Happy New Year 2020: The Year of the [Metal] Rat

Happy Chinese New Year 2020!

The Buddha taught rats first, among the animals in the Buddhist pantheon, and rats rank first on the Chinese zodiac. Though people who follow Western animal symbolism do not consider the rat either adorable or auspicious, nevertheless the characteristics of the rat are considered spirited, witty, alert, flexible, and that of a survivor.  The Chinese New Year will begin on January 25, 2020  with the final celebration on  February 11.

The Metal Rat Year is going to be a strong, prosperous, and lucky year for those who conduct financial research and follow through on investments. For investors in  real estate, or venturing on their own to  start a business or to invest money in a long-term project,  major decisions on money matters will affect the entire twelve-year cycle of the zodiac–until 2032.

On the political front, those who fight against corruption will be accused of duplicity and hypocrisy.  Political unrest will continue   and revolutionary disruption of the establishment will gain momentum.  Increased tensions and misunderstanding between allies will occur.

To avoid escalating conflict by unscrupulous populist governments who  overlook or ignore the common interest of society, moderation, patience and compromise must be recognized and practiced.   In addition, all nations must implement strict and disciplinary measures to ameliorate climate change.  Jealousy of those who have polluted the plant will rise.

For more information on the Chinese zodiac and to read your horoscope for 2020, please go to:  https://www.thechinesezodiac.org/horoscope-2020/

My Top 15 Movies and TV Series for 2019

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  Another difficult year to make my listicle.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World  (January 13 review)

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—The Golden Rule (March 17 review)

What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  

3) In Order of Disappearance—Plowing Through Suspense (April 21 review)

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plowsIn Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country. 

4)  Which Way Home—Is There One?  (June 17 review)

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

5) Always Be My Maybe—Rom-Com at Its Best  (June 22 review)

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other. 

6)  The Farewell—Family Matters (August 5 review)

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

7) Late Night—Women Do It Right  (November 5 review)

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) The Hate U Give—T.H.U.G. (June 9 review)

Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)

The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

10)  Joker—No Laughing Matter (October 7 review)

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

11)   Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo— Cinema Verite  (February 19 review)

Three Netflix series — NarcosNarcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

12) Chernobyl—An Ignominious Reaction (July 16 review)

 Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

13) La Casa de Papel—”Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids  (September 2 review)

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”  (September 11 review)

Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

15) Queen of the South—Reigning Supreme (October 20 review)

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

Knock Down the House—A Remodel is Needed

This investigative journalistic  documentary invites the viewer to take a closer look at  four committed women who ran for Congress in 2018: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Maryland, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. First and foremost, however, Knock Down the House is AOC’s story.  The former bartender from the Bronx turned first-time congresswoman needs no introduction.

Because of director Rachel Lears’s  early access to the four Congressional candidates, she and her camera have been in the war rooms of the campaigns right from the start, making the footage even more compelling.

Knock Down the House movie

From a pool of committed political neophytes, Lears selected four exceptional female candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela — each with an emotionally riveting back-story and a politically established, seemingly unbeatable opponent. Their back-stories propelled them into politics.  For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she  had to work double shifts as a bartender to save her mother’s home from foreclosure. After losing a daughter to a preventable medical condition because of lack of health insurance, Amy Vilela became determined to  improve  America’s broken health-care system. Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was appalled at the  police shooting of an unarmed black man and the resulting army tanks that showed up in  her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter, Paula Jean Swearengin, watched  her friends and family suffer from the devastating environmental effects of the coal industry.

Except for AOC, the other three women candidates–although giving everything they had to win—were defeated. With a raw and blistering honesty, we see the camera hover over their physical and emotional deflation after the results come in.  All four were heavily invested personally: “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming,” Swearengin says.  But ten-year incumbents are hard to unseat.

