Always Be My Maybe (2019) starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, Keanu Reeves, & Daniel Dae Kim

Real-life pals, Ali Wong (check out her Netflix comedy specials: Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife) and Randall Park (Fresh off the Boat) wanted to make a modern-day, Asian-American version of When Harry Met Sally, the iconic 1989 rom com that paired a sweet funnyman (Billy Crystal) w/ a beautiful, yet also eccentric, girl-next-door (Meg Ryan). Wong (who is a 37 y.o. actress/writer of Chinese and Vietnamese heritage) plays ambitious celeb chef, Sasha Tran, who is on the verge of opening more restaurants, incl. in NYC, LA, and her hometown (San Francisco). She is engaged to Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim from Lost), a very handsome, successful, and somewhat older real estate developer. Before they settle down, Brandon wants to travel the world for a year and live like a single man (much to Sasha’s dismay). Her assistant/best friend, Veronica (comedian Michelle Buteau), says this is crazy, but Sasha agrees to Brandon’s terms.

A few months before the San Fran restaurant is set to open, Sasha and Veronica fly to the city and set up shop (and a very nice house for Sasha). Without telling Sasha, Veronica hires Kim & Son to set up the A/C system; when they arrive, Sasha is shocked and Marcus Kim (Park) acts very awkward. Mr. Kim (veteran character actor Jamies Saito) is happy to see Veronica and Sasha; they haven’t been around since high school. It turns out that Sasha’s immigrant family lived next door to the Kims (who are second gen Korean-American) and she and Marcus were best friends all through their childhood! Mr. Kim always thought they would end up together.

There is no one way to be Asian, but you would’t know that from consuming mainstream TV shows, movies, or most media. Here we have two individuals coming from unique families: the Wongs (who speak w/ accents) worked long hours at their store to save for their future and Sasha (though she resented it); meanwhile, the Kims (who have no accents) welcomed Sasha into their home after-school and she developed her interest in cooking from Marcus’ mom, Judy (Susan Park). There are certain touches that add texture to what could’ve been a typical rom com story: kids removing their shoes when entering a home; cooking traditional dishes at home; Asians of various backgrounds as neighbors, friends and romantic partners; a New Age type of Asian woman who works w/ at-risk youth; Asians rapping about their unique experiences, and (perhaps most striking) an Asian male as a romantic lead. Oh, and fans of Keanu Reeves are in for a treat, as are his haters. This is must-see, b/c I feel that different viewers will relate to it on different levels! I recommend it to foodies, immigrants (or those who are second gen in US), rom com fans, and even those who avoid the rom com genre. My favorite thing about Always Be My Maybe was the fact that this was a love rooted in friendship (which is one of the reasons that When Harry Met Sally was so popular).

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JxJ Film Festival: Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles

The origin story behind one of Broadway’s most beloved musicals, Fiddler on The Roof, and its creative roots in early 1960s New York, when “tradition” was on the wane as gender roles, sexuality, race relations and religion were evolving. -IMDB synopsis

In the early 20th century, Jews and Orthodox Christians live in the little village of Anatevka in the pre-revolutionary Russia (when Czars ruled). The poor milkman Reb Tevye has been married for 25 yrs to Golde and they have five daughters . When the local matchmaker, Yente, arranges the match between his eldest daughter Tzeitel and the old widowed butcher Lazar Wolf, Tevye agrees to the wedding. However, Tzeitel is in love with the poor tailor Motel Kamzoil; they “gave each other a pledge” to someday get married. After seeing the couple so happy, Tevye begins to rethink some of the traditions he assumed would continue…

This was my favorite film (of the six that I saw) of this year’s festival; it’s a funny, educational, and touching doc (featuring Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, veteran actor Austin Pendelton, cultural critic Fran Lebowitz, and many others influenced by the beloved and timeless musical). The theater was full (or nearly full) during the two showings. Did you know that several of the team who came up with the lyrics, music, dances, etc. are still alive?

