Tel Aviv on Fire (2018)

Have you ever been a fan of a soap operas? Would you like to see a (fresh/light) take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is a certain level of camp (incl. melodrama) OK w/ you? Then this comedy (co-written/directed by Sameh Zoabi- a professor at NYU’s Tisch School of Arts) is worth a watch. It’s light and fluffy at first glance, but there is the weight of history, occupation, and everyday struggles underneath.

Salam (Kais Nashif- Palestinian-German actor seen in AmericanEast) is suddenly promoted to scriptwriter on a historically-based soap opera developed by his uncle Bassam (Nadim Sawalha- veteran British Jordanian actor/father of actress Julia Sawalha)- Tel Aviv on Fire. During a time of war in 1967, Manal (AKA Rachel) is a Palestinian spy trying to get secrets from the Israeli army. She is in a love triangle w/ two very different men- Marwan (a poetic Muslim freedom fighter) and Yehuda (a straight-laced Jewish general). Tala (Lubna Azabal from Rock the Casbah) is the lead- egotistical, glamorous, and very successful (based in France). She gives her opinions on the script, explaining that at her level, she won’t act if the dialogue is bad.

Salam (very anxious about his job) tries to find inspiration for his character- Yehuda. He is a former bartender and not gifted at writing, as Salam’s ex-girlfriend Mariam (a doctor) reminds him when they run into each other. One morning, Salam is pulled over at a checkpoint between Jerusalem (where the TV studio is located) and Ramallah (where he lives w/ his elderly mother). He meets Assi, an arrogant captain of the guard whose wife (along w/ many Israeli Jewish women) loves the show. Assi’s wife is sure that Rachel will end up w/ Marwan (her favorite character), not the boring Yehuda.

Assi (who is both funny and potentially dangerous) has opinions, incl, on how the season should end- a wedding between Rachel and Yehuda (his favorite character). Assi objects to the way Yehuda has been characterized so far- he doesn’t speak like a real military man. At first, Salam is bemused by these suggestions, then relies on Assi for dialogue. Salam also analyzes his failed relationship w/ Mariam, putting some of her words into scripts. Yehuda becomes a more authentic and sensitive character. Can a mere TV show unite two divided peoples (audiences)?

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The Farewell (2019) starring Awkwafina

[1] This movie is very touching, and it is broader than just culture by itself. It also talks about individual identity and family responsibility, life and death, and the human experience.

[2] Lulu Wang has written an absolutely beautiful and personal film and has clearly poured her heart out into it. Her dialogue is funny, human, and poetic. 

[3] This story is absolutely deserving of an audience, and combines together through a beautiful lens a clashing of Western & Eastern philosophies of life that really should be examined.

[4] …one film that as you watch entertains you with thought, and fun laughs and has the drama of pain and emotion all wrapped up in one. It has themes of trust, love, and most of all secrets something that all families can relate to. 

-Excerpts from IMBD reviews

Writer/director Lulu Wang’s indie film centers on Billi (Awkwafina- a rapper/actress from Queens raised by her grandmother), a 31 year-old aspiring writer (also living in Queens, NY). She discovers that her Nai Nai (“grandma” in Mandarin) is dying of Stage 4 lung cancer. The extended family has decided not to reveal this to Nai Nai (which is common in China and perhaps a few other Asian cultures). Billi’s father, Haiyan (Tzi Ma- a prolific Chinese-American character actor) and his older brother construct a story: the family will say goodbye when they return to China for the wedding of Haibin’s son, Hao Hao and his Japanese bride, Aiko. For an Americanized, individualistic, and independent woman like Billi, this lie seems wrong.

Awkwafina does very well in her role; you almost forget that she started out in comedy. (FYI: She was cast in this role before her breakout roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8.) Billi obviously loved her grandma; she calls Nai Nai daily just to talk from NYC. Several film critics have pointed out that the actress has the (rare) ability to do much while seeming to do little. Just notice her posture, sighs, and expressions. Her mother, Lu Jian (Diana Lin- a Chinese-Australian actress) warns Billi that she must participate in the lie. This is tough for Billi, who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao- a very popular actress in China) is a well-rounded character, full of life, jokes, and joy.

As a (Jewish) viewer of this film noted on IMDB, it follows in the tradition of Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). Though these three movies center on East Asians, they have universal themes and will appeal to diverse audiences. The parents (or older generations) get their share of screen time and are fully-fleshed out characters.

