Movie Review ~ Crazy Rich Asians

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The Facts
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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.

Movie Review ~ Now You See Me 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The Four Horsemen resurface and are forcibly recruited by a tech genius to pull off their most impossible heist yet.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Washofsky, Tsai Chin, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I’m just as surprised as you are that 2013’s Now You See Me did well enough to warrant a sequel seeing that I left my screening frustrated at its cheats and wholly averse to its attempts to charm. Still, someone thought it was smart move to assemble the old crew again three years down the line and aside from a new female in the mix, not much has changed about the film or my opinion of the series as a whole.  What could have been a slick summer mea culpa sequel is just another time-wasting sleight of hand.  It’s not that we can see what the actors and filmmakers have up their sleeves, it’s that we don’t care in the first place.

If you haven’t seen the first film you’re going to get some spoilers so if you don’t mind having the final twist of the original spoiled for you keep reading.

In the years since the Four Horseman took down a wealthy mogul (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) and a shady secret spiller (Morgan Freeman, Lucy) they’ve kept a fairly low profile. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, Warm Bodies) haven’t gone far though and as they’re readying another elaborate trick to expose a cell-phone hacking scam they’re joined by Lula (newcomer Lizzy Caplan, Bachelorette, replacing Isla Fisher as the lone lady in the bunch) who was recruited by their leader, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Marc Ruffalo, Spotlight).  A mole in the FBI agency, Rhodes has been leading his colleagues on multiple wild goose chases, until it all catches up to him and his Horsemen when the tables are turned and they’re split up.

The Horsemen wind up in China, face to face with elvish Daniel Radcliffe (What If) who has grown a beard to show he’s not Harry Potter any longer. There’s some jibber jabber about an all-powerful computer chip Radcliffe wants and a rather lengthy sequence where the Horsemen break into a high security company to retrieve said chip. Hiding the wafer thin treasure on a playing card, director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) takes, no kidding, nearly five minutes showing the Horsemen passing the card between each other to avoid being caught by guards that are frisking them. It’s an exhausting passage of time that isn’t nearly as impressive as anyone involved thinks it is.

Meanwhile, Rhodes has to bust Freeman’s character out of jail because only he knows who’s behind the mystery.  A personal vendetta between the two men quickly resurfaces and becomes a focal point for several head-scratching plot twists down the road. When the Horsemen and Rhodes are reunited, the final truth of who the man behind it all is and though the mystery is ostensibly solved, there’s still a good forty-five minutes left.  It’s in these forty-five minutes that I officially checked out as it’s just a series of parlor trick moments that are less than magical.

As I’ve said before, magic tricks onscreen just don’t work for me because there’s no sense of disbelief one can reasonably hold.  When magic is done live and in person, it can be an impressive experience because you learn to not trust your eyes.  On film, when I see a trick being performed in the middle of multiple edits and angles I’m just wondering how many takes and lighting set-ups it took to get it to look right. It just doesn’t work for me.  At all.

Performances here are in line with the broad script.  God love him, Ruffalo acts the hell out of his role and for that I thank him. If only his co-stars had found a way to do the same. Eisenberg is as nebbish and stilted as ever, Franco is disarming but not given much to do, Caplan starts off with spunk but gradually gets reduced to ninth banana, Radcliffe as usual is having way more fun than we are, and Caine and Freeman are just there to cash their checks (at least Freeman is required to both stand up and walk in this film…unlike London Has Fallen).  And poor Harrelson pulls double duty as Merritt and his offensively fey twin.

Capping off with another finale that throws some random turns in at the very end, Now You See Me 2 is slickly made and moves fast but is superficially bland and all together hollow.

Movie Review ~ Jem and the Holograms

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a small-town girl catapults from underground video sensation to global superstar, she and her three sisters begin a journey of discovering that some talents are too special to keep hidden

Stars: Juliette Lewis, Molly Ringwald, Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Ryan Guzman, Hayley Kiyoko, Aurora Perrineau

Director: Jon M. Chu

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Though I found myself sitting through it often, I wouldn’t say that I was a huge fan of the Jem cartoon series that ran from 1985-1988. The animation was rough, the music was a little grating, and the focus on “glamour and glitter, fashion and fame” didn’t really register in my pre-teen consciousness. In the cartoon, Jerrica Benton is the owner of Starlight Music and, with the help of her holographic computer Synergy becomes Jem, a rock star singer taking the world by storm with her band the Holograms. They are often in competition with The Misfits, another all-girl band usually is up to no good and getting in the way of the Holograms success. It was fantasy entertainment to the tune of 80s girl group pop rock and it was nothing if not a pleasant distraction.

Talk of a big-screen Jem has been raging on for years and what was initially planned as an animated feature morphed into the live-action doozy that’s being released 27 years after the series ended. If you aren’t familiar with the cartoon you may be willing to give the filmmakers a pass in what is in the end another in a long line of failed female driven franchises. Banking on the success of Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Universal Studios enlisted director Jon M. Chu and screenwriter Ryan Landels to produce a new take on Jem and it’s a miscalculated failure on nearly every level.

