George Takei, Joy Luck Club and the Asian World Film Fest

I’m back at Variety for most of the awards season (already well underway!).

Here are two stories I wrote connected to the Asian World Film Fest: One on the fest itself, which is adding more Asian American programming this year, and the other on George Takei, who’s getting a lifetime achievement award on closing night.

He’s a fan of the new Star Trek, by the way.

I rewatched Joy Luck Club, getting an anniversary screening at the event, and was somehow even more affected by it than when it debuted in 1993. That was unexpected.

And I learned much about the backstory, and exec producer Janet Yang’s efforts to get it made, during a chat with her.

Read more here.

 

Where’s Spike Lee when you need him? ‘Dear White People’ fails to live up to its title

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“Dear White People” promises incisive satire but delivers tepid agitprop of the mildest sort.

Julian Simien’s crowd-funded movie feels regretfully unfinished, one step above a student film. It evokes Spike Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” but could have used some of that 1986 film’s verve.

Instead of Lee’s smack talking Mars Blackmon and Tracy Camilla Johns’ unapologetically sexual Nola Darling, we have sketchy parody about college students with unresolved daddy issues.

The movie throws around terms like anarchy and revolution, but is more concerned about black students coming to terms with their identity than provocation. “Dear White People” raises some interesting issues, but doesn’t really know what to do with them.

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The movie takes its name from a popular campus radio program hosted by Sam White (Tessa Thompson, above front left). White, a biracial student with a retro look, has very confident views about white folk dancing (they shouldn’t), among other things. She also has no time for the assimilation dreams of former boyfriend Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), a son of the dean (Dennis Haysbert) now dating the white daughter of the college president.

Winchester University, an Ivy League-ish institution, is predominantly white, and it’s about to host a racist party encouraging students to let out their inner black self. (Except the invite uses a word beginning with N, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.)

Mild-mannered Lionel Higgins (“Everybody Hates Chris” star Tyler James Williams), a gay writer with a prodigious ‘fro and fondness for Mumford & Sons, and Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris), a girl from the hood taking her cues from Beyonce, are both more interesting than the black campus leaders. Lionel just wants to fit in somewhere; Coco wants to become famous by smoothing her rough edges.

Both get drawn into the fight between Sam and Troy over the future of the historically black house on campus.

There are white students, too, but they are even more broadly drawn than the black students. And in the background, there’s a black reality show producer hoping to sell a network on a show around a controversial black student.

dear-white-people-posterThe drama flashes back to events leading up to the party, the likes of which have popped up around the country. The movie bash is powerful, but the repercussions are strangely muted; more attention is paid to Sam’s complicated relations with white people and Troy’s political prospects.

A pummeling late in the movie also begs for further attention than it receives.

Sadly, the entire enterprise feels unfinished. Simien honed “Dear White People” through a Twitter account of the same name, and while Sam’s character has amusing observations early on, they take back seat to other drama as the movie progresses.

“Dear White People” does tackle sensitive subjects – most pointedly, questioning how white students could think it’s okay to host black face parties in this day and age – but clumsy satire undermines the movie. Uneven acting doesn’t help, either.

In the end, “Dear White People” is too recessive for its own good. It doesn’t need to be didactic, but a stronger narrative would make it a far more interesting movie. Simien has shown a willingness to tacky thorny issues in the movie, his first feature, which arrives in theaters the same time as the more assured “Black-ish” tackles racial humor on network TV.

There are some amusing tidbits tucked inside “Dear White People” — like the propensity for white people to touch black people’s hair — but the movie fails to fully live up to the promise of the title. Let’s hope Simien’s storytelling skills catch up to his ambition in subsequent outings.

Recent reviews: ‘The Affair,’ ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Left Behind’

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I recently reviewed “Left Behind,” “The Affair,” and “Kingdom” for TheWrap. Much to my surprise, I most liked “Kingdom.”

Yes, it’s drenched in machismo and more than slightly misogynistic. But creator Byron Balasco has created a believable world of characters that circle around a Venice beach mixed martial arts gym. The first episode pummels viewers, but things ease up in subsequent episodes, and the DirecTV show’s better for it. Nick Jonas holds his own in a cast including Frank Grillo and Matt Lauria.

Read more here.

I was ready to like “The Affair” — beach settings! pay cable relationship drama! — but alas, I was far from smitten with the premiere. Biggest issue: the extramarital dalliance at its center seems awfully familiar. Oh geeze, another seemingly happy married man just can’t resist a weepy woman from a lower socio-economic bracket. How midlife crisis of him.

The Showtime series is indeed full of pretty beach scenes — it’s set in Montauk, Long Island — and has an intriguing he said/she said set-up, but so far the main characters just aren’t likeable enough to warrant a major commitment. I’ll check back, but am not overly optimistic that it will win a place in my cranky heart.

My review is here.

“Left Behind,” meanwhile, should have stayed a direct to video movie. The Rapture disaster reboot starring Nicolas Cage is didactic, and verging on parody. Production values: Not good.

More here.

