September 21, 2019

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8/8/19

“The Farewell”

And a Fond One at That

3 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

Every so often, some philosophically inclined sort seeks a window into your soul by asking, “If you could spend time with anyone now deceased, who would it be, pray tell?” Akin in hypocrisy to first wishing for world peace or a cure for cancer before asking for a Ferrari whence blowing out my birthday candles, I perfunctorily answer, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Ben Franklin. However, after seeing the delightfully heartwarming, bittersweet and often hilarious “The Farewell,” about a Chinese family who throws a wedding as pretense for gathering to say goodbye to their terminally ill matriarch, I thought of the grandmother I never knew.

 

Anna Goldberger (nee Scherzer), who ran a farm just outside of Krakow and had either 13 or 14 children (it’s a family mystery), half by Mr. Goldberger, and about another half by Mr. Lieberman, dissolved somewhere into the Holocaust. Legend has it she was quite something, a captain of agricultural industry whose financially astute DNA skipped right over me. But in my fantasy, I think she wouldn’t mind sharing some thoughts with her dreamer of a grandson.

 

You see, watching Awkwafina’s Billi, the Americanized granddaughter of the feting family in question, I couldn’t help be envious of that special love that exists between grandparent and grandchild. You ever see ‘em in McDonald’s? The kids are running wild, grandma and grandpa smiling non-judgmentally…the more they can spoil ‘em, the better. Maybe that’s why my parents spoiled me… a compensation for what the vagaries and wiles of history denied. I ever tell you about the time I wanted a hot dog at 5:30 a.m. on the drive from Newark to Montreal?

 

In any case, it’s the universality of director-writer Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” that gives us gleeful pause…the humanity of it all. They keep the diagnosis a secret from Nai Nai, the granny superbly etched by Shuzen Zhau, a ploy that unearths a bevy of subterfuges and truths that live in the embroidery of every family. We see striking similarities, recognize quirks, have the cockles of our hearts warmed and, especially important considering the all but official policy of racism being perpetuated in America today, are reminded that we are all brothers under the skin.

 

Especially memorable and not without its compassionate humor is the depiction of the customs scrupulously observed when the international assemblage of family accompanies Nai Nai in her pilgrimage to the cemetery. But it’s in the conversations leading up to, during and after the wedding where we are most charmed and illuminated. While we know intellectually that different cultures deal with the very same problems in a diversity of ways, seeing that dynamic wrung out reaffirms the common thread that bonds us.

 

I think the mistake that the haters make is in fearing that the comradeship of humankind precludes any specialness that being so-called “pure of race” might contend. It’s also pretty lazy to assume that belonging to one particular group is status, when the good folks of every shade and stripe know full well that self-worth, validity and ultimately even the pursuit of happiness must emanate from within…from the worthy character we seek to build.

 

As part of the Chinese diaspora, Billi finds herself straddling two civilizations. And while around the dinner table at Nai Nai’s in China, her dad, Haiyan (Tzi Ma), asserts that he is an American, his older brother, an artist who had emigrated to Japan, identifies as Chinese. But these minor controversies merely underline the true fealty that’s at play here. It’s family, the concept ringing throughout the proceedings in a subtle variation of the same proud and dutiful passion Tevye flourishes when he hollers out “Tradition!” in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

 

Whether or not you were/are lucky enough to have a granny shower you with gifts, wisdom and whatever equivalent of a Happy Meal might have tastily ruined your generation’s appetite, you’ll find the most touching scenes are between Billi and Nai Nai. While psychologists have written erudite monographs on why a special endearment exists between grandparent and grandchild, here the two main protagonists comprise the beautiful picture that says a thousand words.

 

I bet my grandmother Anna made great potato latkes when she wasn’t busy deciding how much kasha to grow next year and how many pigs she ought to send to market. And if she wanted to slip me a few zlotys after each one of my visits, who am I to upset her? Personally affecting, “The Farewell” is a little movie with a big heart. And, because it’s PG and suggested for the whole family, this is a perfect opportunity to make sure that spoiled little grandchild in your clan doesn’t become the only freshman at Princeton who hasn’t seen a subtitled movie.