It was very difficult for Wang to get funding; after all, the film has an all Asian cast, is mostly subtitled, and she had only directed one feature film before. Even one of the potential Chinese investors said it’d be “more interesting” if she added a white guy (“real American”) character for Billi to bring home- WOW! After Wang appeared on NPR discussing her problem, an experienced producer (Chris Weitz) reached out to her. His credits incl. About a Boy (2002), The Golden Compass (2007), and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

Blinded by the Light (2019) directed by Gurinder Chadha

Gurinder Chadha (a British Asian Sikh journo turned filmmaker) made a big splash w/ the 2002 indie film, Bend it Like Beckham, starring Parminder Nagra (a theater actress who US audiences watched on ER) and a teen Keira Knightley (who became a worldwide success). At first, Chadha (now a mom of twins w/ her writing partner/husband Paul Mayeda Berges), felt that Blinded was too similar to her previous film. After Brexit happened, she was determined to tell the story (based on the life of a journo of Pakistani/Muslim heritage Sarfraz Manzoor). The movie was approved by Bruce Springsteen two years ago; after a private screening, The Boss told Chadha: “I love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a 16 y.o. living in ’80s Luton, England; it’s not a good time to be Pakistani, Muslim, or a dreamer who wants more than what’s planned by his parents. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. The National Front (NF) supporters spray hateful graffiti on mosques and homes, including in Javed’s working-class neighborhood. Though he (secretly) wants to be a writer, his immigrant father- Malik (Kulvinder Ghir from Goodness Gracious Me)- wants him to be a doctor, engineer, or estate agent. Jobs are scarce in this town; money is tight in the family; the parents are anxious re: upcoming wedding of Javed’s older sister. Javed and his mom give their earnings to Malik; this was a surprise to many people in my screening.

Javed has been keeping journals for many years; he also writes songs for his best friend/neighbor Matt’s (Dean Charles Chapman from Game of Thrones) band. Things start to change between the long-time pals when Matt gets his first girlfriend and Javed goes into the sixth form (in preparation for university). Javed’s new English teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), sees potential in his work. She explains that he has an unique voice. Another British Asian kid in school, Roops (Aaron Phagura), introduces Javed to the music of Springsteen. Roops is based on the (real-life) best friend of Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Javed falls in love w/ this American rock music (which was fading from popularity- FYI), feeling that Bruce is singing about his life!

Suddenly, Javed’s father is laid off from the factory job he’s had for 16 years. From the nightly news clips, we see that many people in factory/industrial towns are out of work. His mother, Noor (Meera Ganatra), has to take in more sewing to support the family; she works well into the night w/o complaint. Even Javed tries to go back to the bread factory where we worked the last summer, but there are no jobs. About half-way through the film, we get a (touching/sensitive) scene between Malik and Noor. I don’t think another filmmaker would have done it as well as Chadha. The parents would’ve remained more stereotypical, one-note, and unchanging. One critic esp. liked how they showed how much Malik cared for his fellow Pakistanis and mosque.

Javed’s younger sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta), doesn’t understand why he’s so into Springsteen. We later learn that Shazia has a bit of a rebellious side also; she goes to “daytimers” (parties featuring bhangra music w/ fellow British Asian students). I had never heard of these events before- they look fun! Though this story is centered on a boy and his dad, it’s great to see a bit into a girl’s life.

One of the girl’s in Javed’s English class, Eliza (Nell Williams), is an activist who is impressed by his writing and personality. We eventually learn that she’s from a wealthy Tory (politically conservative) family. Her parents comment that Eliza dates boys who are “controversial” in the scene where Javed goes to their house. Aside from his obsession w/ Bruce, Javed is “a good, straight arrow kid” (as a film critic noted), so there isn’t much for her parents to worry about.

There is more to this (optimistic) story; you should check it out if it’s playing nearby. It doesn’t shy away from (in your face; period accurate) racism. FYI: People in my screening were shocked by a few scenes. A desi man in my audience commented after the film: “I grew up in Birmingham; it’s pretty accurate.” There is lot to like about this film, but it’s not perfect. The musical scenes may put some people off; a few viewers in my audience and critics considered them “cheesy” or “cringey.” They didn’t always fit well w/in the story; I was expecting them to be more naturalistic. FYI: 19 different Springsteen songs were featured through the film- WOW!

