.  There’s more to the planning of it of course but when you have as much experience as they do this process starts to come naturally.  At the tail end of 2020, a number of people were taken a bit off guard when Soderbergh’s Let Them All Talk was announced as complete and ready for release…how did this Meryl Streep led serio-comic film on the high seas get this close to us with no one taking notice?

Many a film fan got weepy when Oscar-winning director Soderbergh put out a very public statement that he was retiring.  The vanguard director that led the ‘80s independent film wave in Hollywood had accumulated an impressive list of box office successes and critical hits during his time in the business, earning respect from colleagues and admiration from celebrities who knew him to be an actors director.  Showing a knack for casting down to even the most minor role, for a while Soderbergh couldn’t lose…until he began to take a “one for them, one for me” approach and his ratio of winners to losers started to shrink.  Too many bombs and experimental failures followed before a last gasp strange run of oddball efforts between 2008 and 2013 (including Magic Mike and Side Effects) that led to his retreat into television and his supposed retirement.

He didn’t stay put for long.  Making a somewhat stealth return with 2017’s pleasing Logan Lucky (written by his wife, who felt the strange need to use a pseudonym), Soderbergh has been trying something a bit new with each project.  His high concept TV effort Mosaic for HBO started as an interactive app that aided audiences in solving a murder mystery, 2018’s Unsane was filmed completely with an iPhone, and 2019’s The Laundromat did the unthinkable – it found an accent and make-up that Meryl Streep couldn’t convincingly pull off.  For a man several years into retirement, he’s certainly keeping busy with his previous job.

Streep and Soderbergh are teaming up again with Let Them All Talk for HBO Max and it brings a screenplay by humorist and noted short story author Deborah Eisenberg to life and for better or worse, it’s a big improvement over the last time the star and director worked together.  For one, it’s not based on real life events, something that tended to stymie The Laundromat and bound the filmmakers to certain limitations.  It also spreads the wealth nicely among co-stars, with Streep often graciously exiting stage left in favor of her other highly respected co-stars to have their moment in the spotlight.  Soderbergh is no dummy, though, and he trots his star out for the less strong members of the cast or when the mostly improvised dialogue starts to stall out.

Everyone is waiting for the next novel from Pulitzer-winner Alice Hughes (Streep, Hope Springs) who has been struggling with completing her latest manuscript, rumored to be a sequel to her most famous book.  Recently moved to new agent Karen (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians) that she’s not totally comfortable with, Alice prefers to work at her own pace and doesn’t like to be rushed in her process.  Karen’s under pressure from their publisher, though, and isn’t as much of a friendly shoulder pushover like her predecessor.  With Alice set to receive an esteemed award in London that’s rarely given out, Karen seizes the opportunity to get Alice focused on the work and raise her profile a bit in the process.  There’s one problem, though, NY based Alice doesn’t like to fly.  But this is New York, darling…so through Karen’s connections it’s off to London on the Queen Mary II with Alice and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased) acting as her assistant of sorts.

Also invited along are two of Alice’s oldest friends she hasn’t seen in quite some time.  Though Alice doesn’t know it, Roberta (Candice Bergen, Book Club) is more frenemy than anything, holding a long grudge against her friend through an unproven theory that she took secret information told in confidence and used it as the basis for her bestselling novel.  She’s spent the ensuing decades blaming her for the shambles her life has become as a result. The peace-keeper of the bunch is free-spirited Susan (Dianne Wiest, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) who has come on the trip for all the right reasons in wanting to reconnect with her old friends and help the other two mend a fence long broken.  When Karen hops on board and starts to work in secret with Tyler to get more information on his aunt, it creates another side relationship the movie has to juggle throughout it’s two hour run time.

Acting once again as his cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and editor (under the name Mary Ann Bernard), there’s not a lot Soderbergh isn’t involved with here and you can feel it.  Much of the movie was improvised and that’s why for every dymanic scene there are two are three insignificant ones of mundane goings on that Soderbergh feels drawn to.  From the obvious improvisation in many scenes (most evident with Chan and Hedges who tend to commit the kiss of boring death in making their improvised dialogue far too specific, serious, and detailed) to the hand-held filming, it has all the calling cards the director is known for.  What it also has is a sort of deep sadness to it as well and while that provides good space for seasoned actors like the three leads to play in, it winds up making you feel bad for everyone.  Sad that friends can’t be honest, sad that family can’t be more vulnerable, sad that too much goes unsaid until too late.