First off, this should never have been a live-action film. The appeal of the cartoon was the colorful world of fantasy and fashion the series nailed in its relatively charming low-budget way. The concept of a holographic computer creating images and scenes to protect its owner isn’t that far removed from the kind of animated offerings released by major studios today. Plus how often have we had an all-out rock cartoon, and a female-led one at that? If anything, a feature length cartoon of Jem should have found its way to theaters in the early nineties after the series has ended.

Landels hollows out the film down to its bare bones, leaving most of the names intact and switching the gender of the main antagonist. Jerrica Benton is a meek singer/songwriter too scared to go out on her own still living with her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott, Insidious: Chapter 3), and two foster sisters (Hayley Kiyoko and Aurora Perrineau). Times are tough and their guardian aunt (Molly Ringwald, Sixteen Candles) is in danger of losing their California suburban home, threating to split the tight-knit family apart. When Jerrica takes on the persona of Jem and records a late night acoustic song, Kimber uploads it onto YouTube where it becomes a viral sensation overnight, rocketing Jem to stardom.

This is when the movie first shows signs of jumping off the track. The sudden stardom of a YouTube superstar is something director Chu knows a thing or two about having helmed Justin Bieber’s film Never Say Never. There are definite parallels between Bieber’s swift rise and Jem’s quick ascent to pop culture icon, though I think Bieber released more than one song before audiences went totally wild. The film tries so unsuccessfully to have us believe that Jem causes a commotion based on one melancholy song that I half expected the entire movie to be a dream at the end.

Before they know it, the executive of Starlight, Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear, who is either brilliantly badass or crazed campy…I still can’t decide which) is guiding them through make-overs, pop-up concerts, and red carpet walks that leave the girls in a daze.   Erica’s son, Rio (Ryan Guzman, The Boy Next Door) is charged with watching over the band and, shocker, he develops a thing for Jerrica that threatens his relationship with his scheming mother.

Synergy is now a tiny robot, the kind you’d by at a Brookstone for Christmas and sell at your garage sale the next summer, and it presents the opportunity for the film to have one interesting nugget to keep audiences awake for the next 118 minutes (it’s so long…so very long). You see, before Jerrica and Kimber’s dad died, he left Synergy unfinished and the little bot wakes up when they enter Los Angeles offering clues to a treasure hunt of sorts. So while Jem is struggling with her newfound fame (the film takes place over the course of 30 activity filled days), Jerrica is on a personal quest to finish the work her father started.

Musically the film isn’t that memorable. While Peeples has a pleasantly sweet voice she lacks the overall presence and star power needed for Jem. Her big solo number comes across as Lady Gaga light, performing in front of limber back-up dancers (when did they rehearse?) that kept my attention more than she did. As a group, Jem and the Holograms aren’t that distinguishable from any number of girl groups populating the music landscape now. I kept waiting for The Misfits to make an appearance, challenging the girls to up their game in the music department. Sadly (and maybe spoiler alert?) there are no Misfits to be had and the group works their way through two generic sounding ditties. The overall message in Jem and the Holograms is learning to love yourself no matter what life throws at you or how scared you may be to show who you really are and it’s a worthy one…but it comes in such a neon colored empty bucket of a film that I wound up just wishing it was printed on a T-shirt. Chu fills the film with all kinds of social media interjections, randomly cross-cutting cinematic scenes with YouTube videos of undiscovered music acts. There are also a healthy number of testimonials from those personally affected by Jem discussing what her music means to them. I couldn’t tell if these were all scripted or if they were people actually honesty linking their personal experiences to Jem. It’s so heavy with current social media that in five or ten years’ time it will be looked at as a time capsule of the here and now.

I would have liked to see the movie either become a full-fledged musical (an impromptu a capella moment on a beach had potential) or be a period set piece with all the excess of the 80s. Instead, it’s a film in serious need of autotune.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jem and the Holograms

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Synopsis: Music executive, Jerrica Benton, lives a secret, adventurous life as a glamorous rock star named Jem.

Release Date: October 23, 2015

Thoughts: When I heard Universal Studios was getting behind a big screen treatment of the ‘80s cult cartoon Jem I was looking forward to a neon-colored camp odyssey that maintained the more fantastical elements while bringing the rock heroine forward into a new millennium.  After viewing the first trailer for Jem’s silver screen debut I’m…pretty bummed.  While I’m sure it will strike a chord with the Pitch Perfect crowd, this looks like a piffle of a mash-up of Josie and the Pussycats and Dreamgirls more than it does the Saturday morning flash-fest that inspired it.  Nice touch having ‘80s icon Molly Ringwald (Sixteen Candles) onboard and I’m never going to say no to a Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear) appearance…but yeesh…this looks terrible.