Ocasio-Cortez, unsurprisingly,  emerges as a telegenic, exuberant force .  She is all that and more.  In the closing credits, we see AOC riding a scooter, circling in front of the Congressional building, enjoying the thrill of her victory  on a crisp, January morning before the swearing-in ceremony.  She’s a television cameraman’s dream:   young, attractive, and charismatic with the emotive,  energetic oratorial skills of a much more seasoned  public speaker. Nothing seems to throw her off her game, whether she’s mopping the floor before distributing leaflets for her campaign or talking with someone who has decided not to vote for her.

Her social media presence alone shows why she has crossed over into pop celebrity, whether she’s tweeting or live-streaming on Instagram while eating popcorn, talking about staying grounded and dancing on YouTube.  She is a media darling and that makes her a political star worth watching.

Knock Down the House will knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for change.

Note:  Available on Netflix.

Luce—A Beam of Light?

Luce the movie

The title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)  is an all-star athlete and model straight-A student who is expected  to achieve greatness in college. Luce’s  liberal adoptive parents—physician Amy (Naomi Watts) and financier Peter (Tim Roth) adopted Luce when he was a little boy in Eritrea, a boy-soldier who experienced unimaginable horror.

A volatile and incendiary essay he has written for an English teacher, Harriet Wilson  (Octavia Spencer), is brought to the attention of Luce’s parents.  The essay inflames the liberal-minded community and most of all, his English teacher.

Luce’s parents do not know who to believe, –his teacher and school administrators or their son–although their intuition and gut-reaction is to believe their brilliant, beloved Luce.  Other  parents slowly face the same dilemma –who do you believe in the face of unconditional love?  Luce’s personal story unfolds as an attempt to define what is the truth to the listener–the one that is acceptable and therefore believed, or the one that shatters values you deeply hold. 

A sense of sustained menace highlights the central theme of Luce: Do we really know who Luce is and how deeply his traumatic childhood experiences have affected him? 

Luce is a gut-wrenching story of love of child versus love of spouse.  This film is also provocative in terms of Luce’s achievements validating  his  liberal parents’ convictions about social justice and racial equality, about transforming the human soul.   There are no easy answers.

Race and white privilege are examined under a psychological microscope.  Sharp-edged and gimlet-eyed, this is a difficult film that tries to say something nuanced about racism, making for uncomfortable viewing.  Luce  is boldly ambitious in addressing so many questions in one film:  Who is “anointed”  by others to succeed?   The myth of the American dream and succeeding  all on your own, especially in the glowing light of suburbia (Arlington, Virginia), is painfully dissected.

Luce closes with  a chilling and morally ambiguous ending.   The creation of your own ending may depend upon your ethnic identity and how much it has influenced who you are now.  No one person represents an entire demographic and Luce shouts this to the audience loud and clear. 

“You never really know what is going on with people.” (Luce)

Note:  Now available on Netflix.

Indochine (1993)–Heart of Darkness

Indochine is a testament to the hubris and delusions of first French imperialism and then American trauma to follow .The sense of time and place  unfolds in 1930 French Indochina (Vietnam). from the years of French colonial rule to the stirring of a revolution by zealous and determined young Communist idealists,..  

Indochine concludes in 1954 when the French are on the cusp of being forced out by Communist forces after a century of colonization. Seen through the eyes of a rubber plantation owner, Eliane (the ethereal Catherine Deneuve, nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), Indochine is an allegory for the corrupt and depraved. The often opium-smoking French are seen clinging to their delusional belief that they could sustain their dominion over the  impoverished, virtually enslaved Vietnamese.

The narrative is a family drama between Eliane and the orphaned five-year old Vietnamese girl,  Camille (newcomer Linh Dan Pham). who is adopted by Eliane . Indochine has another narrative as well: a love story between a French navy officer, Jean-Baptiste,  and both Eliane and Camille. 

As the struggle against French imperialism grips Vietnam, Jean-Baptiste and Camille have to choose sides.   As the focus shifts to the love story between Camille and Jean-Baptiste, and the awakening of the sheltered privileged Camille to the plight of most Vietnamese Indochine‘s pace deepens and quickens.