As is often the case with Soderbergh, he runs the film on its rims several miles longer than necessary.  It was pretty disappointing to come out of the movie dovetailing from a quite touching ending to a pointlessly overlong coda that was of no benefit.  By that point, we’d already filled our cup with the impressive showings of Bergen, Wiest, and Streep.  Anytime Streep is onscreen you can’t help but be drawn to her magnetic aura but Soderbergh has found a way to harness that by sandwiching her between two other actresses of her generation that also possess the same sort of power to command a screen.  They have presence and in different ways.  Bergen is playing right into the type we want her to be and that’s good, though I wish the script had provided her one more establishing scene with Streep earlier in the film, it would make a later bedroom scene work that much better.  How wonderful to see Wiest knock it out of the park here playing a kind of extension of her worldly but not perfect character from Parenthood.  Her wry revelations to Bergen over their daily parlor games by the ocean are a riot and a lovely speech summing up the journey up is the film’s true high point.

If Soderbergh is going to continue to skate that line of retirement, I hope he stays with this kind of dour material because he seems to have found a nice, if imperfect fit with his own interests.  This is bound to draw comparisons to the films of Woody Allen and I can’t imagine this didn’t cross the minds of everyone involved at one time or another.  It’s got the same arch rhythm, conversations about nothing that are about everything, and that wistful longing for the joy of travel but not the pain of separation. Let Them All Talk is not going to rank high on the Best-Of list for any of the cast or crew when all is said and done but it’s one of the more interesting experiments mad scientist Soderbergh has concocted.  And who wouldn’t want to sail across the Ocean with at least one of these three stellar stars?

Movie Review ~ Captain Marvel

 


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Stars: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening, Gemma Chan, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: This should be a time of full-scale rejoicing. I mean, it only took 11 years and 21 films but Marvel Studios finally is releasing a superhero movie with a female lead. Though it may be trailing Warner Brothers’s epic Wonder Woman by a full two years, Captain Marvel is surely a welcome addition to the Marvel stable of action heroes and the studio seemed to be thoughtful in bringing the character to the big screen. Casting an Oscar winning actress as the titular character and signing on a directing team known for their independent dramas seemed like unexpected choices for an action movie of this size and unfortunately the payoff isn’t entirely worth the risk.

We’re so deep into this saga that it’s almost become a requirement for audiences to have seen, or have qualified knowledge, of previous films in order to make sense out of the action and developments that take place throughout whatever hero’s adventure we’re watching. That’s even true in this first appearance of Captain Marvel, which is set in 1995, long before the events of the movies that preceded it. Make sure to bone up on your Avengers knowledge (namely watch The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy) because it will go a long way in getting you up to speed.

Starforce warrior Vers (Brie Larson, The Gambler) is on a mission with her team on a desolate planet when she is captured by a band of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, Darkest Hour) and taken back to their ship. Staging a daring escape, she crash lands on Earth where she meets a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Glass, de-aged quite nicely) and teams up with him to locate a power source integral to her own origin story…and future Avenger movies. Along the way Vers learns why she’s plagued with nightmares of a fallen comrade (Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) and memories of a life before her time with Starforce. The secrets she discovers help shape the hero she’ll become and reframe what she’s actually defending.

I’ll be honest and say that I couldn’t resist closing my eyes for a small section of the movie around the forty-five minute mark.   Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck can’t quite keep up a solid pace and the film drags early on, even when we should be actively engaged with Vers uncovering more of her history. Things start to pick up once we meet her old Air Force buddy (Lashana Lynch) who fills in some memory gaps and helps to propel us forward into the final act. It’s when her old Starforce buddies, led by Jude Law (Side Effects), Djimon Hounsou (Serenity), and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) show up that the film becomes unstoppable as Vers realizes the full force of her power (a moment that gave me goosebumps) and uses it against an enemy she never considered.

Working with a script from four credited screenwriters (Meg LeFauve, Nicole Perlman, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan), Captain Marvel is a bit of an odd duck because it’s an origin story for several key elements that make up the Avengers universe. There’s the obvious first steps for Vers discovering she’s really Carol Danvers, a pilot with the U.S. Air Force presumed dead after her plane went down years earlier. Then you have the beginnings of Nick Fury’s pet S.H.I.E.L.D. project as well as grudges introduced that get resolved in later installments. It’s a lot to juggle and it’s not a totally satisfying balance of storylines.

It doesn’t much help that Larson walks through the movie strangely blank-faced, rarely changing expression from one emotion to the next. She’s definitely putting the acting effort into the movie but one wishes she’d loosen up a bit and I also wonder if she’d ever seen an Avengers movie prior to signing on. Most of the films are sold with tongue planted firmly in cheek but Larson seems averse to going along with any kind of joke. She does create a pleasant chemistry with Jackson’s Fury…you can see why he’d call on her when the going gets tough in Avengers: Infinity War.  The supporting cast is what helps to keep the movie afloat, namely Mendelsohn and Lynch as two key elements to Danvers coming into her own and embracing her superpowers.