“The Farewell,” rated PG, is an A24 release directed by Lulu Wang and stars Awkwafina, Shuzen Zhau and Tzi Ma. Running time: 100 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WO 8/1

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

The Golden Age, Tarnished

4 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

film critic

 

While Quentin Tarantino has won two Oscars for his screenplays, with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” his most profound motion picture to date, he might finally gather up those statuettes for best film and best directorial effort. The provocative and quirkily philosophical work is thoroughly entertaining proof that he is one of America’s most accomplished, living directors.

 

Whereas many filmmakers doubtlessly come up with a novel idea for a film that, for one reason or another doesn’t make it to the silver screen with the inspired creativity of its genesis intact, Tarantino’s signature talent is in making his movie dreams come true. His unique brand of outlandishness won our initial, critically approving attention. And now, after wowing us with a couple decades of screaming fastballs and devastating curves, he pulls a humanity-laced changeup from his quiver in a robust flourish of his greater, inner depth.

 

Here, his film characters abandon the semi-comic, representative caricatures they inhabited and, in a variation on how stereotypes are generally depicted, are imbued with as much soul as chutzpah. As a result, in the waning, last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age that Mr. Tarantino’s photoplay cherishingly deconstructs, we truly care about fading glamor boy/leading man, Rick Dalton, and his stunt double/sidekick, Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively. The times, they are a changing, and the winds heralding said sociological watershed are profuse with uncomfortable presentiments.

 

For some it is business as usual, with all the gimcracks of opulence, swagger and devil-may-care attitude being displayed in the best golden calf tradition. But, as Bob Dylan sings in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” which isn’t included in the movie’s era-defining musical score, but would have been apt if not too obvious, “…something is happening here but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?” As Rick and Cliff cruise up and down The Strip, hustling from sound stage to set, to meetings with conniving and dilettantish movie moguls, the so-called regular world goes about its historical path.

 

Flower children proliferate Hollywood Boulevard, hitchhike and occasionally yell an obscenity at the cops they call pigs. And while no mention is made of the thousands of American GI’s being killed in a war to supposedly halt the communistic encroachment by governments that have since been invited to tilt our elections, memory of the perversion is thick as we imbibe with the advantage of 20/20 hindsight. But more immediately, we wince as Tarantino injects Sharon Tate into the scenario. Portrayed with a startlingly childlike innocence by the very pretty Margot Robbie, she lives right next door to Rick with husband and famed director Roman Polanski. Suddenly discomfited and set to wondering how Tarantino will play this, we are put on tenterhooks. But all in due time.

 

Right now, all attention is paid to the frenetic mishegoss of Rick trying to stay relevant in Tinseltown, and Cliff, who harbors a dark secret, picking up the crumbs that come of any success his pal achieves. Rick frets about maintaining an audience built mostly of a TV series and a handful of films. Psst. He’s more famous than he realizes, or that his blubbering, self-pitying hissy fits would indicate, and which Cliff is inevitably able to calm. This is the best buddy pairing since Newman and Redford in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” (1969) and, in its idiosyncratic way, the most touching in recent memory. Alas, men usually aren’t as simpatico, either in film or real life.

 

Rick’s career angst doesn’t go unnoticed by movie bigwig Marvin Schwarzs, a devout fan of the actor’s rough-and-tumble shoot-em-ups whose penchant for correcting people’s mispronunciation of his name implies volumes about the assumed culture of Hollywood. Waxing enthusiastic about how he and his wife reserve one night a week to watch Rick Dalton pictures, he is a hoot. If anyone can take a typecast to another level, turn it inside out and say something socially insightful in the bargain, it’s Pacino in this little more than cameo role. Well, Mr. Schwarzs has a plan. Oh, hmm…well, that might work.

 

Some characters in Tarantino’s opus are real, some are fictitious and some are, well, semi-fictitious. But like most of his eccentric ruminations, whether operating just on the fringe of meditative truth or smack dab in the middle of some feverish lunacy, it cajoles your indulgence. It is a breath of fresh air, whooshed into an institution forever threatening its certain demise in a pyre of decadence. And so, in the case of  this jaded cineaste, seeing “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was like being transported to the movie house just off campus, a college kid, discovering anew the audacious, fairy tale magic of film.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Quentin Tarantino and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. Running time: 161 minutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

7/25/19