The anticolonial revolt plays out in some expected patterns, with the decadence of the dying days of a fading colonial regime.   Old paternalistic, often brutal customs have outlasted their lords and yet the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in this case) adhere tenaciously to property and servants  with a certain stubborn and oblivious pride. They are yesterday’s story, but arenot ready to realize or admit it. 

Indochine is ambitious, gorgeously photographed but also  too slow, too long, and too languishly structured  in the first half of the story. It is not altogether a successful film because of this.   Yet it is still worth seeing, perhaps mostly for implying that the French still do not quite understand what happened to them in Vietnam, and they’re not alone.

Tricky Dick–His Own Fantasy World

Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that  presents  the  lesser-known  story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political  career are  adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.

The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction.  But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here.  For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to  Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator.  Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California,  a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss.  Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.

Four years after JFK had become president, with the US  in crisis at home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.

As the anti-war movement gains strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means necessary to defeat. He  isolates himself with a handful of trusted advisors  and prepares for a second term.

In a historic landslide, Nixon is re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts, a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.

It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has.  Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it.  The parallels with today are frightening.

Joker–No Laughing Matter

Joker the movie

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. 

This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. And it is no small feat to have a performance which overshadows the also remarkable previous Jokers played by Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Heath Ledger.

In Joker a marginally employed and aspiring stand-up comedian, Arthur Fleck (played by the astonishing Joaquin Phoenix), has a series of menial gigs as a clown holding a banner declaring a store’s bankruptcy or performing in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital.  He is a disposable, invisible Gotham resident faithfully caring for his invalid mother with whom he shares a dreary low-rent apartment.

Bullied, brutally abused and cruelly mocked by almost everyone around him, Arthur Fleck devolves into the Joker as the demented, bipolar mask of comedy and tragedy. Not yet evil or vile, but more ignored and humiliated, his community fails him and his mental illness isolates him.

In close-up shots of his clown-face mask, this Joker is no clown, pulling down roughly on the corners of his face to force a grin, more grimace and silent scream than a smile. The viewer feels that Arthur Fleck is becoming ever more deeply damaged.

 Joaquin Phoenix gives such an unforgettable feral performance, this viewer was left wondering how the actor could maintain his sanity after this manic act as the Joker. We are taken on a journey to  see the dissolution of sanity under a psychological microscope. 

Joker with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix’s exposed bones and emaciated frame are part of the Joker’s makeup. His physicality is a range of movements in madness, alternatingly unhinged and heartbreaking as he dances after each horrific act, struggling to communicate and connect until he surrenders to his insanity.

This is a  character-driven plot, intensely cerebral and at times subversive and disturbing.   This character study of the Joker will become a classic and a certain Academy Award nomination for Joaquin Phoenix.   A great joke is inseparable from its ability to subvert, to say the unsaid and the unspeakable.  Joker pushes all boundaries in its portrayal of a  deeply disturbing, subversive character and I cannot think of a film with which to compare it–a must-see!

Years and Years–Our Future?

The HBO six-part series, Years and Years,  is a  dystopian drama of the near future that rivals “The Handmaid’s Tale” but with a focus on technology and financial crisis. 

In Years and Years the viewer witnesses a 15-year projection of nuclear strikes, technology that allows sulky teens to project Snapchat-style filters over their faces, and concentration camps for refugees and dissidents in Great Britain. 

The  harrowing image of Vivienne Rook MP (Emma Thompson), as an outspoken celebrity business woman turned political figure à la Trump, divides the nation with  her controversial opinions and policies.  In tandem, a second parallel story of one family– the Lyons family–details the impact of an unstable world on their lives.

Beginning in 2020,  three generations of the Lyons family watch the rapid change occurring around them due, in part, to the radical demagoguery of Vivienne Rook who eventually rises to power in 2027.  With a mix of horror, confusion, and occasional glee individual members align with Rook or resist her autocracy.

