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Big Bald Men and Little Lies in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Big Bald Men and Little Lies in TheatersPhoto still from "The Farewell," via IMDb.
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It’s August, which means Hollywood will cross is fingers and hope audiences will still want to see those films it didn’t deem entirely likely for summer blockbuster status. Luckily, strategic indie releases get a little more attention because of the weaker (though certainly muscular) mainstream movies.

The Farewell

by George Wolf

Caught in a lie and feeling desperate?

There’s always the Homer Simpson defense (“It takes two to lie – one to lie and one to listen”), or even the George Costanza (“It’s not a lie if you believe it”).

But with The Farewell, writer/director Lulu Wang finds poignant truths in an elaborate lie, speaking the universal language of “family crazy” while crafting an engaging cultural prism.

Inspired by an episode of the This American Life podcast, The Farewell unfolds through the view of Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese American who follows her parents back to China after the news of her grandmother Nai Nai’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

But Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao-priceless) is the only one who doesn’t know how sick she is, and the extended family has concocted a ruse about a grandson’s wedding to give everyone an excuse to come visit Nai Nai one last time.

Billi’s parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) are worried she’ll end up giving the game away – and with good reason. Billi is not entirely on board for the “good lie,” and this conflict of conscience is the vessel Wang steers to expose important cultural differences while she’s getting solid laughs with all the family antics.

The lies — both big and small — pile up, all in service of the belief that one’s life is part of a whole, and thus it is Nai Nai’s family who must carry the emotional burden of her illness. It is Awkwafina who carries the film. If you only know her as a comic presence (Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians), prepare to be wowed. As our window into this push and pull of tradition in the modern world, she makes Billi a nuanced, relatable soul. While Wang’s script is sharp and insightful, her assured tone is even more beneficial. Even as the film feels effortlessly lived in, it never quite goes in directions you think it might. Wang doesn’t stoop to going maudlin among all the whiffs of death, infusing The Farewell with an endless charm that’s both revealing and familiar.

Funny, too. No lie.

Grade: A-


by Hope Madden

Fast, brave and baffling, Tilman Singer’s experimental demon thriller Luz enters hot, exits quickly and leaves you puzzled. In a good way.

The film begins with a nightmarish vision leeched of color, as battered young cabbie Luz (a letter-perfect Luana Velis) tumbles into a banal police station lobby shouting about how the receptionist wants to live his life. Soon she’s seated in an equally bland hallway, mumbling blasphemies to herself in Spanish as two German police officers — one who doesn’t understand and one who refuses to translate — look on.

Meanwhile, in a dive bar across town…

It makes little sense to summarize the plot because the fairly slight premise unfolds in front of you, offering as many questions as answers. To spoil that seems pointless.

There is something fascinating happening in this film, though, and Singer has no real sense of urgency about clarifying what that is. Seedy, lifeless places become environments where those as baffled as we bear witness — or don’t — to a patient if tenacious courtship of sorts.

It all begins in dehumanizing but fascinating wide angle shots. Slowly, clip by clip, Singer draws us in closer to the diabolical unfolding in our midst. It’s the deconstruction of a possession film, a bare-bones experimental feature that hangs together because of its clever turns, solid performances and Singer’s own technical savvy with sound design.

Running about 70 minutes and boasting no more than six speaking roles, Luz is surrealism at its most basic, and storytelling at its sparest.

Grade: B+

Sword of Trust

by Cat McAlpine

On a hot summer day Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary (Michaela Watkins) walk into an Alabama pawn shop with a sword to sell. Shop owner Mel (Marc Maron) listens in disbelief as the women explain: This isn’t just any sword. This Union officer’s sword, and its accompanying documents, can prove that the south actually won the Civil War.

Sword of Trust pokes at what and who we believe in, and why. What leads people to believe that the world is actually flat or the deep state is actively erasing battles from history books? How many times can we forgive someone before we simply can’t anymore? Filmed on location in Birmingham, the pace of the film matches the speed of summer in the south. No one moves too fast, talks too loud, or quite gets to the point.

Penned by Lynn Shelton (who also directed) and Mike O’Brien, the dialogue is almost too natural, suggesting that most of the script was largely improvised. The frame work is a little choppy, with a focus on Cynthia and Mary at the start that suggests more of an ensemble focus than is delivered.

As the action picks up Cynthia, Mary, Mel, and pawn shop assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass, loveable) all warily agree to pile into the back of a moving van with an unknown destination.

“This is definitely how people die.”

“This is how individual people die. There’s four of us.”

Then, we’re hit with a momentum bait and switch. The longest scene of the film takes place in the back of the van where the characters explain exactly how they came to this point in their lives. This is when we realize the real film is about Mel and his ability to find satisfaction in life despite its disappointments.

As the emotional epicenter, Maron is a marvelous star. Not dissimilar from his performance in Netflix’s GLOW, Maron has the beautiful, stuttering delivery of a man who can admit his life is “tragic” without ever truly contemplating that reality. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t rise to meet his performance.

The action is predictable and anticlimactic. Mel is worrying over bad decisions and a woman he’s still in love with, but his only onscreen interaction with Deirdre (Lynn Shelton, again) is early on and devoid of context. There are bright spots, like Nathaniel’s patient diligence in trying to explain to Cynthia how the world is actually flat, but the film doesn’t quite shine.

The Sword of Trust skims over the top of conspiracy theories and their cult followers. Every believer is either a backwoods idiot or a loveable idiot, both easily dismissed. There’s an opportunity to explore the cultural black holes that create these communities, but Mel isn’t really interested in them, so the narrative isn’t either.

Ultimately, this is a worthy effort to highlight the people and stories that find themselves in small, southern towns. But the film would’ve benefitted from either more evenly distributing its focus on the lives of all of its players or narrowing the narrative sharply on Mel.

Grade: B+

Leo Da Vinci: Mission Mona Lisa

by Christie Robb and Emmy Clifton

During the recent heatwave as a bid to keep everyone entertained and out of the sun, I asked my upcoming Kindergartner, Emmy, to help me with my latest movie review.

Mom says…

Even a cup of ill-timed afternoon coffee was barely enough to keep me from nodding off during director Sergio Manifo’s animated adventure. The premise was interesting, centered around a teenage Leonardo Da Vinci who brings mechanical contraptions into being in 15th century Italy. But as we passed the 10 minute mark with no inciting incident, I realized we were in trouble.

Eventually we get it. Leo’s friend Lisa’s farm has been vandalized. The crops are destroyed. And without them, Lisa’s dad can’t pay the mortgage and she’ll have to be married off to the anemic son of their nobleman landlord.

The film has a little bit of everything: jokes that don’t land, phoned-in voice acting, questionable gender stereotypes (girls are described as “moody” and cry to get their way), characters who lack development, painful musical numbers that appear out of nowhere, exposition dumps delivered through dialogue, and a romance that makes Anakin and Padme’s in Attack of the Clones look nuanced.

But my favorite thing by far is the closing song. I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics:

When I am here with you
I’m a fish inside a creek
And I don’t know how to speak
Maybe a mobile phone would help

Kid says…

I enjoyed it more than the Little Mermaid, but less than Frozen. Leo was my favorite character. He did the fun stuff. Lisa, the girl, was ok. I’d watch it again. It was kind of scary in parts. Why does everything end up a skeleton in this movie?

Mom’s Verdict: D+

Emmy’s Verdict: A-

Also opening in Columbus:

Coyote Lake (NR)
Rakshasudu (NR)
Skin (R)

Read more from George and crew at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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