Starting off slow but gradually building to an exciting finale, right now I feel like Captain Marvel falls squarely in the middle of the Marvel canon. That being said, I’m willing to wait it out and see if time is kinder to the film over the next few years as the studio wraps up some loose ends and decides what’s next in their plans for the Avengers.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)
Captain Marvel (2019)
Avengers; Endgame (2019)

Phase Four
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

 

Movie Review ~ Mary Queen of Scots


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: ‘Tis the season to be jolly…and to be faced with an onslaught of Oscar bait historical dramas that can arrive with hype but fade without much fanfare.  I mean, we’ve already seen what happened to Keira Knightley’s Collette earlier this fall.  Oh, you missed it in theaters?  So did I…and everyone else.  I sure hope Mary, Queen of Scots isn’t another 2018 victim of this reluctance by audiences in sitting for two hours for a period piece.  For all its historical fudging of the facts and obvious attempts to link the ill treatment of two powerful women in the past to our present state of living in a #MeToo and #TimesUp environment, this is a fantastically entertaining film that had this notorious watch-checker glued to the screen with nary a glance toward his timepiece.

I admit it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve had a history lesson on the legacy of the English monarchy so I’m going on the good faith of the opening text that in 1561 young Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) returned to her Scottish homeland.  Widowed by her husband, the Dauphin of France, she had a strong claim to the throne of England, then held by her first cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) but she wasn’t just able to waltz in and toss the crown on her head.  The Catholic Stuart posed a threat to the Protestant Elizabeth, not just in the religious differences of their subjects and not the least of which was that whoever produced a child first would be able to call the throne hers.

Over the next twenty six years the two women would wage a complex game of chess in which both moved players to the forefront for personal and political gain, only to be outwitted or strong-armed aside by the various men that conspired against the both of them.  “Men can be so cruel” Elizabeth is heard saying and in Beau Willimon’s script it’s clear that the men are the enemy (there’s not a single truly honorable bloke in the bunch) and women were kept under thumb despite their noble attempts to bring peace and order to their lands in the ways they, as monarchs, deemed correct.

Willimon’s experience as creator of the US adaptation of House of Cards was a good training ground for his work here.  The intricate political dealings between the two queens and their assembled privy councils make for some crackling good scenes of wit and retort and the heated arguments, desperate protestations, and whispered confidences come off well in the hands of our stars and the supporting players.  Even taking liberties with some historical points of interest and outright dreaming up a meeting with Mary and Elizabeth doesn’t feel as if a great historical injustice is being done.

First-time director Joise Rourke gives it her all in Mary, Queen of Scots, nicely blending costume drama (oh, those wonderful costumes by Alexandra Byrne, Thor!) and episodic schemes against Mary by the ones she holds closest. Originally courted by Lord Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite) as a favor to Elizabeth in the hopes she can control her cousin, Mary eventually weds Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden, Dunkrik) who has secrets of his own that come to light in one of several twists I was surprised to see. For those averse to staid costume drama, there are battle scenes with Mary leading a charge against an army set to overthrow her and double-crosses aplenty.

Ronan proves again she’s a force to be reckoned with, much like the doomed queen she is portraying. Headstrong (pun intended) but not without compassion, Ronan gives Mary a modern sensibility in a time and place where women may have had a regal title but rarely had the upper hand. Robbie, too, has strong moments in a role that could easily have delved into camp considering her prosthetic nose and the heavy clown make-up Elizabeth wore to cover-up the lasting scars of her pox ailment.

Filling out the cast are a stable full of actors playing Mary’s devoted ladies in waiting as well as Guy Pearce (Prometheus) as Elizabeth’s advisor and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as her confidante. The movie unquestionably belongs to our leading ladies and though the two actresses spend the majority of the film talking about one another, when they finally do meet up (in a scene that supposedly never really happened) Rourke gives the actresses room to breathe and resists the urge to lean into the catty nature Willimon’s script veers toward. The way cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan) moves his camera to create tension before the ladies first see each other had me on the edge of my seat.

History buffs may well reject this movie outright for its strident approach to the lives of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth but if you’re talking pure entertainment value then Mary, Queen of Scots has its head and heart in the right place.

Movie Review ~ Crazy Rich Asians

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: This contemporary romantic comedy, based on a global bestseller, follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family.