In rapid-fire time-jumps from 2020 to  2035, Years and Years  has Trump winning a second term as US president, Pence succeeding him and Rook seizing  power and proclaiming policies in similar autocratic style in England.

In 2020 air raid sirens blast over all regions of the UK,  with news that Trump has fired a nuclear missile at a Chinese island.  Panic and misinformation spiral out of control.

In a series of unfortunate events, there is a financial  crisis due to the collapse of an American investment bank.  A compulsory national IQ test is administered to exclude low-IQ individuals  from voting.  Arrests and detention become the rule of law for refugees, homosexuals, and dissidents.

By 2027  the coalition government of Great Britain has collapsed, and Viv Rook becomes the Prime Minister, backed by unidentified corporate moguls. Countries become unstable with similar governments being put into place.   

By  2028, Viv Rook promises freedom to her supporters but begins arresting her opponents, contracting with a giant corporation to maintain two “Erstwhile” concentration camps, intended as death camps with fascist oversight. 

By 2029 attacks on journalists increase, and the BBC is forced to shut down, having had its charter withdrawn. Muriel Lyons, matriarch and grandmother, blames the family and global citizens at large for the rampant dictatorships worldwide.  In one of  the most powerful monologues (see video clip) in television this year, she eloquently tells her family that many small acts of indifference have had a snowball effect,  creating the toxic environment everyone now lives in. Today perhaps?  And so it now seems that there is little control the Lyons have over their destinies.  The military isn’t storming parliament. The change is more insidious. Dictatorship creeps up on us very, very slowly, and yet with increasing speed, suddenly we are rendered powerless while ordinary life goes on.

Years and Years, through its flashbacks, forecasts the next decade-and-a-half  with a pessimistic, quasi-nihilistic lens.  A sum of the problems and anxieties currently playing out in Trump-land, this dystopia is a world-weary projection,  resonant of a   prequel to Black Mirror’s astringent tales.

Note:  The sixth and last episode took me by surprise.   The tone seemed off, shifting  gears into much more futuristic  science fiction. We’re being given fake videos with fake news, but this seemed to me like a  fake ending.

Locked Up–Spain’s “Orange Is the New Black”

In this riveting Netflix series, we see a psychological drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat..  A combination of “Dexter”, “Breaking Bad”, and “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), Locked Up is darker, more sinister, and more brutal and violent.  [Alex Pina is the creator of both this 2015 television series and 2017’s Casa de Papel. ]  Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

Every episode will keep you wanting more.  Perhaps a more realistic point of view of prison life than OITNB, Locked Up is binge-worthy and definitely not for the faint-hearted.

Macarena Ferreiro (played by Maggie Civantos)  is a twenty-nine year old professional financier who ends up in prison, after an affair with her manipulative boss who coaxed her into embezzling funds.  Sentenced to seven years at the Cruz del Sur Prison for women while her boss absconds jail-free, Macarena has to navigate her new and unfamiliar home where mostly murderers and drug dealers are her fellow cell mates.  At first, Macarena believes the justice system will realize that she was as much victim as perpetrator and will be released. Slowly she realizes survival in prison for a seven-year sentence will mean developing the cunning of her fellow inmates. 

The title of the Spanish version, Vis-à-Vis (literally,”face-to-face”), is also a colloquial term for conjugal visit used not only for the expected titillating aspect of sexual activity, but also for hiding, a metaphor for secrets and lies.  In a secondary plot, Macarena’s loving family–including her father, a former police officer,– are determined to help her get out of prison by any means necessary 

The ensemble cast could not be better. Brilliantly acted,  Locked Up never loses steam. Each episode surprises and leaves the viewer  wanting more and more. All the characters are an unnerving blend of good and evil, even the two obvious antagonists.  While the audience is never in doubt as to where its sympathies are supposed to lie, there are nudges of understanding for even the most vile.