 

Let Us Now Praise: 'Sex and the Single Girl'

How much do I love “Sex and the Single Girl”? It’s so retro Sixties sex comedy: Light on carnal activity, but heavy on farce. Natalie Wood stars as Helen Brown, a cute but prim psychologist who has authored a book about single women; Tony Curtis is the lascivious magazine writer Bob Weston who wants to get the goods on her.

Already you can probably tell where this is going: The prim woman falls for the wolfish seducer that isn’t really that wolfish when you get right down to it.

Doris Day starred in a number of similar farces in the era, including “Pillow Talk.” Wood, better known for serious dramas leading up to “Sex and the Single Girl,” displays a nice comedic touch in the movie. Just watch her face as she tries to resist the charms of her duplicitous patient.

And let’s face it: She looks quite ravishing. (Walking through the room while I watched it on cable yesterday, my husband asked: How young was she? Answer: 26.)

Tony Curtis is also fine, but familiar to this terrain, as the filmmakers acknowledge with a few winks at “Some Like It Hot” in the dialogue. Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall also have fun with their roles as the bickering marrieds, though I doubt I appreciated their sublime presence when I first saw the movie on TV in the Seventies.

Nor did I understand the cultural significance of Helen Gurley Brown — my tastes ran to Mademoiselle, rather than Cosmo — and the book that provided the basis for the movie. Only yesterday I learned from TCM that Joseph Heller adapted it for the bigscreen. That still boggles my mind — the author of “Catch-22” laboring over an adaptation of a Helen Gurley Brown book.

My point is this: You don’t have to know any of that to enjoy “Sex and the Single Girl.” But if you do, you’ll like it that much better.

Avatar's weird beauty

The thing that dazzled me most about “Avatar” was not jump in your face 3D effects (which kinda made me queasy), and it certainly wasn’t the story (which was laughable in parts). Nope, it was the strange beauty of Pandora.

At first the creatures of this futuristic world looked peculiar, and in a few cases, downright ugly. But the colors of those flying beasts was a wonder to behold; Pandora’s visual charms grew on me. And the terrible last fight sequence with the blue-hued Na’vi in warpaint was simply stunning. Say what you will about James Cameron, and I’m not the biggest fan of his movies, but those achievements are remarkable. I can’t think of any sci-fi movie as beautiful and strange as “Avatar.”

Did the evil colonel really need to be such a caricature? No. The love scenes so dopey? Not hardly. And why did those fierce Pandora creatures disappear for two-thirds of the movie? Oh, I get it: To show how idyllic that world was. So reassuring they were at Cameron’s disposal when he needed them.

But I guess I forgive him for those shortcomings. Kinda. The real question is: Will the Academy overlook them as well? Will they vote for rigorous storytelling of, say,  “The Hurt Locker” or visual splendor of Cameron’s world? Real-life war or mythical one? I know which way I’m leaning.

Telling it like it is: The ugly truth about sexism (and ageism)

Manohla Dargis’s barbaric yawp about Hollywood went viral yesterday, and for good reason: The NYT critic let loose on rampant sexism in an interview with feminist-leaning Jezebel, spewing four-letter words with abandon. The interview made explicit that which her Sunday NYT essay on female directors suggested: She’s deeply pissed off about studios that repeatedly fail women in their choices of material and talent.

Among the many choice bits:

Working within the system has not worked. It has not helped women filmmakers or, even more important, you and me, women audiences, to have women in the studio system.

and a personal pet peeve — the constant surprise that women like seeing entertaining movies about women:

This, gee whiz, Sex and the City‘s a hit, Twilight, hmm, wonder what’s going on here. Maybe they should not be so surprised. In the trade press, women audiences are considered a niche. How is that even possible? We’re 51 percent of the audience.

It’s not just the trade press, either; this surprise seems to creep into consumer box office reports as well.

Dargis is equally scathing about the suggestion that she take it easy on films directed by women, calling the notion “incredibly insulting.” But mostly she hopes that Kathryn Bigelow (pictured above) wins the Oscar for directing “The Hurt Locker,” a muscular action movie.

Ageism “Up in the Air”…

'Capitalism': Can you take it to the bank?

capitalismYou know what I wish? I wish that Michael Moore weren’t such an obvious manipulator of the facts. He’s such an unreliable narrator that it gets in the way of my enjoyment of his films.

Latest case in point: “Capitalism: A Love Story,” which I saw at the L.A. premiere Tuesday night. The provocateur rails against the government’s handling of the finance crisis in typical fashion: He satirizes the powers that be and tugs the hearts strings with stories of average working folk afflicted by corporate malfeasance.

Moore blames the government for its cozy relationship with Wall Street in particular and big business in general. According to “Capitalism,” things began falling apart when Ronald Reagan was elected president; deregulation and mindless focus on profits laid the seeds for the economy’s collapse last year. Further, he presents archival footage of FDR suggesting none of this had to happen: The ailing president apparently wanted to enact a second Bill of Rights stipulating the right to a decent wage and healthcare before he died. Moore told the premiere audience that this footage had been purposefully suppressed; even FDR’s library didn’t know it existed.
Are we getting the full story?