The Women (1939) starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, & Rosalind Russell

There are over 130 roles in this movie, all played by women. Several actresses, incl. Marjorie Main (the Reno housekeeper- Lucy), originated their roles in the play (written by Claire Boothe Luce), which opened in the Fall of 1937 and had over 600 performances on Broadway. This fun, witty, and fast-paced movie follows a group of NYC society women (20s-50s), most whom are married (and some have kids, too). The center of this story, Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), has her perfect marriage shattered by her husband’s infidelity w/ a beautiful/manipulative shop girl, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). She has to break the news (as gently as she can) to her bright, sensitive daughter (Virginia Weidler- she appeared in The Philadelphia Story the following year). Mary makes the journey from marriage to divorce and back with dignity and intelligence.

You know, the first man that can think up a good explanation how he can be in love with his wife and another woman is gonna win that prize they’re always giving out in Sweden. -Maggie (the Haines’ family cook) explains to the maid

Mary’s cousin/frenemy, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) steals the show and gets many of the best lines (as well as some of the wildest costumes). Director George Cukor told Russell to play Sylvia very broadly: “Sylvia’s breaking up a family, and there’s a child involved, and if you’re a heavy, audiences will hate you. Don’t play it like a heavy, just be ridiculous.” Russell is very fun to watch; she’s snobby, gossipy, gawky, yet very confident of her own marriage. There is also some physical comedy- Russell was noted for that in her early carer.

On the train to Reno, Mary meets Flora AKA The Countess De Lave (Mary Boland), a jovial divorcee in her ’50s who still believes in love (amour, as she says) after four marriages. Flora’s outfits and accessories are large and eccentric- much like herself. Miriam (Paulette Goddard, a gorgeous actress once married to Charlie Chaplin) plays a jaded/street-smart Brooklyn chorus girl who married (then divorced) for money. No doubles were used in the fight where Russell bites Goddard (after Sylvia learns that her husband has fallen in love w/ Miriam)- that bite was real! Peggy (a young Joan Fontaine- sister of Olivia de Havilland) is a naive new wife; she and her husband separated hastily. Her character is annoying to many viewers; she cries and complains a lot (b/c she doesn’t want a divorce).

All the characters are not wealthy; Crystal (as well as her fellow shopgirls and manicurists) must work for a living (esp. the ones who are single). A few of her peers sound jealous of Crystal and her supposed way w/ men; others looks down on her for acting flirtatious. Mary has a cook and a maid in her household; they are concerned re: their jobs, but still kind to their employer. We even see a young black maid (played by Butterfly McQueen from Gone With the Wind); sadly, she is the butt of a tasteless joke.

There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society . . . outside a kennel. -Crystal declares to Mary and her friends (at the end of the movie)

As from the dialogue, the hats, hairdos, and costumes reveal much about each character. The costume designer (Adrian) dressed the leads and also created high-fashion gowns and outfits for the (Technicolor) fashion show. The scene which was inserted into the B&W film as a surprise for the audience of that day. A classic film fan on Twitter notes that the $225 nightgown Mary admires after that fashion show would cost $4000 in 2019. The enormous square-cut ring Mary wears is the most expensive piece of jewelry in the film ($175,000).

Nocturnal Animals (2016) starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, & Michael Shannon

A (revenge) story inside a story follows LA-based 40-something art curator, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a (soon to be published) book manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she left 20 years earlier. The second element follows the book itself (titled Nocturnal Animals) which revolves around a family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), whose vacation turns violent after his car is run off a rural Texas road. Tony, his wife (Isla Fisher), and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) come face to face w/ a trio of dangerous young men. As Susan reads Edward’s engrossing book, she finds herself recalling their marriage, her loss of idealism, and confronting some hard truths about herself.

The first thing you notice re: this stylish (yet not shallow) thriller (directed by famed American fashion designer Tom Ford) is its look- it’s beautiful! The cinematographer is Irishman Seamus McGarvey; he also worked on Atonement. The costumes, hair, makeup, set decoration, etc, add to the richness of the story; however, sometimes the symbolism is too obvious. The score was inspired in Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann; there is something familiar, yet also mysterious about the music. This tale also has something to say re: the art world (which Ford is familiar w/ being among the wealthy).

The acting is also quite good, starting w/ (Oscar nominee) Michael Shannon, who portrays a gruff Texas deputy- Bobby Andes- who’s not afraid to bend the rules to catch the bad guys. He’s a magnetic screen presence (bringing to my mind Gene Hackman). Gyllenhaal does a great job (as usual) in both his roles, esp. as Tony- the more interesting character. Laura Linney is only in once scene- she’s fabulous! Armie Hammer plays Susan’s second husband- Hutton- who is cold, distant, and worried re: the failing art gallery. Critics also loved to hate the villain- Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, husband of director Sam Taylor-Johnson); I hadn’t seen him before. As for Adams, pay attention to the quiet moments (she spends a lot of time reading).