We get to hear from theater greats like Harold Prince (producer), Sheldon Harnick (songwriter), and Calvin Trillin (writer). Several discuss the innovation, as well as the emotional/verbal abuse, of Jerome Robbins (the very talented choreographer). Robbins was a “conflicted Jew” and controversial figure because he revealed names to the HUAC. It turns out that he was a closeted gay man seeking to protect his privacy.

A youthful Norman Jewison (who directed the very popular 1971 movie) is seen directing a scene featuring Tevye (Chaim Topol, an actor from Israel who worked mainly on the London stage). Did you know that Jewison (who worked on many socially-conscious films) isn’t Jewish? Though Tevye is the center of the story, dreaming of being a rich man, talking to God, and trying to be the breadwinner, his three (independent-minded) daughters propel the story forward.

Stage/film actresses from different generations talk re: portraying Tevye’s practical wife (Golda), eldest daughter (Tzeitel), witty middle daughter (Hodel), and the gentle/shy one (Chava). Each daughter has (what we call these days) a love marriage. It was shocking to the family when Chava ran off to marry a Russian (not Jewish) boy; this action had more serious consequences in that time period and community.

The (timeless) themes of Fiddler on the Roof have made the play popular worldwide; we get to see clips from a professional performance in Japan and one from school kids in Brooklyn and Thailand. Non-Jewish creative types, including Gurinder Chada (best known for the British indie hit Bend it Like Beckham), talk about how the tale has influenced their works. Miranda even used the song “To Life” in his wedding reception; he, his father-in-law, and members of the wedding party surprised his wife! The doc wraps up w/ how the plight of (modern) refugees is not unlike Tevye’s family.

Quick Reviews of Recent Views (FEB 2019)

A Star is Born (2018)

There is something missing in this movie, BUT I don’t know what! It could’ve been 15-20 mins shorter. It’s (mostly) predictable, BUT has some nice dialogue and scenes; I esp. liked the first 3rd of it. Lady Gaga did a good job in her movie debut; she has acted before on TV (FYI). Bradley Cooper’s tan makes him look a BIT older and worn out, BUT he’s still got that engaging smile and blue eyes. I was impressed by how well he played the guitar and sang (much better than debacles made by Gerard Butler in Phantom and Russell Crow in Les Mis). I learned that he had help from Willie Nelson’s son (a back-up guitarist in the film). The meet cute scene is quite well done; Jack is impressed w/ Ally’s voice. The parking lot scene was also good; they open up to each other as friends first. And yes, Gaga and Cooper have an easy chemistry (as many others have pointed out)! It’s easy to feel empathy for Ally as she goes from struggling unknown singer/songwriter to Grammy-winning pop star. I loved all the scenes w/ Sam Elliott; I wanted to see a BIT more of him (though the Oscar nom was well-deserved). Unlike the older versions (I’ve seen them all, aside from the Streisand/Kristofferson film), the man gets a FEW more scenes and is more sympathetic. Cooper does a good job for a newbie director.

Cold War (2018)

I don’t understand the love for this Polish film (which got an Oscar nom); it was playing recently at AFI (across the street). The B&W photography is very nice to look at, BUT Roma does it better. The main song which is woven through the story is lovely, and a BIT haunting. There is NOT enough characterization of the leads (an older male composer and a younger female singer). Sorry, that’s a deal-breaker for me (as my regular readers can guess)! Why are these people even in love!? The 88 mins. seems much longer- a bad sign also.

Everybody Knows (2018)

This is a Spanish language film (released earlier this month in the US) which stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, BUT was written/directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar previously). Some of you may have seen A Separation or The Salesman, two of his critically-acclaimed films; this movie was actually shot before The Salesman. The scenery is gorgeous, the tone shifts (from joyous to tense), and each supporting character gets their own moment to shine. Cruz and Bardem are married; they have great chemistry together! Even w/ no makeup and mussed up clothes, they look great, and project charisma and star power (BUT in a toned down way). The acting is in the eyes mainly. Even w/ the mystery at the center, you’ll find things common from Farhadi’s other works: extended families, long-held secrets, money pressures, and class issues. My two gal pals and I really liked it!



Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) starring Rami Malek

Bohemian Rhapsody is a foot-stomping celebration of Queen, their music and their extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury. Freddie defied stereotypes and shattered convention to become one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet. The film traces the meteoric rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career. Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. While bravely facing a recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. Queen cements a legacy that continues to inspire outsiders, dreamers and music lovers to this day. -Summary from Twentieth Century Fox

NOTE: This review contains MAJOR spoilers.

This is one of the MUST-SEE movies of 2018 (even if you know VERY little re: this band)! Of course, you’ve heard some of their songs, even if you didn’t grow up listening to (classic) rock. My good friend and I went to see it this past WED at our local (Regal) theater; our audience had folks ranging in age from 20s to 70s. This film succeeds b/c it takes you on a journey w/ the members of the British rock band, Queen, lead by Freddie (Rami Malek- in a star-making role). Before this, I ONLY knew Malek, who is Egyptian-American, from The Pacific (a WWII HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg). There is an energy that propels this film forward, mainly thanks to Malek and the (iconic) music!

The still baby-faced American actor, Joseph Mazzello (now 35), who plays bass guitarist John Deacon, is best known as the kid from Jurassic Park; he co-starred w/ Malek in The Pacific and they became friends. British actor Gwilym Lee is lead guitarist Brian May. Ben Hardy, an up-and-coming Brit, plays drummer Robert Taylor. Lucy Boynton, also a young Brit, plays Freddie’s girlfriend of 6 yrs turned close friend- Mary Austin. Game of Thrones fans will be pleased to see Aiden Gillen; he plays manager John Reid. Mike Myers (of SNL fame) has a small, yet pivotal, role as the music producer who let Queen get away- Ray Foster. Tom Hollander, a veteran Brit who has worked in both comedy and drama, plays lawyer Jim Beach.

The real-life May and Taylor served as executive producers; they had approval over the script, director, casting, etc. Thank goodness they got rid of Sasha Baron Cohen! There was an extensive search for the lead; MANY critics thought that Malek was wrong for the role. If you compare photos, Malek doesn’t resemble Freddie much, aside from the strong/square jawline and similar skin tone. However, as we’ve seen in other movies, it’s NOT merely re: looks; it’s about who can inhabit the real-life character. Freddie’s younger sister (who consulted on this film) was even impressed! After seeing the actual Live Aid performance (thanks to YouTube), I can say that Malek has transformed himself (voice, posture, body movements, etc.) The singing in the film is that of Freddie, a Canadian male singer, and Malek’s voice all mixed together.

The chemistry between Malek and Boynton is terrific; they are currently in a relationship off-screen. Freddie and Mary have a strong friendship and deeply love each other, BUT he reveals that he is also attracted to men. We also get to see a few of the men in Freddie’s life, incl. the opportunistic asst. manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech- a long way from Downton Abbey), and down-to-earth waiter, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). I wasn’t sure at first, BUT there is a brief cameo from singer Adam Lambert (one of the winners of American Idol).

We get to learn re: Freddie’s family (Parsis of Zoroastrian faith expelled from Zanzibar, Tanzania), how the band got together in the early ’70s, the evolution of some (VERY famous) songs, Freddie’s love of cats, and more. Each band member has his own hairstyle, fashion sense, personality, and songs he writes for the various albums. They eventually call themselves “family,” BUT no family is w/o its problems. While the other men marry and have children, Freddie continues w/ his hard-partying lifestyle. Mary gets involved w/ another man. In the early ’80s, Freddie goes off to Germany to work on two solo albums. When the call for Live Aid comes, he doesn’t realize (at first) how important it could be to the band. Freddie knows that he may NOT have much time left, as he is experiencing symptoms related to AIDS.