Locked Up boldly and savagely challenges racist and homophobic attitudes. This prison drama makes OITNB  seem like summer camp, whereas in Locked Up  the inmates are  forever changed at almost a cellular level.  

Note:  Season 4 of Locked Up will be released September 25 on Netflix.

La Casa de Papel –“Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids

La Casa de Papel (“Money Heist”)

La Casa de Papel (Netflix English title: “Money Heist“) was the most-watched non-English language series of 2018 and one of the most-watched series overall on Netflix.  This is a Spanish  “Ocean’s Eleven” on steroids.

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

Named after cities, each robber has a backstory and the motivation to move on with a different, less desperate life. In La  Casa de Papel “Tokyo” is the unreliable narrator,  with a winner-take-all attitude, and no impulse control but lots of unhealed wounds.  She narrates each character’s backstory in flashbacks, time-jumps, and unmitigated judgment of her fellow team members. Dressed in red jumpsuits and wearing masks of the Spanish painter Salvador Dalí, the burglars take 67 hostages as part of their plan in negotiating with the police.

The Professor oversees the heist from a different location, using state-of-the-art computer systems and an extraordinary psychological analysis of the police. Soon the charismatic, albeit excessively cerebral  Professor  wins over  the public, who are angry at the powerful banks and corrupt corporate and government elite.

The actors, in often tight camera shots, reveal the emotions and alienation at play as they have to deal with each other, the Professor, the hostages, and the police–particularly one vulnerable and needy police inspector.  An extraordinary string of plots over thirty-five episodes, La Casa de Papel rarely sags throughout an entire episode, but ratchets up tension, drama, and unexpected twists in psychology and power dynamics. A highly  unpredictable chess game between the police and the robbers, you will be surprised by almost every move, even with its “telenovela” elements. Can’t wait for  the next season!

Note:  There are three Parts [=Seasons].  Part 1 has  13 episodes;  Part 2: 9 episodes; Part 3: 8 episode and  were released December 2017 through July 2019.  The filming of Part 4 of La Casa de Papel ended last month and will be released sometime next year.

The Farewell–Family Matters

The Farewell movie

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

In the opening scene of The Farewell, taking place in a local hospital in China, the winsome and irrepressible grandmother, Nai Nai, has a complete physical, but has no idea of what it portends. Her sister and doctor tell Nai Nai everything is fine,  she need not worry.  She has stage 4 lung cancer.

Determined to spare Nai Nai bad news, her adult children, under the pretext of planning a wedding for one of the grandsons, gather the family for what is to be presented as a family reunion.  The granddaughter, Billi,  a young millennial living in New York City (played by the extraordiary Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich Asians”), does not approve of the decision to hide the truth from Nai Nai. 

The rationale and Chinese tradition (similar to US medical practices forty years ago) believes that the shock of the diagnosis would worsen and hasten Nai Nai’s death due to her advanced age.  So, at the wedding, there is forced merriment as the family pretends to celebrate a happy occasion while secretly mourning their beloved Nai Nai.  Only Nai Nai doesn’t know she is dying and is in a joyous mood.

The cultural and geographical distance between Nai Nai and her granddaughter, Billi, becomes irrelevant as The Farewell progresses. In some ways, despite the gulf between them, Nai Nai seems to know and understands her granddaughter better than her American parents. Hilarious scenes discussing Billi’s weight and dating options underscore their closeness. 

But,  The Farewell also  delivers some powerful emotional blows. In its unflappably honest depiction of coming to terms with death, this disarming film examines family bonds and forced compromise, personal sacrifice, and the complexity and ambivalence of expressing emotions.

Awkwafina’s performance is raw, authentic and delicate in switching from humor to seriousness seemingly effortlessly.  The Farewell is  a winner!

Note:  The American director, Lulu Wang, has deftly constructed a very American film that seems like an independent foreign film, with subtitles, and cross-cultural shifts in perspective and comic nuance.