Stars: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, Lisa Lu, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remi Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Ken Jeong

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So here we are in the final weeks of summer. The kids are getting ready to go back to school and adults (at least this one!) are breathing a sigh of relief.  As far of summer movies go, over the course of the last few months we’ve had some highs (Avengers: Infinity War), some lows (Book Club), and some downright stinkers (Breaking In). If you asked me a few weeks ago what would be the best film of the summer my vote would have been Mission: Impossible – Fallout. I mean, that Tom Cruise vehicle was a real corker, firing on all cylinders and delivering a massive jolt of adrenaline…a perfect formula for a memorable summer blockbuster.

Well, right before the summer season finish line we have a late breaking champion that swooped in and stole the Best Of prize from Cruise and company. Yep, Crazy Rich Asians is, for me, the best film of the summer and the one I think you’ll have a lot of fun at. It’s been quite some time since we’ve had a movie this fresh and satisfying, a romantic comedy that’s effervescent but not operating twelve feet in the air. It’s a grounded, well-made film that’s exuberantly fun and endlessly charming.

Though I failed to make it through Kevin Kwan’s bestseller (the first in a trilogy) before seeing the movie, I knew enough to see that Crazy Rich Asians stays respectful to its source material. Readers will remember the zinger of an opener set in the past that leads directly into the present where we meet economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, Sound of My Voice) and her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding, the upcoming A Simple Favor). Nick wants Rachel to accompany him to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to introduce her to his family. Though Rachel has met some of Nick’s friends already, meeting the family is a whole other ball of wax and it’s an invite she’s eager to accept.

It’s not until they are seated in a deluxe first class cabin on their international flight that Rachel starts to realize her boyfriend is a tad more well-off than he has led her to believe (remarking at how frugal he is, Rachel says “You even borrow my Netflix password.”). Turns out Nick Young’s family is well known throughout much of Asia and they haven’t even touched down in Singapore before nearly the entire country knows of their arrival. Over the next week of celebrations leading up to the wedding, Rachel will meet Nick’s tradition-minded mother (Michelle Yeoh, Morgan), his adoring grandmother (Lisa Lu, The Joy Luck Club), his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan, Transformers: The Last Knight), and a whole host of other relations both crazy and rich to varying degrees.

Much has been made that Crazy Rich Asians is the first studio film with an Asian cast set in the present day since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club and it’s a headline worth taking note of. Thankfully, the film doesn’t hang its hat just on this distinction but instead presents itself as a fully-formed, gorgeously made, romantic comedy that feels almost immediately like an instant classic. The characters are broad but relatable…even if you’ll likely be drooling at the kind of opulent lives they lead. The comedic entanglements from screenwriters Peter Chiarelli (Now You See Me 2) and Adele Lim are familiar but delivered with a zest that clears away any stale smell of retreading clichés, and the message about tradition/home/family feels exceedingly timely.

Director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) has fashioned a handsome looking film that feels like every single dollar was put up on screen. With no huge names in the cast, the budget went intro production design and the movie benefits hugely from it. Not that the cast is bargain-rate by any means. Wu is a fantastically contemporary leading lady, a smart woman of today that doesn’t lose herself within the confines of visiting a culture very different from her own. Newcomer Golding is a real find (and the product of a lengthy casting search) and the chemistry he has with Wu and the other cast members is electric. Chan has an interesting arc as Nick’s sister in a difficult marriage and by the time her storyline wraps up expect some applause as she delivers a killer takedown. Yeoh has a fine line to tread between being too much of a villain when she’s not really a bad person and she expertly navigates this minefield with class and in countless glam gowns. Keep your eyes and ears open anytime Awkwafina is onscreen as she steals scenes even more than she did in Oceans Eight earlier this summer.

From it’s eye-popping displays of the lifestyles of the crazy, rich, and famous to its smart soundtrack featuring Asian remakes of pop songs, this is a movie that knows exactly what it is and who it’s for. Even better, this feels like it was made for one type of audience but winds up likely appealing to many more. If this does well we can hope not only for a sequel but for studios to wise up and greenlight more projects with casts that represent our world.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic-Beasts-and-Where-to-Find-Them-Logo

Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Release Date:  November 18, 2016

Thoughts: Now that’s how you make a teaser trailer.  I think in the din of awards season and upcoming superhero movies of 2016, we’ve forgotten that there’s a film arriving in mid-November with some serious pedigree behind it.  Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling adapts her own short guidebook for a film directed by David Yates, the man who helmed the last four Potter features (and who will be represented earlier in 2016 with The Legend of Tarzan) with a cast that includes Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), and Colin Farrell (Winter’s Tale).  A true teaser trailer in every sense, I’ll admit this one gave me some of those good tingles that few previews nowadays can.  Highly anticipated, this only fuels the growing fire.