Show Boat (1951) starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, & Howard Keel

The Cotton Blossom, owned by the Hawks family, is a show boat known for musical entertainment traveling down the Mississippi River. Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner) and her husband, Steve (Robert Sterling), are the leading actors of the show. After a jealous boat hand calls the local police on Julie (who’s father was white and mother black), they’re forced to leave; interracial marriages were forbidden (in the 1890s). Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), Captain Andy’s (Joe E. Brown) pretty young daughter, becomes the new attraction; she has a great smile, a good voice, and learned much by watching Julie. Her leading man is Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), a charming/handsome gambler, who is impressed w/ her at first sight. The two fall quickly in love and marry, w/o the approval of her mother, Parthy (Agnes Moorhead).

Nolie soon faces reality; gambling means more to her husband than anything. She confronts him after he gambles away their fortune; he leaves in the middle of the night. Nolie runs into two old friends, Ellie May and Frank (Marge and Gower Champion), who sang and danced on the show boat. They’re going to perform at a nightclub; Nolie tags along. None of them know that Julie is working at the same club; she is backstage and recognizes the song Nolie sings. Julie leaves the club abruptly, angering the manager and owner, b/c she hears that Nolie needs a job.

A few yeard later, Julie meets Gaylord on a gambling boat, and realizes that he’s Nolie’s runaway husband. Julie gives him a piece of her mind, and shows him an ad w/ the captain, Nolie, and his little daughter. Gaylord swears that he never knew he had a child. Julie begs him, if he ever sees her old friend, to never tell how low she has sunk. Gaylord decides to go to Natchez (where the show boat is docked) and seek forgiveness from his family.

I’ve seen this colorful MGM musical (written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II) maybe 3 times. I recall loving the songs (and having the CD); my favorite songs are “Ol’ Man River” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.” Looking at it today (on TCM), there are some pretty good performances (esp. from Gardner). The role of Julie (who passes as white) is tragic, though she is beautiful, talented, and loyal (esp. to Steve, who eventually leaves her). She turns to alcohol and her singing suffers. At the end, Julie is left w/ nothing, b/c this society has no place for her.

[1] Ava is, as always, ridiculously and insanely gorgeous. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of her than I did. It’s a stretch for a white woman to play a bi-racial woman, but she did it with what seemed like such ease. She accompanies so much with a look (which is evident as she watches Gay and Nolie sail off together with Kim — you all know what I’m talking about). 

[2] Now for Marge & Gower Champion: who couldn’t love them? Gower is this sort of… fluid-like creature with a stature and grace like Fred Astaire, but instead of Astaire’s “lanky movements” that defined his style, he somehow executes the more athletic, brisk movements that defined Gene Kelly’s style. And Marge has to be just about the cutest little person I have ever seen (great facial expressions!) and one of the most talented dancers… I’ve ever seen grace a screen. “I Could Fall Back on You” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” are two of the most outstanding moments in the movie. You’ll love them.

[3] Musically of course, the film is a masterpiece and though my favourite tune is “Make Believe”, I was extremely impressed by the version of Ol Man River sung by the actor William Warfield who must have had one of the most brilliant voices I have ever hear! I confess to never having heard of this gentleman prior to seeing the film and had imagined the singer to be Paul Robeson. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Some Trivia Behind the Film

  • The original production of Showboat opened in the Ziegfeld Theater on December 27, 1927 and ran for 572 performances.
  • Even though the character of “Magnolia” is supposed to look up to “Julie” in an older-sister type of relationship, in reality, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner were born in the same year.
  • The Breen Censorship Office tried to raise an objection against the use of the “miscegenation sequence,” but they were unable to do so because the 1936 film had already used it (setting a precedent).
  • Lena Horne mentions in her biography that she wanted to do the role of Julie badly, but only got as far as performing a single number in the “Clouds” film in the opening “Show Boat” vignette. America was still a segregated nation in 1950; interracial romance was taboo onscreen.