Rocketman –Seeing the Light through the Darkness

Rocketman , the recently released biopic of the music superstar, Elton John, will inevitably be compared to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody.  The two movies are portraits of flamboyantly-dressed gay rock stars from relatively the same era (1970’s and 1980’s) but they also shared the same manager and had the same director, Dexter Fletcher.   (Ironically, music manager John Reid was played by two actors from “Games of Thrones” fame).

In the opening scene, Elton John emerges, dressed in a satanic red “Hell Boy”-like costume with devil horns, wings, and dramatic cape. He marches directly at the camera, –backlit and sinister– as his face, partly disguised by heart-shaped sunglasses, comes into focus.   Theatrically plopping down on a chair in a circle of addicts in  group therapy, Elton John is there to exorcise his demons in a flashback revealing why he is where he is.  The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

In spite of being afflicted with unhealed wounds,  Elton finds comfort and motivation from recognition by a prestigious music academy and from a developing friendship with Bernie Taupin (a scene-stealing Jamie Bell in a beautifully touching performance). Taupin is an equally unknown musician, whose lyrics would come to inspire a  lifelong collaboration. The friendship between Elton and Bernie –Bernie calls it a brotherhood– is the film’s love story. Since Bernie is straight, there’s no sexual tension but there is such a strong emotional bond, the intimacy is palpable.

Taron Egerton, Rocketman
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.

For the closeted Elton the handsome, suave agent John Reid, (heart throb Richard Madden, Robb Stark of “Game of Thrones” and star of  “Bodyguard”) exudes a seductive eroticism, equal parts dazzle and danger. He  triggers Elton’s sexual desire.  They fall in love and then comes the  darkness, manipulation, and opportunism.

The major problem with the narrative arc is that Rocketman seems to want to be a biopic with songs, and inconsistently, also a musical that sings dialogue and dances away the drama. Rocketman becomes giddy and silly, especially earlier, in choreography and staging reminiscent of 1960’s jukebox ensemble dancing.  They distract, at least temporarily, from the demands of the storytelling–a “fourth wall”, namely  confronting the viewer with scenes that break the momentum and pacing using lyrics as dialogue.  [An analogous “fourth wall” occurs when a character talks to the screen and viewer, dislodging time and place of the story.]

A successful example of using the “fourth wall”:  when John’s estranged parents sing “I Want Love”, this interjection of song for dialogue is more effective.

Rocketman ends with Elton in rehab in 1990, singing “I’m Still Standing”, a shout-out to his survival. In the credits, there are facts about his notable generosity on behalf of HIV/AIDS international projects, his family life with his husband and two baby sons. And his sobriety  for nearly 30 years.

There’s  one crucial difference that, in the final analysis, makes Bohemian Rhapsody a more satisfying film, although not by much.  While Rhapsody climaxes with a feel-good stadium-rocking Live Aid concert, maintaining the over-the-top “party animal” style of Freddy Mercury, Rocketman is a more somber psychological study of a shattered psyche, insightfully epitomized in the therapy scene towards the end when the adult Elton John faces his little-boy wounded self in the same Hell Boy costume from the opening scene.  Coming full circle with who he now is, in the redemption he finally achieves, is the true end of this film. Rocketmanwould have been more inventive, adhering to the tone of the drama with such a final scene instead of trailing off to a triumphant burlesque song-and-dance routine at the end.

Dozens of lesser films fail to sustain a dramatic arc from assemblages of disparate hits, but Rocketman soars through both darkness and light in most of the second half .  The  electrifying Taron Egerton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the gifted, complicated Elton John.  He immerses himself in the role and that is the major reason to see Rocketman.

Go see this movie –a universal story about redemption and survival, an underdog wrestling with his wounds from childhood, his sexuality, and a need for love.  Taron Egerton’s performance and the music are reasons enough to be entertained.

Note: Currently in theaters.